Roman Burial Rites

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Roman Burial Rites

Postby Cleopatra Aelia on Mon Mar 28, 2005 2:42 pm

Salvete Omnes,

I have another of my strange questions: Was there anything specific you had to say in front of a grave/pyre when you were burying a person to prevent his lemures to haunt you if you don't say these specific lines?

I know that there were burial processions with mimes carrying masks of the deceased, musicians and mourning women which you all hired. But about the rite itself I couldn't find anything. I only know that you had to give the deceased a coin to pay the ferryman, even there I read two versions, either one coin under the tongue or two coins on the eyelids.
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Postby Horatius Piscinus on Mon Mar 28, 2005 4:41 pm

Salva sis Aelia

The book that everyone refers to on the subject is J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World, 1971.

Specific prayers said at a funeral? I do not think we really have any. Funerary inscriptions refer to a testament of the deceased, so that may have been read just as at Caesar's funeral. The day of death is also regarded as the deceased's dies natalis, or birthday into his or her new life. So the rites may have been similar to that performed on a person's dies natalis in life. Martial, Ovid, and Tibullus give us some idea on the rites for the dies natalis. To appease Manes, lest they haunt you, you might try the rite given in Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica 3.448-55

"Leave us, you ghosts of the slain, forget those angry memories and vengeful thoughts. Let peace come between us. May you grow to love your Stygian resting-place, far from our crew and far from the seas we travel, and may you stay far from the battles we engage. At no time haunt our cities back home in Greece or at the crossroads howl. Do no harm to our pigs and cattle, bring no pestilence to our herds or crops. Do not woefully assail our people or our children."


Statius gives a prayer for a burial at sea:

Silvae 3.2.1-49

Gods, who delight in preserving bold ships and turning from them the perils of windy seas, make smooth and placid these waters, and attend with good council my vows, let not my words be drowned out by roaring waves as I pray:

"O Neptune, grand and rare is the pledge we make to You, and in what we commend into the depths of the sea. Young Maecius it is whose body we commit to the sea, far from the sight of land, that he, the better part of our souls, traverses the sea’s length and depth (to the Western Lands).

"Bring forth the benign stars, the Spartan brothers, Castor and Pollux, to sit upon the horns of the yard arm. Let your light illuminate sea and sky. Drive off your sister Helen’s stormy star, I pray, and expel it from all the heavens.

"And you azure Nereids of the seas, whose good fortune it was to attain mastery of the oceans – may it be allowed to name you stars of the seas – rise up from your glassy caverns near the foaming waves that encircle Doris, and tranquilly swim circles around the shores of Baiae where the hot springs abound. Seek after the lofty ship on which a noble descendant of Ausonians, Celer, mighty at arms, is glad to embark. Not long will you need to look, for she lately came across the sea, leading a convoy laden with Egyptian wheat and bound for Dicarcheis. First was she to salute Capreae and from her starboard side offer a libation of Mareotic wine to Tyrrhenian Minerva. Near to her, on either side, circle gracefully around her. Divide your labors, some to tighten fast the rigging from masts to deck, while others high above spread forth canvass sails to the westerly Zephyrs. Still others replace some benches, others send into the water the rudder by whose curved blade steers the ship. Another plumbs the depths with leaden weights while others to fasten the skiff that follows astern, and to dive down and drag the hooked anchor from the depths, and one to control the tides and make the sea flow eastward. Let none of the sea green sisterhood be without her task.

"Then let Proteus of manifold shape and triformed Triton swim before, and Glaucus whose loins vanished by sudden enchantment, and who, so oft as he glides up to his native shores, wistfully beats his fish tail on Anthedon’s strand.

"But above all others you, Palaemon, with your goddess mother, be favourable, if I have a passion to tell of your own Thebes, and sing of Amphion, bard of Phoebus, with no unworthy quill.

"And may the father whose Aeolian prison constrains the winds, whom the various blasts obey, and every air that stirs on the world’s seas, and storms and cloudy tempests, keep the North wind and South and East in closer custody behind his wall of mountain, but may Zephyr alone have the freedom of the sky, alone drive vessels onward and skim unceasingly over the crests of billows, until he brings without a storm your glad sails safe to the Paraetonian haven."


As for coins, the Romans placed one coin under the tongue for those to be intured. Otherwise the coin was placed inside the ossuary after cremation. Two coins on the eyes is a later tradition as far as I know. If the deceased is to be cremated there is also the little matter of cutting off the last joint of the deceased's little finger which is buried separately, as an offering to Tellus, in a seperate rite.

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