Familial Relationships, Hierarchy and their Relationship on Athenian Grave Stelai

Eras Journal – Adams, G,: Familial Relationships, Hierarchy and their Representation on Athenian Grave Stelai

Familial Relationships, Hierarchy and their Representation on Athenian Grave Stelai
Geoff Adams
(University of Adelaide)

There have been several studies on Attic Grave Stelai in the past few years, focusing upon the display of wealth and the social significance derived from the images depicted upon these stones. [1] Having examined the material that has been discovered in the cemeteries outside of Athens, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the choice of iconography and its implications for our knowledge of the relationship between the people concerned. It is the intention of this study to examine this material and attempt to explain the social significance of this particular style of sculptural representation. The central focus will be upon the Attic stelai showing more than one figure, particularly the ‘family group’ reliefs and their social significance. There will also be some discussion of classical stelai in general.

Following the hiatus in the erection of Athenian grave stelai from the beginning of the fifth century and the end of the Archaic period, this funerary tradition began to re-emerge around 430 BCE.[2] The general suspension of well-appointed funerary monuments may have been attributable to Kleisthenes, but this is not known for certain.[3]However, there was not a complete absence of stelai being erected between 490 and 430 BCE, with at least a few family groups ignoring the social convention of this period.[4] In view of the comparatively limited number of stelaibeing erected, it did not mean that the deceased were not honoured by their families, white-ground lekythoirepresenting mourners near tall stelai were still being dedicated.[5] Large white-ground lekythoi have been found in Attica, dated to as early as around 470 BCE[6], which may have been imitations of more expensive marble examples. So at the outset, it is crucial to remember that the classical Attic grave stelai were not the only type of memorial for the deceased, making up only a portion of the funerary monuments from the period.

At first it is pertinent to note a couple of important concepts. These grave stelai are not truly representative of Athenian society as a whole, namely because of the great expense incurred by the erection of such funerary monuments. An idea of the general cost around the time of 400 BCE for a well appointed burial has been provided by Lysias, who referred to a woman who put aside three hundred drachmas for the occasion.[7] This outlay could mean one of two things: either that only wealthy families could afford the expenditure to build such magnificent stele [8] , or that there was a great deal of effort to find the resources for such memorials by not so opulent households. This is important because it has implications for the significance of the images depicted. It appears probable that these grave stelai were not limited to only the local social elite[9], but many of the finest examples are likely to have been erected by the most affluent families. If these monuments were not restricted purely to the local elite and were the subject of great financial sacrifice by the average family, it would stand to reason that the images depicted on the funerary stele would have great significance to the family. Despite the presence of generic messages in this iconography, there was still quite a wide range of divergence in the messages displayed, which implies a particular significance for the families being represented and the deceased.

It is important to remember the social significance of these gravestones, taking for example the well-known and important cemetery at Kerameikos. The position of fourth century funerary monuments in this cemetery is of great significance, as these stelai were not secluded, but were clear and open dedications to the deceased and their family, being laid out on terraces, often with fine ashlar masonry walls.[10] The openness of these gravestones and their associated structures along the main access roads to Athens, where any passers-by would be able to view such opulent displays is significant for the understanding of such memorials. It seems reasonable that the rationale for these impressive structures was a combination of familial pride and respect for the deceased. This is shown by the famous fourth century BCE stele of Dexileos discovered in the Kerameikos cemetery (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Stele of Dexileos. Athens Museum (from Richter).[11]
(Click on the image above to view a larger version)

This stele does not mark a grave because Dexileos was a casualty in the first Corinthian War at Nemea in 394 BCE. The stele of Dexileos instead adorns his family’s own peribolos.[12] This display does not necessarily mean that they should be classed as public monuments owing to the strong familial connection, making them essentially personal constructions. These reliefs appear to have both a private and public function. This dual role has implications for our understanding of them. It may explain the ambiguous nature of many of the inscriptions associated with the Attic grave stele. When viewed from a distance, most of the inscriptions were unintelligible for those members of the community who could read, but the sculptured images would have been quite clear. Therefore, for the passing traveller this would have had the most impact. However, the intimate friends and members of the household would naturally pay a great deal more attention to these memorials where the inscriptions would be clearly visible and would also have a lot more meaning to them because of their relationship. This explains why in many instances the inscription is vague about which figure on the sculpture represents the deceased. These inscriptions not only personalised the monument, but also seem to have been messages intended to reflect the close relationship between the familial members, intimately connecting the living with the deceased. It appears that there was no temporal rationale behind this connection, the living members of the family regarding themselves as being very much tied to their ancestors and their achievements.[13]

Family Representation of Attic Reliefs

Before examining several reliefs in detail, a few points concerning the imagery should be outlined. When first approaching these sculptures, one of the most compelling features is the difference in imagery between those dedicated by parents, husbands and children. It is quite common for deceased young men to be displayed in heroic fashion by their parents, which in many ways was an idealised representation of their lost son. This type of portrayal is seen on the relief of Dexileos (Fig. 1). The most important factor to bear in mind is that these images are in fact providing an indication about the nature of the relationship and emotional ties between the deceased and their surviving family. The erection of funerary monuments is as much a reflection of the living and their relationships as of the deceased. This becomes particularly interesting and revealing when examining the group representations.


