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The Demosion Sema and the Peloponnesian War "Fallen Heroes"
February 16, 2000


The location of the tombs and the date of the pottery found in them provide tantalizing evidence about the identity of the remains. The road leading out of Athens' main west gate led to the Academy, sanctuary of the mythical hero Akademos and site of an olive grove sacred to Athena, where Plato taught. On either side of the road (at 1.5 km in length just over one mile) was the Dêmosion Sêma (People's Grave), a state burial ground for notable statesmen, generals, cultural figures, and Athenian citizen-soldiers who died in battle. In his Guide to Greece, the second-century A.D. traveler Pausanias described the Dêmosion Sêma:

Outside the city of Athens in the country districts and beside the roads there are sanctuaries of gods and of heroes and the tombs of men....There is a memorial to all the Athenians who died in battles at sea or on the land except for those who fought at Marathon. Their tomb is in that place, in honor of their courage, but the rest lie beside the road to the Academy; tombstones stand on the graves to tell you each man's name and district.

Pausanias then lists more than 40 monuments he saw between the city wall and the Academy, ranging from the tombs of the tyrant slayers, Harmodios and Aristogeiton (514 B.C.), to the great statesman Pericles (429), other leaders such as Conon (392) and Thrasyboulos (388), and later cultural figures such as the fourth-century painter Nicias and the philosophers Zeno (263) and Chrysippos (207). The Academy Road, now beneath modern buildings, follows the route of Plataion and Salaminos streets, and during the recent excavations its retaining wall was discovered near the polyandreia.

The initial dating of the pottery corresponds to the first decade of the Peloponnesian War, a protracted struggle from 431 to 404 B.C. between Athens and her allies and a coalition whose chief members were Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth. The war had several causes: the Athenian leader Pericles' use of funds intended for the general defense of Greece against the Persians for the Parthenon and other public buildings in Athens; intervention by Athens on behalf of Kerkyra (Corfu) in a dispute with Corinth in 433; and Athens' attack on the Corinthian colony of Potidaea in 432. The final straw was the Megarian decree of 432, an economic chokehold that excluded inhabitants of Megara, a city adjacent to Athenian territory but aligned with Corinth and Sparta, from markets in Athens and its allied cities. After futile attempts at negotiating a settlement, Sparta and her allies declared war. Sparta invaded Athenian territory the following year. The "truest cause" of the war, wrote the historian Thucydides, was Sparta's anxiety about the growing power of Athens. Despite the plague, which broke out in 430 and lasted several years, Athens continued the struggle, fortune favoring one side then another, until the disastrous Sicilian expedition of 415-413, in which an Athenian fleet and army besieging Syracuse were destroyed, and the Spartan naval victory at Aegospotami in 404. In the words of the historian Xenophon, "The Athenians were now besieged by land and by sea. They had no ships, no allies, no food...." Athens surrendered.

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