The Dead in Ancient Rome

Funerary shroud of Tasherytwedjahor from Roman Egypt, c. 150. Tempera on linen. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Nr. 54.993

Funerary imagery permeated Roman culture and riddled the visual landscape. Representations of death in the form of monuments and statuary are the best-known artifacts of Roman Imperial customs surrounding death, but these static glyphs complemented a “lively” practice of ancient Roman funerary practices in honor of the deceased and his or her family. During the city’s Caesarian and Julian centuries, roads leading into the city were lined with tombs, and to walk Roman streets meant encounters with representations of the dead on a daily basis. In Rome, the dead were ever-present.

However the civic perception was by no means entirely morbid. Rather than only mourn the death or commemorate the deceased, the Roman funerary cityscape offered opportunities for the display of familial, political, and personal symbolic capital. The accouterments of the funeral – chariots, triumphal regalia, the garb of magisterial office, and the display of past familial accomplishments – were intended to underscore the accomplishments of the deceased and demonstrable clout of aristocratic, wealthy, and politically connected citizens. In turn, the family could use funerary imagery as an internal yardstick that would present clear goals for its younger members to achieve. The dead offered exempla of past success, and reminders of one’s own place within the generational power structure of the family.

As the empire extended in all directions, Roman visual culture mixed with that of Egypt, Britain, and Byzantium, producing painted shrouds, sarcophagi, and mosaics. Some iconographic meanings are yet lost to us, such as a Roman sarcophagus depicting the Greek myth of Medea.

“[She] marries a Greek prince, a hero, goes back to Greece with him, they have two kids, but later on, her husband — a hero named Jason — has a mid-life crisis,” Dr. Mont Allen of Southern Illinois University has said. “He wants to jilt his wife, get a hot Ferrari and a hot trophy bride, and he essentially jilts Medea and her two kids there and she’s totally stranded, she’s a foreigner and here she is in Greece.”

Because Medea was a divorced woman, she had no protection in the ancient world.

“So she has her vengeance by killing her own two kids and then escaping, that’s the story of Medea,” Allen said. “What would [the sarcophagus] have cost, translated into modern dollars, $600,000? You think, ‘Why would an ancient Roman woman spend roughly $600,000 so that all her future generations of descendants could see the story of Medea on her coffin?’ Like, who on Earth would want to be remembered as a killer of children? The people looking at this are going to be your own family members.”

Roman Severan-Era Medea Sarcophagus, front view, c.190-200. Photo: University of California, San Diego



This is one of the weekly columns I write for the Italian Art Society blog but the images were so interesting I am repurposing them here. Maybe I will begin to do that during what has become the lengthy process or redesigning the website and merging the Tumblr blog with the main site.

I have enjoyed writing about Italian contemporary art and the art of the Empire, especially Byzantium and the Faiyum, because even though I know a lot about it I just enjoy reading and learning about these subject, and looking at the art, without the pressure of having to be such an expert about them.

Roman funerary wreath, c. 350. Image © Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence

Greco-Roman Stele with funerary banquet, c. 100 BCE. Crystalline marble. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Nr. 69.1095.

Funerary Mask of a Woman from Roman Egypt, c. 200. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roman Sarcophagus Depicting a Battle between Soldiers and Amazons, c. 140-170.
Photo: Thomas R. DuBrock, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Nr. 2006.35.A,.B.

References: J. C. Edmondson and Alison Keith. Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Jane DeRose Evans. A Companion to the Archaeology of the Roman Republic. Hoboken: Wiley, 2013.

What do you think?