Religion in the Roman Empire (pt.III.)


The Romans had a clear sense that the dead needed to be remembered and honoured and there were annual festivals to achieve this. At the festival of the Parentalia, which occupied nine days in February, offerings were brought by families to the tombs or graves of their families outside the walls of the city. The next day after the end of this period was a time of reunion and reconciliation amongst the living members of the family. It was an obligation of those who inherited an estate to maintain the sacra of the family, that is to ensure that the rituals for the ancestors were properly carried out. All this implied that there was a sense of the continuing existence and power of the dead, at least in the mass if not as individual personalities.

Families – at least elite families – also kept a memorial of their ancestors in the form of wax masks, likenesses that lived in the atrium of the house; at noble funerals these masks were worn by actors dressed in the triumphal or magisterial robes of the dead man as part of the procession that followed the corpse. Imperial funerals were later modeled on this ritual. This implies that the family as a unit was conceived as developing its glory over time. It does not imply any concern with the individual’s survival of death.

In the second festival, in the middle of May, the dead were conceived in a different way and called lemures (hostile spirits); the ritual was intended to placate them and keep them away from the living. Ovid in his Fasti connects this ritual with the violent death of the founder Remus, killed by his own brother Romulus; this may not be entirely reliable, but it does suggest that the idea underlying the festival concerned the restless ghosts of those who had been abused. At least, the evidence suggests that the two festivals expressed opposite visions of the dead, at peace or not at peace.

It is usually argued that a concern with the individual’s survival of death originated in the period of the Empire, partly under the influence of Greek philosophy, partly in the so-called mystery cults and in the context of Christianity. This is all highly questionable in the case of the mysteries. At least in the case of pagans, however, it seems certain that there was a widespread debate of which people were aware; tombstones quite regularly assert the dead person’s rejection of the idea of survival, worked so as to imply that others do believe in it.

The dead must in this case have been carrying on an argument familiar among the living. Here as elsewhere we must never forget the limits of the subject under discussion: ‘paganism’ as such had no explicit beliefs or doctrines that were codified, debated or challenged as such; individuals of course had their thoughts and doubts, but in earlier Rome such ideas would have had no consequences, good or bad, because the question of leaving the religion and joining a different one did not arise. It was only with the emergence of religious alternatives that the nature of such religious issues became transformed.

Books of interest can be found at the bottom of the page here


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