The Past in ancient Greece

Knowing the Past

The Greeks were very concerned with prospective memories for the future, but in many respects the past too played an important role in ancient (and indeed modern) Greece (Weiss 1984; Sparkes 1989; Gehrke 1994). Greek culture has often been credited with producing in Herodotus (the 'father of history') and Thucydides the first writers of 'scientific' history in the modern sense (Butterfield 1981: chapter 4; Seters 1983: chapter 2; Schnapp 1996: 43-51). Both authors wrote, however, mainly about events of their recent and contemporary past.

About their distant past, the Greeks had knowledge from two main sources: (1) ancient ruins and tombs in the landscape as well as objects found in the ground, and (2) orally transmitted mythical tales. Both were in rich supply. Although the Mycenaeans knew how to write and left written documents in Linear B, the ancient Greeks were not able to read such writing—nor would they necessarily have learned very much about their past from the information contained in these documents (Scheer 1993: 54-6).

The splendid Mycenaean ruins which the Greeks found in their landscape must sometimes have made them feel very nostalgic. Indeed, they deeply admired their heroic past, as myths and epics portrayed it (Morris 1988: 750; Sparkes 1989: 119-20). Mycenaean walls are often referred to with the term "Cyclopean" which reflects the aura and respect that was felt (e.g. Euripides, Elektra, 1158; Pausanias 2, 16, 5; 2, 25, 8). The Greeks occasionally also came across ancient artefacts in the ground. They were very aware that certain objects had been made in a previous age, whether by people, heroes or gods; these objects were sometimes appreciated for that very reason (Antonaccio 1995: 117). Occasionally, fossilised animal bones were taken to be the bones of giants (Mayor 2000). Some prehistoric artefacts such as stone-axes, which were known as "keraunia" and explained as 'thunderbolts', were used as lucky charms and worn as amulets, in others inscriptions were carved (Blinkenberg 1911: chapter 3 and 107-12; Obermaier c.1912: 5-6). Some ancient artefacts may also have survived the changes after the end of the Mycenaean period and been handed down intact to the later Greeks, for example in sanctuaries (Hiller 1983b; Scheer 1993: 56-7; Schnapp 1996: 52-6).

Besides, there is evidence for 'grave robbing' in ancient Greece (Antonaccio 1995). Bones were deliberately retrieved from ancient tombs on various occasions. Plutarch reported that the oracle at Delphi told the Athenians to dig up the bones of Theseus on Scyros and re-bury them in Athens; they went and excavated in a mound a huge skeleton in a coffin with a Bronze spear and a sword lying by its side (Plutarch, Theseus, XXXVI, 1f.; cf. Schnapp 1996: 51f.). Herodotus reported a similar story about the Spartan Lichas who located the tomb of Orestes in Tegea and transferred his huge bones to Sparta (Herodotus, Histories, I, 68; cf. Mayor 2000: 110-2). Finds of ancient bones were sometimes also made after earthquakes and heavy rainfall (Chaniotis 1998; Mayor 2000: chapter 2).

The Greeks had no 'scientific' curiosity regarding their past or ancient monuments, nor had they specialists with a clear idea about typology and chronology of ancient finds. Nobody then did systematic studies of the past or perhaps even excavations of known ancient sites. But there are (at least) two important exceptions. Thucydides referred once to an 'archaeological' analysis of the armour and burial customs of graves which had been found, in order to determine their ethnic identity (Thucydides 1,8,1; Wace 1949: 21-2, 34-5; Scheer 1993: 56-7). Similarly, both Solon and opponent Hereas are said to have used observations about ancient burial customs in a conflict between the Athenians and the Megarians about the ownership of Salamis (Plutarch, Solon, 10.3).

Some of the Greeks' understanding of the distant past was gained from popular mythical epics, such as Homer's Iliad, which may itself have been inspired by the ruins of Troia (Hiller 1983a: 12). But this is not the place to discuss the old question as to what degree these epics do or do not reflect the memory of actual events and conditions of the Mycenaean period (see e.g. Scheer 1993: 58-61 with further literature). More interesting is the recent debate among classical archaeologists about the extent to which Homer's epics or indeed contemporary social and political factors motivated a cult of ancient tombs in early Greece.

