Repatriating the Athenian War Dead
by Owen Rees, Associate Lecturer (Ancient History), Manchester Metropolitan University
When we think about returning soldiers, our image is one consumed by the living. The returning warrior, his longing wife, the children waiting to embrace him, his parents wanting to know he is safe. And yet, in some military cultures it was not just the living who would return home.
Classical Athens (5th-4th century B.C.) is the first European example known from the historic record to practice repatriation for its war dead. According to Thucydides (our main source) the war dead were burned on the battlefield, transported home, and then given an elaborate public funeral in which the remains of the dead were buried in a public cemetery (the demosion sema).
On the surface of it, this seems a simple and efficient funerary arrangement. But, how large a commitment was this for the Athenians? What did it take to cremate and repatriate the dead in a non-mechanised period of transportation?
An ancient pyre was capable of reaching similarly high temperatures to a modern British cremator (800-1000⁰C), but it was, however, grossly inefficient by comparison. To counter this, the pyre needed constant tending to and, toward the end, a greater heat was necessary, for only the least combustible parts of the body remain.
There are two important elements in a military cremation: time, and fuel. A single cremation on an outdoor pyre takes somewhere between 7-10 hours to be complete. There is no evidence yet available to enable a discussion about more than one body on a pyre, as was the Athenian practice, but comparisons with the aftermath at the Alamo suggest that pyres burning for 2 whole days would fail to completely burn away the flesh of multiple bodies.
As for fuel, the Greeks used wood. Modern comparisons suggest a human body requires 5-600kg of wood to fuel a cremation, but for extra bodies this amount drops to 330-400kg. Let us use one example from an Athenian defeat to consider the logistics involved: the battle of Delium in 424 B.C. saw 1,000 Athenians killed. For the dead at Delium, this would amount to approx. 40,000kg of wood (40 tonnes). This is an astronomical amount of an expensive and finite resource in the ancient Mediterranean.
Considering the comparable example at the Alamo, and the unlikelihood of obtaining enough fuel while in enemy territory, it seems fanciful to imagine clean skeletal remains returning to Athens. It is more plausible that the Athenians were repatriating cremated human remains, possibly with flesh still attached to the bone.
There are a few misconceptions about cremation. The most important is what substance remains afterward. Today we refer to these as ashes, but the human body does not produce very much ash at all. The ashes that we speak of now are in fact crushed bone – this is important to understand because ash and bone are two very different substances that have different attributes when it comes to the most important logistical factors in transportation: weight and volume.
According to the work of Dr Jacqueline McKinley a pre-modern cremation would weigh somewhere in the region of 1.6kg. Therefore the weight of the cremated remains at our example of Delium, assuming all 1,000 men were cremated, would be 1,600kg (1.6 tonnes).
Another factor to consider is the volume these remains would take up. Osteological remains do not become compact when piled together like ash does, it would take up a lot more space. In fact a cremated body has an estimated volume of 7.8 litres. So the dead at Delium would require a storage container(s) with a minimum volume of around 7,800 litres (10 cubic yards, larger than a builder’s skip).
This was a massive logistical undertaking, especially the further afield an Athenian army was, and we must remind ourselves that all of these remains would have been carried by pack animals which would need feeding and watering and caring for as well.
These logistical considerations give us an appreciation for the commitment undertaken by the Athenians, but they also raise some questions about the account of the public funeral. The funeral took place outside of the campaigning season (in the winter), but some of the war dead would have been returned to Athens as early as the beginning of summer, meaning that the remains would have to have been stored somewhere waiting to be interred. Needless to say this is not mentioned in the sources, so we do not know where they may have been kept. This is not the only gap in our knowledge.
During the funeral, for instance, we are told that the bodies were laid out and family members would come and give gifts to their departed. Are we to believe that the bodies really were laid out and exposed, and that family would want to see the cremated remains of their relatives? This is certainly the standard model adopted by ancient historians, but when we consider the state of the cremated remains, we should at least pause for thought.
To return to our example in the aftermath of the battle of Delium, the bodies had in fact been left to rot in the Greek summer sun for 14 days before the Athenians collected them. Assuming they could collect them effectively (the bodies would have undergone a rapid rate of decomposition), they would have needed 40 tonnes of wood to effectively cremate them, and then they would have needed to transport 1.6 tonnes of cremains in a container, or group of containers, capable of carrying a volume of 7,800 litres. This would allow for the near sanitised historic model we hold for the Athenian repatriation process and is an astronomical commitment to the war dead.
Or, there is another option . . .