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A Rendezvous with History "Fallen Heroes"
February 16, 2000

Nobody is claiming that these are the bones of Pericles. It seems possible, however, that they belong to citizen-soldiers who fought under his orders, perhaps even those who perished in the first year of the war and were commemorated in Pericles' funeral oration, one of the greatest speeches of all time. Thucydides, who was probably present, recorded the speech and is believed to have captured the spirit of Pericles' message if not the exact words. Speaking from a high platform so that as many could hear as possible, Pericles described the greatness of Athens at length, then shifted to the greatness of those who had fallen to preserve the city:

It is for such a city, then, that these men nobly died in battle, thinking it right not to be deprived of her, just as each of their survivors should be willing to toil for her sake. ...For it is their virtues, and those of men like them, that have given honor to the qualities I have praised in the city, and for few other Hellenes [Greeks] would it be manifest, as it is for them, that reputation is equal to the deeds. ...None of these men turned coward from preferring further enjoyment of wealth, nor did any, from the poor man's hope that he might still escape poverty and grow rich, contrive a way to postpone the danger. Thinking defeat of the enemy more desirable than prosperity, just as they considered this the fairest of risks, they were willing to vanquish him at that risk and long for the rest, leaving to hope the uncertainty of prospering in the future but resolving to rely on their own actions in what confronted them now, and recognizing that it meant resisting and dying rather than surviving by submission, they fled disgrace in word but stood up to the deed with their lives and through the fortune of the briefest critical moment, at the height of glory rather than fear, departed.
   So fared these men, worthy of their city; you survivors must pray to meet the enemy at lesser cost but resolve to do so just as unflinchingly....

We glorify Periclean Athens for the great monuments of the Acropolis and as the birthplace of democracy, but to Pausanias the leaders on both sides during the Peloponnesian War were "the assassins and almost the wreckers of Greece" and he excludes them from his list of the greatest Greek patriots (see Habicht 1988: p. 113). Thucydides recorded atrocities on both sides: after capturing Scione and Melos, the Athenians put to death all adult males and sold the rest of the population into slavery; the Spartans slaughtered 3,000 Athenians captured at Aegospotami. Agelarakis shares Pausanias' view, but also acknowledges the noble qualities Pericles espoused. "This was the longest, most vicious and destructive war ever fought among Greeks," he says, "gilded with so many aspects of the human condition that we all recognize even today: the struggle fueled by differences in ideals and in the hunger for power and resources; the maliciousness of warfare and the suffering and loss of countless lives resulting not only from armed conflict, but also from disease; and the desperate strategies for survival and the hope for peace and salvation."

Today, forensic anthropology is ever more the final act to conflict. We in the United States try to identify our dead and account for each and every one of them from recent and past wars. The ancient Athenians would appreciate this attitude, because, unlike other classical Greek city-states, Athens brought home her dead. They would also understand Anagnosti Agelarakis' efforts to identify some of those killed during the Peloponnesian War. For his part, Agelarakis, while maintaining scientific objectivity, sees his work on the bones as a sacred trust. "Discovery of the remains of the ancient Athenian warriors who offered their lives fighting for the ideals, values, and traditions of their city during the first years of the Peloponnesian War presents a time capsule of singular importance," he says. "One cannot evade feelings of tremendous responsibility to both past and future generations. This is a rendezvous with history."

MARK ROSE is Managing Editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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