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Pericles' Muting of Women's Voices in Thuc. 2.45.2

Wm. Blake Tyrrell and Larry J. Bennett

Pericles' funeral oration, conceived by the Athenians' foremost statesman and preserved by their greatest historian, has long been held to express "the ideal Athens, which Pericles dreamed of creating."(1) This reception by Thucydides' readers has over time divorced the speech from its initial context and from Pericles' concerns for Athenians of 431 B.C. His advice to women, in particular, has been severed from its intended audience and reduced to an ideological prescription calling for silence and only silence from Athenian women. Whatever Pericles intended for women that day in 431 B.C., he was assuredly deeply concerned for the welfare of all Athenians. Would silence on the part of the women achieve this? Did Pericles demand that women remove themselves totally from the activities of the community? Or did he appeal to them, rather, to restrain themselves in public? Women in his audience and across Attica perhaps were divided among themselves over how to receive his advice. Still, modern scholars with near unanimity have heard only one tone in his voice, the stern dictate for silence and obscurity. In light of this critical dilemma, the present study restores the speech to its historical context. We also offer an alternative reading that is more sensitive to the roles of women whose cooperation and contribution were essential for success of his strategy against the Peloponnesians.

His epitaphios logos nearly complete, Pericles addressed the widows of men killed during the first year of the war with the Peloponnesians and their allies.(2) The widows and their kinswomen had followed the funeral procession as it wended its way toward the Dipylon Gate and the Kerameikos. As they proceeded, they sang laments and mourned their dead (Thuc. 2.34.4).(3) Arriving at the cemetery, they silenced themselves to listen to Pericles' eulogy of the city's dead. After consoling the parents, children, and brothers of the dead, Pericles broke from the formula of the consolation:

If I must recall something about the excellence of those women who will now be widows, I will point out everything with brief advice. Great is the glory for you not to become worse than your innate nature, and hers is the great reputation whose fame, whether for excellence or blame, is spread least among the males (Thuc. 2.45.2).(4)

Pericles' shift to advice that recognized the presence of women may have startled his audience as his authoritative tone impressed upon all the importance he placed upon speaking to women in this setting, the first public funeral of his war against the Peloponnesians. Athenians had celebrated many public funerals in the past, and the new conflict promised more.(5) The public funeral itself culminated a history of funeral legislation, dating from the early sixth century, that placed restraints on women in the attempt to dampen their behavior and muffle their voices in funeral rituals for their households.(6) Because Pericles' advice accords with the these efforts, it has lent itself to interpretation through the prescriptions of an ideology that defines the female as weak, nurturing, emotional, and private, and attributes the public sphere, social power, and reason exclusively to the male. That optic has reinforced, even magnified, the prejudice in Pericles' advice, turning it into a paradigm for the attitude of all Hellenes toward women,(7) an attitude generally deemed harsh and cruelly oxymoronic.(8)

Pericles was speaking to women in the congregation, not figments of male ideology and, through hearsay, to women abroad in the city and countryside. In overlooking this, scholars have reduced his advice, as Nicole Loraux exemplifies, to "the reverse of male virtue."(9) Reversal as a narrative strategy in this case defines female virtue as the mirror reflection of male virtue and leaves nothing intrinsic to female virtue. Although this can be true of a mythic construct like the Amazons, it is palpably untrue of living women.(10) Denial of female virtue, in turn, leads to assessing Pericles' conjunction of dja and klow as mutually contradictory, as oxymoronic. But women who knew from youth the power and influence conveyed by the care of the dead and the other transitions of life would not hear Pericles' advice solely through male ideology. Growing up as Athenian women, they, too, were formed by gender expectations that they internalized, adopted, and in some ways, perhaps, sought to modify or reject. They had to have learned how to manipulate gender codes and exploit them in asserting power over the spheres open or left to them. Women undoubtedly received Pericles' words through their own perspectives and values which, remaining unremarked by the orator, were present in the form of the women in the congregation and across the city. They frame Pericles' words, and condition its content no less than the dominant ideology.

