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Charles Nekrasov
Charles Nekrasov

Relief With Funerary Procession From Amiternum


Cemeteries and tombs lined extra-urban roads throughout the Roman world so that the mere act of exiting or entering a city brought one into immediate and direct contact with the world of the dead. In fact, Roman funerary art was not marginalized within Roman visual culture but was an integral part of it and constitutes one of the largest surviving bodies of evidence of Roman art.




relief with funerary procession from amiternum



For elite Romans, the pompa was a dynamic performance defined less by solemnity and more by a multi-dimensional performance designed to reflect and reinforce political and social status. These spectacles featured not only the nuclear and extended biological family but also clients, current slaves, former slaves, hired mourners paid to wail and sing dirges, and musicians playing horns, flutes, and trumpets. For elite Roman men specifically, the procession culminated in the Forum with a public eulogy attended by male family members who would wear the ancestor masks depicting deceased male relatives.


Another tomb featuring a recognizable funerary ritual is that of the Haterii, built around 100 C.E. Discovered piecemeal in Rome since the late 1800s, the original form and layout of the tomb is unknown but the ambition of its decoration and narrative scope is obvious from the series of reliefs and portrait busts that do remain.


The Haterii were likely involved in important building projects during the reign of the Flavian emperors (69-96 C.E.), and another relief from the tomb probably documents some of their major projects in Rome including the Flavian Amphitheater (later known as the Colosseum) and the Arch of Titus.


Both the Amiternum relief and the Haterii tomb were commissioned by patrons outside of Roman elite society, a factor that had a huge impact on the style and narrative content of the monuments. Funerary art commissioned by the Roman elite almost never referenced commerce or sources of wealth though this was a driving goal for funerary art of the freedmen. Similarly, elite monuments do not document death rituals, though elites certainly observed them. The Amiternum relief and the Haterii tomb, however, rely on a narrative interplay between death ritual and biography. For these patrons, as for many freedmen and women, their final resting places provided an ideal opportunity for documenting ritual observance and, more importantly, for documenting their success in life and commerce.


However, some of the funerary customs of the ancient Romans that Polybius describes are quite different from those of today. Polybius describes how in ancient Rome, masks of the ancestors of the family of the deceased were paraded through the procession and even worn by members of the family with a similar build as their ancestors. Regrettably, this practice is not present in modern funerals (at least none that I have been to). Thus, this discrepancy between the funerary customs of ancient Rome and present day shows how funerals in ancient Rome were used to celebrate and honor the deceased and the legacy of the family name, while modern day funerals focus solely on the former. Also, while funerals in ancient Rome were great public spectacles, in which spectators from throughout the city would come to collectively mourn with the family in the forum, modern day funerals are more private events, at least for regular, every-day people. This difference between publicity of funerals in ancient Rome and present day is further accentuated by the settings in which the funerals were held. In ancient Rome, funeral services were held at the rostrum in the forum, a vast and open public stage. Conversely, most modern day funerals are held in private services in houses of worship, except in the cases of well-known people or public servants. Regardless of how the eccentricities of funerals of ancient Rome and modern day may differ from each other, it is quite astonishing how the primary theme of remembering and honoring the deceased still resides in funerary customs over two centuries later.


Posted at Feb 23/2011 05:43PM:jdesrosier: Polybius describes the funeral as an "ennobling spectacle." In some sense this overlaps with our sense of a funeral today. It is generally a celebration of the deceased's life, their successes and legacy. Though a period of mourning and grieving, the memory of the deceased is honored through eulogies. This is very similar to the Roman practice of orating over the man "about to be buried." The purpose, however, is slightly different in present times. The eulogy is intended to honor the deceased and his/her family, while the Roman oration's intention extended to motivating the youth of the city to glorious and respected work. Death was a way for families in the Roman world to aggrandize their social standing through lavish processions, hired mourners and incense burners, that accompanied the grieving family. The publicity of the funeral was not an option open to everyone, as it is today. In Rome lower class families were not allowed to have funerary monuments in their homes, nor did they have the funding for funerary parades. While today the extent of funerals range in terms of financial status, the celebration of the deceased's life is a more somber, quiet gathering not intended to heighten a family's social standing.


