1. The Family
  2. Roman Names
  3. Marriage and Women
  4. Children and Education
  5. Slaves and Dependents
  6. The House and Furniture
  7. Dress and Ornaments
  8. Food and Meals
  9. Amusements
  10. Travel and Correspondence
  11. Sources of Income
  12. Farming and Country Life
  13. Town Life
  14. Funeral Customs
  15. The Roman Religion
  16. The Water Supply of Rome

The Private Life of the Romans
by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston
Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932)


Table of contents



REFERENCES: Marquardt, 340-385; Becker-Göll, III, 481-547; Friedländer, II, 210-218; Pauly-Wissowa, under columbārium; Smith, Harper’s, Rich, Walters, Daremberg-Saglio, under columbārium, fūnus, sepulcrum; Baumeister, 308-311, 1520-1522; Mau-Kelsey, 405-428; Gusman, 44-54; Egbert, 230-242; Lanciani, Ancient Rome, 64-67, 129-133; McDaniel, 186-197; Showerman, 418-433.

Importance of Burial (§464)

Interment and Cremation (§465)

Places of Burial (§466)

The Tombs (§467)

The Potter’s Field (§468-469)

Plan of Tombs and Grounds (§470-417)

Exterior of the Tombs (§472)

The Columbāria (§473-474)

The Burial Societies (§475-476)

Funeral Ceremonies (§477)

At the House (§478)

The Funeral Procession (§479)

The Funeral Oration (§480)

At the Tomb (§481)

Subsequent Ceremonies (§482)

Memorial Festivals (§483)

   464. Importance of Burial. The Romans’ view of the future life explains the importance they attached to the ceremonial burial of the dead. The soul, they thought, could find rest only when the body had been duly laid in the grave; until this was done it haunted the home, unhappy itself and bringing unhappiness to others. To perform funeral offices was a solemn religious duty, devolving upon the surviving members of the family (§ 34); the Latin expression for such rites, iūsta facere, shows that these marks of respect were looked upon as the right of the dead. In the case of a body lost at sea, or for any other reason unrecovered, the ceremonies were just as piously performed; an empty tomb (cenotaphium) was erected sometimes in honor of the dead. Such rites the Roman was bound to perform carefully, if he came anywhere upon the unburied corpse of a citizen, because all men were members of the greater family of the Commonwealth. In this case the scattering of three handfuls of dust over the body was sufficient for ceremonial burial and the happiness of the troubled spirit, if for any reason the body could not actually be interred.

   465. Interment and Cremation. Burial was the way of disposing of the dead practiced most anciently by the Romans, and, even after cremation came into very general use, it was ceremonially necessary that some small part of the remains, usually the bone of a finger, should be buried in the earth. Burning was practiced before the time of the Twelve Tables (traditional date, 451 B.C.), for it is mentioned in them together with burial, but we do not know how long before. Hygienic reasons had probably something to do with its general adoption; this implies, of course, cities of considerable size. By the time of Augustus it was all but universal, but even in Rome the practice of burial was never entirely discontinued, for cremation was too costly for the very poorest classes, and some of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families held fast to the more ancient custom. The Cornelii, for example, always buried their dead until the great dictator, Cornelius Sulla, required his body to be burned for fear that his bones might be disinterred and dishonored by his enemies, as he had dishonored those of Marius. Children less than forty days old were always buried, and so, too, as a rule, were slaves whose funeral expenses were paid by their masters. After the introduction of Christianity burial came again to be the prevailing use, partly because of the increased expense of burning.

   466. Places of Burial. The Twelve Tables forbade the burial or even the burning of the dead within the walls of the city. For the very poor, places of burial were provided in localities outside the walls, corresponding in some degree to the potter’s field of modern cities. The well-to-do made their burial places as conspicuous as their means would permit, with the hope that the inscriptions upon the monuments would keep alive the names and virtues of the dead, and with the idea, perhaps, that the dead still had some part in the busy life around them. To this end they lined the great roads on either side for miles out of the cities with rows of tombs of the most elaborate and costly architecture. In the vicinity of Rome the Appian Way, as the oldest road (§ 385), showed the monuments of the noblest and most ancient families, but none of the roads lacked such memorials. Many of these tombs were standing in the sixteenth century; few still remain. The custom was followed in the smaller towns, and an idea of the importance of the monuments may be had from the so-called “Street of Tombs” outside of Pompeii (Figs. 302, 313). There were other burial places near the cities, of course, less conspicuous and less expensive, and on the farms and country estates like provision was made for persons of humbler station.

