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Death dominates the earliest Greek literature. Homer’s Iliad is not simply a poem about a pampered young soldier’s quarrel with his commanding officer over a woman, it is a poem about how, even in major wars, the deaths of individuals are what have the greatest effect on those who fight. The Iliad both holds out death in war as the one glorious death, and insists that even death in war is always tragic waste. The Iliad both presents death in battle as glorious, and insists that even that death in battle is a tragic waste.

Death dominates Greek archaeology too. This is partly because what was always buried survives better than what was long exposed. But it is also partly because the Greeks invested a great deal of energy and resources in commemorating those who had died.

On the fringes of the Greek world some tombs were monumental. The fourth-century BC tomb of Mausolus, ruler of Caria, at Halicarnassus has given the name mausoleum to all tomb buildings. It was an enormous structure, richly decorated with sculpted friezes, the remains of which are now in the British Museum, carved by the most famous sculptors of the day. A more modest tomb, but already the size of a Greek temple and with equally elaborate sculpture, was erected earlier in the fourth century BC at Xanthos in Lycia. Known as the ‘Nereid Monument’ this too is now in the British Museum.

In mainland Greece advertising individual power and ambition in this way was more problematic, and no tomb monument was so large, although the kings of Macedon created a monumental cemetery for themselves at Vergina. Occasionally individual Greeks made a building their memorial, but more normally what was visible as the marker of a grave was at most a sculpted relief. These reliefs regularly show the deceased as they were in the prime of life, serving as a soldier, exercising as an athlete, or in a domestic context, sometimes reclined on a couch taking part in a feast.

Greeks seem not to have been very concerned about the fate of the body itself, changing from cremation to inhumation from time to time, or employing both methods of disposal at the same time. Regardless of what was done to the dead body is was common to bury with the body or the cremated remains pots and other objects. Sometimes these were the objects with which the dead person had been familiar in life, but sometimes either the objects or the scenes painted on them were particularly relevant for thinking about death.

In fourth-century Greece there were certainly some who were concerned about their fate in the afterlife. At various places in the Greek world small thin plaques of gold, known today as Orphic tablets, have been found buried with the dead on which instructions are written as to what to do when arriving in the underworld. One Athenian tomb received a specially made set of cups, whose unique imagery is all entirely related to stories of death and coming back to life.

There was no one attitude to death in classical Greece. Death could be variously thought of as glorious or tragic, too soon or too late, friendly or hostile, the end of everything or only the beginning of a new phase. In the sculptures marking graves and in the goods they put in them, those who survived attempted to come to terms with an event about which all that was certain was that it had to be faced alone.


Further reading

Robert Garland The Greek Way of Death (Cornell, 1985)