Rhetorical Methods in Pericles’ Funeral Oration:

A Generative, Critical Analysis


Bryan Lindenberger


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Introduction to Pericles' in Modern Context


Executive, political leaders face many challenges when attempting to garner support for their initiatives. Times of crisis can further complicate garnering popular support in a democracy, particularly if this leader appears weak. United States President James Earl Carter, for instance, faced growing concern over his capability as President during the Iranian Hostage Crisis that began on November 4, 1979, and was handily defeated by the “tough talking” former governor, Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, some leaders have actually benefitted from crisis, using difficult times to not only pull their people together, but to actually increase their popularity and thus, support for their initiatives. There can be little doubt that measures such as the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, and nation-building in Iraq would have met great resistance from multiple fronts if it were not for George W. Bush’s ability to unite people following the attacks of September 11, 2001 during his famous “Bullhorn Speech.” Contrast this with his inability to successfully take control of a moment of crisis during the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, where many described him as seeming “almost entirely disconnected from what really happened” (Brown). Somewhere in between, Barack H. Obama had difficulty with using rhetoric to effectively show his personal interest and involvement in the matter until some asked “Is oil spill becoming Obama’s Katrina?” (Hall, Jervis, Levin). Though too late to avoid a drop in public support, Obama eventually communicated his outrage and managed to use the oil spill crisis to draw a distinction between himself and “Big Oil” and in fact “Big Oil Energy Policy,” announcing drilling bans in May of 2010 (CBS/AP). Some may say that Bush or Obama wisely used crisis to their favor. Yet James Earl Carter was certainly as intelligent – some might say wise – as the other two, and it seems unlikely he lacked political savvy in achieving the highest and most powerful elected office in the world. Dozens of examples certainly exist and may be interpreted various ways depending on political ideology, but this paper will argue that much of this ability to capture a moment depends on the rhetor’s ability to effectively communicate. In fact, it may depend on capturing a single moment, as was the case when George W. Bush famous “Bullhorn Speech” given on September 14, 2001 at the World Trade Center bombing site. The words and presentation used to turn a crisis into an opportunity for widespread public support are multiple and varied, but one such speech serves as a model for taking advantage of such a moment.


Governor Pericles’ speech, captured by the Athenian historian General Thucydides and known as “The Funeral Oration,” serves as a model for how a leader in an executive role may raise the spirit of his or her people during a time of crisis. I chose this particular artifact largely due to my own curiosity as to why so many historians consider this an effective speech. Pericles garnered massive support for a war that was not going well and already appeared may drag on longer than anticipated, requiring great loss of blood, treasure, and the sacrifice of daily comfort at home. That he could so effectively move from appeals to the audience’s sense of pride, comfort, and patriotism to an outright call to war proved curious. The methods he used to do so seem worthy of examination since citizens of more modern representative democracies should understand how their leaders manipulate (or to use a less negative term, “encourage”) them to take certain actions. As a research question in examining this artifact, we may ask what rhetorical means a politician in an executive position uses to effectively address his people in a time of crisis in order to garner support from his or her people, particularly in calling them to some great action or sacrifice. Finding an answer to the question can serve multiple purposes. Certainly a speechwriter or politician should be interested for “The Funeral Oration” was effective. Perhaps more importantly, as members of a representative democracy, we should want to understand how these devices are employed. Whether we find the words a form of cynical manipulation or a means of getting the support that is necessary for a greater cause, we should want to understand how our leaders appeal to us – as individuals, as groups of citizens, and as a nation as a whole. When we understand the methods used by our leaders to gain our support, we can then more rationally decide whether we in fact truly want to support them and, perhaps, feel less manipulated for having this insight.




