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The Romans and their Dead

Importance of Ceremonial Rites

The Romans believed that the soul cannot rest until the body is laid to rest. Until then, the spirit was supposed to haunt its home because it was unhappy. The term "justa facere", meaning "to do the right things", refers to the respect for the rites of the dead. If the body cannot be recovered, then a cenotaphium, an empty tomb was used for the funeral rites. If a Roman citizen happened upon an unburied, dead citizen, he is obligated to perform the necessary rites. If the body cannot be properly buried, then 3 handfuls of dust must be scattered on the body.

Burial and Cremation

Burial was practiced in the earliest times of the Romans and remained so even after cremation was introduced. If the body was to be cremated, then a small part of the remains MUST be buried. Cremation was practiced prior to the Twelve Table (approx. 451B.C.) It was later practiced due to hygienic reasons for an expanding population. Burial was never discontinued. Children less than forty days old and slaves were always buried. Burial again became the custom when Christianity was introduced.

Hadrian's Mausoleum

It is the most imposing of all Roman tombs. The emperor built it and the bridge that leads to it.

Places of Burial

Since The Twelve Tables forbade burial or cremation with the city walls, all funeral rites and burial site were outside. The Appian Way, the oldest highway, is lined with tombs of the most aristocratic families.

Kinds of Tombs

Tombs were used for bodies, ashes, or both. Lining the roads were public memorials as well as family tombs, usually large enough to hold generation of descendant, retainers, freedmen, and guests who died away from home.

Middle and Lower Class Burials

For the middle and lower classes, they have the option of co-operative burial societies or a philanthropist's charity. Patrons would provide for their loyal freedmen. Poor citizens would be under the care of their clansmen, patrons, or generous individuals. People who did not fit into those categories would be dumped in the Potter's Field.

Potter's Field

The Potter's Field was located on the eastern part of the Esquiline Hill. There were grave pits for the:

pauper class riffraffs
  • friendless poor
  • plague-infected bodies
  • dead animals
  • filth
  • scrapings of the road
  • abandoned slaves
  • arena victims
  • criminal outcasts
  • unidentified dead

The Potter's Field eventually became really bad. These open pits gave away an unbearable stench and provided disease-breeding pollution. Augustus created new dumping grounds elsewhere and buried the Potter's Field under 25 ft. of soil. The Field was renamed Horti Maecenatis (Garden of Maecanas)

The Esquiline was also a place for executing criminals of authorities. The decease would be left to the birds and beast of prey near the Esquiline Gate.

Tombs and their Grounds

In the classical times, tombs were believed to be a home for the dead, who was not completely cut off from the living. There were numerous burials grounds with various sizes and shapes. In early times, the tomb was often shaped like an early Roman house. As the tombs got bigger, the burial grounds would often include shelters, arbors, summerhouses, along with trees, flowers, wells, and cisterns. Some were even big enough to accommodate houses and other buildings for slaves and freedmen. These was used for anniversary feasts and cremation sites. There were many types of tombs as well. There were monuments, which are subdivided into altars and temples. There were memorial arches and niches. There were also tombs without a sepulchral chamber, where the burial was beside the monument. In this case, there would be a lead pipe/tube attached to an underground receptacle for offerings of wine and milk.

Mausoleum of Augustus

Built in 28 B.C., The Mausoleum of Augustus is situated on the northern part of Campus Martius. It is a circular mound of earth re-inforced by concrete and decorated with a marble/stucco facing and plants. At the entrance, there are bronze tablets with the "Res Gustae", which is a record of his achievements. It is completely excavated.


After the development of family tombs, "columbaria", literally meaning dovecotes, were created to house many urns in a small space. This was a result of high land prices, making private burials for the poor impossible. Some having the capacity of holding a thousand urns, there were usually underground and rectangular. The niches would be placed in a grid-like format. There was a podium extended at the base of the wall. There might have been sarcophagi placed under the floor as well as niches under the stairway. Wooden galleries might also have been present if the columbaria was high enough. Light was provided by small windows near the ceiling; walls and floors were usually decorated. Over the entrance, the names of the owners, the date ,time of erection, or other information would be given. In some columbaria, the lower miched were rectangular, while the highe ones were arched. A niche could hold up to four urnsl in two sets, the one in the back raised a little. There would be a "titulus", a marble placque with the owner's name(s). A family requiring more than one niche would surring their niches with wall decorations or pillars, suggesting a temple's entrance. The value of niches were dependent on the position; the higher ones would cost more than the lower ones, with the cheapest one under the stairway. . When the ashes has been placed in the urns, they were sealed and cemented to the niches. Small openings were made for offerings. On the urns there would be the person's name, and the day and month of death, never the year.

