From seeds to roots to branches: Athens in Gettysburg

This blog aims to look into the past to interpret the present and bridge better the necessity of history with today’s reality and the possibility of tomorrow. It’s about culture, anthropology, history, and geography, and also about continuity, discontinuity, conflict, and reconciliation in our human affairs.

We all know the Gettysburg address; it’s not only a great speech but, next to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it’s considered one of the best documents that describe the ideal of American Democracy. 

But where did this magnificent speech come from, and what is its significance for the future? Where are its roots, and where are its branches? 

We know that Lincoln knew the classics, and we can trace his inspiration through another speech delivered at Gettysburg. Edward Everett was a US senator who gave at Gettysburg a much lengthier address in which he explicitly referred to the “Athenian example.” His and Lincoln’s addresses echoed another famous war speech, delivered twenty-three hundred years earlier, a speech that is considered by some to be the best speech of all time. Let’s look at those roots…

In the fifth century BC, in the city of ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the city leader, Pericles, gave a moving speech during the burial ceremony of the cities’ soldiers at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian war. The address is called an “Epitaphios” and was memorialized by the ancient historian Thucydides. 

It’s incredible to see how the two leaders, Lincoln and Pericles, describe the ideas of their democracies in nearly identical manner!

Pericles’ Athens represented the first and only democracy of the ancient world. Democratic Athens represented 0.8% of the world population at the time. Around the time of the Gettysburg address, the US was one of the few democracies representing around 3% of the world’s population. 

Both societies were freer than most, with examples of rare civil rights and government controls. It’s remarkable to read in Epitaphios that all citizens of Athens were equal under the law, that the government didn’t interfere with the citizen’s everyday life (civil rights), and that the city was open and welcoming to foreigners. Although Lincoln doesn’t touch on all of that in his shorter speech, he refers back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, containing those references!

We see how slow the evolution of freedom and justice has taken to move from its Athenian roots to its US trunk. The question now is: where are the branches going to take us? If I have to guess today, based on how similar those two speeches are despite being apart 23 centuries, the idea of true democracy will remain the same, but more people will enjoy its concrete fruits in all aspects of life.

About the author

iangrigorakis

My name is Ian Grigorakis and I'm a sophomore at Redwood Highschool in Marin County, California. I'm interested in how the past has shaped the present and how the present foreshadows the future of civic institutions, international relations, and culture in general. I like finding the classic in the modern, and tracing the evolution of national identities.

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