Every winter, classical Athenians gathered together to mourn the war-dead and to bury publicly any men killed in combat in the preceding campaigning season. The occasion included an oration spoken in honour of those being buried by a man chosen by the city. The preserved speeches are well known (Thuc. 2.35-46; Lys. 2; Dem. 60; Hyp. Epit.; cf. Pl. Menex.) and the scholarship has particularly focused on their roles in creating Athenian identity and promulgating the ideology of the democratic city (e.g. Loraux, Thomas, Grethlein, Todd). Their politics of remembrance, however, have been ignored. As I shall argue, these orations constructed collective memory for the Athenians. At the time of composition, the speech represented the thoughts of a single individual man and its text was not authorised by the city before its delivery. When the orator gave his speech at the burial of the war-dead, he presented his version of the final campaign undertaken by the dead and of selected events in the city’s history in a ritual setting. This context by its very nature created a single memory of the battles, and, indeed, the rites themselves, for the whole city.
How these processes created collective remembrance is well illustrated by our surviving speeches. In different ways, both Hypereides and Demosthenes focus on the final campaign undertaken by the men being buried. Hypereides provides a long and detailed narrative of the events (Hyp. Epit. 10-18, 23) which creates a vivid sense of the actual campaign and the hardships suffered by the Athenian forces. They endured an unusually large number of battles, extreme winter weather, and a lack of supplies. The description provides an immediacy which a simple list of victories could not. Particularly for those listeners who had not taken part in the campaign, this narrative creates especially strong memories of the events. In his speech for the dead from Chaironeia, Demosthenes also remembers the end of the deceased men’s lives, but he focuses on their final thoughts: their memories of their eponymous ancestors inspired them to be valiant in the face of the enemy (Dem. 60.27-31). In one case, the orator even gives us their final words and so asks the audience the same question which he says that the men asked themselves (Dem. 60.29). The effect is to provide listeners with the final thoughts and words of the dead, as if they had been present at their deaths. Both orators provide those Athenians not present with memories which they would otherwise not have of the last moments of the dead men’s lives. Similar processes are also at work with the battles previously fought by the city, as Lysias’ long narrative of the battle of Salamis demonstrates (Lys. 2.32-43). In this description, the perspective shifts both from the ancestors to the Athenians listening to the speech and from the non-combatants watching to the Athenians fighting at sea. The effect is to put the audience in the position of the Athenians in 480 and to have them replicate some of the actions of the participants. In this way, they are made present at the battle.
Through these narratives in the orations, all Athenians gain the same memories of specific events in the city’s history. Thus, they become part of the city’s collective remembering through their articulation in the ritual setting. Subsequently, these battles could be remembered on other occasions, such as later funeral orations (cf. Lys. 2.2-3). The orators, however, did not simply repeat all the examples used by their predecessors and they emphasise that they must choose which examples to use (e.g. Lys. 2.2; Dem. 60.15; Hyp. Epit. 4). Consequently, the politics of these orations show us how individual memory intersects with and then becomes collective remembrance for the Athenians. Memorialised in this way, the memories of the war-dead would truly never grow old (cf. Lys. 2.79).