FIG. 302

   467. The Tombs. The tombs, whether intended to receive the bodies or merely the ashes, or both, differed widely in size and construction according to the different purposes for which they were erected. Some were for individuals only, but these in most cases were strictly public memorials as distinguished from actual tombs intended to receive the remains of the dead. The larger number of those that lined the roads were family tombs, ample in size for whole generations of descendants and retainers of the family, including hospitēs (§§ 183-185), who had died away from their own homes, and freedmen (§ 175). Others were erected on a large scale by speculators who sold at low prices space for a few urns to persons not rich enough to erect tombs of their own and without any claim on a family or clan burying place (§ 19). In imitation of these structures others were erected on the same plan by burial societies formed by persons of the artisan class and others still by benevolent men, as baths (§ 373) and libraries (§ 402) were erected and maintained for the public good. Something will be said of the tombs of all these kinds after the public burying places have been described.

   468. The Potter’s Field. During the Republic the Esquiline Hill, or at least the eastern part of it, was the place to which was carted all the refuse of the city that the sewers would not carry away. Here, too, were the grave-pits (puticulī) for the pauper class. They were merely holes in the ground, about twelve feet square, without lining of any kind. Into them were thrown the bodies of the friendless poor, and along with them and over them the carcasses of dead animals and the filth and scrapings of the streets. The pits were kept open, uncovered apparently even when filled, and the stench and the disease-breeding pollution made the hill absolutely uninhabitable. Under Augustus the danger to the health of the whole city became so great that the dumping grounds were moved to a greater distance, and the Esquiline, covered over, pits and all, with pure soil to the depth of twenty-five feet, was made a park, known as the Hortī Maecenātis.

   469. It is not to be understood, however, that the bodies of Roman citizens were ordinarily disposed of in this revolting way. Faithful freedmen were cared for by their patrons, the industrious poor made provision for themselves in cooperative societies, mentioned elsewhere (§§ 420, 467, 475), and the proletariat class (§ 417) was in general saved from such a fate by clansmen (§ 22), by patrons (§ 179), or by the benevolence of individuals. Only in times of plague and pestilence, it is safe to say, were the bodies of known citizens cast into these pits, as under like circumstances bodies have been burned in heaps in modern cities. The uncounted thousands that peopled the potter’s field of Rome were the riffraff from foreign lands, abandoned slaves (§ 156), the victims that perished in the arena (§ 362), outcasts of the criminal class, and the “unidentified” that are buried nowadays at public expense. Criminals put to death by authority were not buried at all; their carcasses were left to birds and beasts of prey at the place of execution near the Esquiline Gate.

   470. Plan of Tombs and Grounds. The utmost diversity prevails in the outward form and construction of the tombs, but those of the classical period seem to have been planned with the thought that the tomb was to be a home for the dead and that they were not altogether cut off from the living. FIG. 303: INTERIOR OF A TOMB AT POMPEIIThe tomb, therefore, whether built for one person or for many, was ordinarily a building inclosing a room (sepulcrum); this room was the most important part of the tomb. Attention has been called (§ 189) to the fact that even the urns had in ancient times the shape of the house of one room. The floor of the sepulcrum was quite commonly below the level of the sur rounding grounds and was reached by a short flight of steps. Around the base of the walls ran a slightly elevated platform (podium: cf. §§ 337, 357) on which were placed the coffins of those who were buried, while the urns were placed either on the platform or in the niches in the wall. An altar or shrine is often found, at which offerings were made to the mānēs of the departed. Lamps are very common and so are other simple articles of furniture, and the walls, floors, and ceilings are decorated in the same style as those of houses (§ 220). Things that the living had liked to have around them, especially things that they used in their ordinary occupations, were placed in the tomb with the dead at the time of burial, or burned with them on the funeral pyre; an effort was made to give an air of life to the chamber of rest. The interior of a tomb at Pompeii is shown in Figure 303.

