Funeral processions and the complexity of their ritual very much depended on the importance of the individual involved with the Emperor and noble Patricians at the top end of the scale and the slaves and Gladiators at the very bottom.
Funerary practices and funerals in ancient Rome went through a great deal of development also in line with personal wealth and beliefs. At the top end of the scale the funeral might be referred to as “Funus Indictivum” stemming from ab indicendo, “to invite”, and “Funus Tacitum” if it were a private affair.
Of the public funerals, announced by a crier, there were the “Praetorium“, “Consulare“, “Censorium” and “Triumphale“. The latter clearly being a pretty grand affair. Suetonius and Tacitus are a pretty good source of information to this regard.
The Gladiators were part of ancient funerary customs
The whole Gladiatorial offering was learned from the Etruscans. As part of a funerary ritual the Etruscans would sacrifice enemy prisoners and convicts for the deceased person. It seems the practice of gladiatorial fights as part of funeral processions were a broader Italic practice, as shown by this 4th Century BC fresco painted by the Samnites at Paestum.
The Romans later developed these funerary customs into the more famous public gladiatorial shows, epitomized by the famous salute: “Hail Caesar! The dying salute you!”
After the fights the masses of stinking dead bodies would be knocked on the head with a hammer by figures masked as Charon, the Etruscan god of the underworld. The bodies would then be grasped with hooks, to be dragged out of the Libitina Gate, named after the goddess of corpses. From here they would be dragged and dumped into a communal, unmarked grave.
The person, lying in the death bed, would be attended by their closest relatives and friends. Suetonius tells us that Augustus died amidst the kisses of Livia.
The eyes would be shut, their rings would be removed and their bodies washed, anointed, wrapped in clothing: either a toga or the dress of the highest function they had achieved. The head might also be crowned with flowers or indeed with the honorary crown the deceased might have had awarded to him during life (Cicero). The bed on which the dead lay was also strewn with flowers, scents and leaves.
Libitinari priests: These tasks of toiletry were performed by a designated group of women or in richer circles by a company of priests called the Libitinarii who attended to the Goddess Libitina. A coin would be placed in the mouth so that the deceased may pay the “ferry man” his charge across the river to the land of the dead. The corpses’ eyes were probably opened again later on so the deceased could observe the heavens whilst lying on the funeral pyre.
Once prepared, the deceased person’s closest relation would lay out the corpse somewhere near to the entrance of the house’s threshold with the feet pointing towards the door and out.
If the deceased was a high dignitary he may have the honour of “ius imaginam“, the right to images, these were essentially wax moulds of his ancestors which could be laid out about and before him on the funeral bed.
The final part of the preparatory ritual was to call out the deceased person’s name several times. This was called “Conclamatio” and was probably done because of cases where persons might have been buried alive because they had only appeared to be dead. Once this was done the deceased could be said to be “Conclamatus” – past recall ie well and truly dead. I don’t think the conclamatio was exclusive to the Romans.
At this point Pliny tells us some Cypress branches would be cut and hung outside the house so that it should be clear that there was mourning of the dead within. Mourning lasted approximately eight or nine days but this wasn’t fixed. Servius tells us that mourning lasted seven days, was buried or burned on the eighth and the ashes collected and interred on the ninth.
The procession would start at night from the deceased persons’ house. Presumably this didn’t apply to public or state funerals. Plutarch tells us that on the occasion of General Sylla’s funerals the morning was very cloudy and so the procession was made to wait until the ninth hour.
Irrespective of the time of the funeral procession it seems burning torches in any case formed part of the ceremony “a funalibus” from which the word “funeral” probably derives.
Musicians: Stately funeral processions would be preceded by flute and trumpet players and a choir of singers. Funerary monuments suggest that the instruments used on these occasions were generally longer than the everyday sort. These were followed by the (paid) mourners called the “Praesicae” who sang the “lessus” or funeral hymns in praise of the person’s achievements in life.
The procession also included “ludii” and “histriones” who were essentially mimes and actors who wore masks and satirized the deceased person. Suetonius speaks of an Arch-Mimick who played out at the funeral of Vespasian.
Slaves: On occasions the corpse might also be preceded by his slaves who marched in solemn procession holding their caps. Following the funeral they were sometimes set free although this wasn’t always the case.
Images of Ancestors: As has already been mentioned the funeral bed might also carry the wax images in the semblance of the deceased person’s ancestors in order to allow them to attend also. These masks could also have been worn by mimes so that the effect be brought to its greatest pitch.
Images of other great people: In the most extreme cases of extraordinary persons the images could include statues of other great men. Servius tells us in his Aenids that Sulla (Sylla) had as many as six thousand beds of images (of the dead of the great) carried before him. The images of the cities and treasures which had been conquered and taken by these men could also be included.
Lictors: If the person in question was of the highest rank, the funeral bed could be accompanied by the Lictors who carried the fasces (bundles of rods including an axe signifying the ancient right to judge to death) except that in funerals they would be carried upside down.
