Funerals and Tombs in Ancient Greece

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20120220-funeral marble_ossuary.jpg
marble ossuary
The Greeks believed that dying unmourned was worse than death itself. Funerals were often elaborate and expensive. The body was usually anointed and wrapped in a shroud by the women in the family, then placed in a bier and carried through town. Emotional outpourings were expected and often families hired mourners to create as big a spectacle as possible. The practice later got to be so out of hand in Rome that professional mourners were banned.[Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum]

The Greeks and Romans were not exactly sure what the relationship was between a dead person's body and his soul. To made sure that they body was well taken care of, just in case the soul continued to linger in the body for a while, families of the deceased often stuck a long straw into the tomb and occasionally poured down food and drink to the dead. For important people, sometimes funerary games were held. They were described in the “ Iliad”. In the early days large feast were often held on the death days of important heros.

There were special cults that had special rites for the dead. In most cases these cults were very secretive and no information about their rituals or even the cults themselves has survived.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The deceased was... prepared for burial according to the time-honored rituals. Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity (Iliad, 23.71). Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals that were customarily of three parts: the prothesis (laying out of the body) , the ekphora (funeral procession), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. After being washed and anointed with oil, the body was dressed and placed on a high bed within the house. During the prothesis, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, \^/]

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Funeral Rituals in Ancient Greece

funeral of Patroklos, from the Iliad

There were special cults that had special rites for the dead. In most cases these cults were very secretive and no information about their rituals or even the cults themselves has survived. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Lamentation of the dead is featured in early Greek art at least as early as the Geometric period, when vases were decorated with scenes portraying the deceased surrounded by mourners. Following the prothesis, the deceased was brought to the cemetery in a procession, the ekphora, which usually took place just before dawn. Very few objects were actually placed in the grave, but monumental earth mounds, rectangular built tombs, and elaborate marble stelai and statues were often erected to mark the grave and to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten. Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living. From depictions on white-ground lekythoi, we know that the women of Classical Athens made regular visits to the grave with offerings that included small cakes and libations.” [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, \^/] On the sacrifice of a bull at funeral ceremony, Plutarch wrote in “Life of Aristides” (c. A.D. 110): “And the Plataeans undertook to make funeral offerings annually for the Hellenes who had fallen in battle and lay buried there. And this they do yet unto this day, after the following manner. On the sixteenth of the month Maimacterion (which is the Boiotian Alakomenius), they celebrate a procession. [Source: Plutarch, “Plutarch’s Lives,” translated by John Dryden, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910)

“This is led forth at break of day by a trumpeter sounding the signal for battle; wagons follow filled with myrtle-wreaths, then comes a black bull, then free-born youths carrying libations of wine and milk in jars, and pitchers of oil and myrrh (no slave may put hand to any part of that ministration, because the men thus honored died for freedom); and following all, the chief magistrate of Plataea, who may not at other times touch iron or put on any other raiment than white, at this time is robed in a purple tunic, carries on high a water-jar from the city's archive chamber, and proceeds, sword in hand, through the midst of the city to the graves; there he takes water from the sacred spring, washes off with his own hands the gravestones, and anoints them with myrrh; then he slaughters the bull at the funeral pyre, and, with prayers to Zeus and Hermes Terrestrial, summons the brave men who died for Hellas to come to the banquet and its copious drafts of blood; next he mixes a mixer of wine, drinks, and then pours a libation from it, saying these words: "I drink to the men who died for the freedom of the Hellenes."

Ancient Greek Cremations and Burials

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Visiting a grave
Cremations were usually reserved for adults, although they were sometimes performed on children. Sometimes relatives of the deceased sucked down wine from a decorated bowl and then tossed the bowl into the cremation fire. In Ptolemaic Egypt the dead were sometimes mummified.

The dead were mostly buried in the Earth in jars or coffins. The word coffin come from the Greek word “ kophinos”, meaning "basket." Greek graveyards have been found with newborns buried between clay roof tiles.

Greeks were buried with bronze nutcrackers and boat-shaped gold earrings, bottles of perfume, and ivory dolls. Some soldiers were buried wearing a helmet and a golden mask. To deter the ghost of a suicide victim ancient Athenians severed the hand and buried it apart from the body.

