Lives and Deaths of the Greek Gods, Heroes, and Historical Figures

The depictions of birth/early childhood years and death in narratives of gods, heroes, and historic individuals share commonalities and are mutually influential.


Bookmark and Share

Lives and Deaths of the Greek Gods, Heroes, and Historical Figures

Gods and Goddesses

Athene was famously born when she sprang from the head of Zeus. And when she sprang out, she was, as numerous vase-paintings make clear, already armed, wearing her helmet, grasping her spear, and protected by her trademark Gorgon shield. Warfare would be one of Athene’s prime spheres of influence; at the very moment of her arrival into the world, her divine curriculum vitae was already written.

Artemis was no less precocious. When Leto gave birth to her, the newly born goddess was, according to the mythographer Apollodorus ( Library 1.4), already sufficiently grown up to act as midwife at the birth of her twin brother Apollo. Since one of Artemis’ characteristic activities would be to assist women in childbirth, we can see how, already in the few moments after her own birth, she anticipates this later sphere of influence. In his Hymn to Artemis, Callimachus travels further down the same road when he imagines what Artemis said to her father Zeus while she was still a little girl (6–12): “Let me be a virgin forever, Daddy … give me arrows and a bow … and a tunic to wear so I can kill wild beasts....” Zeus smiled, nodded, and granted Artemis’ wishes. As with Athena, so with Artemis: not an individual who develops and matures, but a personality whose characteristic powers are already signalled from the outset.

Hermes was born to the nymph Maia in a cave on Mount Cyllene. According to the Homeric hymn composed in his honour, immediately after his birth he was up and about, and plotting a trick: to steal the cattle of his brother Apollo. Upon successful completion of the exploit Hermes squeezed himself back into his room through the keyhole, being, already from birth, the god who can span opposites—in this case, the opposition between inside and outside a room. Hermes’ prerogatives—being a trickster, spanning opposites—were delineated on the first day of his life.

Could Hephaestus be an exception to my rule? His mythological profile is double, a combination of a power and a defect: he possesses extraordinary artistic skill, but he is also lame. But did these paired characteristics belong to him from the beginning? According to the gods’ own words at Odyssey 8.311, he was born “feeble” (there is a similar implication at Iliad 18.395–397), but the inference from Iliad 1.590–594 could be that he only acquired his disability later, when he came to the aid of his mother Hera and as punishment was hurled out of Olympus by Zeus. As to his artistic powers, similarly, the implication of Iliad 18.394–405 could be that, rather than acquiring his skills instantaneously, he learned them gradually, during the nine years which he spent with Thetis and Eurynome, who rescued him after Hera had cast him out for his lameness. In the case of Hephaestus, then, narrators were not unambiguously agreed that he possessed his dual power-and-defect profile from the beginning. Does that make him an exception to my rule that “in my beginning is anticipated the whole of my later divine career?” Was it only an elite group among the Olympians that possessed their power already from birth, and was Hephaestus not a member of that elite? This is a possible conclusion, but not an inevitable one, since in virtually all of our accounts, as soon as we hear of Hephaestus he already possesses his dual profile. That is, to all narrative intents and purposes he possesses his dual profile from the outset.

But even if we do count Hephaestus as an exception, I am not worried about the general soundness of my rule, because this rule states what is mostly rather than what is universally true. And in any event I have two final, powerful witnesses to call: Apollo and Zeus. According to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the newborn god was washed, wrapped in a white cloth tied up with a golden cord, and fed on nectar and ambrosia by Themis; the effect was like the effect on Popeye of eating spinach: the baby wriggled free, bursting through the cord, and, even before walking, set out his demands as follows (131–132): “I want the lyre and the curved bow, and I shall prophesy Zeus’ unerring will to humankind.” As for Zeus himself, a single line from CallimachusHymn tells all (56): “While still a child, you devised panta teleia —everything complete.” Zeus teleios : from the fifth line of the Iliad onwards, Zeus is the god who works towards a telos. In his beginning is anticipated the whole of his later divine career.

I will make two more points about divine beginnings.

First, it is no coincidence that evidence for the generalisation “in my beginning is anticipated the course of my later divine career” is most often found in hymns. Hymns—in contrast with, say, tragedy, or even epic—are the generic context par excellence in which the prowess of divinities is exalted most greatly; little wonder that this is also the context in which the tracing of divine power right back to birth finds its most frequent expression.

