Tag Archives: Mourning in Antiquity

Mourning in Ancient Greece

In this month of Hephaistion’s death, and after I read all the interesting reviews on the community Alexander’s army to my article about Admetus and Alexander, I though it was a good idea to write another article about the mourning in Antiquity.

All I could remember of my study in History of art about this subject was women toring their hair off and women’s laments too. But what is it all ? And what about the men ?

So I made some little search. I found and read an university article (Florence Gherchanoc, University Denis-Diderot, Paris : Mise en scène et réglementations du deuil en Grèce ancienne) that offered some responses.

In her article, Florence Gherchanoc spoke about the mise-en-scène and the rules about the mourning in Ancient Greece. And more particularly the roles of women during the funeral and why the city needed to rule and control the feminine expression of their pain.

Even if this question is really interesting, I will more particularly translate the part which make a reference to the proceedings of the mourning in the private sphere and the political sphere. Hoping to stay faithful to the thoughts of Florence Gherchanoc. And then in conclusion, I will compare these elements with Alexander’s attitude during and after Hephaistion’s death.

But first I want to answer about some notes I took from your reviews on Alexander’s army about my article : Some reflexion about Hephaistion’s death, when Alexander meets Euripides.

When I made a parallel between Admetus and Alexander, I was thinking about the similarities of the expression of their pains in front of the loss of their beloved, and not about the similarities between the two characters. And so, about the theatrically around Hephaistion’s death. And I think the main word was theatrically. I was searching why Alexander did what he did in this circumstances. And of course, knowing Alexander’s love for Homer and Illiad, Achilles and Patrocle was certainly his main inspiration but not only.

We know that Alexander loved theatre and music even more than antic games. I showed in my previous article the connexion between Euripides and the royal family Argead. And through Alexander’s life we can find examples showing how he used this theatrically in a political way, I will name only one example : Gordium and his knot.

And, in some way, all his life was influenced by theatre. With the distance, this link between theatre and actions in his life could look like a permanent mise-en-scène. And this mise-en-scène was to its apogee when took place Hephaistion’s death.

I want to precise that I didn’t imply that this event was not a huge loss for Alexander. It was, in so many ways. Or even that his pain was false. No, it is not what I mean. But the outrageousness was so impressive that I couldn’t help myself to wonder. Did he act like this because of his sole pain or there is another meaning behind ? And more important what was the ritual of mourning in Alexander’s age ?

So coming back to the article :

Mourning in private sphere

What we know about the mourning and its mise-en-scène in ancient Greece is this one was codified. The expressions of mourning was important, both a social necessity and a ritual obligation. Those manifestations touched both men and women but the show was different following the sex of people. Each one must behave in compliance with customs and ostentatious.

To be in mourning means to other that you are soiled. So to be in mourning means to stand out. That the reason why people must change their physical appearance and degrade the beauty of body. The man cut or shave their hair. The women are torn off their hair, scratch their cheeks, lacerate their veils, strike their chest and shed tears.These gestures are the signs of suffering. But are too expected and admitted norms by the society.

Clothes have to be different, too. This difference appears in the color. This latter must be opposite to the usual outfit and white dress for feast. Himation for men and peplos for women are generally in black or dark colors. But there is some exception like in Argos where people wear white clothes washed with water only. These colors show the transition step during which the living accompany their dead. These clothes of mourning can also be stained, ripped or dirty with tears, blood or dust.

Mourning is a break inside the family and too inside the community. Following these commun rules help to define again the group and show a solidarity of the circle united around the deceased. So to act out of norms was source of criticisms.

Celebration and sacrifice to Gods was out of question during this period. Eschyne sayed how the behavior of his political adversary Demosthene was inappropriate after this latter lose his daughter.

« Before to be in mourning, before to pay hommage, he appeared in public, crowned, dressed in white clothes ; he sacrificed victims, without regard to the most sacred laws, the miserable ! After to have lost the one who, the first and the sole, gave him the soft name of father. »
[Eschine III, Contre Ctésiphon 77-78 (trad. G. de Budé et V. Martin, « CUF », modifiée)]

As it was said previously, to be in mourning in Ancient Greece is to be stained. And so to have neglected and broken the mourning, Demosthène broke religious and social norms. He can’t be seen like a good leader of nation and a man of honor to take care of affairs of state. His behavior in front of this private event among other things justified that he was not considerate like a man of good in Macedon.

So body and clothes are communication tools on which are written a symbolic stain, the suffering, the proximity and affinity with the deceased and also the broken link. They leave temporary their best appearance. Men and women must degraded ritually their beauty of body.

From the archaic period then more clearly during the classical period, sobbing become the privilege of women. To say their sorrow, to moan, to cry their pain.