   471. The monument itself was always built upon a plot of ground as spacious as the means of the builders would permit; sometimes it was several acres in extent. FIG. 304: PLAN OF GROUNDS AROUND A TOMBIn it provision was made for the comfort of surviving members of the family, who were bound to visit the resting place of their dead on certain regularly recurring festivals (§ 483). If the grounds were small, there would be at least a seat, perhaps a bench. On more extensive grounds there were places of shelter, arbors, or summer houses. Dining-rooms, too, in which were celebrated the anniversary feasts, and private ustrīnae (places for the burning of bodies) are frequently mentioned. Often the grounds were laid out as gardens or parks, with trees and flowers, wells, cisterns or fountains, and even a house, and other buildings perhaps, for the accommodation of the slaves or freedmen who were in charge. A plan of such a garden is shown in Figure 304. In the middle of the garden is placed the ārea, that is, the plot of ground set aside for the tomb, with several buildings upon it, one of which is a storehouse or granary (horreum); around the tomb itself are beds of roses and violets, used in festivals (§ 483); around them in turn are grapes trained on trellises (vīneolae). In front is a terrace (sōlārium: cf. § 207), and in the rear two pools (piscīnae) connected with the ārea by a little canal, while at the back is a thicket of shrubbery (harundinētum). The purpose of the granary is not clear, as no grain seems to have been raised on the lot, but it may have been left where it stood before the ground was consecrated. A tomb surrounded by grounds of some extent was called a cēpotaphium.

FIG. 305

   472. Exterior of the Tombs. An idea of the exterior appearance of monuments of the better sort may be had from Figures 302, 305, 312, 313. The forms are many. Monuments shaped like altars and temples are most common, perhaps, but memorial arches and niches are often found. At Pompeii the semicircular bench that was used for conversation out of doors occurs several times, covered and uncovered. Not all the tombs have the sepulchral chamber; the remains were sometimes deposited in the earth beneath the monument. In such cases a tube or pipe of lead ran from the receptacle to the surface, through which offerings of wine and milk could be poured (§§ 474, 483).

   In the northern part of the Campus Mārtius, Augustus built a mausoleum for himself and family in 28 B.C. This was a great circular structure of concrete with marble or stucco facing. Above was a mound of earth planted with trees and flowers, on the summit of which stood a statue of Augustus. On each side of the entrance were the famous bronze tablets inscribed with the Res Gestae, the record of his work. The ashes of the young Marcellus were the first placed here, in 28 B.C., and those of the Emperor Nerva the last, in 98 A.D. The mausoleum was plundered by Alaric in 419 A.D. In medieval times it became a fortress of the Colonna. About 1550 the Soderini made it into hanging gardens. It has been a bull ring and a circus, and is now a concert hall. The most imposing of all the tombs was the Mausoleum of Hadrian (Fig. 312) at Rome, now the Castle of St. Angelo.

FIG. 306

   473. The Columbāria. From the family tombs were developed the immense structures mentioned in § 467, structures which were intended to receive great numbers of urns. They began to be erected in the time of Augustus, when the high price of land made the purchase of private burial grounds impossible for the poorer classes. An idea of their interior arrangement may be had from the ruins (Fig. 306) of one erected on the Appian Way and of one at Ostia (Fig. 310). From their resemblance to a dovecote or pigeon house they were called columbāria. They are usually partly underground, rectangular in form, with great numbers of the niches (also called columbāria) running in regular rows horizontally (gradūs) and vertically (ōrdinēs). In the larger columbāria provision was made for as many as a thousand urns. Around the walls at the base was a podium, on which were placed the sarcophagi of those whose remains had not been burned, and sometimes chambers were excavated beneath the floor for the same purpose. In the podium were also niches, that no space might be lost. If the height of the building was great enough to warrant it, wooden galleries ran around the walls. Access to the room was given by a stairway in which were niches, too; light was furnished by small windows near the ceiling, and walls and floors were handsomely finished and decorated.

FIG. 307
Now in the Vatican Museum, Rome.

