What are some similarities and differences between “Pericles's Funeral Oration” and the "Melian Dialogue”?

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"Pericles's Funeral Oration" and the "Melian Dialogue" were both written by Thucydides as part of his History of the Peloponnesian War . Thucydides prided himself on his accuracy as an historian, contrasting his works with those of writers like Herodotus, who, he said, relied more on story-telling than research. Nevertheless,...

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"Pericles's Funeral Oration" and the "Melian Dialogue" were both written by Thucydides as part of his History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides prided himself on his accuracy as an historian, contrasting his works with those of writers like Herodotus, who, he said, relied more on story-telling than research. Nevertheless, even Thucydides admits that the words in his speeches cannot be entirely accurate. We are therefore justified in regarding both these pieces of writing as compositions by the historian, rather than transcriptions of exactly what was said in each case.

The most obvious differences are that Pericles's funeral oration is a monologue, and is intended primarily as a piece of oratory, whereas the "Melian Dialogue" is a conference with an immediate practical purpose. Although Pericles's ostensible purpose is to eulogize the dead, his oration quickly turns to the praise of Athens itself. He lists the ways in which Athens is superior to her neighbors and flatters his audience by particularly focusing on the superior courage and strategy of Athenian citizens. He claims, however, that this dwelling on the greatness of Athens is to show his hearers how much more they have to lose than their barbaric neighbors. It is also perfectly relevant to their memory of the heroic dead:

Their loftiest praise has been already spoken. For in magnifying the city I have magnified them, and men like them whose virtues made her glorious.

In the "Melian Dialogue," neither the Athenians nor the Melians have time for the eloquence of a Pericles. The exchanges are generally brief and to the point. The Athenians, however, cannot quite resist a sprinkling of rhetoric in their reasoning. Once they have explained why they do not fear that the gods will assist the Melians, they turn to a consideration of the Spartans, or Lacedaemonians:

But when we come to your notion about the Lacedaemonians, which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians, when their own interests or their country's laws are in question, are the worthiest men alive; of their conduct towards others much might be said, but no clearer idea of it could be given than by shortly saying that of all the men we know they are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honourable, and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.

The Athenians, as one would expect, talk more than the Melians in the course of their conference, and the didactic tone they adopt here, while it is more condescending than the one used by Pericles, is similarly rhetorical.

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Both the Funeral Oration and the Melian Dialogue are, from a certain perspective, invented. This represents one of the defining differences between the style of Classical History and Modern History: as Thucydides himself said, while providing his speeches, he could not

remember the precise words . . . so my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible . . . to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation. (Thucydides, Penguin Edition, 1.22)

The words in the Funeral Oration were not actually those of Pericles, this was not a direct quote taken from some public record, and likewise goes with the Melian Dialogue—they both may have been based in reality, but ultimately they were in large part a creative invention on the part of Thucydides. Additionally, both of these sections express something significant about Athenian politics and the Athenian State.

However, there are critical differences between the two speeches. One is the context against which these speeches were held. The Funeral Oration was given in honor to the first dead of the war, by Pericles, in Athens to Athenians, and has already been said, the speech is lauding the Athenian state. This is Pericles paying tribute to Athens, and the sacrifice made by its people to the city they belong to. He praises the virtue of Athenian democracy and of the Athenian people. The Melian Dialogue, on the other hand, depicts the interaction between Athenian and Melian representatives during the siege of Melos, and provides a much more sinister picture concerning the reality of Athenian statecraft (in contrast with Pericles' ideal self-image). Here, the Athenians arrive to demand the surrender of the city, and when the Melians respond with appeals to virtue and piety, each of those appeals are ruthlessly swept aside. In the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians are solely concerned with the subject of power.

Citation note: this answer was written with reference to: Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Penguin Classics). Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.

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Pericles's funeral oration is a paean of praise to Athens and its democratic institutions. During the speech, Pericles also shows great pride in Athens's relations to other city states. These relations are based upon the Athenians' magnanimity and generosity. Athens confers favors upon its neighbors in a spirit of benevolence and in doing so shows its friendship. Athens alone deals with neighboring states without calculating its own interests.

Pericles's picture of Athens's foreign policy is somewhat romanticized. This can be seen if one looks at the infamous Melian dialogue. During the Peloponnesian War the Athenians invaded the city of Melos, which was of enormous strategic importance. The Athenians gave the Melians a stark ultimatum: either surrender or be destroyed. There is no evidence here of any of the noble rhetoric in Pericles's funeral oration, simply the brute fact of a stronger state dominating a weaker one.

Although the Melian dialogue is largely given to us as a dramatization by the historian Thucydides, the brutal substance of the Athenians' demands is certainly accurate. And after the Melians rejected the Athenians' ultimatum there is no doubt as to what happened next. The Athenians carried out their original threats to the letter, completely destroying Melos, in the process enslaving all of its women and children and slaughtering every last adult male.

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