BMCR 2020.01.46

Funerary Epigrams of Ancient Greece: Reflections on Literature, Society and Religion

Marta González González, Funerary Epigrams of Ancient Greece: Reflections on Literature, Society and Religion. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. 213. ISBN 9781350062429 £85.00.


The study of inscribed epigrams in Ancient Greece has experienced an impressive impetus during the last years. Apart from epigraphic work, which is to be expected in such a field, interpretive approaches are now opening new vistas to the study of one of the most multidisciplinary genres of ancient Greek literature.

González’s book falls within this category of synthetic monographs, with one important difference: it is not aimed at the clarification or exploration of a specific aspect of funerary epigrams but offers a general presentation of metrical epitaphs, which it contextualizes literarily, socially, and religiously. This is the book’s principal goal, which it clearly accomplishes.

Chapter 1 explores the evolution of the funerary monument on which the epitaphs were inscribed. After offering a brief survey of funerary practice in the archaic period, González notes the growing attention to and importance of ostentation in Athenian sepulchral monuments. She rightly emphasizes three aspects of prime importance with respect to the function of funerary space: gender (neck-handled amphorae for men, belly-handled amphorae for women), age and social class ( korai and kouroi, significant variation among the stelae), and profession (athletes, women with spinning wheel, lyre player etc.). Ostentation presupposes recognition, and recognition presupposes visibility when material culture is involved. The transition from the non-iconic stone over the tomb to an iconic funerary element in the time of the aristocratic polis is paired with a preference for a discernible and easily observable positioning of the funerary monument along the road. Such a picture is at odds with Solonian sumptuary legislation, which was designed to regulate extravagant expenditures or habits especially on moral or religious grounds. González rightly notes that Solonian legislation had no effect with respect to the size and expense of Athenian funerary monuments during this period.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the literary aspects of funerary epigrams, both with respect to their private form as opposed to the epitaphios logos, and with respect to their public form as used in the demosion sema. González takes us on a tour of the genre, using both Simonides and his famous compositions related to the fallen in the Persian Wars and Pindar’s threnoi as a backdrop against which one may interpret and evaluate the funerary epigram: an autonomous, condensed, eye-catching composition forming part of a larger whole (the statue or stele), distant from the moment of death and the funeral, aiming not to invite further lamentation but to provoke reflection on human life by all future passers-by, a text becoming a poem through its performance, a poem craving to be read.

In chapter 3 González examines some exceptional funerary monuments and epigrams, like those for Phrasikleia and Kroisos from Attica. Though most of the material contained is well-known from secondary literature, the author offers a concise and focused presentation of the importance for sepulchral epigrams of the themes of the unmarried ‘maiden’ and the brave ‘male youth’ dying in battle. The same evaluation applies to the other metrical epitaphs inscribed on stone for young nobles. González is particularly good in contextualizing these epitaphs and in interpreting them as parts of a nexus involving the memorial on which they are inscribed and the ideals and beliefs of the aristocratic world in the sixth century BC.

Chapter 4 explores what is perhaps the most marked feature of archaic and classical Greek epitaphs, the ἄωρος θάνατος ( mors immatura) of men and women who died in their prime. This is one of the most rewarding chapters of the book. I found particularly convincing (p. 57) the argument that the absence of the expression ὤλεσαν/ὠλέσατε ἥβην from Attic epitaphs for young women prior to the fourth century BC is due to the close association of ἥβη with ἀνδρεία, which resulted in the anchoring of the former to male youths who are thus singled out for both their youth and virility. The same applies to González’s discussion of the function of the mirror (pp. 58–65), which is depicted in various Attic stelae belonging to deceased women. She argues persuasively that the mirror has a two-fold value, since it indicates gender but also age and status. In particular, González makes the attractive suggestion that the way the mirror is depicted is directly relevant to the age and status of the deceased woman: if she is looking into the mirror, then she is an unmarried maiden, whereas if the woman presents the mirror straight on, then she is a married woman (as it is obvious by the presence of various family groups, sometimes involving children and husband).

In chapter 5 González studies the immortal remembrance of friends by analyzing the sepulchral epigram for Biote by her friend Euthylla and the metrical epitaph for Mnesitheus in Boeotia. In the case of Biote and Euthylla, González’s analysis rightly stresses that it is pointless and perhaps unimportant to use the modern categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality as interpretive keys for disclosing the complex semantic range of the constitutive elements of ancient φιλία: (φιλότης ‘affection’ and πίστις ‘loyalty or trust’). In the case of the Mnesitheus epitaph, the Problematik trns on the function of the rare term φιλημοσύνη. González supports Andreiomenou’s interpretation that this term designates mutual affection, against Dettori who had argued (on the basis of CEG 32, a father expressing his affection for his two dead sons) that φιλημοσύνη is an individual feeling. The discussion is interesting, though sometimes marred by inaccuracies (e.g. p. 88 n. 50, ‘Ι do not agree with the idea that in the funerary epigraphy it [i.e. ἀντί] must always mean “in place of” rather than “in return of (sic)”’’: The point is not that ἀντί never means ‘in return for’ in sepulchral epigrams, but only that it always — with one exception — means ‘in place of’ in fourth-century Attic funerary epitaphs.

