BMCR 2024.07.14

Grief made marble: funerary sculpture in classical Athens

, Grief made marble: funerary sculpture in classical Athens. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2023. Pp. 240. ISBN 9780300269369.



The study of Attic marble funerary stelai, lekythoi, and loutrophoroi goes back to the 19th century, starting with great monuments of scholarship such as Alexander Conze’s Die attischen Grabreliefs, published in four volumes between 1893 and 1922 (the last two completed by several colleagues after Conze’s death in 1914). In more recent years, Christoph W. Clairmont published an updated corpus, Classical Attic Tombstones, in six volumes (1993). But it is an earlier work of Clairmont’s, Gravestone and Epigram (1970) that is frequently cited here, since Estrin, like Clairmont, focuses primarily on those stelai that have inscribed texts. He does this because his purpose is to decode the various messages that the carved scenes convey, how they express the grief of the book’s title and communicate their grief from the family of the deceased to the passersby in the Kerameikos or another Attic cemetery.

Classic studies in the field include Han Diepolder’s Die attischen Grabreliefs des 5. und 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (1931) and K. Friis Johansen’s The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period (1951). Of books in more recent years, notable is Johannes Bergemann’s Demos und Thanatos. Untersuchungen zur Wertsystem der Polis im Spiegel der attischen Grabreliefs des 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. und zur Funktion der gleichzeitigen Grabbauten (1997). Aside from its more concise and more poetic title, Estrin’s book differs in that it focusses on private grief more than the public meaning and function of the monuments.

In fact, I am not aware of any book comparable in scope to this one, a remarkable achievement given the long history of the scholarship. The author’s strategy unfolds only gradually as successive chapters and sections analyze each individual element of the stelai—the strigil of a young athlete, the hand-clasp (dexiosis) of two individuals, enslaved attendants and children, boxes, sirens, naming inscriptions and epigrams, and many more—until a full picture emerges of how Estrin proposes to read image and text together.

For Estrin, the purpose of a funerary monument is “to constitute the beholder as a subject who feels pity” (p. 7). For him, pity (οἴκτος or ἔλεος) is the most important emotion associated with the grave monument in Classical Athens, as well as “the signature emotion of Attic tragedy.” Throughout Estrin shows his philological expertise in the frequent recourse to tragedy and in his sensitive translations of the grave epigrams. As he notes, the epigrams are usually treated as only incidentally connected to the sculpture (with few notable exceptions). But the 70 or so extant epigrams are in fact the largest corpus of inscribed poetry in the Greek world and the only inscribed poetry correlated with extant works of art. By doing what has too often not been done—reading the epigram as integral to the carved scene—Estrin is able to deepen our understanding of many well-known and not-so-well-known monuments.

To take one example, the stele of Mnesagora and her baby brother Nikochares (Fig. 39) is surmounted by a long, neatly carved epigram without which we would not know the relationship of the two (we might have thought mother and son) or that their parents put up the stele. Furthermore, Estrin elucidates the significance of the epigram’s first word, μνῆμα (‘remembrance’ in his translation, also ‘monument’ in other contexts) and of τόδε κεῖται at the end of the line, ‘lies here’—a phrase that usually refers to the deceased’s body but here, he suggests, seems to go with ‘this remembrance,’ the image before us. The next line says, “they [dual] are not present to display” (αὐτὼ δὲ ὀυ πάρα δεῖξαι) where δεῖξαι could refer to the children who cannot be seen, because fate has carried them off to Hades (in the next line), or to their parents, or to us, the viewers. At this point, Estrin brings in an unusual white-ground lekythos (Figs. 41–42) with a youth and a woman visiting a stepped tomb on top of which a seated woman holds out a cluster of grapes to a toddler. He grasps at them in the same way Nikochares reaches for the bird that his sister Mnesagora holds in her left hand. By weaving together stele, epigram, and vase, Estrin enriches our understanding of all three and of the role of grief (πένθος in line 3) in linking the monument, the parents who set it up, the visitors to the tomb, and the casual passerby.

