Classical Greek Grave Stelae

This exhibit highlights the ways in which Ancient Greeks chose to depict their deceased and their importance in the family and society by ways of a funerary stele. It is clear that the purpose of these monuments is to commemorate the deceased. However, by focusing on the functionalist and post-processual views to archeology, we can focus on the scenes depicted on the stelae to help convey the importance for the Greeks of depicting the dead for society to see, and also the view the Greeks had on death and the connection, or lack thereof, they had with the deceased post-burial.

It is clear that the aspect of burial in Ancient Greece was an incredibly important part of death. As seen in scenes from Homer’s Illiad in which Patroclus’ ghost begs his cousin, Achilles, to bury him so that he may pass through the gates of Hades. The burial of the body was key to preserving the dignity of the body and of the deceased. In conjunction with the elaborate rituals performed at the burial or cremation of the deceased, the erection of a funerary monument was important in remembering the deceased and portraying them in an idealized form for the public to see. While the costs of erecting a funerary monument are unclear, we can assume that it was less likely that the poorer citizens of ancient Greece were able to afford the erection of a grandiose burial stele for their deceased. Binford, a theorist focusing on functionalism believes in the idea that a person’s class determines his or her relationships in society and therefore the way in which and the grandeur in which they were buried.

Cemetery at Kerameikos

The biggest cemetery at Kerameikos is an example of this idea. The organization and placement of this cemetery is a representation of how the Athenian’s state involvement in the life and death of the individual. The imagery on these stelae is idealized and depicts the most glorious way to depict the dead as well as the Athenian state. Travelers on the road journeying to Athens would see the street lined with grave stele of Greek citizens in whom the glory of the state were personified. Somewhat similarly, in Ancient Egypt, the stelae were erected for pharaohs and officials of the pharaoh. They are found in the king’s pyramids or in the mastaba chapels for officials. While it is often an assumption that these stelae are a symbol of wealth and social status, we have to consider that if the costs of building these monuments were high, we can only learn about the lives of certain individuals rather than society as a whole. This is true for both societies.

The stele combined the Athenian state and it’s outstanding involvement in its citizens’ lives and the art and importance of the household in one art monument. They tie civic and domestic life and public and private spheres of society. This manifests itself in that the way in which people are portrayed on the stele is highly idealized. The do not represent a specific and individualized person further than being represented with their name inscribed and possibly being pictured with family. Men are pictured according to their ideal roles in society and with the definition of a true greek citizen; either young, athletic and/or heroic or older, bearded and holding a staff. This exhibit will show two examples of this. The first being the Eupheros preparing for competition and bearing the body of a young athlete, and second as an older male seated and surrounded by his family holding a staff. The fact that these stelae follow similar paths for different individuals show that these people are not being constructed as specific individuals but as ideal citizens of the democracy. Similarly in Egypt, we see a great importance placed on the aspects of the deceased’s life in conjunction with his role in the state and his connection with the pharaoh. However, stress was placed on the specifics of his role, the territories he was in charge of and the sorts of servants and labor he was associated with, most commonly with those of his territories.

Stele of Eupheros, Greek. ca. 430 B.C.

Games were held across Greece in honor of the gods. It was a big honor to be a victor of these games, not only for the victor himself, but also for his family and the town he was representing.  Athletics in ancient Greece focused on the individual and his own ability to conquer his opponent (e.x. wrestling). Athletes were usually naked and covered with oil, which may be why Eupheros is pictured holding a strigli, an instrument used for scraping off the oil from their skin in an attempt to clean off dirt picked up by the oil. Athletic competitions were only open to greek citizens. The decision to picture eupheros as an athlete not only speaks to his strength, ability, and honor as a young greek, but also to his citizenship, which was becoming increasingly more and more important as foreigners began to move to Greece and citizenship laws were passed. This speaks to the functionalist aspect in that Eupheros stands alone on his stele. He is the quintessential Athenian citizen. His goal is to glorify his state and represent it in the games and to bring honor to his family. This stele would be seen by travelers and it would be clear that the loss of this individual was a loss for the entire state. His beauty and athletic abilities serve as a role model for young Athenian boys continuing to instill Athenian values in their young. Egyptian stelae, like the stele of Eupheros, picture their dead in association with their role in the state. These stelae, too, take a functionalist approach in this way. The mastaba tombs are placed together at Giza and surround the tombs of three pharaohs. The stelae themselves are comprised of images of the dead surrounded by images characteristic of their territories. A great importance is put on the role of the deceased in Egypt which, despite its intention to reflect on the state, actually gives a very specific and tailored representation of the deceased, which is less common in Greece.

