Comparison Between the Pericles Funeral Oration and the Melian Dialogue

Updated on October 7, 2016

The only mutual characteristic found within the Athenian people in both excerpts is without a doubt, expansionist. Beyond that, the depiction of Athens greatly differs. Everything Pericles spoke of in his funeral speech was how the freedom loving honorable people of Athens believed in the greatness of Athens to the point where any citizen would give his life for the sake of his neighbors’ lives and to preserve the city of Athens against those who meant the city harm. Pericles turned what typically would have been a mournful event into a celebration recognizing the achievements of Athens. The portrayal of the Athenians wrote out in The Melian Dialogue, however,made them out to be an oppressive and imperialistic people that felt they had the divine right to conquer all they could.

Pericles, in Thucydides’ written adaption, took the funeral as an opportunity to pat the people of Athens’ on their backs on their ability to stand united in the face of adversity and make a new call for vengeance on their enemies. He spoke of the Athenians as a moral people who were almost always victorious on the plane of battle because they fought and protected their city not out of coercion but of genuine desire to. Athens was extremely patriotic and that was what Pericles said made them fundamentally different from the citizens of other Greek city-states. The oration then made the implication that never in the history of civilization were a people as free as the Athenians are but their freedom did not create anarchy because the people were so honorable they respected the law not out of fear of retribution but out of want to create a morally sound society. Pericles proceeded from there to guide his oration to the justification of the war that Athens was waging against the surrounding societies near the city. The justification he gave in his speech was that taking the offensive in the war and expanding Athens’ borders at the expense of other nations was all in the name of protecting the triumvirate of democracy, freedom, and the city of Athens. The Athenians’ leader said the noble patriotic people he leads are known as being a unified people and that they must stay unified or their ancestors’ efforts to create their free homeland will be for naught.

Thucydides’ next excerpt is written as an objective piece that shows the negotiations for island of Melos between the island’s small number of inhabitants, the Melians, and the Athenians who are preparing to invade the isle to expand their growing empire referred to as the Delian League. The Melians stated from the beginning that they were a neutral party who wanted no part in any war and they asked the Athenians why they want to control Melos. The envoy of Athens replied that they could give any number of pretentious reasons for invading but to be blunt “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Athens further justifies their invasion by even going as so far as to claim divine right to conquer the Melians if they so please stating that ‘man’, “by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can”. After the Melians refused to submit to Athenian authority, Athens invaded as promised and proceeded to massacre the adult male population of Melos and enslave the women and children. No reader, in the exclusive context of The Melian Dialogue, can depict Athens as anything other but an unjust, murderous, self-righteous, and merciless imperialistic society that imposed its will on others in its quest to be the undisputed ruler of the Peloponnesian peninsula.

Although at face value, it seems the Athens Pericles’ depicts and the one that ravishes Melos are completely dissimilar and irreconcilable to each other there is a subtle but definite notable character trait that can be found in both excerpts. For example, the expansionist tendencies of Athens shine bright in both readings. Pericles has no qualms in his speech over taking the fight to Athens’s enemies and conquering their lands. History tells us that there is also no doubt that the enemy lands Pericles planned on conquering would not be absorbed as a political equal to Athens. They would be instead forced to join the Delian League which was for all intents and purposes an assembly of subjugated states that paid tribute to and served Athens. Much the same way the British Empire was serviced by her American colonies in the 18th century. The Melian Dialogue was just an example of the Athenians acting upon the same expansionist tendencies that Pericles displayed. The dialogue in a nutshell was the Athenian emissary offering the Melian leadership an ultimatum which was to submit now to Athens and accept its rule or be completely wiped out. Melians declined Athens offer of peaceful submission and was wiped out. Athens then claimed the isle of Melos and started a new colony there that was settled exclusively by Athenians.

It’s easy to see why Thucydides would create two works on Athens and have the city and its inhabitants portrayed in two starkly different ways. He recounted the two different events from two different viewpoints. The first portrayal of the Athenians was from an Athenian viewpoint (Pericles) who was viewing the city of Athens. Of course there was bias in his speech; he was a leader giving a pep talk to his war weary Athenian society as a challenge to continue the fight or else give up their hard fought freedoms. However just because there was bias in his speech, does not mean what Pericles said was not the least bit factual it just has to be read with that kept in mind. The second portrayal of Athens was meant to be read from a third party viewpoint, perhaps from the perspective of one of the neutral city-states that the Melian leaders spoke of. It gives a picture of the people of Athens that illustrates the Athenians “victory at all costs” merciless attitude that makes them hated among the other city-states. It is also what makes the Athenians great. Thucydides knew he was giving conflicting accounts of the character of the Athenians when he made his works but that was done on purpose. He wanted to show how the members of a culture view themselves and their society and how that often starkly differs how that society is viewed by other cultures.

I see the two viewpoints of Athens given by Thucydides much the same way as how Americans view America and how the rest of the world views America. Americans view ourselves as just while the rest of the world says we are not. It just depends on who is asked. The Athenians viewed themselves as an honorable, just, and patriotic people while the rest of their “world” viewed them as the cruelest, most oppressive, and merciless people of the Mediterranean. In short, Thucydides was trying to teach a lesson that a society’s self-perceived character rarely if ever reflects the reputation given to them by the world.


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