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date: 01 December 2022

death, attitudes to, Romanfree

death, attitudes to, Romanfree

  • Robert Garland
  •  and John Scheid


  • Roman Myth and Religion

In the Roman tradition death is conceived of essentially as a blemish striking the family of the deceased, with the risk of affecting all with whom it had contact: neighbours, magistrates, priests, and sacred places. For this reason ritual established a strict separation between the space of the deceased and that of the living. Cypress branches announced the blemished house, and on days of sacrifices for the dead sanctuaries were closed.

The time of death spanned above all the period when the deceased's corpse was exposed in his or her home, its transport to the cemetery, and its burial. These operations were usually completed after eight days. The transformation of the corpse was achieved in the course of 40 days. The deceased did not, in the course of the funerary ritual, arrive at life eternal, but joined, as it were, a new category: those members of the community, the dimanes, who lived outside towns on land set aside for this purpose and managed by the pontifices. The legal status of these tombs was that of the religiosum (see religion, roman, terms relating to). The di manes were thought of as an undifferentiated mass or (rather) a collective divinity (Romans spoke of the di manes of such-and-such a person), and received regular cult during the Parentalia of 13–21 February and at other times. The immortality which they enjoyed was conditional on the existence of descendants, or at least of a human presence (a proprietor of the land on which the tomb was located, or a funerary collegium: see clubs, roman), since it was the celebration of funerary cult, in the form of sacrifices, which ensured the deceased's survival.

The unburied dead were called lemures and thought of as haunting inhabited areas and disturbing the living. Usually anonymous (being no longer integrated into any social context) they none the less received cult at the Lemuria in May, supposedly to appease them.

Along with these forms of survival, conceived generally as menacing and undesirable, there existed a third belief about life after death—deification. Combining Roman tradition with Hellenistic practices and ideas deriving from Hellenistic philosophy, the deification of exceptional individuals was instituted at Rome after Caesar's assassination. Thereafter elevation to the status of a god (divus) by a senatus consultum became the rule for emperors and some members of their families (see ruler-cult).

To these traditions was added, from the last centuries of the republic on, a series of Hellenistic concepts, ranging from speculation about the immortality of the soul to images of hell. Verse epitaphs prove that these ideas were rarely exclusive and coherent. We are dealing with speculations rather than beliefs capable of shaping a person's whole existence.


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