Roman Funerals Were Like Plays

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.

a GNFD photo of the Roman rostra by Filippo

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





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10 Responses to Roman Funerals Were Like Plays

  1. Pingback: Grisly Roman Army Discipline | Great Names in History

  2. christopher says:

    Thank you sir, I’ll be adding it to my amazon list (my LONG amazon list lol)

  3. 100swallows says:

    Christopher: Thanks a lot! Most of this information is from Polybius. Get yourself his history, called in my translation The Rise of the Roman Republic Penguin Books), 1979. There is no book so readable or authoritative on the subject. He was a Greek but he got to know many of the important Romans and even followed around Scipio and witnessed the destruction of Carthage and Numantia. What he says, as we say in Spanish, “va a misa.”

  4. christopher says:

    One of your most interesting posts yet, swallows, and the comments that follow as well. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: Grisly Roman Army Discipline « Great Names in History

  6. Pingback: Grisly Roman Army Discipline « Great Names in History

  7. 100swallows says:

    Right, Man of Roma–the city. Remember that the virtues those Romans extolled were civic virtues and the deceased was praised for the way he had served the state. Maybe nowadays the great families can brag about their companies and the jobs they create. I suppose an American would think of those Memorial Day speeches at the cemeteries, where the soldiers are praised for serving their country–but individually. Now in church the priest speaks of Christian virtues (how good the fellow was), while then the speakers told you how brave and self-sacrificing he was.
    That’s interesting about the funerals in southern Italy. Spaniards have this family thing too, though whether as much or less, I can’t know.

  8. Man of Roma says:

    I think it is right to point out – as you did – that the Roman republican funeral was not only about the dead and his/her virtues but it also included “an account of the deeds of all the great relatives”.
    In fact a Roman funeral (especially in Republican times, but not exclusively) was a celebration (a play, in fact) of the entire clan, its deeds, its fame and virtues.

    For example, the role of the memorial oration you talk about and which could not be avoided at the funeral of any person of rank, did not only mention the virtues of the dead but also provided a full report of the great deeds of all his/her ancestors.

    In contemporary Southern Italy (where old traditions are harder to die) we do not have masks anymore – we might have some remnants of that, it’d be interesting to check – but the spirit is not totally different. A funeral there occurs in the greatest pomp and, if possible, big money is spent (in banquets and clothes, for example) being in fact a celebration of the entire family’s wealth, power etc., and the family being sometimes still a clan.

    “Look at us – these celebrations seem to say – We are rich, powerful and noble: be the city reminded of that”. An attitude – now and at the times of the Romans – less interested in the next world (the mystery of death, God or Gods etc.), and more interested in *this* world. It is the relationship with the city, more important than the relationship with God(s), that gives to these modern funerals a flavour of paganism.

    All the best

    Man of Roma

  9. 100swallows says:

    That’s a good question, erika. My account is taken from Polybius, who doesn’t mention any religious ceremony. Remember that for the Romans religion was in the hands of the priests, who were like lawyers or astrologers. You consulted them, they told you which sacrifices to perform, which prescribed prayers and other duties, or they checked the omens and gave you their report. They were the gods-specialists. Their work was finished when you had gone down to the Underworld.
    Roman religion was more like plain superstition than religion in our sense. You did things to appease the gods, to protect yourself from them, to win them over. You didn’t have a personal relationship with them (well, I’m not sure about the household gods—I guess that was just another superstition). Private prayer as you see in St. Augustine apparently didn’t exist. A tombstone was like an official document. It was addressed to the Dis Manibus Sacris (the gods in charge of the dead) and, after giving the name and age of the deceased, and the name of the person who had set up the stone, just said that pitiful formula: May the earth lie lightly upon you.
    Of course Polybius saw religion as a tool for those in government—a way of promoting pietas. Later on, Augustus, with the same philosophy, introduced emperor worship and built or repaired eighty-eight temples in Rome. His idea was to get people respectful (god-fearing) and patriotic, as in the good old days of the Republic. I would suppose that he prescribed religious duties for such important occasions as funerals. But that was more than a hundred years after Polybius.

  10. erikatakacs says:

    I don’t think I ever read anything about a Roman funeral before. Very interesting story. I don’t see any mention of the gods, did they not have any part in it?

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