Book With ConfidenceOur Safe Travel Policy

ancient urn of Brasidas at Amphipolis in Greece

We're back in Macedonia, Northern Greece, at Amphipolis, site of the celebrated Kasta Tumulus its excavation a few years ago. That story is perhaps awaiting its conclusion. Today, however, we look at a very striking item in the local Archaeological Museum. The museum houses finds from what is actually a very extensive site, where over 120 years of excavations have revealed copious remains, ranging from the Classical era (the fifth century BC) to the Early Byzantine one (the seventh century AD), a span of over twelve centuries.

The object is, as you can see, a large rectangular box, made entirely of silver. It's not a subtle object at all: clearly it is a container made of one of the most valuable materials available, and thus meant to contain something important. That said, it is not particularly ornate: the box itself and its lid are made of silver sheet, the only decoration being a number of round terminals. Attached at the bottom are four moulded lion's feet, a standard feature on many objects of the time.

To interpret such an object, we have to pursue two avenues. The first, and necessarily the immediate one, is archaeology: the analysis of the object itself, its contents and its physical context. That context comprises the architectural remains (if any) that it was found within and the finds that it was discovered with. Archaeology is what brought this object to light, and thus the primary approach to it, but the second avenue is to then look at the written history associated with the site, so as to assess broader contexts that archaeology alone cannot reveal.

Our box was not found empty. It contained ashes, namely the cremated remains of a human body, and the golden wreath now displayed atop it. In other words, its final use was as a receptacle for such remains, an urn. I say final use because any archaeological find associated with burial may have had a use-life before. In our case, that probably only applies to the burnt bone remains found within: someone used them as their skeleton throughout a lifetime. The gold wreath is a typical Ancient Greek funerary object, placed on the corpse during the laying-out of the body  before cremation, and usually buried with their remains. The box itself was probably specifically made as an urn, as indicated by other examples.

Another funerary wreath, imitating oak leaves, from the ancient cemetery of Amphipolis.

So, for now we have an urn and a wreath, made of valuable materials and thus probably containing the remains of a person deemed important by those who buried him or her. The deceased's sex remains unclear on this basis: although the golden funeral wreaths are more commonly associated with male graves than female ones, this is not exclusively the case.

The context is also of great interest. The urn was found in a spot very close to where the museum now stands, within the foundations of a well-built structure that was inside the city walls of Amphipolis and that can be dated roughly to the late fifth century BC. That date, not long after the very foundation of Amphipolis, is significant for reasons we will see shortly. The location and architectural context are also of significance. Generally, the Ancient Greeks placed burials outside the defined city limits for example, the Kerameikos in Athens: both practically and spiritually it made sense to keep the dead away from the living, and as a result all Greek cities featured extensive cemeteries outside the city walls, including Amphipolis. To find a deliberate burial inside a city, and in this case associated with what appears to have been a reasonably monumental structure, indicates a special status of the deceased, lifting him or her beyond normal convention and making the visible placement of their grave within the city not just an honour to them, but a desirable aspect of the city itself. Broadly, we see such ostentatious graves within cities as the burials of people afforded the status of a hero.

an ancient white-ground lekythos trom a grave in the Amphipolis cemetery in Greece

From another grave in the Amphipolis cemetery: a white-ground lekythos (a vessel traditionally used for offering olive oil at funerals), painted by the Reed Painter, an Athenian vase painter active in the 420s and 410s BC. Highly appropriately, it depicts a mourner approaching a be-ribboned grave marker.

So (again), we have a late-fifth-century burial of someone important, apparently deemed a hero and worthy of exceptional commemoration by those who undertook the burial and presumably by the citizens of Amphipolis. That is what we would normally be left with. Lacking an inscription, on the urn itself or on the building that contained it, we cannot firmly assess whose ashes were placed in it. It could be a benefactor of the city, a successful warrior or athlete, a wealthy sponsor and so on: the options are countless. As an archaeologist, I'd be perfectly happy at this stage: we have established the presence of commemorative burial of a respected individual in Classical Amphipolis, and we may well be looking at a tomb serving as a shrine to a founding hero.

