Why is athens, in Pericles's words, "the school of hellas"?

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his famous Funeral Speech, Pericles turned an oration for the Athenian war dead into a paean of praise of Athens and its institutions. Athens is a "School of Hellas" in many respects, most notably in philosophy and culture. But the main strength of Athens in the eyes of Pericles is its political system. Pericles uses his oration to extol the virtues of Athenian democracy. The system of direct democracy in Athens was unique in that it allowed every free male to participate in government. This isn't just by far the best form of government in the Greek world, according to Pericles; it's the best kind of government imaginable anywhere. It is truly a perfect system. Not only that, but it neatly encapsulates the great virtues of the Athenians:

We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.

Athens certainly had much to teach other settlements and city states in the Hellenic world. All too often, however, the self-proclaimed civilizing missions of Athens turned into opportunities for colonial exploitation. This had less to with a pedagogical urge to spread the benefits of Athenian democracy far and wide than an atavistic desire to conquer and subdue. The schooling that Athens provided lesser states often took the form of an abject lesson in what would happen if you were brave or foolish enough to resist. The notorious Melian dialogue gives us a stark illustration of this.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We do not know that Pericles actually said, word for word, that Athens is "the school of Hellas." The speech we have is as Thucydides, a historian, recorded it in his History of the Peloponnesian War. This is a speech that Pericles gave after the first year of the war, probably around 430 BCE. It was a funeral oration, meant to honor the Athenian dead who had given up their lives in battle. However, Pericles deviated from the usual format of the speech when he called Athens the school of Hellas. By this he meant that Athens was the leader of Greek culture and civilization that all the other Greek city-states followed after. Normally, a funeral oration would focus on the accomplishments of the dead soldiers, but here, Pericles shows his political skills, using the oratory to praise all of Athens in order to rally citizens to support the war.

jwuenschel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both modern and ancient Greece are referred to as "Hellas."  Athens was renowned for the many schools it had.  These schools were comprised primarily of philosophers and their students.  Pericles is referencing these schools and is in essence referring to Athens as "the school of Greece."

benjean84 | Student

The actual ref to school of Athens was at the funeral service (so how we commemorate those lost in our 2 world wars for example), pericles oration to athens in his campaign for war after fighting the peloponnesian war against Sparta for only a year. The phrase ref to athens being not an imitator but rather a school to the rest of the world to learn from. So he refers to democratic athens and all her achievements which by this time the Parthanon had been built also equal justice under the law.