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Implications of Roman Ancestor Worship

by Frederick LeMaster

In ancient Rome, life was hard and death was constantly around the corner. Rather than live in fear of the inevitable, Romans incorporated the dead into their normal lives. An important aspect of Romanitas was the ability to show proper respect to the ancestors and to be able to take care of both the living and the dead members of one's family. If one didn't have respectable ancestors, achievement of sufficient status so as to be able to be a respectable ancestor for one's children became a top priority. (1)

One's ancestors could be a symbol of status not just in the obvious sense of lending you a famous name or a nice estate, but just by virtue of being remembered. In ancient times the dead were honored by funerary portraits, created from death masks. These were known as imagines and were an exclusive privilege of the patrician class of roman society. Plebians were denied the rights to have such portraits commissioned and this right was something that was very much desired. Possession of imagines was one way to say, "Hey my family is worth something, look how respectable our fore bearers were."

Roman funerals were large affairs in which the whole family would gather together to escort the body to its final resting place. Family members, especially the women, were expected to be distraught with grief, but if the available grievers were lacking, their numbers could be supplemented by professional mourners. Depending on the wishes of the deceased, the body would either be sealed in the tomb at the end of the procession, or the procession would culminate in a the immolation of the body upon a funeral pyre. The duty of collecting the ashes often fell to the wife, or other close female relative. (2) Grave goods were sometimes provided to the deceased but there doesn't seem to be a significant emphasis on this, especially during the republican and later periods.

Numerous public holidays served to honor Rome's dearly departed. The most elaborate was known as Parentalia, coming from the same root that eventually gives us the English word parents, and was celebrated between February 13 -21. This celebration kicked off with a general Feast of the ancestors, where families would gather around tombs of prominent relatives to have a meal in remembrance of the lost members. (3) Some upscale mausoleums included kitchens for this and other graveside culinary events. (4) Paying proper respect to the ancestors carried such importance that all temples were closed during this period. Senators also refrained from wearing their Togae Praetexta, symbolizing that family was more important than current political stature. Parentalia, culminated in a ceremony called Feralia where dues were delivered to the dead publicly. According to Ovid, popular offerings included garlands, salt, and violets. The march to the tombs on this day echoed the initial funerary procession and busts or family imagines would be displayed at this time as well.(5)

Alas, sometimes lines die out and one is left with no descendants to look after them. What's a ghost to do? Luckily the Romans had another set of days known as the Lemuria. On the 9th, 11th, and 13th of May, kinless ghosts would invade homes and special offerings were left to appease them. In addition to seeing to the needs of less fortunate ghosts, Lemuria was time in which no marriages were performed. (6)

In an interesting mesh of symbolic irony, graveside feasts were also held on the deceased's birthday. Cleverly tying death to life, family members would convene at the honoree's grave and have a meal, with an equal portion reserved for the dead family member. The dead's share was either left upon a funerary alter known as a cella memoria, or delivered directly via a tube installed in the sarcophagus. In this way the deceased was an equal participant in the meal and still connected to the living family members. (7)

Two more days in May and June were known as Rosalia, and on these days roses were offered to the dead at their gravesites. These roses reinforced the idea of a metamorphosis of the body from one state to the next and echoed prayers such as this one which Toynbee quotes as "[we] pray that this child's ashes may become violets and roses." (8)

This illustrates an unfortunate fact of life in ancient Rome, children often did not outlive their parents and consequently many parents saw their children buried before them. Children's sarcophagi offer us an interesting glimpse into Roman funeral practices as well as a link between Roman mythological subject matter and the native Latin-Etruscan funerary customs. A common motive, as seen on the sarcophagus, currently held at the Louvre (9), of an unknown young man, depicts the funeral feast in mythological context with cupids, psyches, and seasons in attendance. The allegory of cupid an psyche serves to drive home tragic nature of a short life, as well as providing childlike imagery. The seasons are described by Huskinson as noncommittal imagery, but in the context of the graveside feat one can't help but be moved by the idea of a child being so cherished that emissaries of nature itself show up to pay respects. The child himself is pictured reclining on the traditional kline couch , heroically half nude. (10)

This kline motif is also recurrent in adult funerary sculpture as well. One famous example of such a specimen is known as the Testamentum Relief. It's Trajanic, and depicts a woman and a slave mourning a young man. An older man, presumably the father, depicted in a shield portrait in the relief looks upon the man as well. (11) The imagery in this piece is rich in evidence of Roman ancestor worship. The very fact that the father is shown in portrait form, already deceased rather than as a living person speaks volumes for the regard of ceremonial portraiture. Once again the deceased is shown half nude to evoke a sense of Hellenistic heroic splendor, while the woman, identified by D'Ambra, not uncontroversially, as the mother is depicted with all the lines and flaws one would expect in a a Roman matron. (12) Both the parental figures are shown in the classic roman veristic style while the sarcophagus' owner seems rather idealized. The piece works on a few levels, as it does show the great military valor of the father, to be depicted in a shield style portrait and then stepping back one level an idealized portrait of the the deceased. And then one must consider that this relief on the side of the sarcophagus would be seen by remaining family members during the various graveside ceremonies. The symbolism is so perfectly intertwined it parallels the extent to which the practice is ingrained into the thoughts and hearts the culture that produced it.

The Roman peoples veneration of their ancestors was strong enough to survive into early Christian times. The 4th century sarcophagus of Julius Bassus is one of the great trasures of early Christian sarcophagi. It's reliefs of biblical scenes are held in high regard and a copy is still on display in the Vatican's museum. (13) And yet for all it's Christian iconography, the right relief on the lid of the sarcophagus is the classic kline scene depicting the traditional graveside feast. (14) These practices were obviously so deeply ingrained into Roman society that they were not seen as a religous observance, so much as a fact of life, thus providing no apparant conflict with the rest of the Christian themes on the sarcophagus. The owner and family wouldn't dare to leave out the graveside feast motif any more than they'd deny the owner a proper burial.

Rome's dead citizens occupied much of the attention in day to day Roman affairs, providing a natural continuity for the city's inhabitants. Death and funeral rites became just one more way to provide a lasting status increase for your family and allowed upwordly mobile Romans to leave lasting memories for future generations.


  1. Eve D'Ambra "Mourning and the making of ancestors in the Testamentum Relief" American Journal of Archaeology 99 (1995): 672.
  2. J.M.C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Baltimore, Maryland: Cornell University Press, 1971), 47-48
  3. Ibid., 63
  4. Ibid., 51
  5. Ibid., 63
  6. Ibid., 64
  7. Ibid., 51
  8. Ibid., 63
  9. This piece is only identified by the rather cryptic reference number of LouvreCat no. 4, but it can be viewed in Huskinson as Figure IV detail 1.
  10. Janet Huskinson, Roman Children's Sarcophagi, Their Decoration and its Social Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 12
  11. D'Ambra, 667 A photo of the Testamentum relief is available in this article as figure 1.
  12. Ibid., 670
  13. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, The Iconography of the Sarcphagus of JUNIUS BASSUS (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990), 1-5
  14. Malbon, 107-109

Works Cited