Graveside Irony in the Iliad

Mike Tueller


The grave of a Homeric hero is marked by a σῆμα. Whatever its materials or construction, the purpose of a σῆμα is clear: to attract attention. This much we can discern from the word σῆμα itself, but Homer is sometimes even more clear. In the following passage Nestor does not use the word σῆμα, but clearly describes one when he speaks of a τύμβος:

“ἀμφ᾽ αὐτοῖσι δ᾽ ἔπειτα μέγαν καὶ ἀμύμονα τύμβον
χεύαμεν Ἀργείων ἱερὸς στρατὸς αἰχμητάων
ἀκτῇ ἔπι προὐχούσῃ, ἐπὶ πλατεῖ Ἑλλησπόντῳ,
ὥς κεν τηλεφανὴς ἐκ ποντόφιν ἀνδράσιν εἴη
τοῖς οἳ νῦν γεγάασι καὶ οἳ μετόπισθεν ἔσονται.”
“We, the sacred army of Argive spearmen, then
piled around them a great and blameless tomb
on a prominent headland on the broad Hellespont,
to be seen from far out at sea by men,
both those who are now and those who will be afterward.”

Od. 24.80–84

This description makes a special point of the tomb’s permanence: it will be seen in the present and the future. And how will those future generations react? Elsewhere in the Odyssey, Menelaus states that his purpose in building a tomb for Agamemnon was ἵν᾽ ἄσβεστον κλέος εἴη “so that his fame might be inextinguishable” (4.584). [1]

This use of the word κλέος is curious: it certainly means something on the order of “glory” or “reputation,” as usual in Homer, but Homer often clearly marks the means by which that glory is conferred as oral, and especially poetic. [2] Here, explicit reference to orality is omitted, and the mention of the τύμβος—a material object—makes it more difficult to infer oral transmission as well.
Given the pervasive orality of Greek culture at the time, however, we certainly should make such an inference. [3] Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood takes this into account in her careful outline of the process by which the Homeric grave-monument came to stand for the deceased. [4] In brief summary, the process she sketches is as follows:

  1. The grave was marked (with a σῆμα) in order to separate the living from the dead.
  2. The memory of the deceased persisted (orally) in his community; the grave marker of the deceased persisted (physically) in the space of the community.
  3. Due to the persistence of these two relics of the deceased, they became associated with each other.
  4. The grave marker activated and reinforced memory of the deceased: σῆμα became μνῆμα.

The “activation” spoken of in Sourvinou-Inwood’s fourth step presumably happens because the sight of a grave marker causes the community to remember, and even verbally to honor, the person buried there.

And yet, when we turn to the Iliad, we never find this process taking place. What would Homer’s audience have thought of this omission? Two possibilities suggest themselves. 1) They might not notice, because the Iliad audience, in this respect unlike the Odyssey audience, is unaware of a memorial purpose for grave markers. They have not yet reached the fourth step in Sourvinou-Inwood’s process. [5] Alternatively, 2) the Iliad audience is aware of a memorial purpose, and is thus surprised: each time a character comes in contact with a grave marker, they expect that that character will somehow engage with it, but this never happens.
There is evidence in favor of both possibilities. In favor of the first is the simple weight of accumulated instances: there are many encounters with tombs in the Iliad, and not one of them activates the κλέος of the deceased, as the Odyssey would lead us to expect. [6] In favor of the second possibility is a single but notorious instance. Hector threatens the Akhaians; he predicts that he will kill their champion, and then concludes:

“τὸν δὲ νέκυν ἐπὶ νῆας ἐϋσσέλμους ἀποδώσω,
ὄφρα ἑ ταρχύσωσι κάρη κομόωντες Ἀχαιοί
σῆμά τέ οἱ χεύωσιν ἐπὶ πλατεῖ Ἑλλησπόντῳ.
καί ποτέ τις εἴπῃσι καὶ ὀψιγόνων ἀνθρώπων,
νηῒ πολυκλήϊδι πλέων ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον·
‘ἀνδρὸς μὲν τόδε σῆμα πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος,
ὅν ποτ᾽ ἀριστεύοντα κατέκτανε φαίδιμος Ἕκτωρ.’
ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει, τὸ δ᾽ ἐμὸν κλέος οὔ ποτ᾽ ὀλεῖται.”
“I will return the corpse to the well-decked ships,
so that the hairy-headed Akhaians may bury it
and pile a marker for it on the broad Hellespont.
And someday, someone, even of late-born people, will say,
as he sails in a many-benched ship on the wine-surfaced sea:
‘This is the marker of a man who died long ago,
whom illustrious Hector once killed in his moment of triumph.’
So someone will someday say, and my fame will never perish.”