Tombs and Funeral Monuments in Ancient Greece

Sometimes families raised elaborate funerary monuments for the deceased but great tombs are associated more with the Romans than the Greeks. Funeral wreaths placed on tombs were hung with bronze leaves, terra-cotta berries, grapes, grasshoppers and cicadas.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The most lavish funerary monuments were erected in the sixth century B.C. by aristocratic families of Attica in private burial grounds along the roadside on the family estate or near Athens. Relief sculpture, statues, and tall stelai crowned by capitals, and finials marked many of these graves. Each funerary monument had an inscribed base with an epitaph, often in verse that memorialized the dead. A relief depicting a generalized image of the deceased sometimes evoked aspects of the person's life, with the addition of a servant, possessions, dog, etc. On early reliefs, it is easy to identify the dead person; however, during the fourth century B.C., more and more family members were added to the scenes and often many names were inscribed, making it difficult to distinguish the deceased from the mourners. Like all ancient marble sculpture, funerary statues and grave stelai were brightly painted, and extensive remains of red, black, blue, and green pigment can still be seen. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, \^/]

“Many of the finest Attic grave monuments stood in a cemetery located in the outer Kerameikos, an area on the northwest edge of Athens just outside the gates of the ancient city wall. The cemetery was in use for centuries—monumental Geometric kraters marked grave mounds of the eighth century B.C., and excavations have uncovered a clear layout of tombs from the Classical period, as well. At the end of the fifth century B.C., Athenian families began to bury their dead in simple stone sarcophagi placed in the ground within grave precincts arranged in man-made terraces buttressed by a high retaining wall that faced the cemetery road. Marble monuments belonging to various members of a family were placed along the edge of the terrace rather than over the graves themselves.” \^/

Tombs in Corinth

Hellenistic Greek tomb door

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” Book II: Corinth (A.D. 160): “When you have come from the Corinthian to the Sicyonian territory you see the tomb of Lycus the Messenian, whoever this Lycus may be; for I can discover no Messenian Lycus who practised the pentathlon1 or won a victory at Olympia. This tomb is a mound of earth, but the Sicyonians themselves usually bury their dead in a uniform manner. They cover the body in the ground, and over it they build a basement of stone upon which they set pillars. Above these they put something very like the pediment of a temple. They add no inscription, except that they give the dead man's name without that of his father and bid him farewell. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

After the tomb of Lycus, but on the other side of the Asopus, there is on the right the Olympium, and a little farther on, to the left of the road, the grave of Eupolis, 1 the Athenian comic poet. Farther on, if you turn in the direction of the city, you see the tomb of Xenodice, who died in childbirth. It has not been made after the native fashion, but so as to harmonize best with the painting, which is very well worth seeing. Farther on from here is the grave of the Sicyonians who were killed at Pellene, at Dyme of the Achaeans, in Megalopolis and at Sellasia.1 Their story I will relate more fully presently. By the gate they have a spring in a cave, the water of which does not rise out of the earth, but flows down from the roof of the cave. For this reason it is called the Dripping Spring. On the modern citadel is a sanctuary of Fortune of the Height, and after it one of the Dioscuri. Their images and that of Fortune are of wood.

“On the stage of the theater built under the citadel is a statue of a man with a shield, who they say is Aratus, the son of Cleinias. After the theater is a temple of Dionysus. The god is of gold and ivory, and by his side are Bacchanals of white marble. These women they say are sacred to Dionysus and maddened by his inspiration. The Sicyonians have also some images which are kept secret. These one night in each year they carry to the temple of Dionysus from what they call the Cosmeterium (Tiring-room), and they do so with lighted torches and native hymns.”

Tomb of Philip II, Alexander the Great’s Father

In November 1977, Dr. Manolis Andronicos, an archaeologist at the University of Thessalonika unearthed a tomb under a mound in Vergina (40 kilometers west of Thessalonika, Greece) that is believe belonged to Philip II or Philip III. [Source: Manolis Andronicos, National Geographic, July 1978]

facade of Phillip II's tomb

No inscription or definitive proof was found that linked the tomb to Philip II. Evidence that kinked the tomb to him included the discovery in the tomb of an ivory head thought to be a likeness of Philip and a diadem associated with Macedonian royalty, different size leg armor (possibly an accommodation to Philip II's bad leg), the high value of the objects and the dating of the objects to the time of Philip II reign. Evidence that refutes the claim are tooth remains usually associated with a man in his 30s (Philip II was 46 when he died).

The tomb was very deep (23 feet under the ground), presumably to foil grave robbers. It was a barrel- vaulted structure with extraordinary Greek wall paintings with images of Pluto, god of the Underworld , abducting Persephone and a hunting scene with five horsemen with dogs and three hunters with spears pursuing wild boar and lions. These images unfortunately faded after they were exposed to sunlight and air.

Among the he objects found in the tomb were a marble sarcophagus, a large golden casket, a gold larnax (small casket) with a Macedonian star that contained cremated remains, a royal wreath of golden acorns and oak leaves, a gold-and-silver diadem, a golden quiver, purple fabric thread with gold, a perforated bronze lantern, weapons, silver vessels, bronze vessels, bronze armor, an iron helmet, a sword, scepter, sandals, a shield," spear points, javelins, golden lion heads, and sculpture, possibly of Alexander the Great.