Figure 2. Stele of Damasistrate. Athens Museum (from Johansen).[14] 
(Click on the image above to view a larger version)

The first group representation is the stele of Damasistrate. This stele (Fig. 2) leaves little question about the identity of the deceased because the inscription on the architrave only mentions Damasistrate, wife of Polykleides. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that she has passed away. It is also quite safe to assume that she is the person seated on the ‘throne’ chair in the foreground and that Polykleides is holding her hand. It was quite common for female figures to be seated in these reliefs – especially matrons – which in many ways shows the figure as being highly respected.[15] When one first looks at this relief, their view is usually drawn directly towards the two most prominent figures, that of Damasistrate and Polykleides. If there was no inscription remaining on this relief is would be difficult to tell which figure was being honoured. Within this group (Fig. 2) it is evident that Polykleides is portrayed just as prominently as his wife. He is shown in an almost ‘heroic’ guise, with his chest exposed and the large arms accentuating his presence within this frame. This style of representing male figures is quite common on the stele(Fig. 3), but the considerable authority of Polykleides cannot be underestimated here.

One of the other important considerations in regard to this stele is the inscription. There are only two names mentioned: Polykleides and Damasistrate. Here again the presence of Polykleides rivals that of the deceased, his wife Damasistrate. This is the area that shall be addressed throughout the rest of this study: the prominence of influential family members on these reliefs. In this instance, the influence of Polykleides is difficult to ignore. He is mentioned in the inscription and his portrayal in the relief certainly does not make any deference to the deceased. In this sense, it is clear that there was another purpose for the reliefs besides honouring the deceased. The steleundoubtedly celebrates the glory and position of the family, particularly its most prominent member, Polykleides. There is a strong likelihood that Polykleides arranged for the erection of this memorial and wanted to make it clear that he had done so. Although it is impossible to be absolutely certain, he appears to be shown as the devoted husband of Damasistrate, affectionately holding her hand in the usual fashion for these reliefs. However, he is also clearly represented as the head of the household, thoroughly deserving a principal place in the relief.


Figure 3. Stele of Hippomachos and Kallias. Piraeus Museum (from Johansen).[16] 
(Click on the image above to view a larger version)


Figure 4. Stele of Prokleides, Prokles and Archippe. Athens Museum (from Johansen). [17]
(Click on the image above to view a larger version)

The importance of properly representing the principal member of the familial group can also be viewed in other examples of the reliefs. A good example is the stele depicting Prokleides, Prokles and Archippe (Fig. 4). [18] This example represents Prokleides of the demos Aigilia, Prokles his son and Archippe who was probably the wife of Prokleides. The deceased in this example is not as clear as that of the previous example, but it was in all likelihood either Prokleides or Prokles who had expired.[19] Regardless of this, it is the representation of the figures here that is under scrutiny. In either regard, one of these two characters would have been the leader of the family at the time of its construction. Firstly, it clearly shows the intimacy of their relationship with the use of the hand holding illustration. Both figures are equally prominent within the representation and are also closely linked through their gaze at one another. Archippe, on the other hand, is left almost completely out of the scene. She has been placed obviously in the background of the relief and she is shown to be looking blankly outwards, in the opposite direction to Prokleides and Prokles. This representation also shows the prominence of certain family members and the social significance that this must have held for the constructor of the memorial, who was probably either Prokleides or Prokles.

Figure 5. Stele of Thraseas and Euandria. Berlin Museum.[20] Accessible at:


The same prominence of two figures is also evident in the stele of Thraseas and Euandria, c. 350 BCE (Fig. 5). This example also clearly portrays the affection and intimacy between Thraseas and Euandria in a popular style of representation exhibiting husbands and wives. But similar to both the stele of Damasistrate and the stele of Prokleides, Prokles and Archippe, there are two central figures who are equal in their prominence within the relief. It must be noted at this point that women, especially those from the social elite, played a prominent role at funerals.[21] They were rarely in public view, usually only at funerals, weddings and religious or state festivals. [22] The third figure in the background is a small girl, who judging by the hairstyle, was probably intended to represent a slave-girl.[23] In this instance it is clear that this distinction is directly associated with the levels of status and authority for the figures depicted. Again, this is quite common on Attic funerary reliefs but this type of example may allow us to discern the social status and its representation on the grave memorials.


