Roman Funerals and Burial

Religion in
ancient Rome
head covered)
sacrificing at the Temple of Jupiter
Practices and beliefs
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Ancient Roman funerary practices were part of the mos maiorum, "the way of the ancestors" or "tradition," and drew on the beliefs embodied in Roman public and domestic religion.

Socially, funerals were a central and highly visible means of preserving the heritage of a family and gens. The achievements of ancestors were celebrated alongside those of the deceased. The funeral procession was public and elaborate, led by professional mourners, including actors who wore the portrait masks (imagines) of the dead person's notable ancestors. The corpse was carried behind the mourners. A eulogy (laudatio funebris), instrumental music, and songs of mourning (neniae) were also part of the ceremonies. After the funeral, the body was most often cremated in the Classical period, though in some periods inhumation was practiced, becoming more common from the 2nd century AD onward. The ashes were placed in a container and entombed.

Roman cemeteries were located outside the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city. They were visited regularly with offerings of food and wine, and special observances during religious festivals in honor of the dead. Funeral monuments appear throughout the Roman Empire, and their inscriptions are an important source of information for individuals otherwise unknown and for Roman history. A Roman sarcophagus could be an elaborately crafted art work, decorated with relief sculpture depicting a scene that was allegorical, mythological, or historical, or a scene from everyday life.

Although funerals were primarily a concern of the family, which was of paramount importance in Roman society, those who lacked the support of an extended family usually belonged to guilds or collegia which provided funeral services for members.

Care of the dead

In Greco-Roman antiquity, the bodies of the dead were regarded as polluting.[1] At the same time, pietas or loving duty toward the ancestors was a fundamental part of ancient Roman culture.[2] The care of the dead negotiated these two emotionally opposed attitudes.

Preparation of the body

When a person died at home, family members and intimate friends gathered around the death bed. In accordance with a belief that equated the soul with the breath, the closest relative sealed the passing of spirit from the body with a last kiss, and closed the eyes. The relatives began lamentations, calling on the deceased by name. The body was then placed on the ground, washed, and anointed. The placing of the body on the ground is a doublet of birth ritual, when the infant was placed on the bare earth.[3] Male citizens were then dressed in a toga, and others in attire appropriate to their station in life. Men who had earned a wreath wore one in death,[4] and wreaths also are found in burials of initiates into mystery religions.[5] After the body was prepared, it lay in state in the atrium of the family home (domus), with the feet pointed toward the door.[6] Other circumstances pertained to those who lived, as most Romans did, in apartment buildings (insulae), but elite practices are better documented.

Although embalming was unusual and regarded as mainly an Egyptian practice, it is mentioned in Latin literature, with a few instances documented by archaeology in Rome and throughout the Empire where no Egyptian influence can be assumed.[7]

Other customs

"Charon's obol" was a coin placed in or on the mouth[8] of the deceased. The custom is recorded in literary sources and attested by archaeology, and sometimes occurs in contexts that suggest it may have been imported to Rome as were the mystery religions that promised initiates salvation or special passage in the afterlife. The custom was explained by the myth of Charon, the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the newly dead across the water — a lake, river, or swamp — that separated the world of the living from the underworld. The coin was rationalized as his payment; the satirist Lucian remarks that in order to avoid death, one should simply not pay the fee. In Apuleius's tale of "Cupid and Psyche" in his Metamorphoses, framed by Lucius's quest for salvation ending with initiation into the mysteries of Isis, Psyche ("Soul") carries two coins in her journey to the underworld, the second to enable her return or symbolic rebirth. Evidence of "Charon's obol" appears throughout the Western Roman Empire well into the Christian era, but at no time and place was it practiced consistently and by all.

Disposal of the body

Although inhumation was practiced regularly in archaic Rome, cremation was the most common burial practice in the Mid- to Late Republic and the Empire into the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Crematory images appear in Latin poetry on the theme of the dead and mourning. In one of the best-known classical Latin poems of mourning, Catullus writes of his long journey to attend to the funeral rites of his brother, who died abroad, and expresses his grief at addressing only silent ash.[9] When Propertius describes his dead lover Cynthia visiting him in a dream, the revenant's dress is scorched down the side and the fire of the pyre has corroded the familiar ring she wears.[10]

Ultimately, inhumation would replace cremation; a variety of factors, including the rise of Christianity among Romans and changes in attitudes to the afterlife, would contribute to this marked shift in popular burial practices.

The care and cultivation of the dead did not end with the funeral and formal period of mourning, but was a perpetual obligation. Libations were brought to the grave, and some tombs were even equipped with "feeding tubes" to facilitate delivery. See Commemorations below.

Funeral rites

Funeral rites took place at home and at the place of burial,[11] which was located outside the city to avoid the pollution of the living.[12] The funeral procession (pompa funebris) transited the distance between the two.

