The Burials of Greek Warriors

The ancient Greeks paid unusual homage to the bodies of soldiers – their own tomb-unknown-soldier-marble-sculpture-dying-ancient-greek-hoplite-warrior-holding-his-shield-spear-athens-greece-42949806city’s, or occasionally those of another – who had fallen in battle, and surrounded their funerals with solemn and impressive rituals. Thus, in the seventh book of Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan prince Hector challenges the invading Greek army to select its finest warrior to fight with him man-to-man, and so decide the outcome of the Trojan War by single combat. Hector promises that if he prevails and kills the Greek challenger, he will give him an honorable funeral and burial, so that the fame both of the Greek hero and of Hector himself will endure. The Elizabethan poet George Chapman, in a translation celebrated in Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, renders Hector’s speech as follows:

. . . if I can slaughter him

         (Apollo honouring me so much), I’ll spoil his conquered limb,

         And bear his arms to Ilion, where in Apollo’s shrine

         I’ll hang them, as my trophies due; his body I’ll resign

         To be disposed by his friends in flamy funerals

         And honour’d with erected tomb, where Hellespontus falls

         Into Aegeum, and doth reach ev’n to your naval road,

         That when our beings in the earth shall hide their period,

         Survivors sailing the black sea may thus his name renew:

         “This is his monument, whose blood long since did fates imbrue,

         Whom passing far in fortitude, illustrious Hector slew.”

         Thus shall posterity report, and my fame never die.

Much of the latter part of The Iliad is in fact occupied with detailed descriptions of funeral practices, including the elaborate feasting, games, gift-giving, ceremonies and sacrifices that Achilles staged in honor of his fallen comrade Patroclus and the building of the monumental mound that he erected as Patroclus’ temporary burial site. Among other things, Achilles slaughtered “twelve Trojan youths, born of their noblest strains,” to the memory of Patroclus (Iliad Book XXIII, l. 19). And we should recall that the conclusion of The Iliad is a warrior’s burial: it marks the funeral rites of Hector, tamer of horses (Iliad Book XXIV, l. 711).

But in the world Homer describes, such practices are reserved for heroes and lords like Patroclus. Ordinary soldiers killed in battle seem simply to have been cremated (see Iliad Book I, l. 52). Thus, Homer has the Greek king Agamemnon say that corpses should be given to the flames promptly after death, and the Greek army acts accordingly, gathering in both bodies and fuel (Iliad Book VII, ll. 417-32).   (The twelve young Trojans whom Achilles sacrificed were left unburied.)

The archaic tradition regarding burial is reflected in later Greek writing. In the seventh century, the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, much revered in his native city (the Spartan army sang his poems on the way to battle), wrote in one elegy:

he that falleth in the van and loseth dear life to the glory of his city and his countrymen and his father, with many a frontwise wound through breast and breastplate and through bossy shield, he is bewailed alike by young and old, and lamented with sore regret by all the city. His grave and his children are conspicuous among men, and his children’s and his line after them; nor ever doth his name and good fame perish, but though he be underground he liveth evermore, seeing that he was doing nobly and abiding in the fight for country’s and children’s sake when fierce Ares brought him low.

Under Tyrtaeus’ influence, Spartan soldiers wrote their names on small sticks so that if they were killed, their bodies could be readily identified. See Diodorus Siculus, Book VIII, c. 27.

The funeral rites of Athens

Fifth century, democratic Athens, however, stands out for the remarkably full honors that it extended to ordinary citizen-soldiers.

The historian Herodotus relates the tale of the Athenian statesman Solon, who claimed that the happiest of all men was one Tellus, chiefly because of the manner of his death in battle and subsequent burial (Histories, Book I, 30):

Tellus was from a prosperous city, and his children were good and noble. He saw children born to them all, and all of these survived. His life was prosperous by our standards, and his death was most glorious: when the Athenians were fighting their neighbors in Eleusis, he came to help, routed the enemy, and died very finely. The Athenians buried him at public expense on the spot where he fell and gave him much honor.

Later Athenian authors tell us more about such funeral honors. Indeed, these honors occupied a central position in the city’s civic life.