Chapter 6 is devoted to the way married women are presented in funerary epigrams. Again, one can find some exemplary new observations (e.g. the influence of φίλη δὲ σὺν φιλέοντι for the bee-wife and her husband in Sim. fr. 7.86 on φιλοῦντα ἀντιφιλοῦσα for Μελίτη and Ὀνήσιμος in CEG 530), but most of those presented here have been made before by other scholars. The last section (‘Tribute to their masters’) is innovative, dealing with a rather neglected topic. I would certainly have liked to see more space devoted to it, where some important questions could have been asked: e.g. what does it mean for the wife of a deceased man to commission a funerary epitaph ( CEG 509), in which it is said that ‘his [the deceased’s] tribute is increased with the remembrance of his father Olympikhos’? The dialogue with or resonance of Pindaric poetry could have been exploited. Notice that both renderings of the phrase μνήμαισιν πατρὸς…αὔξετ᾽ ἔπαινος (see p. 108 and compare n. 66), which means either that ‘the dead father’s remembrance is reflected on the son’s praise’ or that ‘the remembrance of the son’s praise is reflected on his [dead?] father’, are associated with a belief expressed in Pindaric epinician poetry that ‘the son’s praise will be reflected on his dead father’, since the father of the laudandus will share or partake of his son’s praise when he hears the news of his son’s victory in the Underworld; e.g. Ol. 14.21–24). Let us not forget that Potamon’s father was Olympichos, a disciple of Pindar, and Potamon of Thebes may have won a Panhellenic victory (in the Pythia?). Along the same lines, González could have referred to Pi. Pyth. 12.6, in which the language (αὐτόν τέ νιν Ἑλλάδα νικάσαντα τέχναν) used for another auletes (Midas) is similar to that employed in this funerary epigram for Potamon (Ἑλλὰς μὲν πρωτεῖα τέχνης αὐλῶν ἀπένειμεν). After all, the aetiological myth referred to by Pindar concerns Athena’s invention of the aulos for imitating the Gorgons’ lament for Medusa’s beheading by Perseus.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the study of two common causes of death in antiquity, childbirth and sea-journey. González argues for a new comparison between them, i.e. as gender-marked polarity, childbirth pertaining to women, death at sea to men (almost exclusively). She thus offers a fresh look at this polarity, moving away from but not rejecting the well-known comparison of another gender-oriented pair, childbirth versus death in war. However, the evidence she gathers is meagre to support such a claim. Of the examples furnished only the last ( IG IX.2 638, p. 120) may (at best) contain a play (ἐγ γαστρὸς κυμοτόκοις ὀδύναις) between imagery pertaining to death in childbirth and death at sea (γαστήρ is also used for the hull of a ship; see Hesych. s.v. Σαμιακὸς τρόπος; notice the aural similarity between ὀδύναις and ὠδίναις ‘birth pangs’). Likewise, only the last epitaph referring to death at sea ( CEG 722) may (again at best) contain an imagery also employed in metrical epitaphs pertaining to childbirth (ἔλιπον φῶς).

In chapter 8 González discusses beliefs about the afterlife which are reflected in funerary epigrams: the body becoming earth, the wandering of the soul of a man who suffered an ἄδικος θάνατος until his death is avenged, the reward for piety. Particularly rewarding is the discussion of the expression Persephone’s chamber (Φερσεφόνης θάλαμος). González asks the question whether the reference to Persephone’s chamber may suggest a kind of hope associated with followers of people initiated in mystery cults. She thinks it does, mainly on the basis of the frequent mention of the queen of the Underworld in the lamellae aureae and partly of the use of ὄλβιος, which belongs to the standard diction of mystery cults, as well as the analogy between the expression ‘I have sunk beneath the breast of Lady, Chthonian Queen’ and ‘the earth has received the deceased in her bosom’, which are attested in the lamellae aureae and funerary epitaphs respectively.

I conclude with two types of criticism, the first pertaining to the way the arguments are developed, the second to typos and other infelicities. With respect to the former, sometimes the author’s thought process is interrupted by secondary considerations and/or asides, thus curtailing the thrust of her argument. For example, what is the purpose of the discussion (pp. 114–117) of the textual problems pertaining to Plut. Lyc. 27.2 (ἐπιγράψαι δὲ τοὔνομα θάψαντας οὐκ ἐξῆν τοῦ νεκροῦ, πλὴν ἀνδρὸς ἐν πολέμωι καὶ γυναικὸς τῶν ἱερῶν ἀποθανόντων) prescribing that in Sparta only the names of those fallen in battle and of the hierai could be inscribed on the grave, when ‘regardless of the reading adopted for Plutarch’s report’ (see Ziegler’s emendation λεχοῖ for ἱερῶν referring to women who died at childbirth) González argues that ‘special importance was given to death in childbirth’ (p. 117)?

As for technical errors, I append a short list that attracted my attention: p. 26: Calinus > Callinus; p. 33: ακοῦσαι > ἀκοῦσαι; p. 56 and 66: ὄλεσθαι > ὀλέσθαι; p. 38: the funerary epigram from Kos containing an explicit use of the expression ‘the bride of Hades’ is dated to the late 6 th century BC (as rightly noted in p. 44. n. 31), and not to the end of the of the 4 th century BC (as mistakenly written in p. 38); p. 47 ( bis), 70, and 118: πότε > ποτέ; p. 80: ἡδεία > ἡδεῖα; pp. 77 and 81 ἑταῖρα > ἑταίρα; p. 98: χρηείᾳ > χηρείᾳ; p. 100: ‘to the Persephone’s chamber’ > ‘to Persephone’s chamber’; p. 103: ‘the Hansen interpretation’ > ‘Hansen’s interpretation’; p. 108: Προνόμον v Πρόνομον; p. 121: κύμα > κῦμα; p.129: Μενώνος > Μένωνος.

All in all, this is a useful contribution to the study of funerary epigram in ancient Greece. The reader will not find many new interpretations, but he/she will be recompensed by the wide range of factors the author considers before suggesting an interpretation and the admirably balanced treatment of the material at hand. These are clearly the two main advantages of Gonzalez’s book, which will become standard reading for anyone interested in Greek funerary epigrams.