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The aftermath of battle

War dead in ancient Greece

Ancestral
custom
In the aftermath of battle, those who survived were left to con-
template an eerie spectacle. What confronted them was a scene
of distorted humanity: a field of broken bodies, abandoned
weapons and the mournful cries of the wounded and dying.
Birds circled expectantly overhead, whilst dogs scavenged ea-
gerly on the periphery. The field itself was littered with the dead
of both sides, now indistinguishable in their shared and final
fate. Indeed, the ancient Greeks offer us a complex picture of
the glories and triumphs of war, but few scenes strike the mod-
ern reader as strongly as the pathos of the aftermath of battle.

By Cezary Kucewicz dead and wounded. At the scenes of

A
hardest engagement, bodies of friend
n eyewitness account of such and foe alike lay two or three deep,
carnage and chaos is provided to as happened at the Battle of Coronea,
us by Xenophon, whose graphic where Agesilaus’ Spartans met the The-
illustration of the aftermath of ban phalanx head on. According to an-
Coronea (394 BC) relates the spectacle of the cient sources, the formation of these hu-
world turned upside down (Agesilaus 2.14): man mounds was no rare occurrence.
At Leuctra (371 BC), after the Spartan
Now that the fighting was at an end, king Cleombrotus had succumbed to his
it was possible to see, where they fell wounds, Diodorus speaks of the “great
upon one another – the earth stained mound of corpses” that formed immedi-
with blood, friend and foe lying dead ately around his body (15.55.5); while
side by side, shields smashed to pieces, in Xenophon’s account of fighting about
spears snapped in two, daggers bared Corinth in 393 BC, so many warriors
of their sheaths, some on the ground, fell that bodies “seemed to be heaped
some embedded in the bodies, some together like heaps of corn or piles of
yet gripped by the hand. wood or stones” (Hellenica 4.4.12).
Aside from the masses of corpses dis-
A narrative of battle itself could be told persed around the main engagement, a trail
through the scattered positions of the of bodies, often several kilometres long,

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would usually wind its way from the centre summer, and the rapid decomposition it
of the battlefield towards the side of the de- caused. The total number of dead aver-
feated: a poignant reminder of the desper- aged around 15% for the defeated and
ate retreat of the wounded, many of whom 5% for the victors, which amounted to
would often be slaughtered by victorious over four thousand bodies in the cases
pursuers, or trampled by their own com- of larger engagements, such as those at
rades, such as at the Battle of Cynoscephalae Acragas (472 BC) or the Nemea River
in 364 BC (Plut., Pel. 32.7). Inevitably, the (394 BC). Furthermore, a number of fac-
act of finding, identifying and retrieving the tors made the process of identification all
fallen after such events, was no easy task. the more difficult, including disfiguring
Before anyone could consider the facial wounds, the process of decay and
fate of the dead, it was normal for the rigor mortis, and the work of scavenging
winning side to set up a trophy (tropaion), animals. The efforts of the defeated side
consisting of captured armour and weap- were further hindered by the lack of per-
ons, often at the place the enemy had sonal items or identifiable tokens, since
fled, upon a post or tree stump. The much was stripped by the victors in the
erection of a trophy provided symbolic immediate aftermath.
confirmation of victory, and was usually Any delay in the process inevitably
accompanied by sacrifices and the sing- increased such difficulties. Xenophon, for
ing of the paean to recognise the gods instance, reports the unfortunate fate of
who aided in the battle. It was only then, some Arcadians, who, having been isolat-
after tending to the wounded and those ed and killed in Bithynia, had laid unbur-
with a chance of survival, that the victors ied for five days in the burning sun. When
would collect their dead and strip the these individuals were eventually found
enemy corpses of their armour, weapons by Xenophon and his men, the bodies
and any other valuables they possessed. had to be buried “at the spot where each
The defeated side, by contrast, was had fallen”, as “it was no longer possi-
required to send heralds to the victors, ble to bring them away” (Anabasis 6.4.9).
requesting a truce for the retrieval of the Similar problems accompanied the re-
dead. Such a request could not be re- trieval of casualties of naval battles, as
fused, since it was regarded both as a for- the bodies had to be recovered before
mal admission of defeat, and as a revered they sank, normally within a few hours of
Greek custom, referred to in Euripides’ death. After a few days, bacterial action This grave stele from Megara
Suppliants as “the laws of all Greece” in the abdomen would have brought the dates from 480 BC. It is par-
(311). Occasional exceptions to the rule, bodies back to surface, but due to cur- ticularly interesting due to its
such as the Theban denial of Athenian rents, adverse weather conditions, bloat- detailed inscription: "I speak,
burial after the Battle of Delium (424 ing and marine predators, a potentially I, Pollis dear son of Asopichos,
BC), were nearly always regarded as pun- large number of fallen rowers would be not having died a coward, with
ishment for a bigger sacrilege committed either lost or quite beyond recognition. the wounds of the tattooers,
by the enemy, and only make rare ap- Yet, despite the difficulties, the re- yes myself." Not only do we
pearances in the sources. In effect, such trieval, identification and burial of the war find out specifically that Pollis
post-battle assumptions and procedures dead was of utmost importance to ancient died in battle, but that he was
entailed the mastery of the dead on the Greek armies. To fail in such universal killed by the 'tattooers'. This
battlefield, which itself became the only obligation was always seen as evidence is probably a reference to the
clear-cut criterion of victory. of extreme calamity and utter moral col- Thracians, who are thought to
lapse, as in the case of the disastrous Athe- have tattooed or painted their
The fate of the fallen nian retreat from Syracuse in 413 BC. As skin. Now in the collection of
As noted earlier, carrying out the retrieval Thucydides relates, having been forced to the J. Paul Getty Museum.
© Public domain
of the dead was no easy matter, compli- neglect the wounded and their unburied
cated yet further by the heat of the Greek comrades, the retreating Athenians were