Il. 7.84–91

Traditionally, this passage has been read as ironic: [7] we assume that the audience would have expected that the tomb would honor the man buried there, and that it would recall his great deeds to the minds of those who see it; this predicted tomb, on the other hand, will call to mind the great deeds of the person who killed the dead man.

This displaced memorial purpose is striking; but what of many other invocations of grave-marker language in the Iliad, in which memory is not displaced, but rather omitted or elided? Did this absence of memory also have an effect on Homer’s audience—an effect more pronounced than it has on us? How could we tell?
I propose that we apply a test derived from early inscribed epigram. Some early sepulchral epigrams give prominence to the passerby, [8] and attempt to control his response to the grave marker. While these epigrams are separated from the Homeric audience both by a long span of time and by their literate medium, it is possible that the actions they attribute to (or demand of) the passerby were similar to those expected of a Homeric passerby. [9] If the Iliad treats these actions with irony similar to that found in Hector’s threat above, then we can conclude that Homer’s audience did understand a memorial purpose for grave markers, and that that understanding is continuous with the earliest inscribed epigrams.
What actions do we find in these epigrams? The following provides an excellent example:

ἄ̣νθροπ̣ε hὸς ⟨σ⟩τείχ̣ε̣ι̣ς ⁚ καθ᾽ ὁδὸ|ν ⁚ φρασὶν ⁚ ἄλ⟨λ⟩α μενοινο͂ν ⁚
στε͂θι | καὶ οἴκτιρον ⁚ σε͂μα Θράσονος ⁚ ἰδόν.
You who pass along the road with other intentions in your mind,
stand and pity, while you look at the marker of Thraso.

CEG 28, ca. 540–530? BC, Attica

Here, and in other early sepulchral epigrams, three “characters”—that is, three entities that interact by gaze or speech—are important: [10]

  1. The passerby
  2. The deceased
  3. The grave marker itself

Actions implicitly or explicitly performed by the passerby are:

  1. Motion past the marker (either before or after reading the epigram)
  2. Stopping at the marker
  3. Looking at the marker
  4. Lamenting for the deceased [11]

I will refer to this combination of characters and actions, taken as a whole, as the “graveside narrative.” While we already know that the above actions are not performed in graveside passages in the Iliad, in what follows I will look to see whether the absence of this performance is ironically underlined, or whether the action has been assigned to one of the other characters, as an ironic displacement.

First, however, one objection must be answered. Epigrams such as the above are not, in their earliest manifestations, a widespread phenomenon. When they begin, in the 6th century BC, they are confined to Attica. Later evidence is more consistent with the idea that an exclusively Attic tradition expanded to meet a broader Greek tradition in which the passerby’s presence was assumed, but much less was said about him. [12] Is the graveside narrative, then, too slender a tradition to apply to Homer?
In the first place, it must be noted that the best proof of a tool is in its use. If a test based on the graveside narrative produces clear results, then it will have been a useful tool. Secondly, we should not assume the geographic—or, for that matter, temporal—range of the graveside narrative in epigram to be co-extensive with the range of the actual performance of graveside actions. In fact, if those actions were societally expected behavior, we should not be surprised to find them rarely mentioned. Certainly, when this narrative appears in 6th-century Attica, it springs into existence so fully formed that we must presume that it had some sort of previous existence. [13] That existence, in all probability, was constituted by the actual practice of people around grave markers; only the inscribed documentation of it was new.
In what follows, then, we will look at encounters with grave markers—or simply passages where such an encounter is invoked by Homer’s language—to see whether any of the above-mentioned components of the graveside narrative are invoked. Each passage must give one of the following three results:

  1. No reference is made to any component of the graveside narrative, and this omission passes unremarked by the text.
  2. The graveside narrative, or at least part of it, is followed.
  3. The graveside narrative is not followed, but the context indicates awareness of the narrative—a gesture toward the path not taken.

As I have remarked above, we already know that the second result does not obtain. The test, then, is between the first (unawareness of the graveside narrative) and the last (ironic awareness).


On a few occasions, we find the first result. Iliadic characters are near a tomb, but neither they nor the text finds this fact to be noteworthy. Actions taken near the tomb are not connected to the tomb’s status as such.

οἳ δ᾽ ἔχον Ἀρκαδίην ὑπὸ Κυλλήνης ὄρος αἰπὺ
Αἰπύτιον παρὰ τύμβον, ἵν᾽ ἀνέρες ἀγχιμαχηταί….
Next, those who inhabit Arkadia, beneath the lofty mountain of Kyllene,
by the tomb of Aiputos, where are men who fight at close quarters….

