History of the Peloponnesian War Questions and Answers
by Thucydides

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Who do you think were the intended audiences of Pericles' Funeral Oration and Xenophon’s description of the Spartan state? How might their purpose and intended audience affect their tone? Can we take these accounts at face value? Why or why not? What else would you like to know from the author?

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Alec Cranford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One important thing to consider in reading the Funeral Oration is that it was recorded by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian Wars. In other words, it is not exactly a primary source, and its content was almost certainly edited by Thucydides himself, who was an Athenian. Of course, the Funeral Address is essentially a paean to the Athenian way of life, as Pericles (and Thucydides) extols Athenian democracy, using the address to give meaning to the deaths of the slain and to the war itself. Pericles asserts that the war was being fought to defend this way of life, which was under threat from the Spartans. The fact that Pericles, a civic leader in time of crisis, was speaking to a crowd of Athenian citizens needs to be remembered. His is not a dispassionate description of Athenian society and political systems. Rather, it is a political speech, heavy in propaganda, that is intended to rally his listeners to make continued sacrifices to the cause.

Xenophon, a historian like...

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Both Pericles’ Funeral Oration and Xenophon’s Constitution of the Spartans would have been directed to people quite like the authors themselves: Athenian, wealthy, educated and male. Women, slaves, and immigrants, whom the Greeks called xenoi (meaning “stranger”), were largely excluded from civic discourse.

Pericles was an important Athenian statesman and military general during the Peloponnesian War, fought from 431-404 BCE between alliances led by the polis (meaning “city-state”) of Athens and the polis of Sparta. His famous oration was delivered at a public funeral to honor the Athenians who died during the first year of the war. Pericles directly addressed his audience during the speech, saying “You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field,” (Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.43.1, trans. by Richard Crawley). This statement offers a clear indication that Pericles’ intended audience was Athenian men who could fight on the field of battle. His oration was propaganda intended to inspire the civic pride and patriotism of a city-state still at war.

It is important to note that we do not have an exact transcript of Pericles’ Funeral Oration. His speech was recorded in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, in which he informed readers that speeches were not recorded verbatim (ibid. 1.22.1). Thucydides’ pro-Athens stance should caution readers to accept his account with a grain of salt.

Xenophon was also an Athenian and a contemporary of the Peloponnesian War. However, he lived for a time in Sparta and even fought with the Spartan army against the Persians. Xenophon preferred the Spartan form of government, which was oligarchic (meaning, governed by a small, powerful group), as opposed to Athens’, which was democratic (meaning, governed by the people). This would have put Xenophon at odds with his fellow Athenian citizens, and gives us a clue to the intended purpose and audience of Constitution of the Spartans.

The audience was the Athenians and the purpose was to explain and praise the Spartan’s life-ways (including parenting, education, and dining practices) and their political structure. By pointing to Sparta’s positive attributes, Xenophon could justify his affinity for the traditional enemy of Athens. Due to Xenophon’s personal interest and his strong pro-Spartan bias, his history should be approached critically.