Why, Where, Who, What and How is Pericles' Funeral Oration a famous speech?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Although different people may admire Pericles’ Funeral Oration for different reasons, I would argue that it is a famous speech today because of its content.  Its content is, for the most part, praise for the Athenian system of government.  Since we admire this system today, and because we have based our own democracy on that system to a great extent, this speech has become and remained famous.

This speech was given by Pericles in about 431 BC.  This was the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War.  Pericles was, at that time, the main leader of Athens.  It was traditional for the leader of a polis to give a funeral oration praising the dead who gave their lives in war for their country.  Pericles delivered this speech in Athens.  This speech has come down to us because Thucydides records it (or, more precisely, paraphrases it) in his famous History of the Peloponnesian War.  The speech remains famous to this day because Pericles uses it to extol Athens’s system as much as to praise the men who fought for Athens.  If we look at passages like the following, we can see why Westerners today admire this speech.  Pericles says

If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. 

This sort of statement shows how similar Pericles’ thought was to our own attitudes.  For this reason, this speech remains important and famous today.

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