In the circumstances under which Pericles was speaking, namely, the upheaval caused by the beginning of the war and the expectation of its endurance, he could not have stood in aloof disregard of women. Thus, we must seek another message in his advice. Phrased elusively in the only language available in the androcentric funeral oration, Pericles' advice had to persuade women without offending the men listening.(11) At the time of the funeral, Pericles was advocating a defensive strategy against the Peloponnesians that replaced the short-lived violence of the hoplite (Thuc. 2.65.7).(12)

Pericles' strategy called for Athenian men to remain behind walls. He demanded self-control, calculation of long-term advantage, and courage of conviction, for victory would be slow in coming. In effect, Pericles asked of Athenians what Andromache asked from her husband: "Stay here on the tower . . . . Station your host near the fig tree where the city is especially approachable and the wall may be scaled" (Hom. Il. 6.431; 343-434). Hers was a sensible strategy that shipwrecked upon the code of the warrior and Hector's shame before "Trojan women with trailing robes" (Hom. Il. 6.442). That same code as well as the farmer's obsession with his land called for Athenian men to defend their own property.(13) By keeping them behind the walls, Pericles opened himself to charges of cowardice (Plut. Per. 33.7) and once again, as A. W. Gomme remarks of earlier attacks (433 and 432 B.C.) on Pericles, "many an honest man who had supported Pericles hitherto must have hesitated then."(14) His was a "revolutionary" policy, D. M. Lewis observes, and it also called Athenian manliness into question.(15) It exposed the men to being shamed by their women for hiding behind walls and not donning bronze in support of their farms.(16) Because the dead could not go unlamented, Pericles would not silence the women's voices even if he could. Yet those same voices, if not muted and restrained, could imperil his victory against the Peloponnesians.

In praising men who had paid for his strategy with their lives, Pericles could hardly lecture those upon whom he might call for that same sacrifice on the ideal Athens that has charmed modern readers of Thucydides. His task was to persuade his listeners that theirs was a city of citizens prepared by principles (pithdesiw), method of governance (politea), and character (trpoi) (Thuc. 2.36.4) to resist the temptations of acting like Hellenes. Pericles passes over the account of Athenians' military exploits. Bravery and its passions are conceded to the dead (Thuc. 2.42.2) but must be subdued among the living (2.36.4). He aims, not at arousing his listeners' warrior spirits, but at having them realize that "the contest is not equal between ourselves and those who possess none of our advantages" (2.42.1). Those advantages came from the city's political, economic, social, and military resources that enabled them to be self-sufficient within their walls. To underline their superiority, Pericles assures Athenians of the harmony among citizens made possible by their democracy. He minimizes political tensions among citizens by appealing to their form of governance which offered equality before the laws and opportunity, untrammeled by poverty, for public distinction according to an individual's ability. Poverty cannot keep a man from seeking distinction (2.37.1) or afford him an excuse for not trying to escape it (2.40.1). Athenians interact freely, tolerating privately the peculiarities of others and obeying publicly those in office (2.37.2-3). The city's games and festivals furnish entertainment, while its private houses offer the respite that banishes anxiety (2.38). On the other hand, despite their open city and relaxed way of life, when exposed to danger, Athenians do not prove inferior to those who practice warfare continuously (2.39). Unlike others, they "judge or deliberate properly" before acting, "believing that speeches do not harm action but, rather, the lack of instructive discussion before entering upon what must be done is harmful" (2.40.2). In sum, Pericles encourages Athenians not to feel unmanned behind the walls, to pursue the contest for honor and wealth within the city, and to enjoy its diversions from those rivalries. In this way they could head off aggression and the impulse to act rashly, and be the kind of men who would submit to his strategy. Similarly, Pericles was trying to fashion in the context of a funeral and mourning the dead the kind of women he needed for success.

