Understanding Funerary Art in Ancient Greece and Rome in 6 Objects

Funerary art in ancient Greece and Rome provides a fascinating insight into individuals from the past and the lives they lived. Read on to see what they can tell us!

Sep 20, 2020By Laura Hayward, MA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with Greek
marble sarcophagus triumph of dionysus
Marble sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus and the Seasons, 260-70 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The commemoration of life through funerary art is an ancient practice that continues to be relevant in modern society. People visit the graves of loved ones and erect statues to honor important people. In ancient Greece and Rome, funerary objects and markers reflected the personalities and statuses of the deceased. These memorials are, therefore, fascinating snapshots of an individual and the societal values and practices of the cultures they lived in.


History of Ancient Greco-Roman Funerary Art


The oldest examples of funerary art in ancient Greece date back to the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations of the Bronze Age, circa 3000–1100 BC. Elite members of these societies were buried in carefully devised decorative tombs, some of which can still be seen today. The tholos tombs at Mycenae, the heart of Mycenaean culture, are particularly distinctive with their large, beehive-like stone structures. 


entrance tholos tomb mycenae greece
The entrance to the vast tholos tomb at Mycenae in Greece photographed by the author, 1250 BC


Greco-Roman funerary art continued to develop and innovate right up to the fall of ancient Rome in the 5th century AD. Through the millennia, commemorative objects ranged from simple stone slabs to vast marble statues. Different objects often equated to different time periods and artistic styles but there was also much overlap across time and cultures. Below are 6 examples of commemorative funerary art that span these time periods and cultures. 


1. The Grave Stele Of Ancient Greece

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Fragment of the marble stele (grave marker) of a hoplite (foot soldier), 525-15 BC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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A grave stele (plural: stelai) is defined as a thin slab of stone, positioned upright, normally with an image carved on its top or front panel. Aside from the Bronze Age tombs, the grave stele is the oldest example of funerary art in ancient Greece. The earliest stelai are limestone slabs excavated at Mycenae, which date back to the 16th century BC.


These early stelai were mostly decorated with battle scenes or chariot hunts. However, by 600 BC, their style had developed dramatically. The later stelai were often very large, sometimes up to two meters high, and displayed painted carvings. The addition of color would have made these objects visually very different from the bare stone artifacts we have today, whose paint has long since disappeared. Some stelai became so lavish that in around 490 BC legislation was passed in Athens prohibiting excessively decorated styles.


ancient greece grave stele
Grave stele of Hegeso, an Athenian noblewoman, 410-00 BC, via National Archaeological Museum of Athens


The relief engravings on stelai included a range of images. Some of the stock figures were those of the warrior or athlete, designed to present an idealized version of the deceased. But some figures were given characteristics to reflect the likeness and attributes of the person being commemorated. For example, a grave stele has been found where the facial profile has a broken nose and swollen eye, perhaps to represent a boxer


The grave stelai of 5th-century Athens provide some captivating examples of the introduction of emotion into Greek sculpture. As sculptors developed their skills, they were able to create more sophisticated facial expressions and compositions. The stele in the image above depicts Hegeso (seated) with her slave-girl. Both figures are somber as Hegeso selects a piece of jewelry from a box. This snapshot of a moment from Hegeso’s daily life adds a clear poignancy to the monument.


2. The Greek Vase Grave Marker

geometric style amphora funerary scene
Geometric style Amphora with Funerary Scenes, 720–10 BC, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Large vases used as grave markers were popular in ancient Greece, in particular Athens and Argos, from around 800–600 BC. Some had holes pierced in the base so that liquid offerings could be poured through into the grave below. These grave markers coincided with a major development in Greek vase painting – the geometric style. Geometric vases had highly stylized motifs such as straight lines, zigzags and triangles. The motifs were painted in black or red and repeated in bands around the vase. This created a striking design that filled the entirety of the vase. 


The Athenian grave vases depicted figures alongside these motifs, often in a funerary scene or engaged in battle, as in the example above. The vases of Argos had different iconography and included images from the natural world such as birds, fish, horses, and rivers. It is believed that this was meant to reflect the local Argive landscape.


white ground funerary lekythos thanatos
White-ground funerary lekythos depicting the gods Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) carrying a dead warrior to his tomb attributed to the Thanatos Painter, 435–25 BC, via The British Museum, London


In Athens, the type of vase used was determined by the gender of the deceased. Kraters (wide-necked, bell-shaped vessels with two handles) were assigned to men and amphorae (narrow-necked, tall vessels with two handles) to women. Unmarried women received a marble loutrophoros. This was a tall, narrow-shaped vase used to carry water for the ritual bath of a bride before her wedding.


