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Representations of Women in Classical Athenian Grave Stele – V.Darragh (2013)

Representations of Women in Classical Athenian Grave Stele

Victoria Darragh

4th year BA student University of Dublin

Within the realm of grave stelai, the stone burial markers of ancient Greece, we have an interesting and relatively wide expression of female portrayal and representation, from which we can attempt to add to our knowledge of female life in the Classical period. The representation of women on Greek grave stelai is particularly fascinating, both for what it can and cannot tell us about those who are depicted, and indeed what exactly was meant to be told about those individuals featured. Female image, in terms of how women were presented to the public, was key to both general society and the honour of the family. If the literary sources could have their way, we would believe the morals and honour of society hung in the balance where women were concerned.

The notion of public and private life, the polis and the oikos, was elemental to ancient Greek society. Traditional thinking has it that the lives of women were by and large relegated to, and restricted to, the sphere of the oikos, the household, while men enjoyed the duality of involvement in both polis and oikos life. The lives of Greek women, and more importantly, the study of their lives, have been disputed, to say the least. Originally marginalised, following the advent of the feminist movement moves were made to ‘reclaim’ women’s roles in history. Continuing developments towards gender equality means fresh interpretations and new focuses on old works have been tainted by both accusations and actual cases of ‘feminising’ history where it may not be appropriate, no matter how much we may wish it to be. The topic of female involvement in Athenian society, however much or little, is rife with such issues. Greek women were represented by male guardians in all legal and financial affairs. Indeed, their legal and social identities were utterly embedded in familial connections with male members of the oikos to which they belonged.[1] The generally accepted view of Athenian women has been of submissive figures, striving at all times for impeccable behaviour and invisibility while tending to domestic chores and child rearing.[2] Our views have largely been formed from the reading of our literary sources (wherever, indeed, they are even bothered to mention women in their everyday roles) and from their portrayals in Greek dramas.[3]

A view of women as separated and secluded has arisen. This is one area where feminism has divided opinion – in ‘recovering’ history, are we truly discovering that women were more liberated then once was thought, or are we applying modern standards to ancient order? This is important when we are trying to interpret representations of women, such as those found on grave stelai. It becomes a double-edged sword when we consider that such representations were idealised in the first place – as David Cohen has pointed out, [4]  and as we can see in modern societies, there can be serious contradictions between cultural ideals and real-life social practices. An example of the issues of interpretation is that seen emanating from the debate on women’s religious roles. In her book Portrait of a Priestess, Joan Breton Connelly notes that some interpreters view womens’ work in the ritual sphere as mere “rehearsal” for the female role of subservience within the household[5], but also notes that, while the social behaviour experienced at home was codified in public ritual performed within the formal setting of the sanctuary (in that much of the religious roles women held involved traditional ‘household’ work such as cleaning, decorating, and weaving), readers of the ancient sources primed with expectations of seeing women in wholly subordinate positions may be surprised to find inscriptions attesting to the financial compensations of women for their service, the erection of portrait statues in their honour, and their agency in enforcing sanctuary laws.[6]

However, she also notes that the amount of choice a woman had in obtaining a priesthood remains doubtful, that she is more likely to have followed a family tradition of priestly service than to have schemed for escape from household life; and that the equation of priesthood with independence from the family suffers from distorting effects of modern feminist hindsight.[7] She also notes that priesthood provided no avenue to social or financial independence from male kin.[8]

Despite all this, when looking at the grave stelai of former priestesses, she notes that funerary stelai that single women out for their “professional” activities are exceptional, and fall into two categories; those that honour priestesses, and those that honour nurses.[9] Clearly then, there is some sort of inherent contradiction – these women were being commemorated in their death with the acknowledgement of the exceptional honour, and more than probable equality with male priests, that they had held in their life. Yet if such religious roles were mere practice for home life, what would be the point in noting that this particular woman had held this particular role? Certainly family honour had much to do with it; this is a topic I will touch on in a moment. But if women held power in the area of religious law, and considering the enormity of this given that there was no distinction between religion and the everyday in ancient Greece, it must have been recognised that they had the facilities capable to complete such important work, independent of male influence .The payment of these women is what stands out the most as an indication of more independence than we assume, though a cynic could say that the religious powers of women and the commemoration of these powers through portrait statue and grave stelai was really the commemoration of familial power, and thus male power, through another, less obvious medium.