Pericles refers first to gunaikeaw . . . retw which would be heard as "of womanly" or "of wifely excellence." Although he then narrows the gunakew implied by the adjective to "those who now will be widows," the order intimates that Pericles used the general expression to alert all women in the congregation to a statement about their ret. If, as was surely the case, his oration was directed at all Athenians, not just those in the Kerameikos, his advice was offered to all Athenian women, not the widows alone. These women, during the celebration of 431, could have been worried for their house and land, angry at their men for removing them from their homes, and bitter over a new intrusive strategy-whatever its merits-proposed by a politician from the city. His advice to them comes after the formulaic consolation to the living. In comforting the survivors, Pericles consoles individuals for their loss and then relates their loss to the city as a whole. Young parents have the hope of new children, an aid to them in forgetting the old and the means for keeping the city strong and allowing the fathers of the new children to maintain a share in its decisions (2.44.3). Older parents have past happiness and, for the short time left them, honor among citizens conferred by their dead sons (2.44.4). Sons and brothers of the dead have a contest with the dead over excellence, a contest that the citizens will not let them win (2.45.1). Pericles maintains the pattern in his advice, addressing the welfare of individuals in the first element of his advice and their behavior as it pertains to the city in the second.

Speaking before women at a funeral and pressed by the need for their cooperation, Pericles may have been preoccupied with women's nature (gnow) along lines preserved by Pollux: "fit for the dirge [and] fond of mourning and fond of wailing and given to lamenting." The care and mourning of the dead called for emotional outbursts of grief, sobbing, wailing, and lamentation. The dead had to be lamented, and Pericles and the dêmos needed women to lament them. Women recently widowed had lost their status as wives in their husband's household, and with it, their sense of identity and belonging. Pericles, as Haacke states, "does not want them to be utterly depressed," (vult ut ne sint abiecto prorsus animo), that is, Pericles cautions them against becoming disheartened and succumbing to their fates.(17) Were they to do so, they would fail their nature by virtue of being overwhelmed by it and, consequently, not lament their dead. Silence among women over the dead would be the worst of calamities.

In her study of modern funeral practices among the Inner Mani, Nadia Seremetakis relates the incident of an old woman who had been living in the city and, upon her death, was returned to her natal village for burial. The woman had no living relatives in the village and only one niece from the city to mourn her:

[T]he collective mourning was minimal. The urban relatives appeared ignorant and/or indifferent to any local ethics. The rural women who attended did not make any declarations of shared substance. The entire weight of the ceremony was taken by an urban niece of the deceased who had retained all the skills of lamentation, appropriate body gestures and behavior. She was mourning, wailing, and talking to the dead for at least seven hours in an incredible effort to create and maintain a center for the ceremony. She wanted to avoid a "silent" death, so her aunt would "not go discontented," alone and unscreamed.(18)

The village women hummed and nodded and often apologized for not being able "to help her out," "to take the song" from her. They would not step over the boundary, Seremetakis points out, "defined by the absence of past reciprocity, the absence of close kin." The women of the village could not join in with the niece of the deceased because they were outsiders. "The silent death is a bad death," Seremetakis explains, because "the deceased was alone, without clan, without numbers, without appearance . . . or screaming." (19) It is the kind of death Aeschylus' Clytemnestra inflicted upon the hated Agamemnon: "All daring mother, in hostile procession in the absence of citizens, your lord, and without lamentations, your husband, you dared to bury unbewailed" (Ch. 430-33). A silent death expresses for Clytemnestra the hatred she harbors for the husband and father who sacrificed her daughter like a young female goat (Aesch. Ag. 232). On the other hand, the citizens of Euripides' chorus for Alcestis speculate that the household would not be silent if Alcestis were dead.For a woman who wanted to mourn her dead, a silent death must have held emotions of deprivation and alienation as grievous as Clytemnestra's are hostile. Sophocles' Antigone needs Ismene's responses to proclaim the death to the community and comes to Ismene, assuming that she will join her in mourning their philos. Without Ismene, Antigone has no one to answer her cries of mourning, and Polyneices is doomed to the silent death that the niece was so desperately trying to avert at her aunt's burial. There ensue for the women of Creon's house Antigone's death which causes Haemon's death and the loss of fertility for his household, Ismene's madness brought on by the inability to mourn, and Eurydice's suicide which inflicts upon Creon the penalty (dkh) of a silent death for his son.(20)