Secondly, the fact that the areas of responsibility of Greek divinities do not usually evolve or develop does not mean that in the course of their divine careers these divinities are not affected by what happens to them. Demeter, for instance, is overwhelmed by grief at Hades’ abduction of her daughter Persephone; Aphrodite suffers no less intensely at the death of Adonis. But Demeter’s sphere of influence as the goddess of corn and vegetation both predates and postdates her grief, as does Aphrodite’s role as the embodiment of sexual passion. Indeed it is precisely because Demeter was already the goddess who brings vegetative growth to the earth that the abduction of Persephone entailed such devastating consequences for the world.[3]

Summarising the argument of this section, and putting the case more generally, I am suggesting that Greek divinities are characterized by a kind of timelessness and changelessness in their powers, an inbuilt completeness, and—if I may express it in this way—an absence of “directionality” in their existence. Know the beginning, and you know the essence of all that follows.

Heroes and Heroines

Is it true that, for heroes and heroines, as with divinities, in their beginning is anticipated the whole of their later career? In the case of some heroic figures, the answer is yes. You can hear it, firstly, in their names. Hippolytus ‘He Who is Undone or Destroyed by Horses’ would be dragged to his death by the team which drew his own chariot. When Aias committed suicide by falling on his sword, those nearest and dearest to him could do nothing but lament ( aiai is an exclamation of grief). Polynices, ‘Much Quarelling’, died fighting his own brother, after being cursed by his father Oedipus: a life defined by intrafamilial dispute. In their beginning, in the very names given to them by the mythical tradition, is literally “inscribed” a crucial aspect of their biography.

Secondly, heroes may display early signs of prowess. Interestingly, however, examples of this pattern are far fewer than for divinities, and seem principally to involve those in the very highest category of excellence—in other words, those closest to being themselves of godlike status, and therefore particularly suited to replicating a pattern associated with biographies of divinities. The best example is Heracles, who, while still in his cradle, strangled the snakes sent by Hera to kill him (Apollodorus Library 2.4); this uniquely precocious show of strength already marked out his ultimate worthiness of divine status. Also remarkable, but less precocious, was the achievement of Achilles in commanding the Greek fleet to Troy at age fifteen (Apollodorus Epitome 3); son of Thetis though he was, Achilles was not and would never be divine: the display of his prowess was deferred till adolescence.

A third respect in which “in my beginning is my end” applies to heroes concerns prophecies delivered around the time of their birth. The pattern can be seen in a form most nearly approximating to the ideal in the story of Meleager. Seven days after his birth, the Fates announced he would die when the log then burning on the fire had been fully consumed (Apollodorus Library 1.8); and so indeed it turned out later, when his mother Althaia, furious that Meleager had slain her brothers, completed the burning of the piece of wood (which she had hitherto kept concealed), thus terminating her son’s life. An even direr prophecy came to Laius before the conception of Oedipus: in Oedipus’ beginning was Laius’ end, and then Jocasta’s, and ultimately Oedipus’ too. The birth of Paris also was Heralded by a dreadful warning which was duly fulfilled—the pregnant Hecabe dreamed she was about to give birth to a firebrand which would destroy Troy; in this case, in Paris’ beginning was Troy’s end as well as his own.

However, by far the more significant moment in the life of a hero is not its beginning but its end.What differentiates heroes from divinities is the fact that heroes do not (usually [4] ) live forever. Correspondingly, the lives of heroes do have a directionality towards an end, an end which in Greek would be called a teleutē or a telos . Telos is the broader of the two terms, but both convey the notion of “completion,” and both can signify the more specific idea of “completion of a life ”—i.e. (often) death.

Sometimes, as with Hippolytus, Aias, and Polynices, the end is already announced in the hero’s name. But even when it is not, a hero’s end is frequently the moment that completes and retrospectively confers meaning on his life: “In my end is my beginning.” Or better: “In my end is summarised the whole of my preceding existence.” We see this pattern at its clearest on the Iliadic battlefield. Patroklos has come to Troy dedicated to his duty of looking after Achilles; what could be more fitting than that he should die as a kind of substitute for Achilles, fulfilling his role to his last breath. An equally unambiguous example is the death of Hector. Deceived and manipulated by the gods, he expires defending his city and family, doomed by the scales of fate to fall beneath Achilles’ spear; he thereby becomes a model of the kind of all-too-human heroism which lacks the prescience and transcendent prowess of an Achilles. The manner of Hector’s death exemplifies the motivation, which has driven him throughout his life: it is the perfect telos for this hero dedicated to the defence of Troy.

