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by Archaeology Newsroom

Athens, the historian and burial

Certain burials are simply mentioned by the ancient historian because they are unique, significant facts, therefore they do not need further interpretation or literary elaboration. The burial of the victorious Greek warriors killed in the battle of Plateae, as mentioned by Herodotus furnishes a good example. The various Greek city-states express their political and consequently their cosmotheoretical status through the burial customs they practice. Sparta exhibits a hierarchical concept, Tegea, Athens and various other cities proclaim the idea of equality before death, while those Greeks who collaborated with the invaders hid their absence from battle in empty tombs that, of course, deceived no one. What, however, can be the purpose of the historian who describes in detail all the phases of a ritual, common and identical in every case? Thucydides, a most solid historian, mentioned only rituals of historic significance.One can possibly interpret Thucydides’ text by thinking of the epos, since epic values and mainly the cleos i.e. glory that is kept alive as long as it is narrated, are relevant to historic writing. In the Iliad, an entire rhapsody is dedicated to Patroclus’ burial although further back the lamentation of Achilles deeply colours the narration. For Thucidides the description of the burial ritual is the means that, due to her heroes, and celebrated citizens, secures Athens’ place in eternal memory. Therefore, Epitaphios, the speech given by Pericles, transforms the praise of the citizens into a hymn to the city. The description of a burial ritual given within the frame of a historic narration places the time of the historic facts into a timeless present. As a result, Epitaphios becomes the model for any reference to Athens, for any consideration of the city. However, the funeral oration Pericles invents for the sake of posterity, presents Athens as an ideal city and stands as a model in itself. If one had to draw only from Thucidides, one would have to altogether ignore funeral games, an indispensable element of funeral and festive rituals that took place annually in remembrance of citizens who lost their lives fighting for Athens. In the Thucididian text the funeral games, where living citizens participate in a noble competition for real values have been purposely omitted, since the historian had a unique goal, to prove that the person of the citizen reaches its highest moment in the figure of the Athenian dead thus, the city realizes itself in a state of glory.