previous next


STELE (στήλη) is the name given to any block (usually of stone or marble) set up for a monumental purpose; thus it is constantly applied in inscriptions to the block on which a public document is to be incised. But the best known use of the term is to denote a monument set up over a tomb, either plain or with merely ornamental decorations, or containing a commemorative inscription, or a portrait of the deceased, painted or in relief, alone or grouped with other figures; combinations of these characteristics are common. The simplest form of stele consists of a plain marble slab or pillar surmounted by an anthemion, and inscribed with the name of the deceased; often two rosettes. side by side, are added--possibly a survival of

Fig. 1. Tombstone of Phrastclea. (Athens.)

an anthropomorphic representation. The most common subjects represented on grave reliefs may be thus classified:--

(1). Stmple representations of the deceased, often in some common employment of daily life. Thus the warrior appears fully armed, standing as if on parade (Aristion), or on horseback slaying a prostrate foe (Dexileos). An athlete holds his strigil or exercises, and is attended by his trainer or his slave; a lady sits playing with her jewels, also accompanied by her attendants (fig. 1). A man or child is often represented playing with a pet animal.

(2) Parting scenes.--The deceased, standing or seated, takes leave of his or her relatives or friends; family scenes are usually depicted. In later and more elaborate designs a horse appears, as if the deceased were about to start on a journey, and a serpent also is seen as a symbol of the dead. These two symbolic figures are, however, only common in the next class; and in parting scenes of the best period the subject is only indicated by the appearance of melancholy in the faces and attitudes of the persons represented (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Parting scene; Stele of Damasistrata. (Athens.)

(3) Banquet scenes.--These seem to have originated in a kind of ancestor-worship, as is seen in the very early stelae from Sparta: in them the deceased, as a “hero,” holds out a cup as if to require a drink-offering; his wife is seated on another throne behind him, and small worshippers approach with offerings. In later times we find some similar examples; on the painted stele of Lysias at Athens the deceased stands, holding a cup in his hand. In the Spartan reliefs a great serpent coils over the back of the throne, representing, probably, the deceased as the inhabitant of his tomb. In the typical banquet scene of later times the deceased reclines on a couch, and his wife sits on the foot of the couch or on a chair beside it; before them is a feast, of which they partake, and servants with cups or viands take the place of [p. 2.713]the worshippers; a snake and a dog are often present; and a horse's head, as a symbol of a journey, often appears in a square at the upper corner (fig. 3). It has been suggested that we should see here the funeral banquet idealised, or

Fig. 3. Tomb-stone with banquet scene. (
Marm. Oxon.

the enjoyments of the deceased in another life: the typical succession seems to indicate that we see rather a development of the representation in which the deceased, as a hero, receives offerings from worshippers, and reminds his descendants to give him more; but the enjoyment of those

Fig. 4. Marble Stele, found at Sparta. (From Murray,
Ancient Sculpture.

presents in another life is doubtless included. The type of these reliefs is often reproduced in dedications to Asclepius and Hygieia or other minor divinities; and thus we receive a confirmation of the view that the deceased is, originally at least, to be regarded as a deified hero.

The numerous series of Greek stelae which still survive is of great value, not only for their subjects but also for their execution; they were mostly the work of inferior artists or mere artisans, but reflect the style of the greater artists of the place or period to which they belong. The most important are those found in Athens, and preserved either in situ in the Outer Ceramicus or in the National Museum at Athens.

The inscription on a grave stele usually gives merely the name of the deceased, with his father's name and his country or deme, and her husband's also in the case of a woman: this simplicity was almost universal in Attica, but simple metrical inscriptions containing the same information are found from the earliest times. Elsewhere, and commonly later, χαῖρε or χρηστὲ χαῖρε is added; but elaborate eulogies are extremely rare, at least before Roman times.

(A complete collection of ancient grave-stelae is now being published by the German Institute, Die antiken Grabreliefs, Berlin, 1890. See also Le Bas, Antiquités figurées, p. 85; Welcker, Alte Denkmäler, ii. p. 232; Stephani, Der ausruhende Herakles; Pervanoglu, Das Familienmahl auf altgriechischen Grabstelen; Holländer, De operibus anaglyphis, &c.; Salinas, Monumenti Sepolcrali; Mittheilungen des deutschen Instituts zu Athen, ii. p. 459, iv. p. 161, vii. p. 160, &c.; Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1884. p. 105; Pottier, Les Léoythes blancs antiques; Furtwängler, Die Sammlung Sabouroff, A discussion by P. Gardner and references to previous authorities may be found in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1884, pp. 105-142.)


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: