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Burial rites in ancient Rome

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In ancient Rome, burying the dead according to the rules and commemorating them during public or private festivities was a religious duty of family and friends.

What is a sarcophagus?

Sarcophagi were stone, wood, metal or pottery coffins used to contain the body of a deceased person. The case was fitted with a lid, and sometimes it bore an inscription; it might be decorated with reliefs on the main face and sides. The images were quite varied: scenes from everyday life, Greek myths, the Muses, philosophers, seasons or yet other depictions. The sarcophagi were placed in burial chambers, interred or placed outside as free-standing funerary monuments. The use of marble sarcophagi began when the funeral custom of interment took over cremation: marble in fact expressed the idea that memories of the deceased would last forever.

The Christian sarcophagi

After the end of persecutions, Christianity spread to every corner of the empire and sarcophagi decorated with figures and scenes from the Old and New Testament started being produced. The biblical scenes embodied the hope of personal salvation. Figures already present in the pagan repertoire took on new meaning: the shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders, already widespread in ancient art, became the personification of the virtue of philanthropy (love for our neighbour) and the most common symbolic image of the Saviour.

Sarcophagi with mythological relief

Sarcophagi carved with mythological reliefs were produced in Rome starting from the second century AD. The use of Greek myths in the Roman funerary setting had two purposes: funeral consolation and praise. Every myth had special significance: Alcestis, wife of Admetus, who agreed to die instead of her husband, was an example of conjugal love; the Trojan War, with the death of Patroclus and Hector, symbolised close family in mourning; the myths connected to Dionysus and the sea world embodied ideals of happiness; the figure of Hercules was chosen to exalt the qualities of the deceased.

Lenòs sarcophagi

Lenòi sarcophagi take their name from their resemblance to the lenòs which, in ancient Greece, was the vat used to press grapes. They were usually decorated with lion heads on the front and mythological relief on the case. Lenòs sarcophagi symbolically allude to the Dionysian cult. The lion was often present in the Dionysus procession and its image, along with the vat, suggests a precise meaning: as in the vat the grapes are destroyed to produce something new, the wine, so the deceased must overcome the disintegration of death and attain a new life.

The dead were worshipped as ancestors (Manes), who could be of assistance if properly remembered, or become formidable opponents if neglected. This bond between the living and the dead was seen as an integral part of everyday life.

The types of burial practised in Rome were cremation and entombment, both set forth by the laws of the Twelve Tables. Historical sources report a prevalence of the rite of cremation from the third century BC to the first century AD, while with the advent of Christianity, the situation was reversed. Sarcophagi were generally placed inside burial chambers, often richly decorated, and showed a high social standing. Members of the most disadvantaged social classes or individuals in bondage instead, were buried in simple tombs dug into the bare earth, made of tiles or shards of amphorae.