The warrior’s death in Ancient Greece was a well-respected one. The truly honorable died young and violently on the front lines of the phalanx for their polis. Such magnificent deaths deserved respect and they were given it duly. This respect manifested itself in many ways from burial rites, public funerals, and the Homeric texts, which were all important for Greek warrior culture. These texts were in many ways a compass of values for the Greek warrior. It showed him how he was supposed to die and how to meet that death as honorably as possible. It also depicted how his body was to be dealt with afterwards and projected the image of a “Hero’s Death.” This was a very important factor in making the warriors death in Ancient Greece such an idealized event.
Warriors Death in the eyes of the Polis
Death in battle was special. Aside from Sparta not many professional armies existed and warriors also doubled as civilians. “In many Greek cities in the classical period, the glory of the dead and the obligations of the state to its war victims were an important dimension of civic life.” (Loraux 18) Athens in particular was an example of a city that took the burial of its warriors very seriously. The first to fall in battle were celebrated for three days in a massive and extravagant feast at the cities public expense. After the feast a long procession to the burial sight through the city would begin followed by eulogies for each man. This shows the cities dedication to the fallen and also their acknowledgement to the role they played in the continuation of the cities existence. (Loraux 17) It is worth mentioning again that this death in the field of battle was held above all others. When the sacrifice was made the entire population took notice.
Homer’s great epic the Iliad details the deaths and burials of two great hero’s Patroclus and Hector. Within the text Homer describes their burial rites in great detail and creates the archetype for the kind of funeral befitting of a hero. This text creates the opportunity to see what should be done and what should not be done to prepare the body for the afterlife. Homer breaks the funerals down into clear parts mourning, preparation of the body and pyre, and then the final rites and burning of the body. At this juncture in the story Hectors body is being held in the enemy camp. Achilles is holding his body and refusing to let his family bury him in proper timing. In these moments Homer uses the super natural to emphasize important parts of the burial. It is imperative that the body be buried as quickly as possible so that the soul can move on into the afterlife. To show this Patroclus ghost visits Achilles and says “You’re asleep and have forgotten me, Achilles. You never neglected me when I was alive, But now when I am dead! Bury me quickly so I may pass through Hades’ gates.”(Homer 442) Another aspect that Homer highlights in a proper warriors death is the need for the body to stay intact. When Achilles has Hector’s body he actively leaves it in nature so that it will decay and his journey to the underworld will be disturbed. In one example he offers Hector’s body to the dogs “Thus went his threat, but no dogs would eat Hector. Aphrodite kept the dogs from his corpse by day and by night, she anointed him with ambrosial oil of rose, so that when Achilles dragged his body it would not be torn. And Phoebus Apollo drew a dark blue cloud from the sky to the plain, covering the spot where the body lay, so that the sun’s heat would not shrivel the flesh on his bones”(Homer P.446) Homer Idealizes these heroes within his text even after their death. They are protected by gods and treated with reverence and respect by those honoring their deaths.
What does this say about Greek Society?
One of the ways we can look at this idealization of the dead through Homer’s Iliad is through the idea of functionalism. “Functionalism emphasizes the pre-eminence of the social whole over its individual parts, the human subjects.” (Pearson P.22) Looking at the Homer’s Iliad this way focuses more on its effect on Greek society. Here we see that the Iliad acts as a guidebook for societies treatment of death. The story enforces the ideas behind proper burials and deaths specifically for warriors. The Iliad shows the emphasis that Greek society placed on war. They felt that the sacrifice given through the death of a warrior was massive especially, and preferably, when it was given willingly and quickly on the front lines of battle. Another theory that looks at these Homeric texts through the lens is Binford’s theory. In this theory Binford says that your class and role in society can be seen in your burial. This is completely supported in the Iliad where Hector and Patroclus are prepared and buried in a very specific way due to their role as a warrior and their place within the society of warriors themselves.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. NY: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.
Loraux, Nicole. The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. Print.
Pearson, Michael Parker. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Texas A&M University Press, 1999. 22. Print.
Wees, Hans V. Status Warriors. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1992. Print.