Inventing ancient tomb monuments in Roman Greece

Up to now this blog has been circling around what my “Monuments of Roman Greece” research project is actually about. The issues I’ve talked about – the changing meaning of public monuments and how we use different kinds of evidence to get at that meaning – are of central importance to my research. However, here I’ve talked a lot about fairly recent historical monuments instead of Roman ones, paid a lot of attention to buildings when the project is more concerned with smaller monuments such as statues, and have said a lot about Athens when Athens is only one of the cities I’m investigating. In this and the next few pieces I’m going to get to the heart of what my research is actually about by talking about an article I’ve been working on.

In my first two and a half months in Oxford when I haven’t been writing blogs about 18th century buildings, following a German course and acclimatising to being back in the UK after a fifteen year absence, I’ve been writing the first draft of an article about public tomb monuments in Roman Greece. The idea is to explore in parallel two phenomena, which I believe need to be interpreted in light of one another, neither of which, in my opinion, has received enough attention by historians or archaeologists.

The first is an increase in public burials for important benefactors and politicians in Greek cities in imperial times. For hundreds of years the cities of the Greek world had found various ways of rewarding people who provided important services for the community – statues, titles, front row seats at festivals – but it’s only under the Empire that it became at all common for benefactors to be buried in monumental tombs in public spaces such as the marketplace, gymnasium or stadium. We’re still only talking about evidence for a handful of such monuments – this was a great honour indeed and reserved for the pinnacle of the Greek elite – but this handful is still a marked contrast with how rare public burials were in earlier periods. This is, I believe, one of the most striking ways in which Roman period Greek cities looked different from our modern towns. Just imagine for a second how strange it would seem to see tombs of politicians and celebrities in our supermarkets, cinemas and leisure centres. I’ll talk more about these new Roman period burials in a later blog.

Here I want to focus on the other phenomenon I’ve been exploring and the one that I’ve so far written most about – probably too much considering I’ve already exceeded my self-imposed word limit – the invention in Roman times of monuments that were claimed to be the burials of illustrious figures from mythology or the distant historical past.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence from Roman period literary sources that in cities all over Greece, at the height of the Roman Empire, it was possible to see such heroic tomb monuments. Like the new graves of benefactors these monuments were typically found within the city in public spaces where the inhabitants went about their day-to-day business. A lot of this evidence comes from Pausanias, an author we’ve encountered before (if you’ve just tuned in Pausanias was a Greek from Asia Minor who’s left us a description of Greece in the 2nd Century AD). There are, however, other authors, such as Plutarch (he lived slightly earlier in the 1st Century AD and is most famous for his biographies), who also mention such tombs.

Most of the names of those believed to be buried in these tombs are now so obscure that even few Classicists can have heard of them. Some are known only because of the references that mention them in connection with the tombs; they must, however, have had great significance, at least at the local level, at the time. Others are still famous today – Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give to mankind, had his grave on the agora of Argos. (Argos incidentally takes the record for having the most graves of figures belonging to the distant mythical past in its civic centre – Pausanias mentions no less than thirty!) Leonidas, the Spartan general who died defending the Thermopylae pass in the Persian War (popularised as a comic-book-style epic in the film 300) had a tomb in the centre of Sparta. Pausanias tells us that the Spartans retrieved his bones from Thermopylae some forty years after the battle. Hector, the greatest warrior on the Trojan side in the Trojan War supposedly had his grave at Thebes. The Thebans had reputedly brought the bones over from Troy in accordance with an oracle.

I’ve already said that I’m interested in is what I term “invented tomb” monuments so it probably won’t come as too much of a surprise to hear that I believe that a large number of these monuments weren’t quite what they were claimed to be. For a start there is the obvious problem of whether figures like Prometheus or Hector had any basis in historical reality at all. If they did then this must be looked for some time in the pre-Archaic period of Greek history (let’s say before 700 BC), before these myths were first written down. Now, there is some archaeological evidence for heroic burials at this time but not very much – not enough to account for anything like the number of such tombs mentioned in the Roman period authors. A bigger problem for accepting the claims made of these tombs, however, is that there is actually concrete evidence that some of them must have been made up at some point.

The sources give evidence for several instances where multiple cities made claims to having the remains of the same hero. Seeing that it is clearly impossible for individuals to be buried in more than one place, in such cases at least one – possibly both – of these claims must have been fictitious. For instance, a city called Opos, far less well known and less significant than Argos, also claimed to be the final resting place of Prometheus. Pausanias tells us he was more convinced by the claim of the people of that town. He also tells us that both Sparta and a polis called Aegion claimed to be the burial place of a hero called Talthybios. Both Athens and Troizen had graves of the mythical hero Hippolytos. There were also graves of Themistokles, the Athenian Persian war hero (Yes, he of 300, Rise of an Empire fame) at both Piraeus, the Athenian harbour town and Magnesia in Asia Minor where he had died in exile. I’m going to say more about Themistokles’ tomb in a future blog. There are several other examples of such contested claims in the sources.