Failure to mourn in these tragedies leads to destruction, loss of fertility, and chaos. The severity of the imagined consequences underlines the importance placed on mourning by society. Both sexes participated in mourning, but men readily handed over to women the work of tending the corpse and emoting grief. Vase paintings of the prothesis rarely show a single woman beside the deceased.(21) Mourning and keening were carried out antiphonally between two groups of kinswomen and close friends.(22) Every woman who deemed herself entitled or obligated would insist on participating. Funeral legislation was based on this assumption, and legislators could not exclude women as remote as children of first cousins (Dem. 43.62). Women performed a valued and necessary service that mediated between the community and its gods, the living and the dead, the present and the hereafter.(23) By advising them not to fail their nature, Pericles is urging them to mourn. He does not want to silence women; far from it, he needs their voices for the dead to be laid to rest properly and to preserve the welfare of the community. At the same time, it was imperative for him to mute their voices among men in general, that is, "the males" (o rsenew).

With the second element of his advice, Pericles addresses women's behavior in the community. Ideally, women were watched constantly, but in everyday life men were engaged in their own activities away from the house, and women left their houses for many reasons. Women worked in fields and vineyards, sold goods in the agora, participated in funerals and festivals, visited relatives, and gossiped with friends in the neighborhood and at fountains.(24) The unsettled conditions of the city in 431, with families bivouacking in its empty spaces, shrines, temples, and towers on the walls (Thuc. 2.17), must have attenuated men's supervision over them and exacerbated anxieties. Pericles concedes with "Hers is the great glory whose fame, whether for excellence or blame, is spread least among the males," that women had a klow to be spread. In social practice, the posturing of male ideology aside, women could become known outside the family.

W. K. Lacey refers the second element to the manner of the widows' lamentation: "A widow who was talked about by men must be one who made some sort of public show or parade."(25) She would incur blame, Lacey offers, by failing to mourn her husband properly or praise by doing so excessively. Pericles wanted the widows to be "moderate" in their behavior in mourning, neither shirking their duties nor indulging in them.(26) Lacey accounts for Pericles' advice in terms of the widows, but, as we have suggested, that advice was intended for a wider audience of Athenian women. There would be other funerals for those who did not die in the dêmos' service where women would practice the traditional ways of lament. Laments gave women a voice that reached the public.(27) Through lamentation, women aired their grievances and bitterness over injustices done their families. When Andromache laments Hector, for example, she bemoans her own lot by rebuking him for deserting her and her son and leaving them to slavery or worse (Hom. Il. 24.725-745). Analogy with lamentation among women of modern Greece suggests that Athenian women shared a repertory of laments, developed and handed down over generations, that allowed individual singers to stand out for inventing new laments, adapting known ones, and revealing poetic merit and emotional intensity in performance.(28) Granted the formulaic nature of laments and the memory of the singers, Athenian women would have shared an oral tradition and contests among themselves for recognition and renown in lamentation that extended beyond the family. With the war just beginning, women had much to comment upon in their laments, adding to, and gaining power from, traditional songs. First among their grievances could be the removal of their families from ancestral farms and homes, deprivations of life in the city, and the loss of husbands, sons, and other menfolk to the war. Absences necessitated by service in the navy or army could inspire laments. Failure of their men to do what they deemed best for the family and even their resentment over their men's compliance with Pericles' policies could invoke dangerous sentiments and attract the attention of others whether for "excellence or blame." Pericles' desire that women seek klow as little as possible for any reason among men goes beyond heavy-handed prescriptions to disclose his apprehension that women's sense of competition and bottomless woe over what was lost in the war could escalate to undo his strategy.