Relatives carry the bed: The funeral bed itself would be carried by the closest relatives and heirs of the deceased and followed up by family and friends. Men would have their heads covered whilst women would uncover them, in opposite fashion to what they would do in every day life.
Persons of lesser means or who were purposely despised were carried by persons paid for the job. It seems Domitian was carried in this way. The funeral bed in these cases was probably of a poorer type also.
The funeral bed was not necessarily covered or open but this rather depended on preferences as well as rank (no pun meant!) The writer Dio tells us in his biography of Nero that having poisoned his brother Britannicus he had his face white washed to hide the bruised tinge of his face but that heavy rain washed it clean for all to see.
Ancient Roman funerals: Speeches in the forum
Although it hadn’t always been the custom, it became popular around the beginning of the Republican times for the funeral procession to make its way in silence to the Forum. Here everybody, including the images of the dead ancestors, attended a speech in his (or her?) honour. The deceased in person might be stood upright for the occasion!
Cicero complains of how this ended up getting out of hand with the person of the meanest descent and success in life appearing to have a direct relationship with the greatest in the empire, but altogether a speech always goes down well even in our own times. In the cases when the Pontifex Maximus high priest delivered the speech, the corpse would be covered with a veil given that the high priest was not allowed to set eyes on the dead. This was because the touch or sight of a corpse was sufficient to defile the sacred nature of the Pontif.
After the speeches were done the corpse would be carried to its final resting place. This was almost certainly out of the city walls. Tombs would generally be at the side of the main consular roads and many can still be seen lining the sides of the Old Appian Way in Rome. On a few particular cases the high dignitaries might be buried within the city and this would usually be in the Campus Martius, for example Augustus and Hadrian have their mausoleums (tombs) around that area.
The poor had their own allotted area outside the Esquiline gates called the “Puticulae” or “Puticuli“.
Ancient Roman Burials where the Italian Parliament now stands
At different times of Rome’s history it was either customary to bury or cremate on a funeral pyre. It also seems that cremation was more usual for adults, whilst burials were more common for children or infants.
This part of the ceremony might be accompanied by sacrifices, feasts or games of various kinds including the fights to the death already mentioned. The pyre would be built up in height according to the importance of the deceased. Gifts and perfumes would be added to the fuel (resinous woods). Given that that the Ghosts of the dead desired blood (apparently) it was customary to sacrifice animals into the fire also if not humans (in the earliest of times).
The location of the most important of these majestic pyres was next to where the Antonine Column now stands (under the Italian parliament!) Whilst the flames burned, funeral processions would take place around it in honour of the deceased. An eagle would be let loose at the end of the show to carry his soul to the heavens.
Once the flames had died out the embers would be doused by sprinkling wine over them and the ashes of the deceased would be collected into an urn. This was placed in the tomb and the final words would be said: “Vale, vale, vale, nos te ordine quo natura permiserit, cuncti sequemur“. The company would then be dismissed with the word(s) “ILICET” or “Ire Licet“. The custom was to wish the deceased light earth to cover his final resting place with the words on his tomb “Sit tibi terra levis” or S.T.T.L.
Sacrifices in honour of the dead usually included water, wine, milk, blood, and ointments. The blood would be that of the sacrificial animals offered to the spirits of the dead. These animals were usually household animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs and so on. Human captives or slaves might also be used although a law put a stop to this around the first century BC.
Feasts in honour of the dead consisted of a relatively simple meal laid out on the tomb for the Ghosts to consume, after which the food left over would be burnt in a fire. Extreme poverty might drive beggars to steal food from the tombs. Similarly a meal to be eaten by the living could be held in the tomb, I suppose in the company of their dead ancestors. What Gothic fun.
Roman Funerary Poetry
There is evidence of a significant quantity of Roman funerary poetry. An example is shared below of a famous funerary poem by the ancient Roman poet Catullus (Catullus 101). Its structure is similar to other similar poems and funerary inscriptions. The poem tells us how a funeral included gifts to the deceased and ended with the words “ave atque vale” – Hail and farewell
Multās per gentēs et multa per aequora vectus adveniō hās miserās, frāter, ad īnferiās, ut tē postrēmō dōnārem mūnere mortis et mūtam nequīquam alloquerer cinerem quandoquidem fortūna mihi tētē abstulit ipsum heu miser indignē frāter adēmpte mihī nunc tamen intereā haec, prīscō quae mōre parentum trādita sunt tristī mūnere ad īnferiās, accipe frāternō multum mānantia flētū. Atque in perpetuum, frāter, avē atque valē.
Carried through many nations and over many seas, I arrive, brother, for these wretched funeral rites so that I might present you with the last tribute of death and speak in vain to silent ash, since Fortune has carried you, yourself, away from me.1 Alas, poor brother, unfairly taken away from me, now in the meantime, nevertheless, these things which in the ancient custom of ancestors are handed over as a sad tribute to the rites, receive, dripping much with brotherly weeping. And forever, brother, hail and farewell.