By the 5th century BC, Greeks were using a lekythos, such as the one above, to mark most graves. The funerary lekythos was painted on a white background with funeral or domestic scenes. White-ground painting was more delicate since it could not withstand the heat of the kiln. It was therefore more suitable for display than for domestic use. In ancient Greece, this style was considered unsophisticated in comparison to black- and red-figure vase painting. Today, however, the simple black lines against a white background have a minimalist beauty.


3. The Greek Grave Kouros

marble statue funerary kouros
Marble statue of a funerary kouros, 590–80 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The grave kouros was a type of funerary statue that became popular in ancient Greece in the Archaic Period (c. 700–480 BC). Kouros (plural: kouroi) means ‘young man’ in Greek but the word has also come to refer to a type of statue. These statues were a prime example of when funerary art intersected with an important point in Greek art as a whole – the development of free-standing statues.


Kouroi statues took their inspiration from Egyptian art, which commonly depicted the human form in rigid, symmetrical poses. Egyptian statues were also attached to the block from which they had been carved. However, the skill of stone carving developed to such an extent in ancient Greece that they were able to create free-standing statues, which no longer needed the support of a block. The kouros pictured above is one of the earliest examples to have ever been discovered.



marble statue funerary kouros
Marble statue of a funerary kouros dedicated to a young warrior named Kroisos, 530 BC, National Archaeological Museum of Athens


The early kouroi had very stylized features, such as bead-like hair and simplified torsos. However, skills rapidly improved, as can be seen with the Anavyssos Kouros above, which is only 50 years later than its earlier counterpart. The Anavyssos Kouros has much more realistic facial features and anatomical details, but the hair was yet to develop.


Most grave kouroi were not intended to be a close likeness of the deceased. Instead, they were accompanied by an inscribed base which would provide details of the person being commemorated. The statue would then stand over the grave as both a marker and a memorial. The female equivalent, kourai, followed soon after. The female figure was draped in a flowing dress since nude women were not considered appropriate in Greek art during the Archaic Period. Kourai were a later development because draped fabric was far more complicated to carve than the nude form.


4. The Sarcophagus Of Ancient Rome

marble roman sarcophagus lucius cornelius scipio barbatus
Marble Roman sarcophagus of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, 280–70 BC, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


The commemoration of death in ancient Rome took much of its inspiration from ancient Greece. This was particularly true in the case of the sarcophagus. A sarcophagus is defined as a coffin carved from stone. It would normally sit above ground within a tomb structure. Elaborate tombs and sarcophagi were popular in Greece during the Archaic Period. At the same time, decorative sarcophagi were also being used by the Etruscans, an indigenous Italian community. By comparison, early Roman examples were very plain.


But in the 3rd century BC the aristocratic Roman family, the Scipios, introduced a new fashion for decorative sarcophagi. Their vast family tomb had an intricately carved façade with statues of family members placed in individual niches. Inside the tomb were beautifully carved sarcophagi, such as that of Scipio Barbatus, pictured above. Barbatus was the great-grandfather of Scipio Africanus, the general who led Rome to victory in the Punic Wars.


roman sarcophagus reclining couple
Roman sarcophagus lid with a portrait of a reclining couple as the human personifications of water and earth, 220 AD, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


By the time of the Late Roman Republic, even freedmen had decorative sarcophagi. But it was not until the Imperial Period that portraits became common in ancient Rome. These would be carved in relief on a side panel or as a reclining figure positioned on the lid. Portraiture obviously helped to personalize the sarcophagus. It was also a symbol of status since it would have been more expensive to produce.


Other images carved on sarcophagi were often determined by the gender of the deceased. Men would have military or hunting scenes from mythology to represent their heroic qualities. Women often had images of physical beauty, such as goddesses like Venus. It is likely that pattern books were used to select from since many of the motifs and scenes reappear frequently. Production of sarcophagi actually became an important industry within the Roman Empire and skilled craftsmen would export their goods across great distances.


