Gabriela Chartier on the Grave Stele of Hegeso

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By the late fifth century B.C.E., the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens began to feature grave stelai depicting something new: snapshots of women in domestic scenes. An example is this grave stele inscribed “Hegeso, daughter of Proxenos,” which dates to around 420 B.C.E.  Hegeso, wearing flowing drapery and with an elaborate hairstyle, is sitting in a chair looking at jewelry that has been brought to her by a slave. The scene highlights Hegeso’s status as a free Athenian woman, as well as her wealth. She is shown living a life of leisure and luxury, sitting in her house and admiring her jewelry.

This scene highlights a cultural shift at the time, one expressed by the poet Pindar of Thebes, who wrote, “We are things of a day… When brightness comes, and the gods give it, there is a shining light on man, and his life is sweet.” Pindar stresses that human life is fleeting, that we should live in the moment, when, as he puts it, the light is shining on us. People should not strive only to be remembered after death, but instead to enjoy the sweetness of life.

Hegeso’s stele seems to coincide with Pindar’s idea. Hegeso is not doing anything heroic; the image does not refer to myths or to the epic past. Instead she is shown in an event of everyday life: a moment in democratic Athens when the light was shining on her.

The fact that this image is on a grave stele reinforces Pindar’s message. Placing such scenes along the main road in the Kerameikos would have offered a constant reminder: human life is passing. We are things of a day.

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