Another pattern of heroic death is characterized by a very different set of narrative contours. According this pattern, a hero dies in a manner which is somehow mean or unheroic, and at the same time “pointed.” Although cases of this pattern lack the continuity which would lead us to describe them as exemplifying “in my end is my beginning,” there is still a certain relationship between the end and what precedes it, even if this relationship amounts not to a glorious culmination but to an ordinary and ironic reversal. A classic instance is that of Jason, who, according to one version of his demise, lay down beneath the stern of the Argo, and was killed when a piece of timber fell on him ( Hypothesis to EuripidesMedea). Such a death is ordinary to the point of banality, and yet, because the individual who dies is a hero, there is more to it than banality: there is a pattern, a sense of “full circle,” a rounding off of the hero’s biography in a way that is less random than might appear at first sight: after all, the Argo had shaped virtually the entirety of Jason’s career, and perhaps only the Argo could fittingly conclude it. A similar fittingness can be seen in the death of Theseus, murdered on Skyros when King Lykomedes pushed him off a cliff (Plutarch Theseus 35); we can hardly miss the patterning echo of the death of Theseus’ father Aigeus, who in grief had thrown himself off the Acropolis—a death literally precipitated by Theseus’ forgetfulness (Apollodorus Epitome 1.10). Theseus’ death is thus another in which the element of appropriateness, of non-randomness, comes into play.

For some heroes the relationship of telos to what precedes it is still more complex. So it is with Oedipus. Such is the power of SophoclesOedipus Tyrannus , with its dramatisation of the fulfilment of one version of Apollo’s oracular prediction, that it is easy to forget that in the same dramatist’s later tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus , Apollo’s prediction was reported in a different and more ample form, in which the prediction about killing his father and marrying his mother was said to have included a sequel: that Oedipus would find rest and repose at the seat of the goddesses known as the Semnai, and in that place bring his weary life to a close, bringing good things to those who had accepted him and ruin to those who had driven him away ( Oedipus at Colonus 84–93). Whereas the moral of Oedipus Tyrannus is (perhaps): “although the human spirit is most magnificently demonstrated by the desire to uncover the truth at all costs, human good fortune is also unimaginably fragile,” the moral of Oedipus at Colonus is (perhaps): “even after the most ghastly suffering, humanity can find repose, even if it is a repose whose nature is obscure and whose significance is enigmatic.” The relationship of this end to the career that preceded it—a career which combined triumphant success with unimaginably horrible deeds and sufferings—is subtle and idiosyncratic, and certainly cannot be summed up in any such rubric as “continuity.”

Equally complex was the end of Heracles. Myth-tellers agreed that his downfall was inadvertently caused by his wife Deianira, who gave him a robe dipped in what she thought was a love-charm, but which was actually a deadly poison. But was Heracles’ subsequent incineration on a funeral pyre his end , or simply an intermediate point on the way to another form of existence, as a divinity on Olympus? Different ancient narrators gave different accounts, opening the way to contrasting interpretations of the meaning of the hero’s life. The moral of his remarkable career could therefore be either (as in the version given by Sophocles in Women of Trachis , in which reference to an ultimate apotheosis is at the very best opaque and arguably entirely absent): “Even such a glorious hero as Heracles can be destroyed by a person far weaker than he is”; or, contrastingly (as in the version recorded by Pindar, in whose first Nemean Ode the blissful future existence of Heracles “in the dwellings of the blessed” is unambiguously anticipated): “A life of combat and struggle can bring you the ultimate reward: apotheosis.” In the Odyssey (11.601–604) both options seem to be left open, since in the Underworld Odysseus encountered the eidolon of Heracles, the hero “himself” being thought of as dwelling “with the immortal gods.” But wherever the stress is put, weighing up the significance of Heracles’ entire existence is dependent on an evaluation of his end.

The points I made earlier about the lives of divinities applied both to gods and to goddesses; but the heroic figures on whom I have so far focused are all males. With heroines, things are, or may be, rather different. With heroines it is by no means always the case that the crucial telos in their lives is death. The careers of many heroines typically have an earlier critical point which coincides with their loss of virginity, leading to child-bearing to the man or god who took that virginity. For countless Greek heroines linked sexually with mortal or immortal males—for Medea, Io, Danae, Leda, Penelope, Agaue, Europa …—it is their sexual unions, and the resulting motherhood, which lend to their mythical careers their characteristic contours, by providing those careers with a telos —in the sense not of death but of completion. And this time the exceptions prove the rule: for the virgin Antigone, the telos of her life can indeed only be death: she commits suicide rather than acquiesce in Creon’s demand that she leave her brother unburied.

