Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

LIFE IN THE ROMAN WORLD OF NERO AND ST. PAUL

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THE LAST SCENE OF ALL--BURIAL AND TOMBS

Whatever conceptions may have been entertained as to existence beyond the grave, there was no doubt in the Roman mind as to the claim of the dead to a proper burial and a worthy monument. It had once on a time been a matter of universal belief that the spirit which had departed from an unburied corpse could find no admittance to the company in the realms of Hades. It could not join "the majority" below. Originally no doubt the notion was simply that, as the body had not been consigned to the earth, the spirit also remained homeless above ground. Gradually this fancy shifted to the notion that, through neglect of burial, the dead man was dishonoured--he had no friends--and that his spirit was thereby disgraced and unworthy of reception by the powers beneath. It must therefore remain shivering on the near side of the river across which the grim Charon ferried the more fortunate souls. Even when the body had been decently buried, the spirit, though received into the gloomy realm, called for continued respect on the part of its friends on earth. Unless it received its periodical honours and was commemorated by a fitting sepulchre, it would meet with slights from other ghosts and would feel its position keenly. Naturally it would then do its best, by some form of haunting, to punish the living for their disregard and forgetfulness. From such considerations there arose in very ancient days in Italy, as in Greece, a great anxiety to perform scrupulously "the dues" of the defunct. Even if the body could not be found, it was obligatory to perform the obsequies and to build a cenotaph. If a stranger came across a dead body he must not pass it by without throwing at least three handfuls of dust or earth upon it and bidding it "Farewell."

Though the burial customs still employed sprang from old fancies like these, we are not to suppose that such notions were in full life in the Roman world of our period. Poets might play with them, and some ignorant folk might still vaguely entertain them. The mere belief in ghosts was doubtless general, and even the learned argued the question of their existence. Here are parts of another letter culled from Pliny already several times quoted. He writes to his friend Sura: "I should very much like to know whether you think that apparitions actually exist, with a real shape of their own and a kind of supernatural power, or that it is only our fear which gives an embodiment to vain fancies. My own inclination is to believe in them, and chiefly because of an experience which, I am told, befell Curtius Rufus." He then speaks of a phantom form which prophesied that person's fortune. "Another occurrence, quite as wonderful and still more terrifying, I will relate as I was told it. There was at Athens a house which was roomy and commodious, but which bore an ill-name and was plague-stricken. In the silence of the night there was heard a sound of iron. On closer attention it proved to be a rattling of chains, first at a distance and then close at hand. Soon there appeared the spectre of an old man, miserably thin and squalid, with a long beard and unkempt hair. On his legs were fetters, and on his hands chains, which he kept shaking. In consequence the inhabitants spent horrible and sleepless nights; the sleeplessness made them ill, and, as their terror increased, the illness was followed by death.... As a result the house was deserted and totally abandoned to the ghost. Nevertheless it was advertised, on the chance that some one ignorant of all this trouble" (note the commercial morality) "might choose to buy it or rent it. To Athens there comes a philosopher named Athenodorus, who reads the placard. On hearing the price and finding it so cheap, he has his suspicions" (the ancient philosopher had his practical side), "makes enquiry, and learns the whole story. So far from being less inclined to hire it, he is only the more willing. On the approach of evening he gives orders for his couch to be made up in the front part of the house, and asks for his tablets, pencils, and a light. After dismissing his attendants to the back rooms, he applies all his attention, as well as his eyes and hand, steadily to his writing, for fear his mind, if unoccupied, might conjure up imaginary sounds and causeless fears. At first there was the same silence of the night as elsewhere; then there was a shaking of iron, a movement of chains. The philosopher refused to lift his eyes or stop his pencil; instead he braced up his mind so as to overcome his hearing. The noise grew louder; it approached; it sounded as if on the threshold; then as if within the room. He looks behind him; sees and recognises the apparition of which he has been told. It was standing and beckoning to him with its finger, as if calling him. In answer our friend makes it a sign with his hand to wait a while, and once more applies himself to tablet and pencil. The ghost began to rattle its chains over his head while he was writing. He looks behind him again, sees it making the same signal as before, and promptly picks up the light and follows. It goes at a slow pace, as if burdened with chains, then, after turning into the open yard of the house, it suddenly vanishes and leaves him by himself. At this he gathers some grass and leaves, and marks the spot with them. The next day he goes to the magistrates and urges them to dig up the spot in question; and they find bones tangled with chains through which they were passed... These they put together and bury at the public charge. The spirit being thus duly, laid, the house was henceforward free of them."

