How ancient Greeks honoured heroes

ndividuals and families constantly reflected upon the achievements of their ancestors. How your father, your grandfather and members of earlier generations conducted themselves was meant to guide you in your actions.

What would someone from ancient Greece think about Remembrance Day? He or she would have no objections to it, but would see it as only one part of a wider process whereby public remembrance should be accompanied by private reflection as one thought specifically about one's family members who died.

An ancient Greek remembrance ceremony would probably be in the form of a religious ceremony: a procession culminating in a public gathering at a temple to the local patron god or goddess.

The two greatest wars fought in ancient Greece were the Persian Wars (490 and 480 to 479 BCE) and the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BCE). Both provide insights into how ancient Greeks publicly remembered their war dead.

In 480 BCE, the Spartan king Leonidas led a small force to prevent the Persians from entering Greece at the pass at Thermopylae. The Spartans held the Persians at bay for two days. Eventually the Persians broke through, killing Leonidas and his army. This is the story rather creatively told by the film 300.

The Spartans were a military culture par excellence and to perform honourably in battle was of critical importance. "Either with your shield or on it," so a famous Spartan saying went, indicating that to die in battle was a good thing. Spartan mothers said this to their departing sons.

For his sacrifice, Leonidas remains today the most well-known Spartan. He succeeded in buying Greece time to prepare for a formal battle with the Persians.

Leonidas and his men were remembered in a variety ways. In addition to the stories the Greeks spread about Leonidas' bravery, they built a monument to the Spartans, which contained an epitaph composed by the celebrated poet Simonides:

"Stranger, tell the Spartans that here

We lie, obedient to their commands."

The "command" was to win or die fighting. Retreat was never an option.

Thermopylae became the first battle site ancient travelers would visit, gazing upon the memorial and reading Simonides' words. A modern, more elaborate monument has since been built, with an impressive statue of Leonidas.

But such monuments were rare, as limited public funds were generally directed to temples and infrastructure. Oral tradition, and later on, written histories instead, played the dominant role in public remembrance.

In the generation after Thermopylae, Herodotus, the so-called father of history, wrote about the Persian Wars and read his text at public festivals, including sporting events. Leonidas became a figure of admiration throughout all of Greece and Sparta was henceforth seen as the defender of Greek freedom.

The Persian regent Xerxes is said to have ordered the desecration of Leonidas' corpse as a warning to the other Greeks. It did not work.

The Athenian historian Thucydides provides a different perspective when he records the Athenians' response to their first casualties in the Peloponnesian War. The deceased were displayed in public for everyone to pay their respects. Then the politician Pericles delivered the eulogy.

He spoke briefly about the deceased, praising them. The bulk of his speech -- it would have run several hours -- focused on why the men died. Pericles impressed upon his audience that they fought to defend democracy.

In the case of the Athenian wives, mothers and daughters mourning the deceased soldiers, they understood the importance of preserving democracy despite the fact they had no direct role to play in it, as they could neither vote nor hold elected office. They would instead pass down their memories to the next generation. Remembrance of the deceased would serve as a memorial equal to, and in the Athenians' opinion more important than, the monument to Leonidas and the Spartans.

The Athenians honoured their war dead in another way: The children of the deceased were given state financial support until they came of age. This was, in effect, the very first government-funded social program.

The written histories of Herodotus and Thucydides would have served as replacement for a formal regular ceremony of commemoration. Those ancient Greeks fortunate enough to be literate would instead devote themselves to very close study of ancient historians as a way of understanding who fought whom and why.

James T. Chlup is an assistant professor of ancient history in the Department of Classics at the University of Manitoba.

The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their field . It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

No comments:

Post a Comment