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(Opposite page) A view of an filled with grief and self-reproach at the


ancient Greek battlefield af- necessity of the abandonment (7.72–75).
ter the dust has settled. Note The tragedy must have been especially
the trophy set up in the mid- deep for the Athenian general Nicias,
dle and the two heralds in whose famous action a few years earlier
the background. following the Battle of Solygeia (425 BC),
© Juhani Jokinen provides perhaps the clearest demonstra-
tion of the moral obligation to retrieve the
war dead. On this occasion, after victory
and the setting up of a trophy, Nicias real-
ized that two of his Athenian fallen were
missing. He immediately decided to re-
turn to the region, and sent heralds ahead
to the defeated Corinthians, asking for a
truce to take up the corpses. Yet in this
remarkably egalitarian act, Nicias thereby
admitted defeat. As Plutarch summarized,
he “preferred to renounce the victory
and his personal triumph rather than al-
low two of his fellow-countrymen to lie
unburied” (Nic. 6). The episode no doubt
served to highlight Nicias’ piety, but in
other cases, failure to retrieve the dead
was nothing short of disastrous for army
generals. After the sea battle of Arginusae
(406 BC), for example, the victorious
Athenian generals failed to bring back the
dead and wounded because of the onset
of a sudden storm. Upon their return, they
faced the outrage of the community, and
were all ultimately condemned to death
(Diodorus Siculus 13.101).
The importance ascribed to the proper
treatment of the war dead helps to justify
the immediate attention received by the
dead following any battle or military en-
gagement in the Classical period. Indeed,
the surviving evidence of burial sites, war
monuments, casualty lists, and funeral
orations, confirms further the homage
conferred on the war dead by the Greek
poleis. Such norms, referred to as long-
held “ancestral custom” (patrios nomos) in
Athens by Thucydides, also highlight the
reveals that they were not as ‘ancestral’ as
egalitarian nature of Greek practices, as
each fallen man was almost guaranteed to Thucydides would have us believe.
be buried and commemorated by his com-
munity. But these attitudes towards the war Homeric war dead
dead had not always been so universal. In Any study of Greek attitudes towards the
fact, even a cursory glance at their origins war dead, or indeed any military matter,

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must begin with Homer. The verses of the each side sets out at dawn to collect and
Iliad, which describe the final year of the bury their dead (Il. 7.423–429). The im-
legendary war between the Achaeans and mediate attention given to the dead seems
Trojans, contain a famous mass burial to mirror Classical practices and attitudes
scene at the end of the first day of fight- towards the fallen. Surprisingly, however,
ing. After concluding a temporary truce, the episode is an exception. Although the

