CJ Online Review: Mirto, Death in the Greek World

posted with permission:

Death in the Greek World: From Homer to the Classical Age. By Maria Serena Mirto. Translated by A. M. Osborne. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. x + 197. Paper, $19.95/£19.95. ISBN 978-0-8061-4187-9.

Reviewed by Robert Garland, Colgate University

As “a general synthesis of people’s relationships with death in the Greek world,” this book has much to commend it. In attempting to establish a convincing thesis that makes an original contribution to our understanding of social attitude it is rather less successful.

Mirto’s first chapter, which is entitled “Life and Death in Popular Belief,” offers an interpretation of “popular” on evidence predominantly drawn from Homer. Quotations from the Homeric poems also dominate Ch. 3 and are central to Ch. 5, accounting for well over a third of all the passages discussed in the entire book. It would have been helpful to have some acknowledgement of the artificiality of any literary genre, epic in particular, as well as some justification for the tacit assumption that Homeric ideas and practices may legitimately be regarded as popular. Citing Il. 23.179 Mirto observes, “Even death cannot interrupt [Achilles’
and Patroclus’] heroic friendship … in a paradox that overturns and challenges the usual understanding” (p. 113). But what is “usual” in the seventh century and what comparison do we have to go by?

The predominant appeal to Homer also presents Mirto with a significant conceptual challenge in her attempt to detect a line of evolution from Archaic to Classical eschatological belief, as she seeks to identify “the beginnings of a trend away from the calm acceptance that characterized the response of small eighth-century B.C. communities toward the anxieties attending a more individualized vision of death” (p. 4). Again, how can we be sure that this is what occurred, even in the most general terms? One of the striking features of Greek eschatology is that expressions of anxiety relating to death are rare for any period of history. True, the rise of the mystery religions, coupled with the discovery of Bacchic gold leaf tablets, etc., which Mirto discusses with admirable clarity in Ch. 2, does demonstrate evidence of concern about one’s fate in the afterlife. But while this evidence can be taken to indicate greater “anxiety” in some quarters, it remains unclear how widely this feeling would have been shared by the Greek population overall. On the basis of the limited archaeological testimonia that have so far come to light, it seems that only a minuscule fraction of the population signed up for the more esoteric forms of eschatological belief, and even the mystery religions, Eleusis included, may not have been mainstream. I am therefore uncomfortable with Mirto’s claim that this material can be interpreted to indicate that “A Revolution of Hope” (her chapter heading for this presumed development) occurred presumably at some point in the Classical period. Ch. 3, which examines funerary ritual, is entitled “The Long Farewell” because of the duration of the mourning period. I have problems with the claim that “the democratic polis … diminished the woman’s role in the laments and in the ceremony more generally” (p. 81), since, if this is true at all, it only relates to the burial of the war dead. The fact is, however, that we know little about the ritual surrounding the epitaphios logos and should not assume that women had no place in the ceremony. Ch. 4 discusses funerary monuments and tomb cult, including hero cult. Ch. 5, entitled “Making Good Use of Death,” examines the concept of heroic death in Homer and other Archaic poets, the state burial of the Athenian war dead, and funerary legislation. The Appendix offers an overview of the history of the study of death in ancient Greece. More distinction between categories of the dead would have been welcome. Instead, the dead are treated largely as a single entity.

Mirto deserves credit for providing a helpful and at times illuminating discussion of a ceaselessly fascinating topic that has as much to tell us about Greek attitudes towards life as it does about attitudes towards death. In the end nothing is more elusive, more personal, or more idiosyncratic than beliefs about the afterlife, even in the case of a single individual. Students of death must do the best they can with the literary and archeological evidence, even though the two are hardly ever on speaking terms. In conclusion, this is an up-to-date synthesis of a subject that is impossible to explore and explicate in such a brief compass without indulging in generalizations.

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