A professional guild (collegium) of musicians specialized in funeral music.[13] Horace mentions the tuba and the cornu, two bronze trumpet-like instruments, at funerals.[14]

Laudatio funebris

The laudatio funebris or eulogy was a formal oration or panegyric in praise of the dead. It was one of two forms of discourse at a Roman funeral, the other being the chant (nenia).[15] The practice is associated with noble families, and the conventions for words spoken at an ordinary person's funeral go unrecorded. While oratory was practiced in Rome only by men, an elite woman might also be honored with a laudatio.

For socially prominent individuals, the funeral procession stopped at the forum for the public delivery of the laudatio from the Rostra.[16] Thus a well-delivered funeral oration could be a way for a young politician to publicize himself.[17] The speech made by the young Julius Caesar in honor of his aunt Julia, the widow of Gaius Marius, helped launch his career as a popularist (see Laudatio Iuliae amitae).[18]

The epitaph of the deceased in effect was a digest of the laudatio made visible and permanent,[19] and might include the career résumé (cursus honorum) of a man who held public offices. In commemorating past deeds, the laudatio funebris is a precursor to Roman historiography.


After the body was carried to the cemetery, a sacrifice was performed in the presence of the corpse. Until the time of Cicero, it was customary to offer a sow to Ceres, a sow also being a characteristic offering to chthonic deities. The sacrificial victim was then allotted for consumption among the participants. The portion for the deceased was put on a spit and cremated with the body. Ceres' portion was burned on an altar. The family ate the portion that was due the living. A family of lesser means offered a libation of wine, incense, produce or grain; the allocation of these offerings is not recorded.[20] After this apportioning, the deceased had transitioned and could no longer share in the meals of the living and the domestic gods; he now partook of what was appropriate for the spirits of the dead, the Manes.[21]



On the ninth day after the person died, the funeral feast and rites called the novendialis or novemdialis were held.[22] A libation to the Manes was poured onto the grave. This concluded the period of full mourning.[23]

Festivals of the dead

In February, the last month of the original Roman calendar when March 1 was New Year's Day, the dead were honored at a nine-day festival called the Parentalia, followed by the Feralia on February 21, when the potentially malign spirits of the dead were propitiated. During the Parentalia, families gathered at cemeteries to offer meals to the ancestors, and then shared wine and cakes among themselves (compare veneration of the dead in other cultures). Tombs for wealthy, prominent families were constructed as "houses", with a decorated room for these banqueting festivities.[24]


Epitaphs are one of the major classes of inscriptions. An epitaph usually noted the person's day of birth and lifespan.[25] Information varies, but collectively they offer information on family relationships, political offices,[26] and Roman values, in choosing what aspects of the deceased's life to praise.

Philosophical beliefs may also be in evidence. The epitaphs of Epicureans often expressed some form of the sentiment non fui, fui, non sum, non desidero, "I did not exist, I have existed, I do not exist, I feel no desire,"[27] or non fui, non sum, non curo, "I did not exist, I do not exist, I'm not concerned about it."[28]

Funerary art


Molded mask of a girl with funerary inscription from Roman Gaul
Mummy portrait of a girl wearing a gold wreath, from Roman Egypt
For the biological term, see Imago.

A noble family was socially entitled to display images of ancestors (imagines, singular imago) in the atrium of the family home (domus).[29] There is some uncertainty about whether these imagines were funeral masks, portrait busts, or more generally both. Imagines could be arranged in a stemma, with a label (titulus) summarizing the individual's offices held (honores) and accomplishments (res gestae),[30] a practice that might be facilitated by hanging masks (see also oscilla).[31] In any case, portrait busts of family members in stone or bronze were displayed in the home as well.[32]

Funeral masks were most likely made of wax, and possibly molded as death masks directly from the deceased. They were worn in the funeral procession either by actors who were professional mourners, or by appropriate members of the family. Practice may have varied by period or by family, since sources give no consistent account.[33]

Since references to imagines often fail to distinguish between commemorative portrait busts, extant examples of which are abundant, or funeral masks made of more perishable materials, no funerary imagines can be identified with certainty as having survived. The veristic tradition of funerary likenesses, however, contributed to the development of realistic Roman portraiture. In Roman Egypt, the Fayum mummy portraits reflect traditions of Egyptian and Roman funerary portraiture and the techniques of Hellenistic painting.


The funerary urns in which the ashes of the cremated were placed were gradually overtaken in popularity by the sarcophagus as inhumation became more common. Particularly in the 2nd–4th centuries AD, these were often decorated with reliefs that became an important vehicle for Late Roman sculpture. The scenes depicted were drawn from mythology, religious beliefs pertaining to the mysteries, allegories, history, or scenes of hunting or feasting. Many sarcophagi depict Nereids, fantastical sea creatures, and other marine imagery that may allude to the location of the Isles of the Blessed across the sea, with a portrait of the deceased on a seashell.[34] The sarcophagus of a child may show tender representations of family life, Cupids, or children playing.

