Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome

By Donald G. Kyle | Go to book overview

responsible. Further confirmation of the use of water to dispose of-and sometimes also to kill-victims comes from the writings and experiences of Christians.


NOTES
1
On the Tiber and the hydrography of Rome, see Joël Le Gall, Le Tibre, fleuve de Rome dans l'antiquité (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1952; Le Gall (1953); L.A. Holland, Janus and the Bridge (Rome: American Academy in Rome, 1961); Caesare D'Onofrio, Il Tevere (Rome: Romana Società Editrice, 1980); Margaret Angela Brucia, 'The Tiber Island in Ancient and Medieval Rome', Ph.D. diss., Fordham U., 1990. As Barber (1988) shows, the disposal of the 'dangerous dead' (55) by throwing them into rivers and bodies of water (sometimes after burning, staking, etc.) was common in Russia and Slavic areas (30, 36, 44, 74); in folklore disembodied spirits cannot cross water, which has apotropaic powers (150, 181).
2
See Le Gall (1953) 57-82 on sacred water and its powers, esp. 74-7 on sanitary, ritual, and moral purification; and Holland (1961) 308 on the magic of living water. Cf. Parker (1983) 226-7; and Frazer (1957) 621-2, 711, on water as a common agent of purification. Hammurabi's Code prescribed testing those accused of sorcery by throwing them into a river: survival proved innocence, drowning proved guilt; see James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton: Princeton U., 1958) 139, section 2.
3
After a normal Roman funeral the family returned home to perform a rite of purification via fire and water; see Toynbee (1971) 50. On the Roman belief in the Tiber's curative or purifying qualities (e.g. Hor. Sat. 2.3.290-2; Pers. 2.15-16; Juv. 6.522-6), see Brucia (1990) 25-7. On Tiberinus, the personification of the river, as a healer god, see Le Gall (1953) 68-74, 102.
4
Tales of unwanted babies cast out of communities onto hillsides for beasts or in baskets into rivers reveal an ancient custom of rejecting such beings but not directly killing them. Offspring of a Vestal, for example, were an abomination needing ritualized ablution. When Romulus and Remus were born to the ravished Vestal, her story about Mars as the father was discounted and Amulius ordered the children to be cast into the flowing river (in profluentem aquam: Livy 1.4.3). Livy, 36.37.2, says that in 191 BC when two domesticated cattle climbed up the stairway to the roof of a house, the haruspices ordered that they be burned alive and their ashes thrown into the Tiber.
5
Barber (1988), 170-1, explains that disposal by water, especially running water, affords quick removal with a minimum of handling. The most famous example is the placing of corpses in the Ganges River in India, providing both disposal and purification; see Barber, 77. Bodies do become buoyant with decomposition after a few days (Barber, 141-3, 147-51), hence the benefit of a powerful river headed to the sea.
6
Brucia (1990), 24-5, explains that the Tiber and the Tiber Island were not within Rome's walls until Aurelian's third-century AD walls, although Augustus did include them in his organization of Region Fourteen.
7
As Van Hooff (1990), 73, 75-6, 115, 151, demonstrates, committing suicide by jumping into water was presented as a desperate act of accepting a disgraceful end. E.g. Juvenal, 6.28-32, mocks a man for not avoiding his marriage by committing suicide by hanging himself, jumping from a window, or jumping from the Aemilian Bridge. To discredit Nero, Suetonius, Ner. 47.3, says that the emperor even considered jumping into the Tiber as one way of killing

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