Il. 2.603–604
“Ἕκτωρ μὲν μετὰ τοῖσιν, ὅσοι βουληφόροι εἰσίν,
βουλὰς βουλεύει θείου παρὰ σήματι Ἴλου,
νόσφιν ἀπὸ φλοίσβου·…”
“Hector, with those who are counselors,
takes counsel by the marker of divine Ilos,
far from the tumult.”

Il. 10.414–416
… στήλῃ κεκλιμένος ἀνδροκμήτῳ ἐπὶ τύμβῳ
Ἴλου Δαρδανίδαο παλαιοῦ δημογέροντος.
… leaning on the pillar upon the man-wrought tomb
of Ilos son of Dardanos, ancient elder of the people.

Il. 11.371–372

If instances such as these were more numerous, they would make a good case that the Iliad knows no graveside conventions. As it is, however, there are far more occasions that yield a different result. It is probable, then, that these instances reflect nothing more than a pronounced instance of the compression found in oral narrative; these mentions of tombs are simply not very important.

As it is, it is worth noting that two of the above examples explicitly bring up the idea of nearness/distance (ἀγχιμαχηταί, νόσφιν). This fact is of little interest by itself, but, given the tendency of later inscribed epigram to be very specific about the location of the passerby, it is possible that mention of nearness would trigger associations in Homer’s audience. It must be admitted, however, that if such associations are triggered, it is only lightly. The remaining instances are much more strongly marked.


Sometimes, the third component of the graveside narrative—looking at the marker—is frustrated: while characters may literally see the monument, they do not notice it. This is the case twice in the Iliad:

ἔστι δέ τις προπάροιθε πόλιος αἰπεῖα κολώνη,
ἐν πεδίῳ ἀπάνευθε, περίδρομος ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,
τὴν ἤτοι ἄνδρες Βατίειαν κικλήσκουσιν,
ἀθάνατοι δέ τε σῆμα πολυσκάρθμοιο Μυρίνης·
ἔνθα τότε Τρῶές τε διέκριθεν ἠδ᾽ ἐπίκουροι.
There is a lofty mound in front of the city,
apart on the plain (one passes around it this way or that way),
which men call Bramble Hill,
but the deathless ones call it the marker of much-bounding Murine;
there the Trojans and their allies were then divided up.

Il. 2.811–815
“σῆμα δέ τοι ἐρέω μάλ᾽ ἀριφραδές, οὐδέ σε λήσει·
ἕστηκε ξύλον αὗον ὅσον τ᾽ ὄργυι᾽ ὑπὲρ αἴης,
ἢ δρυὸς ἢ πεύκης· τὸ μὲν οὐ καταπύθεται ὄμβρῳ·
λᾶε δὲ τοῦ ἑκάτερθεν ἐρηρέδαται δύο λευκώ
ἐν ξυνοχῇσιν ὁδοῦ, λεῖος δ᾽ ἱππόδρομος ἀμφίς·
ἤ τεο σῆμα βροτοῖο πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος
ἢ τό γε νύσσα τέτυκτο ἐπὶ προτέρων ἀνθρώπων·
καὶ νῦν τέρματ᾽ ἔθηκε ποδάρκης δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.”
“I will mention to you a very obvious marker; you won’t miss it:
a dry post stands about six feet above the earth—
either of oak or pine. It is not rotted by rain.
Two white stones are fixed on either side of it
at the narrows of the road; the racecourse is smooth on both sides.
Either it is the marker of some long-dead mortal
or it was built as a turning-post among earlier people.
Now, too, divine swift-footed Achilles has made it the boundary-mark.”

Il. 23.326–333

In the second of these passages, Nestor emphasizes the visibility of the σῆμα: it cannot be missed. Yet it is not really seen, because it is not seen as a grave marker. Ultimately, neither Nestor nor the Iliadic audience learns whether it is a grave marker or not, though the evidence of the first example would make any hearer guess that it is. In both these cases, the marker is seen, but, without recognition, seeing does not accomplish anything.

On two other occasions, noticing the marker is impossible because it is not even visible: [14]

ἦμος δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἄρ πω ἠώς, ἔτι δ᾽ ἀμφιλύκη νύξ,
τῆμος ἄρ᾽ ἀμφὶ πυρὴν κριτὸς ἤγρετο λαὸς Ἀχαιῶν,
τύμβον δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ αὐτὴν ἕνα ποίεον ἐξαγαγόντες
ἄκριτον ἐκ πεδίου· ποτὶ δ᾽ αὐτὸν τεῖχος ἔδειμαν….
“ἄγρει μάν, ὅτ᾽ ἂν αὖτε κάρη κομόωντες Ἀχαιοὶ
οἴχωνται σὺν νηυσὶ φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
τεῖχος ἀναρρήξας τὸ μὲν εἰς ἅλα πᾶν καταχεῦαι,
αὖτις δ᾽ ἠϊόνα μεγάλην ψαμάθοισι καλύψαι,
ὥς κέν τοι μέγα τεῖχος ἀμαλδύνηται Ἀχαιῶν.”
When it was not yet dawn, but night was still at twilight,
then a select host of the Akhaians gathered around the pyre,
and around it they made a single tomb, bringing corpses
indiscriminately out of the plain; and by it they constructed a wall….
“Come now; whenever, in their turn, the hairy-headed Akhaians
depart with their ships to their own home land,
break up the wall and dump it all into the sea,
and then cover the great beach with sand,
to lay low the great wall of the Akhaians.”