Burial Societies

Similar to present-day unions, people of the smae guild/occupations had associations for funeral expenses and/or columbaria-building provided that a member has a place of burial. A member of such associations would pay weekly into a small fixed sum into a common treasury. Upon his/her death, a stated sum was drawn for the funeral, with rites properly preformed. Such societies would make collective offerings to the dead. If it was just to build a columbarium, the cost was stated and divided into shares. Each member would pay their value to the treasury. If someone contributed generously. he/she was then made a honourary member or "patronus/patrona". The responsibilities of the project would depend on the "curatores", chosen by ballot from the wealthiest members. These people would let contracts, supervise construction, and keep accounts. They would also decorate the interior, give all of part of labels and urns, build places of shelter for visitors. The niches were alloted to members as fairly as possible in sections by lot. A member could have several sections in different parts of the tomb. Members could use their holdings by exchange, sale for profit, or gift. Owners could cut their names on labels, put up columns or busts to distinguish their position. Sometimes. the placques recorded the "ollae", the number bought and the previous owner. However, the "olla" might not correspond with the "titulus", showing that a part of a member's holdings had been sold or just outdated records. Maintenance costs and funeral benefits were paid by the weekly dues.

Funeral Ceremonies

The funeral ceremonies usually took place at night, except for the last century of the Republic and the first two centuries of the Empire. No ceremonies were given to the slave and the poorest were laid to death without formality.

Rites in the Home

The oldest son, bending over the dead body, called the family members' name, as if to call him/her back to life. This performance, "conclamatio" was followed by the words "conclamatio est." The eyes of the deceased was then closed. The body was washed with warm water, anointed, and limbs straightened. If the deceased held a curule office, a wax impression of his face was taken. The body was dressed in a toga and placed on a funeral couch with feet facing the door. Flowers was placed around the couch and incense was burned. Pine and cypress branches were placed around the door to show that death has polluted the place. Usually performed by relatives of slaves, the rich would have a "designator" to embalm a body, superintendent ceremonial at the house and to the grave. Occasional references were made about kissing a dying person to catch the last breath. In the very early and very late times, a coin was placed between the teeth for passage across the Styx.

The Funeral Procession

It was carried to the tomb, surrounded by family, neighbours, and friends. A public notice was given by a "town-crier." At the head of the procession, there is a band of musicians, followed by people singing dirges, actors wearing masks of deceased's ancestors and dressed accordingly. If the deceased was a general, memorials of the great deeds were displayed in a triumphal fashion. Young Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus, was said to have six hundred masks at his funeral.

The Funeral Oration

A well-known person would receive an eulogy in the Forum by a public authority. Before the rostra was the funeral couch, where the masked actors would sit on curule chairs. A son or a near relative usually gave the eulogy, recounting the history, and achievements of the deceased. It was mostly men who would be given this privilige, with the exception of the women from the Julian gens (Caesar's aunt, the widow of Marius.) If it was not held in the Forum, it would be given privately at the house or at the grave site.

At the Tomb

Three rites were ceremonially necessary at the burial site; the consecration of the resting place, the casting of earth on the remains, and the purification of all polluted by death. If the body was to be buried, it would be lowered into the grave with a couch or in a coffin of burnt clay or stone. If a cremation was to take place, there was a shallow grave filled with dry wood. After the cremation is over, earth is heaped over ashes. In later times, cremation took place in a sarcophagus. The burnt remains was placed in ustrina, which was not a part of the sepulchrum, and placed on a pile of wood. During the cremation, spices, perfumes, gifts and tokens were thrown on the burning pyre. The pyre was lighted by a relative, who avoided looking during the act. After extinguishing embers with water or wine, all people present says a final farewell. Water of purification was sprinkled three times over the people; and only the immediate family remained. The ashes was dried by cloth, and the ceremonial bone was buried. A pig was sacrificed to the burial grounds holy. The home was purified by offerings in the lares to conclude the funeral rites.

Subsequent Ceremonies

After the burial, there was the "Nine Days of Sorrow". After the ashes dried, family members went to the ustrina privately, where the ashes would be placed in jars of earthenware, glass, alabaster, or bronze. The ashes would be brought into sepulchrum with bare feet and loosened girdles. At the end of the nine days, or the "sacrificium novediale"(ninth-day sacrifice), the heirs formally entered on the inheritance. Family members usually observed ten months of mourning, and distant relatives observed eight months. For children ages 3-10, the ages would be equal to the month of mourning. There was also "annual days of obligations". There was the "Parentalia", or "dies parentales", during the thirteenth to twentieth-first of Februrary, ending with the Festival of the Dead, or the "Feralia." There was also privately observed the "Violaria", the festival of violets, at the end of March, and the "Rosaria", the festival of roses, at the end of May. There would be offering of flowers at the graves, as well as offerings at the temples to the gods and at the tombs to the manes, the spirits of the dead. By observing these ceremonies, the peace of the departed souls was secured and the deceased would rest happily.