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Free «Change in Roman Funeral Practices» Essay Sample


The life of ancient people was, in most respects, similar to our life if it is looked upon in general terms like ambitions, meeting daily needs, emotions and human character traits. However, when it comes to particulars, there were various religious attributes and customs which were closely associated with cultural and ethnic patterns. It was especially true when it dealt with burial practices and afterlife. Romans had quite distinctive funeral practices that underwent changes over time. This essay will conduct a study on how they changed as based on the Sarcophagus with triumph of Dionysus.

The Sarcophagus with triumph of Dionysus

The Sarcophagus is a great example of both Roman art and the funeral rituals that the Romans practiced in ancient time. It depicts the attitude that the Romans had towards death and also displays their religious beliefs. The sarcophagus was made of marble on the island of Proconnesus in the Sea of Marmara in 215-225 A.D.

The cult of Dionysus (or Bacchus, as he was generally known in Rome) was very popular in the Roman culture since it presented the Roman thought expressing the triumph of the deceased over death. Dionysus was Roman god of wine and drama. He is depicted in full choral attitude, standing in a chariot, which is drawn by two Indian elephants with fringed cloths on their backs. He is supported by his companion the satyr Ampelos and is surrounded by mythological creatures such as satyrs, maenads, pans and the exotic animals celebrating his triumph in India. 



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The inscription reads: "Marcus Vibius Agesilaus junior made (it) for Marcus Vibius Liberalis, son of Marcus, the praetor, his foster-father." The condition of the sarcophagus is excellent despite the fact that it has small breaks, absent attributes and missing limbs. The surfaces have kept their original fine polish.

The Romans and Their Dead

The Romans had very interesting beliefs regarding their deceased. They thought that the soul would not rest until the body was buried. Until then, the spirit was supposed to be near its “home” because it was unhappy. The living had to show respect to the dead. If the body could not be found, the Romans used an empty tomb to conduct funeral rites. All the bodies had to be properly buried and if a Roman found an unburied body, he was supposed to perform the necessary burial rites.  

Funeral Practices

The funeral ceremonies were usually conducted in the night time. The body of the deceased was washed with warm water, and then anointed with oil; his limbs were straightened. The body of the deceased was attired in a toga and put on a funeral couch with feet towards the door. The couch was arranged with flowers and incense was burned.

Then the body was carried burial place accompanied by family members, friends and friends. Band of musicians headed the procession. A person who was well-known received an eulogy which was given by a son or a relative. It usually included his life history and his achievements. Eulogies were delivered mostly for men.

At the burial site, it was necessary to conduct three rites. They were the consecration of the burial place, throwing earth on the body, and the purification people polluted by death. The body was lowered into the grave with the help of a couch or in a coffin made of clay or stone. If a body was cremated, a shallow grave was filled with dry wood. After the cremation ashes were covered with earth. In later period, cremation was conducted in a sarcophagus.

After the burial, there was a period of "Nine Days of Sorrow". Then family members observed a period of mourning which lasted eight months. Annually, the Romans conducted their “days of obligations” to honor their dead. Flowers were brought to graves and offerings were presented in the temples of their gods. This way, the Romans believed the provided rest for the dead and their souls. 

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Change in Funeral Practices

Romans could burn or bury their dead. Those practices were known as cremation (burning) and inhumation (burial). In certain periods of time one practice was preferred over another. Burial was practiced in the earliest times of the Romans and remained so even after cremation was introduced. Cremation was a normal practice to the first century A.D., while burial and embalming were treated as a foreign custom. However burial practices never stopped. If the body had to be cremated, at least a small portion of its remains had to be buried. Cremation was widely practiced due to hygienic reasons since the population of Rome was growing. That custom of cremation had changed by the time of Hadrian (the fourth century A.D.). Cremation became a thing of the past then, at least in Rome. The rites observed in the provinces were different. With the introduction of Christianity burial became the norm again.

Sarcophagi in Funeral Practices

A sarcophagus means "flesh-eater" in Greek. It is a coffin for inhumation burials, which was widely used throughout the Roman empire, starting in the second century A.D. The most luxurious sarcophagi were made of marble, while others were made of lead, wood and stone. The use of sarcophagi was not a common practice in Roman practice before the second century. Prior to that the Romans used cremation, and put remaining bones and ashes in ossuaries or urns. Etruscans and Greeks were the ones who used sarcophagi  for centuries. Eventually, the Romans eventually adopted burial as their main funeral practice. 

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A quarry located on Prokonnesus in Asia Minor, was well-known for producing and exporting half-finished sarcophagi. They had the main decorative elements roughly carved out and were later fully developed at their place of destination according to the tastes of a client. The sarcophagi depicted mythology often the same as those chosen to decorate public places and homes. However, they had different meaning when looked upon in a funeral context. Some researchers think the images symbolized Roman religious beliefs and concepts about death and the afterlife, and others think that the images reflected the status of the dead.


Thus, as can be seen from the study made on the Roman funeral tradition, the Romans changed their preferences quite significantly from cremating their dead to burying them. Burial practices were closely associated with Roman mythology and reflected Roman beliefs. One of the greatest examples of funeral practices that the Romans had is the Sarcophagus with triumph of Dionysus which is a great example of both Roman art and the funeral rituals.


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