In Plato’s curious dialogue Menexenus, perhaps intended as a playful comment on the Athenian practice of solemnizing the burial of dead with funeral orations, Socrates is made to say:

O Menexenus! Death in battle is certainly in many respects a noble thing. The dead man gets a fine and costly funeral, although he may have been poor, and an elaborate speech is made over him by a wise man who has long ago prepared what he has to say, although he who is praised may not have been good for much. The speakers praise him for what he has done and for what he has not done — that is the beauty of them — and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. And if, as often happens, there are any foreigners who accompany me to the speech, I become suddenly conscious of having a sort of triumph over them, and they seem to experience a corresponding feeling of admiration at me, and at the greatness of the city, which appears to them, when they are under the influence of the speaker, more wonderful than ever.

No doubt the most famous passages in Greek literature to describe the honor Periclesthat is due to a city’s fallen soldiers are found in Thucydides’ rendition of the Funeral Oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles over those who died at the outset of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC – 404 BC), in which Athens and Sparta contended for supremacy in Greece. Less well known than Pericles’ speech, however, is Thucydides’ introduction to it, which describes the Athenians’ customary practices on such solemn occasions. Let us consider Thucydides’ remarks here. (Whether Thucydides’ description is wholly accurate is considered in Mark Toher’s 1999 paper, On “Thucydides’ Blunder”.

In Thomas Hobbes’ translation:

Having set up a tent, they put into it the bones of the dead three days before the funeral: and every one bringeth whatsoever he thinks good to his own. When the day comes of carrying them to their burial, certain cypress coffins are carried along in carts, for every tribe one, in which are the bones of the men of every tribe by themselves. There is likewise borne an empty hearse covered over, for such as appear not, nor were found amongst the rest when they were taken up. The funeral is accompanied by any that will, whether citizen or stranger; and the women of their kindred are also by at the burial, lamenting and mourning. Then they put them into a public monument, which standeth in the fairest suburbs of the city [the Ceramicus (RJD)]; in which place they have ever interred all that died in the wars, except those that were slain in the field of Marathon: who, because their virtue was thought extraordinary, were therefore buried there-right. And when the earth is thrown over them, some one thought to exceed the rest in wisdom and dignity, chosen by the city, maketh an oration, wherein he giveth them such praises as are fit: which done, the company depart.

In his splendid book Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State (1987), Ian Morris observes that Thucydides “presented death in battle as the apotheosis of citizenship, and, interestingly, the burial of the war dead is the only context we know of where funeral games took place in fifth-century Athens. Three inscribed bronze vases given as prizes in these games . . . are known.”

Athenian burial practices and its democracy

David Pritchard adds to our understanding of Athens’ funeral rites for its dead warriors in his essay The symbiosis between democracy and war: the case of ancient Athens (2010).  The tombs in which the dead warriors were placed “were adorned with statues of lions and friezes depicting groups of generic hoplites and cavalrymen vanquishing their enemies, both of which signified the aretê [virtue or, more specifically, courage (RJD)] of those being buried.” Further, “each tomb displayed a complete list of the year’s casualties, including citizen sailors, which was organised [into the ten Athenian] tribes. . . . [T]hese casualty lists gave the same space to the name of every citizen, regardless of what his military rank and social class had been.” Pritchard observes that this austere form of remembrance “reinforces the impression that the principle of democratic equality . . . strongly shaped [the Athenians’] honouring of the war dead.” He notes that a surviving fragment of Euripides’ lost play “Erechtheus” says that those who “die in war they share a common tomb with many others and an equal fame” (added emphasis) (J.O. Burtt trans.).

Further, Athens’ dead combatants were not only equal, in the city’s eyes, in nobility and courage; they were also beyond death, perpetuated in the renewed and everlasting life of the city. W.R. Connor, in his 1988 article Early Greek Land Warfare as Symbolic Expression, calls attention to this aspect of the tribal war memorials:

The final commemoration . . . is a memorial consisting of names, just names, name after named, arranged by tribe. . . . These, unlike the battlefield trophaion [the trophy or victory marker erected on the field after a battle (RJD)], are intended to be permanent. As the impermanence of the trophy marks the transitoriness of human relationships, the inscribed names of the dead mark the endurance that comes from comes from the merging of the individual into the community.

Some conclusions

Reflection on the ancient texts and practices will lead us to several conclusions about the significance of the burial of a city’s own battle-dead.

