The Kerameikos is one of the most ancient districts of Athens. The name comes from keramos meaning roof-tile; an obvious allusion to the many tilemakers’ and potters’ quarters established there from the earliest times.
It will be remembered that after the victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC, Themistocles ordered the building of massive defense walls round Athens and the Peiraeus. At the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War (404 BC), the walls were demolished by the victorious Spartans, but were restored by Conon in 393 BC and reconstructed some sixty years later. The Roman general Sulla finally razed them in 86 BC. A section of the walls passed through the Kerameikos and divided the district into two sectors: the Inner, which included the Agora, the principal administrative and judicial buildings, and the potters’ and smiths’ quarters, and the Outer Kerameikos in which lay the necropolis.
The Hellenic peoples regarded the interment of the dead as one of the most sacred duties. In war, the obligation to bury the enemy dead, whether Hellene or barbarian, was equally binding. Since it was believed that the presence of corpses brought pollution to the living, bodies were either cremated or inhumed far from the city walls, usually at the side of main roads or outside the gates of the city; the evolution of the Kerameikos extra mums of the sixth century BC can be traced to the observance of that hygienic precaution. Archaeological evidence found during excavations in the area shows that the Outer Kerameikos was already in use as a burial ground as long ago as the twelfth century BC.
Turning right inside the entrance on Odhos Ermou, we follow a well-trodden path descending diagonally to the north-east and leading into the vestiges of the Sacred Way (IEPA 040E), with a moat and a corner of the Themistoclean circuit wall in front of us. Left of the Sacred Way lies the Eridanus brook. Turning right, we come to the scanty remains of the Sacred Gate.
The SACRED GATE was built into the Themistoclean wall, and consisted of a passage 35 m. long by 12 m. broad enclosed between two lateral walls. A solid wall constructed along its length divided the passage into two exits, one (south), from the Inner Kerameikos to the Sacred Way, was protected by a high wall that joined the defensive towers flanking the structure; the other, (north), served as an outlet to the Eridanus, then a swiftly flowing stream crossing the Kerameikos along a vaulted artificial water-course. An arch, sole visible relic of the archaic hydraulic installation, still spans the brook.
Leaving the Sacred Gate, we pass through a narrow opening in the forewall that stands on the other side of the brook, continuing the line of the Themistoclean circuit wall. Immediately before us is a low stretch of ruined wall, all that remains of the polygonal wall of Conon. Keeping our course we come to the first boundary stone, bearing a perpendicular inscription oros Kerameikou. We can now trace to our right the remains of the Dipylon, that is, the Double Gate.
The DIPYLON was also part of the city circuit wall. It was built during the second half of the fourth century BC as a larger and stronger successor to the Dipylon of Themistocles; this latter gate was erected in the previous century on the site of an even earlier dipylon which was known as the Thriasian Gate. The Dipylon was the largest and most frequented of the eight city gates of Athens, and the starting point of three roads: one southwards to the Peiraeus, another westwards to Eleusis, while the third, barely a mile in length, led northwards to the Academy of Plato on the River Kiphissos. An unusual feature of the Dipylon was the double entrance, consisting of an outer and an inner gate (hence the name), with connecting walls enclosing an oblong court measuring 41 m. in length by 22 m. in breadth. Each of the gates, which were fitted with stout doors that were closed during an emergency, had two openings divided by a central pier to allow for the simultaneous passage of two carriages.
Because of its great importance, the Dipylon was exceptionally well fortified. Protected by massive walls terminating in huge square corner towers reinforced by salients, two flanking the outer, two the inner gate, and with supplementary defenses in the ingenious utilization of the space between the gates, it was virtually impregnable. Should enemy troops be successful in overcoming the resistance of the defenders at the outer gate and penetrate the interior of the building, they would find themselves trapped within the restricted confines of the courtyard. There, surrounded on all sides, they would be at the mercy of a second body of defenders strongly entrenched behind thick ramparts.
Standing at the Dipylon and facing northwest, we can see traces of the road that led to Plato’s Academy stretching before us. On our right is a large rectangular stepped base for the support of a monument that stood in front of the central pier of the outer gate. Further right, directly opposite the central pier of the inner gate, are the remains of a circular altar bearing a dedicatory inscription to Zeus Herkeios (protector of walled enclosures), to Hermes (god of roads and gateways), and to Acamas (tribal hero of the Kerameikos).
