Honors in Rome - Summer 2005
I. Slavery in Ancient Rome
Although the exact onset of slavery in Rome is unknown, the concept has always been part of Roman society. In the early ages, slavery was primarily limited to farms. Most manual labor was done by free laborers who would hire themselves out to the landowners. Unfortunately, Rome was always in constant battle and the wealthy Romans frequently lost their free laborers when they were called off to fight and were left with no one to tend to their fields. These wars, however, brought plenty of foreign slaves into the country. Slavery quickly blossomed and practically all manual labor was soon done by slaves. After a few hundred years, virtually any Roman citizen who was not a slave owned a slave. The slave trade flourished and was fed with a constant supply of war captives sold into slavery by generals. Since most slaves were captured during war, the slave trade soon expanded into more then just the buying and selling of manual laborers. Along with the field hands, many educated were captured as well. These men (and occasionally women) were sold to Romans who needed the specific skill the slave possessed. Skilled slaves were often allowed to pursue whatever their field may be with the profits going straight to the master. Sometimes these slaves were even allowed to start their own business with only an annual stipend owed to the master. Slaves played a part in virtually all aspects of Roman life from field hands, to cooks, to seamstresses, to physicians. To provide some perspective, in the daily life of a wealthy land owner in ancient Rome, a slave would wake him, dress him, feed him, drive him, write correspondence for him, tend to his fields and animals, feed and take care of his family, teach his children, and do the shopping for his wife. Slaves were a very integral part in the life of an ancient Roman family and often became part of the family. This very close relationship between slave and master became fairly common in Roman society.
Most slaves, despite this relationship with their master, always kept their hopes set on freedom. There were only two ways a slave could be set free. Either he could purchase freedom from his master by means of his collective savings, or he could be set free as a reward by his master. This act of freeing a slave was known as manumission and was an official handing over of ownership done in front of a witness. Once freed, the slave was part of a roman class of freed slaves known as libertini. Even though the slave was now a freedman, a relationship of mutual aid often remained between ex slave and master. The close ties built during slavery were hard to break and some slaves even preferred to stay with their master and his family once freed. Although some of the freedmen were educated, most of this class took the trade jobs looked down upon by the upper classes. These jobs varied significantly but included baker, blacksmith and butcher. Despite the fact that the freedman could, and often did, become powerful men, they could never attain true social equality with the free born citizen. Many freedmen dedicated their lives to becoming as wealthy and powerful as their old masters and strove to fit in as equals with the freeborn citizens. This desired to be seen as noble and equal followed them to their graves and is evident in the way that many freedmen decorated their tombs in the style of a man of noble birth.
II. Roman Death and Burial
The ancient Roman view of the afterlife was strongly tied to their burial practices. Romans believed that the soul of the dead was only truly laid to rest once the body had been properly buried. Burial was taken very seriously and the necessary ceremonies could take up to a week. Tending to the dead was very important and ritualistic. To prepare the body, the relatives would traditionally close the deceased's eyes while calling out the name of their dead as though they were calling him back to life. Then the body was washed and limbs straightened, and laid near the front door of the house for a few days so that friends and neighbors could come pay their respects. A coin was then traditionally placed in the mouth of the deceased. The coin was payment to Charon, who ferried the dead across the rivers of the underworld. The act of burying the dead with a coin was not standard, however it was common and many tombs have been found with a coin alongside the body. Once the body was prepared, the funeral procession would commence. This process varied greatly with status. A poor man would simply be carried to his tomb by his friends and family while a wealthy, influential member of society would warrant a more elaborate event. His procession would typically include a band of musicians leading up the procession, followed by jesters and men wearing wax masks of the deceased, then the visible body of the deceased carried on some sort of couch, and finally the family and libertini, then friends. It is important to note here that the freed slaves of the family came before their friends. This further shows the extent of the relationship that was maintained between freed slave and ex master.
If the deceased was middle or low class, the funeral procession would proceed straight to the burial site but, once again, if the deceased was wealthy, the funeral procession would be extended. Depending on the status of the departed, the procession could possibly even honored by public authority with a funereal oration in the forum. Only after the body of the wealthy had been sufficiently paraded around the city would it resume its course to the cemetery. Once the body reached the burial site, it would be placed in its grave. The actual burying of the body varied with time, and different customs were more typical to different time periods. Both cremation and inhumation were practiced throughout Roman history. There are, however, some generalizations that can be made. If the body was to be cremated, a shallow grave would be filled with dry wood and the body would be laid on top of it then set to fire. Once all had burned, the grave would either be covered with earth or the ashes taken to a separate site for burial. If the body was to be buried, it would be covered and laid in its tomb. Regardless of status, the dead were laid to rest with tokens and gifts to ensure that they did not return and bring unhappiness and despair to their family. The extravagance of the gifts and tomb, however, depended on the wealth of the deceased. After burial, the family would traditionally partake in nine days of sorrow before moving on with life.