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Iliad does have a burial truce after the first unburied bodies. In stark contrast to the
day, it does not have one on any subse- closing lines of the Iliad, the very first lines
quent day. The recovery of the war dead, reveal that the poem is not only a story of
in fact, is conducted in a radically differ- Achilles’ wrath, but also an account of the
ent way; instead of being retrieved after fallen, whose unburied bodies are feasted
the battle, the Homeric dead were nor- on by the dogs and birds (Il. 1.1–5). Such
mally dealt with during the fighting. corpses were certainly not those of the Ho-
The usual course of events follow- meric elites – who, as we saw, were normally
ing the death of any Homeric warrior retrieved during battle – but rather, those of
follows a clear pattern. The killer would common warriors. The macabre image of
try to strip the dead of his armour, itself unburied corpses scattered across the battle-
treated as a trophy and a mark of mili- field is one constantly present in the poem:
tary success. The friends of the deceased, for instance, both the Trojan and Greek as-
by contrast, were obliged to prevent the semblies are specifically said to take place on
killer from stripping the armour and, if “clean ground, where there showed a space
possible, to carry the slain comrade to not cumbered with corpses” (8.491; 10.199).
safety. A failure to do so inflicted shame Unless a rare truce was agreed, we are, there-
on the dead warrior and his followers, fore, led to believe that the majority of Ho-
which in turn led to some of the fierce meric warriors were simply left unburied and
fights over the fallen that dominate large might lie on the battlefield for days, before
parts of the Iliad. One of the most graph- eventually ending up in a mass grave.
The poetic image of the war dead con-
ic scenes depicts the struggle over the
veyed in the Iliad was drawn largely in ac-
corpse of Kebriones, brother of the Tro-
cordance with the deep social divisions
jan prince Hector (Il. 16.755-764):
which permeated Homeric society. In this
So above Kebriones these two, ur- way, the bodies of the leading men (basileis)
gent for battle, Patroclus, son of Me- were dealt with during the fighting, and dis-
noitios, and glorious Hector, were tinguished with funerals worthy of heroes.
straining with the pitiless bronze to The corpses of common warriors, on the
tear at each other; since Hector had other hand, remained where they had fallen
caught him by the head, and would until a truce could be agreed. In short, this
not let go of him, and Patroclus had ‘hierarchical’ model was very different to the
his foot on the other side, while the egalitarian norms and attitudes of the Clas-
other Trojans and Danaäns drove to- sical Greeks. It was not, however, confined
gether the strength of their onset. only to the mythical world of the Trojan War.

After being retrieved in the heat of the battle, Archaic war dead
the leading Homeric men (basileis) would Just how far the Homeric epics reflected the
be given an individual and highly conspic- historical reality of Archaic Greece has long
uous burial. These burials, accompanied by been a matter of considerable disagreement
feasts and games, could often last well over among scholars. Despite this, the poems,
a week, as the splendour and duration of most likely completed during the first half of
The main scene on this At-
the funeral celebrations were meant to ex- the seventh century BC, are one of the most
tic black-figure krater from
press the social rank and glory of the fallen valuable sources we have for the study of
Pharsalus, dated ca. 530 BC,
elite warrior. The Iliad, in fact, ends with early Greek war and society. Moreover, the
depicts an epic struggle over a
just such a burial, as the poet marvels over ideals and norms they depict on the fallen
fallen warrior, perhaps intend-
the grave-barrow and ‘glorious feast’ which are reflected in the precious few pieces of
ed to represent Patroclus. Cur-
concluded the burial of Hector. evidence that survive for Archaic warfare.
rently in the National Archae-
The overwhelming impression that To begin with, the motifs of fight-
ological Museum of Athens.
Homer gives us, nevertheless, is that of ing over and retrieving the dead during
© Livius.Org

