Ancient Greek and Roman Funeral Rites

Emphasized so clearly by Homer in the Iliad, funeral rites were incredibly important to the ancient Greeks, just as we have our own customs and traditions to mourn our deceased today. In ancient Rome similar elaborate rites developed, demonstrating not only the existence of an established religion with a firm belief in life after death, but also a civilized society with excess resources available to be splashed about in lavish funeral games and monuments. In the Cathedral Library, ‘Montfaucon’s Antiquity’ presents an  eighteenth century perspective of these funeral rites, making them seem alien and barbaric in comparison to familiar Christian mourning customs. Surprisingly, however, there are also many similarities to our modern-day traditions.

A selection of urns. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK

The name ‘Mausoleum’ comes from a man called Mausolus who “was buried with the greatest magnificence and mourning by his wife” by building “the most magnificent monument ever known” and calling it a ‘Mausoleum’. She also established funeral games to commemorate his life. This substantial expense of resources not only reinforces the supreme respect that the Greeks had for the dead, but also demonstrates the extreme wealth and capacity to expend resources that the elite maintained. This was neither a short term custom nor an isolated display of wealth. Throughout the Roman Empire, the tombs of the emperors were equally elaborate, and seemed to increase in ostentatiousness. “Hadrian’s Mausoleum was yet much greater and more adorn’d than that of Augustus,” suggesting that the tomb of an emperor became a reflection of how popular and successful they were, or how stable and prosperous their rule had been.

Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Montfaucon declares that “Paganism… changed this pious Duty [funeral rites] into superstitious Follies;” and it’s easy to see where he got this sentiment, with the various unfamiliar practices depicted on ancient artwork documented in his books. Rituals such as taking the rings off the dead and hanging some of the dead person’s hair at the door seem strange, but Montfaucon is particularly concerned with the custom of cremation at some points in Graeco-Roman history. This is due to a few reported instances of people being “revived upon the pile (pyre)”, including Caius Tubero who had been a Praetor. Although being burned alive sounds horrific, the idea of cremation is not as unusual to us today as it was to Montfaucon, though perhaps more shocking is that in Rome “They obliged Gladiators to fight at the Pile (Pyre)”. According to Homer this violence was not isolated to the Romans either, as Achilles declares that he will sacrifice twelve Trojan youths at Patroclus’ funeral[i]. This was not a commonplace occurrence however, and Roman gladiator fights were only reserved for the funerals of the elite. Another procedure that seems abnormal is the “Person appointed to guard the body,” necessary due to the possibility of someone stealing the clothes or even the corpse itself. Creditors would take the body hostage until the relatives had paid off their debts, a practice seemingly in sharp contrast with the respect the Greeks usually gave the dead, although perhaps it was this reason that made it an effective collecting method, as to leave your relative without sepulchre was to prevent them from moving to the underworld. Funerals seemed to be more dramatic, with “hired Mourners called Praecifae, which wept and sung verses in praise of the Dead” as well as numerous accounts of people ripping out their hair and beating their chests such as Briseis did in the Iliad after Patroclus’ death[ii]. This extreme grief perhaps illustrates a society where public displays of emotion are more acceptable and even expected.

A selection of round urns. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

On the other hand, there are many similarities between Christian and Graeco-Roman burial practices. In Greece “they closed his Eyes and shut his Mouth” and “the custom of washing and anointing the dead body was practised by the Greeks and Romans”. This general respect for the dead is prevalent in society today, and, as Paul Binski noted, the description of washing and anointing is remarkably similar to medieval Christian funeral rites[iii]. The funerals themselves retain their core role: a celebration of the deceased’s life with friends, relations, and in the case of politically important people, the public. In Sparta, they were performed in the evening and the average person was carried on a Sandapila (a litter), like an open casket coffin. Prayers were spoken too, such as “May the Earth lye light on thee.” Also, in Rome, the “Cæna feralis”, or funeral supper, seems remarkably similar to a modern-day wake. These common themes in funerals through the ages suggest that the grieving process needs several universal elements in order for people to heal. Furthermore, it emphasizes the substantial impact the Roman empire had on the Christian religion, and European culture overall.

A picture of a dead girl surrounded by her grieving family. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral

The funeral rites of the classical world can reveal a lot about their respective cultures. One funeral urn for Cn. Racilius Fructuofus has an engraving declaring that he lived for “ten years, eight months, two and twenty days and five hours;”. Although the child fatality points to the obviously inferior medicinal standards, the precision in which this child’s lifespan is recorded demonstrates both the technology and education necessary in order to calculate specific timeframes for over a decade, to the hour. This is not an anomaly: another urn commemorates an 8 year old who lived eight years, five months, twelve days and six hours, and the inscription mentions that “his wit exceeded his years”.

A square urn with a crown of laurel leaves carved on it. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

In conclusion, the funeral rites and rituals demonstrate not just the sophistication of ancient Greek and Roman society, but also the profound impact that these civilizations have had on our own cultures and customs, evident in the similarities prevalent in our funerals today.

Ruby Williams

Bibliography

Bernard de Montfaucon, Antiquity Explained and Represented in Sculptures, Volume 5, J Tonson and J Watts, London, 1721

Bernard de Montfaucon, Antiquity Explained and Represented in Sculptures, Volume 7, J Tonson and J Watts, London, 1721

Paul Binski, Medieval Death – Ritual and Representation, British Museum Press, London, 1996

Homer translated by George Chapman, The Iliad, Wordsworth Classics, Hertfordshire, 2000


[i] Homer translated by Chapman, The Iliad, Hertfordshire, 2000, P.306

[ii] Homer translated by Chapman, The Iliad, Hertfordshire, 2000, P.321

[iii] Binski, Medieval Death – Ritual and Representation, London, 1996, P.29

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