In Athens of V and IV centuries AD, it was a custom to pronounce epitaphs at the public funeral of citizens who died in the war. This solemn ceremony is described by Thucydides in his story concerning the funeral of soldiers who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War.
In the same winter campaign, the Athenians, according to the custom of their ancestors, committed the funeral of the first soldiers who died in this war to the state account. Three days before the funeral they build a stage and there expose the bones of the fallen soldiers. Every Athenian was offered to be present at this ceremony. The coffins of cypress wood were with remains of soldiers were on ten chariots. They also carried empty coffins for the missing warriors, the remains of which could not be found for burial. The procession was attended by all comers, townspeople, and foreigners, for women and relatives of the deceased, who cried loudly. The coffins were placed in the state cemetery located in the most beautiful urban suburb where they always bury the fallen in the war. Since the valor of the latter was recognized as outstanding, they were also buried at this site. When the remains were covered with earth, the person selected by the state and having one of the highest positions in the state, admittedly possessing an outstanding mind, had to pronounce a speech in honor of the dead. So committed funerals and the Athenians comply with this order throughout the war at each such burial.
We do not know when and by whom this custom was introduced. The ancient evidence named Solon as the initiator of this custom, but this cannot be considered as a firmly established fact. From the initial words of Pericles’ speech in Thucydides when he told about the majority of those who had already spoken from that place a praise and those who had added a praiseworthy word to the burial rite, we can conclude only that this custom was established long before Pericles. We have information about several grave speeches and Pericles’ speech at Thucydides was dedicated to the glorification of Athenian soldiers who had died in the Corinth War (394-387), and, consequently, was pronounced (if indeed was pronounced) in one of the years of this war. But in modern science, doubts are expressed about it in two ways: 1) Does it belong to Lysias? 2) If it was written by someone else, was it really intended to be spoken at the moment indicated, or is it merely a rhetorical exercise?
First and foremost, the first question is solved in a negative sense already because Lysias was not an Athenian citizen, could not be elected to pronounce it. It is unlikely that he wrote it and at the request of the citizen who was elected for this purpose, because (as we saw in the quotation from Thucydides), a talented person was elected for this. Therefore, our scholarly critics are inclined to think that this epitaph is simply someone’s rhetorical exercise, drawn up, however, not in later times, but in the period between 380 and 340 AD, as we can conclude from Aristotle’s Rhetoric citations of this epitaph, but without the author’s instructions.
However, there are also advocates of belonging to the epitaph to Lysias. For example, the judgment of the famous author of the History of Greece by George Grot is that Lysias’ speech, a beautiful work, may well be his writing and, perhaps, was really uttered, although probably not because he was not an Athenian citizen. Indeed, the objections to Lysias’ epitaph, at least in terms of style, can hardly be called valid. It is necessary to pay attention among other things to the initial words of this speech, where the speaker says that the authorities only gave a few days for the speech preparation.
This speech is quite large by volume. It is not surprising, therefore, that even a talented and respected citizen to whom the Council of five hundred people commissioned to deliver a speech could have difficulty in writing such an important speech in so short time, especially since the epitaphs were composed according to the well-known pattern that he might not have known. The speech was asked to write by an experienced master, the old man Lysias, who may have already had to write similar speeches more than once.
The same shortness of the term provided for the composition of speech, one can also explain the various shortcomings in speech: for Lysias, for all his talent and experience, may also not be very easy to compose a large speech in a few days. He should have been shortened, since it was necessary to finish it one or two days earlier, in order to enable his client to learn it by heart. Finally, some features of it can be explained by the same ethics, which Lysias is famous for in-court speeches. Critics point, for example, to various rhetorical ornaments in the taste of another “speech writer” of that time Gorgias, which are in abundance in this speech and alien to the judicial speeches of Lysias. But, to say nothing of the difference in the nature of the epidemic and judicial speeches, perhaps the client of Lisias was just an amateur of such tricks. After all, Aristotle indicates that there were fans of Gorgias’ style in his time.
It is difficult to decide the authenticity of the work of the ancient author, for example, in this case of the epitaph, when we did not get a single analogous work from Lysias, with which we could compare it. His judicial speeches, naturally, should be written in a completely different style than such a solemn speech, moreover, compiled according to the well-known pattern.