With such differing views on how to approach ancient women, and considering how affected one’s own work will be when you are approaching another’s whose views do not match your own, only serves to make attempts to decipher ancient, often nameless reliefs more difficult. Despite such difficulties, female grave stelai present a fascinating topic of study, even (and perhaps especially) if it should turn out that depicting women was only another form of male, or at least male-prioritising, propaganda.

One of the major problems for the identification of gravestones when they lack related epigraphy is the extreme difficulty in discerning just whom the stone is for. It is not unusual for a stele to depict multiple figures, and it is not always clear just who has died.[10] Another major issue, and one that is unfortunately found across the board when attempting to study ancient Greek women, is that the information left behind is largely about those coming from aristocratic or well-off backgrounds.

Neither can we look at Attic Classical gravestones outside of the context of the situation of Athens contemporary to their erection. Athenian writers attach enormous symbolic weight to the grave.[11] Following a small increase in elite funerary spending at the end of the sixth century, most of the fifth century was dominated by homogeneity and poor cemeteries. Spending declined rapidly between 500 – 475BC, followed by an escalation in spending and display c.350BC.[12] By 500BC, virtually all sculpted grave monuments disappeared.[13]Archaeologists agree that there was a change in Attic burial practice corresponding to new laws implemented by Solon, although there are disagreements on the exact date this change should be assigned.[14] Stone stelai are not clearly attested archaeologically until after this period (c.510-480BC), until the time of the Peloponnesian War.[15] It has been suggested that the legislation restricting ostentatious burial may have contributed, even following the re-elaboration of private monuments in the fourth century, to a gradual demarcation of a threshold between public and private life.[16] It has also been suggested that the renewed use of sculptural monuments around the time of the beginning of the Peloponnesian War may have been the result of increased piety towards the dead following the plague that decimated  Athens in 428/9BC, and may have been a reaction to the disregard of normal burial practices during the emergency.[17]

We do know that well before the plague there was the desire for these elaborate stelai, as we can see through their depictions on lekythoi.[18][19] Following the Classical period, sculptured gravestones would be outlawed once again following the antiluxury decree of Demetrios of Phaleron in 307BC, and for some time, the only gravemarkers appearing in Athens are insignificant in form.[20]

The physical depiction of those who had died on grave stelai could give the monuments a new meaning for those who had known the deceased; they could be not only informational signs for those who had not known them (sema), but they could also be mnema, memorials which would preserve forever the appearance of the dead.[21] But incredibly important to the depiction of the dead and something we must attempt to decipher is the narrative intent; what the image was intended to display, what meaning it was meant to communicate.[22]

On stelai, references to the manner in which a person died are suggestive rather than explicit, indeed, can often be impossible to interpret.[23]Another issue that relates back to our problem in sometimes telling which person on the stele it is who has died is the fact that the Kerameikos cemetery was redesigned shortly before 420BC, and lain out for a series of peribolos tombs (familial burial plots). [24] A lot of the ambiguity in designating a stele to a particular figure comes from the fact that many relief monuments would stand on the façade of a peribolos, and that a peribolos was intended to eventually contain the tombs of many of those depicted in the multiple-figure reliefs.[25]

Theories for the reasoning behind the erection of stelai in the Classical period are varied. The capture of the achievements and virtues of the family, and family unity, were of great concern to the aristocratic factions of Athens. In a contrast to the earlier sixth century, however, was a new phenomenon of the celebration of longevity in the inscriptions[26] – the offering of reassurance, reminding the living that their loved ones are not completely lost, and that they and their family will survive.[27] Fifth century stelai portray the intimate relationships of the family in an idealised, timeless present.[28] The notion of perpetual commemoration, elaborated in the later fourth century ideology of piety and the oikos, could have come to mean that a grave monument that assured the deceased a place in the memory of the community may have no longer been desired by the deceased, and that they may have wished to retain a place in their smaller community of friends and family, something that was coming to mean more to Greeks than the polis as a whole.[29] Another major reason behind monumental commemoration, and one that we will see in the context of female stelai, is the notion of citizenship and belonging. Every Athenian was asked before taking office where ‘his tombs’ were,[30]and especially within aristocratic circles the notions of legitimacy and ‘proper Athenianism’ were extremely important – however; in the Classical period, state funerals for war dead had brought the honours of heroic burial within the reach of the ordinary Athenian citizen, and it has been suggested that it was this change which stimulated the use of monuments in the fifth and fourth centuries which commemorated the domestic virtues of the ordinary citizen.[31] I would propose that it is for this reason also that we see in emphasis on family unity and the depiction of more mixed gendered reliefs.

