‘Death is bad for those who die, but good for the undertakers and the grave-diggers’. (Dissoi Logoi i 3)
And for archaeologists and for epigraphers as well, even though epitaphs, and especially simple or formulaic ones, are probably the most understudied and unloved area of ancient epigraphy. Yet the mere fact of an inscribed epitaph indicates deliberate and intentionally enduring commemoration, and therefore embodies a social attitude; epitaphs thus constitute a matter of historical importance that can be studied for the very reason that so many—in Athens over 10,000—survive. Most Athenian epitaphs which have been found have been dated, and for approximately two-thirds of them a general find-spot has been recorded (very few are actually found in situ with a body or grave-goods). Temporal and spatial variations within the distribution of Athenian epitaphs (Part I) prompt not only the question of why aspects of this habit should change over time, but why the habit of epitaphs should exist at all; the answer suggested here links the function and distribution of Athenian epitaphs to changing concepts of (and importance attached to) Athenian citizenship. For epitaphs function as more than testimonials to grief: they represent what survivors saw as defining the deceased (Part II), and the significantly greater number of epitaphs in fourth-century Athens derives from Athenians' emphatic definition of themselves as citizens at that time (Part III). Finally, the Athenians's use of tombstones has no parallel in the classical Greek world (Part IV), for the Athenians' developing perceptions of their own city and of their own special relationship, as citizens, to it, were also unparalleled.