Some sarcophagi may have been ordered during the person's life and custom-made to express their beliefs or aesthetics. Most were mass-produced, and if they contained a portrait of the deceased, as many did, with the face of the figure left unfinished until purchase.[36] The carved sarcophagus survived the transition to Christianity, and became the first common location for Christian sculpture, in works like the mid 4th-century Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.[37]


Wealthy and prominent families had large, sometimes enormous, mausoleums. The Castel Sant'Angelo by the Vatican, originally the mausoleum of Hadrian, is the best preserved, as it was converted to a fortress.[38] The Tomb of the Scipios was the family tomb of the Scipios, located in an aristocratic cemetery, and in use from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. A grand mausoleum might include bedrooms and kitchens for family visits which would include feasts. For the wealthy middle class, smaller mausolea lined the roads from cities, many of which still remain in the Tombs of Via Latina, along the Appian Way, and elsewhere. The Tomb of Eurysaces the Baker is a famous and originally very ostentatious tomb in a prime spot just outside the Porta Maggiore, erected for a rich freedman baker around 50-20 BC.[39] The tombs at Petra, in the far east of the Empire are cut into cliffs, some with elaborate facades in the "baroque" style of the Imperial period. The less wealthy made do with smaller tombs, often featuring relief busts over a lengthy inscription. Cheaper still were the Catacombs of Rome, famously used by Christians, but also by all religions, with some specialization, such as special Jewish sections. These were large systems of narrow tunnels in the soft rock below Rome, where niches were sold to the families of the deceased in a very profitable, if rather smelly, trade. Decoration included paintings, many of which have survived.[40]

In the Christian period, it became desirable to buried near the grave of a famous martyr, and large funeral halls were opened over such graves, which were often in a catacomb underneath. These contained rows of tombs, but also space for meals for the family, now probably to be seen as agape feasts. Many of the large Roman churches began as funeral halls, which were originally private enterprises; the family of Constantine owned the one over the grave of Saint Agnes of Rome, whose ruins are next to Santa Costanza, originally a Constantinian family mausoleum forming an apse to the hall.[41]

Military funerals and burial

"The cult of the dead," it has been noted,[42] "was particularly important to men whose profession exposed them to a premature demise." The Roman value of pietas encompassed the desire of soldiers to honor their fallen comrades, though the conditions of war might interfere with the timely performance of traditional rites.[43] Soldiers killed in battle on foreign soil with ongoing hostilities were probably given a mass cremation or burial.[44] Under less urgent circumstances, they might be cremated individually, and their ashes placed in a vessel for transport to a permanent burial site.[45] When the Roman army under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus suffered their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, they remained uncommemorated until Germanicus and his troops located the battlefield a few years later and made a funeral mound for their remains.[46]

In the permanent garrisons of the Empire, a portion of each soldier's pay was set aside and pooled for funeral expenses, including the ritual meal, the burial, and commemoration.[47] Soldiers who died of illness or an accident during the normal routines of life would have been given the same rites as in civilian life.[48] The first burial clubs for soldiers were formed under Augustus; burial societies had existed for civilians long before. Veterans might pay into a fund upon leaving the service, insuring a decent burial by membership in an association for that purpose.[49]

Tombstones and monuments throughout the Empire document military personnel and units stationed at particular camps (castra). If the body could not be recovered, the death could be commemorated with a cenotaph.[50] Epitaphs on Roman military tombstones usually give the soldier's name, his birthplace, rank and unit, age and years of service, and sometimes other information such as the names of his heirs. Some more elaborate monuments depict the deceased, either in his parade regalia[51] or in civilian dress to emphasize his citizenship.[52] Cavalrymen are often shown riding over the body of a downtrodden foe, an image interpreted as a symbolic victory over death.[53] Military funeral monuments from Roman Africa take progressively more substantial forms: steles in the 1st century, altars in the 2nd, and cupulas (mounds) in the 3rd. Tombs were often grouped in military cemeteries along the roads that led out of the camp. A centurion might be well-off enough to have a mausoleum built.[54]

If a commander was killed in action, the men rode or marched around his pyre, or in some circumstances a cenotaph.[55]

The afterlife

Philosophical views

Most explanations of the afterlife that survive are the product of an educated elite, whose views were often shaped by philosophy. In the 1st century BC, Epicureanism had become popular, though often deprecated at Rome, as many of its tenets conflicted with the mos maiorum. The Epicureans believed that the soul was a thin tissue of atoms that dissipated into the cosmos upon death, and that conventional mythological views of the afterlife and its geography and inhabitants were inane fictions — a view encapsulated by a funeral inscription at Rome that reads:
Do not go forth nor pass along without reading me; but stop, listen to me and do not leave before you have been instructed: there is no crossing ferry to Hades, nor Charon the ferryman, nor Aeacus holding the keys, nor the dog Cerberus.[56]

See also

  • Rosalia, a festival of rose-adornment reflecting the practice decorating tombs and cemeteries with flowers
  • Ancient Greek funeral and burial practices


External links

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