Some features of the Athenian funeral speech genre remain fixed over time, and for obvious reasons. A speech that belittled the dead would be hard to recognize as a funeral speech at all; one that made no comments about the city’s values and continuing needs would not register as a military funeral. But these persistent features are very broad characteristics. To be more specific about the Menexenus either meeting or defeating expectations will require a more detailed sense of the genre within which Plato is writing. It would be anachronistic to speak of “literary genre” in Plato’s time.1 But

he would have understood the impulse behind grouping certain types of speeches together and identifying their common properties, and the opening conversation of the Menexenus is enough to show that these funeral speeches were regarded as a type when Plato was writing. An Athenian epitaphios logos2 was a speech delivered at a collective

military funeral; the Athenians seem to have held one such funeral each year.3 The custom began early in the fifth century, estimates of its origin going from 508 to 460; it continued until late in the following century. Some form of the observance may have persisted into Hellenistic times and later, well after Athens ceased being an independent state with its own army and wars. Developing over a century and a half, and representing more than a hundred

authors, the genre must have exhibited a wide range of possibilities. In fact the surviving speeches, as different as they are, still share a basic outline or internal structure and a set of topics to touch on. This does not mean that all the topics appear in every speech; but every speech contains some of them, and the elements are ordered by all the existing speeches in more or less the same structure. To speak of “surviving speeches” can be misleading, however. At some

point late in the fifth century some funeral speeches began to exist in written form, and some of these are known today. But the reader of the

Menexenus who begins with these works would do well to keep three cautions in mind:

1 The funeral speech tradition existed for a generation, maybe longer, before ever taking written form.