The Vergina tomb was actually comprised of two tombs. Tomb I, which held human remains but had been looted in antiquity; and Tomb II, which was filled with treasure and armor, as well as the burnt bones of a man and a woman. Tomb II was identified as the final resting place of Philip II. But that identification is hotly contested. Some archaeologists believe that the bones actually belong to Philip III Arrhidaeus, Alexander's half-brother and a short-lived figurehead king. Philip II, they say, may actually rest in the looted Tomb I. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, July 20, 2015 ]

About 450 tombs dating to the 6th century B.C. have been found at a site called Archontiko in the Macedonian part of northern Greece. Archaeologists Pavlos and Anastasia Chrysostomou, of the Greek Ministry of Culture, say they have found scores of warriors buried with armor, swords, shields adorned with gold and silver as well as noble women with gold, silver amber and faience. These give clues to the rich warrior culture was thriving two centuries before Alexander's birth.

Tomb in Amphipolis

The Tomb in Amphipolis (also known as the Amphipolis Tomb) is an ancient Macedonian tomb discovered inside the Kasta mound near Amphipolis, Central Macedonia, in northern Greece in 2012 and first entered in August 2014. Some have said it belong to Roxana, the wife of Alexander the Great, or perhaps his son or mother or even Alexander the Great himself. [Source:]

painting of Hades and Persephone in Phillip II's tomb

According to “The Tumulus Tomb of Amphipolis lies on the hill of Kasta inside a 500-meter long surrounding wall of marble and limestone. The Marble wall is almost a perfect circle 3 meters high with a cornice of marble from the Aegean Island of Thassos. This great Tomb and the surrounding wall with its special base and unique design is likely the work of the Architect Deinokratis, who lived at the time of Alexander the Great. Deinokratis and was Alexander's chosen Architect and also a very important person in the time of Alexander.

“The Entry of the Tomb is 13 steps down from the surrounding Wall. The Entry Arch contains two headless/wingless Sphinxes, amazing works of classic art. In front of the Arch and Sphinx Portal there is a Limestone wall protecting and concealing the entire entry of this vast tomb. The design of the Entry and surrounding wall are unique to the ancient Greece world.

“Originally on the top of the Tomb there was a great Stone Lion, the Lion of Amphipolis. The Lion it's self is 5.3 meters high and has a stone base that makes a total [with Lion] height of 15.84 meters. The sculpture who carved the two entry Sphinxes is the [same?] person that sculpted the colossal Lion. We usually associate a Lion with a battle, like the battle of Chaeronea or with for some great General. Since there was no battle around the time the Tomb was built, the archaeologists suggest that the person inside the Tomb could also be some great General from Alexander's time.

“The fact that the Tomb is still sealed is very important because it means that it may contain items and information of great historical value and that they are still in place. This vast Tomb, the Lion and the two Sphinxes represent amazing beauty from the ancient world and may be the guardians of the contents to one of greatest Archaeology excavations of our time.”

Five different persons were found: 1) a 60-year-old woman, 2) a 35-year-old man, a 45-year-old man, an infant and a cremated man or women. A great brouhaha was made about the tomb around the time it was discovered in 2012 and opened in 2014 but since the bodies were analyzed information on the tomb has dried up and claims that it was linked to the family of Alexander the Great have largely been discredited.

Ancient Mass Graves Found Near Athens

In 2016, archaeologists announced that had discovered two mass graves near Athens containing the skeletons of 80 men who may have been followers of ancient would-be tyrant Cylon of Athens. Regional archaeological services director Stella Chryssoulaki reported the findings and theory at a meeting of the Central Archaeological Council, the custodians of Greece's ancient heritage. The remains were found in the Falyron Delta necropolis - a large ancient cemetery unearthed during the construction of a national opera house and library between downtown Athens and the port of Piraeus. The cemetery dates from between the 8th and 5th century B.C. , “a period of great unrest for Athenian society, a period where aristocrats, nobles, are battling with each other for power," Chryssoulaki told Reuters.

from the mass grave near Athens

AFP reported: “The skeletons were found lined up, some on their backs and others on their stomachs. A total of 36 had their hands bound with iron. Two small vases discovered amongst the skeletons have allowed archaeologists to date the graves from between 675 and 650 B.C. "a period of great political turmoil in the region", the ministry said.Archaeologists found the teeth of the men to be in good condition, indicating they were young and healthy. This boosts the theory that they could have been followers of Cylon, a nobleman whose failed coup in the 7th century B.C. is detailed in the accounts of ancient historians Herodotus and Thucydides. [Source: AFP, April 15, 2016 \=]

“Cylon, a former Olympic champion, sought to rule Athens as a tyrant. But Athenians opposed the coup attempt and he and his supporters were forced to seek refuge in the Acropolis, the citadel that is today the Greek capital's biggest tourist attraction. The conspirators eventually surrendered after winning guarantees that their lives would be spared. But Megacles, of the powerful Alcmaeonid clan, had the men massacred — an act condemned as sacrilegious by the city authorities. Historians say this dramatic chapter in the story of ancient Athens showed the aristocracy's resistance to the political transformation that would eventually herald in 2,500 years of Athenian democracy.” \=\

On the skeletons, Deborah Kyvrikosaios of Reuters wrote: some lie in a long neat row in the dug-out sandy ground, others are piled on top of each other, arms and legs twisted with their jaws hanging open. “They have been executed, all in the same manner. But they have been buried with respect," Chryssoulaki said. “They are all tied at the hands with handcuffs and most of them are very very young and in a very good state of health when they were executed."