On the left lie the remains of the Pompeion (from the Greek pompi, that is, a solemn procession), built of poros in about 400 BC. Though designed primarily as a gymnasium, it later served other purposes; for example, as center for the distribution of food in time of need. The Pompeion was the favorite meeting-place of philosophers, and on its walls were portraits of some of their number; a statue of Socrates, the work of Lysippus, also stood there. Its principal functionn however, was that of storehouse for the heavy vehicles and other properties employed on the occasion of the religious processions of the Panathenaea and the Great Eleusinia, and also as the place of assembly for those participating in them.
The POMPEION measured 55 m. in length by 30 m. in breadth, and consisted of a court surrounded by columns, thirteen along the sides and six at the ends. The propylon, which stood opposite the inner gate of the Dipylon, consisted of two columns between side walls, with an entrance for pedestrians on either side of the central passage. The ruts left by the passage of vehicles, the holes drilled for the fittings of the gates, and the furrows scored by opening and closing them are still visible in the paving. The Pompeion was destroyed during Sulla’s siege of Athens in 86 BC.
Facing the ruins of the Pompeion are the remains of the Pompeion of Hadrian, a structure erected during the second century AD, and razed by the barbarian Heruli, a Teutonic tribe originating in Jutland, in AD 267. The Pompeion of the Roman period was smaller than its predecessor and was built on a different plan.
In front of the Dipylon is the starting point of the stately AVENUE OF THE ACADEMY that in antiquity led to the Academy of Plato but today lies buried outside the present area of excavation. From the time of Solon (640-558 BC), a state burial along this Avenue was the highest award that could be granted to those who had rendered signal service, military or political, to the city. The Avenue of the Academy was lined on both sides with imposing funerary monuments erected by the State, either memorials in honor of outstanding individuals, or polyandreia for the burial of groups of warriors who had died in battle, or again cenotaphia, that is, empty tombs raised as memorials to those who had also lost their lives in the service of the city but whose bodies were either buried elsewhere or could not be found for interment.
Proceeding down the Avenue we pass between the remains of walls and monuments and at the end of the paved section we turn left down a slight slope. This path leads to the Tomb of the Lacedaemonians (just below the church of Aghia Triada), and the second boundary stone. The tomb is divided into three compartments and contained the skeleton of thirteen Spartans who were killed during the heavy fighting at the Peiraeus in 403 BC, when Thrasybulus overthrew the Thirty Tyrants. Among the marble blocks of the monument, on which were inscribed the names of the fallen, is one recording the deaths of the two polemarchs, Chaeron and Thibrachus, mentioned by Xenophon who, with the Olympic victor Lactates, were buried in the Kerameikos. This block of marble can be seen inside the Museum.
Amid the many ruins and ill-defined paths that cover the present area of excavation the easiest course is to retrace our steps from the Tomb of the Lacedaemonians as far as the Sacred Gate. Just before we reach the foundations of a small sanctuary, so far unidentified, that lies about 45 meters from the Sacred Gate, the ancient road branches off to the right. We proceed along this road, which runs parallel to the course of the Eridanus and leads us to the family grave terraces below the church of Aghia Triada.
The wealthy were usually buried in family plots, separately walled and adorned with stelai and sculpture. The extant funerary monuments, the majority of which date from the fourth century BC, are of various types: plain pillar, or palmette anthemion stelai; columns, sometimes surmounted by a device, or the representation of an animal; lekythoi and loutrophoroi, large vases marking the graves of those who died unmarried; trapezai, that is, tombs in the form of chests, with table-like tops; naiskoi, temple-like shrines, or chapels, in which sculptured reliefs or paintings were set in deep frames with pediments; sarcophagoi, marble tombslabs; and cippi, small undecorated columns customarily placed over the graves of slaves.
The following itinerary takes us to the tombs on the Sacred Way, the Street of Tombs, and the cross-street rising off it to the south. The more interesting funerary monuments are numbered in the order in which it is proposed to visit them.
