Death in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook by Valerie Hope

Book Review by Medusa

The author Valerie M. Hope lectures in the Department of Classical Studies at the Open University and focuses her research on Roman funerary customs and funerary monuments. She already has published several books on this topic. The present volume is part of the "Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World" series which are compilations of Ancient sources on certain topics. Concerning Death in Ancient Rome the sources include literature such as poetry, letters and philosophical works as well as epitaphs and inscriptions and of course funerary monuments and cemeteries.

The first chapter is dedicated to the different ways of dying in Ancient Rome beginning with infant mortality which was pretty high in Ancient Rome. We learn about the ages of the perished children through biographies and letters (when concerning the offspring of important persons), but also from epitaphs set up not only by the upper class but also by slaves. Remarkable is that the exact age up to the single day of the deceased child is recorded. The way Romans could die through disease or disaster as well as through murder, battle casualties and sieges were mentioned not in epitaphs only but also reported by various historians. A typical Roman topic was “death as entertainment” including gladiator fights which were sometimes to the death and are represented in this volume by a few epitaphs of gladiator graves as well as executions of criminals. Suicide was also a way of dying in Ancient Rome but this is mentioned only in literature such as poetry, philosophical letters, histories and satirical novels. Love and death is also a poetic topic whereas the good or bad deaths of Emperors or politicians were discussed by historians and biographers.

The second chapter covers mortality and memory. The traditional Roman view was that a person’s lifespan was preordained either by the three Fates or was written in the stars. Poetry e.g. by Martial and Horace as well as some epitaphs give the best insight to this attitude. Things which seem very common to us like making a will and inheritance hunters also existed already in Ancient Rome as the literal sources tell. But at least for the wealthy Romans it was important how they were to be memorized so they instructed in their will what their monument or tomb should look like. A famous example is the tomb of Gaius Cestius Epulo in Rome which has the shape of a pyramid. It was very bad if your memory was to be destroyed, the damnatio memoriae either by a senatorial decree or by a successor Emperor.

The third chapter deals with funerals in all their aspects, from planning, the costs for it, preparing of the body, the funeral procession, laments and speeches, if the deceased were to be cremated or inhumed, what happened at the pyre and after the funeral. But it covers also the profession of the undertaker which was considered as infamis (or at least a lesser occupation with reduced civil rights) in Ancient Rome but was nonetheless necessary.

The fourth chapter is about the cemetery and the various forms of monuments which you could find there. Romans buried their dead outside the city walls. Some tombs of emperors such as Augustus and Hadrian where not at an ordinary cemetery but stood by themselves while the urn of Trajan was buried in the bottom of his column within the city walls which was exceptional. Since Roman cemeteries were on the main roads leading into the town it was good to have a place closest to the road so that travellers could see your monument, which only the rich could afford. There would also have been cemeteries especially for the military.

The fifth chapter deals with grief. The Romans have written philosophical discourses as well as poetry how especially the upper classes should deal with grief in public if a husband, father or son had died. Cicero is an especially good source because he received and also wrote many consolation letters.

Last but not least the Roman thought about an afterlife, what would happen with the dead and their souls after they had been buried. Also what the afterlife in Hades or Elysium looked like. But among the Romans were also some who did not believe in this especially philosophers such as Cicero, Seneca or Epictetus. Important for the afterlife were ceremonies held by the living on special days either in the house or at the grave. Even the Romans had their ghost stories and there were haunted places, of course not only the cemeteries but also haunted houses existed. In the appendix you will find a list with short biographies of the authors of the sources used as well as a bibliography and an index.

All of the sources in the various chapters are only examples for the different topics dealing with death in Roman society. There are of course many more sources available but too many to include in a single volume. The sources used vary from epitaphs which sometimes tell a lot about the deceased person, as well as poetry, satires, philosophical discourses, letters from and to friends, legal texts. Photos of monuments make the different forms of tombs and monuments clear. When dealing with the loss of the beloved the Romans sometimes act similar to us but on the other hand some of their moral values seems very strange to us today. Death always being part of life this book gives a very good insight into how the Romans dealt with it. The extensive booklist provides a very good guide for further research.

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