Figure 6. Stele of Aristylla. Athens Museum (from Johansen).[24] 
(Click on the image above to view a larger version)

Another interesting example of the display of status and importance within the grave reliefs is the stele of Aristylla. This relief depicts two figures, one woman seated on a ‘throne’ chair and the other younger female standing before her. When this representation is first viewed, it appears that the seated woman is the central and primary figure in this relief. This is misleading. There is an accompanying inscription, which reads:’Here lies Aristylla, child of Ariston and Rodilla; prudent indeed were you, o daughter’. [25] Therefore, it seems probable that the seated figure represents the mother Rodilla, and the standing female is shown as Aristylla, the deceased. It appears that the family chose a stelethat may have been previously made, which indicates that these grave stelai were probably not specially commissioned but were ready-made (discussed further below). In this instance the seated figure is not being respected as the deceased, but instead is being deferred to because of her familial position and relationship to the deceased. It is of interest at this point to note that there is no figure representing the father, Ariston. From the inscription we do not know whether he is alive or dead. In fact we do not know whether Rodilla is alive. Judging from the relief and the inscription, it seems likely that only one of her parents was alive at the time of her death, the sculpture either showing Rodilla and Aristylla while they were alive, or perhaps them meeting together in the Underworld. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell one way or the other. But regardless of this, it is clear from this relief that the portrayal of differing status levels within the realm of Attic grave stelai was common and of some importance to those who commissioned them.


Figure 7. Stele . New York, Metropolitan Museum (from Johansen).[26] 
(Click on the image above to view a larger version)

The final stele to be considered (Fig. 7) is probably one of the earliest extant examples of the ‘family group’ reliefs. This sculpture also shows four figures, three of which represent the most important characters. With this stele , it is unknown who the deceased is, but it is the positioning of these figures that is going to be considered here. As with the first two reliefs considered, the principal figure appears to represent the father of the household. This person is depicted seated, in a position of respect and authority. The female figure behind is most likely an illustration of his wife and perhaps the female on the left-hand side is their daughter. The fourth figure is a miniature and it is feasible that she represents a slave-girl. The dominance of the central male character is clear in this relief. The interesting aspect of this relief is that there appears to be several levels of hierarchy within the image. At the top is the seated male, being placed at the centre of the familial group in a position of respect. Then follows the woman standing behind him. It is clear through the quality of her representation, with the intricate nature of her garments and headdress, that she symbolises his wife and probably mother to the other female. It is as if she is shown to be standing there, supporting her husband while looking at the woman on the left. This woman stands with her head bowed in obvious deference to these two figures, but her eyes are shown to be concentrating particularly upon the father figure. The lowest level of this hierarchy is the miniature slave-girl who appears to accentuate the status of the other figures even further. Unfortunately, because there is no surviving inscription to further this analysis, it is impossible to allocate these roles for certain, but they do seem like the most appropriate readings of this relief. But in spite of this, the portrayal of differing levels of social status is clearly evident and continues the tendency already noted in the previous reliefs.


There are several implications that can be drawn from this evident statement of social status in these reliefs. Firstly, it is clear that these funerary memorials had a dual purpose. The most important is that they are a clear expression of familial pride and loyalty, which is a common feature of Classical Greek society and religion.[27] This is particularly evident in the familial pride expressed by Pindar in his victory odes. Plato refers to the importance of the family bonds and their relationship with religion by stating: ‘When a person honours and respects the family relationship and the whole community of his kindred gods which shares the same descent and blood, he would, correspondingly, enjoy the favour of the familial gods, who will be well disposed toward his own begetting of children’.[28] The erection of such impressive grave stelai was a permanent exhibition of respect to the deceased from the household. But these reliefs also reflect the importance of displaying personal and familial status within society. As Morris has shown, some of the wealthy examples of stelai even adopted the symbols of the state for their own monuments.[29 ] Over time, with the popular resumption of building these reliefs, the sculptures became deeper and more complex, which may indicate some members of the community spending an increasing amount of money in order to heighten the effect and impressiveness of these memorials. The gradually increasing expense and competition for impressive grave stelai may have caused the edict of Demetrius of Phaleron in 317 BCE that banned excessive spending upon such monuments.[30]

It is clearly evident that these reliefs were used as a form of displaying the success and pride of the family, especially by the leading male of the household. It is the differentiation of status between the various characters depicted which is one of the most compelling attributes of these reliefs. Therefore, not only were they displaying the wealth and social position of the family as a whole, but they were frequently celebrating the foremost male and his personal position. The presentation of the status of the leading male should not be a surprise in view of the patriarchal social environment at the time. Yet it is of interest to note that these funerary reliefs were a manner in which this authority was expressed. But, as mentioned previously, the hierarchy within these images moves even further than the leading male. They commonly differentiate between the other members shown in the relief, especially concerning the servile figures.

