Saturday, January 21, 2012

On Perikles

To my mind, Mary Renault remains one of the finest novelists of the classical period of Greek Civilization and The Last of the Wine, set during the dying days of the Peloponnesian War, when the hubris of Athenian expansionism was broken by Sparta and her allies, is perhaps the greatest of her literary endeavors. In this excerpt, Alexias, the narrator, and his comrade and lover Lysis, in service on the island of Samos, ponder the justice of the Athenian cause and Lysis recalls the influence upon him of Perikles' famous Funeral Oration, delivered in 431 BC.

He turned the wine-cup in his hand. The black of his eyes, which had been wide open, grew small from looking at the flame, and the iris pleated, like grey and brown silk catching the light.

"They held an Epitaphion at Athens," he said, "in the first year of the war, in honor of the fallen. The ashes and the offerings were carried in state along the Sacred Way, with an empty bier for the bodies that were lost. It was only a few months before your birth; perhaps your mother carried you in procession. I was seven years old. I stood with my father in the Street of Tombs; it was cold and I wanted to run off and play. I stared at the high wooden rostrum they had built for Perikles, waiting for him to climb it, as children wait for a show. When he appeared, I admired his dignity and his fine helmet; and the first sound of his voice struck a kind of thrill upon my ear. But soon I grew tired of standing with cold hands and feet, and doing nothing; I thought it would never end; the weeping of the women had disturbed me, and now the people listened in so deep a silence that I was oppressed by it. I stood staring at the gravestone of a lad carved with his horse; I can see it to this day. I was glad when it was over, and if you had asked me a year later to quote the speech of Perikles, I doubt if I could have fished you up a dozen words. So before I left, I looked it up in the archives. And there were the thoughts that I had supposed I owed to no one. While I read, I still could not remember hearing Perikles say these things. My soul seemed to remember them, as Sokrates says we remember music and mathematics, from the days when we were unborn and pure."

I told him I had heard of the speech but never read it; and he quoted me as much of it as he could remember. Since then I have read it many times. But since I never knew Perikles, to me it is always Lysis who is speaking; I see not the tomb and the rostrum, but the lamps of Samos through a doorway, his shadow thrown big upon the wall, the piled armour shining beside the pallet, the black glossy wine-cup, and his hand, with an old ring of plaited gold on it, touching the stem.

"Men are not born equal in themselves," he said to me after, "so I think it beneath a man to postulate that they are. If I thought myself as good as Sokrates I should be a fool; and if, not really believing it, I asked you to make me happy by assuring me of it, you would rightly despise me. So why should I insult my fellow-citizens by treating them as fools and cowards? A man who thinks himself as good as everyone else will be at no pains to grow better. On the other hand, I might think myself as good as Sokrates, and even persuade other fools to agree with me; but under a democracy, Sokrates is there in the Agora to prove me wrong.
I want a City where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are; and where no one can tell me to swallow a lie because it is expedient, or some other man's will." (Emphasis added.)

From: Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine (New York: Vintage Books, 1973; orig. pub. 1956), 271-273.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"Catholic and Reformed" has been included in this weeks A Sunday Drive. I hope this helps to attract even more new visitors here.