In addition, some of the details that the sources give us about certain tombs sound just too good to be true. For instance, there is a story preserved in the work of Plutarch about a messenger in the Persian war being buried at Plataea, the site of a decisive battle in that war, after he collapsed and died after running all the way to Delphi and back to bring back sacred fire for the founding of a cult. The story just sounds far too much like the much more well-known story, which you’ve probably heard, about the Athenian messenger who collapsed and died after running all the way to Athens to report the victory at the Battle of Marathon (the original Marathon run). That story, though set in the fifth century and fairly widely accepted as true even among ancient historians, is itself, incidentally, also only mentioned in Roman period sources written over five centuries later.

Many of what I believe to be invented tomb monuments have also been accepted in modern scholarship. That’s not so much because they’ve been given a lot of attention. They haven’t. Rather, the references in Pausanias and other Roman period authors have been drawn upon by scholars who are mainly interested in much earlier periods of Greek history, mainly the Classical period – c.500-323 BC, the period of Athenian democracy, the great tragedians and philosophers. The Roman period references to early tombs seem to provide extra snippets of information that aren’t provided by contemporary sources.

We need to keep in mind, however, that the time that separated an author like Pausanias from the Persian Wars was over 600 years, or nearly the same amount of time that separates us from the Black Death or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Many of the ancient tomb monuments reported in Roman sources were supposed to be even older than that. I believe that we need to be far more sceptical in accepting that these late sources provide reliable evidence for Classical, or pre-Classical history. I also believe that it is far more interesting to think about these references in the context of the time in which they are written. It’s only when we look at the Roman period references to heroic tombs all together that it becomes clear that making up stories about tomb monuments was a widespread phenomenon and one that deserves historical attention.

So far, in writing my article, arguing the case that the invention of tomb monuments was widespread in Roman Greece has taken up quite a large chunk of my allotted words, just as it’s run into yet another fairly lengthy blog piece. (I keep promising myself to try to post shorter pieces!). However, what I’ve been finding most fascinating is trying to find answers to the questions that arise from this argument:

When exactly were the stories that Pausanias and others tell about these grave monuments made up? If these monuments weren’t authentic ancient graves then what were they? How did the names of figures of myth and legend come to be attached to them? Why were such invented tomb monuments so common? And who gained most by inventing them?

These are some of the issues I’ll be discussing in my next couple of pieces.


7 thoughts on “Inventing ancient tomb monuments in Roman Greece

    1. Yes definitely. The Greek heroes often get compared to the Christian saints in terms of their particularly local character, the ways they seemed to fulfil religious needs not catered for by more mainstream cults and their sheer diversity. In the sources I’ve been looking at there are even references to heroic tombs that had been broken open where people could enter and handle the actual skeletal remains. That reminds me very much of the way saints’ relics were treated in medieval Christianity (though I confess I’m far from being an expert on that subject!). I think I’ll talk about these sources in the next blog piece. Of course, a big question is whether heroic cults weren’t just a parallel for saints’ cults but might have been a major influence on their development. I think they probably were – and I think a lot of people assume that – but I don’t know how much research has actually been done on this. I would need to look into properly. Another issue that I’m having to address in the article I’m working on is whether these supposed heroic tombs were actually always the focus of cult. Lots of them certainly were but it’s possible that some had slightly less religious connotations than others which might be one difference with the cults of saints.


      1. Thanks for replying! I definitely would be interested in a bit more of an investigation of the potential links and influences of the two cults (heroes / saints). From what I know about the saints, yes, touching relics directly was important, whether bones or other objects connected with the person in question. Looking forward to the next post!


  1. Hi Vladimir,

    Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. I think that how I phrased that point here might have been slightly misleading. I didn’t mean to suggest that anyone believes these were really tombs of mythical heroes. I’m sure no one thinks Prometheus was actually buried at Argos or Opous. What I meant is that scholars have tended to assume these heroic burials were genuinely old – Classical, Archaic or older. Barbara McCauley has argued fairly recently (“The Transfer of Hippodameia’s Bones: A Historical Context.” Classical Journal (1998): 225-239) that a lot of these tombs were probably made up in the Classical period. When it comes to tombs of real historical figures from Archaic and Classical times (e.g. Leonidas, the runner Orsippos at Megara) scholars have definitely tended to take the Roman period sources as evidence for much earlier history. See, for example, the recent study of intra-urban burials in the Greek world by Hadwiga Shörner (Sepulturae graecae intra urbem. Bibliopolis, 2007) that draws a lot on late sources for early periods. It also, of course, includes an extensive bibliography. I must stress that this is in many ways an excellent book and one of the reasons I didn’t want to get into naming scholars here is that I didn’t want to be disparaging of other peoples’ work in a blog post where there isn’t room to really do justice to it. I do, however, take issue with her use of these late sources.

    The argument I’m trying to make is twofold: (i) that not only were the heroic tombs invented monuments but that they were also invented much later than people have generally thought (i.e. in Roman times) and (ii) that lots of the supposedly historical grave monuments were also invented at that time. I’ll give some more reasons for thinking this in my next couple of posts. If you have any more thoughts on the subject I’d be very glad to hear them (either here or off-post) and would welcome any suggestions you might have for literature where people do question the authenticity of these monuments. I’d also be happy to send you a copy of the article when the first draft is finished (should be soon) if you would like to see more references or would be interested in giving me some feedback.


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