As an Athenian of his years and experience, Pericles knew that women could not be silenced and that their voices were essential for mourning the dead. But he knew equally well the dangers in not moderating those voices among men who resented, even feared, them. With his advice in the epitaphios logos, he hoped to encourage their laments while muting their voices.


1. J. B. Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great (New York: Random House, 1937), 387.

2. The dead include Athenians slain in the rout of the cavalry near Rheitoi (Thuc. 2.19.2) and Phrygia (2.22.2), various naval operations (2.23.2 , 25-27.1), and the Megarean invasion (2.31.1-2).

3. Nicole Loraux in The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City, trans. Alan Sheridan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 24, citing Thuc. 2.34.4, contends that women's "presence was tolerated only at the gravesite, not in the cortège, and their role was reduced to the customary laments." The text, however, does not support her view, as the accusative with the verb (preisin . . . p tn tfon) indicates that the women were present all the way to the tomb.

4. This is not the place to review the problems posed by Thucydides' methodology for reproducing speeches (1.22.1). A. W. Gomme's conclusion, in his Essays in Greek History and Literature (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1937), 188 still stands: "Thucydides says that Perikles made the funeral speech over those who had fallen in the first year of the war. If it is true . . . , Thucydides will have heard it and have made notes of it; in finally composing it, he will have kept as close as possible to the general sense of what was actually said." John E. Ziolkowski (Thucydides and the Tradition of Funeral Speeches at Athens [Salem, NH: The Ayer Company, 1085], 53) observes that "a separate exhortation to the women" seems traditional, although he admits that no other epitaphios logos has this feature.

5. The public funeral could not have existed before Cleisthenes' reforms (last decade of the sixth century B.C.) since the chests holding the remains were displayed according to the tribal system he devised (Thucydides 34.3). The actual time of its inauguration is likely much later, during the 470s (Christoph W. Clairmont, Patrios Nomos: Public Burial in Athens during the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C. [Oxford: B. A. R., 1983], 7-15) or the 460s (F. Jacoby, "Patrios Nomos: State Burial in Athens and the Public Cemetery in the Kerameikos," JHS 64 [1944]: 37-66; Loraux, Invention, 56-72).

6. For discussion of the motives impelling funeral legislation, see Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 14-23; Robert Garland, "The Well-Ordered Corpse: An Investigation into the Motives behind Greek Funerary Legislation," BICS 36 (1989): 1-15; H. A. Shapiro, "The Iconography of Mourning in Athenian Art." AJA 95 (1991): 630-631; Gail Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 114-19; Richard Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 74-86.

7. For example, by juxtaposing Pericles and the Romans, Eva Cantarella, Pandora's Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity, trans. Maureen B. Fant (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 126, makes his opinion the opinion of all Hellenes: "If, for Pericles, great was the glory of the woman who is talked about the least, whether in praise or blame (Thuc. 2.45.2), for the Romans the glory of women required that their names never be pronounced."

8. For example, Kakridis , Epitaphios, 103-104: "Bei dieser Definition des Frauenruhmes ist das leichte Oxymoron zu beachten, das aus der Antithese meglh dja und m xerosi gensyai entspringt; denn durch die Litotes wir eine minimale Forderung aufgestellt. Viel stärker wirkt das Oxymoron in der zweiten Definition: Es soll ein großer Ruhm für eine Frau sein, wenn sie ein klow (synonym zu dja!) p' lxiston unter den Männern hat, einerlei ob man sie lobt oder tradelt."