Il. 7.433–436, 459–463
“κὰδ δέ μιν αὐτὸν
εἰλύσω ψαμάθοισιν, ἅλις χέραδος περιχεύας
μύριον, οὐδέ οἱ ὀστέ᾽ ἐπιστήσονται Ἀχαιοὶ
ἀλλέξαι· τόσσην οἱ ἄσιν καθύπερθε καλύψω.
αὐτοῦ οἱ καὶ σῆμα τετεύξεται, οὐδέ τί μιν χρεὼ
ἔσται τυμβοχοῆς, ὅτε μιν θάπτωσιν Ἀχαιοί.”
“The man himself
I will envelop in sand, piling about him ample
tonnage of muck: the Akhaians won’t even know how to gather
his bones—that’s the quantity of sand with which I will cover him!
There too will a marker be built for him, and he will have no need
of tomb-piling, when the Akhaians bury him.”

Il. 21.318–323

The first passage above is rightly noticed because it eliminates the Akhaians’ wall, [15] but we should understand that the tomb, which was next to the wall, was also eliminated in the thorough destruction of the beach. Homer’s audience thus has an aetiology for the absence of both wall and tomb in the Troad of their day. The second passage is extraordinary for its irony. Scamander threatens to bury Achilles alive, and makes a point of referring to the pile under which he will bury him as a σῆμα—but one that will make his bones impossible to find or bury. Scamander’s words ironize the concept of the σῆμα, by creating a version of it that renders Achilles’ corpse unmarked.

The above examples all reveal (or, in Il. 23, hint) to the Homeric audience that a σῆμα is present, but scrupulously point out why Homer’s characters (or, in Il. 7, contemporaneous tourists) do not see it. If Homer’s audience was expecting to see the grave receive its proper respect, these passages scrupulously show why this did not happen.


Less frequently, the first of the above steps—moving—is frustrated. Notice how the role of the passerby is filled in this description by Andromache:

“… ἠδ᾽ ἐπὶ σῆμ᾽ ἔχεεν· περὶ δὲ πτελέας ἐφύτευσαν
νύμφαι ὀρεστιάδες, κοῦραι Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο.”
“… and they piled a marker on him. Around it elms were planted
by the mountain-nymphs, maidens of aegis-bearing Zeus.”

Il. 6.419–420

Prior to these lines, Andromache has told Hector that her city was sacked, her brothers killed, and her mother carried away and sold; and that she herself is far away in Troy. It seems unlikely that her father’s grave will encounter anyone who remembers him, and thus can activate his κλέος. The things beside the tomb, occupying the position of the passerby, can do no passing—the elms will simply stay put. [16]

A second description shows more obvious contradictions:

… ὃς Τρώων σκοπὸς ἷζε, ποδωκείῃσι πεποιθώς,
τύμβῳ ἔπ᾽ ἀκροτάτῳ Αἰσυιήταο γέροντος….
… a watchman of the Trojans, he sat, trusting in his fleetness of foot,
on the very top of the tomb of the old man Aisuietes….

Il. 2.792–793

Iris, here in the form of the watchman Polites, sits on this tomb, rather than pausing before it. This might seem no more than an instance of disregarding the tomb’s significance, as in section II above; but the strange collocation “sat, trusting in his fleetness of foot” implies both motion and staying in place at the same time, thus hinting at expected behavior before the tomb.


At other times, the second step—stopping—is frustrated. [17] Twice the text emphasizes the rapidity of motion past the tomb, making stopping impossible. The first is in the context of the σῆμα used as a turning-post in book 23, mentioned above. The second is mentioned in the ordinary course of battle:

οἳ δὲ παρ᾽ Ἴλου σῆμα παλαιοῦ Δαρδανίδαο
μέσσον κὰπ πεδίον παρ᾽ ἐρινεὸν ἐσσεύοντο….
By the marker of ancient Ilos son of Dardanos
down to the middle of the plain by the fig-tree they sped….

