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Athens Mourning "Fallen Heroes"
February 16, 2000

Athens honored its war dead with a public procession and funeral and an annual celebration. The state funeral for those who died in the war's first year is described by Thucydides:

In this winter, following their traditional custom, the Athenians held burial rites at public expense for the first to die in this war, in the following manner. They lay out the bones of the dead two days beforehand, after setting up a tent, and each person brings whatever offerings he wishes to his own relatives. When the procession takes place, wagons carry cypress coffins, one for each tribe, and within are the bones of each man, according to tribe. One empty bier, fully decorated, is brought for the missing, all who were not found and recovered. Any one who wishes, citizen or foreigner, joins the procession, and female relatives are present at the grave as mourners. They bury them in the public tomb, which is in the most beautiful suburb of the city and in which they always bury those killed in war.... After they cover them with earth, a man chosen by the state, known for his wise judgement and of high reputation, makes an appropriate speech of praise, and after this they depart. This is their burial practice, and throughout the whole war, whenever there was occasion, they followed the custom.

The "tribes" (phylai) referred to by Thucydides were ten divisions of Athenian citizens established during the political reforms of Cleisthenes around the start of the fifth century. All citizens belonged to a tribe and certain political magistrates and committees and military contingents were drawn up based on tribal affiliation. No Athenian polyandreion has ever been found intact, and our knowledge is based on fragments of stelai, sculptured panels, and architectural blocks from them, along with some evidence from vase painting and ancient authors. The main feature of a state polyandreion was the casualty list, a name-by-name account of the dead from each tribe. This list, and an accompanying epigram praising the virtue and sacrifice of the fallen, was inscribed on one or more stelai. Excavations in the 1960s by Olga Alexandri about 450 m along the Academy Road from the Dipylon Gate revealed ten trenches cut into the ground. Clairmont (1981, 1983: pp. 142-143) suggests these are remains of a polyandreion and were for the placement of ten stelai listing casualties. The larnakes containing the bones and ashes would have been buried beneath the stelai acording to his interpretation.

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© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America