Even if the notion, “we always prematurely inter the ones we love,” has not quite attained to the status of aphorism, it does accurately reflect the peculiar position of the Periclean obituary (2.65) in Thucydides’ history. As befits a locus classicus, the passage has been much discussed: as one of the infrequent and therefore precious expressions of political opinion by Thucydides; as evidence for the historian’s position on the viability of Pericles’ war strategy; as a witness to Thucydides’ opinion of Periclean imperialism; as the location of a surprising verdict on the Sicilian Expedition; as a site of textual difficulty; and as a key piece in the puzzle of the Kompositionsfrage.
And yet for all that the Periclean obituary does and contains, it cannot even be said to accomplish the first task of a true obituary: to inform the reader of when, precisely, Pericles died. Thucydides has written that Pericles “lived on for two years and six months” (2.65.6), without quite pinning down the point from which he “lived on.” This temporal indeterminacy is closely related to the fact that the obituary is proleptic: Pericles’death is narrated at least one and one half years out of sequence. To my knowledge no adequate explanation for this has yet been offered. The tacit assumption may be that Pericles’ premature burial is guided by purely historical considerations—i.e. Thucydides has interred him after he was fined by the demos and his influence began to wane—but this assumption is not only unconfirmed by independent witnesses, it is contradicted by Thucydides himself, who writes that, “not much later . .. the demos elected him general and entrusted to him all their affairs” (2.65.4).
I suggest that Thucydides has prematurely interred Pericles for a different purpose: to position his death within an ironic juxtaposition in the mold of, e.g., the Funeral Oration and plague narrative. The problematic events with which the historian juxtaposes the obituary are those following it in the war narrative: the Spartan naval campaign against Zakynthos (2.66) and the Peloponnesian embassy to Persia (2.67).
These events represent, respectively, the debut of the Spartan navy and the first concrete Peloponnesian overture to Persia in the war narrative (not, significantly, in the war itself; see 2.7 and 2.67.4). As such, they have an obvious resonance in the immediate aftermath of the Periclean obituary, which not only looked ahead to Athens’ defeat, but also highlighted the role played by Cyrus in supplying funds for Sparta’s navy (2.65.12). Given that the obituary concludes with the sentence, “So much was there in superfluity for Pericles out of which he himself foresaw that the city would altogether easily overcome the Peloponnesians alone (2.65.13),” there is an obvious irony in the events which follow. Immediately after Pericles’ (narrative) demise, his confident prediction begins to be symbolically upended by the appearance of two factors which would ultimately help cost Athens the war.
Because of irony’s notorious slipperiness, I do not speculate on whether this ironic juxtaposition cuts for or against Pericles. Instead I conclude with two methodological observations. First, if I am correct, the Periclean obituary is implicated more profoundly in its narrative context than has been realized. This reinforces a frequent objection to conjecture about the text’s composition: how can one put a date to a given passage when there are methodological obstacles even to defining “a given passage”? Secondly, the juxtaposition problematizes the use we make of passages which are written in propria persona. If the Periclean obituary gains an important dimension from its narrative context, then it and passages like it cannot safely be treated as interpretative anchors. Rather than constituting individual outbursts of opinion, their purpose and meaning is conditioned by the context in which they occur.