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combat – so prominent in the battle de- Similarly, the status difference inherent
scriptions of the Iliad – were particularly in the burials of elite and common warriors
popular in the late Archaic art of Athens. in the Iliad, is also visible in our Archaic re-
Painted on both black- and red-figure pot- cords. Elite warriors, as one can judge from
tery, there are over 250 representations of surviving Attic tombstones, received individ-
fighting over and recovering the dead in ual burials commemorated with elaborate
the sixth century BC, where Ajax’ recovery grave statues, reliefs, and brief epigrams. The
of the fallen Achilles’ is the most popular. most famous of them include that of Croe-
These images have often been dismissed sus, dated to the middle of sixth century BC:
by scholars as heroic depictions, bearing
little relation to contemporary practice of Stay and mourn at the monument of
war; fighting over the dead, as they main- dead Kroisos, whom mighty Ares de-
tain, would have been highly unlikely in stroyed in the front ranks.
the tight and cohesive phalanx formations
Another is that of Tettichus, from the sec-
that featured on Archaic battlefields. Yet
ond quarter of the sixth century BC:
from the beginning of the fifth century BC,
Attic black-figure amphora,
such depictions suddenly disappear, with Let everyone, whether townsman or
dated ca. 520–500 BC, depict-
almost no surviving representations after stranger from abroad, before he pass,
ing Ajax carrying the body of
480 BC. But since the epics themselves mourn Tettichus, valorous man who died
Achilles from the field of battle.
persisted in influence and popularity, it in battle and yielded up his tender youth;
Currently in the National Mu-
seems reasonable to assume that Archaic lamenting this, proceed to worthy tasks.
seum of Antiquities in Leiden.
depictions must have always represented
Both belonged to wealthy Athenian fami- © Josho Brouwers
something quite different: that the fight-
ing over and retrieval of the dead during lies and, as their funerary epigrams suggest,
battles would likely have been the norm died in combat. These monuments com-
in Archaic custom. Pausanias’ account memorated the valour of the individual de-
of the First Messenian War (ca. 743–724 ceased, securing their fame (kleos) among
BC), which mentions the practice of com- future generations. At the same time, they
bat despoliation, lends further support to provided an opportunity for a family to dis-
this conclusion (4.8.7): “The most remark- play their wealth. The elitist and individu-
able was the death of those who tried to alistic nature of such gravestones gives us,
strip any of the fallen. For if they exposed therefore, an important indication of the so-
any part of their bodies, they were struck cial division within Archaic armies, as elite
with javelins or were struck down while warriors clearly did not wish to be buried
intent on their present occupation, or with the rest of the fallen. Instead, their
were killed by those whom they were bodies would have been rescued during
plundering who still lived.” the fighting and given conspicuous burials
Such fragments, along with the evi- at home by their families, perhaps not un-
dence of early Greek iconography, brings like those described in the Iliad. In a clear
the Homeric practices regarding the fallen allusion to the Homeric poems, the Archaic
much closer to the historical realities of Ar- Spartan poet Tyrtaeus reinforces this ideal
chaic war. Since combat despoliation and by stating that the name and glorious repu-
recovery of the dead were incompatible tation of a fallen warrior would never die:
with the nature of the phalanx formation, “His death is mourned alike by young and
the first appearance of the latter would con- old; the whole community feels the keen
sequently have to be down dated to the end loss its own. People point out his tomb, his
of the Archaic period, at just that time when children in the street, his children’s children
such images disappear from the artistic re- and posterity” (fr. 12.26–33).
cord: a theory which has found increasing Finally, the archaeological evidence
support in most recent scholarship. for the burial of non-elite warriors in the

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Archaic period is extremely scarce, since of its fallen warriors. Every warrior, alive
the number of surviving burial mounds or dead, was now equally important to the
(polyandria) is few and far between. The success of a campaign. Indeed, fights over
lack of any archaeologically visible mate- the dead during combat disappeared as
rial, however, may in itself be an indication the new phalanx formations took over as
of the relative unimportance of such buri- a dominant way of fighting. Finally, it be-
als, which again lends itself to comparisons came essential to retrieve all the dead after
with the Homeric standards concerning the battle, even if that meant admitting defeat.
non-elite battle-dead. A few fragments of Similarly, the Persian invasions of 490
Archaic poetry suggest that some corpses, and 480/79 BC had a widespread and sig-
presumably those of common warriors, nificant effect on the victorious Greeks. In
would remain on the battlefield unburied. fact, one way the Greeks recovered from
Hesiod, for instance, speaks of the souls of this trauma was to establish a new, Pan-Hel-
fallen warriors whose “flesh has decayed”, lenic identity; one fundamentally different
as “their bodies rot away on the black earth to that of the ‘barbarian invader’. Proper re-
under parching Sirius” (Shield of Heracles spect for the war dead became a large part
150–153); whilst Archilochus similarly ex- of this new Greek ideal, since the Persian
pects that the bodies of his comrades “will practices of the mistreatment, exposure and
parch up” by “the burning Dog-star (…) mutilation of the dead were now radically
shining fiercely down” (fr. 292). condemned by fifth century BC authors.
In short, Archaic treatment of the war These customs concerning the fallen
dead was far removed from the norms and were most prominent in Classical Athens.
standards of the Classical period. Moreover, Following recovery and identification,
the divide between a hierarchical (Archaic) the Athenian armies cremated all of their
and egalitarian (Classical) standard was dead on the battlefield, and brought the
most likely a feature of the organisation of remains home for a public funeral. Such
Archaic fighting forces more broadly. The
celebrations, as Thucydides relates in de-
latter were considerably smaller in size
tail, took place annually in the winter,
than the armies of the Classical period, and
and involved a number of rituals (2.34):
offer no indications of mass mobilization,
as most conflicts consisted of raids and bor- (…) two days before the ceremony the
der disputes, settled by privately organised bones of the fallen are brought and put
war bands. Burial of the war dead, there- in a tent which has been erected, and
fore, was originally a private affair. It was people make whatever offerings they
only from the fifth century BC onwards that wish to their own dead. Then there is a
it became the responsibility of the state. funeral procession in which coffins of
cypress wood are carried on wagons.
Classical war dead There is one coffin for each tribe, which
By the end of the Archaic period, the Greek contains the bones of members of that
A modern reconstruction poleis were transformed by a number of tribe. One empty bier is decorated and
of what the grave stele of political and military changes, which had a carried in the procession: this is for the
Aristion might have looked profound effect on the ideals and treatment missing, whose bodies could not be
like originally before all the of the battle-dead. The political changes recovered… The bones are laid in the
paint had faded. This copy is that swept through the Greek world – per- public burial-place, which is the most
on display in the Glyptothek haps symbolized most prominently by the beautiful quarter outside the city walls.
in Munich; the original from introduction of democracy in Athens (508/7 Here the Athenian always bury those
ca. 520 BC can be found in BC) – led to the creation of the first citizen who have fallen in war.
the National Archaeological armies. These armies, mobilized and con-
Museum in Athens. trolled by the state, became responsible for The graves of the war dead, located in
© Marcus Cyron (Wikimedia) the post-battle fate of each and every one the public cemetery known as Demosion

