Archive footage of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has recently revealed her views on life and death, when she quoted from an Aboriginal proverb:
“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.”
Mourning a loved one or public figure in Ancient Rome was as important then as it is today – and many of the rituals and rites introduced or upheld by Ancient Romans we might still recognise today. Across the world, different cultures have their own way of saying farewell to those who have died. We like to refer to a death as “passing” – and passing was a common concept for the Romans who, like other cultures, believed in an afterlife. We now associate the afterlife with religious beliefs – in western culture, the idea of “heaven” or a spirit world where we go after death. It is universally comforting to think that our loved ones or those who have been a constant in our lives still exist somewhere.
The Romans were no different – and observing funerary rites and a period of mourning were both important, not only because of social demands but also to ensure you passed over happily and that any spirits who were perhaps feeling vengeful at their death would pass on to Hades and not come back and haunt you!
All aboard for Hades
The Underworld governed by Hades was, to the Ancient Romans, what the Judeo-Christian western world today thinks of as heaven. Hades is also Pluto, Roman God of the Underworld. Ancient Romans believed the deceased crossed the River Styx after death to the Underworld. The River Styx was a Greek concept and formed the boundaries between Earth (Gaia) and the Underworld.
The ferryman of the Styx, Charon, ferried departed souls across to Hades. Today we think of as heaven or the equivalent as being in the sky somewhere, but some ancients believed that the afterlife was below earth, where Christians believe “hell” is. The journey across the Styx could be perilous, with monsters lurking, so Charon had to be paid to ensure loved ones’ safety.
The placing of coins on the eyes or inside the mouth in ancient times was known as Charon’s “obol” – a bribe to make sure your loved one safely reached the Underworld across the river. Despite Hades having a negative reputation, the Underworld was a peaceful place – it is thought the negative connotations arose from fear of death, but it was great once you got there!
The Underworld was guarded by a three-headed dog called Cerberus, who stopped souls from leaving, even though Ancient Romans believed spirits could return to be near to loved ones or to seek revenge.
The funeral procession in Ancient Rome
The head of the household or family would pay for a funeral in Ancient Rome. For wealthy and powerful people, a funeral would reflect their status. There might be professional paid mourners who attended. These would ululate – an expression of grief that involved loud wailing like a chorus. Usually they were female and they might also tear at their hair and rip their clothes to express grief. These days, if your husband’s cortege were followed by a large group of strange women wailing and tearing their clothes, you might be highly suspicious of what he had been up to in life. Ancient Romans were also the first people who adopted wearing black at funerals and this is now prevalent in the western world.
There would be a public procession of mourners following the cortege – attended by family and any business associates of the deceased. During Roman times, there would also be plenty of work at funerals for actors, who would be masked and walk behind the main group of mourners dressed as any important ancestors of the deceased, wearing masks to represent them.
Ancient Romans would also commission a portrait of their loved one for the front of their sarcophagus or casket. The likeness was important – Roman artists and sculptors were among the very first to depict portraits and busts in a naturalistic way. If you visit the galley of emperors at the Borghese Museum or Capitoline Museum, you will see some very “warts and all” busts that precede by centuries the naturalism we see in portraiture and sculpture in later centuries.
It may seem that only Ancient Romans who were wealthy or powerful had a decent send off, but ordinary Romans would still be honoured by their families and friends. The procession might be small, with few or no paid mourners and a less showy ceremony. But it is likely there would still be a few musicians playing music – as we have today. Usually only wealthy or important Romans had a eulogy (laudatio funebris) paid for by their family at their funeral, however. This was in two parts and praised the deceased – the second part was usually performed by women in chant form.
The Ancient Romans were, however, great party people – almost without exception. Roman life was littered with feasting and ceremonies, street parties and celebrations. Like today, there would be a gathering after a burial, with a feast laid on to honour the deceased and a degree of vino rosso.
Funerals in ancient Roman were regarded as a way of enabling mourners to move on from bereavement – burial symbolised the deceased at rest in the Underworld, enabling the living to adjust and continue their earthly lives once they had mourned loved ones or public figures.
Burial in Ancient Rome
Like us, the Ancient Romans held cremations – but there was a move towards burials by the second century AD. The Romans employed undertakers, just as we do, but unlike in some cultures, preparation of the deceased was viewed negatively – possibly because of fear of death. Ancient Romans lived in dangerous times and disease-ridden times and death was ever present.
Remembering loved ones in Ancient Rome
Like today, there was a set mourning period after a bereavement – and in Ancient Rome, it was nine days, during which time a family would be expected to remain separate from the community after the bereavement. Today we understand better the need to feel supported by our friends and community following bereavement.
But just as we do, Ancient Romans liked to create monuments to their deceased loved ones – and the wealthier or more powerful you were, the more likely you were to have a monument built in your memory. Parents built monuments to their children – the average life expectancy in Ancient Rome was between 22 and 33 years, with the infant mortality rate reducing it considerably. But in Ancient Rome, beloved pets were mourned, as well – dogs, cats and even horses who had served their masters or mistresses well.
The Ancient Romans were concerned about the idea of “spirit” following a bereavement – and also like us, they had a conflicting view of it. They wanted to know that their loved one was safe and happy in the afterlife, but despite the belief in the Underworld, Ancient Romans also felt their loved ones remained in spirit near their families and friends. Every February, the celebration of Parentalia involved honouring deceased family members in Ancient Rome. Honouring ancestors was very important and ensured their happiness in the afterlife.
Reincarnation and Ancient Rome
Had it not been for Emperor Constantine, we might today believe very firmly in reincarnation – Constantine edited out all mention of reincarnation in the Bible after he espoused Christianity in 322 AD, believing that if the populace thought they got a second chance, it would lead to civil disorder. However, the New Testament still mentions a crucial phrase Constantine must have missed – that spirit can move between heaven and earth. And the Ancient Romans believed it, too. Emperor Nero was convinced that he would be reincarnated. I cannot help thinking that maybe he returned as Henry VIII.
It is perhaps the greatest test of love to love someone who has no physical form – and yet still feel and believe they continue to exist and are near us. Science may dispute this, but it cannot always explain away the many experiences people have when they have lost a loved one, some of which people may find frightening. My own great-grandmother had a favourite saying when it came to the afterlife: “You should never fear the dead – it is the living you have to watch out for.” I feel Caesar would have agreed.
But the final word on life and death in Ancient Rome should perhaps go to someone who is an actual Ancient Roman:
“As a rule, men worry more about what they can’t see than about what they can.”
Gaius Julius Caesar
Bereavement support – UK
If you need support for a bereavement, there are support groups who can help you – the following are UK-based, but you will likely find an organisation where you are based or you can contact a doctor for information on bereavement services where you are:
If you are interested in exploring more about ideas of the afterlife and reincarnation, the books by the US psychiatrist Dr Brian Weiss are an easy read and are a very balanced way of approaching the subject, but reveal some fascinating experiences.
However, if you are recently bereaved and/or suffering trauma, you should always contact a medical professional for help.