Il. 11.166–167

In this example, word order is important. CEG 28, mentioned above, serves as a good comparandum. Its first line prominently features motion in a relative clause, beginning ἄ̣νθροπ̣ε hὸς ⟨σ⟩τείχ̣ε̣ι̣ς…. Iliad 11.166 could feature as the first line of a similarly constructed sepulchral epigram: “You who pass by the marker of ancient Ilos, son of Dardanos, pause and lament….” But unlike CEG 28 (and unusually for Homer, who resists severe enjambment), the Iliad passage delays its verb, not only beyond the end of line 166, but past landmarks beyond Ilos’ tomb; when the verb finally appears, its motion is much more rapid than the stately (and more interruptable) στείχεις. The hearer, too, has been pulled along far beyond the tomb, and the opportunity for lament has gone.

In two other passages, there is more than simple haste: rather, the situation seems to indicate the possibility of stopping by the tomb, but another action is substituted:

“καί κέ τις ὧδ᾽ ἐρέει Τρώων ὑπερηνορεόντων
τύμβῳ ἐπιθρῴσκων Μενελάου κυδαλίμοιο·”
“This is how one of the cocky Trojans will speak,
as he leaps upon the tomb of glorious Menelaus….”

Il. 4.176–177
οἳ δ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὖν μέγα σῆμα πάρεξ Ἴλοιο ἔλασσαν,
στῆσαν ἄρ᾽ ἡμιόνους τε καὶ ἵππους, ὄφρα πίοιεν
ἐν ποταμῷ.
So when they rode out by the great marker of Ilos,
then they stopped their donkeys and horses so they could drink
in the river.

Il. 24.349–351

In the first of the above passages, Agamemnon has already telegraphed the attitude of the Trojan passerby to Menelaus’ hypothetical tomb, so some irony is expected. Nevertheless, the sudden appearance of the participle ἐπιθρῴσκων displaces a potential verb of stopping. [18]

The second of the above passages is even more striking. Again the first line describes passing by the tomb of Ilos. We know from the context that Priam is not hurrying now; he is, in fact, on his way to retrieve the body of his son Hector. The hearer, then, might expect that he will have his mind focused on the dead and on burial, and thus will give Ilos’ tomb the proper respect. The first word of the second line then teases the hearer: “they stopped,” it says. An intransitive form of ἵστημι is exactly what the hearer would expect here: it appears in many epigrammatic graveside narratives. [19]
But στῆσαν is a peculiar form of ἵστημι, as it could be either a transitive or an intransitive aorist. Only context can differentiate the two, and the only context available at the beginning of line 350 is the passing of a tomb. [20] It is natural for the hearer to think, momentarily, that these travelers stop by the tomb in accordance with custom, but the suddenly emergent transitive nature of the verb cuts short this expectation. If we assume that Homer’s audience shared the graveside expectation of stopping when moving by a tomb, line 350 is just as ironic as Hector’s threat in Iliad 7—more subtle, but equally powerful.


At times, the Iliad addresses the graveside encounter with a more complex strategy: rather than frustrating any particular action of the passerby, it confuses one of the characters in the encounter with another. This is seen most clearly in the Iliad 7 passage quoted above (section 1). In that passage, the deceased and his killer are confused, with the victorious killer receiving the κλέος ordinarily to be offered to the deceased.
Most of the passages showing confusion do so by putting the dead in place of the living, or vice versa. For instance, Hector speaks of the circumstances after his own death as follows:

“καί ποτέ τις εἴπῃσιν ἰδὼν κατὰ δάκρυ χέουσαν·
‘Ἕκτορος ἥδε γυνή, ὃς ἀριστεύεσκε μάχεσθαι
Τρώων ἱπποδάμων, ὅτε Ἴλιον ἀμφεμάχοντο.’
ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει· σοὶ δ᾽ αὖ νέον ἔσσεται ἄλγος
χήτει τοιοῦδ᾽ ἀνδρὸς ἀμύνειν δούλιον ἦμαρ.
ἀλλά με τεθνηῶτα χυτὴ κατὰ γαῖα καλύπτοι,
πρίν γ᾽ ἔτι σῆς τε βοῆς σοῦ θ᾽ ἑλκηθμοῖο πύθεσθαι.”
“And someday, someone will say, as he sees you shedding a tear,
‘This is the wife of Hector, who triumphed in battle
among the horse-taming Trojans, when they fought around Ilion.’
So someone will someday say; and pain will come to you anew
for lack of such a man as could ward off the day of enslavement.
But may piled earth cover me over in death
before I hear any more your cry and your abduction.”

