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Death in Ancient Rome

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Roman Tombs at Stanegate, England

The life expectancy of Ancient Romans was short and so death was a big part of Roman life. The Romans had a special place for death in their society which was partly due to their view of honour in life, which transcended into death. Although religion played a major part in Roman customs surrounding dying and death, certain protocols seemed to have been observed regardless of personal faith.

Death in Rome Edit

When a person was in the final stages of life, the eldest male of the household would be dug.... what does this mean??? 

The Roman View of the Afterlife Edit

At the immediate time of death, the soul would begin their journey to the underworld where the dead reside. This journey began by being escorted to a river, the River Styx, by spirits specially appointed by the Gods for such a task. Once at the river, the dead would be met by Charon the Ferryman. When a person died, a gold coin would be placed in their mouth which would then be given to Charon. Some considered it to be a fee for transportation across the Styx whilst others thought it was symbolic of the reliance of man on the Gods. From Roman remains, it is known that some believed the more expensive the gift for Charon, the better chance there was of a peaceful passage across the River. Some believed that jewels would even secure a nicer seat on the boat.

After crossing the river, the dead passed Cerberus, a three-headed dog owned by Dis Pater (Sometimes called Pluto). Dis Pater was the God of The Underworld and it was believed that his dog was a judge of character who would become ferocious to people who had committed wrong doings in their lifetime or to those who were trying to leave the underworld to return to the earth above. The next stage was judgement. Minos, Rhadamanthos and Aeacus were the three judges of life and every person would eventually have to give an account of their life to them. In this way, the ancient Roman religion was similar to Christianity. Based on the account of life given, one would be given water from the River Lethe which the Romans believed made a person forget their past life.

Pluto

Pluto, God of the Underworld

Souls were then sent to different places based on their good or bad deeds. The first, highly regarded by the Romans, was Elysian Fields. This was a place for warriors, heros and those who had died with honour. It was generally believed that good Emperors also met their final resting place here. The second was the Plain of Asphodel where good people lived as Shades. Tartarus was the third and final realm which was reserved for the evil. Here, they would be punished until they had repaid their debt to society. The Romans did not adhere to the idea of a Hell but this believe correlates with the dogma of Purgatory as adhered to by the Roman Catholic Church. At times, a reprieve came in the shape of Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld. After giving him a bribe for Cerberus, she would send the soul back across the Styx to life again, meaning that the Romans had some belief in reincarnation.

Whilst Pluto was God of the Underworld, he was not the God of Death. This was a role held by Mors (the Latin word for death) who was dispatched by Pluto to collect the dead for him once the strings of life had been cut by The Fates or Parcae. If Mors or Pluto decided to refuse a soul entry to the underworld, the deceased would be confined to Limbo for all eternity. Whatever the final destination, when a person died, it was believed that the soul lived on. This resulted in some common traits in burials with many tombs housing decaptitated corpses. Bodies would often be cut into pieces to prevent them from rising again and haunting the living. This was not embraced by Jewish and Christian citizens who believed it would prevent the person enjoying the afterlife when the Day of Judgement came. In other instances, sarcophagi were weighted down with heavy stones. Romans who held the beliefs of the ancient religion did not adhere to the Christian idea of Heaven and Hell and instead believed that all souls went to the underworld unless the Gods denied them entry, however there are similarities between the perceptions of heaven and purgatory held by Christians and Romans.

Funerals Edit

Roman funerals depended very much on person wealth and the circumstances of death. Criminals who had been executed were often buried in mass graves whilst the poor generally had simple funerals which they planned for by becoming members of a kind of funeral union called a collegia funeraticia. Many believed in the afterlife and Roman funerary customs suggest that it was the belief that the journey to the afterlife began at the immediate moment of death. Corpses were given respect and deference which was reflected in the long processions that formed the heart of Roman funeral rites.

Preparing the Body

Bodies were usually prepared for viewing by libitinarii (undertakers). As well as being cleansed and dressed, the libitinarii would embalm the bodies with gypsum plaster and according to faith, would place a gold coin in the mouth of the corpse. A common practice was to place pearls or beeswax in the nostrils to prevent evil spirits taking control of the dead body. The libitinarii would then ensure that the person had everything nessecary for the afterlife. This included money, jewellery, clothes and eating utensils. Death masks were also taken at this time.