The actual tombs, especially for the wealthy, often lined public streets leading away from the city. The dead were not allowed to be buried, or even cremated, within the city walls due to sanitation; possibly to prevent the spread of disease. Although eventually cemeteries were set aside for burial, these tombs along side the road remained popular until land began to become scare. Before lack of land was a problem, however, as long as they were outside the city walls, there was no regulation on where, or how big, tombs could be. Wealthy families often had huge, elaborate plots lining the road as close to the entry of the city as possible. The smaller tombs of the less wealthy were jammed in between them wherever there was room. One tomb could contain one body, or the bodies of an entire family. Tombs were designed to have a lavish front displaying the wealth of its inhabitant to any passerby. The body was generally enclosed in a sepulcher chamber within. The fronts of the tombs were often characterized by funerary reliefs. These are carvings on the front of the tombs decorated with significant objects such as portraits, possibly even an inscription, and items that otherwise portrayed the wealth and lifestyle of the departed. The actual shape of the tombs depended on personal preference. More tombs around 200 AD were house shaped while earlier tombs took more extravagant geometrical shapes. Only the very lowest class was buried in mass graves with total strangers.
III. History of Pompeii
As in the rest of Italy, an obvious social hierarchy was prevalent in the small town of Pompeii and was evident in every day life. This town is located nearly 2 miles from the shore of the Bay of Naples and nearly at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. Pompeii was first occupied in the 8th century BC by the Etruscans. This occupation lasted throughout the 5th and 6th centuries BC. After the Etruscans came the Saminites who turned Pompeii into a pure Greek town. Their reign ended when the Romans took control of Pompeii around 200 BC. The Romans retained control over Pompeii until the fateful day in 79 AD when Mt Vesuvius erupted. At this time there were approximately 20,000 people residing in Pompeii. Although almost all inhabitants were killed, the ash from the eruption preserved the entire town exactly how it was in its last moments. From this preserved town, we have been able to study almost all aspect of Roman life in Pompeii from lifestyles to how they buried their dead.
Burying the dead inside of the city was forbidden in Pompeii, as it was in most Roman cities. As a result, the patrons of the city resorted to the next most conspicuous place to lay their dead to rest; the roads leading into the city. By building tombs to commemorate their dead alongside the road, the citizens of Pompeii hoped that passerby’s would see and appreciate the wealth and nobility of a certain person/family. Although there were other ways to bury the dead, such as cremating and storing the ashes in a columbarium (a large tomb maintained by the local funeral group with niches dedicated to certain people/families), one of the “hot spots” to place a tomb was a road known as the ‘Street of Tombs’ leading out of Pompeii to the nearby town of Herculaneum. Wealth and social status were very important parts of society and as a result the prime spots (largest and closest to the city walls) were often taken by the elite. Those with lesser means were forced to squeeze their tombs in between two larger ones, go further down the road, or set them back off the road. The reason that the spots closest to the gate were more desirable was logical; the tombs closest to the entrance of the city would be the last thing a traveler would see before he entered and the first thing he saw before he left. In this way the deceased, and their family, would be honored every time someone entered or exited through the gate.
IV. Tomb Styles
The tomb styles ranged from monuments shaped like altars and temples to memorial arches and niches. Not all the tombs have the sepulcher chamber; the remains were sometimes deposited in the earth beneath the monument. One characteristic of many Pompeii tombs, regardless of style, were large funereal reliefs with portraits. These reliefs were especially common in the tombs of the libertini and most followed a basic format. There was typically a framed niche within with frontal partial-view portraits of a man dressed in a toga and a woman dressed in a stola and a mantle. The clothing is significant because clothing is something that is heavily restricted for slaves. Only once they become free can they choose their own clothing. In addition, this style of clothing shows that they are Roman citizens. The faces in the portraits were also significant in determining statues. Some common characteristics of the portraits include deep set eyes, creases alongside the nose, set mouths and often deep furrows in the brow for the men. Overall, the reliefs with portraits have the intent of showing the individual social accomplishments of the deceased as a respectable citizen of Rome. Being seen as an upstanding Roman citizen was something that the noble class maintained after death and the libertini emulated in their own graves. By emphasizing what honorable citizens they were, the freed slaves hoped that their status as a freed slave would be overlooked in favor of these other characteristics.