Tomb cult

In the post-Bronze Age periods, prehistoric, mostly Mycenaean, tombs were often given a particular treatment and use. These activities are commonly referred to as 'tomb cult' (for tomb cult at more recent graves see e.g. Humphreys 1980). Such tomb-cult, and a wider interest in the past, became more widespread between 770 and 700 BC, a period which is also known as the 'Greek Renaissance' (Hägg 1983; Hiller 1983a; Morris 1988). The evidence is extensive and has been compiled in some detail, especially for the early periods, by Carla Antonaccio (1995: chapter 2). Antonaccio distinguishes three forms of tomb cult: intrusion, deposition of objects, and secondary burials (of which there are many).

Such tomb-cult, for instance at Mycenae, has frequently been discussed in connection with the cult of heroes, which expanded at the time of Homer and led to the foundation of several sites specifically designated for particular hero-cults, so-called heroa (Förtsch 1995: 173). While Carl Blegen and others before him had suspected a continuous cult of dead heroes since the Mycenaean age (Blegen 1937: 389-90; cf. Antonaccio 1994a: 391-2), J.N.Coldstream put forward a different interpretation, partly drawing on the work of others (cf. Antonaccio 1994a: 393-4). The argument in his paper, which caused a still on-going lively debate, is based on the development of a specific folklore in early Greece (Coldstream 1976: 14, link added):

"Post-Mycenaean Greeks were constantly coming across Mycenaean antiquities of all kinds; the accidental discovery of a Mycenaean tomb would not excite much interest in regions were chamber tombs and tholoi were still being used for burials—hence, no votives. Contrast the amazement of an eighth century Athenian, or Argive, or Messenian, who would have been greatly surprised by any form other than a simple, individual grave or pithos. The great size of a Mycenaean tomb, and the richness of the offerings, would fill him with superstitious awe; so he would leave some offerings as a mark of respect, after his imagination had been stirred by the first Panhellenic circulation of Homeric epic—omne ignotum pro magnifico est. And the wish to show such veneration was by no means confined to the actual descendants of the Mycenaeans; the circulation of epic—combined with the abundance of Mycenaean tombs—would explain why so many votive deposits have been found in the Dorian lands of Messenia and the Argolid, following a long gap in the Dark Age. The new inhabitants of these lands could claim no ties of kinship with the departed heroes; but the diffusion of the Trojan saga would have filled them with a general reverence and enthusiasm for anything remotely heroic."

This view was also supported by others (e.g. Hiller 1983a: 13). Along similar lines, Vassilis Lambrinoudakis argued that the interest in Mycenaean ruins in Geometric Naxos may be due to a "romantic affection" and an idealisation of the Mycenaeans as "more or less legendary family-founders" in an age of emerging hero-cults (Lambrinoudakis 1988: 245, link added).

Coldstream's link of tomb cult with a cult of Homeric heroes was later challenged by Anthony Snodgrass (1979: 123-5), Ian Morris (1988: 754), James Whitley (1988: 174-5; 1995: note 7), and Carla Antonaccio (1994a: 398-400; 1995: 246-7). The arguments put forward included the following:

Tomb cult at Mycenaean graves and the cult of Homeric (and other) heroes therefore needed to be discussed as separate issues. New interpretations of tomb cults put forward by archaeologists such as Susan Alcock, Carla Antonaccio, Ian Morris, Anthony Snodgrass, and James Whitley all focussed on social and political factors.