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Sema in the Kerameikos district, were an oath reputedly sworn by the Greeks on
marked with a stela and an inscription the eve of the Battle of Plataea (479 BC),
listing all casualties buried there. Finally, provides a possible candidate. Facing a
the ceremony was concluded with a fu- crucial battle against the Persians, the co-
neral oration (epitaphios logos) in praise alition of the Greeks swore: “And I shall
of the dead, given by a distinguished citi- bury on the spot the dead of those who
zen chosen by the city, as well as funeral have fought as my allies, and shall leave
games (agon epitaphios). behind none of them unburied” (29).
As we have seen, the democratic and The story of the Greek war dead, then,
egalitarian aspect of Athenian burial and is one of gradual development from the hi-
commemoration stood in a clear contrast erarchical standards of the Archaic period,
to Archaic, hierarchical standards. The to the egalitarian, Pan-Hellenic customs
cremated remains of all warriors, regard- of the Classical era. As such, it reflects a
less of status or family affiliation, were number of political, cultural, and military
placed together in a single coffin, one for changes which transformed the Greek
each of the ten tribes. Likewise, the casu- world at the end of the sixth century BC. As
alty lists inscribed on the stelae made no the responsibility for the war dead moved
social distinction between the dead, as all from private to public hands, the proce-
were equal in their sacrifice for the city. dures for their retrieval and burial changed,
All these customs, referred to famously by culminating in the standards of Classical
Thucydides as “ancestral custom”, were a Athens. Eventually, the principles of patrios
product of the new spirit of egalitarianism nomos, emphasizing the importance of the Athenian casualty list for the
in Athens which followed the introduc- retrieval and celebration of every warrior tribe Erechtheis, dated ca. 460
tion of democracy at the end of the sixth who died for their polis, came to define BC. Currently in the Louvre.
century BC. And although their exact ori- ancient Greek attitudes towards the war © Livius.Org
gins have been a matter of considerable dead. These basic ideals, first formed nearly
debate among scholars, the overall cer- 2,500 years ago, remain largely unchanged
emony most likely crystallised in the first down to our own day. 0
quarter of the fifth century BC.
The customs and ceremonies accom- Cezary Kucewicz is a postgraduate re-
panying the burial of the war dead differed searcher at the Department of History at
from one Greek polis to another in the University College London.
Classical era, but all of them were char-
acterized by a similar attitude of respect
towards the dead, and an assumption of Further reading
equality between fallen warriors. The Spar- • Nathan T. Arrington, Ashes, Imag-
tans, for instance, inhumed their dead on es, and Memories: The Presence
the field of battle, making exceptions only of the War Dead in Fifth-Century
for their fallen kings, who were carried Athens (Oxford 2015).
back home and preserved in honey. This
• W. Kendrick Pritchett, The
shared, Pan-Hellenic ideal is best illustrat-
Greek State at War: Part IV
ed by the new procedures concerning bat-
(Berkeley 1985).
tlefield truces for the recovery of the dead,
which appear in our sources in the second • Pamela Vaughn, ‘The identifica-
half of the fifth century BC. These, as we tion and retrieval of the hoplite
witnessed earlier, became an essential part battle-dead’, in Victor Davis Han-
of the aftermath of any Greek battle, pro- son (ed.), Hoplites: The Classical
viding an official procedure to determine Greek Battle Experience (New
the winning side. The date of the first truce York 1991), pp. 38–62.
is again a matter of controversy; however,

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