Il. 6.459–465

Here, Hector is the one who will be dead (as he essentially admits in the last two lines of the passage), but Andromache will be the one who is memorialized in a fashion that is plainly epigrammatic (as the scholiast notes). [21] The living are lamented instead of the dead. What is more, Andromache is not only the object of lament; she is also the object of sight that initiates the lament: in this way, she herself assumes the role of the σῆμα—Hector’s σῆμα. [22]

Achilles’ abuse of Hector’s body also appears differently through this lens. While Achilles’ actions have been (deservedly) the object of much study, [23] we must direct our attention to the location of that abuse: once Patroklos is buried, Achilles drags Hector’s corpse around (περί) his tomb (Il. 24.16, 51, 416, 755). It has been thought that, in a sense, Achilles thus demonstrates to Patroklos his recompense: Hector now suffers as he made Patroklos to suffer. [24] We can see, however, that this action also creates a curious passerby: Hector is dead, and thus should be lying in a tomb, receiving the visits of passersby; but instead, he is playing the role of passerby himself, passing by the tomb of Patroklos and “paying his respects.” In addition, by framing this scene as part of a perverted graveside narrative, we more easily can see that it is a precise reversal of Hector’s prediction in book 7: instead of a living Hector taking on the role of the dead recipient of κλέος, a dead Hector is taking on the role of the living passerby, who gives κλέος.
Perhaps the most unusual confusion of the graveside situation appears in a simile applied to Achilles’ horses, just after the death of Patroklos:

τὼ δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἂψ ἐπὶ νῆας ἐπὶ πλατὺν Ἑλλήσποντον
ἠθελέτην ἰέναι, οὔτ᾽ ἐς πόλεμον μετ᾽ Ἀχαιούς,
ἀλλ᾽ ὥς τε στήλη μένει ἔμπεδον, ἥ τ᾽ ἐπὶ τύμβῳ
ἀνέρος ἑστήκῃ τεθνηότος ἠὲ γυναικός,
ὣς μένον ἀσφαλέως περικαλλέα δίφρον ἔχοντες,
οὔδει ἐνισκίμψαντε καρήατα, δάκρυα δέ σφιν
θερμὰ κατὰ βλεφάρων χαμάδις ῥέε μυρομένοισιν
ἡνιόχοιο πόθῳ·
The two of them refused to go either back to
the broad Hellespont or to war among the Akhaians,
but they stayed in place, like a pillar that stands
on the tomb of a dead man or woman;
so firmly they stayed, holding the very fine chariot,
hanging their heads to the ground, and they wept hot tears,
flowing from their eyes to the earth
in longing for the one who held their reins.

Il. 17.432–439

Funereal indications abound here, but they point in no one clear direction. The horses weep, implying that they are the passerby—yet they will not go to the Hellespont, formulaically marked as the place of tombs, [25] or to the battle, where Patroklos’ corpse currently lies. They thus refuse the act of passing by. What is more, in their stillness they are compared, not to the stopped and lamenting passerby—the most proximate choice—but to the grave marker. [26] They are thus simultaneously assigned to two roles: passerby and marker; and since those roles conflict, one requiring motion and the other requiring permanence and lack of motion, nothing can be accomplished: the graveside narrative is aborted.

The confusion seems especially intense here; [27] it is worth noting that Iliad 6.459 (above), which also quite clearly referred to sepulchral mourning, also featured the shedding of tears—which it assigned to Andromache, who was playing the role of the object of grief. Only on these two occasions is lament—the fourth step of the 6th century graveside narrative—mentioned in connection with graveside circumstances in Homer. The first of these is a speculation and the second is partly a simile—and in both cases the tears are strangely assigned.
This displacement of tears is reminiscent of that seen at the beginning of Iliad 18, where Thetis enacts “a stylized wake for Achilles as if he were a corpse being laid out,” [28] but sheds tears for the dead Patroklos, Achilles’ substitute. [29] In a larger sense, this displacement is enacted by the Iliad as a whole, which consistently foreshadows Achilles’ death, but postpones its occurrence beyond the confines of the poem itself. [30] Lament for Achilles is thus at once signaled as necessary, and made impossible to initiate. By pointedly omitting or displacing lament for many other σήματα, Homer reinforces this theme. [31]


We might sum up Homer’s attitude to graveside practice with a Homeric line:

“ἦ μὴν καὶ πόνος ἐστὶν ἀνιηθέντα νέεσθαι.”
“Truly, it is toil to mourn and go.”