Artifact and Context


The primary source of information used regarding Pericles’ speech is editor Robert B. Strassler’s The Landmark Thucydides, an annotated version of the popular Richard Crawley of translation Thucydides’ history now in public domain. Quotes from both the annotations and the Crawley translation found within that text will be cited in this paper as “Strassler.” The events detailed by General Thucydides span an extended period of time, including events that occurred before his own lifetime. Thucydides, however, was alive at the time of Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” and stood in attendance. Athens and Sparta had entered into open hostilities together in 431 B.C.E. along with multiple allies throughout Greece. Greece, in fact, consisted of dozens of loosely allied city-states, of which Athens and Sparta were the most powerful both economically and militarily, with each embracing numerous allies. For our purposes, Athens may be considered the more “progressive” of the democracies when compared to Sparta, with a rich culture of arts and rhetoric, and a very modern navy to oversee trade. Sparta, equally powerful but lying more deeply inland, relied more on its infantry for defense, depended largely on slavery to sustain its economy, and were better known for bluntness than for rhetorical flourishes. Hostilities, due to the necessity of planting and harvesting of food, occurred primarily in the summer months, and at the end of the first summer the toll taken in blood and treasure by the Athenians had already exceeded what many in their congress (called “The People”) had anticipated. Furthermore, hostilities would certainly continue in the next year. As was customary at the end of each summer, the governor of Athens gave a public funeral oration to honor those who had died in battle. In the case of Governor Pericles – whose power depended on the will of “The People” – and given that the war promised to escalate beyond what anyone had anticipated, he used the public event as an opportunity to pull the population of Athens together and rouse support. This paper examines some of his methods. It is worth noting that the speech, in English, runs just under 3000 words.




Rhetorical Approach of this Analysis


Analysis of the “Funeral Oration” will rely strongly on the Generative method of rhetorical analysis as outlined in Rhetorical Criticism by Sonja K. Foss. The artifact will be coded, which “here means that you notice and interpret the major features of the artifact…us[ing] intensity and frequency as your selection criteria” (Foss 389). Upon identifying major features, they will be interpreted and categorized as major themes emerge. Foss notes that in stage of analysis, one should “try not to bring in other people’s theories—stay focused on the data of your artifact (391). That is, only after the artifact is coded, and a research question formulated, will a “miniature literature review of the key concepts of the schema” begin for purposes of “elaborate[ing] on ideas in your schema” and to “enter conversations in the communication field about the ideas covered by the schema” (Foss 401). Having read and coded the speech, the research question (“What rhetorical means a politician in an executive position uses to effectively address his people in a time of crisis to garner support from his or her people) presented itself with multiple answers.


Pericles’ in fact used multiple methods in garnering support; since the “paragraphs” of the first half his speech are so highly organized, with one thought or idea moving clearly and substantially to the next, I will examine this portion chronologically – that is, section by section . The second half of the speech was coded and examined as a whole, a more traditional use of the generative method. Other rhetorical methods of analysis also proved useful to supplement the overall generative approach. For instance, some elements of “Cluster Criticism” proved useful in the first half of the speech. “Ultimate Terms” as described by Hart and Daughton in Rhetorical Criticism exist as a “sacred lexicon” (157) and imply intensity for both rhetor and audience; these “God and Devil terms as described by Foss (67) tended to cluster in the opening paragraphs. Since the analysis also considers the efficacy of the speech, there is a neo-Aristotelian or classical element to the underlying approach. Finally, some readers have noted an epideictic element to the analysis. Though the speech itself fits the broad definition of “ceremonial oratory,” the method of analysis is generative first and foremost, with no consideration given to epideictic models or methods.






Part 1: Pericles Frames the Moment


Pericles does not make an immediate appeal for his people to go to war. Rather, he meticulously frames the crisis at hand through various appeals which will examine in turn. To start, Pericles devotes his entire first paragraph to creating an historical context not for the previous year’s battles or even the fallen soldiers to whom the speech is devoted. The context he builds is for the speech itself by starting with, “Most of my predecessors in this place have commended him who made this speech part of the law” and ending with “Since our ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval, it becomes my duty to obey” (Strassler 111). This may seem counterintuitive, but we may interpret multiple purposes for this feature of the speech. Consider the public impulse to blame a leader for any crisis, just as they may credit him or her for bounty. Furthermore, there is an impulse to say, “This person is all talk” while greater events are occurring. Pericles not only reminds his audience that he is bound by law to give this speech, but more importantly reminds them of the tradition of such speeches. In doing so, he summons previous victories of Athens. A major feature includes the words, “And I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not to be imperiled in the mouth of a single individual” (Strassler 111). Here he diminishes himself, offering humility before both the history he has alluded to and the fallen soldiers for whom the speech is offered. Frequent or key terms include “law,” “duty,” “obey,” and “endure.” These are loaded and lofty terms appealing to high ideals of patriotism, particularly at a time of crisis. The key terms summon notions of obligation faced not only by Pericles in giving the speech, but for the nation as a whole in the conflict they face. Pericles then moves easily into a grander, historical context of a nation at war. “I shall begin with our ancestors,” he says, and moves for several paragraphs from a history of Athens at war to the things that make Athens great, namely its democratic, non-class based law and ideology, and the creature comforts this progressive form of governance allows for and provides. Here we will examine this progression more closely and interpret its methods and benefits.