Women represent the family like particular unity of the city.They are used to say the abnormality of the death, and the break of family link through the mother link. While men represent the family in its continuity. They say the transmission of the name, the ligne, the home, its cults and its goods. So in their case to be in mourning this is to perpetrate the base of the city. That’s why the heir is in charge to pay hommage to the deceased. Besides, this is precisely their devotion and the nature of  link with the dead that men highlight. To be in mourning is both a duty of philia and the affirmation of a link of philia.

Mourning in political sphere

The vital theatrically of funeral rite must be conform to a norm, be measured, for lack of which the mourning become Hubris’ fault and an expression of feminine at the opposite of strong behaviors suitable for citizens. It doesn’t say the harmony and the good order that must rule to protect accord and unity of the city.

In Tragedy, this register of Hubris raises the feminine mourning or also called domestic mourning. Admetus orders to Thessalians to join the feminine mourning, hair cut and black clothes, for his wife. Admetus’ attitude was propre to a tyran, in that he let enter in the city what is domain of private sphere, breaking its harmony and its order.

For Athenians, the mourning, with women’s laments and its feminine excess which, not canalized, are frightening and are considerate like social nuisance, origin of disorder and susceptible to put in peril the city. Contrary to the feast that is meeting, joy and beauty, mourning owing to the rupture provoked by the death, put aside this sociability. To be in mourning is to deny temporary the social and political being, to desert the affairs of city and to not honor the Gods.

At the opposite, public funerals show a particular interest. They permit to the livings to celebrate, the laments letting place to the praises and like that, to preserve the city. A ceremonial where the mourning and funeral evolve in feast, where the white clothes replace the black, praises and hymns replace the laments.

Plato advised a celebration alike for the funeral for Laws’ examiners :

« When they will die, the exposition of their corpse, their funeral convoy, their grave will distinguish them from other citizens. Every body will dress in white. We will avoid laments and funeral songs. »
[Platon, Lois 947b.]

These honors differentiate them from simple mortals and relate them to some « heroic » founder. Some famed men and benefactors of cities during the hellenistic period had had such funeral. There the values reverse. The celebration look like a feast and become politic.


Concerning the mourning, laws existed in antiquity. I will not enter in this subject who is really interesting by the way but I will just report this : These laws obliged men and women to show their mourning and to isolate themselves from the civic life with measure. In its essence, its organisation and its manifestations, the mourning is at the opposite of the feast and by that, of the unicity of the city. So its must be controlled.

The execution of funeral rite questions the harmony of the city and breaks the balance of social and political links.


This being said, if we read Arrian about Alexander’s life and most particularly the passage about Hephaistion’s death, we can note that there is two distinct moments described by the historian.

First, during three days Alexander cut his hair, don’t eat, don’t take care of his body staying stretched out on his friend’s body sometimes in laments, sometimes in a quiet sorrow. This description are the signs that Florence Gherchanoc described about the domestic mourning.

Then, in a second period, leaving the private sphere, Alexander orders a public mourning across all the Persian empire, making built a pyre for the price of 10.000 talents. Following Alexander’s declaration, his companions dedicate themselves and their weapons to Hephaistion’s death. Adrian says that they did it for their King, on the initiative of Eumenes. This latter didn’t want to appear to be delight by Hephaistion’s death after their quarrel. But I think too that despite their liking or dislike for Hephaistion, beyond all that, it was the political man, his position as the most important man of the empire after Alexander himself that they honor, and for some of them too, following philia.

Arrian saw in the fact that Alexander cut his hair a way to imitate Achilles after Patroclus’ death. Of course we know Alexander’s interest for Illiad and Homer. But I disagree with Arrian. Alexander acted as he had to do, following established rules for the mourning. As Achilles did too. Both showing their link to the deceased they wanted to cry. This link taking place in the private sphere.

In spite of the outrageous cost of this funeral, Alexander followed a succession of events like it had to be made for a man of Hephaistion’s rank : Celebration with sport and cultural contests like none have seen before. Honor coming from the most important men of the Empire.

Alexander’s affection for his friend appeared for me in two moments. In his expression of his sorrow during this three first days. Then, when he refused to replace Hephaistion at the head of his horsemen unit and named this unit following Hephaistion’s name.

I will finish this article in quoting Arrian :

As, for Alexander himself, Hephaistion’s death had been a great misfortune,and I believe that Alexander would have wanted to leave before, rather than to experience it during his life, just as Achilles, to my opinion, would prefer arrive before Patroclus in Hades rather than to avenge his friend’s death.
[Arrian, Alexander’s life, VII, 16, 2]

Maybe the ancient had reason to see the death like a rupture bringing a disequilibrium for the city. In a way, after Hephaistion’s death, in some months it is all Alexander’s empire that disappear.