Snodgrass argued in 1982 that the offerings in Mycenaean tombs were legitimatising the land claims of colonising peasants who had to propitiate the previous owners, represented by the impressive Mycenaean tombs (after Whitley 1988: 175). A few years later, Whitley put forward the theory that tomb cults had deeply political meanings, and had nothing to do with Homer's epics or colonising peasant agriculturalists. He argued that tomb cults were carried out in Attica by the rich and established communities in order to stress their (imaginary) descent from the Mycenaean heroes in the light of the founding of small settlements around them; in the Argolid, on the other hand, tomb cults were part of the means by which the city states defined their territorial limits with the authority of the past (Whitley 1988). Ian Morris has further developed these ideas and concluded that tomb cults showed the conflict of ideologies in the 8th century, a time of tension between the old aristocratic structures of the Dark Age and the emergent city states (Morris 1988). Morris pointed at the same time to the ambiguity and variety of meanings which different tomb cults are likely to have had to different people in different regions. This point has been repeated by Carla Antonaccio who also argued that tomb cults, like hero cults, are manipulations of the dead as kinship-related ancestors in order to contest claims to power and authority (Antonaccio 1993; 1994a: 400-4, 409-10; 1995: chapter 5). For Antonaccio, tomb cult was a form of veneration of (sometimes imaginary) ancestors and widespread in time and space; hero cult could be seen as a specific form of ancestor cult. The fact that kinship in ancient Greece did not normally extend further than three to four generations (beyond which the distant past begins) was taken by Antonaccio as explanation for the observation that the same tomb cults do not seem to have been practised for longer than a few generations. James Whitley however, has rightly pointed out that the tombs were not necessarily understood as those of ancestors, but may at least equally well have been interpreted in connection with Hesiod's Silver race (Whitley 1995: 56-8; 2002: 124; Antonaccio 1994a: 405-8). In her interpretation of later tomb cults, Susan Alcock argued similarly to Antonaccio, emphasising the need of aristocratic families in the post-Classical polis to co-opt ancient tombs as monuments of forebears in order to further legitimise their newly acquired political authority (Alcock 1991).

It is curious that only meanings of ancient tombs which are to do with the legitimation of social or political interests have recently been discussed in relation to early Greek tomb cults.

Other references to the past

I have already mentioned Greek hero cults as distinct from cults at Mycenaean tombs. Hero cult, which also intensified during the 8th century, consisted of different forms of worship of named heroes at specially constructed shrines. Although some of these heroes were not entirely human but 'lesser gods', all could in principle be referred to as corporate ancestors (Antonaccio 1993: 52; 1994a: 390-1; Whitley 1995: 53; see also Weiss 1984; Scheer 1993). Some of these hero cults clearly made reference to figures of Homer's epics, for example those carried out at the shrine of Helen and Menelaos in Therapne near Sparta (Antonaccio 1995: chapter 3). Others referred to local heroes which did not figure prominently in myths or epics, or to recently dead individuals who had shortly afterwards been heroised (Morris 1988: 752-4; Whitley 1994: 220-1). Hero cults could have had legitimatising functions similar to tomb cults, but often they seemed to be especially important for the definition and assurance of the identity of a community (Weiss 1984: 193-4). The seemingly ancient, possibly Mycenaean sanctuaries of Pelops at Olympia and of Opheltes at Nemea appear to have been invented and fabricated as ancient sites to support the foundation of the panhellenic games in much later times (Antonaccio 1995: 170-7).

Cults of the dead in general also implied references to the past, and could sometimes include references even to the distant past. Antonaccio listed evidence for funerary feasts at tombs, periboloi (stone enclosures) preserving older graves, and burials of heroised warriors which appeared to have been influenced by Homer's epics (Antonaccio 1995: chapter 4).

Nigel Spencer argued that ancient sites functioning as timemarks and reminders of the past in the landscape influenced the decisions of later inhabitants in Iron Age Messenia about where to live and build their own buildings and tombs. The Messenians also imitated ancient tumuli and put secondary burials into older tombs from the distant past, possibly in order to make their recent past of Spartan occupation forgotten (Spencer 1995: 286-9). James Whitley argued that the tumulus at Marathon too evoked much older building practices and was possibly inspired by reading Homer's epics (Whitley 1994: 227-30; Antonaccio 1995: 119).