A major feature is a repetitive, thematic reference not to past history or wars per se, but to the people of past times. “Ancestors,” “forefathers,” and “fathers” are spoken of alongside references to “our generation” throughout the first phase this aforementioned progression. Notably, Pericles uses the qualifier “our” before each of them, reminding his people that he shares their heritage. This device reminds his people not only of their glorious but difficult past, but at the same time that he is one of them, taking part in their good times and bad, their challenges and their victories. From the start, Pericles has thus painted himself not as a king (which he was not, given that he was democratically elected) but as one of the people with shared history and stake in his nation’s welfare. From this common past he deftly moves into a common present that is still rooted in the past by referring to their constitution and form of government. This would seem rhetorically sound in itself, but he further uses this transition to appeal to the pride of his people. “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others.” By now, Pericles has presented his own humility, a common heritage, and an appeal to his people’s pride which, combined, have rhetorically placed them on more equal ground. The tragedies faced the previous summer are not his – they are everyone’s. A cynical interpretation may say that Pericles has thus managed to move blame for the crisis from himself and distribute it, democratically, amongst his people. At the very least, Pericles has managed to appeal to the pride of his people by offering words of praise for their ancestors and nation.


Pericles spends the next several paragraphs reminding his people not only of the high-minded ideals of their form of government (a constitutional, democratic republic) but of the opportunities and even the creature comforts this form of government allows. Starting with form of government, Pericles states that their laws “afford equal justice to all in their private differences” and continues by saying “advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit” (Strassler 112). He refers even to statutes and codes which protect all people equally, and he praises the high regard people hold for these laws. In this way, with numerous examples, Pericles has moved from commonality of history to commonality of ideals. Furthermore, these are the ideals which are the foundation of Athenian democracy, summoning a national pride to those who listen. He has, as yet, made no mention of their war enemy Sparta, yet the comparison is strongly implied. Sparta has no such constitution, and equal access to law does not exist as Sparta’s system of production is largely based on slavery. A leader in a time of crisis would have much to learn from this rhetorical approach. Pericles has appealed to his audience’s sense of pride in self-governance – a valuable method in itself. But he has deftly manage to remind his people of their enemy without, as yet, mentioning them directly; to do so would mean turning pride to anger, or a call to arms, before his argument is fully in place. This creates tension among his listeners, and he builds upon it by patiently waiting to move onto a rallying cry.


He uses the moment instead to move from the ideals of their democracy to the creature comforts this form of government – and in fact the nation itself – affords his people. “We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure,” he says (Strassler 112). Reminders of luxury in this phase of the speech are not only high in frequency, but also in intensity with highly descriptive and sensually appealing language. He reminds the people that their ports bring produce from around the world “so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own” (Strassler 112-113). He speaks of “cultivating refinement,” and “knowledge,” and of Athens “throwing its doors open to the world” (Strassler 113). An analysis of this highly descriptive content yields many conclusions and benefits for the speaker. On the one hand, Pericles is again appealing to pride. He is setting Athens apart from its poorer, less progressive neighbors by reminding his people of all that they have accomplished, and what their nation and system of government has accomplished for and with them. Yet in doing so, he reminds them of all that they have to lose. Though he has not yet mentioned the coming battles or preparations thereof, he is clearly laying out a way of life worth fighting for. Similarly, he is contrasting Athens with Sparta but again, without mentioning them by name. Certainly the Spartans, whom they face in battle, do not enjoy all these comforts. “Cultivating refinement” is not a high priority in the Spartan culture, and though they too seek knowledge (we see this in historical retrospect), it is not the same kind or style of knowledge that the more refined, metropolitan Athenians will relate to or treasure as valid. Finally, there is another level to this rhetorical appeal and how it functions. To see it, we again must remind ourselves of the context: this is a funeral oration for fallen soldiers to honor their sacrifice. Those dead who were recovered are in fact within view. As written by Thucydides: “The dead are laid in the public sepulcher in the most beautiful suburb of the city” though those slain at the battle of Marathon were never recovered and “interred on the spot where they fell” (Strassler 110-111). By reminding people of the luxuries they enjoy, Pericles manages a second contrast – the ease of his audience’s situation alongside the difficulty recently faced by soldiers. In this way he sidesteps the direct use of direct, verbal appeals to the audience’s responsibility or guilt as a call to arms, but it would be difficult to be in the situation without feeling it. By allowing the audience to come to their own conclusion, in this manner Pericles uses the rhetorical context to his benefit without having to ask anything of his audience up to this point. Though he moves onto speaking of the dead, and of the need to take up arms to preserve their way of life, his speech has led his audience to reach these conclusions before he has stated them. The tactic would seem sound for any leader in a crisis; while few want to be asked to make sacrifices, they have already concluded that they must and know the reasons why, what is at stake. His audience is now ready, waiting, and even wanting to hear what they must do.