Women and girls, as they are depicted on grave stelai, are intensely idealised creatures. Whatever emotions they may have actually inspired in their parents, girls were not considered as valuable as boys, and the birth of a girl was indeed even seen as quite misfortunate – but depictions of girls on gravestones seem to implicitly indicate, or even promote the fact that their deaths were a loss to the family. We can see that when single girls are shown with their fathers rather than their mothers, they tend to be older and approaching marriageable age.[32] The iconography seems to indicate that the loss of these girls was significant not only to their families but to the greater community in general[33] – whether this could be because they recognised that the girls themselves had some intrinsic value as daughters and companions probably comes down to whatever side of the ‘feminising history’ debate you come down on, but the most recognisable loss was the loss of the promise of future children.[34]

Women are repeatedly praised in inscriptions for beauty, virtue, modesty, and self-restraint – good, female characteristics that were expressed visually in their grave reliefs.[35] Women are shown as ageless and idealised[36], unless they are obviously children or perhaps younger adolescents, and it is sameness rather than individuality that is their defining feature – unsurprising when ‘beauty’ is something to commemorate.[37]

We do see the introduction of new virtues applied to women – by the late fifth century, sophroysne (moderation, good-mindedness), a civic virtue of men, was visually extended to women and children.[38] We can see direct examples of this in the epitaphs ending with direct addresses: ‘What a good girl you were! Dionysia is praised by her husband Antiphilos for loving him and sophrosyne more than clothes and jewellery’[39].

In the Classical period, we see new usage of old motifs, and see them being applied to women. The handclasp, dexiosis, is often depicted on document reliefs between men. The handclasp is not merely a handshake referring to agreements, it is a symbol of more general unity and accord.[40] The earliest stele depicting the motif comes from the very last phase of the Archaic period, and shows a standing man shaking hands with a seated woman, holding a pomegranate.[41] In the course of grave imagery, generally the deceased is seated while any live figures remain standing. For grown women, the inclusion of a child or an infant on grave reliefs is commonplace. The inclusion of infants on gravestones seems to be intended to underscore the loss of a woman of childbearing age[42]; but equally, we can very rarely be sure just whom has died, the mother or the child, or perhaps both.

The only case of a female grave stele where the scene is made fully explicit is that of Ampharete, a stele of late fifth century BC date discovered in the Athenian Kerameikos[43] (Fig. 1). In this stele, Ampharete is shown seated and holding her grandson, who is also dead. Uniquely we are told by Ampharete, though her epitaph, that ‘I hold the child of my daughter, whom I used to hold on my knees when we both saw the light of the sun; now dead, I hold him, dead too.’[44] Despite the fact we are told in the epitaph that this is a grandmother and grandson, there is nothing in the relief itself to show that this woman is of an age to have borne a daughter who was at least old enough to become a mother herself; indeed without the epitaph we could have logically concluded that it is a mother and child (non-gendered, as there is nothing specifically male or female in newborn depictions) – this is then also an example of the idealising representations of women.

Fig. 1.  The grave stele of Ampharete, c.430-420BC, Kerameikos Museum

Fig. 1. The grave stele of Ampharete, c.430-420BC, Kerameikos Museum

As for the depiction of babies themselves, some have gone so far as to include them and children in lists of attributes of women in stone iconography.[45]

Despite women and girls being commemorated by loving parents, there is an element of the replaceable about them in some depictions. For example, the gravestone of Mynnia, c.370BC,depicts an older girl being mourned by her mother, Euphrosyne. Euphrosyne is seated on the left hand side of the stele, and is shaking hands with her standing, departing daughter. The mother is being comforted by the toddler Artemisias, Mynnia’s younger sister, who stands pulling at her seated mother’s skirts (Fig. 2).[46]

Fig. 2. Stele of Mynnia, c.370, Getty Museum

Fig. 2. Stele of Mynnia, c.370, Getty Museum

A similar example is one which features a baby boy in an equivalent role to the toddler Artemisias. This stele is from Rhamnous, not Athens, but it is a good comparative example. This stele, too, was to commemorate a deceased daughter, but the baby boy, Praximenes, is shown disproportionately large for his age when compared to the size and age of other family members in the relief. Though this stele is for the deceased girl, the boy takes centre stage; it is he who is the future of the family and who will ensure the continuation of the family line.[47]

My interest in the subject of this research topic was originally piqued when visiting Greece and seeing in person the many different grave stelai belonging to the women and girls of ancient Athens. In my reading for this paper I only came to find the topic even more attractive, but I found that my interest was developing for reasons different to those I had had originally – namely that, while I was expecting and hoping to explore the representations of the female in grave stelai, I hadn’t quite realised the significance of women as societal propaganda. Of course tombstones were dedicated to women and girls who were loved and sorely missed, but this was constantly tempered by the need to memorialise them in ways that promoted the family, and that, when lacking accompanying epigraphy, there is little in the art of their gravestones to show any individuality or personality; they follow specific typographies, which, while also occurring on male gravestones, are much more reserved and are less likely to show singular figures, instead tending to be shown with children, other women, or the important men in their lives; husbands or fathers.

