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Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome

By Donald G. Kyle | Go to book overview

4

DEATH, DISPOSAL, AND DAMNATION OF HUMANS: SOME METHODS AND MESSAGES

The Shades are no fable: death is not the end of all, and the pale ghost escapes the vanquished pyre.

(Propertius 4.7.1-2, Loeb)


Roman death: rites and rights, hierarchy and the hereafter

That we are all equal in death, that death is the great leveller, was a popular idea with Sceptics and Epicureans; but in Rome individuals were not truly equal in death-in how they died (or were killed), how their remains were treated, how (or if) they were remembered in this world, or how their souls fared in the afterlife. Ancient cemeteries show that the kingdom of the dead was not an egalitarian realm. The archaeology of death is necessarily predisposed to the more substantial monuments of the elite, and obsequies invited conspicuous consumption and displays of status. 1 A Roman cemetery might contain monumental mausoleums, cenotaphia (garden tombs), or tombs of officials decorated with scenes of games they had given, 2 humbler burials in columbaria (sepulchers with niches for urns) and catacombs, and unmarked mass burials of the dregs of the city. 3 Just as burial rites and monuments reflected the privileges, pretension, and piety of Romans who died normal deaths, 4 the victims of spectacles at Rome were not equal in life, in death in the arena, or after death beyond the arena.

Ancient death must be approached as 'a protracted social process', not a simple event. 5 As Polybius (6.53-4) recounts, the deaths of prominent Romans called for an elaborate funeral with a procession, death masks (imagines) and a funeral oration to link the dead and the living, the past and the present, and to show the status and continuity of the family. We hear far less of the deaths and burial of the loved ones of common people, but they too deserved rites (e.g. the last kiss, closing of the eyes) and needed disposal. 6 For family members, especially heads of households, attention to family tombs and funerary rites was a sacred duty, for denial of burial,

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