Roman funerals were some of the most intricate and fascinating in the ancient world. Like most other cultures, the Romans created these practices to honor the dead and provide closure.
During Rome’s earlier years, cremations were the most common method of dealing with the dead. After a cremation, the ashes would be collected and placed into an urn, which would eventually be buried along with other urns. Only when the rich elite began burying their dead in tombs did burial practices start to form. First, a long ceremonial procession, beginning from the deceased’s home to their tomb, took place. Mourners and musicians were usually hired to express grief and sadness to onlookers. Another important event in traditional burial practices was the banquet. This would serve as the extravagant climax, where expensive foods and wines were shared among the guests. Finally, the body would be buried and the proper tombstone would be placed.
For the middle and poor classes, simpler burials took place in communal cemeteries. The lowest of the social order, generally slaves and criminals, were buried in nameless pits and graves. Therefore, the majority of burial practices were developed by the higher classes and were primarily used as a way to show wealth and social status. This idea of the elite displaying their affluence can be seen through their grand mausoleums. Created with marble and stone, these colossal structures would house the tombs of multiple generations. Some even had elaborate paintings, depicting scenes of Roman mythology and the lives of the deceased.
Similar to their funerals, Roman tombstones provide much historical information, which would primarily be found in their inscriptions. Typically 5-15 lines of text, these inscriptions can provide great insight into a person’s life, including their jobs, achievements, and family history. An example of these inscriptions is found on the tombstone of Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, a Roman senator who lived from 334–394 CE. Below is his tombstone inscription in Latin (NOTE: the slashes represent indentations in the tombstone):
Virio Nicomacho Flaviano,v c/ quaest, praet, pontif maiori/ consulari Siciliae/ vicario Africae,/ quaestori intra palatium/ praef praet iterum, cos ord/ historico disertissimo/ Q Fab Memmius Symmachus,v c/ prosocero optimo.
Here is the inscription translated into English:
To Virius Nicomachus Flavianus of the highest rank, / quaestor, praetor, higher pontiff, / consular of Sicily, / vicar of Africa, / quaestor in the palace, praetorian prefect for the second time, /ordinary consul,/ highly cultured historian,/ by Quintus Fabius Memmius Symmachus of the highest rank,/ to the excellent grandfather-in-law.
From this translation, we can see that Flavianus held many positions in the Roman government, making him an important figure. The tombstone also regards him as a renowned historian, which is supported by his publication of De Viris Illustribus, translating to On Illustrious Men. In this work, Flavianus collected many biographies of noteworthy people in Rome’s history, revealing how aristocrats of the time viewed their history. Finally, the last part of the inscription shows that the tombstone was created by Quintus Fabius Memmius Symmachus, another aristocrat who was exiled by Emperor Theodosius 1 for standing by his traditional religious beliefs that opposed Christianity.