Death in Ancient Rome by Catharine Edwards

Book Review by Thomas A. Timmes

Death in Ancient Rome is not a casual weekend beach read! This is a scholarly book written for academics and serious students of Roman history. I doubt it would hold much appeal to the general public. I found the 18 page Introduction with its multiple compound sentences, qualifying statements, parenthetical phrases, and sheer wordiness to be profoundly challenging. By comparison, the remaining 201 pages were enjoyable, informative, and easy to read.

Catharine Edwards is certainly qualified to undertake the daunting task of sifting through the writings of ancient authors to discover Roman attitudes towards death and dying. As a professor of classics and ancient history at Birkbeck College, University of London, she specializes in Roman cultural history and Latin prose literature. She served as the presenter of a three-part BBC series on ancient Rome, and published six scholarly books between 1993 and 2007, including her translation of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars. One of her 2014 lectures to the “Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies” is available on YouTube.

Death in Ancient Rome is a masterpiece of scholarship. Within the text, the author cites 86 different historians, poets, and scholars beginning in the 9th Century BC with Homer. Dr. Edwards continues with numerous observations from classical Greek and Roman authors including Socrates, Plato, Xenophon and Zeno, Seneca, Tacitus, Cato the Younger, Cicero, Livy, Lucan, and then concludes with 13 contemporary scholars. The bibliography is 14 pages in length and documents the book’s 891 footnotes (organized by chapter at the back of the book).

The author’s stated purpose is to explore the thesis that for the Romans, dying was an act of communicating with the living. Dying, she explains, was viewed by the Roman elite as a “privileged reveal the true character of the dying subject...the true patriot, the genuine philosopher, the great artist—and certainly the faithful Christian.” Dr. Edwards believes this attitude toward death is rooted in other aspects of Roman culture such as personal identity, political change, social status, and perhaps, above all, the influence of Stoicism, and, later, Christianity.

“Death in the Roman world was largely understood and often viewed as a spectacle. Those deaths that figured in recorded history were almost invariably violent—murders, executions, suicides—and yet the most admired figures met their ends with exemplary calm, their last words set down for posterity.”

Dr. Edwards states that Cato the Younger’s suicide in 43 BC was an iconic event for Roman society and set the standard for a proper Romana mors, or Roman death. Carried out for political purposes, for personal honor, and in accordance with Stoic philosophy, it was accomplished with a sword in a painful and bloody manner. Cato’s death became a point of comparison for subsequent Roman deaths, and must be understood in the context of the leading philosophy of the era—Stoicism. To understand Stoicism, as perceived by the Romans, the reader must look to other sources, as it receives only a cursory description in the text.

Edwards’ book is divided into eight chapters which examine the act of dying under different circumstances: “Dying for Rome? The glorious death of a commander;” “Death as spectacle: Looking at death in the arena;” “Fighting the fear of death;” “Defiance, complicity and the politics of self-destruction;” “Dying in character: Stoicism and the Roman death scenes;” “Tasting death;” “A feminine ending?” and “Laughing at death? Christian martyrdom.” Each chapter fosters the Roman concepts that death may be used to convey a specific meaning or message. Namely, it should be a spectacle viewed by witnesses, promoting a sense of honor for the dying, and helping to dispel the fear of death in accordance with Stoic philosophy.

In the introduction, Dr. Edwards briefly examines Roman (Stoic) attitudes about life after death. She makes many interesting observations, but notes, “Roman attitudes to the question of whether humans may expect any kind of post-mortem survival and what any such afterlife might be like are notoriously difficult to determine.” It appears that there was widespread belief that the souls of the dead did continued to exist in an afterlife, although where and in what manner remains elusive. The cost (at the time of writing the review) of the book is reasonable: $43 (USD) for new, $33 for used, and $29 for paperback.

As someone who has been fascinated with Roman culture for over 50 years and written several fictional accounts of Roman warfare, I am happy to add this book to my library and recommend it to serious students of Roman history. The footnotes and bibliography provide a gold mine for further reading and research.

I also found the degree of Senatorial resistance to the Emperors’ excesses in chapter 4 to be most illuminating. A brief description of the 86 individuals cited as sources in the text, such as birth and death dates, would have been helpful to establish a timeline. Similarly, the book offers no information about the 13 contemporary sources; however, the information was readily available on the Internet.

Thomas A. Timmes is the author of Legio XVII: Battle of Zama

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