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Remembrance in Fifth-Century Athens 

Written by Fiona Macrae. The wearing of a poppy has become an important symbol for remembering those who gave their lives in battle. Fiona Macrae explores such acts of commemoration in Classical Athens and what parallels can be drawn with our own society.

Public acts of remembrance for the war dead in Britain have their origins, historically speaking, in the relatively recent past and the aftermath of the First World War. In fact, it has been a large part of many cultures and societies for thousands of years. In fifth-century Athens, it was a legal requirement to commemorate the war dead in a public ceremony, and a speech to be made by a chosen citizen. During the Peloponnesian Wars, the Athenian general Pericles made a speech in 431 BCE at one such occasion. We know this because his funerary speech is recorded by historian Thucydides in what is probably the most famous passage of his History of the Peloponnesian Wars

Thucydides’ account has some striking similarities to our own solemn ceremonies, including the   recognition of their unaccounted for dead. He tells us about preparations made in winter – the off-season for fighting – with proceedings being held to remember all the men who had died so far in the war. The Athenians did not remember the fallen by simply having their names read out and recorded permanently on hundreds of village and town memorials, but rather in a larger, state-wide event. 

During the ceremony, staged at public expense, the remains of the dead were laid out for the families to pay their respects before the bones were sorted into ten coffins, one for each tribe of the city. An eleventh was also prepared to represent all the missing soldiers. The comparison to our own Tomb of the Unknown Soldier could hardly be more obvious. These coffins were marched in a procession to Kerameikos, the cemetery on the outskirts of the city, accompanied by family, friends, and anyone who wished to join. A eulogy was made after the burial, in this case spoken by Pericles. 

The importance of the event drew a large crowd. Amongst those attending, some would have held Pericles and his military strategies accountable for the ongoing war. Others may even have held sympathies with the opposing city of Sparta. The formality of the occasion gave Pericles the perfect platform to push his politics and reasoning to a large crowd, without risking dissenting opinions being voiced. Had it been given in the Athenian assembly, he would have faced certain opposition.  

At the heart of Pericles’ speech is a tribute to democracy and freedom, praising the very thing his comrades had died fighting for. At the same time, he reminded sceptics in the crowd of the cause of war. This was clearly a political statement.  

Such a politicised panegyric begs the question: what was it in praise of? Athenian Democracy or the sacrifice and bravery of the dead? At the start of his speech, Pericles says, ‘it is hard to speak properly on a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth.’ This is a strange thing to say when the majority of the crowd needed little persuasion that their own kinsmen were brave, achieving great deeds. His explanation in the speech was that too much praise might arouse envy amongst other young men, whilst friends of the dead may have felt that he had not praised them highly enough. Perhaps this same sentiment has parallels with Remembrance Day services across the UK today. The use of simple phrases such as ‘Lest we forget’ and ‘We will remember them’ are expressions which carefully avoid praising specific individuals, but which respect the sacrifices they made for the state.  

What Pericles does in his eulogy is commit most of it to praise of Athens and democracy – a topic more controversial than we may realise today. First, he praises the Athenian ancestors. Then, at some length, he describes the freedoms enjoyed in Athens and its military might. He does link his praise of the state with the dead, saying ‘such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died.’ This is an appropriate explanation for those gathered that the men who died did so for a worthy cause.  

However, Pericles goes further in making the political message overt, rallying the masses to his cause: ‘and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause.’ In many ways, it is impossible to separate his praise of the fallen soldiers from his praise of the city. As he puts it: ‘the Athens I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her.’ 

We would be shocked today at the presence of politics at such an occasion of remembrance; however, symbols of remembrance have been politicised even in recent years. The most well-known case of this happening occurred when FIFA fined the England, Wales, and Scotland national football associations for wearing poppies at matches held on November 11th, Armistice Day in 2016. FIFA claimed that they were wearing ‘political symbols,’ which is explicitly banned in the rules. This rule has since been adjusted and elaborated on, and teams can now wear the poppy if their opposition agrees in advance. The argument was that the poppy remembers those who died in war, without justifying the cause itself.  

Equally, the white poppy, produced by the Peace Pledge Union, also known as the ‘pacifist poppy’, has become more commonly worn, remembering all victims of war. It is worn as a commitment to peace and challenges the glamorisation or celebration of war. It too has been subject to debate, most notably when former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn wore one as a local MP and refused to say if he would wear one to the Remembrance Day memorial at the Cenotaph. 

In both practice and politics, it would seem how we remember those who die in war today is not so different to fifth-century Athens.  

Written by Fiona Macrae

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