The grave stele of Demetrius

A closer look at a stele from the fourth century BC, currently in Munich, that marked the grave of Demetrius, who probably died in battle.

Josho Brouwers

The Glyptothek in Munich has a large and wonderful collection of ancient objects. One of them is a Greek marble stele or gravestone (inventory number 522) that was acquired in the art market at the beginning of the twentieth century. An exact provenance is thus, sadly, not known, but it’s believed to come from the Sea of Marmara, known in ancient times as the Propontis (literally: “Before Sea”, the body of water that connected the Aegean to the Black Sea). The stele has been dated to ca. 370 BC.

Here is a picture of the complete stele, taken by Arianna Sacco during a recent visit to Munich:

The grave stele of Demetrius, dated to ca. 370 BC. Photo: Arianna Sacco.

Let’s look at the inscription first. The top line gives the name of the man, Demetrios (the Latinized version would be Demetrius). The second line consists of two words, TOU ALESEÔ, which means “Son of Alexis”. A patronym is usually reserved for use among the upper echelons of ancient society.

The stele has, unfortunately, been damaged. There are at least two more lines beneath the picture in relief. The fragment at the very bottom has been suggested to have once been part of the word promachos. This word was used to describe warriors who fought in the front ranks and is commonly found in, for example, the Iliad. Fighting in the front rank was considered a sign of bravery. Presumably these lines, now lost, were part of an epigram detailing how Demetrius died and extolling his bravery.

The picture is perhaps the most interesting element of the stele. Grave markers like these generally depict the deceased and this one is no different. Demetrius is shown wearing what looks like a linen corslet (because of the clearly visible shoulder traps) over a short tunic. He wears a helmet that is a bit difficult to distinguish, but probably an Attic variety, going by the overall shape.

His left arm carries a hollow shield (referred to as “Argive”), with a double grip. I’ve written about these shields before. In his right hand he grips a sword typical of the Classical period: fairly short and with a straight cross guard. I’ve also written about ancient Greek swords in more detail in an earlier article, if you’re interested.

Demetrius is shown standing in the prow of a warship, presumably a trireme (ship with oars arranged in three tiers) or similar vessel. These ships feature a characteristic “horn” at the front; a ram is visible at the waterline that would have been made of bronze. Perhaps we are to imagine Demetrius is about to board an enemy vessel, or that he is about to jump off and wade ashore to fight there.

Demetrius looks like a hoplite, but since he is so closely associated with the ship here he’s probably to be considered more specifically as an epibatas. Epibatai were warriors who were part of a warship’s complement, intended to fight off boarders or to engage in boarding actions themselves. Epibatai are first mentioned in the ancient sources by Herodotus (e.g. 9.32). The exact number of marines on a ship is unknown, but their number must have been small, especially compared to its 170 oarsmen and 30 deck hands, officers, and other crew. (For further details, see L. Casson, The Ancient Marines (1991 [1959]), p. 86.)

Demetrius, son of Alexis, almost certainly died in battle, and the scene on this stele suggests he died while fighting as an epibatas (“marine”). Unfortunately, the missing epigram precludes us to learn more about the details surrounding his death. Like so much evidence from the ancient world, it offers a tantalizing glimpse into the distant part, too fragmented to piece together completely.