Glorifying One’s Country Through Sacrifice

IG I³ 1179, c. 432 BCE, Dedicatory Inscription in the Athenian Agora

These Athenians died at Poteidaia
Immortal me de[ath…
To indicate excellence…..
Along with the strength of their ancestor…..
When they died they earned as a monument victory in war.

The sky welcomed their souls, while their bodies took this land.
And they perished around the gates of Poteidaia.
Some of their enemies have a tomb as their share, but those who fled
Made their wall the most trusted hope for their lives.

The city and the people of Erekhtheus long for those
Who died among the front lines at Poteidaia,
These children of the Athenians–they set their lives on the balance,
Earned their excellence, and brought glory to their country.”

ἐμ Π̣οτ̣[ειδαίαι Ἀθεναίον ℎοίδε ἀπέθανον]·
ἀθάνατόν με θ̣α[νο— ⏕ –⏕ –⏑⏑ –⏓] /
σεμαίνεν ἀρετ[ὲν –⏑⏑ –⏑⏑ –] /
νίκεν εὐπόλεμον μνε͂μ’ ἔλαβο<μ> φθ̣[ίμενοι]. /

αἰθὲρ μὲν φσυχὰς ὑπεδέχσατο, σόμ̣[ατα δὲ χθὸν] /
το͂νδε· Ποτειδαίας δ’ ἀμφὶ πύλας ἐλ[ύθεν]· /
ἐχθρο͂ν δ’ οἱ μὲν ἔχοσι τάφο μέρος, ℎο̣[ι δὲ φυγόντες] /
τεῖχος πιστοτάτεν ℎελπίδ’ ἔθεντο [βίο]. /

ἄνδρας μὲν πόλις ℎέδε ποθεῖ καὶ δε͂[μος Ἐρεχθο͂ς], /
πρόσθε Ποτειδαίας ℎοὶ θάνον ἐν πρ[ο]μάχοις /
παῖδες Ἀθεναίον· φσυχὰς δ’ ἀντίρρο[π]α θέντες /
ἐ[λλ]άχσαντ’ ἀρετὲν καὶ πατρ̣[ίδ’] ε̣ὐκλ[έ]ϊσα̣ν̣.’

This is a cast of a 5th c. BCE inscription of an epigram on the base of a civic funeral monument dedicated to the Athenians killed in the Battle of Poteidaia (Potidaea) in 432 BCE. The inscription, IG I³ 1179 and Agora XVII.16, is housed at the British Museum. The base probably held a stele containing the names of the 150 men Thucydides (1.63) reports were killed in the battle.
Poteidaia Epigram

Milet VI,2 732 [= GVI I (1955) 33] Dedicatory Inscription in Miletus for those fallen in battle against Megara

This is a monument of those who died–it confers excellence upon them
Those who died brought glory to their country.
A monument is yoked with deeds throughout Greece
And an eternal memory lives on for those who have died.

μνῆμα τόδε̣ [φ]θιμ[έ]νων? ἀρετῆς ἕστ[ηκ’] ἐπὶ τῶ̣ν̣δε,
οἳ κ[τάμεν]οι σφετέ[ρ]ην εὐκ̣λέϊσαν π̣[α]τρίδα·
μν̣η̣[μ]ε̣ῖ̣[ο]ν̣ πᾶσαν δὲ καθ’ Ἑλλάδα σύζ̣[υγ]ον ἔργοις
ἀ̣θ̣ά̣νατος μνήμη ζῶσα θανοῦσ[ιν] ἔπι.

[additional stanzas left out]

Penelope On the Brevity of Life and Immortal Fame

Penelope speaks to the disguised stranger in the Odyssey

Homer, Od. 19.325–324

“Stranger, how could you learn about me, if I am in any way
Superior to other women in my thought and clever wit,
Especially if you dine dressed terribly in the halls?
For human beings have short lives.
One who is harsh and knows harsh things,
All mortals will wish for him to have pains later
While alive and when he is dead everyone mocks him.
But whoever is blameless and thinks blameless thoughts.
Guests carry his kleos wide and far to all people.
And many say that he is a good man.”

πῶς γὰρ ἐμεῦ σύ, ξεῖνε, δαήσεαι, εἴ τι γυναικῶν
ἀλλάων περίειμι νόον καὶ ἐπίφρονα μῆτιν,
εἴ κεν ἀϋσταλέος, κακὰ εἱμένος ἐν μεγάροισι
δαινύῃ; ἄνθρωποι δὲ μινυνθάδιοι τελέθουσιν.
ὃς μὲν ἀπηνὴς αὐτὸς ἔῃ καὶ ἀπηνέα εἰδῇ,
τῷ δὲ καταρῶνται πάντες βροτοὶ ἄλγε’ ὀπίσσω
ζωῷ, ἀτὰρ τεθνεῶτί γ’ ἐφεψιόωνται ἅπαντες·
ὃς δ’ ἂν ἀμύμων αὐτὸς ἔῃ καὶ ἀμύμονα εἰδῇ,
τοῦ μέν τε κλέος εὐρὺ διὰ ξεῖνοι φορέουσι
πάντας ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους, πολλοί τέ μιν ἐσθλὸν ἔειπον.”

Schol. ad Od. 19.328

“Human beings are short-lived”: she says this as a euphemism and is really talking about glory. For, since human beings have brief lives, they need to do well in their life and leave a good fame about themselves behind them.”