The graves on the SACRED WAY are to be seen along the section of the road that lies below the church of Aghia Triada. After the ruins of a large unidentified tomb we come to the once painted stele of Antidossis; the lekythos of Aristomache, with a small relief. Passing through a narrow opening between these monuments, we come to a grave terrace, on which stands, the loutrophoros of Olympichos and farther away , the grave tumulus of Eucoline. The fine relief depicts a family group of two women, a man and a gentle little girl. The latter is shown holding a pet bird in her hand, while a tiny dog, standing on its hindlegs, begs for her attention. The graceful attitudes of the female figures and the playfulness of the dog are rendered in masterly fashion.
We now descend from this monument and turn right, following a path below the grave terrace. This brings us to the STREET OF TOMBS, where the majority of funerary monuments are to be seen. On the north (right) side: stele of Phanocles of Leucone; stele of Philocrates of Kydhathinaion; the trapeza of Hipparete (c. 350 BC), granddaughter of the ill-starred Alcibiades; stele of Menes, with a relief representing him on horseback; pillar stele of Samakion. Family plot of Koroibos of Melite; in the center of a group of three funerary monuments stands: Koroibos’ own stele; on the left, that of his wife Hegeso, represented seated, examining a necklace she has taken from the trinket-box her maid is holding out for her inspection. This is a cast (the original is in the National Archaeological Museum) of the famous stele that has inspired many painters and poets. On the right of the stele of Koroibos is, the loutrophoros, in relief, of Kleidemos, his grandson. Family plot of Eubios of Potamos: the stele, with palmette anthemion and relief of Eubios’ sister Euphrosyne. The deceased, seated near her brother, gives her hand to her nephew Bion; a small Doric column, once crowned by a loutrophoros, marks the tomb of Bion. On the right of this last memorial is an unidentified naiskos. We now turn at the retaining wall to the funerary monuments on the opposite (south) side.
Grave plot of Nicostrate and Kephisodoros. Family plot of the Archon Lysimachides of Acharnai. The tomb, in polygonal masonry, comprises: an ex-voto representing two couples seated at a funeral meal in the lower world, and below, Charon in his boat on the Styx; a huge Molossian hound, one of two acroteria that guarded the corners of the tomb; the second (18), the badly mutilated statue of a lion, is hidden by the ex-voto already mentioned. Family plot of the treasurer Dionysius of Kollytos (c. 345-317 BC), the tombstone, in the form of a small trapeza, marks the grave of one Melis of Melite; a large empty naiskos for a painting, probably of the deceased, stands against a tall pillar supporting, a majestic bull in Pentelic marble, the most arresting piece of sculpture in the necropolis. This animal was doubtless chosen to adorn the treasurer’s tomb, not only because Dionysus is sometimes portrayed in the form of a bull, but also because the name of the deceased (Dionysius) is almost synonymous with that of the god (Dionysus). Family plot of the brothers Agathon and Sosicrates of Heraclea on the Pontus. Here stand, the once painted naiskos of Agathon; a high relief representing a touching scene of parting, executed with the dignity and restraint inherent in Greek art.
Korallion, wife of Agathon, grasps her husband’s hand in farewell. At the center stands a second male figure while in the background, behind the seated figure of Korallion, a second woman’s profile can be seen. On the left is a broken lekythos, with a relief depicting another scene of parting. We now come to the family plot of Lysanias of Thorikos; here are the remains of the impressive precinct of Lysanias’ twenty-year old son Dexileos, one of the five knights killed in battle in 394 BC, during the Corinthian War. Although Dexileos, together with his fellow-cavalrymen, was given a state funeral and buried in the public sector of the cemetery, Lysanias erected this cenotaph as his own private tribute to his son. The monument, which stood upon a massive base of conglomerate, consists of a splendid marble relief in Pentelic marble, crowned by a pediment, representing Dexileos riding down a fallen enemy warrior (this is a cast; the original can be seen in the Museum). As was the custom in antiquity the group was painted, while the victor’s lance and the bridle of his steed (both now lost) were of bronze. This relief, reminiscent of St. George killing the Dragon, is one of the many examples that show the influence of Classical art on Byzantine iconography. On the base of the relief is the inscription: “Dexileos, son of Lysanias of Thorikos, was born in the archonship of Teisandros (414 BC), and died in that of Eubolides (394 BC) in Corinth, one of five Knights”.