Antigone’s telos introduces another important category of heroic death: suicide. By bringing about their own deaths, heroes and heroines impose meaning on their own lives by virtue of the seal which they place upon them, even if this seal may be cold comfort in the context of the grievous circumstances which precipitate such a drastic choice. Male heroic suicides are relatively rare, doubtless because voluntarily to leave the world of the competitive search for honour is, for a male hero, to confess definitive failure in that competition. This is why Aias’ death represents such a catastrophe for him and those close to him, since it represents a withdrawal from all he had previously stood for—although ironically, bearing in mind his name, it does confirm the lament-filled end towards which he was “always” going to progress. Another withdrawal-suicide is that of Jason, who in one account was said to have killed himself out of grief for the loss of Medea and the children (Diodorus Siculus Library of History 4.55); the motif recalls Haimon’s suicide in Antigone . In the commoner case of suicide by heroines, withdrawal from the world is again a prime motivation—not, this time, withdrawal from the typically male competition for public honour, but withdrawal after the collapse of a household: Jocasta, Eurydice ( Creon’s wife in Antigone ), Deianira, Euadne and Phaedra could no longer bear to live after either the destruction of their marriages and families, or the demise of the spouse on whom they previously relied, or as a result of what one might call “domestic shame”; Althaia and Cleopatra, respectively Meleager’s mother and wife, hanged themselves as a consequence of his death (Apollodorus Library 1.8); the loss of her beloved Protesilaus brought Laodamia to the same end (Apollodorus Epitome 3). Contrasting motivational patterns for male and female suicides illustrate another way in which the heroic telos can be gendered.[5]

Earlier, in relation to heroines, we discussed lives which reach a telos different from and earlier than the telos of death. But we need also to recognize another form of telos, for heroines and heroes alike—a telos not earlier than but still alternative to death. This telos is metamorphosis, a transformation into a form which is often perfectly suited to the nature of the hero or heroine concerned; in such cases the metamorphosis refers back to, if not the beginning, then at least the underlying essence of the character concerned.[6] When Lykaon is transformed into a wolf, Niobe into a weeping rock, and Daphne into a laurel, these changes of form sum up, crystallise, and thus confer meaning upon the preceding heroic careers. With hindsight we can see that Lykaon’s essence is and always has been wolfish (he tried to trick Zeus into consuming the flesh of a cooked human child, so illustrating two characteristics—cunning and savagery—ascribed by Greeks to the wolf); his transformation sets the appropriate seal upon his career. The grief of Niobe—eternally petrified yet forever in motion—immortalises the only aspect of her mythical career which has any importance, and her metamorphosis represents the culminating and summarising conclusion to that career. Daphne rejected the erotic approaches of Apollo, and her prayer for help was answered when she metamorphosed into the sacred tree of the god. The only memorable episode in her life is expressed in these final moments, in which she is indissolubly linked with Apollo, first in her human and then in her arboreal form. For these three and numerous other heroes and heroines, metamorphosis is a telos no less definitive and irreversible than death, and no less productive of meaning.

I make one final point about the ends of heroes and heroines. These ends are in the overwhelming majority of cases dramatic, and often violent and catastrophic. Whether their lives conclude in death or metamorphosis, these mythological figures rarely pass quietly out of the daylight. We shall see later that this represents a distinctive difference from one of the patterns which characterizes the ends of historical individuals.

And Yet … (Generalisations and Exceptions)

(a) As for prolongation beyond death, Heracles is not the only hero to whom narrators ascribe this privilege. Already in the Odyssey (4.561–569) the Old Man of the Sea prophesies Menelaus’ blessed future existence on the Elysian plain, while Hesiod similarly reports that some heroes passed on to an existence in the Isles of the Blessed ( Works and Days 170–173). These and other comparable examples do not, however, invalidate the distinction between divinity and hero, but rather nuance it. It was uncontroversially assumed in Greece that the power of heroes did not end with their deaths, since their tombs were places of especial religious power; beliefs which ascribed some kind of continuing afterlife to heroes simply took that assumption one stage further.

(b) Stories were sometimes told about the deaths of gods. The best-known examples are doubtless the Orphic belief in the death and rebirth of Dionysus, and the Cretan tale about the alleged death of Zeus. But in these cases I wholeheartedly approve of the modern tendency not to go down the interpretative road (associated long ago with Frazer’s Golden Bough ) of regarding “the dying god” as a fundamental paradigm of religious belief; to do so is to be over-influenced by the Christian paradigm.[7] Rather, we should take each case on its merits.In my view the tale of the death of Zeus is best explained as a particular example of euhemerism; [8] when set against the colossal weight of evidence for Zeus’ role as father of the gods, it is an utterly marginal belief (though illustrative nonetheless of the vast breadth of religious pluralism which Greece tolerated). For its part, the death and rebirth of Dionysus relies on the idea that this is a god who, like Asclepius and Heracles, could be regarded as being divine or occasionally as heroic, depending on the context.

In spite of such examples, the general contrast between the biographical patterns of divinities, on the one hand, and heroes and heroines, on the other, seems to me to be valid. Typically, then, the lives of heroic figures have a telos which, in one way or another, confers significance on what went before. Having a telos —sometimes death, sometimes not—these lives also have a direction.

Historical Individuals

Substantial ancient accounts of the lives of historical persons tended to focus on individuals who had achieved distinction or notoriety in certain fields above all: military affairs, politics, literature, philosophy, or “holiness” (the last two categories shade into each other in the concept of the philosopher-as-sage).[11] Such individuals are mostly male; only in later antiquity do women come to be more biographically noticeable in their capacity as religious martyrs for Christ. In an attempt to see how far such real-life biographies and thanatographies exhibit similarities to divine or heroic patterns of life and death, I shall once more begin with beginnings and then turn to ends.

“Historians [in antiquity],” writes Patricia Cox, “were interested primarily in the military and political prowess of men at the height of their careers, but biographers … presumed to recognize the seed of greatness in the child and then to trace the fruit of that seed in the charmed manhood of the hero.” [12] That is—once again—in a person’s beginning is anticipated the whole of their later development. This pattern recurs in a wide range of biographical representations, in pagan and Christian sources alike: from Xenophon on Agesilaus, to Eusebius on Origen, to Philostratus on Apollonius of Tyana—perceptiveness, understanding, and wisdom reveal themselves fully developed at an early age.[13] While still a young boy, the poet Archilochus met a group of women who turned out to be the Muses.[14] Anecdotes about Sophocles related his precocity: aged fifteen, he was said to have led the chorus in a paean.[15] Similar stories were reported about the early showing of the talents of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Pindar.[16] According to Plutarch’s Life of Alexander , various biographers noted the strength, indomitable spirit, and political nous of the youthful prince of Macedon.[17] In other Lives Plutarch recorded that Philopoemen possessed, even as a child, a noble and commanding spirit ( Philopoemen 1); that the boy Alcibiades was characterized by emulation and a love of distinction ( Alcibiades 2); that Themistocles was “agreed by all to have been a child of vigorous impulses, naturally clever, and inclined to take an interest in important affairs and questions of statesmanship.” ( Themistocles 2).A similar pattern would later be visible in the lives of Christian saints: Athanasius notes that St Antony’s holiness showed itself from the outset of his life; [18] according to the life of St. Macrina by her brother Gregory of Nyssa, his subject was marked out already from birth by her secret, resonant naming as Thecla.[19]

Two further points are worth making about these beginnings. First, in the case of stories told about historical individuals it is mostly not from the moment of birth, but from later childhood or adolescence, that a special quality is said to have become noticeable. This differs from the pattern which we identified earlier in relation to divinities and near-divine heroes, whose precociously astonishing and wholly ‘adult’ feats were achieved immediately after birth. In other words, the linkage between divinity and a perinatal precocity of talent does not usually extend to historical figures. Secondly, ancient biographical representations of historical figures do not tend to depict an individual as a product of complex interactions between events and character.[20] Evolution in character is represented relatively seldom; the static model is the commoner one. True, it does occasionally happen that character change is depicted. Plutarch depicts Pyrrhus’ disposition as evolving for the worse, from an open and trustful demeanour to one that was suspicious and despotic ( Pyrrhus 23); a development not unlike that which, again according to Plutarch, happened to Romulus ( Romulus 26). Less dramatically, the manner of Xenophon’s Cyrus changed from talkative to bashful as adolescence set in ( Cyropaedia 1.4.4). However, the more frequent pattern—echoing the patterns associated with both divinities and heroes—is for an individual’s “true character” to be both stable and already discernible at a young age.

So much for the beginnings of historical persons; what of their ends? Can we detect similar patterns to those evidenced in the biographies and thanatographies of heroes and heroines (leaving aside the much more marginal cases of the deaths of gods)? A central theme of my discussion of heroic deaths was the notion of an end which lends shape to the life which went before. Numerous stories about the deaths of historical figures demonstrate a similar narratorial concern with shape. We shall not expect to find real-world equivalences for all the types of heroic telos which we noticed—metamorphosis is an obvious case in point. Nevertheless there are some significant overlaps, and some equally significant differences.

One sort of shape-imposing pattern imagines death as the culminating seal upon a life of distinction, and in so doing brings a historical figure into a state which is the closest a mortal can achieve to divine felicity. Thus Cyrus, whom Xenophon lauds throughout his Cyropaedia , comes to a perfect, “rounded” telos : in old age, surrounded by his family, he has time to dispose his will and to set all into correct order, leaving nothing undone or unsaid (Xenophon Cyropaedia 8.7)—the kind of regret-free consummation we surely all wish for ourselves.[21] Different in kind, but no less “seal-setting,” was the kind of ideal death which an onlooker wished might befall the Olympic victor Diagoras. As Plutarch reports ( Pelopidas 34), late in life this man was to be seen surrounded by his grandchildren, at the moment when his sons were being crowned as Olympic victors. A Spartan who witnessed the scene commented: “Die, Diagoras, for you cannot rise to Olympos and be a god there.” In other words, Diagoras was, at the moment of expiring, as near as a mortal could ever come to the glorious heights where the gods dwelt. Similar in import is the familiar episode recounted by Herodotus ( Histories 1.31), in which the fortunate Argive youths Cleobis and Biton fell gently into the sleep of death in the temple of Hera, after piously dragging their mother there in a cart. Their mother had prayed Hera to grant her sons the greatest blessing that can happen to mortal man; in their end was encapsulated the whole of their previous god-revering and mother-honouring existence.

The preceding examples concern individuals who display outstanding military, political, or athletic prowess. But the culminating, “shaping” death applied to the wise man/philosopher too. Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Sages, died a particularly shapely death. As Diogenes Laertius notes ( Lives 1.84), in life Bias had been accustomed to use his powers of speech to a good end; how better than to pass away swiftly and at peace, at a great age, when he had just finished pleading a case in the law courts? (To make the death even more exquisitely perfect, Bias won his case, and expired in the arms of his grandson.) “The height of human bliss,” asserted the philosopher Antisthenes, echoing the moral of the Cleobis and Biton story, “is to die happy” (Diogenes Laertius Lives 6.5). High indeed, therefore, was the bliss of Chilon, the Spartan ephor and wise man, who, again according to Diogenes Laertius ( Lives 1.72), and echoing this time the Diagoras anecdote, passed away overwhelmed with joy after congratulating his son on an Olympic boxing victory. And it could happen to poets as well as sages: Plutarch reports that the comic poets Philemon and Alexis died while they were on stage during the competition and being crowned with victory garlands ( Moralia 785b). What seems to me striking, and nicely paradoxical, in all these blissful culminations is that they allegedly make the humans resemble, not heroes—whose ends typically lack tranquillity and peace—but rather divinities, in spite of the fact that the notion of an end, tranquil or not, is by definition inapplicable to an immortal being.

In whatever manner these historical individuals actually died, their deaths as we have them were shaped by narrators for their own purposes. Of no death is this more evidently true than that of Socrates, moulded by Plato in Phaedo into the perfect telos of the career of one who refused to sacrifice his principles in order to escape the “proper” punishment of the law. By embracing what he saw as the inevitable, Socrates was able to “own” his telos ; if death by hemlock poisoning was hardly the height of human bliss, the manner of his passing, in Plato’s telling of it, was the magnificent culmination of what went before.[22]

The case of Socrates—whether it was technically self-killing or judicial murder—brings us to the question of suicide. Here, as in the case of suicides of heroes and heroines, narrators colluded with those whose deaths they narrated by imposing a shape on a life through the representation of its end. Of all the topics which I raise in this paper, this is the one which it is hardest to summarise without the most grotesque oversimplification. I therefore confine myself to just two points. First, several patterns of real-world suicide echo, or are echoed by, those found in tales of heroes: the domestic catastrophe scenario for female suicides, for example (e.g. Andocides On the Mysteries 1.125; Xenophon Cyropaedia 7.3.14); male suicide as linked with perceived public dishonour (Aeschines Against Ctesiphon 212).Secondly—and here I endorse a telling observation by Anton van Hooff [23] —ancient accounts of suicide, both real-world and heroic, systematically deny us the possibility of establishing relationships between the self-chosen end of an individual and that individual’s beginning—the kind of investigation which, by contrast, would form a central plank in any account which a modern psychologist or biographer would seek to give of a comparable event (instead of confining such an account to the immediate circumstantial trigger).

