Menexenus, then, may one day take its place as a significant source for understanding Plato's political philosophy -- if we get a grip on how it fits into that context. In the meantime, there's no consensus on how to interpret the dialogue, ,given its subtleties, serious interpretation of this work, even a preliminary interpretation, would certainly require a month of reading and comparing at least! We'll just have to approach the matter as tourists and see if we can catch a few of the interesting points.
You can read Menexenus online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource.
The dialogue directly refers to Pericles' Funeral Oration. There are two other works that sometimes are thought to be in view: Lysias's Funeral Oration and Isocrates' Panegyricus (which is not technically a funeral oration but obviously is rhetorically related).
(1) Pericles' Funeral Oration. Pericles, as Thucydides presents him, begins by saying he would prefer that the law not require a eulogy for the war-dead, but simply recognize their deeds by the deed of the funeral itself; but as it is required by law, he will comply. He begins with the first ancestors, but passes briefly over them by saying there never was a time when they did not dwell on the land, in order to get to "our fathers", who added to their legacy, and to those who were assembled to hear the speech, who carried the improvements even further, "and have richly endowed our city with all things, so that she is sufficient for herself both in peace and war." He then passes over the deeds of martial glory of which funeral orations were usually composed, and talks of the glory of Athens:
Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.
Athens' military training is in many ways superior to those of her adversaries; she is open to the world; Athens seldom has difficulty overcoming its opponents; when those opponents defeat Athens, they do so only because Athens's attention is divided; Athens, unlike the rest of the world, thinks before acting; Athens is the school of Greece.
He then moves on briefly to praise of the dead: they were worthy of Athens. Then he speaks to those present:
Any one can discourse to you for ever about the advantages of a brave defense, which you know already. But instead of listening to him I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonor always present to them, and who, if ever they failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast.
(2) Lysias' Funeral Oration. Lysias begins with the usual remark that words are insufficient to praise the deads of the dead, then moves on to discuss "the ancient ordeals of our ancestors". He gives a number of mythological episodes in which Athens rose to the occasion, then mentions that it was natural to them to do justice because they were born of the earth:
They were the first and the only people in that time to drive out the ruling classes of their state and to establish a democracy, believing the liberty of all to be the strongest bond of agreement; by sharing with each other the hopes born of their perils they had freedom of soul in, their civic life, and used law for honoring the good and punishing the evil. For they deemed that it was the way of wild beasts to be held subject to one another by force, but the duty of men to delimit justice by law, to convince by reason, and to serve these two in act by submitting to the sovereignty of law and the instruction of reason.
He then moves on to the Persian War, (briefly) the Peloponnesian War, and then finally the Corinthian War, and ends by calling them blessed.
(3) Isocrates' Panegyricus. Isocrates says, " I have come before you to give my counsels on the war against the barbarians and on concord among ourselves" and after some further discussion of what he is doing, goes on to argue that the Spartans and Athenians should unite against the barbarians. But while Athens can understand this policy, the Spartans have the false belief that they by right should lead. Thus Isocrates sets out to prove that Athens has claim to lead the Greeks as a whole. He notes the autochthony of Athens, its people sprung from the earth, and the fact that they were taught by Demeter herself how to use the fruits of the earth and received from her the Eleusinian Mysteries. He then discusses all the benefits that the Athenians have shared with the rest of the Greeks, including philosophy, and the ancient tradition of appealing to Athens for help. He discusses the Persian War. Thus "all men would acknowledge that our city has been the author of the greatest number of blessings, and that she should in fairness be entitled to the hegemony." He meets a number of possible objections, including the treatment of the Melians and the people of Scione, and dismisses them by pointing out that cities that stayed loyal did not have this problem, and, besides, Sparta is worse. He talks about Athenian enmity to the barbarians and argues for a united front against them.
(in order of appearance)
Menexenus is also a character in Lysis and is present at the discussion in Phaedo. Not much seems to be known about him.
Aspasia is not technically in the dialogue, but as the epitaphios or funeral oration is attributed to her, she is a quasi-character in the discussion. Aspasia is the women in the Periclean Age of whom we know the most, but far from making her more understandable, it makes her much more of an enigma. She was almost certainly born in Miletus, and was (apparently) the daughter of Axiochus. She was the mistress of Pericles for about twenty years, and had a son, also named Pericles. She apparently was a common character in philosophical dialogues by Socrates' students -- Aeschines and Antisthenes both had dialogues named after her. We have a few fragments of Aeschines's dialogue; in one of the fragments Socrates argues that many women have been great history. In the most extended passage, preserved in Cicero's De inventione (1.51-53), Aspasia gives Xenophon and his wife marital advice. (This is certainly fictional; all evidence suggests that Xenophon married relatively late and well after he had left Athens, and probably after Aspasia had died. But you can read it in English here at section XXXI.) We don't know what Antisthenes' dialogue was like, but there's good evidence elsewhere to think that Antisthenes did not approve of Aspasia at all. She was often mocked in comedies, often with hints that she was the real cause of the Peloponnesian War (this is a joke in Aristophanes' Acharnians, for instance). The things that most fascinated her contemporaries -- her deviation from normal expectations for women, her access to power, her intelligence -- often do not lead into the things we most want to know about her. It is all indirect; she is one of the most talked-about people of the time, and yet we hardly know her.
to be continued