The Romans and their Dead

Written by Dr. Jeremiah Mutie| Ph.D, Professor of Theology and Church History| Southern California Seminary

This is the third article in the five part series, “Attitudes Towards Death in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Cultures.” You can read the first article here and the second article here! To learn more about Dr. Mutie and his studies, click here
2.2.2 The Romans and their Dead            
Much of what has been said about the Greeks is also true about the Romans. This is because, as it was noted earlier, by Late Antiquity, both cultures had already merged to form what is known as the “Greco-Roman culture.” This section, therefore, will only highlight areas where there were differences in the treatment and disposal of the dead among the Romans. As it was the case with the Greeks, the family of the dying person was very much involved in the entire process. Again, as soon as it became clear that death was imminent, family members and close friends, would gather around the dying person. As noted above, the nearest relative kissed the departing family member with the goal of catching the soul, which was believed to leave the body with the last breath. Additionally, “The same relative would then lament the dead intermittedly until the disposal of the body.”[1] When death happened, funeral and other arrangements associated with the final disposal of the body, began.
The process of preparing the corpse for disposal followed a familiar pattern: washing of the body, dressing it to make it ready for disposition or lying-in-state awaiting disposal, funeral procession, the disposal of the corpse and post-funerary practices rendered to the dead. Since the issue of the preparation of the body has been dealt with above, it will not be treated again here. Suffice it to say, however, that as far as the dressing of the body is concerned, it tended to reflect both the social status and gender of the departed. That is, “In the case of a male, the corpse was dressed in a Roman toga, followed by the laying of a wreath on the head ‘particularly in the case of a person who had earned one in life.’”[2] The wreaths were specifically laid on the heads of powerful Roman citizens. And, as it was pointed out, with the placing of the coin in the deceased’s mouth as well as the completion of the dressing, “the body was now ready for either laying-in-state for the great or the disposal of the body for everyone else.”[3]
Historians of the Roman culture in Late Antiquity have observed the existence of elaborate laws for the disposal of the dead. For example, in his treatment of the subject, Roman historian, these laws included the existence of burial clubs.[4] As such, “These [clubs] functioned same way as modern-day death insurances, guaranteeing both a burial place for the dead as well as the continued support for the widowed.”[5] Mostly aimed at the welfare of the living, the existence of these laws also “suggests the urbanization of the Roman societies since they ‘helped men to cope with an anxiety that they would perhaps die without kin or cash with which to provide a proper burial.’”[6] When it comes to the Roman funeral itself, a number of features are notable.
First, we note that, just like the Greeks, Romans practiced both cremation and inhumation as far as the disposal of the bodies is concerned. However, just as there was a difference in treatment of individuals when they were alive based on their social status, this was also the case when they died. As Toynbee notes, “In the case of members of the upper class, the preparation of the body for its lying-in-state, which lasted for as long as seven days, and arrangements for the funeral that followed, were generally entrusted to professional undertakers (libitinarii) and their underlings (pollinctores).”[7]
In contrast, however, “The poor were carried to cremation or inhumation on a cheap bier (sandapilla) by vespulliones.”[8] Indicating the level of professionalism that was involved in the handling of the Roman dead, Toynbee adds further, that “The actual burning of the body was normally performed by ustores; grave-digging was done by fossores.”[9] “The dissignatores,” she continues, “were probably masters of ceremonies at a rich man’s or rich woman’s obsequies. Very important people could have [what was known as] a funus indictivum [invited funeral as opposed to a private one], to which all the citizens were summoned by a herald (praeco).”[10] Thus, the Romans practiced class differences even on the treatment of their dead. The funeral procession, known as pompa, which, for the Romans, took place at night under the lighting of torches, “would involve the relatives, friends and other invited persons.”[11] This is because, “Traditionally, it was the ancient Roman custom for funerals to be conducted at night by the light of torches, which were still carried before the body when, in historical times, the funerals of all but children and the poor took place by day.”[12]
The procession proceeded to the burial outside the city, since, according to Roman law, “All Roman bodies were to be buried outside the city, a practice that was laid out in the Twelve Tablets, and was followed up to the late Empire with a only a few exceptions.”[13] And, therefore, upon the procession’s arrival at the designated burial place, “Accompanied by such essential rites like the throwing of a little earth on the corpse (or the cutting off a fraction of the corpse in the case of cremation), the body would then be either cremated or inhumated in the place of disposal.”[14] As Toynbee notes, regarding inhumations, “the poor were laid directly in the earth, generally fully extended, less often in a crouched position in simple trench-graves (fossae)… [while the] wealthy were placed in richly carved sarcophagi of marble, stone, terracotta, lead, or wood.”[15] Finally, when it comes to cremation, “The burning of the corpse, and of the couch on which it lay, took place either at the place in which the ashes were to be buried (bustum) or at a place specially reserved for cremations (ustrina or ustrinum).”[16] The cremation would be accompanied by other practices like the opening of the eyes of the departed as well as the pacing of the gifts and some of the deceased’s possessions on the pyre.
