This piece is a funeral oratory, a speech written to honor fallen Athenian heroes at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War. At such a time of high emotions and patriotism – Pericles has not one theme but several.
The first theme, fitting in that the speech was given at a funeral for war heroes, is that the most valiant way a man can live and die is in service of freedom and his city – in this case, Athens.
Pericles then continues to his central theme, extolling the uniqueness and virtue of Athens and its system of government: democracy. Pericles describes Athenian democracy as a system of government where men advance on merit rather than on class or wealth.
In a democracy, “class considerations [are not] allowed to interfere with merit” – any man capable enough to rule is allowed to do so. In a democracy, men can act how they wish without fear of judgment or retaliation from their neighbors, so long as they act within the confines of the law. Pericles glorifies the “equal justice to all” under the law that all men of Athens share and glorifies their superiority over their peer poleis.
Indeed, a worthy summation of Pericles’s oration is that it is a count of the “points in which [Athens] is worthy of admiration”. In spite of his often jingoistic faith in Athens, Pericles is indeed right in assuming that “the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be [Athens’s]”. Even today we view this ancient city as the birthplace of the values of equality and democracy that we center our government upon.
It is clear that Pericles views democracy as the best form of government and having adopted it, he views Athens as superior to their fellow city-states. In fact, Pericles sees Athens as having the ultimate possible government; the one best conducive to freedom, liberty, courage, honor, and justice – the values most honored by the Athenians.
Pericles extolls several of the virtues of Athens, most of them centered on the then-unique form of democracy. In a statement oozing with patriotism, Pericles proclaims: “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.” It is these balanced priorities and powerful show of moderation that makes Athens great.