A grave stele commemorated the life of an individual person. In Athens, many have been found in the area of the Dipylon, the city’s long-time cemetery. In the later fifth century BCE, the stelai depict people happy, in scenes of daily life. In the 4th century BCE, after the Peloponnesian War, they have a more solemn tone.
In this stele, a woman sits with her head down, her servant and son comforting her. It’s likely that this family was wealthy because they could afford such a stele for the woman of the house; the presence of a servant, and the woman’s rich robes also suggest a comfortable life. Yet the scene is one of sorrow.
Aeschylus of Attica asserted that we grow wise through suffering. He wrote:
Zeus, whose will has marked for man
the one way where wisdom lies,
ordered one eternal plan:
Man must suffer to be wise.
Head-winds heavy with past ill
stray his course and cloud his heart.
Sorrow takes the blind soul’s part:
Man grows wise against his will.
For Aeschylus, hardships are “one eternal plan” of Zeus: they allow a person to grow. He suggests that we should trust the divine in times of distress. Don’t let suffering due to hardships deter you from happiness for the rest of life.
In the grave stele, the boy who lost his mother should listen to the words of Aeschylus. At a young age, it was his mother who was always with him when the man of the house was out working. With his mother gone, the boy must learn about life himself. He is suffering, but through that suffering he should be able to grow wiser. Already at a young age, he must learn coping techniques for the loss of a loved one. Without his mother, he will learn to be more independent. According to Aeschylus, it was the plan of Zeus for this boy to “grow wise against his will.”