On the front of the precinct stand two pillar stelai: the taller, crowned with a palmette anthemion, honors the memory of Dexileos’ brother Lysias; the other, with a pediment and rosettes, that of their sister Melitta. Three other tombs, all trapezai, have been found within the precinct. Only one, however, can be positively identified; this, is inscribed with the names of Lysanias, another of Dexileos’ brothers, his wife Kallistrate, and their son Kalliphanes.
After the precinct of Dexileos, the line of family plots is broken by a narrow path that climbs up to the grave terrace, and, tomb of Hieronymus, a famous actor who lived about 270 BC. Behind this tomb is the tomb of Macareus, another actor famed in antiquity.
In the angle formed by the junction of the Sacred Way and the Street of Tombs is the rectangular Sanctuary of the Tritopatreis (Ancestral Gods). That this sanctuary, sacred to the worship of ancestors and the cult of the family, is of great antiquity, is attested by an archaic inscription cut into a stone built into the wall of the court.
Just beyond the Tritopatreion, but on the opposite side of the Street of Tombs, two stelai are in situ: the first, a broad pillar stele with a pediment, is that of Thersandros and Simylus, envoys from the island of Kerkyra (Corfu), who died in Athens in 375 BC. The other, built on a lower level, is that of Pythagoras, proxenos (consul) of Athens at Selymbria in Thrace.
Leaving these stelai, we turn left into the Southern Way. Here, on the right, is the grave terrace of the sisters Pamphile and Demetria (c. 350 BC), with, the tombstone of Dorcas of Sicyon; a large naiskos framing, one of the most beautiful funerary reliefs of the fourth century, in which Pamphile is represented seated, with Demetria. To the right of this fine piece of sculpture is, the base of the stele of Demetria (now in the National Archaeological Museum), and behind it stands, the loutrophoros of Hegetor, with a small relief depicting a scene of farewell; then, the inscribed stele of Glykera, and the trapeza of another Demetria. Next to the plot of Pamphile and Demetria is that of Philoxenos of Messine, which includes, in a line, three trapezai, upon which stand remains of the bases of the lekythoi of Parthenios and Dion, and the stele of Philoxenos, their father; the statue (now headless) of Philoxenos’ wife, and the cippi of some of their slaves.
From the grave terrace of Pamphile and Demetria, a path leads direct to the temenos of Hecate, gray goddess of night and the nether world, which lies in the open space between the grove below the Museum and the back of the Street of Tombs. Here, the remains of a hearth altar, in which a relief showing a scene of sacrifice, above a dedication to Artemis-Hecate, is set into the north side. A stone omphalos, or navel, stands between the eschara and a niche, built in brick. This latter held the triangular statue of the triple Hecate, (now in the National Archaeological Museum), for this sinister deity, patroness of ghosts and witchcraft, who also haunted crossroads and graveyards, was usually represented by three identical figures of the goddess, standing back to back, each with its special attributes: torches, keys, swords, lances, dogs, and snakes.
To the south, in the grove below the Museum, lies the post-Classical cemetery, in which the only grave-markers worthy of note are the triangular pillar of Sosibios of Sounion standing on a low mound and, an unusually tall pillar stele, inscribed with a list of names.
This list of memorials enumerated is merely a small selection from the vast number found during excavation; many others have been removed to the safety of the Kerameikos and National Archaeological Museums. With the exception of the tombs of the actors Hieronumus and Macareus and of course, the stelai and other funerary marbles described are anterior to 310 BC, when the sumptuary laws of Demetrius Phalereus prohibited large expenditure on private tombs. Henceforth, it was decreed, only trapezai (simple commemorative tablets), and kioniskoi, that is, truncated columns with a moulding to keep a wreath or fillet in place, were to be permitted. The result is to be seen in the dreary collection of stone cylinders, varying greatly in size, arranged near the entrance to the Museum.
During the more than three thousand years of its existence the Kerameikos has many times been devastated and countless tombs plundered and destroyed. With the advent of Christianity much of the statuary was smashed by religious fanatics. Later the cemetery gradually fell into disuse and served as a dumping ground for rubbish, so that in 1862, when the Greek Archaeological Society undertook the first excavations, the once-glorious Kerameikos lay buried beneath the accumulated refuse of the centuries. In 1913, after a period of fruitful collaboration between Greek and German Archaeologists, it was decided to entrust future excavation of the area to the German Archaeological Institute of Athens which continues its mission ever since.