Il. 2.291

In context, Odysseus, the speaker of this line, apparently means that it is a hard thing to depart in defeat. But this line combines two verbs in a way distinctly reminiscent of the epigrammatic graveside narrative. [32] In a different context, it could refer to the passerby, who finds it tiresome to fulfill his obligation to lament before going on his way. Perhaps the Homeric tradition, at some level, even intends this meaning; it is certainly easier to discover than the contextual interpretation, which requires a great deal of difficult inference. [33]

By the 6th century, if not earlier, the audience of the Iliad knew that κλέος, for most dead people, depended on the willingness of the passerby to pause and reactivate the memory of the deceased through lament. Most warriors, they knew, were not Achilles—no epic would be sung for them. But they also had personal experience of their own unwillingness (or inability) to give the dead this recompense: most graves went unvisited, most epigrams unread. [34] They could confirm the Iliad line above in their own behavior, and understand Achilles’ complaint:

“ἴση μοῖρα μένοντι, καὶ εἰ μάλα τις πολεμίζοι,
ἐν δὲ ἰῇ τιμῇ ἠμὲν κακὸς ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλός·”
“The lot is the same for someone who stays behind and whoever would rather make war;
both the coward and the noble are held in one esteem.”

Il. 9.318–319

Homer reinforces this message with a consistent approach to the σήματα in the Iliad: they never receive the respect they deserve, and usually the text goes out of its way to point out the point at which the process breaks down. We can reach this conclusion, however, only by assuming that Homer’s audience shared roughly the same expectations as we find in 6th century Attic epigram. Their earlier existence now manifests itself only in ironic shadows.


CEG = Carmina Epigraphica Graeca, Peter Allan Hansen, ed. (Berlin 1983 & 1989).
Journal abbreviations below as in L’Année Philologique.


Bing, Peter. 2002. “The Un-Read Muse? Inscribed Epigram and Its Readers in Antiquity.” In M. Annette Harder, Remco F. Regtuit, and Gerry C. Wakker (eds.), Hellenistic Epigrams (Hellenistica Groningana 6), 39–66. Leuven.
Day, Joseph W. 2010. Archaic Greek Epigram and Dedication. Cambridge, England.
Edwards, Mark W. 1991. The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 5: books 17–20. Cambridge, England.
Elmer, David. 2005. “Helen Epigrammatopoios.” ClAnt 24.1–39.
Hainsworth, Bryan. 1993. The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 3: books 9–12. Cambridge, England.
Kirk, G. S. 1993. The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 1: books 1–4. Cambridge, England.
Kurke, Leslie. 1993. “The Economy of Kudos.” In Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke (eds.), Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece: Cult, Performance, Politics, 131–163. Cambridge, England.
Nagy, Gregory. 1974. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter (Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 33). Cambridge, Massachusetts.
―――. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore.
Richardson, Nicholas. 1993. The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 6: books 20–24. Cambridge, England.
Scodel, Ruth. 1992. “Inscription, Absence, and Memory: Epic and Early Epitaph.” SIFC 10: 57–76.
Segal, Charles. 1971. The Theme of the Mutilation of the Corpse in the Iliad. (Mnemosyne Supplement 17.) Leiden.
Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. 1995. “Reading” Greek Death to the End of the Classical Period. Oxford.
Tueller, Michael A. 2008. Look Who’s Talking: Innovations in Voice and Identity in Hellenistic Epigram. Leuven.
―――. 2011. “The Passerby in Archaic and Classical Epigram.” In Archaic and Classical Greek Epigram, 42–60. Cambridge, England.