Marble Grave Stele with a Family Group, Greek, Attic. ca. 360 B.C.

This grave stele shows a scene comprised of four people. The man in the center is seated and is covered with respect to his legs and half of his torso. His right hand is holding a staff and appears to be older than the others in the scene based on his beard. A woman stands behind him with her hair partially covered. Her right hand is on the shoulder of the man seated and her left hand is holding the hand of a small child who faces out, rather than in profile like the other three people. The last figure in the scene, who also happens to be fragmented, is standing and reaches out with her left hand to touch the raised arm of the seated man. She is looking down at the man but for some reason, the man doesn’t meet her gaze. He simply looks ahead. This may have a few different meanings and without the help of an inscription, which seems to have been lost, but it could mean that the fragmented woman is deceased and trying to reach out to the family she left behind. Another interpretation is that the seated man, given he is seated, older, and in the center of the scene, could be the deceased and his family is gathered around him in mourning. Regardless of who the deceased may be in the scene, we can see the differences in this scene and scenes found in Egyptian mastabas. This is a clear scene of mourning. The touching of each person with at least one other shows an intimate relationship within the family and stress is put on relationships and a sense of longing. Mastaba stelae are more focused on remembering specifics about the dead and stressing what was most important to ancient Egyptian civilization; territories and relationship to the pharaoh. While the deceased official was often pictured with his wife (who’s arm often rested on her father’s shoulder) and his children (pictured in a smaller scale than the adults and often holding the hands, or limbs, of one of his parents), it was clear that the purpose of the stele was to glorify the deceased and stress his importance to the pharaoh and in their civilization.

While there are similarities between the stelae of the greeks and the stelae of the Egyptians, there is not enough evidence to conclude that the two rituals were influenced by each other. While the Greek stele takes a functionalist approach in depicting their dead in a way that represents them as ideal citizens of the greek state, the Egyptians take a more individualized approach. By depicting the dead in relation to their families, their territories and their importance to the state, each mastaba stele is uniquely made for the deceased. While, the greeks, too, make each stele individual, the deceased is not portrayed as such. There is no defining feature, save the inscription, that differentiates between the stele of eupheros and the stele of a different Athenian young man. The stelae follow form in their depiction of children (pictured with animals or family), young men (as athletes and warriors), women (pictured in an interior setting) and older men (pictured with staffs in their old age). This is not to say that each person who died in ancient Egypt had a unique stele. They are often shown in profile either standing or seated looking at the depictions of their territories and possessions. However, it is because they were pictured with these defining features that we can contrast the specificity and attention to detail that was stressed in the depiction of the deceased in ancient Egypt with the ideal citizen form which was stressed in depicting the deceased in Greece.

Works Cited


– “Athletics in Ancient Greece”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002) Megaw, A.H.S. “Archaeology in Greece, 1964-65,” Archaeological Reports, No. 11. (1964 – 1965), p. 5.

– Department of Greek and Roman Art. “Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Ancient Greece”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003).

– “Grave stele with a family group [Greek, Attic] (11.100.2)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)

– Leader, Ruth E. In Death Not Divided: Gender, Family, and State on Classical Athenian Grave Stelae. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 101, No. 4 (Oct., 1997), pp. 683-699. Archaeological Institute of America.

– Oliver, Graham. “Athenian Funerary Monuments: Style, Grandeur, and Cost.” Epigraphy of Death: Studies in the History and Society of Greece and Rome. Liverpool University Press. Liverpool, GBR. 01/2000

– On the Imagery of the Acropolis Sculptures, see D. Castriota, Myth, Ethos and Actuality: Official Art in Fifth Century Athens (Madison 1992).


“Marble Grave Stele with a Family Group.” Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Stele of Eupheros” Harvard University Library.

Rosie Kelly