 In case the tension in his audience has, for some, turned to impatience, Pericles offers a brief explanation in the form of a transition. “Indeed,” he says, “if I have dwelt at some length upon the character of our country, it has been to show that our stake in the struggle is not the same as theirs who have no such blessings to lose” (Strassler 114). The argument Pericles has built thus far is carefully constructed, one piece leading to the next, and required chronology as an integral part of the analysis. Pericles now acknowledges and honors the dead – the historical purpose of the speech – as well as a call to arms. These two components, the focus of the second half of the speech, occur concurrently or intermittently. A chronological approach to the generative analysis is no longer required apart from pointing out his closing words, and so we will now examine the major features as a whole as is more common to this analytic approach.




Part Two: Pericles Moves to a Call to Arms


First we will examine the methods Pericles uses to present rhetorically the immediate crisis itself. I say “the immediate crisis” to draw a distinction. With every crisis there is a larger scope. The immediate crisis of George W. Bush’s “Bullhorn Speech” was the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center towers, which were visible. The larger scope would be the “war on radical Islamic terrorism.” In the case of Katrina, he handled poorly the immediate crisis of the disaster, physically present in the infamous photograph of him “examining” the disaster from Air Force One, while the larger scope included both race relations and a global warming debate. For President Barack H. Obama, the Gulf oil spill, clearly represented and physically present and memorable through photographs of oil soaked pelicans and sludge washing on shore, was the immediate crisis. This crisis again involved a larger scope involving domestic energy policy and deep water drilling. For Pericles, the larger scope of the crisis was war with Sparta, but the immediate, physically present event or crisis was the first wave of dead resulting from that war.


 In describing the fallen, Pericles makes no attempt to comfort the living, their families, through sympathy, empathy, or some shared sadness. Rather, he boasts of the dead’s bravery in battle, which he immediately ties to their national heritage. “The Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her,” he says (Strassler 115). He continually refers to the fallen with such qualifiers as “honour,” “valour,” “worth,” and “glory.” The soldiers died not in their own defense, but in “offering their lives made in common” (115). In fact, they “joyfully determined to take the risk” (115). Images of “offering” play on a cultural normative in that pagan Athens offered living sacrifices for what was seen as a greater good, aiding their community while pleasing the gods, a worldview or terministic screen to which his audience can immediately relate. In fact, the intensity and frequency of these Key Terms stand clearly to evoke something much different than sorrow, particularly when a word such as “joy” is associated with death in battle. In interpreting a purpose to this method, we should again remember the context. Athens believed this war would play out as a brief, summer-long skirmish but in fact, this war, now at a stalemate, promises to play out for years to come. In describing “joy,” “worth,” and “glory,” Pericles is giving a directive to his audience as to what is expected of them.


Note, too, that Pericles provides scant mention of the enemy who caused these deaths in battle. When he does mention them, it is briefly and for purposes of summoning vengeance. Just as George W. Bush stated that the “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” (Bush/American Rhetoric”) Pericles, too, does not personalize the enemy or go into detail regarding them or their goals. He speaks only of “holding vengeance upon our enemies” and “to make sure their vengeance” (Strassler 115). By not dwelling on the enemy, Pericles manages to keep his audience fixed firmly in the moment, both of the funeral itself and the rhetorical moment he has created. Since his audience is currently grieving, he plays on their immediate emotions and summons their desire for vengeance. The speech has thus deftly moved from the smaller scope of the crisis – honoring or grieving for the dead – the wider scope of a call to arms.


