Spirits of the Dead: Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe
Dr Maureen Carroll
It was important to people on many levels of Roman society that, when they died, their memory be preserved for future generations, and to that end numerous and varied funerary monuments were commissioned, carved and set up in the cemeteries of towns, villages and rural estates of Roman Europe.
Funerary monuments were provided with epitaphs in which names, family histories, social rank, ethnic origin, careers and personal tragedies were recorded for posterity. In funerary inscriptions we sometimes find the sentiment expressed that, as long as the verses inscribed on the monument survived, the individual would live on forever.
Some of the epitaphs on Roman grave monuments were chosen by the deceased whilst still alive, others were selected by the surviving family, community or comrades. As such, epitaphs preserved aspects of life that were considered important for the sometimes very personalised message they conveyed to society, and they tell us how people from all social levels wanted themselves or those close to them to be remembered within their community. The choice of text, apart from naming the deceased, was a matter of personal choice, but this choice could also be influenced by social and cultural factors.
These epitaphs tell stories, and sometimes they literally instruct the viewer to stop and read about the life of the deceased. For example, Gaius Ateilius Euhodus, a freedman merchant in pearls, had his tomb on the Via Appia in Rome inscribed with the following message: "Stranger, stop and behold this heap of earth on your left. Here are contained the bones of a good man, a compassionate man and a friend of the poor". The epitaph closes with the greeting "Farewell traveller!".
The personal histories preserved in texts on stone allow us to follow, among other things, the careers of magistrates; the liberation of slaves; the marriages, divorces and remarriages of couples; the tragedy of domestic violence and suicide; the social interaction of members of burial societies; and the Christian baptism of fatally ill children.