Sparta Society to the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC



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Funerary customs and rituals

See text: pp.146-149

  • List the key features of Spartan burial practice as describe by Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 27 (p.146 of text)
  • List the features of the funerary ritual of a Spartan king as described by Herodotus, The Histories, 58
  • Describe the archaeological evidence for Spartan burials. In what ways does it contradict the Plutarch description?
  • What evidence does Pausanias’ description provide us for tombs and cenotaphs of war heroes in Sparta?

Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 27
  • People could be buried within the city and near temples. This would allow young people to grow up not fearing death.
  • No burial goods were allowed, only a red cloak to wrap the body and some olive leaves.
  • No names on tombs except for a soldier killed in battle or a woman who died in labour (* note Brian Brennan’s comment on this last point).
  • Eleven days of mourning. On the twelfth day mourners sacrifice to Demeter and abandon their grief.

Herodotus, The Histories, 58
  • Death is announced throughout the whole land by horsemen
  • Women strike a copper kettle
  • A free man and woman from each household must go into mourning
  • A large gathering at the funeral ceremony, including perioiki and helots and women, beat their foreheads and make lamentations
  • Mourning lasts for ten days, no assembly or election of magistrates in that time
  • Debts to the deceased king are cancelled

Archaeological evidence


Jar burials
  • 20th Century discovery of bones buried in jars (pithoi)
  • 1906 discoveries could not be accurately dated
  • Later 20th C discoveries dated by associated goods to late 8th C BC
  • Grave goods, e.g. iron sword and dagger and bronze ornaments. This evidence contradicts Plutarch’s assertion that Lycurgus banned burial goods.

Burials in Mesoa area
  • Four cist-graves (lined cavities)
  • Two male adults, one female adult, one child
  • Christou and Cartledge argue that these were Spartan citizens
  • Grave marked by amphora depicting a hunting scene and battle scene
  • Dated to c. 600 BC
  • Graves covered by a tumulus, which contained bones of sacrificed oxen, wild boars and horses

Two-storey tombs
  • Distinctive Spartan tomb, described by Pausanias
  • Used from early 6th C. to 2nd C. BC
  • Body buried initially in lower storey
  • After decay, bones gathered and reinterred in second storey
  • One such tomb has been interpreted by Stella Raftopoulou as the site of a possible hero cult

Tombs and cenotaphs
  • Pausanias described many tombs and cenotaphs in Sparta
  • Dedicated to soldiers killed in battle, e.g. cenotaph to Brasidas who was killed at Amphipolis
  • Leonidas’ bones restored to Sparta forty years after Thermopylae; commemoration and funerary games only for Spartans were held each year; nearby stone commemorated all the Sparta fallen at Thermopylae
  • Tyrtaios writes of the tomb of a Spartan war hero as giving him immortality