Roman funerary practices  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ancient Roman funerary practices were part of the mos maiorum, "tradition," that is, "the way of the ancestors," and drew on the beliefs embodied in Roman public and domestic religion.

Socially, funerals were a central and highly visible means of preserving the heritage of a family and gens. The achievements of ancestors were celebrated alongside those of the deceased. The funeral procession was public and elaborate, led by professional mourners, including actors who wore the portrait masks (imagines) of the dead person's notable ancestors. The corpse was carried behind the mourners. A eulogy (laudatio funebris), instrumental music, and songs of mourning (neniae) were also part of the ceremonies. After the funeral, the body was traditionally cremated, though in some periods inhumation was practiced, and the ashes were placed in a container and entombed.

Roman cemeteries were located outside the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city. They were visited regularly with offerings of food and wine, and special observances during religious festivals in honor of the dead. Funeral monuments appear throughout the Roman Empire, and their inscriptions are an important source of information for individuals otherwise unknown and for Roman history. A Roman sarcophagus could be an elaborately crafted art work, decorated with relief sculpture depicting a scene that was allegorical, mythological, or historical, or a scene from everyday life.

Although funerals were primarily a concern of the family, which was of paramount importance in Roman society, those who lacked the support of an extended family usually belonged to guilds or collegia which provided funeral services for members.


For the biological term, see Imago, for the work of literature Eikones

A noble family was entitled to display images of ancestors (imagines, singular imago) in the atrium of the family home (domus); it was claimed, based on a single passage by Cicero, that this right was by a ius imagine ("Law of Images") legally restricted to the nobiles, but this is now thought unlikely by modern scholars. The images were arranged in a stemma, with a label (titulus) summarizing the individual's offices held (honores) and accomplishments (res gestae). Although these were probably portrait busts, there is some uncertainty about the relation of these imagines and funeral masks; some scholars hold that the masks were on display also, and not just brought out for funerals. Unless they were in the form of stone or bronze busts, which they were probably not, none of these images are known to have survived, but they are thought to have been important in the development of the "realistic" tradition of Roman portraiture. Funeral masks were most likely made of wax, and possibly molded as death masks directly from the deceased. They were worn in the funeral procession either by actors who were professional mourners, or by the most appropriate members of the family (accounts, and perhaps practices, differ).

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