In several cases, the Greeks physically re-used ancient ruins and tombs for new purposes (beyond tomb cults). On Paros, Mycenaean ruins were used in the 8th century BC as terraces and foundations for houses (Morris 1988: 751). By the same token, Mycenaean tombs were later transformed into kilns, mills, trash pits, reservoirs and shelter for people and animals (Antonaccio 1994b: 90; 1995). Such evidence corresponds to much more recent uses of Mycenaean tombs as dwelling of migrant fruit pickers and trash pits (Antonaccio 1994a: 403-4).

[Image] In Mycenae and Tiryns, Mycenaean ruins were integrated in later buildings and defences. In Mycenae (see figure) ancient sanctuaries and tombs were co-opted in later building activities (Antonaccio 1994b). Especially in the Hellenistic period, the Greeks integrated elements of ancient monuments into new buildings, where they remained visible. This may have been done in order to legitimatise fragile collective identities of small communities and their independent politics by referring to an idealised past (Förtsch 1995; see also Whitley 1995: 49-50).

During much of antiquity, (constructions of) the mythical and historical past had various practical social functions supporting, as part of cultural memories, both individual and collective identities as well as concrete political interests of people (Weiss 1984; Dihle 1988; Sparkes 1989: 127-9; Demandt 1992; Gehrke 1994). Literary sources allude to many other relevant instances beyond those already mentioned. Strabo, for example, reported about ancient treasure-hunting: when Julius Caesar rebuilt Corinth, the colonists came across several old cemeteries which they looted for antiques (after Wace 1949: 28; cf. Rumpf 1953: 12-16). During the second century AD, Pausanias spotted and investigated ancient monuments on his travels through Greece, representing perhaps the first instance of cultural tourism. Before him, Herodotus, Xenophon, and others had been culturally and historically interested and were observing travellers, too (Rumpf 1953: 18-9). One ancient site which many writers of the ancient world found especially worth mentioning were the Egyptian pyramids (Elsner 1994: 230-44).


Alcock, Susan E. (1991) Tomb Cult and the Post-Classical Polis. American Journal of Archaeology 95, 447–467.

Antonaccio, Carla M. (1993) The Archaeology of Ancestors. In: C.Dougherty and L.Kurke (eds) Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece. Cult, Performance, Politics, pp. 46–70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Antonaccio, Carla M. (1994a) Contesting the Past: Hero Cult, Tomb Cult and Epic in Early Greece. American Journal of Archaeology 98, 389–410.

Antonaccio, Carla M. (1994b) Placing the Past: the Bronze Age in the Cultic Topography of Early Greece. In: S.E.Alcock and R.Osborne (eds) Placing the Gods. Sanctuaries and Sacred Space in Ancient Greece, pp. 79–104. Oxford: Clarendon.

Antonaccio, Carla M. (1995) An Archaeology of Ancestors. Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Blegen, Carl W. (1937) Post-Mycenæan deposits in chamber-tombs. Archaiologiki Ephemeris 1937, 377–390.

Blinkenberg, Chr. (1911) The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore. A Study in Comparative Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butterfield, Herbert (1981) The Origins of History. London: Methuen.

Chaniotis, Angelos (1998) Willkommene Erdbeben. In: E.Olshausen and H.Sonnabend (eds) Naturkatastrophen in der antiken Welt. Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie des Altertums 6, 1996. Stuttgart: Steiner.

Coldstream, J.N. (1976) Hero-cults in the age of Homer. Journal of Hellenic Studies 96, 8–17.

Demandt, Alexander (1992) Historische Selbstentlastung in der Antike. In: B.Loewenstein (ed.) Geschichte und Psychologie. Annäherungsversuche, pp. 115–142. Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus.

Dihle, Albrecht (1988) Fortschritt und Goldene Urzeit. In: J.Assmann and T.Hölscher (eds) Kultur und Gedächtnis, pp. 150–169. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.

Elsner, John (1994) From the pyramids to Pausanias and Piglet: monuments, travel and writing. In: S.Goldhill and R.Osborne (eds) Art and text in ancient Greek culture, pp. 224–254. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Förtsch, Reinhard (1995) Zeugen der Vergangenheit. In: M.Wörrle and P.Zanker (eds) Stadtbild und Bürgerbild im Hellenismus, pp. 173–188. Vestigia. Beiträge zur alten Geschichte, vol. 47. München: Beck.