Not every shapely death of an ordinary mortal recorded in antiquity shows the moral magnificence of that ascribed by Plato to Socrates. In some funerary epigrams we find accounts of persons whose ends reflect accurately but ingloriously the lives which they led before. Antipater of Sidon ( Anthologia Palatina 7.353) wrote of an old woman called Maronis that, tippler and chatterer that she was, her one regret in death was that the wine vessel adorning her tomb was not full: [24] the end ascribed to Maronis is, not so much in its manner as in its permanent embodiment, absolutely consistent with the life which was its antecedent. In other cases the shape is more ironical; as with the (anti-)heroic death of Jason, such deaths illustrate that, for ordinary mortals too, the patterns of life and death are not random. One version of the death of Pythagoras had him caught and killed by enemies when he refused to cross a field of beans (Diogenes Laertius Lives 8.39); that end had at least an element of religious significance, given Pythagorean beliefs about abstention from certain foods. But in other cases the irony was frankly banal: Ariston the Stoic was bald and, presumably, as a consequence, died of sunstroke (Diogenes Laertius Lives 7.164). Aeschylus was allegedly killed when an eagle dropped onto his head a tortoise, the animal whose shell was used to make the lyre; thus the poet was (ironically) killed by his own instrument.[25] One version of Sophocles’ death ( Vita Sophoclis 14, ed. Radt) had him choke on an unripe grape sent to him by an actor: he who had lived by Dionysus died by him too. There is an element of “shapeliness” about these deaths, but they are far from the grandeur of the ends of Chilon, Diagoras, and Timoleon.

The category of the historical individual is of course not watertight, and at various points shades into the categories of hero and even divinity (as with Alexander). Moreover the very idea of the hero cult, with its implication that a mortal can, after death, cross the boundary from “ordinary” to “specially venerated,” obliges us to recognize that we are not operating with hard-and-fast differentiations. Yet we can still broadly speaking continue to operate with the notion of the historical individual. When we do so, we can see that, for this group too, ancient narrators constantly discovered and expressed shapes and significances in their beginnings and especially their ends.

Concluding Thoughts

My paper has been emphasising patterns, schemata of thought perceived by ancient Greek writers in narratives about beginnings, ends, and the interrelationships between the two. These schemata were very widespread; but they were not universal. The Greeks were nothing if not pluralist: generalisations about them need always to take account of divergent voices. In the present case, one voice which I would single out as especially idiosyncratic is that of Thucydides. For Thucydides, predicting the future—or, to put it another way, predicting the end on the basis of the beginning—is a paradoxical enterprise. On the one hand, anticipating future trends on the strength of a correct narrative of the past is the very stuff of the historian’s role, and is indeed one way in which historians may actually be useful : cf. History 2.48 about the plague (“I myself shall merely describe what it was like, and set down the symptoms, knowledge of which will enable it to be recognized, if it should ever break out again”). And yet for Thucydides any attempt to find shape in events, let alone to predict their future course, is rendered problematic by their essential unpredictability (cf. Nicias’ words at 7.61: “… there is an unpredictable element in warfare.…”). And by another paradox, it is precisely those individuals who are most deeply insightful into how the world is who most acutely realise the future’s unpredictability. As Hermocrates puts it: “The future is out of my control” (Thucydides History 4.64). Corresponding to this sense of the world’s unpredictability is a feature of Thucydides’ narrative which is highly pertinent to the questions I have been exploring in this paper: he is relatively uninterested (far less interested than Herodotus, for example) either in predictive aspects of the beginning of his characters’ lives, or in those characters’ “shapely” ends. For Thucydides, the ultimate shape of reality is always going to elude us, whether in reference to the lives of individuals or those of societies.

