Tuesday, March 20, 2018


Katia Margariti, The Death of the Maiden in Classical Athens / Ο θάνατος της αγάμου κόρης στην Αθήνα των κλασικών χρόνων. Access archaeology. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2017. Pp. xlviii, 523; 147 p. of plates. ISBN 9781784915469. £110.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Panagiotis Konstantinidis, Piraeus, Greece (panagiotis_konstantinidis@hotmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

This book is a reprint of Margariti's Ph.D.-thesis in Greek, submitted in 2010. She added an extensive English summary (pp. i-xlviii) in order to make it known to a wider audience, and included a selection of the photographs from the original dissertation.1

In ancient Greek culture, marriage was an important social institution for the oikosand the city. This holds especially true for Athens. As the author states "it was essential for the birth of legitimate children, the continuation of the family line, the preservation of family property, [and the] upholding of tradition and household religion (…); it was a prerequisite for providing the poliswith legitimate future citizens, warriors, and mothers" (p. ii), but also occasionally a means of sealing political alliances.2

Since the first attempt to identify the aoros parthenosin Athenian funerary art by A. Milchhoefer in the late 19th century, relatively little has been written about the death of Athenian maidens in funerary art and archaeology; exceptions are the influential studies of J. Boardman and D. Kurtz and that of G. Kokula.3 While the subject of Athenian burial customs of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. is probably one of the best-known aspects of ancient Athenian civic life, the subject of the identification of the maiden in Athenian culture (myth and tragedy), society (burials and funerary inscriptions) and art (vase-painting and funerary sculpture) is worth revisiting.

Margariti's book sets out to "examine the death of maidens in classical Athens, combining the study of Attic funerary iconography (grave reliefs and funerary vases) with research on classical Athenian maiden burials, funerary inscriptions, tragic plays, and relevant Attic myths" (p. i). The monograph consists of six chapters, one for each area of study: grave reliefs, funerary vases, burials, inscriptions, tragedy, and mythology. As stated by the author, "special emphasis is placed on aspects of the subject that have not been studied by other scholars, such as the iconography of dead maidens in funerary art" (p. i); these are discussed in the first two chapters of the book and are arguably the strongest ones.

In the first two chapters (Funerary Vases and Grave Reliefs), the author sets forth the criteria of identification that were applied in collecting the material and creating the catalogues, while emphasizing the iconographic problems arising from their study. Important characteristics are the presence of the loutrophoros, specific features of clothing (i.e. the Attic peplos) and hairdressing (i.e. the lampadion), or a combination of the two (a youthful hairstyle and the presence of the diagonal himation or the Attic peplos). In two- and multi-figured scenes of funerary reliefs and vases, the scale of figures can also be helpful, with the non-servant females (parthenoi) usually being shown smaller in size than the other adult figures of these scenes. The presence of special attributes is also key in identifying maidens, such as young females holding dolls or teasing a small dog with a bird, as are elements of the wedding iconography (the bridal diadem [planis], the cheiragogia [leading the bride by the hand], or the bridal shoes [nymphides]). A section on Athenian burial customs (as attested in epigraphic and literary sources), and how they are reflected in iconography would have been most welcome.

Identification tools are sound, and unjustified obstinacy in certain identifications is wisely avoided.4 The author acknowledges quite rightly the fact that "since the funerary reliefs and vases were usually bought ready-made by the family of the deceased upon visiting the sculptors' or painters' workshops, the ambiguity of their figured scenes was intentional, so as to appeal to a wide audience" (p. v), since this accounts for some of the iconographic ambiguities. Similarly, the lack of funerary inscriptions makes it "often difficult (at times even impossible) to identify the dead person with absolute certainty among the various figures depicted in such scenes" (p. v).

The author also states that "the hydria-loutrophoros is not the symbol of maiden death par excellence, but merely one of the symbols of untimely death before marriage for the Athenian parthenoi" (p. xi). Thus, she—as other scholars before her—argues against the 'traditional' theory according to which the loutrophoros marked the graves of the unmarried dead alone.5

Chapter three (Burials) examines an important aspect of this study, namely whether the funerary reliefs under discussion can be associated with a tomb. Unfortunately, only one out of the approximately 170 marble grave reliefs and vases listed in the catalogue, can be associated with an excavated tomb: the grave stele of young Eukoline from the Kerameikos cemetery (Cat. no. E 68). Since skeletal remains were largely ignored and rarely studied systematically in earlier archaeological studies, the author can only compare this grave to three others located within the boundaries of the polis of Athens: the Kerameikos cemetery, the classical cemetery near modern Syntagma Square, and the West Eleusis cemetery. Comparing and contrasting skeletal remains from Attica to other regions is highly problematic not only because of the state of scholarship, as in the case of Boeotia and Corinth, but also because of the distance, as in the case of geographically remote areas, including Samothrace, Metapontum and Epizephyrian Locri.