   474. The niches were sometimes rectangular in form, but more commonly half round, as shown in Figures 306 and 310. Some of the columbāria have the lower rows rectangular, those above arched. They contained ordinarily two urns (ōllae, ōllae ossuāriae) each, arranged side by side, that they could be visible from the front. FIG. 308: AEDICULAOccasionally the niches were made deep enough for two sets of urns, those behind being elevated a little over those in front. Above or below each niche was fastened to the wall a piece of marble (titulus) on which was cut the name of the owner. If a person required for his family a group of four or six niches, it was customary to mark them off from the others by wall decorations to show that they made a unit; a very common way was to erect pillars at the sides so as to give the appearance of the front of a temple (Fig. 308). Such groups were called aediculae. The value of the places depended upon their position; those in the higher rows (gradūs) were less expensive than those near the floor; those under the stairway were the least desirable of all. The urns themselves were of various materials and were usually cemented to the bottom of the niches. The tops could be removed, but they, too, were sealed after the ashes had been placed in them; small openings were left through which offerings of milk and wine could be poured (§ 472). On the urns, or their tops, were painted the names of the dead, with sometimes the day and the month of death. The year is rarely found. Over the door of such a columbārium on the outside was cut an inscription giving the names of the owners, the date of erection, and other particulars.

FIG. 309

   475. The Burial Societies. Early in the Empire, associations were formed for the purpose of meeting the funeral expenses of their members, whether the remains were to be buried or cremated, or for the purpose of building columbāria, or for both. These co-operative associations (collēgia fūnerātīcia) started originally among members of the same guild (§ 420) or among persons of the same occupation. They called themselves by many names, cultōrēs of this deity or that, collēgia salūtāria, collēgia iuvenum, etc., but their objects and methods were practically the same. If the members had provided places for the disposal of their bodies after death, they now provided for the necessary funeral expenses by paying into the common fund weekly a small fixed sum, easily within the reach of the poorest of them. When a member died, a stated sum was drawn from the treasury for his funeral, a committee saw that the rites were decently performed, and at the proper seasons (§ 483) the society made corporate offerings to the dead. If the purpose of the society was the building of a columbārium, the cost was first determined and the sum total divided into what we should call shares (sortēs virīlēs), each member taking as many as he could afford and paying their value into the treasury. Sometimes a benevolent person would contribute toward the expense of the undertaking, and then such a person would be made an honorary member of the society with the title of patrōnus or patrōna. The erection of the building was intrusted to a number of cūrātōrēs, chosen by ballot, naturally the largest shareholders and most influential men. They let the contracts and superintended the construction, rendering account of all the money expended. The office of the cūrātōrēs was considered very honorable, especially as their names appeared on the inscription outside the building, and they often showed their appreciation of the honor done them by providing at their own expense for the decoration of the interior, or by furnishing all or a part of the titulī, ōllae, etc., or by erecting on the surrounding grounds places of shelter and dining-rooms for the use of the members.

FIG. 310

   476. After the completion of the building the cūrātōrēs allotted the niches to the individual members. The niches were either numbered consecutively throughout or their position was fixed by the number of the ōrdō and gradus (§473) in which they were situated. Because they were not all equally desirable, as has been explained, the cūrātōrēs divided them into sections as fairly as possible and then assigned the sections (locī) by lot to the shareholders. If a man held several shares of stock, he received a corresponding number of locī, though they might be in widely different parts of the building. The members were allowed freely to dispose of their holdings by exchange, sale, or gift, and many of the larger stockholders probably engaged in the enterprise for the sake of the profits to be made in this way. After the division was made, the owners had their names cut upon the titulī, and might put up columns to mark the aediculae (§ 474), set up statues, etc., if they pleased. Some of the titulī give, besides the name of the owner, the number and position of his locī or ōllae. Sometimes they record the purchase of ōllae, giving the number bought and the name of the previous owner. Sometimes the names on the ōllae do not correspond with that over the niche, showing that the owner had sold a part only of his holdings, or that the purchaser had not taken the trouble to replace the titulus. The expenses of maintenance were probably paid from the weekly dues of the members, as were the funeral benefits.


   477. Funeral Ceremonies. The detailed accounts of funeral ceremonies that have come down to us relate almost exclusively to those of persons of high position, and the information gleaned from other sources (§ 11) is so scattered that there is great danger of confusing usages of widely different times. It is quite certain, however, that, at all times, very young children were buried simply and quietly (fūnus acerbum), that no ceremonies at all attended the burial of slaves (§ 465) when conducted by their masters (nothing is known of the forms used by the burial societies mentioned in § 475), and that citizens of the lowest class were laid to rest without public parade (fūnus plēbēium). It is also known that burials took place by night except during the last century of the Republic and the first two centuries of the Empire, and it is natural to suppose that, even in the case of persons of high position, there was ordinarily much less of pomp and parade than on occasions that the Roman writers thought it worth while to describe. This was found true in the matter of wedding festivities (§ 79).

FIG. 311
From a relief now in the Museo Laterano, Rome.

   478. At the House. When the Roman died at home surrounded by his family, it was the duty of his oldest son to bend over the body and call him by name, as if with the hope of recalling him to life. The formal performance of this act (conclāmātiō) he announced immediately with the words conclāmātum est. The eyes of the dead were then closed, the body was washed with warm water and anointed, the limbs were straightened, and, if the deceased had held a curule office, a wax impression of his features was taken (§§ 200, 230). The body was then dressed in the toga (§ 240) with all the insignia of rank that the dead had been entitled to wear in life, and was placed upon the funeral couch (lectus fūnebris) in the ātrium (§ 198), with the feet to the door, to lie in state until the time of the funeral. The couch was surrounded with flowers, and incense was burned about it. Before the door of the house were set branches of pine or cypress as a warning that the house was polluted by death. The simple offices that have been described were performed in humble life by the relatives and slaves, in other cases by professional undertakers (libitīnāriī), who also embalmed the body and superintended all the rest of the ceremonies. Reference is made occasionally to the kissing of the dying person as he breathed his last, as if this last breath was to be caught in the mouth of the living; and in very early and very late times it was undoubtedly the custom to put a small coin between the teeth of the dead with which to pay his passage across the Styx in Charon’s boat. Neither of these formalities seems to have obtained generally in classical times.

   479. The Funeral Procession. The funeral procession of the ordinary citizen was simple enough. Notice was given to neighbors and friends. Surrounded by them and by the family, carried on the shoulders of the sons or other near relatives, with perhaps a band of musicians in the lead, the body was borne to the tomb. The procession of one of the mighty, on the other hand, was marshaled with all possible display and ostentation. It occurred as soon after death as the necessary preparations could be made, as there was no fixed intervening time. Notice was given by a public crier in the ancient words of style: Ollus Quiris lētō datus. Exsequiās, quibus est commodum, īre iam tempus est. Ollus ex aedibus effertur.2 Questions of order and precedence were settled by an undertaker (dēsignātor). At the head of the procession went a band of musicians, followed, at least occasionally, by persons singing dirges in praise of the dead, and by bands of buffoons and jesters, who made merry with the bystanders and imitated even the dead man himself. Then came the imposing part of the display. The wax masks of the dead man’s ancestors had been taken from their place in the ālae (§ 200) and assumed by actors in the dress appropriate to the time and station of the worthies they represented. It must have seemed as if the ancient dead had returned to earth to guide their descendant to his place among them. Servius tells us that six hundred imāginēs were displayed at the funeral of the young Marcellus, the nephew of Augustus. Then followed the memorials of the great deeds of the deceased, if he had been a general, as in a triumphal procession, and then the dead man himself, carried with face uncovered on a lofty couch. Then came the family, including freedmen (especially those made free by the testament of their master) and slaves, and next the friends, all in mourning garb (§§ 246, 253), and all freely giving expression to the emotion that we try to suppress on such occasions. Torchbearers attended the train, even by day, as a remembrance of the older custom of burial by night.