First, we see (at least in democratic Athens) the heroization of the common soldier-citizen. Ordinary men who die fighting for their city can now enter the honor-world that in Homer is reserved for lords and heroes. If, as Eva Brann has suggested, the Iliad itself can be seen as a “tremendous war memorial” because it records the names, descent and homelands of the many leading warriors who died in its battles, so the Athenian mortuary list of names raises those it commemorates to the same heroic level. (See Eva Brann, Homeric Moments (2002)). Even a poor man, Plato remarks, receives “a fine and costly funeral” and an “elaborate speech.” And Thucydides tells us that Athens also honors its unknown soldiers: the funeral procession includes “an empty hearse covered over” to commemorate them. Furthermore, the families of those who have fallen are ennobled along with them. Democratic America, with its simple and egalitarian national cemeteries, its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its unadorned memorial listing the names of those who died in the Vietnam War, should readily grasp these points.

Athens may have been a democracy but, as Pericles argued in the Funeral Oration, it was a democracy of a singularly aristocratic kind, in which poverty and obscurity were not insuperable barriers to the achievement of honor by those who would serve the city. The ordinary citizen, Pericles says, “is not put back through poverty for the obscurity of his person, as long as he can do good service to the commonwealth” (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 37). And even if some of the dead were worthier of praise than others, Pericles insists that all must be honored equally: “even such of them as were worse than the rest, do nevertheless deserve, that for their valour shown in the war for defence of their country they should be preferred before the rest” (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 42). All the deaths that are being commemorated were honorable: “choosing rather to fight and die, than to shrink and be saved, they fled from shame, but with their bodies stood out the battle; . . . [and so] left their lives not in fear, but in opinion of victory” (id.).

Second, we should note the extraordinary sense of identity and common purpose that exists between the democratic city and those who fight for it. Thucydides has the Athenian general Nicias tell his soldiers that of themselves they make the city: “wheresover you please to sit down, there presently of yourselves you are a city” (Peloponnesian War, Book VII, c. 77). The city’s fate and their fates are the same, and even after death, they will live in the continuing and indestructible life of the city. The burial rites encapsulate the city’s promise, not only that it will remember its battle-dead, but also that it will recover their remains and inter them before the eyes of those they died defending. Everyone who has “given his body to the commonwealth,” Pericles affirms, will “receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre” (id. at Book II, c. 43).

Indeed, we might go even further. Robert Hertz, a pupil of the great nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim, argued in the spirit of his teacher that we should conceive of the emotions aroused by a death and the rites by which death is marked, not simply as individual or private matters, but as social facts. (For an excellent summary of Hertz’s ideas, see Douglas J. Davies, The social triumph over death (2000). Hertz pointed out that the person who had died was not merely a biological individual but also “a social being grafted upon” that body. Hence the death of that individual represented a threat to the social order, and its destruction “is tantamount to a sacrilege” against that society. Society had to meet this threat somehow. It did so, Hertz argued, in a two-phased sequence of mortuary rituals: first, a phase of “disaggregation,” represented by the temporary disposal of the corpse; then by a phase of “reinstallation” or “secondary burial,” from which the society reconstituted itself and emerged triumphantly over death. In that final, reconstitutive ceremony, mourning came to an end and the departed soul was taken to have been incorporated into a social order of the dead that was continuous with the order of the living. The burial rites, in short, affirmed order as against the threat of disorder, and the unending life of the society as against the death of its individual members. As Morris summarizes this approach, “the funerary process re-presented society as pure and unblemished, in a perpetual youthful bloom through the preservation of the beautiful corpse, and its subsequent reduction to a permanent state via cremation.”

Finally, the burial rites renew and magnify the city, not only in the eyes of its own citizens, but also in those of the foreigners who watch the spectacle. Plato’s Socrates says that if there are foreigners present at a funeral speech, he experiences “a sort of triumph over them,” while they “seem to experience a corresponding feeling of admiration at me, and at the greatness of the city.” Pericles too notes in his oration that it will be “profitable to the whole company [of his audience], both of citizens and strangers,” to hear the battle-dead praised and, more especially, to hear the democratic constitution of Athens described (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 3).

(Note: For those who may be interested in exploring these topics further, volume IV of Kendrick Pritchett’s monumental The Greek State at War (1985) provides a wealth of information).

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