Spartan Burial Practices and Honoring Fallen Soldiers

by Scott Manning on April 11, 2011

Modern-day Spartan MonumentIn the United States, like other countries, we honor deceased veterans with unique headstones and even burial rights in national cemeteries. Yet, how do you honor veterans in a civilization that is composed entirely of those who serve in the military, like the Spartans of ancient Greece? This civilization was unique from its fellow Greek city-states in many aspects including how it chose to treat and honor the dead.

The practice of burying the dead in a ceremonial fashion dates back to the Paleolithic period (c. 2.6 million to 10,000 yrs ago). More than 36 excavations reveal that even Neanderthals positioned bodies with artifacts and buried them.1  Historian Lewis Mumford recognizes that before man settled down in villages and cities, the dead had a permanent home, which often acted as pilgrimage sites for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This was but one ingredient that led to Homo sapiens settling down in permanent settlements.2  By the Archaic period (800-480 BC), the Greeks strove to separate the living from the dead and any traveler approaching a city was greeted by “the row of graves and tombstones that lined the roads.”3

The one exception among the Greek cities was Sparta. Plutarch (c. 46-120) tells us that this militaristic culture had no issues with burying their dead in the city among the living.4  Excavations confirm Plutarch’s statement, as archeologists have discovered the graves of citizens next to the wall of a house in at least one Spartan village (600 BC).5  The Spartans treated most of their dead the same by wrapping them in a red robe with olive leaves and burying them without any sort of artifacts or headstones.6  The lack of markers has made it difficult to find Spartan graves.7

Fallen Soldiers

Also distinctive in Greece, the Spartans tended to bury fallen soldiers on the battlefield, if that field was in territory where the bodies would not be desecrated. This was mainly due to the practicality of transporting the dead.8  In addition, there was some differentiation allotted to the men who died in battle. Since all Spartan males were trained warriors, there was no separating “veterans” from everyone else, because all of them served. However, there was a clear distinction between dying in battle and dying by natural causes. As such, the Spartans permitted a headstone with the casualty’s name and the simple inscription “in war” beneath it.9  Most of these headstones existed on battlefields, but in some instances, bodies made it back to Sparta.

The Spartans also had memorials. At Thermopylae, the scene of Leonidas’ doomed stand against the Persians (480 BC), the Spartans erected a monument to those that died bearing the statement:

Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.10

“Their laws” refer to the Spartan code of never surrendering. Herodotus also tells us that he memorized the names of the Spartans who died in that battle.11  It is not clear whether the names were on a piece of parchment or on stone or wood. However, Greek historian Peter Cartledge points out that the Spartans kept virtually no records. As such, he sees the existence of such a list as a strong homage, a memorial to those that died in that battle.12  Regardless, the Spartans at Thermopylae reached an interesting status in the conscious of Sparta. Not only did they earn the right to headstones, but they also got a memorial.

Fallen Mothers

Another peculiar aspect among the Spartans was their treatment of mothers who died in labor. These were the only other citizens, along with fallen soldiers, who were permitted a headstone.13  Cartledge theorizes that this was because these women died producing more warriors for Sparta, the class the culture most valued.14  Unfortunately, it is not clear if these women also received an inscription in the vein of “in childbirth” like the casualties who received an “in war” inscription. Either way, Spartan culture presents a unique approach in their burial practices. Everyone received the same treatment except for fallen warriors and those who died producing future warriors.

Bibliography

Cartledge, Paul. Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.

——. Thermopylae: The Battle that changed the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Herodotus. The Histories. In The Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis, 1-722. New York: Anchor Books, 2007.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, its Transformations, and its Prospects. San Diego: Harcourt, 1989.

Park, M.A.  Introducing Anthropology: An Integrated Approach. 4th ed.  New York:  McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Plutarch. The Ancient Customs of the Spartans. In Moralia, vol. III, translated by Frank Cole Babbit, 423-449. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Vaughn, Pamela. “The Identification and Retrieval of the Hoplite Battle-Dead.” In Hoplites: The Classical Battle Experience, edited by Victor Davis Hanson, 38-62. London: Routledge, 1993.

Footnotes

  1. M. A. Park, Introducing Anthropology: An Integrated Approach, 4th ed. (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 2008), 154. []
  2. Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (San Diego: Harcourt, 1989), 6-7. []
  3. Mumford 1989, 7 []
  4. Plutarch, The Ancient Customs of the Spartans, 18. This translation comes from the Frank Cole Babbit translation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931). []
  5. Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC, 2nd ed (London: Routledge, 2002), 158. []
  6. Plutarch, Instituta Laconica, 18. []
  7. Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle that changed the World (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 81. []
  8. Pamela Vaughn “The Identification and Retrieval of the Hoplite Battle-Dead” in Hoplites: The Classical Battle Experience, edited by Victor Davis Hanson (London: Routledge, 1993), 42. []
  9. Cartledge 2007, 81. []
  10. Quoted in Cartledge 2007, 160. []
  11. Herodotus, The Histories, 7.224.1. This translation comes from the Andrea L. Purvis translation (New York: Anchor Books, 2007). []
  12. Cartledge 2007, 159 []
  13. Sarah B. Pomeroy, Spartan Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 52, 68. []
  14. Cartledge 2007, 81-82 []

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Phil April 11, 2011 at 11:50 PM

Do you know if the honor given to mothers who died in labor was for all mothers who died in labor, or only those who died but the child lived? Was it only then for mothers of male children since Cartledge theorizes the honor was do to them producing more warriors?

Interesting article.

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2 Scott Manning April 12, 2011 at 12:52 AM

Phil, there is no indication by the ancient historians whether they restricted the honor to only mothers whose babies lived. However, my hunch is that the mother received the honor either way. Consider that the Spartans gave headstones and monuments to those that died at Thermopylae, a defeat. If a mother and her baby both died in childbirth, then the mother died at least fighting.

As for the mothers of male versus female babies, again there is no indication either way. However, modern historians tend agree that Sparta viewed both males and females as warriors. Both went through similar training, even though the men fought the battles. So in a sense, these mothers gave birth to warriors either way. In addition, if they had a girl, then that girl would grow up to give birth to more warriors.

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3 Phil April 12, 2011 at 12:56 AM

That makes sense. Interesting. Thanks.

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4 Patrick Swan May 1, 2013 at 12:50 AM

That statue you feature was funded with Marshall Plan Recovery dollars and presented to King Paul of Greece in the late 1940s. It stands across the highway from a plaque laid with the famous Greek Inscription: Go tell the Spartans, passerby, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

I was with a tour group and Historian Victor Davis Hanson squatted next to it and translated it after first reading it in Greek. The Hot Gates are not quite next to the sea anymore after 2,500 years and the road dividing the plaque from the statue is treacherous to cross on foot because it is a busy thoroughfare in the region. It is a little hard to imagine the fight there. Nevertheless, the experience is exhilerating to stand there knowing the history and then traveling back to Athens over winding mountain stretches that inadvertently hammer home how key was the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae. (And don’t forget that they had some allies with them).

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5 Scott Manning May 1, 2013 at 8:54 AM

Patrick, thank you for the great story. It would be tough to find a better tour guide for Greek battlefields. How did you score that opportunity? I’m sure you have photos of the experience. Are any of them available online?

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6 Brooke July 17, 2013 at 5:55 AM

I was wondering if you knew of any specific excavations that led to the discovery of Spartan remains (skeletons and tombstones)?

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