Another stele offers a very different kind of relationship between stele and epigram. The stele of Anthippe (Fig. 72) shows the deceased seated between an unidentified man who touches her shoulder from behind and a woman before her who is joined in dexiosis. The epigram says Anthippe had praise above all women while alive, and she has it still: two forms of the verb ἔχω (‘have, hold’). Estrin observes that ἔσχες (‘you had it’) is written below the man at left, as if he is addressing Anthippe, while ἔχεις (‘you have it’) is positioned right below the handshake. This kind of insight is rare in discussions of grave stelai, but nothing escapes Estrin’s eagle eye.

Estrin’s discussions of babies and small children on the stelai are notable in observing that they never seem able to connect with the adults. Thus, on a marble lekythos in New York (Fig. 84), while a man and woman are joined in dexiosis, a little girl reaches out to the bird in the hand of a seated woman but falls short. Similarly, on a stele in Athens (Fig. 87), a baby boy strains toward his mother, extending the wrong (left) hand, and she does not respond. The epigram praises the mother, Phylonoe, as wise, intelligent, and possessing all aretê, while the infant, as we learn in Aristotle, does not yet possess these qualities and therefore makes a perceptual error in extending the wrong hand. In a final move, Estrin suggests that the child enacts the kind of perceptual error that we, the viewers, also risk as we stand before the object.

Like children, enslaved persons have no agency, and yet they are extremely prevalent on Attic grave stelai. But unlike children, who are readily identifiable, enslaved persons are not, whether by stature—a person of smaller stature could be either a slave or a younger sibling—or by gesture or dress, and the boundary between slave and metic is “porous” (p. 127). Noting that enslaved figures are the one element of grave stelai that have never been given a thorough study, he highlights the problems of identification by adducing a number of examples. Mostly the figures identified as slaves are women attendants on other women (Figs. 95–96, 97, 98, 105, 107, 108, 111, 112), but some are male. Estrin contests the identification of a somewhat unusual looking boy on a stele in Athens (Figs. 99–101) as “barbarian,” “negroid,” “dwarf,” or “non-ideal,” as has been claimed. Here, as elsewhere in the book, the argument benefits from the author’s own detailed photos, which are almost certainly not available elsewhere and are the next best thing to standing before the monument. In this case, they suggest that the boy is not really so different from the young, idealized athlete he serves.

Estrin’s last chapter is on the sirens that appear so often on grave stelai, usually in a gable atop the carved scene. I admit I was at first disappointed to see the large siren in Boston on the dust jacket, as I find many of the images in the book more compelling, such as the beautiful stele of Ampharete in the Kerameikos that is the frontispiece. But after reading Estrin’s fascinating analysis of sirens, starting with the observation that they express the grief that the human figures almost never do, I understand why sirens are emblematic of his whole enterprise. (An exception is the stele in Piraeus, Fig. 134, with two mourners on their knees on either side of a siren.) He shows how often the siren echoes the form of an individual below. Since the sirens are, of course, musicians, Estrin, following Naomi Weiss, discusses how the lament for the dead was conceptualized as the natural origin of musical performance.

One of the finest sirens (Fig. 146) was found in the precinct of the celebrated stele of Dexileos in the Kerameikos, and Estrin plausibly restores a pair of sirens on separate pillars flanking the stele. Thus, he suggests, the narrative of victory in battle on the stele unfolds through the music and poetry of the sirens.

There are many more examples that could be cited in this rich and always illuminating book. Estrin has been fortunate in his publisher (Yale), which, to this reviewer, produces the finest quality books in our field. Almost all the images are in color, many full-page, on thick, creamy paper. The book is a sensual pleasure to handle. A blurb on the jacket calls the book “beautifully written,” and it is. I noted only a few infelicities, e.g. on p. 8, the author twice uses the verb ‘exacerbate’ to mean what I would have thought should be a word like ‘enhance’ or ‘heighten.’ On p. 89 is the jarring phrase “published accounts disagree as to which figure is whom.”

Grief Made Marble is a remarkable accomplishment, a book on a familiar subject that is consistently original and a pleasure to read. It has the potential to reorient the study of Attic funerary monuments for a new generation of readers and viewers.