Pausimache’s Stele: Beauty & Tragedy

Death is decreed by fate for all those who live;

Pausimache, you left piteous mourning to your parents,

both to your mother Phainippe and to your father Pausanias,

and a monument of your arête for the passers-by to see,

and of your sophrosyne.

(Translated epitaph text: Tsagalis, 156)


In this portion of the exhibit, we will explore the representation of women in Ancient Greek funerary art. In Ancient Greece, women were mostly portrayed in art, even if subtly, as symbols of caregiving and fertility. However, the particular stele of Pausimache, dated to early 4th century BC, depicts the deceased looking into a mirror. The scene is important because it speaks to Pausimache’s beauty and virtue, and the tragedy of her untimely death. However, her beauty being highlighted on the stele is significant in light of the deceitful way the Greeks viewed the feminine beauty of the sphinx. Furthermore, the stele exemplifies the way in which funerary art was used to idealize the deceased while supporting and reinforcing the deceased’s success in embodying the women’s role in the social structures of the time.

For the Ancient Greeks, it was true that “gravestones, however mean, are indicative of wealth and pretention” (Osbourne, 130). Though by no means exact, grave markers can be used to roughly discern wealth and status of the Ancient Greeks they belonged to. Pausimache, a young girl who met death early on, is memorialized by her stele and its epitaph, shown and translated above, standing 1.39 meters high and reaching almost half a meter in width. The carving itself shows a level of artistic and technical expertise in its smooth surfaces and detailed representations of the hair, clothes and facial features. Furthermore, the depiction of the body neither in profile nor facing straight forward points toward a degree of artistic competence required to render the body accurately in its pose, which could have been expensive to enlist in creating this fairly sizeable stele. Though the monument’s most obvious purpose is to honor Pausimache herself, its alternate purpose is to project the family’s wealth and social standing by essentially showing off their ability to finance this luxury monument. Here, as in many other cases, the grave stele of an individual actually reflects the status and “well-being of the social group as a whole,” and is not created only to memorialize the dead (Pearson, 23).  Through her death, Pausimache’s grave stele and inscription provide many more clues about the dynamics of Ancient Greek women’s social lives and ideal social personas, because it was through stelae that one gained the ability to project a model image of the deceased and her family to all who view it.

The inscription found on the bottom of the stele (and translated above) gives us a window into social lives and personas of Greek women. In Ancient Greece, there were a set of important rites of passage from one “social state” to another for women and girls, including (but not limited to) marriage and childbirth (Pearson, 22).  As in the case of Pausimache, when death came before these rites were completed, a daughter’s life was defined by her father’s family, in the absence of a husband or children of her own. The stele mentions her parents as an effort to contextualize her otherwise anonymous female life. Without providing a family member or husband’s name, a contemporary viewer may have had no conception of who Pausimache was. The monument is “a vehicle for securing the deceased’s memory in the future” (Tsagalis, 155), but as a female, that memory can only be secured through familial connection. Women, unlike men, were rarely defined by deeds done in life once dead.

In the epitaph’s Greek original, which is addressed to Pausimache herself, the phrase “to your” followed by a name or group in the dative case is repeated. This acts as the “syntactical scaffolding upon which the entire epitaph is based” (Tsagalis, 156). Using this “scaffolding,” the epitaph seems to bequeath certain responsibilities upon family and then to all those who view Pausimache’s stele—for her parents, the epitaph states that she has left “piteous mourning” of the tragedy of youthful death (lines 1-3). And in the fourth and fifth lines, Pausimache has left a memorial of her virtue, and the responsibility to maintain this memory of the lost maiden, to all passers-by. As a whole, the epitaph’s syntax describes first how Pausimache brought mourning to her parents in death, which caused the creation of her stele as a memorial and tribute. The creation of the stele then allowed to public to perpetuate the memory of Pausimache’s virtue, while simultaneously immortalizing her family’s wealth and elite social status through the construction of the monument. The family here uses their daughter’s death to immortalize their social status, wealth and piety in the eyes of the public.