9. Loraux, Invention, 147.

10. For reversals in the myth of Amazons, see Wm. Blake Tyrrell, Amazons: A Study in Athenian Mythmaking (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 40-63. In judging Pericles' advice a reversal, Loraux refers to the Athenians' defeat of the Amazons as "erecting an eternally impassable barrier between male eupsychia and female physis (Invention, 147). Yet women's physis expressed in lamentation was a source of their eupsychia.

11. On the use of rhetoric by the elite to persuade the masses, see Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1989), 43-49.

12. For discussion of Pericles' strategy, see D. M. Lewis, "The Archidaminan War," in The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd, ed. D. M. Lewis, John Boardman, J. K. Davies, and M. Ostwald, vol. 5, The Fifth Century B. C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 381-388; Donald Kagan, The Archidamian War (Ithaca and London, 1974), 27-35.

13. Hanson, Other Greeks, 134-135.

14. A. W. Gomme, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, Vol. 1: Introduction and Commentary on Book I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 452.

15. Lewis, "Archidamian War," 382.

16. Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 135: "[T]he small owners [of farms] themselves labored to feed the community, their regimen interrupted occasionally by a short infantry campaign, where relief from backbreaking work meant only an opportunity to don bronze and die."

17. Quoted in A. W. Gomme, A Historical Commentary on Thucydides, Vol. 2: The Ten Years' War (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1956), 143. See also W. K. Lacey, "Thucydides, II, 45, 2," PCPhS 10 (1964): 49, who agrees with Haacke.

18. C. Nadia Seremetakis, The Last Word: Women, Death, and Divination in Inner Mani (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 101. Unless otherwise indicated, the quotations in this paragraph are found on page 101.

19. Seremetakis, Last Word, 76.

20. For Ismene's madness caused by her not being allowed to mourn, see Wm. Blake Tyrrell and Larry J. Bennett, Recapturing Sophocles' Antigone (Lanham, MD, Boulder, CO, New York, and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 39-40, and for Eurydice's suicide, 148-151.

21. See plates 3334-35 and 3339-43 in Paul Monceaux, "Funus." in Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, Vol. 2, edited by Ch. Daremberg and Edm. Saglio, (Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1896): 1371-76. Monceaux's plate 3332, a closeup of the head of the deceased, shows one woman, apparently the wife. See also the plates in J. Boardman, J., "Painted Funerary Plaques and Some Remarks on Prothesis." ABSA 50 (1955): 51-66; Donna C. Kurtz and John Boardman, Greek Burial Customs (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), 120, figures 33-35; H. A. Shapiro, "The Iconography of Mourning in Athenian Art," AJA 95 (1991): 630-640, figures 1, 3, 4, 5, 8-13.

22. Alexiou (Ritual Lament, 13) has traced the origin of laments to "the antiphonal singing of two groups of mourners, strangers and kinswomen, each singing a verse in turn and followed by a refrain sung in unison." The kommos (sung lament) in Aeschylus' Libation Bearers (306-478), Alexiou points out, reproduces the form in an exchange between the deceased Agamemnon's children and slave women ordered to join them. For an analysis of antiphonal structure and formulaic expressions in laments, see Alexiou, 131-84.

23. For parallels among modern Greek women of Dzermiathes, a village on Crete, see Anna Caraveli-Chaves, "Bridge Between Worlds: The Greek Women's Lament as Communative Event," Journal of American Folklore 93 (1980): 129-157, especially 144.

24. David Cohen, Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 146-154 offers a discussion of exaggeration of "the isolated and secluded Athenian woman" among scholars. See also Virginia J. Hunter, Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420-320 B.C. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 33-37.

25. Lacey, "Thucydides, II, 45, 2," 49.

26. Lacey, Family, 79 n. 178

27. For gossip as another medium for women that had social consequences, see Virginia J. Hunter, Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420-320 B.C. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 111-116.

28. See Anna Caraveli, "The Bitter Wounding: The Lament as Social Protest in Rural Greece," in Gender and Power in Rural Greece, ed. Jill Dubisch (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 169-194.

This paper was delivered at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference.