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Emperors’ funeral ceremonies

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Funeral of the Roman Emperor
Funeral of the Roman Emperor | Photo: Vintage Design Pics

With the rise of the empire, the first person in the Roman state became the emperor, who gradually became equivalent to the Roman gods. Therefore, in the second century CE, there was created the whole funeral ceremony, was aimed at a worthy farewell to the beloved emperor.

Once the Nerva–Antonine dynasty ruled, the process of deification of emperors, where all family members became gods, was disseminated. Previously, only the Augustus and Claudius (Julio-Claudian dynasty) and Vespasian (Flavian dynasty). To emphasize the divinity of the deceased emperor, it was necessary to create all the symbolism on the occasion of the funeral.

In the event of the Emperor’s death, his body was twice cremated. First, the body was burnt in the environment closest to the family, leaving this moment in the private sphere. After burning the corpses at the stake, the remains of the bones were laid in a mausoleum.

The second cremation had a symbolic dimension and was a public demonstration of the emperor’s apotheosis. Ceremonies of this type usually took place on the Field of Mars, outside the city. At that time, the wax effigies of the Emperor were burned, imitating the deceased. Those were treated as real; even it happened in 193 CE at the funeral of Pertinax when slaves pretend to drive away the flies from the doll. In turn, the effigy of Septimius Severus for almost seven days was exposed to public view, pretending to be a sick emperor. Sometimes even doctors were invited to check the health of the “ruler”.

After the funeral ceremonies, the effigy was burned at the stake, at the top of which was a cage with an eagle. As the mannequin burned through the fire, the bird was released from captivity and flew to the sky, symbolizing the soul of the deceased emperor. The wax figure, in turn, melted completely, leaving no trace of the “emperor”.

  • Żuławski Stanisław, Pax Christiana. Od apokaliptycznych nadziei do sojuszu z Rzymem. Polityczna ewolucja chrześcijaństwa, Kraków 2016

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