Chapter four (Inscriptions) treats the small number of surviving classical Attic funerary epigrams commemorating dead maidens, mostly dating to the 4th century B.C. As the author concludes, nearly all of them emphasize the loving relationship between mothers and daughters. In light of this special relationship, a brief overview of the social status and everyday life of legitimate Athenian females would have been an extremely useful addition.

Chapters five and six analyze the death of maidens in Attic tragedy and myth, a topic that has received much scholarly attention. These chapters complement the study of the funerary monuments in previous chapters but are also essential for an holistic approach to the subject. Myth is key to a better understanding of the social status of the maiden and subsequently the significance of marriage in ancient Athenian society. The concise synopsis undertaken here is highly successful.

In chapter five (Tragedy) the sacrifice of the mythical figures of Iphigeneia, Polyxena, Makaria (Euripides) and Antigone (Sophocles) are discussed. While the sacrifices of Iphigeneia and Polyxena are connected to marriage, Makaria's virginal modesty is the ultimate symbol of familial—social—loyalty. She is undoubtedly the ideal maiden: "devoted to her family, ready to sacrifice herself for others, brave, yet modest" (p. xxi). Antigone's utter devotion to her father's oikos is equally striking. She sacrifices the ultimate social ideal for a woman of either citizen status or—in myth—aristocratic/regal descend. For the love of her dead family, she refuses married life and the children she could have had with Haimon, thus failing to fulfill her goal in life. As Margariti concludes (p. xxiv) "the tragic poets praise the remarkable bravery and willingness of their maiden heroines to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their city or family, but never fail to stress the particularly tragical aspect of their early death that deprives them of marriage and motherhood." After all, self-sacrifice although commendable in myth, is devastating for the future of the oikos and the survival of the city in real life.

In chapter six (Mythology) the Attic myths of the maiden Erigone, who hanged herself, and the daughters of Leos are analyzed. They are aptly selected because they present the mythical models of the real-life Athenian maidens, who have to die symbolically during their wedding ceremony in order to be re-born as wives, adult women, and future mothers. Margariti is correct—in our point of view—in acknowledging the fact that in classical Athens the tragic event of the untimely death of maidens is sometimes viewed as a wedding. The author joins with many scholars who have pointed out (p. xxix, note 216) that marriage to Death, or marriage in Hades is closely related to the Greek custom of burying maidens and unmarried males in their wedding attire. Margariti cleverly notes that it is still common in Greece to bury unmarried individuals dressed as brides and grooms.

Finally, linking chapters five and six with those on iconography, the author concludes that "the iconography of dead maidens in classical Athens is in accordance with the 'image' of the deceased parthenoi presented by funerary epigrams, tragedy, and mythology" (p. xxxi).

The chapters are supplemented by catalogues (of grave reliefs, funerary vases and inscriptions), tables, graphs, images, and a lengthy list of references that includes ancient authors. References to plates were not deleted even though no plate numbers were included. It might have been more user-friendly to direct the reader to the 2010 online version of this study, as it included all relevant plates and images. One also wonders if, overall, a longer English translation of the Greek text would have been preferable.

I spotted no factual errors. More careful editing, however, would have caught some typographical errors, i.e. the "π.X." in Graph 4 (p. xli) of the English section of the book. Also, throughout the Greek text, the presence or absence of the final -ν in feminine and masculine nouns should have been applied more consistently. Although the images are understandably fewer in number (and mostly taken from studies published before 1950) due to copyright cost, an effort could have been made to edit them further in photoshop. The writing style is accessible, and the bibliography has been updated since the online 2010 Greek edition.

Overall Margariti's book is successful. It would be unrealistic to expect radically new interpretations from this book due to the lack of substantial overlap in archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources. The author's approach is holistic, and she presents her material with keen attention to theory. Margariti's study is commendable for its thorough presentation of the material, clear and concise methodology and fluid prose.


1.   An open access edition of the Greek text is available at the National Greek Repository of Ph.D.-theses (https://www.didaktorika.gr/eadd/).
2.   A. Vérilhac, C. Vial, Le marriage grec du VIe siècle av. J.-C. à l' époque d' Auguste, Athènes 1998 (BCH Suppl. 32); R. F. Kennedy, Immigrant Women in Athens. Gender, Ethnicity and Citizenship in the Classical City, (New York 2014) Routledge Studies in Ancient History 6: 14-16, 17; J. Blok, Citizenship in Classical Athens, (Cambridge 2017): 178-182.
3.   A. Milchhoefer, "Gemalte Grabstelen", Athenische Mitteilungen 5 (1880): 164-194; J. Boardman and D. Kurtz, Greek Burial Customs, (London 1971); G. Kokula, Marmorlutrophoren, (Berlin 1984).
4.   See cat. nos. E II 1-51; Λ ΙΙ 1-16; ΥΙΙ 1; ΛΛ ΙΙ 1-23; ΕΛΟυ ΙΙ 1; ΕΥ ΙΙ 1.
5.   J. Bergemann, "Die sogenannte Lutrophoros: Grabmal für unverheiratete Tote?", Athenische Mitteilungen 111 (1996): 149-190.

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