D'Ambra: The Roman funerary ritual constructs an identity for the deceased in the context of his ancestors and family line. The death masks represent the presence of the ancestors, and although the funeral oration praises the deeds of the recently deceased, Polybius notes that it also includes the illustrious tales of "the rest whose images are present, beginning with the most ancient" (6.54.1). The oral tradition of these orations makes it likely that the tales became embellished and glorified, which serves the purpose Polybius ascribed to these funerals--namely, to inspire young men to emulate the deeds of their dead relatives. According to Polybius, seeing the celebration of ancestors' lives, perpetuated throughout the centuries through oral tradition, would inspire the youths "to endure every suffering for public welfare in the hope of winning the glory that attends on brave men" (6.54.3). From a functionalist perspective, the funerals are a social construct designed to promote service to the Roman state. They achieve this by preying on young boys' hopes of winning immortality through funeral orations and death masks, since, upon death, the identity of the deceased is distilled into the legacy of their great deeds, in the context of their equally illustrious ancestors.


The goal of the ritual that Polybius describes seems to be a way of reminding the surviving relatives of the illustrious family legacy and inspiring them to continue to honor and uphold it, instead of remembering a single individual. The recently deceased person is given a great honor by having his own identity become part of the larger family identity. Today we tend to associate identity with what makes an individual stand out from others, but elite Romans were very proud to let their identities be defined by their family names and legacies.


Posted at Feb 24/2011 02:18PM:cklimansilver: Polybius celebrates funerals as an "ennobling spectacle;" modern funerals echo many aspects of the Roman funeral, but there are also significant departures from the Roman tradition. Despite the fact that they are, at a basic level, a sorrow affair, funerals sought to commemorate the life and history of the deceased. This view is in line with the Roman tradition of honoring the past, particularly through elaborate and extensive means. Through speeches, celebrations, and display in the forum, Romans paid respect to the dead before cremation and burial. Modern funerals share many of these customs, including the display of the body (or, at least, the casket) and eulogies. Although the Roman funeral was more of a festivity than a black-clad affair might be today (as Western norms would dictate, at any rate), the similarities are striking. As with much of Roman life, the ancient funerals adhered to a class system. Only upperclass and imperial civilians could hold public funerals or parades; lower class citizens were not even permitted to erect small monuments in their homes. Today, money and resources decide the extravagance of a funeral, not social standing.


Posted at Feb 24/2011 02:54PM:otraynor: Polybius's description of elite Roman funerals differs surprisingly little from the modern equivalent. In Polybius's time a man of great social stature would have been paraded into the forum, where a close friend or relative would deliver a eulogy that recalled all of the deceased's greatest accomplishments. Similarly, modern funerals often consist of a procession into a place of worship, with several pallbearers carrying the casket inside. Once inside, there is also a eulogy directed at the great accomplishments of the deceased. One of the largest differences between Roman funerals and modern funerals, however, is the 'presence' of the previously deceased ancestors. In Roman tradition elite families were allowed to have certain relatives wear the death masks of other great men from the family to the funeral of the newly deceased. In modern times funerals are much more personalized, and the deceased individual is the only one receiving praise and recognition. However, Polybius's closing point, that grandiose funerals and funeral orations inspire young men to be great, still holds today. Take, for example, the funeral of a former president or prominent statesman. The hearse often processes down a main avenue while thousands of spectators look on and mourn. A crowd of that size would surely inspire any young person to do great things and achieve the same recognition and love.


Elite Roman funerals, which sometimes bordered on ostentatious, are evidence of the Roman's concern with personal and family legacy. First off, recall that the elaborate rituals described in Polybius's 'The Histories' were restricted to the most elite Roman citizens. The families of these men and women were already well established in Roman society, for they were of the patrician class. The funeral procession only attempted to remind everyone else of this fact and reinforce their family's primacy in society. It is no wonder that the lower classes attempted to imitate this practice to the best of their ability - especially the freedmen. Because freedmen had no right to hold higher office or join the Roman army, their accomplishments were usually in the realm of business. Eurysaces, the freedman who became a successful baker and contractor, designed his eye-catching tomb to inform people of his own line of work. By including images of his wife and himself, Eurysaces was imitating the elite classes 'imagines' which they were allowed to display in their house. Because Eurysaces could never become one of the patricians, he decided to emulate their habits. Identity as portrayed on the funeral monuments of the lower classes and freedmen was often equivalent to imitating the upper classes, so that the plebeians might be able to convince passersby of their own importance.


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