It is useful to bear this moral in mind today. It is true that we are becoming increasingly good at making predictions on the basis of human beginnings; indeed, we now see shapes which were necessarily invisible to our predecessors in antiquity. Detailed understanding of a child’s cognitive and emotional inheritance and early development has become a major factor not only in psychological and psychiatric theory and practice, but also in the writing of biography. Again, the genetic inheritance with which a child comes into the world has become of increasing importance as we try to anticipate the course of individuals’ lives. Such genetically based predictions will become more and more sophisticated, enabling us to calculate with ever-increasing accuracy the chances that x or y will contract this or that disease. And yet, however refined such psychological and genetic anticipations may become, they will never confer on us the predictive ability of a Prometheus. An infant’s chances of succumbing later in life to a given type of cancer may be calculable to the third decimal place—but they will be irrelevant if a bus knocks down the individual concerned. Analyses of beginnings will take us very far, but the telos of a life may still turn out in a quite unforeseeable way. It remains no less true than it was in antiquity, that to understand the shape of a life, you must wait until that life is over.



Buxton, R. G. A. 2009. Forms of Astonishment: Greek Myths of Metamorphosis. Oxford.

Cox, P. 1983. Biography in Late Antiquity. Berkeley.

Davis, S. J. 2001. The Cult of St. Thecla: A Tradition of Women’s Piety in Late Antiquity. Oxford.

Edwards, M. J., and S. Swain. 1997. Portraits: Biographical Representation in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire. Oxford

Gill, C. 1973. “The Death of Socrates.” Classical Quarterly 23:25–28.

Green, P. 1991. Alexander of Macedon. Berkeley.

Hägg, T., and P. Rousseau, eds. 2000. Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Berkeley.

Kermode, F. 1967. The Sense of an Ending. New York.

Lefkowitz, M. 1981. The Lives of the Greek Poets. London.

Momigliano, A. 1971. The Development of Greek Biography. Cambridge, Mass.

Roberts, D. H., F. M. Dunne, and D. Fowler, eds.. 1997. Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature. Princeton.

Rubenson, S. 2000. “Philosophy and Simplicity: The Problem of Classical Education in Early Christian Biography.” In Hägg and Rousseau 2000:110–139.

Smith, B. H. 1968. Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago.

Smith, J. Z. 1987. “Dying and Rising Gods.” Encyclopedia of Religion 3:521–527 (ed. M. Eliade). New York.

Spyridakis, S. 1968. “Zeus is Dead: Euhemerus and Crete.” Classical Journal 63:337–340.

Torgovnick, M. 1981. Closure in the Novel. Princeton.

van Hooff, A. J. L. 1990. From Autothanasia to Suicide: Self-Killing in Classical Antiquity. London.

Wehrli, F. 1973. “Gnome, Anekdote und Biographie.” Museum Helveticum 30:193–208.


Note 3
See, for example, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Bion’s Lament for Adonis .

Note 4
“Usually”: see section 3 below.

Note 5
For a fuller account of female suicides in myth see van Hooff 1990:25–26.

Note 6
See Buxton 2009.

Note 7
So, rightly, J. Z. Smith 1987.

Note 8
See Spyridakis 1968.

Note 11
See Cox 1983:19.

Note 12
Cox 1983:9.

Note 13
Cf. Cox 1983:9, 21–22.

Note 14
T.4.22–40 T; cf. Lefkowitz 1981:27–28.

Note 15
FGrHist 334F35 = Vita , Radt 3; Lefkowitz 1981:77.

Note 16
Lefkowitz 1981:93.

Note 17
Plutarch Alexander 5; cf. Green 1991:37.

Note 18
Athanasius Vita Antonii 1; cf. Rubenson 2000:115.

Note 19
Vita Macrinae 2; cf. Rubenson 2000:126. Thecla was the name of the follower of Paul who was venerated in a widespread cult in Asia Minor and beyond; see Davis 2001.

Note 20
Cf. Cox 1983:57: “Events are important only in so far as they depict character; they do not shape it.”

Note 21
Cf. the peaceful death (“after a slight illness”) of the noble, elderly Timoleon, whose funeral procession was joined by tens of thousands of respectful and, says Plutarch, genuinely sorrowful and grateful mourners (Plutarch Timoleon 39).

Note 22
On the idealisation of the death—especially through the sanitisation of the symptoms of hemlock poisoning—see Gill 1973.

Note 23
Van Hooff 1990:81.

Note 24
The unmistakeable echo of Odyssey 9, in which Maron is the name of the person who gave Odysseus a splendid guest-gift of wine, suggests the ‘constructed’ quality of Antipater’s thanatographical vignette; cf. also Leonidas of Tarentum Anthologia Palatina 7.455.

Note 25
Vita Aeschyli 10, ed. Radt; cf. Lefkowitz 1981:72–73.