Gehrke, Hans-Joachim (1994) Mythos, Geschichte, Politik—antik und modern. Saeculum 45, 239–264.

Hägg, Robin (ed.) (1983) The Greek Renaissance of the Eight Century B.C.: Tradition and Innovation. Skrifter utgivna av svenska institutet i Athen, vol. 30. Stockholm.

Hiller, Stefan (1983a) Possible Historical Reasons for the Rediscovery of the Mycenaean Past in the Age of Homer (with discussion). In: R.Hägg (ed.) The Greek Renaissance of the Eight Century B.C.: Tradition and Innovation, pp. 9–15. Skrifter utgivna av svenska institutet i Athen, vol. 30. Stockholm.

Hiller, Stefan (1983b) Mycenaean Traditions in Early Greek Cult Images (with discussion). In: R.Hägg (ed.) The Greek Renaissance of the Eight Century B.C.: Tradition and Innovation, pp. 91–99. Skrifter utgivna av svenska institutet i Athen, vol. 30. Stockholm.

Humphreys, S.C. (1980) Family tombs and tomb cult in ancient Athens: tradition or traditionalism? Journal of Hellenic Studies 100, 96–126.

Lambrinoudakis, V.K. (1988) Veneration of Ancestors in Geometric Naxos. In: R.Hägg, N.Marinatos, and G.C.Nordquist (eds) Early Greek Cult Practice, pp. 235–245. Skrifter utgivna av svenska institutet i Athen, vol. 38. Stockholm.

Mayor, Adrienne (2000) The First Fossil Hunters. Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Morris, Ian (1988) Tomb cult and the 'Greek renaissance': the past in the present in the 8th century BC. Antiquity 62, 750–761.

Obermaier, Hugo (c.1912) Der Mensch der Vorzeit. Der Mensch aller Zeiten, vol. 1. Berlin etc.: Allgemeine Verlags-Gesellschaft.

Rumpf, Andreas (1953) Archäologie I: Einleitung, Historischer Überblick. Sammlung Göschen, vol. 538. Berlin: de Gruyter & Co.

Scheer, Tanja S. (1993) Mythische Vorväter. Zur Bedeutung griechischer Heroenmythen im Selbstverständnis kleinasiatischer Städte. Münchener Arbeiten zur Alten Geschichte vol. 7. München: Editio Maris.

Schnapp, Alain (1996) The Discovery of the Past. The Origins of Archaeology [1993]. London: British Museum Press.

Seters, John van (1983) In Search of History. Historiography in the ancient world and the origins of Biblical history. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Snodgrass, Anthony M. (1979) Poet and painter in eighth-century Greece. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society No. 205, 118–130.

Sparkes, Brian (1989) Classical Greek attitudes to the past. In: R.Layton (ed.) Who needs the Past? Indigenous values and archaeology, pp. 119–130. One World Archaeology, vol. 5. London: Unwin Hyman.

Spencer, Nigel (1995) Heroic time: monuments and the past in Messenia, Southwest Greece. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 14(3), 277–292.

Wace, A.J.B. (1949) The Greeks and Romans as Archaeologists. Bulletin de la Société Royale d'Archéologie d'Alexandrie 38, 21–35.

Weiss, Peter (1984) Lebendiger Mythos. Gründerheroen und städtische Gründungstraditionen im griechisch-römischen Osten. Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumswissenschaft N.F. 10, 179–209.

Whitley, James (1988) Early states and hero cults: a re-appraisal. Journal of Hellenic Studies 58, 173–182.

Whitley, James (1994) The Monuments That Stood before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica. American Journal of Archaeology 98, 213–230.

Whitley, James (1995) Tomb cult and hero cult. The uses of the past in Archaic Greece. In: N.Spencer (ed.) Time, Tradition and Society in Greek Archaeology. Bridging the 'Great Divide', pp. 43–63. London and New York: Routledge.

Whitley, James (2002) Too many ancestors. Antiquity 76, 119-26.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 20 June 2002