Spirits of the Dead: Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe

Spirits of the Dead: Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe

Spirits of the Dead: Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe

Spirits of the Dead: Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe


Spirits of the Dead examines the importance attached to preserving the memory of the dead in the Roman world, and explores the ways in which funerary inscriptions can be used to reconstruct Roman lives, however fragmentarily and imperfectly. It is the only study to examine epigraphic, historical, and archaeological evidence in order to gain insight into the way Romans used funerary texts to establish a dialogue with their own society. Maureen Carroll brings together a large body of material from many geographical areas, shedding light on provincial and regional variation in funerary commemoration and even on the differences between funerary traditions of neighbouring towns.


Gaius Hostius Pamphilus, freedman of Gaius, a doctor, had this monument
built for himself and Nelpia Hymnis, freedwoman of Marcus, and for their
freedmen and freedwomen and their descendants. Here is our eternal home,
here is our estate, here are our gardens, here is our memorial. Width thirteen
feet, depth twenty-four feet

(Funerary epitaph of the first century BC from Rome: CIL I . 1319 = CIL
VI 9583/ILS 8341)

Tombs in all their above-ground forms, from simple stone slab to multistoreyed mausoleum, were among the most visible and public monuments of Roman settlements across the empire. Because ancient Roman law prescribed that the dead should be buried outside the settlements, approaching a Roman town by any of the main overland routes converging on it necessitated passing through a community of the dead, their memory being called forth by the tombs inscribed with all manner of personal information (Fig. 1). The roadside and suburban location of burial grounds on community land ensured good visibility of the funerary monuments, and it contributed to the constant link between the past and the present. This is an important point because these memorials would have been seen and visited by many, and it was the visitors to the tombs—either family and friends or complete strangers—who kept the memory of the dead alive. The roads lined with tombs ‘inscribed for all to see’ are the busy spots that the poet Propertius in the late first century BC referred to as places ‘where the crowds travel along an unsleeping thoroughfare’. Tombs and cemeteries also were often located in close proximity to suburban houses and shops, and they sometimes encroached on each other. This too helped to break down the boundaries between the dead and the living and to foster the intimate connection between the spaces inhabited by both. Even in the countryside the cemeteries associated with villas and farms were located in close proximity to the buildings of the estate where people lived and worked, and large and ostentatious monuments were often erected along the country roads and overland routes that were travelled by many.

Propertius, Elegies 3. 16. 25–6.

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