Greek Grave Steles
To us who live in modern times the ‘melancholic look’ that we find in the
sculpture of cemeteries throughout the world is something we take for granted.

Although its authenticity has been lost to us, this so-called look can be traced
back to 5th century Greek funerary sculpture. For us it is only natural to
associate such a look with death. However, as the above verse elaborates, the

Greeks viewed death somewhat differently from the way we do. To them death freed
their souls and brought true happiness: then why does their grave sculpture look
so pensive and thoughtful? It is because unlike today where the dead are only
represented figuratively in a sobbing angel or mournful cherub, the Greeks
depicted their dead as they were in life - life which was full of uncertainties
and burdens but also with simple pleasures that made it all worth while. The

Greeks successfully combined these two juxtaposed experiences, and harmonized
its contradictions to portray in steles the individual, whose simplicities and
complications was a reflection of the bitter-sweetness of life. No where is this
combination more successful than in the Greek grave stele of the 5th century
before Christ. The 5th B.C. encompassed two distinct periods: the early
classical and the high classical. However both these periods shared the uniquely
contradicting, constantly explorative, and modestly idealistic vision of life,
which made the subjects of the stele, at their moment of death, all the more
human to the observer. Neither the previous Archaic period, nor the following

4th century, or the preceding civilizations quite so convincingly capture for
the observer the poignancy of death the way a fifth century BC stele could. The
period of the 5th century B.C. is sometimes referrd to as the golden age, which
is the height for Greek art and civilizations; and ironically has its beginning
and ending in war! "The 480 B.C. marked the defeat of the Persians and 404

B.C. the beginning of the pelopannasian war and the collapse of Athenian
democracy. " Perhaps the culturally significant buildings and sculptures that
were destroyed and the many lives that were lost during the long war with Persia
might made grave monuments and stele all the more personal to the Greeks during
this time. For whatever reason Greek stele of this particular period, between
two historically significant moments (480-404), stand-alone in more ways than
one. "Between the boundaries of 480 and 404 the human figure ran through a
wide gamut of psychological nuances. " Of these many ‘nuances’ there are
two significant styles that are observed in art history. First there is "the
self-confidence brought about by a deep-seated certainty of the outcome of the
struggle with the environment in the course of the ‘severe style’ which is a
characteristic of the early classical period. And then there is the resignation
bought about by dashed hopes the fickleness of illusions and escapism in the
ever fragile creatures of the ‘rich style’ ", which can be identified in
the high classical period. The stylistic differences mentioned above tend to
break this so-called golden era of the 5th century B.C. into two periods.

However, ironically the one factor that combine these periods together is death-
or at least monuments erected for death –the stele. "If there is any hint in

Greek sculpture of a sunset melancholy that were brought upon by the war years
it remains to be seen not in the civic monuments but in the beautiful series of
grave stele that were produced during the 5th century BC. " The common thread
that runs through the two periods of the fifth century are "the touch of
unpretentious and sublime otherworldliness " combined with a sense of austere
melancholy. During the Archaic period although vases were the popular method for
marking graves, steles with human figure relief begin to appear during this
period. These steles later predominate during the classical period. The Archaic
grave steles usually "consisted of a rectangular slab surmounted first by
capitals and then back to back volute scrolls with a sphinx atop. " An example
of an archaic stele is the stele of a warrior runner made in Athens around

500-450 B.C. The runner according to Lawrence is "Hoplitodrome the winner of a
race in armor. " The young man wears a warrior helmet and looks down at his
feet, which are twisted in an impossible running position. He has stylized hair
and his cap looks too big for him. He has an Archaic smile although it is not
quite evident in the photograph. The warrior looks in the opposite of where