ἄνθρωποι δὲ μινυνθάδιοι τελέθουσι] τοῦτο πρὸς τὴν εὐφημίαν εἴρηκεν, καὶ ἀναφέρεται ἐπὶ τὸ κλέος. ὀλιγοχρόνιοι δὲ ὑπάρχοντες οἱ ἄνθρωποι ὀφείλουσιν εὖ πράττειν ἐν τῷ βίῳ, καὶ φήμην ἀγαθὴν περὶ ἑαυτῶν ἀπολείπειν. V.

A red figure pyxis from c. 430 BCE



Hektor’s “Empty” Grave

Homer, Il. 24.797–800

“They quickly placed the bones in an empty trench and then
They covered it with great, well-fitted stones.
They rushed to heap up a marker, around which they set guards
In case the well-greaved Achaeans should attack too soon.”

αἶψα δ’ ἄρ’ ἐς κοίλην κάπετον θέσαν, αὐτὰρ ὕπερθε
πυκνοῖσιν λάεσσι κατεστόρεσαν μεγάλοισι·
ῥίμφα δὲ σῆμ’ ἔχεαν, περὶ δὲ σκοποὶ ἥατο πάντῃ,
μὴ πρὶν ἐφορμηθεῖεν ἐϋκνήμιδες ᾿Αχαιοί.

In Iliad seven, Hector challenges the ‘best of the Achaeans’ to a duel. There he imagines that, once he had won the contest, the dead hero’s tomb would be a monument to, and sign of, his everlasting glory. Ironically, the dead hero’s tomb turns out to be his, once the Trojans construct it at the epic’s end

But what kind of sign is it? Homer describes how the Trojans’ burial mound for Hector leaves ‘a mark’—the word here is sêma (from which we get the words ‘semantics’ or ‘semaphore’), and also means a sign or symbol. In the end, then, the epic leaves us with a symbol of some kind. Ostensibly, of course, that is Hector’s burial mound, a physical marker of his fame—and the fame of all the heroes who fought at Troy. Yet, its immediate referent, the physical thing it describes, is a ‘hollow grave’ (koilên kapeton).


An English speaker might wonder whether or not the hollowness of the grave marks some sort of empty meaning and thus offers some judgment on the vanity and meaninglessness of the conflict, perhaps evoking ambivalence. But part of the trick in translating metaphors from one culture to another is understanding that a cognitive valence can be very different. In English, ‘hollow’ and ‘empty’ tend to refer to the absence of substance within something else. (Hence, our use for it to describe depression or anhedonia.)

But in ancient Greek, the word koilê is used to describe the shape made by a thing that allows it to hold something else. It can sometimes then come to shift to point to the absence of that something else, but it is, more often, a marker for the vessel which can carry something, even when it is carrying it. In conjunction with Hektor’s grave, consider the following lyric mentions of the ‘hollow ships’ of the Trojan War:


Ibycus fr. 1a 16-19

Nor yet the overreaching virtue
of heroes whom the hollow,
many-benched ships brought
as the destruction of Troy.

ἡρ]ώων ἀρετὰν
ὑπ]εράφανον οὕς τε κοίλα[ι
νᾶες] πολυγόμφοι ἐλεύσα[ν
Τροί]αι κακόν, ἥρωας ἐσ̣θ̣[λούς·

Pindar, Ol. 6.1

“Unrisked virtue becomes honored
Neither among men nor in the empty ships.
But many a man is remembered
When something noble has been tried.”

… ἀκίνδυνοι δ’ ἀρεταί
οὔτε παρ’ ἀνδράσιν οὔτ’ ἐν ναυσὶ κοίλαις
τίμιαι· πολλοὶ δὲ μέμναν-
ται, καλὸν εἴ τι ποναθῇ.

In both these passages, the ships are marked out for their potential to carry something and their ability to do so. It is also arguable that the ships carry ethical content of the heroes they convey to Troy as well. Of course, in the Iliad the ships are often invoked as empty in their capacity to carry things as well as people—but these moments are also seen as critical in telling the story, as when the Trojan herald Idaios refers to the beginning of the conflict:

Il. 7.399-400

“However many possessions Alexandros led in his hollow ships
To troy. Oh, how I wish he had died first!”

κτήματα μὲν ὅσ’ ᾿Αλέξανδρος κοίλῃς ἐνὶ νηυσὶν
ἠγάγετο Τροίηνδ’· ὡς πρὶν ὤφελλ’ ἀπολέσθαι·

So, when the word used to describe that ‘hollow trench’ (koilein kápeton) is the same used for the ships that brought the Achaeans to Troy and will take their stories away, the grave is being marked out as a vessel for Hector’s fame. The message of Hektor’s “empty grave” is not like the elegiac regret of T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”, but instead it represents the potential of an empty vessel to be filled by the audience in its reception of the poem.

In addition to Hector’s grave itself, however, this vessel, this sêma, may also refer to the Iliad itself. The epic is a vessel of fame, of Hector’s, Achilles’, and Agamemnon’s, but it is also a marker for the death of a world, for the end of a bygone time. On the one hand, it marks the transition from the heroic age to the present day. On the other, it acts as a grave marker of an entire tradition of epic poetry which would have sung about the wars at Troy and Thebes.

The hollowness of this thing is not about being empty, but about having the power to carry something. As the Tao Te Ching states, “We shape clay into a pot / but it is the emptiness inside / that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space / that makes it livable” (Chapter 11; Stephen Mitchell, 1988). Thus, Hector’s grave carries with it everything he was or could be; and the Iliad, far from empty and devoid of meaning, is that vessel that carries so much unknown across the oceans of time.

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11
translated by Stephen Mitchell (1988)

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being
but non-being is what we use.