Whatever the Roman beliefs on this point, so far as funeral rites and ceremonies were concerned, they were carried out simply in accordance with custom and tradition. The Romans of this date no more analysed their motives and sentiments than we do ours in dealing with such matters. They honoured the dead with funeral pomp and conspicuous monument; but, at the bottom, it was often more out of respect for themselves than because they imagined that it made any difference to the departed. In a very early age it had been considered that the spirit led in the underworld a feeble replica of human existence: it required food, playthings, utensils, money, as well as consideration. Hence food was periodically poured into the ground, playthings and utensils were burned on the pyre or laid in the coffin, and money was placed in that most primitive of purses, the mouth. Conservatism is nowhere so strong as in rites and ceremonies, and therefore the Romans continued to burn and bury articles along with the remains of the dead, and they continued to put a coin in the mouth before the burial. But it would be absurd to suppose that an intelligent Roman of our date would have offered the original and ancient motives for this conduct as rational motives still actuating himself. Enough that convention expected certain proceedings as "due" and "proper": a true Roman would not fail to perform what convention decreed.

[Illustration: FIG. 120.--"CONCLAMATIO" OF THE DEAD.]

Our friend the elder Silius dies a natural death, after completing the fullest public career. His family has its full share of both affection and pride, and therefore his obsequies will be worthy of his character and standing. When his Greek physician Hermogenes assures the watching family that life is departing, Marcia or Publius or Bassa will endeavour to catch the last breath with a kiss, and will then close the eyelids. Upon this all those who are present will call "Silius! Silius! Silius!" The original motive of this cry--which has its modern parallel in the case of a dead Pope--was to make sure that the man was actually dead and beyond reply. This point made certain, the professional undertaker is called in and instructed to take charge of all the proceedings usual in such cases. It is he who will provide the persons who are to wash and anoint the body and lay it in state, and also, on the day of the procession, the musicians, the wailing-women, the builders of the funeral pyre, and others who may be necessary, together with the proper materials and accessories. He will further see that the name of Quintus Silius Bassus is registered in the death-roll in the temple of "Juno the Death-Goddess," and that the registration fee is paid. The name will also appear in the next issue of the "Daily News." The body, anointed so as to preserve it till the third day, and dressed in the toga--which will be that of the highest position he ever occupied--is laid in state in the high reception-hall, with the feet pointing to the door. On the bier are wreaths, by it is burning a pan of incense, in or before the vestibule is placed a cypress tree or a number of cypress branches for warning information to the public.

On the day next but one after death the contractor, attended by subordinates dressed in black, marshals his procession. Though it is daytime, the procession will be accompanied by torches--another piece of conservatism reminiscent of the time when funerals took place at night, as they still did with children and commonly with the lower orders. First go the musicians, playing upon flageolet, trumpet, or horn; behind these, professional wailing-women, who raise loud lamentation and beat their breasts. Next come the wax-masks, already mentioned, of the distinguished ancestors of the Silii. These, which are life-like portraits, have been taken out of their cupboards in the wing of the reception-hall, and are worn over their faces by men of a build as nearly as possible resembling that of the ancestors represented. Each man also wears the insignia of the character for whom he stands. The more of such "effigies" a house could produce, the greater its glory. Such, however, was not the original purpose of this part of the procession, for--though it had doubtless been generally forgotten--the intention was to represent the deceased as being conducted into the underworld by an honourable company already established there. After the effigies comes that which would correspond to our hearse. It is, however, no hearse of the modern kind, but a bier or couch with the usual embellishment of ivory and with covers of purple worked with gold. On this the body lies, open to the sky, like that of Juliet. The bearers are either relatives or such slaves as have been set free under Silius's last will. Behind come the nearest relatives or heirs, the freedmen, friends, and clients, all clothed in black, except the women, who are in white, without colour or gold upon their dress. Young Publius will walk with his head covered by his toga; Bassa with her hair loose and dishevelled. The whole party will utter lamentations, though under more restraint than those of the professional women in front.

