Commemoration and Responsibility:
The Dead and the Living in Athenian Funeral Orations

Francis M. Dunn

University of California, Santa Barbara

Much has been written on the genre of speeches for the war dead, and on how such speeches articulated the collective values of the Athenian democracy.  Following Loraux in The Invention of Athens, scholars frequently historicize these speeches by arguing that they work to manage feelings of grief and loss by integrating them into the timeless values of the community.  This paper revises such readings of the epitaphios by turning to a central problem often overlooked by scholars and occluded by the speeches themselves:  how should the speaker address the living relatives of the dead?  The demos as a whole can be encouraged to take inspiration from those who died for the city, but what about those who have lost husbands or children or parents?  As the rhetorical handbooks point out, this is a delicate situation with slender opportunities for consolation.

I begin by reviewing the rhetorical strategies of surviving speeches.  Demosthenes most closely follows the precepts of ancient rhetoricians and modern scholars by dealing with the issue as briefly as possible, by deflecting attention from present suffering to past glories, and by exhorting wives and children to emulate these glories in the future.  A clever variation is that of Aspasia in Plato's Menexenus, who imagines dead soldiers encouraging their sons to follow their examples, thus rhetorically personalizing the appeal to collective values.  Hyperides makes no mention at all of private sufferings, whereas Lysias tackles the issue head-on.  By exhorting the demos to offer assistance to those bereaved, Lysias converts the incommensurable exchange of private grief for civic glory into a more reciprocal exchange between living survivors and their fellow citizens.  The timeless values of a mythical and historical past are thus replaced by temporal negotiations of the present polis.

I then turn to the report of Pericles' Funeral Speech in Thucydides.  The body of his speech describes not the past glories of Athens but its present power.  And his advice to the relatives left behind is unique in  1) directly addressing the parents of the dead in the second person, 

2) promising them encouragement or consolation rather than the recompense of glory, 

3) describing the practical difficulties of their situations, and  4) offering practical remedies.  Thucydides' Pericles breaks almost entirely from a rhetorical and ideological concern with the timeless past.  Instead, just as he begins by describing the city's present greatness, he ends by confronting its present responsibilities to those who have suffered from its wars.  To this extent we might call Pericles' speech an anti-epitaphios, since the shared values of the city are enlisted to address the present needs of particular individuals.

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