However, the question of whether these reliefs were commissioned or ready-made still needs to be considered. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know for certain, but it appears more likely that they were custom-made. But this aspect does not impact greatly upon the point at hand. Even if most of the reliefs were originally devised from previously prepared templates and were ready made for generic significance, there were still a fairly broad range of images depicted, which means that they still would have been carefully selected. This choice of particular motifs and representations by the constructor allows us to determine that there must be some social significance in the reliefs. Whoever erected the memorials had the option to decide what kind of representation would be best, even if they had to choose from a variety of previously made reliefs. So, in conclusion, after examining the grave stelai from Athens, it becomes clear that there were significant messages concerning the social position of the household and its members on the funerary reliefs during the classical period. These images would have made a clear statement to those who viewed the reliefs, whether they were on a personal basis with the family or not. The ambiguous nature of the inscriptions shows that the words and name were not frequently expected to describe who the deceased was. Instead the message which the passer-by would receive was one of respect for the deceased, the social position of the family and the authority of their principal members. [31]

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[1] N. Spivey, Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings Modern Readings, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1996; I. Morris, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996; R. Leader, ‘In Death Not Divided: Gender, Family, and the State on Classical Athenian Grave Stele‘,American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 101, 1997, pp. 683-99.Back

[2] Leader, ‘In Death Not Divided’, p. 684.Back

[3] Andrew Stewart, Greek Sculpture: An Exploration, Vol. 1, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990, p. 167.Back

[4] I. Morris, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity, p. 133. Back

[5] Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Fifth Century Styles in Greek Sculpture , Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1981, p. 129. Back

[6] S.B. Pomeroy, Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997, p. 133. Back

[7] Lysias, 31.21. See also Pomeroy,Families, pp. 117-118; V.J. Hunter, Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420-320 B.C., Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 28. Back

[8] T.H. Nielsen, L. Bjerstrup, M.H. Hansen, L. Rubinstein and T. Vestergard, ‘Athenian Grave Monuments and Social Class’,Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies , Vol. 30, 1989, pp. 411-20. Back

[9] Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Fourth Century Styles in Greek Sculpture, Duckworth, London, 1997, p. 163. Back

[10] Leader, ‘In Death Not Divided’, p. 685.Back

[11] Visual Reference from G. Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, 1st ed., Yale University Press: New Haven, 1930, fig. 215. Back

[12] Spivey, Understanding Greek Sculpture, p. 119. Back

[13] K. Friis Johansen, The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period, Ejnar Munksgaard, Copenhagen, 1951, pp. 159-160.Back

[14] Visual Reference from Friis Johansen,The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period , fig. 24, p. 45.Back

[15] Helen Nagy, ‘Divinity, Exaltation and Heroization: Thoughts on the Seated Posture in Early Archaic Greek Sculpture’, in Kim J. Hartswick and Mary C. Sturgeon (eds), Stephanos: Studies in Honour of Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, University of Pennsylvania Museum Press, Philadelphia, 1998, p. 181. Back

[16] Visual Reference from Friis Johansen,The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period, fig. 20, p. 39.Back

[17] Visual reference from Friis Johansen,The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period, fig. 25, p. 46.Back

[18] Friis Johansen, The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period , p. 47. Back

[19] Friis Johansen, The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period, pp. 47-8. Back

[20] This Visual Reference is still under copyright. I have instead provided a weblink to a high quality photograph of the Stele of Thraseas and Euandria. Back

[21] Isaeus, 8.21-2. Back

[22] R. Just, Women in Athenian Law and Life, Routledge, London, 1989, pp. 120-121. Back

[23] There are similarities between the portrayal of this figure and the slave-girl in Figure 2. Back

[24] Visual Reference from Friis Johansen,The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period , fig. 18, p. 35.Back

[25] Friis Johansen, The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period, p. 36. Back

[26] Visual Reference from Friis Johansen,The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period , fig. 22, p. 43.Back

[27] C.B. Patterson, The Family in Greek History, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1998, p. 65. Back

[28] Plato, Laws, 5.729c. Back

[29] Morris, Death-ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity , p. 144. Back

[30] Sismondo Ridgway, Fourth Century Styles in Greek Sculpture, p. 157. Back

[31] I would like to thank Olivia Sedsman and Daniel Dzino for their valuable assistance and comments on the preparation of this paper. However, any mistakes are entirely the responsibility of the author. Back

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(the email you send to eras@arts.monash.edu.au will be read by the Eras editorial committee and published on the “Discussion” page)