THE ROMANS
AND DEATH

One cannot say the Romans enjoyed death, that is a phrasing which gives a strange impression, but it is not that far away from the truth. Violence and death for entertainment was big business – much more real than nowadays – and funerals were a serious affair in more than one respect.


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Dying in Rome
Funerals and burials
Sudden death
Violence and death

Dying in Rome
For the Romans dying was a serious business surrounded by many dos and don’ts. To die was an accepted part of life (death is always unavoidable, but in many cultures, like our own modern it is very hushed up and ignored). It is of course also hard to say that there was only one way for the Romans to take care of their dead. The Roman Empire was a big thing, involving many different cultures, people and systems of belief. But in general, if one look to the central parts of the empire and the Roman citizens it was very much the same.

When a Roman person died there were a whole lot of things to do for the family left behind. The whole family should get together to mourn, call out the passed away persons name and wail, but all this within limits – for example, women were forbidden to scratch their faces till it bled. To mark the event – and the fact that the house was ritually unclean, funesta – they decked the front door with branches of cypress. Meanwhile the body was washed and often mummified. Not because most Romans worshiped Isis or any other Egyptian god – because they didn’t – but due to the fact that Rome and most parts of the empire could get rather hot for a good part of the year and the body was kept at home for a week.

After these preparations the dead was dressed in his or her best clothes and put in the atrium, if the house was big enough to contain one (most people, after all, lived in rather crowded apartments there this would have been very inconvenient). The feet were pointing towards the door and candles, flowers and ribbons surrounded the body. Relatives and friends sat by the body, the women sang hymns and the men burnt incense and candles.

Funerals and burials
Funerals were, of course, a sombre affair. The burying always took place outside the city limits. We know next to nothing about the funeral-habits among ordinary Romans, but the sources about the upper classes are very rich and rewarding. The funerals were often taken care of by undertakers, libitinarius. The Greek habit of placing a small coin in the mouth of the deceased were sometimes popular among the Romans, but with all forms of fashion it was different from time to time and archaeologists have found such coins in about 5% of all Roman burials – not that much. A much more popular tradition then was the making of a death mask. Wax was applied to the dead person’s face and thereby the face was preserved forever among the living relatives.

The most common habit among the Romans was cremation. It was not until around the third century that inhumation became more common, not due to the Christians (who had an obvious interest in preserving the body) but a custom adopted by them. Since a whole body needed much more room then a heap of ashes it was a way to mark one’s wealth. But up till then cremation was, as mentioned, the most common practice – even among the rich and famous. But even cremations could be made into a splendid affair. The dead person was taken from the house in a nocturnal procession, pompa, and to a funeral pyre. This procession was more about the family making a mark than religious believes. The dead was placed on a wagon or bier and was followed by friends and family – all dressed in black. But there were also musicians and dancers and professional mourners, and people carrying torches. The procession went to the city square there a speech was made over the deceased and then the body was carried to the ustrina, the place there the cremation took place.

The body was placed on the funeral pyre, which was then lit. The dead was placed with some personal possessions on it, and sometimes the belongings were thrown into the fire instead. The Romans did not believe that the dead brought with them goods to The Other World, it was more of a token from the living. At the ceremony a sow was sacrificed and all the present persons had to throw a handful of dust on the deceased. And afterwards some wine put out the fire, and the bones and all objects that survived the fire were collected and taken to the grave. After this family and friends gathered to a feast.

Burials were status things in Rome, and a good and impressive grave was a must for many – at least of the rich when ordinary people hardly could have afforded a giant stone structure to be erected in their memory. When visiting a Roman city the first thing anyone would see would have been the burial-monuments. They were made to be seen, they were placed as close to the main roads as absolutely possible, and as close to the city limits as they could. Burying inside the city-walls was forbidden, as long as it wasn’t stillborn children (they could be buried under the floorboards if the parents wished it).

The cost for these monuments could reach staggering amounts, a freed slave paid a million sestries for his, and another Roman paid ‘just’ 400.000 for his – in a time when an ordinary soldier made 1000 sestries in a year. One of the more famous monuments is the one erected on behalf of the noblewoman Caecilia Metella (see below) who isn’t known for anything else at all. But this has ensured her a secure place in the mind of modern visitors to Rome.



Sudden death
When one deals with death and the Roman Empire it is impossible to avoid talking about the eruption of Vesuvio in 79 A.D. This was a devastating natural disaster, which completely wiped out the cities Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was a disaster in its time, but it is now an almost never-ending source of information for today’s archaeologists and historians.

Many people did get away, but a lot of them were caught in the eruption and buried in layers of ashes and pumice stone. These were later found by archaeologist, as holes in the layers, holes that were filled with plaster. Today this castings give the tourists a shocking testimony of their gruesome death.

Viloence and death
One can say many positive things about the Romans, but their view of death as crowd-pleasing entertainment cannot really be numbered among them. The Romans enjoyed death like any modern teenager – with the obvious difference of the modern equivalence watching it in a simulated form. There was nothing fake about the Roman gladiator.

The gladiator-fighting was a phenomena developed from ritual games among the Etruscans, an ancient people which were on the peak of their power when the Romans was just a small tribe living in the marshlands that is today’s Rome. Gladiators were not the only thing the Romans could watch when they wanted to see death and destruction, executions were public and often in the same arena, the amphitheatre. There they could also watch animals killing each other in intricate combinations – there were lions, bears and panthers, but also stranger animals like giraffes. But the most popular was, without a doubt, the gladiators.

To be a gladiator was to have a chance at fame and fortune. The gladiators were slaves who fought on the arena in pairs – not till the point of death but of exhaustion (if they were not sentenced to death when a fight meant just that). The gladiators were quite famous, at least if they won, and were quite looked after. To train a gladiator was an expensive affair so it was important for everyone that they could do their best. And a gladiator who did well could get rich, have luck with women and even earn his freedom. If he failed he could at least die in front of tens of thousands of spectators.



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