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Relief crowning a casualty list for the dead from the Corinthian War, 394/3 BC

Professor Nathan Arrington's New Book Examines War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens

February 5, 2015

Professor Nathan Arrington has just published Ashes, Images, and Memories: The Presence of the War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens (Oxford University Press). In a period characterized by war and the threat of civil strife, the nascent Athenian democracy claimed the fallen for the city and commemorated them with rituals and images that shaped a civic ideology of struggle and self-sacrifice on behalf of a unified community. Arrington’s new book draws on social history, art history, and field archaeology to show that the institution of public burial for the war dead and images of the deceased in civic and sacred spaces fundamentally changed how people conceived of military casualties in fifth-century Athens. It offers new and convincing interpretations of the chronology and topography of public rituals honoring the fallen, stimulating the rethinking of the iconography and reception of major monuments and the relationship between war, memory, and democracy.

Most studies of Athenian public burial have focused on discrete aspects of the institution, such as the funeral oration, but this book broadens the scope. It examines the presence of the war dead in cemeteries, civic and sacred spaces, the home, and the mind, and underscores the role of material culture—from casualty lists to white-ground lekythoi—in mediating that presence. This new approach reveals that public rites and monuments shaped memories of the war dead at the collective and individual levels, spurring private commemorations that both engaged with and critiqued the new ideals and the city’s claims to the body of the warrior. Faced with a collective notion of “the fallen,” families asserted the qualities, virtues, and family links of the individual deceased, and sought to recover opportunities for private commemoration and personal remembrance. Contestation over the presence and memory of the dead often followed class lines, with the elite claiming service and leadership to the community while at the same time reviving Archaic and aristocratic commemorative discourses. Although Classical Greek art tends to be viewed as a monolithic if evolving whole, this book depicts a fragmented and charged visual world.