In old Republican Rome you didn’t want to miss the funeral of a great man. It was a real show.
His body was carried in a procession to the Forum, the main square of the city, and laid on the central platform, called the Rostra—laid there or even stood up in his coffin for all to see.
His son or some other close relative delivered a moving funeral address, recalling the best he had done in his life. “Friends, Romans, and countrymen….” Of course now we think of Mark Anthony’s funeral oration in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Caesar himself delivered a memorable address at his aunt’s funeral.
Colossal female statue, restored as the muse Melpomene by the addition of a modern mask. Marble, Roman artwork, ca. 50 BC. Might have been part of the Theatre of Pompey in Rome (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license photo by Sting)
A great relative was venerated, like a saint. The families made a mask of him or her, an exact likeness, and kept it at home in a wooden shrine. When public sacrifices were offered, they took out the masks and decorated them for display. And when a new member of the family died, relatives who looked something like the deceased man put on those masks and dressed up as that dead relative. They put on his clothes—those that corresponded with his rank: if he was a consul or a praetor it was a white robe with purple piping; if he had been a censor, a completely purple robe; and if he had celebrated a triumph or performed some similar exploit, the robe was embroidered with gold.
Thus masked and with their robes waving, they mounted chariots and solemnly rode to the Forum. In front of them walked men with fasces and axes and other insignia, according to the dignity of the public offices the men had held. When the procession reached the Forum, these doubles of the deceased relatives took their seats on chairs of ivory. “Who could be unmoved at the sight of the images of all these men who had won fame in their time, now gathered together as if alive and breathing? What spectacle could be more glorious than this?” That is what the Greek historian Polybius wrote about the Roman funerals he had witnessed around 135 BC.
A Roman with the busts of his ancestors (see this article)
The funeral address was about the virtues and the achievements of the dead man lying on the Rostra but it also included an account of the deeds of all the great relatives who were represented there. Each masked man would step forward when it was his turn to be singled out. “This is Gnaeus or Publius or Julius,” the speaker would say. “Let me tell you how he served the nation.” Or: “Like this he gained immortal fame.”
Polybius, who was in love with Roman ways, was always looking for the clue to their greatness. In these funerals he saw the correct education of Roman youth. “They are a wonderful way of inspiring young men to endure the extremes of suffering for the common good in the hope of winning the glory that awaits upon the brave. Every one of their boys dreams of becoming a hero. In their daydreams they are Curtius or Horatius at the bridge.”
Who was Horatius?
Horatius, from a woodcut by J. R . Weguelin, 1879, used as an illustration in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (public domain photo)
Horatius at the bridge was only a legend—it wasn’t history. It was the kind of story children were told at bedtime. Horatius was a Roman way back in its early days. He was trying to keep the enemy out of his city, fighting two of them at once on the bridge that leads to the western entrance to Rome. He was doing fine, standing his ground, dodging spears, catching arrows with his shield. Then he happened to see more of the enemy coming and realized that by himself he would never be able to stop them all from crossing the bridge and entering the city. So he shouted back to his comrades to start destroying the bridge as fast as they could. They did what he said. They smashed the big timbers and set fire to the bridge. All the while—and it was a long while—Horatius held back the enemy at the other end of the bridge, snarling and lashing out like a wounded boar. He knew he would not survive this combat. But he also knew that what he was doing would win him lasting glory, which was better than life. When he was sure the bridge was about to fall, he jumped into the river, armor and all; and went down to the bottom. The bridge fell almost at the same time. The enemy suddenly had the wide Tiber between them and Rome. Horatius had saved the city.
My source is The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius (Penguin Classics), translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert