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HE history of oratory is as old as the written T history of the human race. But for examples of actual discourses we must come down to the literature of the classic age, the period of Greece and Rome. And of the orators of this age, the public utterances of very few have been preserved in their original form. Of the speeches of Pericles, the earliest famous orator of Athens, we have only the version to be found in the works of Thucydides; while the dying speech of Socrates, as given by Plato, was probably invented by Plato himself. It is the same in Roman literature, most of the speeches we possess being the versions given in historical works, such as those of Livy, Sallust and Tacitus, who either invented or modified them to suit their own tastes. Those were not the days of stenographic reporters, and only those orations had a fair chance of future existence which were written out carefully by the orators themselves. Of extemporaneous speakers, the historical recorders may have given the burden of what they said, but scarcely the verbal form. In the case of the most famous orators, however, including Lysias, Isocrates, Demosthenes, AEschines, and some others of Greece, and Cicero of Rome, the orations were written before they were spoken, and were heedfully preserved as part of the literary productions of theiors. Many of these have come down, in their of ..nal form to the present time, and translations of thes.” ... we been made which closely preserve the spirit of the original. Our selections are made from these translations.
PERICLES (495-429 B.C.)
F IRST in time and one of the foremost in ability of the great
orators of Athens stands the famous Pericles, whose silver voice and rare eloquence gave him the mastery of the Athenian populace during his life. Under his hands Athens reached its height of splendor in architecture and art, the unrivaled Parthenon, adorned as it was by the sculptures of Phidias, being the noblest example of his conceptions. As an orator he had no rival in the Athens of his day, his graceful figure, mellifluous voice, and complete self-command enabling him to sway his audiences at will. Supreme as was his power, he used it solely for the benefit of the city and its populace, being sober and recluse in habit, “while the tenderest domestic attachment bound him to the engaging and cultivated Aspasia.”
THE DEAD WHO FELL FOR ATHENS [Of the oratory of Pericles we possess only the famous example which Thucydides, the historian, has preserved for us, the long funeral oration over those who died in battle in 431 B.C., the first year of the destructive Peloponnesian War. How closely this repeats the words of the orator it is now impossible to tell. The speech opens with a laudation of the glory and progress of Athens, for which the soldiers are given credit, and continues with an eulogy of their merits.]
We are happy in a form of government which cannot envy the laws of our neighbors—for it has served as a model to others, but is original at Athens. And this our form, as committed not to the few, but to the whole body of the people, is called a democracy. How different soever in a private capacity, we all enjoy the same general equality our laws are fitted to preserve; and superior honors just as we excel. The public admiration is not confined to a particular family, but is attainable only by merit. Poverty is not a hindrance, since whoever is able to serve his country meets with no obstacle to preferment from his first obscurity.
The offices of the State we go through without obstructions from one another; and live together in the mutual endearments of private life without suspicions; not angry with a neighbor for following the bent of his own humor, nor putting on that countenance of discontent which pains though it cannot punish—so that in private life we converse without diffidence or damage, while we dare not on any account offend against the public, through the reverence we bear to the magistrates and the laws, chiefly to those enacted for redress of the injured, and to those unwritten, a breach of which is thought a disgrace.
Our laws have further provided for the mind most frequent intermissions of care by the appointment of public recreations and sacrifices throughout the year, elegantly performed with a peculiar pomp, the daily delight of which is a charm that puts melancholy to flight. The grandeur of this our Athens causes the produce of the whole earth to be imported here, by which we reap a familiar enjoyment, not more of the delicacies of our own growth than of those of other nations . . . .
That we deserve our power we need no evidence to manifest. We have great and signal proofs of this, which entitle us to the admiration of the present and future ages. We want no Homer to be the herald of our praise; no poet to deck off a history with the charms of verse, where the opinion of exploits must suffer by a strict relation. Every sea has been opened by our fleets, and every land has been penetrated by our armies, which has everywhere left behind them eternal monuments of our enmity and our friendship.
In the just defence of such a State, these victims of their own valor, scorning the ruin threatened to it, have valiantly fought and bravely died. And every one of those who survive is ready, I am persuaded, to sacrifice life in such a cause. And for this reason have I enlarged so much on national points, to give the clearest proof that in the present war we have more at stake than men whose public advantages are not so valuable, and to illustrate, by actual evidence, how great a commendation is due to them who are now my subject, and the greatest part of which they have already received. For the encomiums with which I have celebrated the State have been earned for it by the bravery of these, and of men like these. And such compliments might be thought too high and exaggerated if passed on any Grecians but them alone. The fatal period to which these gallant souls are now reduced, is the surest evidence of their merit —an evidence begun in their lives and completed in their deaths. For it is a debt of justice to pay superior honors to men who have devoted their lives to fighting for their country, though inferior to others in every virtue but that of valor.