Photo: an idealized bust of Pericles from the British Museum. A Roman copy of the original Greek bust. (Original is dated 440-430 BC, copy 2nd century CE)
Pericles’s Funeral Oration: A Translation of The History of the Peloponnesian War 2.37-38
By Noah Apter
37: For we employ a form of government which does not emulate the laws of our neighbors, but on the contrary, we ourselves are a model for some rather than imitators of others. And our government has been named a democracy by name because we govern not for the few but for the many: according to the laws, equality is afforded to all in private disputes; each man receives honor in accordance with his reputation, as each man earns good repute with regard to public affairs not by lot more than by virtue; one is not barred from public rank by obscurity of his position due to poverty, if he is able to do anything good for the city. And we live as free citizens with respect to our public life, and as regards the suspicion against each other for our pursuits throughout the day, we are free from it; we do not regard someone near us with anger, if he does as he likes, nor do we make annoyed looks — although they are harmless, they are still painful burdens on the face. Although we hold intercourse in private matters without offense, we do not act unlawfully in public matters because of fear above all else, we attend to those who are always in power and the laws, particularly those which are established for the help of those who are wronged and laws which, although unwritten, carry a shame which is universally understood.
38: And truly we have brought for the mind plenty of respites from work, and indeed we institute games and sacrifices throughout the year, and we are also well accustomed to elegant homes, and every day the delight of these things expels our grief. And on account of the magnitude of our city, all goods from around the world come to us, and it has fallen to us to enjoy these fruits of other countries which are as familiar to our men as those of Athens.
37. ‘χρώμεθα γὰρ πολιτείᾳ οὐ ζηλούσῃ τοὺς τῶν πέλας νόμους, παράδειγμα δὲ μᾶλλον αὐτοὶ ὄντες τισὶν ἢ μιμούμενοι ἑτέρους. καὶ ὄνομα μὲν διὰ τὸ μὴ ἐς ὀλίγους ἀλλ᾽ ἐς πλείονας οἰκεῖν δημοκρατία κέκληται: μέτεστι δὲ κατὰ μὲν τοὺς νόμους πρὸς τὰ ἴδια διάφορα πᾶσι τὸ ἴσον, κατὰ δὲ τὴν ἀξίωσιν, ὡς ἕκαστος ἔν τῳ εὐδοκιμεῖ, οὐκ ἀπὸ μέρους τὸ πλέον ἐς τὰ κοινὰ ἢ ἀπ᾽ ἀρετῆς προτιμᾶται, οὐδ᾽ αὖ κατὰ πενίαν, ἔχων γέ τι ἀγαθὸν δρᾶσαι τὴν πόλιν, ἀξιώματος ἀφανείᾳ κεκώλυται.  ἐλευθέρως δὲ τά τε πρὸς τὸ κοινὸν πολιτεύομεν καὶ ἐς τὴν πρὸς ἀλλήλους τῶν καθ᾽ ἡμέραν ἐπιτηδευμάτων ὑποψίαν, οὐ δι᾽ ὀργῆς τὸν πέλας, εἰ καθ᾽ ἡδονήν τι δρᾷ, ἔχοντες, οὐδὲ ἀζημίους μέν, λυπηρὰς δὲ τῇ ὄψει ἀχθηδόνας προστιθέμενοι.  ἀνεπαχθῶς δὲ τὰ ἴδια προσομιλοῦντες τὰ δημόσια διὰ δέος μάλιστα οὐ παρανομοῦμεν, τῶν τε αἰεὶ ἐν ἀρχῇ ὄντων ἀκροάσει καὶ τῶν νόμων, καὶ μάλιστα αὐτῶν ὅσοι τε ἐπ᾽ ὠφελίᾳ τῶν ἀδικουμένων κεῖνται καὶ ὅσοι ἄγραφοι ὄντες αἰσχύνην ὁμολογουμένην φέρουσιν.
38. ‘καὶ μὴν καὶ τῶν πόνων πλείστας ἀναπαύλας τῇ γνώμῃ ἐπορισάμεθα, ἀγῶσι μέν γε καὶ θυσίαις διετησίοις νομίζοντες, ἰδίαις δὲ κατασκευαῖς εὐπρεπέσιν, ὧν καθ᾽ ἡμέραν ἡ τέρψις τὸ λυπηρὸν ἐκπλήσσει.  ἐπεσέρχεται δὲ διὰ μέγεθος τῆς πόλεως ἐκ πάσης γῆς τὰ πάντα, καὶ ξυμβαίνει ἡμῖν μηδὲν οἰκειοτέρᾳ τῇ ἀπολαύσει τὰ αὐτοῦ ἀγαθὰ γιγνόμενα καρποῦσθαι ἢ καὶ τὰ τῶν ἄλλων ἀνθρώπων.
Pericles’s funeral oration comes down the centuries as one of the most difficult pieces of ancient Greek literature to properly translate. As classicists, it seems that Thucydides wishes to help us sharpen our teeth on his grammar. Why? It is in the nature of speeches to differ from narrative texts, the former tending to be “live” while narratives deliver recollections of events past. Pericles’s epitaphios logos is designed to persuade those soldiers standing in the cold of winter. It is ornate, baroque, and rousing, with rhetorical devices rarely encountered in sequential narratives. The author has stepped back to allow our victorious general to speak for himself.
We arrive at our translation in medias res. What follows is but a small part of the oration. The occasion is an annual public funeral and Pericles urges his soldiers to continue the fight to preserve the glory of Athenian democracy. Little does our general know, he too will die a year after the speech.
Noah Apter (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Philosophy and Classical Studies.