We can now turn to the second major feature in the latter half of the speech, the plea to his people to continue battle, bearing in mind that these two features are highly integrated. In fact, in coding the artifact, these two features were so intricately intertwined as to make them nearly inseparable. This fact in itself is worthy of analysis. The first half of the speech had a clear, step-by-step structure to guide the audience’s intellectual view of their nation and to play on and build the audience’s emotions. Tying the honor of the dead – the stated purpose of the oration – with a call to arms, and doing so with such intricacy, makes the two almost inseparable for the audience as well. In the context of hearing the speech, the audience would not have time to separate the two or to necessarily understand at an intellectual level what Pericles is doing. But at an emotional level, the message is clear: by kneading together devotion to the dead with a call to war, Pericles is making them one in the same. That is, you can honor the dead by fighting – and winning – the war they have begun.


As a sort of segue, Pericles states that “fortunate indeed are those who draw for a lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning” (Strassler 116). Pericles asks that his audience not only honor the dead for their glory, but suggests plainly that his audience follow in their mold. A major feature of this artifact is his first, direct call to take arms. “These [the fallen] take as your model, and judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war” (115). Consider now the potential shock for the audience. Pericles wants them to model the dead! This first, direct call to arms could evoke many different emotions from many different people, so we must examine how well he handled it. The sentence itself brilliantly summarizes the speech thus far, evoking the emotional ride Pericles through which Pericles has carried his audience. He reminds them of freedoms they hold, due to their constitutional form of government, as well as the “fruits” or benefits they derive thereof. He then uses that to move onto the valor of the fallen which he discussed at length. Then, only after this summation, does he finally reach the pinnacle of what this speech is really about – the fact that he expects many in his audience to fight, and die, as well. The speech is near a close. With the cat out of the bag, so to speak, Pericles bluntly states: “Turning to the sons or brothers of the dead, I see an arduous struggle before you” (Strassler 117).




Assessment and Contribution


Pericles’ “Funeral Oration” stands as one of the great speeches of Western history. Beloved by historians, it offers a glimpse into a pivotal moment in ancient Greek history. The war went on for decades, brought economic ruin, and a divided Greece opened the door for Persian influence and conquest. For communications studies and rhetorical assessment, the speech provides something else. Every generation of executive office-holders face numerous crises, both big and small. Pericles’ speech offers a sort of road-map not only to determine how to construct such a speech, but for the audience to understand the appeals presented before them. The positioning and context of the speaker at a particular moment, the appeals to national pride, love of country, enjoyment of comfort, and the implied comparisons between “us” and “them” are used routinely – though not always effectively – by executive office-holders. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for instance, uses a very similar structure though much shorter in length. George W. Bush’s, shorter still, evolves through many of the same cycles as outlined by Pericles’ “Funeral Oration,” starting with “I want you all to know that American today, American today is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn” and ending with a strongly implied call to violence. The ability to move from patriotic appeals to a call for sacrifice, or of arms, should be understood by the audience of any representative democracy in order that they may rationally manage their own destinies and that of their nation. The intended contribution of this essay is to take such a speech in one of its most complex forms and dissect it in such a way that common threads in modern-day speeches will manifest themselves more clearly and more plainly before its audience.



Works Cited




Brown, Campbell. “Commentary: Bush can’t see failure of Katrina response.” CNN Politics: 12 January 2009. Accessed online 19 April 2011.


Bush, George W. “Bullhorn Speech.” Public domain, recovered from AmericanRhetoric.com. Accessed 22 April 2011.


CBS/AP. “Obama Extends Moratorium on Offshore Drilling.” CBSNews.com: 27 May 2010. Accessed online 17 May 2011.


Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, Fourth Edition. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2009. Print.


Hart, Roderick P. and Suzanne Daughton. Modern Rhetorical Criticism, Third Edition. New York: Pearson Education, 2005. Print


Hall, Mimi, Rick Jervis and Alan Levin. “Is oil spill becoming Obama’s Katrina?” USAToday.com: 27 May 2010. Accessed online 19 May 2011.


Strassler, Robert B. The Landmark Thucydides. New York: The Free Press, 1996. Print.




Home l Résumé l Portfolio l Outdoors l Fiction l Services


Follow and Connect


Bryan Lindenberger Blogger   Bryan Lindenberger LinkedIn

Copyright 2016-2017 Bryan Lindenberger


Website design by MK Design House, LLC


Bryan Lindenberger
Bryan Lindenberger
Bryan Lindenberger
Bryan Lindenberger
Bryan Lindenberger
Bryan Lindenberger
Bryan Lindenberger
Bryan Lindenberger
Bryan Lindenberger