Silius having been a senator and a man of other official standing, the procession passes from the Caelian Hill along the Sacred Way to the Forum, as far as the Rostra or speaking-platform. There the bier is set down, the "ancestors" seat themselves on the folding-stools which were the old-fashioned chairs of the higher officers, and one of the relatives delivers an oration in praise, not only of Silius, but of his family as represented in the ancestors.

[Illustration: FIG. 121.--TOMB OF CAECILIA METELLA.]

[Illustration: FIG. 122.--STREET OF TOMBS. (POMPEII.)]

The procession then forms again, and the party proceeds to whatever place outside the walls may contain the family tomb of the Silii. No burial is allowed within the city proper, and for our purposes we will assume that the place is distant nearly a mile along the Appian Way. We will assume also that Silius is to be cremated, and not simply buried in a coffin or a marble sarcophagus. Few persons of the higher classes, except certain of the Cornelii, are buried at this date, although there is nothing in law or custom to prevent the choice. There exists no "crematorium," and the Silii are regularly burned at their own sepulchral allotment beside the "Queen of Roads."

If you were with the procession on this day you would find yourself before one of an almost continuous chain of monuments, built in all manner of shapes and sizes--such as great altars, small shrines, pyramids (like that of Cestius on another road), or round towers like the beautiful tomb of Caecilia Metella. The exterior of these structures is often adorned with commemorative or symbolic carvings, and the inside, which may be wholly above the surface or partly sunk beneath--is a chamber surrounded by niches, in which are placed the urns containing the ashes of the dead. Perhaps an illustration of the present state of the "Street of Tombs" at Pompeii will afford some notion, although the sepulchres of that provincial place by no means matched those upon the various roads outside the Roman gates. Often the monumental chamber stands somewhat back from the road, leaving space for a large semicircular seat of stone open to public use, its back wall being inscribed with some statement of honour to the family. Round the sepulchre--"where all the kindred of the Silii lie" is a space of ground, planted with shrubs and trees, and surrounded by a low wall. Somewhere near, on an open level, the funeral pile has been built of pine-logs, with the interstices stuffed with pitch, brushwood, or other inflammable material. It is natural that the pyre should take the shape of an altar and that cypress branches should lean against the sides.

Upon the summit of this pile is laid Silius on his bier; incense and unguents are shed over him; wreaths and other offerings, often of no little value, are cast upon the heap. While loud cries of lamentation are being raised by the company present, a near kinsman approaches the pile with a torch, and, turning his face away, sets fire to the whole structure. It speedily burns down, the last embers are quenched with wine, the general company thrice cries "farewell," and, except for the nearest relatives, the procession returns to the city. The relatives who stay take off their shoes, wash their hands, and proceed to gather up the bones--which they cleanse in wine and milk--and the ashes, which they mix with perfume. These remains are then placed in the urn of bronze, marble, alabaster, or maybe of coloured glass, and the urn fills one more niche in the chamber of the monument.

[Illustration: FIG. 123.--COLUMBARIUM.]

Now and then there were more magnificent obsequies than those of Silius. A "public" funeral might be decreed to a man who had deserved conspicuously well of the state. On such an occasion the crier would go round, calling "Oyez, come all who choose to the funeral of So-and-So." The invitation meant, not merely participation in a solemn procession, but also in the funeral feast, and probably an exhibition of gladiators. On the other hand the majority of burials were naturally of a far more simple and inexpensive kind. The poor could not afford to use unguents and keep their dead till the third day; they could not afford real cypress trees, but must use cheaper substitutes, if anything at all. They could not afford all the processionists and paraphernalia of the undertaker, but must be satisfied with four commonplace bearers, who hurried away the corpse in the evening, not on a couch but in a cheap box, and carried it out to the common necropolis beyond the Esquiline Gate. Seldom could they afford the fuel to burn the body, and in many cases it must simply be thrown into a pit roughly dug and there left without monument. To secure more respect and decency there were many burial clubs, whether connected with the trade-guilds or not, and these procured a joint tomb of the kind known as a "dovecote," or columbarium, from the resemblance of its niches to so many pigeon-holes. These cooperative sepulchres were underground vaults, and it is perhaps hardly necessary to point out their direct relation to the Christian catacombs. Similar tombs were sometimes used by the great Roman families for the remains of the freedmen and slaves of their house.

[Illustration: FIG. 124.--TEMPLE OF JUPITER ON THE CAPITOL (Platform omitted).]



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