Editor’s note: The ancient Greeks held a public funeral each year to honor all those who had fallen in war. After the first year of the Peloponnesian War, the renowned statesman and general Pericles was chosen to give the annual funeral oration. These were some of the words, as recorded by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, which Pericles spoke.
“The Eternal Remembrance of the Brave”
From Pericles’ Funeral Oration
Most of those who have spoken here before me have commended the lawgiver who added this oration to our other funeral customs. It seemed to them a worthy thing that such an honor should be given at their burial to the dead who have fallen on the field of battle. But I should have preferred that, when men’s deeds have been brave, they should be honored in deed only, and with such an honor as this public funeral, which you are now witnessing. Then the reputation of many would not have been imperiled on the eloquence or want of eloquence of one, and their virtues believed or not as he spoke well or ill…
The fatal period to which these gallant souls are now reduced, is the surest evidence of their merit—an evidence begun in their lives and completed in their deaths. For it is a debt of justice to pay superior honors to men, who have devoted their lives in fighting for their country, though inferior to others in every virtue but that of valor. Their last service blots out all former demerits — it extends to the public; their private actions reached only to a few. Yet not one of these was at all induced to shrink from danger, through fondness of those delights which the peaceful affluent life bestows…
In deeming that the punishment of their enemies was sweeter than any of these things, and that they could fall in no nobler cause, they determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorably avenged, and to leave the rest. They resigned to hope their unknown chance of happiness; but in the face of death they resolved to rely upon themselves alone. And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.
As for you, who now survive them—it is your business to pray for a better fate—but, to think it your duty also to preserve the same spirit and warmth of courage against your enemies; not judging of the expediency of this from a mere harangue—where any man indulging a flow of words may tell you, what you yourselves know as well as he, how many advantages there are in fighting valiantly against your enemies—but rather, making the daily-increasing grandeur of this community the object of your thoughts, and growing quite enamored of it.
And when it really appears great to your apprehensions, think again, that this grandeur was acquired by brave and valiant men; by men who knew their duty, and in the moments of action were sensible of shame; who, whenever their attempts were unsuccessful, thought it dishonor their country should stand in need of any thing their valor could do for it, and so made it the most glorious present.
The sacrifice which they collectively made was individually repaid to them; for they received again each one for himself a praise which grows not old, and the noblest of all tombs; I speak not of that in which their remains are laid, but of that in which their glory survives, and is proclaimed always and on every fitting occasion both in word and deed. For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.