ancient Greek epitaphs: Herais & Sozomene for their husbands

Given the prevalence of anti-men gender bigotry, some may wonder: do women truly love men?

man alone, beseeching

Ancient Greek epitaphs show the long history of women’s love for men. Here’s an epitaph from the second or third century:

I Herais lie here, stranger, five times seven {years old}
And I urge you, my husband,
Not to keep weeping. For the thread of the Moirai calls everyone. [1]

The epitaph begins with a conventional first-person address to the conventionally anonymous passerby (“stranger”). The first verse provides information that remains conventional on gravestones to this day: the name of the deceased (Herais) and her age at death (five times seven = thirty-five). The epitaph’s second verse, however, suggests that Herais selected/dictated her epitaph just before her death.[2] Herais personally addresses her weeping husband. She urges him to move beyond his grief at her death.

Personal words from women are relatively rare in the ancient historical record. The long-established, long-misinterpreted literature of men’s sexed protests describes suffering and injustices that men have endured from women and within marriage. But not all men were like that. Some men wept when their wives died. Moreover, some women did not relish their husbands’ weeping. Herais didn’t want her husband to be weeping. After expressing that concern, so poignant to readers today, Herais returns to conventional expression in ancient Greek epitaphs. Ancient Greeks commonly attributed the course of persons’ lives to fate (the Moirai). The distinctive, personal words in Herais’s epitaph are her words of comfort for her grieving, weeping husband.

Another ancient Greek epitaph provides women’s words with more subtle poetry. In the second or third century, Sozomene had inscribed for her husband Crispinus this epitaph:

Here is the tomb of swift-fated, mindful Crispinus
For whom no stock of children will later appear.
A destructive Ker overcame them both before him.
So his wedded wife Sozomene inscribed his gravestone
For mortals still to be born to learn from. [3]

The term “swift-fated” suggests that Crispinus died young. He lived long enough, however, to have two children. Those children predeceased him. With bracketing of the first verse, the subsequent verses are a chiasma of thematic contrasts. A destructive Ker (death-spirit) killed their children. Sozomene in response inscribed stone. For Crispinus “no stock of children will later appear.” But Sozomene’s inscription offers teaching “for mortals still to be born to learn from.” A teacher gives birth to knowledge in students. His students are like children to him. The first verse describes Crispinus as “mindful” with a Greek word associated with the philosophical ideal of prudence. With her epitaph, Sozomene lovingly provides for Crispinus to have more children in the life of the mind.

Women have long loved men and cared for men’s welfare. Men are more responsible for anti-men gender bigotry than are women. Men seeking compassionate help would best look to women.

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[1] Epitaph (gravestone inscription) from Amorgus, among the southeastern Greek islands. From Greek trans. Hansen (1998) p. 336, from Greek text in Peek (1955) p. 93, no. 372. Some epitaphs were composed as literary pieces and never actually engraved on gravestones.

[2] Widespread conventions in gravestone epitaphs suggests that engravers offered customers choices among standard verses. A common verse: “It is not dying that is grievous, since it is destined for all, … {continued in various ways, e.g. but that I died before the journal completed the review of my article, etc.} Id. pp. 329-332.

[3] Epitaph (gravestone inscription) from Berrhoea. Βέρροια, now commonly transliterated as Veria, is in northern Greece. From Greek trans. Hansen (1998) p. 335, from Greek text in Peek (1955) p. 33, no. 107. The Greek word translated as “mindful” is πινυτου (pinytou).

[image] Southern Barbarians in Japan. Painting, ink, color, and gold on paper. Edo period (1515-1868), Japan. Accession number F1965.22-23. Thanks to Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.


Hansen, William F., ed. 1998. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peek, Werner. 1955. Griechische Vers-Inschriften. Band I, Grab-Epigramme. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

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