Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press



David M. Pritchard

Nicole Loraux speaks at a conference in Montrouge (Paris) in 1987, along with, from left to right, Claude Lefort, Louis Dumont and François Furet. Paris, l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, neg. no. 152 EHE 520. Photographer: Grig Pop.

French people are often surprised that foreigners come to France to study ancient Greece. It is easy for them to understand why foreign philosophers might go there. It is a matter of genuine national pride that ‘French theory’ conquered the Anglophone world in the 1980s. But few French realise that among foreign historians of ancient Greece the so-called Paris School was no less conquering. The leading figures of this Paris-based circle of ancient historians were Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Claude Mossé. Reading their books as well as those of younger circle-members profoundly shaped our research. It turned me and other budding foreign historians of ancient Greece into the cultural historians that we are today.

The book of the Paris School that had the greatest impact on my generation was The Invention of Athens by Nicole Loraux. It was the first book-length study of the almost annual speech that democratic Athens staged for its war dead. Today, the most famous example of this genre is the one that Pericles – a leading politician of this ancient Greek state – delivered in 430 BC. Contemporary democratic politicians still often quote from his funeral speech, which remains a set text at high school and university. Passages from this famous ancient speech are even inscribed on the war memorials that modern democracies have set up in honour of their own war dead.

Before the publication of The Invention of Athens in 1981, historians of ancient Greece had accorded little importance to the Athenian funeral oration. In their eyes, the genre consisted only of dubious clichés. It also endorsed a striking pro-war stance: the funeral orators always claimed that Athenian wars had brought substantial practical benefits, such as empire, security and military power, and they avoided mentioning as much as possible their heavy human costs. This genre’s pro-war stance was very much at odds with the strong anti-militarism on the French left during the 1970s. In writing a book about the Athenian funeral oration, Loraux was thus clearly going against the tide.   

The Invention of Athens put beyond doubt the vital importance of the funeral oration in the maintenance of Athenian self-identity. Loraux demonstrated how each staging of this speech helped the Athenians to maintain the same shared view of themselves over two centuries. According to this genre, the ancient Athenians were almost always victorious because they were more courageous than the other Greeks. In fighting always to secure justice and freedom for persecuted weaker Greek states, their wars were just. For Loraux, the chief goal of each funeral orator was to depict the most recent war as another example of this positive Athenian warmaking.

The Invention of Athens was also very different from the other books of the Paris School. At the time, Vernant and Vidal-Naquet, for example, were researching basic structures of ancient Greek thought. What Loraux had discovered was considerably more complex: a detailed narrative about who the Athenians were as a people and a set of discourse practices for its maintenance.

It is remarkable that she even made this discovery at all because she lacked the theoretical tools that contemporary cultural historians now take for granted. Today, discourse analysis and the studies of oral tradition and social memory are well established. This was not the case when Loraux wrote her first book. Indeed, the only theoretical tool available to Loraux was French Marxism from the 1970s. Anyone who has tried to understand Louis Althusser knows that this tool is really limited.

The Invention of Athens truly was a remarkable achievement, but, at the same time, it was far from a complete study. Loraux deliberately played down individual authorship as a topic of study because it helped her to prove that funeral speeches were part of a long-stable tradition. But this meant that The Invention of Athens left unanswered important questions about each of the seven surviving examples. Loraux also never systematically compared the funeral oration with the other literary genres that Athenian democracy pioneered and financed. As a result, The Invention of Athens could not show whether other public oratory and drama ever counterbalanced the funeral oration’s pro-war stance. Without this comparison, Loraux could not prove many of her bold claims.

I have directed a large team of French and foreign researchers to complete methodically The Invention of Athens. Team-members first met in Strasbourg in 2018 and for a second time in Lyon two years later. Cambridge University Press has just now published our edited volume of nineteen chapters. The Athenian Funeral Oration: After Nicole Loraux studies all seven extant speeches in order to answer the important questions that The Invention of Athens ignored. It demonstrates once and for all whether there was a robust anti-war discourse in democratic Athens. What emerges from our research is a funeral speech that had a far greater political impact than Loraux ever showed.

Loraux’s boldest claim was that the funeral oration had a significant impact on political debates about war and peace. But she simply never undertook the comparison of this genre and surviving political speeches that was required to put this claim beyond doubt. The Athenian Funeral Oration: After Nicole Loraux completes this critical intertextual comparison. It is true that Athenian politicians always introduced security-related considerations into assembly debates about foreign affairs. But this did not stop them from engaging as well with what funeral orators consistently said. More often than not they simply drew uncritically on the funeral oration’s pro-war stance in order to argue for a proposed war. The funeral oration clearly nudged assemblygoers towards riskier and more frequent wars.  

Each funeral orator had to fit a current war into the positive shared narrative about Athenian warmaking. Loraux understood well that this could be a difficult task because such a war was quite often going badly. But she never explained what motivated the politician speaking at the public funeral to do this. The Athenian Funeral Oration: After Nicole Loraux demonstrates that their main motivation was the immediate internal politics. Pericles is a good example. In 430 BC, he was the politician who had proposed the war in which those war dead being buried had fallen. When he rose to speak, that war – the Peloponnesian War – was going decidedly badly for the Athenians. Fitting this war into the traditional positive narrative thus helped Pericles to discourage further public criticism. That he saw his funeral speech as a ripe opportunity to do this is further proof of the genre’s significant political impact.

The most striking result of our completing of Loraux’s famous book is that democratic Athens never developed a counterweight to the funeral oration’s pro-war stance. Admittedly, the tragic poets of classical Athens often dramatised the human costs of war. In doing so, though, they made sure that the plays in which they did so were never set in Athens. This meant that Athenian theatregoers did not have to associate any unpleasantness about war on stage with their own foreign affairs. When they did set plays in Athens, the tragic poets simply copied the funeral orations: the wars in these plays, which the Athenians invariably won, were just and secured practical benefits.

The Athenian Funeral Oration: After Nicole Loraux finds the same pattern in comedy. The comic poets of democratic Athens also played it safe when it came to war’s downsides. They focussed only on the inconveniences of Athenian wars, such as the dreadful food and poor sex life, and avoided any mention of battlefield deaths or injuries. At the same time, the comic poets praised the Athenians for their past wars, which, again, had secured many practical benefits. On balance, it appears that Athenian drama, like the funeral oration, supported the almost nonstop warmaking of democratic Athens. While allowing the Athenians safely to acknowledge that war could be burdensome, tragedy and comedy affirmed that Athenian wars were usually successful, just and beneficial.

This striking result of our research calls into question a cherished contemporary assumption about democracy and peace. We assume today that democratic institutions encourage a public critique of war. As democrats, we believe that we are effortlessly cultivating an anti-war public discourse. But democratic Athens shows this assumption to be quite wrong. The ancient Athenians were better democrats that we are. But their democratic institutions did not encourage them to be critical of war. To the contrary, they created a strikingly pro-war culture that turbocharged their almost nonstop wars. If we want a robust public critique of war, we must rather actively educate ourselves in the arts of peace, namely peaceful norms, shared intercommunal identities and nonviolent forms of conflict resolution. It is clear that we can learn little about such peaceful arts when we read the famous funeral speech of Pericles at high school and university.

The Athenian Funeral Oration by David M. Pritchard

About The Author

David M. Pritchard

David M. Pritchard is Associate Professor of Greek History at the University of Queensland, where he has chaired the Discipline of Classics and Ancient History. He has authored Ath...

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