Mourning

The rich enjoyed colourful and very lengthy mourning rituals. Viewing was decided on wealth and social status. The wealthy would be displayed on marble slabs covered with purple cloth for up to a week before their funerals took place. The poor were usually cremated just a day after death. Mourners paid their respects whilst the body laid in state with professional mourners being employed to keep a permanent vigil. These mourners were always women who were trained singers. They were known as praeficae and would sing special funeral dirges called naeniae. Bodies were never left alone after death as it was believed that this would cause anger and encourage haunting. Corpses were usually displayed in temples or atriums with their feet pointing to the doorway. Cypress branches were nailed over the door to bar priests from entering, something believed to bring impurity.

The Funeral Procession

A funeral procession was a public display of what sort of life the person had had. The wealthy had elaborate and colourful parades in which they were carried to their final resting places accompanied by hired mourners, mimes, dancers and their family wearing masks of their important ancestors. Family members rode in chariots and soldiers bodies were often accompanied by their army colleagues. Processions ranged from the grand and extravagant to the simple and small for poorer Romans. The procession started from the place where the body had been laying in state to outside the city where a funeral pyre or tomb was waiting. People in the procession usually wore robes of red or white, traditional mourning colours. If the deceased was an important figure, the procession would stop in the Forum and the body would be displayed upright whilst the eldest male relative delivered a funeral oration called a laudatio funebris.

Burial or Cremation? Edit

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Detail from a Roman tombstone

The Romans employed both techniques with cremation becoming favoured more than burial until after the 3rd century when Jews and Christians refused cremations and were always buried. The wealthy had usually constructed their tombs in their lifetimes, specifying every detail to masons. Though called burial, it would be more correct to call Roman burials inhumations as corpses rarely touched the earth. Bodies were placed in coffins or in vaults made of stone or marble. The wealthy were usually placed in sarcophagi which were housed in grand mausoleums. A large pot would often be buried into the ground at the entrance to these mausoleums where offerings were placed by mourners.

Mausoleums and Sarcophagi became more elaborate as time went on. Effigies of the dead became almost obligatory but fashionable carvings showed scenes from a person's life. These kinds of sarcophagi became a must have as influence from Asia Minor grew, with the wealthy paying large sums to have them made and transported to Rome. Christian sarcophagi would later follow a similar fashion with images of Christ and the apostles replacing pagan Gods. Tombs were elaborate and were a sign of wealth, even in death.

Cremation was popular for a time with corpses being burned on funeral pyres. The ashes were then collected and placed in urns which were then placed in columbariums with each urn being housed in a small niche called a nidus. Columbariums, tombs and mausoleums were all built with public access as a vital feature so that the living could pay their respects to the dead, though it was considered bad luck to even mention the name of the deceased once they had died. Similarly, it was customary after burial or cremation to destroy all possessions belonging to the deceased.

After Death Edit

Nine days after the body had been disposed of, a feast called a Cena Novendialis would be held. During the nine day period, the house was believed to be cursed, in a dangerous state called Funesta. Branches of yew or cypress branches were placed by the doors of houses to warn passers by and at the end of the mourning period, the house would be cleaned thoroughly to rid any possibility of a dead person's ghost returning to haunt the house. It was however, permitted to commemorate ancestors on specially designated days;

  • February 13th - February 21st : Parentalia
  • May 9th, May 11th and May 13th : Lemuria

It was considered vital to remember dead souls on these days because the Romans held strong beliefs about the possibilites of reincarnation. The dead could return to earth as a human being or as an animal and see that their relatives were not mourning them, leading to revenge. A highly feared state was Mulo, in which a person would become the living dead, and pursue revenge against all those who had wrong him in life. For this reason, offerings were regularly made at tombs and shrines.

Roman Funeral Rites Today Edit

Roman funeral rites and customs died out with the Roman pagan religion but a resurgance in pagan belief has brought back certain traits found in Ancient Rome. Some organisations such as Nova Roma, encourage the adoption of pre-Christian Roman beliefs but it has yet to be seen whether such revival groups will adopt Roman funerary procedures.

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