Evidence that some things remain relevant throughout history. 

In honor of National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, here’s a small section of Pericles’ speech to the families of the Athenian war dead in the winter of 431–430 BC that ended up being distilled down for modern consumption several thousand years later.

This began with Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (made up of eight books). Chapters 34 through 46 in the second book document Pericles’ Funeral Oration. The section we’re looking for today is 2.43.3 (second book, 43rd chapter, section 3).

Skipping straight to Thomas Hobbes’ 1628 translation* of this small section from the Funeral Oration (since I don’t want to have to mess with Ancient Greek):

“And when this power of the city shall seem great to you, consider then, that the same was purchased by valiant men, and by men that knew their duty, and by men that were sensible of dishonour when they were in fight; and by such men, as though they failed of their attempt, yet would not be wanting to the city with their virtue, but made unto it a most honourable contribution. For having every one given his body to the commonwealth, they receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre; not wherein they are buried so much, as wherein their glory is laid up, upon all occasions both of speech and action to be remembered for ever.

For to famous men all the earth is a sepulchre: and their virtues shall be testified, not only by the inscription in stone at home, but by an unwritten record of the mind, which more than of any monument will remain with every one for ever.”

In 1976, Peter Aston† composed a choral arrangement containing selected text from Alfred Eckhard Zimmern’s 1931 translation‡ of the Funeral Oration:

“So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth, and received praise that will never die, and a home in the minds of men. Their story lives on, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives. “

In 2006, it was condensed even further when Jeffrey Thompson Parker’s Flicker to Flame: Living with Purpose, Meaning, and Happiness§ listed the following as a quote from Pericles:

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Now this quote is popping up everywhere from random quote sites to Pinterest. But however you want to say it, it’s an appropriate thought for today.

For this post I ended up reading through seven different translations of Thucydides’ Funeral Oration (Hobbes 1628, Crawley 1866, Jowett 1883, Dale 1894, Zimmern 1911, Warner 1972, Hooker 1996). Personally, I preferred Alfred Eckhard Zimmern’s translation.


*  Thucydides, “Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War Part I.” The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; Now First Collected and Edited by Sir William Molesworth, Bart., Vol. 8, London: Bohn, 1839-45 <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/771>.

† Aston, Peter. So They Gave their Bodies. Text from a translation of Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Alfred Eckhard Zimmern. SATB choir, organ accompaniment. GIA Publications, 1976.

‡ Zimmern, Alfred Eckhard. The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in Fifth Century Athens. 5th ed., Oxford 1931, reprint 1977 , p. 202.

§ Parker, Jeffrey Thompson. Flicker to Flame: Living with Purpose, Meaning, and Happiness. Morgan James Publishing, 2008, p. 118.

 Alfred Eckhard Zimmern’s translation of Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (The Greek Commonwealth: Politics and Economics in Fifth Century Athens):

“Such were the men who lie here and such the city that inspired them. We survivors may pray to be spared their bitter hour, but must disdain to meet the foe with a spirit less triumphant. Let us draw strength, not merely from twice-told arguments — how fair and noble a thing it is to show courage in battle — but from the busy spectacle of our great city’s life as we have it before us day by day, falling in love with her as we see her, and remembering that all this greatness she owes to men with the fighter’s daring, the wise man’s understanding of his duty, and the good man’s self-discipline in its performance — to men who, if they failed in any ordeal, disdained to deprive the city of their services, but sacrificed their lives as the best offerings on her behalf. So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth and received, each for his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the grandest of all sepulchres, not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or action as the occasion comes by.

For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.”