But that's where historiography, the writing of historical narrative, comes in. Offering us personal names, exact dates and specific events, all of them things that archaeology by itself cannot normally provide, it suggests a fuller solution to our riddle.

Amphipolis had a turbulent history in the late fifth century BC, and quite a prominent one, so it was deemed noteworthy by the era's historians. The location was a desirable one, controlling the mouth of the River Strymon and the nearby silver-bearing Pangaion Hills. The first attempt to found a city here, as a colony of Miletus in Asia Minor, took place in 497 BC, but failed. The Athenians tried in 465 BC, but the 10,000 colonists they sent to what they then called Enneaodoi (the Seven Ways) were soon massacred by local Thracian tribes. Still, Athens finally succeeded in 437 BC, named the new city Amphipolis and established it quickly as a major power-base on the borders of 'barbarian' (non-Greek) Thrace.

It was not to last. In 424, during the conflict we now know as the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan general Brasidas threatened to conquer the city and convinced it to surrender by offering favourable terms - he appears to have been an impressive and charming negotiator (not the most typical Spartan feature). The Athenian general who was sent to prevent this, and who failed to do so, was Thucydides, the main historian of the era. Two years later, in 422, the Athenians sent one of their most prominent leaders, Kleon (or Cleon), to retake Amphipolis. In spite of Kleon's earlier success in the region, the Battle of Amphipolis was an Athenian defeat; both commanders, Kleon and Brasidas, lost their lives in it. Kleon was one of about 600 Athenian dead, Brasidas one of only seven fallen Spartans! As a result of Brasidas' efforts, Amphipolis managed to stay an independent city for another 65 years, until 357 BC, when Phillip II annexed it to his Macedonian kingdom (it became one of the key naval bases for his son, Alexander the Great).

Henceforth, Brasidas was considered a hero in two cities. In Sparta, a cenotaph (an empty tomb) was erected for him near that of King Leonidas (of the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae in 480!). The travel writer Pausanias saw it when he visited Sparta about 600 years later. In Amphipolis, the physical remains of Brasidas were buried within the city and he was now considered a founder of the city, as reported by Thucydides himself:

After this all the allies attended in arms and buried Brasidas at the public expense in the city, in front of what is now the market-place, and the Amphipolitans having enclosed his tomb, ever afterwards sacrifice to him as a hero and have given to him the honor of games and annual offerings. They constituted him the founder of their colony, [...]; for they considered that Brasidas had been their preserver and courting as they did the alliance of Sparta for fear of Athens, in their present hostile relations with the latter they could no longer with the same advantage or satisfaction pay Hagnon [the Athenian founder of Amphipolis] his honors.

The River Strymon at Amphipolis in Greece

Worth fighting for? The River Strymon at Amphipolis.

Of course, we will never be able to prove with certainty that the silver urn in Amphipolis Museum is that of Brasidas, but the object and its context are highly suggestive and they fit the historic narrative in terms of location and chronology. Even the relative restraint of the object (the gold wreath is standard, and the silver box is made of a local material and decorated sparsely, thus appropriate for a Spartan) supports the interpretation as the urn of Brasidas.

If you are interested in the complex history of ancient Macedon and modern Greek Macedonia, our Exploring Macedonia tour is for you. And if you are fascinated with the Ancient Spartans, we can tell you more on our Exploring the Peloponnese tour, which includes Sparta and its region (Laconia/Lakedaimon) itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


AITO Tour Operator of the Year 2015 Gold Award AITO Tour Operator of the Year 2017 Gold Award AITO Tour Operator of the Year 2018 Silver Award AITO Tour Operator of the Year 2019 Silver Award Best Travel Company for Arts and Culture Holidays Silver British Travel Award 2022 Member of AITO The Specialist Travel Association Member of ABTA the Association of British Travel Agents Member of ASTA The American Society of Travel Advisors Member of ABTOI the Association of British Travel Organisers to Italy

Rated as Excellent on Aito Reviews with over 500 reviews