For much of history, female lives have been overlooked, misrepresented, or diminished, through both a lack of evidence and a lack of attention; and it is really only within recent years that such research has begun to really look at women as more than background or complementary characters in the drama of male Greek life. It is also true that, until quite recently, the study of Greek women has been subject to the contemporary societal values and views of women held by the historians and archaeologists studying them, something that still needs a lot of remedying.

The study of the lives of the women who lived in ancient Greece has, for the most part, been relegated to their role within the oikos, the family home, their public life (or lack of), and their invisibility. Theories of increased societal involvement of women, greater social mobility, and a greater general importance have often been met with intense debate, refutation, and accusations/implications of being too influenced by the feminist movements; and a wish to reclaim the lost history of women that has traditionally been marginalised as irrelevant or unconnected to our wider ‘human’ history.

In this, in looking to their gravestones, we can attempt to find something of these women who have largely been lost to us through neglect and dismissal, both in their time and our own. While we find with these stones overwhelming representation of women in domestic and familial contexts, and while their gravestones can be interpreted as part of a wider aristocratic familial promotion, this promotional aspect was not limited to female stones alone, and we find that alongside this promotional aspect are real tributes to women who were loved, and mourned, by their families; to daughters and wives and sisters and mothers who had impacted their families enough to warrant an expensive form of commemoration where cheaper or indeed none could have sufficed.


Burnett, 2007, ‘Forever Young: An Investigation of the Depictions of Children on Classical Attic Funerary Monuments’, Hesperia Supplements,Vol. 41: Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy, 309-322

J.B. Connelly, 2007, Portrait of a Priestess, Princeton

Dillon, 2010, The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World, Cambridge

R.Garland, 2001, The Greek Way of Death (2nd ed), London

S.C. Humphreys, 1983, The Family, Women and Death. London

C.L. Lawton, 1995, Attic Document Reliefs, Oxford

Morris, 1998, ‘Athenian Art in Context’, in D. Boedeker and K.A. Raaflaub (eds), Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens,Cambridge, MA, 59-86

J.H. Oakley, 2004, Picturing Death in Classical Athens, Cambridge

G.M.A. Richter, 1970, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, London

[1] Connelly 2007, 18

[2] Connelly 2007, 3

[3] Connelly 2007, 4

[4] Connelly 2007,4

[5] Connelly 2007, 5

[6] Connelly 2007, 13

[7] Connelly 2007, 19

[8] Connelly 2007, 18

[9] Connelly 2007, 229

[10] Humphreys 1983, 229

[11] Morris 1998, 63

[12] Morris 1998, 64

[13] Morris 1998, 64

[14] Humphreys 1983, 89

[15] Humphreys 1983, 89

[16] Humphreys 1983, 90

[17] Humphreys 1983, 104

[18] Humphreys 1983, 105

[19] Oakley 2004, 215; 219

[20] Richter 1970, 112

[21] Humphreys 1983, 92

[22] Connelly 2007, 16

[23] Garland 2001, 16

[24] Morris 1998, 65

[25] Humphreys 1983, 106

[26] Humphreys 1983, 107

[27] Oakley 2004, 231

[28] Oakley 2004, 110

[29] Oakley 2004, 119

[30] Oakley 2004, 121

[31] Oakley 2004, 121

[32] Burnett 2007, 317

[33] Burnett 2007, 317

[34] Burnett 2007, 312

[35] Dillon 2010, 69

[36] Dillon 2010, 108

[37] Dillon 2010,132

[38] Oakley 2004, 107; 108.

[39] Oakley 2004, 108

[40] Lawton 1995, 36        

[41] Garland 2001, 68

[42] Burnett 2007, 312

[43] Burnett 2007, 311

[44] Humphreys 1983, 103

[45] Burnett 2007, 312

[46] Burnett 2007, 312

[47] Burnett 2007, 313; 314


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