FIG. 312

   480. The Funeral Oration. The procession passed from the house directly to the place of interment, unless the deceased was a person of sufficient consequence to be honored by public authority with a funeral oration (laudātiō) in the Forum. In this case the funeral couch was placed before the rōstra, the men in the masks took their places on curule chairs (§ 225) around it, the general crowd was massed in a semicircle behind, and a son or other near relative delivered the address. It recited the virtues and achievements of the dead and recounted the history of the family to which he belonged. Like such addresses in more recent times it contained much that was false and more that was exaggerated. The honor of the laudātiō was freely given in later times, especially to members of the Imperial family, including women. Under the Republic it was less common and more highly prized; so far as we know the only women so honored belonged to the gēns Iūlia. It will be remembered that it was Caesar’s address on the occasion of the funeral of his aunt, the widow of Marius, that pointed him out to the opponents of Sulla as a future leader. When the address in the Forum was not authorized, one was sometimes given more privately at the grave or at the house.

   481. At the Tomb. When the procession reached the place of burial, the proceedings varied according to the time, but all provided for the three things ceremonially necessary: the consecration of the resting place, the casting of earth upon the remains, and the purification of all polluted by the death. In ancient times the body, if buried, was lowered into the grave either upon the couch on which it had been brought to the spot, or in a coffin of burnt clay or stone. If the body was to be burned, a shallow grave was dug and filled with dry wood, upon which the couch and body were placed. The pile was then fired and, when wood and body had been consumed, earth was heaped over the ashes into a mound (tumulus). Such a grave in which the body was burned was called bustum, and was consecrated as a regular sepulcrum by the ceremonies mentioned below. In later times the body, if not to be burned, was placed in a sarcophagus (Fig. 307) already prepared in the tomb (§ 470). If the remains were to be burned, they were taken to the ustrīna (§ 471), which was not regarded as a part of the sepulcrum, and placed upon the pile of wood (rogus). Spices and perfumes were thrown upon them, together with gifts (§ 470) and tokens from the persons present. The pyre was then lighted with a torch by a relative, who kept his face averted during the act. After the fire had burned out, the embers were extinguished with water or wine and those present called a last farewell to the dead. The water of purification was then thrice sprinkled over those present, and all except the immediate family left the place. The ashes were then collected in a cloth to be dried, and the ceremonial bone (§ 465), called os resectum, was buried. A sacrifice of a pig was then offered, by which the place of burial was made sacred ground, and food (silicernium) was eaten together by the mourners. They then returned to the house, which was purified by an offering to the Larēs, and the funeral rites were over.

FIG. 313

   482. Subsequent Ceremonies. With the day of the burial or burning of the remains began the “Nine Days of Sorrow,” solemnly observed by the immediate family. Some time during this period, when the ashes had had time to dry thoroughly, members of the family went privately to the ustrīna, removed the ashes from the cloth, put them in an ōlla (Fig. 309) of earthenware, glass, alabaster, bronze, or other material, and with bare feet and loosened girdles carried them into the sepulcrum (§ 470). At the end of the nine days the sacrificium novendiāle was offered to the dead and the cēna novendiālis took place at the house. On this day, too, the heirs formally entered upon their inheritance and the funeral games (§ 344) were originally given. The period of mourning, however, was not concluded on the ninth day. For husband or wife, ascendants, and grown descendants mourning was worn for ten months, the ancient year, for other adult relatives, eight months, for children between the ages of three and ten years, for as many months as they were years old.

   483. Memorial Festivals. The memory of the dead was kept alive by regularly recurring “days of obligation” of both public and private character. To the former belong the Parentālia, or diēs parentālēs (§ 75), lasting from the thirteenth to the twenty-first of February, the final day being especially distinguished as the Fērālia. To the latter belong the annual celebration of the birthday (or the burial day) of the person commemorated, and the festivals of violets and roses (Violāria, Rosāria), about the end of March and May respectively, when violets and roses were distributed among the relatives and laid upon the graves or heaped over the urns. On all these occasions offerings were made in the temples to the gods and at the tombs to the mānēs of the dead, and the lamps were lighted in the tombs (§ 470), and at the tombs the relatives feasted together and offered food to their dead (§ 471).

FIG. 314
This monument is south of Saint-Remy, France.

1 Titulus in Columbarium: “Lucius Abucius Hermes [has acquired] in this row, runng from the lowest tier to the highest, nine niches with eighteen urns for [the ashes of] himself and his descendants.”

2 “This citizen has been surrendered to death. For those who find it convenient, it is now time to attend the funeral. He is being brought from his house.”


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