The sacred Panathenaic way continued to the north of the Agora, although this area still lies unexcavated beneath the modern city. We can pick up the road in the next excavated area, though, where it splits into two leading through two different gates in the wall. One of these gates is called Dipylon because of its two towers. The road here leads out of the city and into the countryside where Plato established his philosophical school called the Academy.
The other road proceeds through the so-called sacred gate and divides into two once more. Here, just out the massive see the walls, we're in the District of Athens called the Keramikos. Named after a mythical figure Keramos, who's shrine was here, it was the quarter of Athens' pottery makers. It was also-- because it was just outside the walls and along a major road-- the site of a major cemetery.
Each use has given us a word in English, "ceramics" for pottery, and through the Gospel of Matthew 27.7, "potter's field" for a burial ground for the poor, although burials in the potters field of the Keramikos were anything but poor. You might in fact think that a cemetery was a place removed from political and cultural turmoil, but just the opposite is true here. The way a family commemorated its dead was a matter of intense interest and even rivalry, especially in the pre-democratic Athens of the aristocratic families. In the changes of burial practices, we can discern-- as on the Acropolis-- the changing ideas of the proper place of the individual citizen.
Funerals at Athens seem always to have been elaborate. Already in the eighth century BC, this huge base found at the Dipylon gate depicts a mob in a funeral procession. Note how many mourners for the dead body carried on the wagon are present. The vase, itself, is more than six feet high and probably meant not only to depict the funeral but mark the grave. Clearly, this man was one of early Athens' most prominent citizens.
Successive generations use the developing arts of sculpture and painting to make evermore beautiful and poignant memorials for their dead. Commemorative statues of both nude boys and expensively dressed girls dating from the sixth century are found in great quantities throughout the city. Some of them even give the name of their subject. Not all of these need to have been for youths who had died, but surely many of them were commissioned by loving families as a memorial.
Another frequent grave marker was a sculptured relief plaque, or [? steely. ?] Here, the names are not often given. And sometimes instead of a portrait of the dead, there's a carved sphinx or a palmetto design on top.
In the sixth century BC, when a few wealthy families dominated Athenian public life, such expensive artwork stood everywhere in the Keramikos. But here, too, the attack of the Persians took its toll. Monuments before 479 BC are usually found damaged, perhaps through Persian mutilation but even more so because in the rapid rebuilding of the Athenian defense walls that follow the Persian retreat-- in their haste to fill the walls with any hard material, the Athenians actually pulled up and used the nearby monuments as building fill. And that's where excavators have found them-- sometimes hacked off and built into the city walls.
But we can see the magnificence even after their mutilation. And already in the sixth century there seems to have been an outcry against the extravagant expense on some private funerals. Some sources tell us that laws were made already by Solon setting limits on funeral costs.
By the time of Pericles, who, as we saw, wished to foster a strong sense of community, individualized sculpture memorials had for one reason or another gone out of fashion. Family burials were, of course, always to be expected, but the surviving decoration now stresses religious symbolism more than the glorification of the person of the departed. The sense of community was never stronger in Athens than in the commemoration of those who died in battle for the city. Unfortunately in the years following Pericles' ascendancy, such deaths were numerous.
Pericles assertion of Athenian military dominance led the city into a great war with Sparta and its allies which lasted almost 30 years. Eventually, decades after Pericles' own death, Athens would actually lose this war, and her military power was eclipsed. But at the beginning of the war when Pericles was still alive and optimism for a quick victory was high, the historian Thucydides tells us of the annual ceremony in which the war dead of that year were cremated and then their ashes buried together in a beautiful tomb. The names of the dead, listed by tribe and the place of the war in which each one died, had been found on numerous inscribed marble steelies around Athens-- a striking precursor of what we have first done in the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.
Archaeologists now believe they may even have discovered the base of this very tomb, found by accident during the digging for the foundation of a house just north of the excavated area of the Keramikos. Grave gifts in this tomb are the most beautiful pottery, and the marble chambers are beautifully carved for each tribe's coffin, which corresponds to Thucydides' description. The remains are now being studied by forensic anthropologists here in the US, and their full publication may tell us more about their identity.
But the climax of this ritual will always be the funeral oration that Pericles himself delivered after the procession to the grave and the ceremony at the tomb. As Thucydides gives it, it crystallizes what he thought Athens would represent for the future, as well as his own generation. Reading some excerpts from his words is the best way to conclude our visit to the Keramikos.
"Our government," Pericles says, "favors the many instead of the few. And so it's called the democracy. And our laws afford equal justice to all in private disputes, but advancement in public life is due to individual talent. We celebrate games and sacrifices all year round, and the beauty in which we live gives us daily pleasure and distraction from pain. The greatness of our city brings the products of the whole world into our harbor.
We throw open our city to the world, never excluding foreigners from visiting. Our wealth is to use, not for show. And the disgrace of poverty is not in admitting to it but in failing to struggle to overcome it. We alone regard any citizen who takes no part in government not as modest but useless.
What I'm saying is that we're an education to Greece, and the Athens I've celebrated is only what these heroes and others like them have made her. You, the survivors, he said, must determine to be as resolute, although you should pray to be more lucky. You must yourselves realize the power of Athens and feast your eyes upon her every day until love of her fills your hearts. And remember that it was with courage, duty, and keen honor that all this was won. They laid it Athens feet the most generous contribution they could offer."
Pericles' words here, which Lincoln may have imitated in his Gettysburg Address, seem as inspiring today as they were then. Of course like the figures on the Parthenon sculptures, they're an ideal. In many respects, Periclean Athens fell far short of perfection. And already ancient thinkers made serious criticisms of its government, and modern scholars would add other criticisms of its military imperialism and on the strict limitations of citizenship among other things. But the desire and the possibility of knowing more-- the bad as well as a good-- about ancient Athenian civilization in such a short but brilliant period are the reason archaeologists and historians will probably never stop studying and continuing to reconstruct the city of Pericles.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
2500 years ago, the city of Athens experienced a century of brilliant philosophy, drama, politics, and art that still resonates today. Athens was the first democracy, a great military and economic power, and left behind a richly documented history and culture. Professor Jeffrey Rusten leads a tour through the ancient city as reconstructed by archaeologists and historians.
This video is part 6 of 6 in the Ancient Athens series.