In 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
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.
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.
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.
- M. A. Park, Introducing Anthropology: An Integrated Approach, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008), 154. [↩]
- Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (San Diego: Harcourt, 1989), 6-7. [↩]
- Mumford 1989, 7 [↩]
- Plutarch, The Ancient Customs of the Spartans, 18. This translation comes from the Frank Cole Babbit translation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931). [↩]
- Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC, 2nd ed (London: Routledge, 2002), 158. [↩]
- Plutarch, Instituta Laconica, 18. [↩]
- Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle that changed the World (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 81. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Cartledge 2007, 81. [↩]
- Quoted in Cartledge 2007, 160. [↩]
- Herodotus, The Histories, 7.224.1. This translation comes from the Andrea L. Purvis translation (New York: Anchor Books, 2007). [↩]
- Cartledge 2007, 159 [↩]
- Sarah B. Pomeroy, Spartan Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 52, 68. [↩]
- Cartledge 2007, 81-82 [↩]