Additionally, in a practice that would irk modern-day pet lovers, “Sometimes even pet animals were killed round the pyre to accompany the soul into the afterlife.”[17] As the service concluded, “The relatives and friends [of the deceased] then called upon the dead by name for the last time: the pyre was kindled with torches; and after the corpse had been consumed, the ashes were drenched with wine.”[18] The ashes would then be collected by the relatives of the deceased who would place them in spectacles of all kind—“in marble, altar-shaped ash-chests, small ash-chests of marble, stone, or terracotta in the shape of houses or of baskets or of round or rectangular boxes or caskets (all of them adorned with reliefs) and in marble alabaster, gold, silver, or bronze vases or urns (the well-to-do); or in lead canisters, glass vessels, and earthenware pots.”[19] The latter list of vessels refers to those that were used for the ashes of the poor. In other words, class distinctions in the Roman society of antiquity extended to death and beyond. As Hopkins observes, “My general impression is that rich Romans spent huge amounts of money, relative to the wealth available in their society, in order to create an enduring and ostentatious shelter for their dead.”[20]
Finally, like many other cultures in antiquity, the Romans also practiced post-funeral rites and services that were rendered to the dead. These were basically performed by the family members. For example, in order to make the grave legally a grave, a pig had to be sacrificed. This would be followed by the cleansing of the family members.[21] “On returning from the funeral,” writes Toynbee, “the relatives had to undergo the suffitio, a rite of purification by fire and water.”[22] Additionally, “On the same day there began a period of cleansing ceremonies (feriae denicales) held at the deceased’s house, and again on the same day a funerary feast, the silicernium, was eaten at the grave in honor of the dead.”[23] After the rites that were rendered during the funeral and the days immediately following it, the dead continued to be commemorated throughout the year. These celebrations included the visiting of tombs of the dead to commemorate their birthdays as well as during the general annual festivals for the dead. During this visits, meals were eaten at the tombs by the deceased’s friends and relatives.[24]
Additionally, researchers have also found some “holes or pipes through which food and drink could be poured down directly on to the burial (profusion), so as to reach the remains.” This is was because of the belief that, the disembodied spirits of the dead, “could somehow partake of the fare of which they were thus provided and, indeed, be nourished through the medium of their bones or ashes.”[25] Indeed, the departed were believed to share at all of these celebrations. As expected, these kinds of beliefs have generated debates as to whether the Romans had a full-blown “cult of the dead” during this time. It seems that there is not enough evidence to make this conclusion, however. In other words, “there does not seem to be enough evidence to lead to the conclusion that the Romans practiced an elaborate cult of the dead (which would include the veneration and worship of the dead).”[26] After thoroughly wrestling with this issue, for example, Hopkins concludes that what we see in these commemorations, is the expression of the strong yearning by the mourners of the dead loved one, that is, “they have a vivid image of his or her face, and imagine that, one day soon, they will meet again.”[27] In other words, rather than indicate an elaborate cult of the dead by the Romans, these commemorations “seem to serve a psychological need rather than as evidence for an elaborate cult of the dead.”[28] This understanding is very much consistent with other cultures in antiquity such as that of the Jews and the Greeks.
[1] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 169.
[2] Ibid., 169–70.
[3] Ibid., 170.
[4] Hopkins, Death and Renewal, 211–13.
[5] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 170. See also Jon Davies, Death, Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity. Religion in the First Christian Centuries (London: London and New York, 1999), 146–50.
[6] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 170.
[7] Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman, 45.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 170.
[12] Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman, 46.
[13] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 170.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman, 49.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 50.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Hopkins, Death and Renewal, 206.
[21] Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman, 50.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., 50–51. Toynbee adds that there were also other immediate rites that were practiced as the family prepared for the year-long occasional celebrations at the graves of the dead that would follow. “There was also the cena novendialis eaten at the grave on the ninth day after the funeral,” she writes, “at the end of the period of full mourning, when libation to the Manes was poured upon the actual burial. Offerings of food were left at the tomb of the dead and were sometimes eaten by the hungry. The domestic Lar was purified by a sacrifice of wethers. To disturb in any way the last-resting place of human relics that had been finally and solemnly buried was a criminal offense. Official dispensations from the penalties could be granted” (ibid., 51)
[24] Ibid., 51.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 171.
[27] Hopkins, Death and Renewal, 229.
[28] Mutie, Death in Second-Century, 171

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

We use cookies to ensure a quality experience. You can change permissions anytime on your browser. Otherwise, we assume you are content to continue.