The Ancient Sepulchral Reliefs at Athens

[Extracted from The Spectator, August 13, 1887.]


The unique series of ancient sepulchral reliefs which have been brought to light by excavations in the Cerameicus, the public cemetery of ancient Athens, have two interests, at any rate, which it would be hard to exaggerate. For one thing, many of them are extraordinarily beautiful; for another, they illustrate, as nothing else does, certain aspects of Athenian life and civilization at a period when Athens was still one of the great powers of Greece. Naturally, these reliefs are exceedingly various, both in date and workmanship and character. Some of them are archaic and stiff and formal. Others, again, easily distinguishable, are simply bits of bad work. But a large number are full of the most exquisite beauty and pathos, and it is chiefly of these that we wish to speak. In a great number of cases the artist has chosen for representation on these monuments the last farewells between the dying person and the survivors. Evidently, this was a very favourite form of sepulchral monument, and it admits of the expression of a far more delicate and a deeper pathos than any other form. There are reliefs representing the last farewells between husband and wife, between father and son, between mother and daughter, between friends. Sometimes the representation is allegorical. A lady takes her last look at her casket of jewels, which stand allegorically for the pleasant world to which she is saying farewell, and the relief is saved from all charge of triviality by the exquisite sadness of the lady's face. Of course, it must not be supposed that all the best reliefs represent these farewells. One of the most famous, erected to Dexileos, represents him as a victorious warrior in battle, slaying his foe. Still, what we have said is a true general description. Now, in order properly to appreciate the spirit of these grave monuments, we must remember that to the Greek death was necessarily far more terrible than it is to us. In the nature of things, he could have no "sure hope of a glorious resurrection." Whatever may have been the exact conception of death current among the average Athenians of, say the fourth century, B.C., we know that they considered it "the supreme evil." Very few people indeed could have been convinced by Socrates's famous argument to his friends after his trial that it must, after all, be reckoned to be a good thing. To the ancient Greeks it was not only a dreadful mystery, it was a final parting from all that they held dear, from their families, from their friends, from life itself. It still had all its bitterness. Nothing could have been keener than the grief which it excited.