Though used to uphold the family’s reputation, “the funerary stele and the epitaph are [also] effectively combined in order to ‘record’ the dead woman’s everlasting virtue” (Tsagalis, 157), the virtues mentioned in the epitaph, arete and sophrosyne, which are illuminating when examined with the accompanying image of the deceased. These two virtues, loosely translated to “industriousness” and “common sense or moderation” respectively, are virtues which would “stand her in good stead as a wife” in Ancient Greek society (Burton, 28). Furthermore, because young women holding mirrors were a popular motif on vases painted to depict the preparations for marriage, the mirror that Pausimache holds could symbolize the marriage that she was robbed of by death (Houby-Nielsen, 227). With these two assertions, we can see how the two portions of the monument, written and visual, were “effectively combined” to project a specific social persona—that of a good potential wife. In the construction of this stele, Pausimache’s family attempted to project the image of the ideal daughter, whose virtues and beauty would make her a desirable wife, had death not robbed her of the chance. This idea is typical for the time period, as women’s tombstones often served to “mark a woman’s place in her family, but also to depict her status in a broader social setting” (Burton, 28); this is similar to the goal of men’s tombstones, though men were less often tied to family members in death and almost always defined by a social persona. Pausimache’s stele was constructed with Ancient Greek ideals for women’s behavior in mind, the goal being to show “how the woman who conforms to these models of behavior fulfills a role in underpinning the social structures of the polis” (Burton, 28). The virtues illustrated and inscribed on Pausimache’s stele show her honorable ability to fulfill her place in society—the good wife—had she been given the chance, and reflect positively on her family, as one who raised their daughter to be the epitome of the ideal woman.

Certain groups, particularly men and women who died young and left no legacy or family of their own, were more likely to be immortalized through monuments like this one because their memory, without legacy, was more at risk of disintegrating (Burton, 29). Pausimache’s stele was made in order to preserve her memory permanently, and was created with the goal of projecting a purely positive image of both herself and her family, according to the most prominent contemporary female value—marriage. The positive perception of Pausimache presented to the public by her grave stele—a wealthy, beautiful and virtuous, unmarried yet desirable woman, who died tragically before marriage could reach her—reflects well on her family, as they were responsible for producing such a seemingly idyllic daughter. However, even in death, Pausimache is not defined by her own passions or interests, as men often were on their grave stelae. Instead, she is perpetually portrayed as the model daughter, contextualized by her elite upbringing and family, who embodies the tragic figure of a youthful woman unable to reach the threshold and life purpose of marriage before death snatched her from the chance. Even after death, her life only has meaning or value when connected to her father’s family or her eligibility for marriage. Pausimache’s stele is more than a grave marker—it shows modern examiners how she was forced into a mold, the mold of anonymity, where she grew, still nameless, to the Model Woman, where she remains forever immortalized through her death.

Clara Neilson


Tsagalis, Christos. “Public Display, Private Focus: Redefining Social Virtues,” 155-157. Inscribing Sorrow: Fourth-Century Attic Funerary Epigrams. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2008.

Parker, Pearson Michael. “From Now to Then: Ethnoarchaeology and Analogy,” 21-39. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999.

Oliver, G. J. “Athenian Funerary Monuments: Style, Grandeur and Cost,” 59-80. The Epigraphy of Death: Studies in the History and Society of Greece and Rome. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

Burton, Diana. “Public Memorials, Private Virtues: Women on Classical Athenian Grave Monuments.” Mortality, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2003): 20-35.

Houby-Nielsen, S. “Grave Gifts, Women and Conventional Values in Hellenistic Athens,” 220-262. Conventional Values of the Hellenistic Greeks. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1997.

Osborne, Robin. Demos: The Discovery of Classical Attika. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.