[ back ] 1. Nagy (1974:250) rightly says that the translation “fame” here is “inadequate: it merely designates the consequences rather than the full semantic range.” See my next paragraph.
[ back ] 2. Nagy (1974:244–252, 1979:16–17).
[ back ] 3. Scodel (1992:58) posits the Iliad’s awareness of writing, and even (1992:61–62) of epitaph, but the generally oral nature of the epic cannot be contested.
[ back ] 4. Sourvinou-Inwood (1995:108–141).
[ back ] 5. This is the line taken by Hainsworth (1993:267–268), who observes, “Grave-mounds in Homer are memorials without any numinous aura; consequently they are treated casually as convenient landmarks (23.331), watchtowers (2.793), or fighting posts.” Hainsworth’s language here is imprecise; if the mounds activate no memory, then it is incorrect to call them “memorials” at all; and it would be difficult to attribute a “numinous aura” to ancient Greek tombs in any period (other than those of heroes): they are locations of grief, rather than of the spooky reverence seen in modern literary and cinematic depictions of graveyards.
[ back ] 6. Noting some of the examples I explore below, Scodel (1992:66) notes that “Monuments in the poem are not effective as preserves of memory.”
[ back ] 7. An “anti-epitaph,” as Scodel (1992:59) calls it. Elmer (2005:1) also notes the ironic tradition. Nagy’s (1979:28–29) perception of irony here is compatible with mine, though it has a slightly different focus.
[ back ] 8. I refer to the person who encounters a grave marker as a “passerby,” taking my cue from some of the early epigrams that refer to him (e.g. CEG 110). He is not always so clearly designated, but can consistently be identified by his location in space and time: in front of the tomb, and in the present (or sometimes future) tense of the epigram (Tueller 2011:42–46).
[ back ] 9. Scodel (1992:59–61) explores in more depth the question of a literacy gap between the Iliad and the oldest sepulchral epigrams. Since I confine my exploration here to the procedures of graveside lament, my argument is not dependent on her conclusions about the existence, in Homer, of the actual language of epitaph, though those conclusions do provide my argument with support.
[ back ] 10. For an explanation of my use of this term, and a more comprehensive list of characters, see Tueller (2008:12–15).
[ back ] 11. This list is drawn from Tueller (2011:46).
[ back ] 12. Tueller (2011:46–47).
[ back ] 13. Tueller (2011:42).
[ back ] 14. Hes. Scut. 477–478 expresses an idea similar to, but less nuanced than, these passages.
[ back ] 15. Hainsworth (1993:317), ad Il. 12.1–33, which recounts the destruction itself.
[ back ] 16. Similarly, I have shown (2008:83–84) a Hellenistic epigram that used statues in the “passerby” role.
[ back ] 17. I do not include in my count here two occasions where characters build a tomb and then depart (Il. 23.255–257, 24.799–801), on the grounds that the passerby and the burier are different characters. In the Hellenistic period, these characters would sometimes be confounded (Tueller 2008:88–93), but this does not seem to happen before that time, and there is no indication of it happening here.
[ back ] 18. The irony is heightened by the word κυδαλίμοιο; the word κῦδος implies that victory is assured (see Kurke 1993:132).
[ back ] 19. CEG 27, 28, 174(B & C), all στῆθι καὶ οἴκτιρον (vel sim.).
[ back ] 20. To an ancient Homer commentator, the case might not be so opaque. The precise form στῆσαν (without augment) is always transitive in the Homeric epics (Il. 23.745, 24.350; Od. 2.431, 4.22, 15.290), while ἔστησαν may go either way (transitive: Il. 1.448; Od. 14.420; intransitive: Il. 11.593, 13.488; Od. 10.391, 24.58). Evidence from compounded forms is less decisive; there, both forms may be intransitive (ἔστησαν: Il. 2.85, 24.718; στῆσαν: Il. 4.532). It is of some incidental notice that Apollonius of Rhodes seems to have been aware of this issue: he counters Homer by using στῆσαν intransitively in this same sedes (2.265)—surprisingly, the only time he uses either στῆσαν or ἔστησαν, either in or out of a compound.
[ back ] 21. Scodel (1992:59).
[ back ] 22. Scodel (1992:59), Elmer (2005:5n13). I am grateful to David Elmer for pointing out to me this additional twist, in response to an earlier version of this paper. Scodel (1992:64) also observes that, as a monument, Andromache “would prefer to remain unread,” unlike her depiction in Euripides’ Andromache.
[ back ] 23. Especially Segal (1971).
[ back ] 24. Richardson (1993:148).
[ back ] 25. Edwards (1991:105–106).
[ back ] 26. In fact, Homer once elsewhere (Il. 13.437–438) emphasizes the permanence of the στήλη in a way he does not for other words associated with tombs. Nevertheless, given the existence of the topos of stopping attached to the passerby (discussed above), it would be easy to invoke it here.
[ back ] 27. Iliad 23.618–620 has a similar, though less intense, collision and redirection of sepulchral language. While this passage includes the words μνῆμα and τάφος, and refers to the fact that Patroclus will no longer be seen (a sepulchral convention seen in CEG 161.2 and 585.4), it does not refer to a tomb at all, but rather to a phiale given by Achilles to Nestor, as a “memento” of Patroklos’ funerary games. Later (23.648), Nestor connects the idea of memory to the object, but the person whose remembrance it fosters is Nestor himself—not Patroklos.
[ back ] 28. Nagy (1979:113).
[ back ] 29. Since Patroklos was killed leading Achilles’ troops into battle and wearing his armor, he must inevitably be seen as his substitute; Nagy (1979:32–34, 292–293) explores this relationship in greater depth and linguistic specificity.
[ back ] 30. Nagy (1979:113).
[ back ] 31. I thank David Elmer for pointing out this connection to me.
[ back ] 32. ἀνιάομαι is featured in CEG 470; νέομαι CEG 13. CEG 13 is also syntactically similar to the Iliad line; twice it features lament expressed by a participle subordinated to a verb of going.
[ back ] 33. Kirk (1985:147).
[ back ] 34. Given that literacy was surely more restricted earlier in antiquity, the conclusions of Bing (2002) can be generalized to the archaic period. I find the response of Day (2010:26–84) thought-provoking, but not completely convincing.