The experts hope DNA testing and research by anthropologists will uncover exactly how the rows of people died. Whatever happened was violent - most had their arms bound above their heads, the wrists tied together. But the orderly way they have been buried suggest these were more than slaves or common criminals. [Source: Deborah Kyvrikosaios, Reuters, August 1, 2016 ~~]

“More than 1,500 bodies lie in the whole cemetery, some infants laid to rest in ceramic pots, other adults burned on funeral pyres or buried in stone coffins. One casket is made from a wooden boat. Unlike Athens' renowned ancient Kerameikos cemetery, the last resting place of many prominent ancient Greeks, these appear to be the inhabitants of regular neighborhoods.” ~~

Evidence of Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greek?

human sacrifice of Polyxena?

Three-thousand-year-old bones of a teenager found in 2016 on Mount Lykaion — a mountain where animal offerings to Zeus were made, in Arcadia in the Peloponnese area of Greece — appear to indicate that human sacrifice was practiced there in the time of the Mycenaeans but some scholars say some caution is in line on how the discovery should be interpreted. The upper part of the teenager’s skull was missing, while the body was laid among two lines of stones on an east-west axis, with stone slabs covering the pelvis. [Source:Mazin Sidahmed and agencies, The Guardian, August 10, 2016 ^^^]

The bones were found in the heart of the 30-meter (100-foot) broad ash altar, next to a man-made stone platform. Mount Lykaion was once worshipped as the birthplace of Zeus. Several ancient literary sources mention rumors that human sacrifice took place at the altar. The skeleton of the teenager amid a mound of ashes built up over a millennium from sacrificed animals. According to legend, a boy was sacrificed with the animals and all the meat was cooked and eaten together. Whoever ate the human part would become a wolf for nine years. [Source: Nicholas Paphitis, Associated Press Wed, August 10, 2016]

Mazin Sidahmed wrote in The Guardian: “Mount Lykaion was associated with human sacrifice by many ancient writers, including Plato, and while it may be too early to speculate on how the teenager died, the location adds a strong connection. “It nearly seems to good to be true,” said Dr Jan N Bremmer, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and an editor of The Strange World of Human Sacrifice. Bremmer said that until now, most studies of human sacrifice in ancient Greece had concluded that it was probably fiction. While the ancient Israelites, Romans and Egyptians engaged in human sacrifice for religious purposes, 20th-century archaeologists had thought that the practice was not common among the Greeks. Bremmer remained somewhat skeptical about the finding and questioned whether the location influenced the interpretation. ^^^

funeral relief

“David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona, who participated in the dig on Mount Lykaion said classical writers linked the remote peak with human sacrifice. According to legend, a young boy would be sacrificed with animals, before the human and animal meat was cooked and eaten. “Several ancient literary sources mention rumours that human sacrifice took place at the altar [of Zeus, located on the mountain’s southern peak] but up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site,” said Romano. “Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar ... so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual,” he said. “It’s not a cemetery.” ^^^

“He noted that the fact that the upper part of the skull was missing, while the body was laid among two lines of stones on an east-west axis, with stone slabs covering the pelvis was also interesting. Bremmer said scholars tend to be fascinated by the prospect of human sacrifice in ancient Greece because it seems like a contradiction. “On the one hand there’s this picture of Greece as the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of democracy, of philosophy, of rational thinking – but on the other hand we have these cruel cruel myths,” he said. ^^^

“The mountaintop in the Peloponnese region is the earliest known site where Zeus was worshipped and even without the possible human sacrifice element it was a place of slaughter. From at least the 16th century BC until around 300 B.C., tens of thousands of animals were killed there in the god’s honour. Human presence at the site goes back more than 5,000 years. There is no sign yet that the cult is as old as that but it is unclear why people should otherwise choose to settle on the barren, exposed summit. Pottery found with the human remains dates them to the 11th century BC, right at the end of the Mycenaean era, whose heroes were immortalised in Greek myth and Homer’s epics, and several of whose palaces have been excavated. So far, only about 7 percent of the altar on Lykaion has been excavated. “We have a number of years of future excavation to go,” Romano said. “We don’t know if we are going to find more human burials or not.” ^^^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except mass grave from Archaeology magazine

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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