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Death and the City: Commemoration of the Dead in Athens in the Fifth Century BCE

Professor Marion Meyer (University of Vienna), A.D. Trendall Fellow April - June 2022, writes about her research on the commemoration of the dead in 5the century BCE Athens.

Ancient Athens has been one of my main interests ever since I was a student. Thanks to the abundance and variety of sources we can know more about Athens than about any other Greek city. In 2017 I published a monograph on the history of the cult of Athena on the Acropolis until Classical times. A volume that came out in 2020, co-edited with Gianfranco Adornato, discussed innovations and inventions made in Athens around 500 BCE.

The cover shows the burial mound for the Athenians who were killed in the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. They - and their compatriots who died in subsequent fights - will figure prominently in my current project on the commemoration of the dead in Classical Athens. 

In the “long 5th century BCE” there were some intriguing innovations in the practice of burial and commemoration, indicative of the concerns and interests of the Athenians of that time and in that particular political situation but still provocative in our days since they raise questions of universal relevance: How to cope with the case of death? Who has to do what - during the burial ceremony and in the long time after it? Who is involved, who is in charge? Who has the right to decide about burial and commemoration? How should the dead be remembered? Customs and traditions gave answers - but there were modifications and changes. In my project I study how the Athenians came up with innovations and managed to integrate them into their traditional customs.

After the end of tyranny and some years of strife the Athenian demos became the decision-making body in Athens (in 508/7 BCE), and subsequently it took responsibility for its war dead and buried them at public expense. This is what happened with the 192 Athenians who fell in the battle of Marathon. They were, however, not only honored by being buried in the huge mound near the battlefield; their names were listed on stone stelai, and they were praised in epigrams. And they were also praised in the inscriptions of a monument erected in the Kerameikos, near the city gate - a monument that has been much debated. A reconstruction by Manolis Korres can give an idea of its appearance:


I regard it as the key monument in a process of decisions that led to the institution of the state burial as Thucydides (2.34) describes it. With this institution the state - the demos - appropriated responsibilities and rights that had traditionally been those of the families. The demos brought the war dead from the battle sites back to Athens, organized the burial rites, laid the fallen into a collective grave, praised them publicly, and erected memorials with stelai that commemorated the dead as members of their phyle. My contribution to the long discussion about the making of this institution will be a new interpretation of this particular monument. I will also draw attention to the special conditions of naval warfare and potential consequences for strategies of commemoration.

The state memorials for the war dead were impressive monuments: tall stone slabs with casualty lists and praising epigrams. Images, however, were lacking, for decades (until the 420s BCE). This is surprising since in Archaic times tombs for members of elite families were marked by statues or reliefs of the deceased, and the Athenians erected more such grave sculptures than other Greeks did. And they produced a lot of images for a variety of functions throughout the 5th century BCE.

In the decades when Athens was at the height of its political power and cultural production - after the Persian Wars and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 480-430 BCE) - there were no statues or reliefs as markers of private tombs either. It is debated whether there were markers of private tombs at all (maybe the Athenians erected wooden stelai that have perished). This makes the study of vases - with images! - that were used for the grave cult and deposited at the tomb (from ca. 470 to the end of the 5th century BCE) all the more interesting.  

Around 430 BCE, the Athenians began to set up marble grave reliefs at the facades of family tomb precincts along the roads that led out of the city. In the excavated part of the Kerameikos you can see roads lined by such grave monuments (and the beginning of the Academy Road with state monuments).  


This was not a resumption of an older tradition (of erecting marble tomb markers).
The private grave reliefs of Classical times were a true innovation since they were a mass phenomenon, produced in varying dimensions and quality for a wide range of purchasers, with images that struck a completely new and touching tone: In addition to reliefs that showed the deceased person (sometimes with a servant, as in the relief at the left) there were many, many reliefs with two or more figures - images that presented the dead person with members of her/his family, often united by a handshake. And we see male and female persons, of all age groups, either alone (as the person who had died and was shown in the relief) or in group compositions. 

Interestingly, after the first private grave reliefs had been set up, state monuments were occasionally adorned with a figurative relief, too. 

Possible reasons for the sudden beginning of the rich series of private grave reliefs around 430 BCE have been suggested, but none of them is really satisfying. The discussion will go on ...

Last, but not least, I will address a curious discrepancy between the current reading of the Classical grave reliefs and the testimony of their images. The interpretation has long been dominated by a political perspective: the oikoi – as the nuclei of the polis – are thought to demonstrate their status (as families of citizens) and their persistence (by presenting legitimate offspring). There are indeed images that show members of two generations, but there are also images with constellations that defy any connection with citizenship or inheritance. And there are many, many female figures in these reliefs, also female figures among themselves. 

During my stay at the ICS from April to June 2022, I concentrated on the initial phase of the state burial for the war dead. And, during long walks in the city, I discovered that London is just the perfect place for this topic. (I was especially impressed by the Tower Hill Memorial because it provides a place to mourn and to commemorate those who “have no grave but the sea”, as the inscription says). I do not remember having seen so many war memorials anywhere else - or is this because now, focusing on this subject, I am so much more attentive?!?