5. The Roman Funerary Relief

temple of isis construction funerary relief haterii mausoleum
Funerary relief panel from the mausoleum of the Haterii depicting the construction of the Temple of Isis in Rome, 2nd century AD, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


Funerary reliefs in ancient Rome were used to decorate the outside of tombs and were nearly always accompanied by epitaph inscriptions. Scenes carved into the reliefs traditionally included images that had a personal connection to the deceased. The mausoleum of the Haterii, above, provides an example of this on a monumental scale.


The Haterii were a family of builders and in the 2nd century AD they built their own vast family tomb in Rome. The exterior panels were meticulously carved with images of machinery, such as cranes, and buildings which they had been involved in creating. These included the Temple of Isis, as depicted above, and the Colosseum. The family has, therefore, used their funerary reliefs as a proud display of their work, which acts as both a memorial and an advertisement.


two freedmen funerary relief panel
Funerary relief panel dedicated to two freedmen, Publius Licinius Philonicus and Publius Licinius Demetrius, 30–10 BC, via The British Museum, London


Portrait representations of the deceased were also popular. Interestingly, a huge proportion of portraiture reliefs in funerary art belong to the freedmen and freedwomen of ancient Rome. There may be a number of related reasons for this. Some may have wished to establish a clear identity that would have been on public display. This sense of identity may well have been important for someone who had only gained personal freedom later in life.


It may also have been a celebration of independence. Family members were often included in reliefs, such as that above. Freedmen, unlike slaves, were allowed to have children who were legally recognized as their offspring. Depicting one’s children on a tomb was a proud display of their legitimacy.


Portraiture was also a display of newly acquired wealth. Some freedmen amassed great riches through business ventures after manumission. An expensively produced tomb was a very public reflection of this.


6. The Late Roman Catacomb Painting

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The catacombs of Via Latina in Rome, 4th century AD, via The Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


The term ‘catacomb’ comes from the Greek word, Katakumbas. This was the name of a cemetery attached to the church of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way in Rome. This cemetery had underground chambers used by early Christians to house the bodies of the dead. The word catacomb has come to refer to all underground tombs of this type. Inside these chambers, recesses were set into the wall, in which 1–3 bodies could be held. A stone slab was used to seal the opening.


The galleries and arches in catacombs that belonged to important people, such as martyrs, bishops and noble families, were often decorated with elaborate paintings. Many date to the 4th century AD, during which Christianity was formally accepted as a religion of the Roman Empire. The catacomb paintings act as a visual representation of the transition from pagan religion to Christianity in ancient Rome. 



catacomb painting raising of lazarus
Catacomb Painting of the Raising of Lazarus in the Via Latina in Rome, 4th century AD, via The Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


This early Christian funerary art often used the same techniques and imagery as Roman pagan art. It is therefore sometimes difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. The figure of Orpheus, a prophet in ancient Greek mythology, was adopted as a Christ-like symbol. Pastoral scenes depicting the shepherd and his flock also took on a new Christian meaning.


A series of catacombs beneath Via Latina in Rome were discovered in the 1950s. It is not known exactly who they belonged to but archaeologists believe the owners were private individuals rather than clergy. Here images of the ancient Greek hero and demi-god, Hercules, sit alongside more overtly Christian scenes. The painting above is one such example and depicts the bible story of the raising of Lazarus from the New Testament.


Archaeology And The Funerary Art Of Ancient Greece And Rome

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German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavating the Lion Gate of Mycenae, 1874, via Southwestern University


The funerary art of ancient Greece and Rome is one of the most enduring forms of artistic expression which has survived from the ancient world. This is largely due to the use of non-perishable materials, such as limestone, marble, and terracotta pottery. As a result, archaeological excavations have been able to reveal examples of funerary art dating from the Bronze Age right the way through to the fall of ancient Rome. This vast time span has allowed specialists to plot the development of various artistic styles and techniques in early western art. 


Funerary art in the ancient world is, therefore, incredibly valuable to archaeologists. It provides both an intimate snapshot of an individual and the life they lived as well as a broader representation of the development of ancient art and culture. 



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By Laura HaywardMA Classics, PGCE Classics, BA Latin with GreekLaura Hayward is a contributing writer and researcher from London, UK. She is a specialist in the field of Classics, in which she has either studied or worked for over twenty years. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in Classics from University College London. She has also worked as a teacher of Classics in a leading independent school in London. Her particular areas of interest are Latin language and literature as well as Roman art and epigraphy.