Another characteristic of the tombs are the similarities between the portraits. The portraits were often made generically in bulk, and then altered once they had been purchased. Consequently, the bodies on the portraits are very similar and only the faces would be unique depending on each person. These funerary reliefs were often associated with the class of freed slaves because the portraits were inexpensive and accessible and were an easy way to portray the deceased as they wanted to be remembered. The virtues of respectability and age were very highly prized in Roman society, and as a result the portraits were often made to look older by adding wrinkles and furrowed brows. These aging features also suggest hard work, that the libertini had survived considerable struggle and hardship to attain their freedom. One possible reason that this tomb style was so popular among freed slaves was they felt it was very important to commemorate their changed social statues. The libertini often included a brief inscription below their portraits giving their names and a brief list of accomplishments. Although most inscriptions listed names and a few achievements, the lengths could range from just the names, to lengthy biographies. If it was not specified that the deceased was a freedman in the inscription, their name would show their social status; a slave only had one name of their own and their masters’ family name while a citizen of society had both a first, and a family name. Once a slave had been freed he often kept his masters family name, and added his own on to it. A final commonality between reliefs were the carvings. At this time, very few common citizens were literate and since the tombs were meant to be appreciated by all, visual biographies were often added. These included a few significant illustrative carvings that would visually explain who the inhabitant of the tomb was. There could be a re-enactment of a scene, for example bread making if the deceased was a baker, or just significant objects, such as tools they worked with. Either way, these drawings were meant to further describe the life and lifestyle of the departed.
V. Themes / Meanings of Tombs
In Ancient Rome, a tomb served a very distinctive purpose beyond housing the body of the deceased; it preserved the inhabitants’ immortality. In a time where there was virtually no written record documenting an average citizens existence, maintaining ones immortality played a very important part in ancient Roman life and especially death. By decorating the front of their tombs with portraits, drawings and inscriptions, the deceased were effectively able to achieve immortality through each viewer. As long as their tomb remained standing, they would never be forgotten. Another benefit of using tombs to document ones existence was that the Romans could chose how they wanted to be remembered. They could create this lasting monument, to themselves, and be remembered however they desired. The libertini were able to replicate the style used by the wealthy in their tombs in hopes that future generations would associate them with the noble class. The decorations that were part of the reliefs were meant for the passerby to interact with; some tombs even contained inscriptions to the spectator saying things along the line of “stop, read this”.
VI. Example of Tomb Styles
The two attached photos of tombs are examples of typical tomb styles. The first is the relief on the front of a tomb of two Greek libertini. By looking at the facial features of the portraits, it is obvious that one of the depicted is old and one is young. The elder has no hair, deep furrows along his mouth and nose and slightly sunken cheeks, while the younger had much more youth like features. The inscriptions below list the names of the two men and by the same family name it can be determined that these two are father and son. There are also a variety of carvings along the outside of the portraits. To the right there is a hunting knife and fishing pole, presumably favorite pastimes of the men. To the left is an imitation of the wand used in the process of manumission, or freeing of a slave by the master. This implies that one, or both, of those portrayed were at one point slaves and joined the class of libertini. Above the portraits are depictions of tools used by a blacksmith indicating that the men were most likely blacksmith during their lives. The various tools along the edges of the portraits, along with the stern features of the men, makes the two men appear very dignified and hardworking, no doubt the intention of the tomb.
The second tomb seen is one on the Street of Tombs in Pompeii, the tomb of C. Munatius Faustus. This tomb was created for Munatius by his wife, Naevoleia. His wife is portrayed in the representation of a woman looking out through a window at the top of the relief. Her half bust showing just her face and slightly shoulders indicates that she was alive when this tomb was commissioned. The inscription indicates that Munatius held the title of Augustalis and was a very wealthy and respected Roman citizen. Just in case the viewer could not read, the inscription represents a scene of Munatius selflessly distributing grain to the eager people. This would leave no doubt in the viewers mind that Munatius was noble, wealthy, and loved by the people.
Death is a fascinating, although morbid, topic and can reveal much about a society. The ancient Roman burial practices took into account both the wealth and status of the deceased. As a result, the tombs of the wealthy were often larger and more elaborate then those of the poor. Burial was a very important part of Roman society and families would spend a significant amount of money to make sure their dead were properly honored. Being remembered after death was important in Roman society so tombs also represented the immortality of the deceased. One particularly interesting aspect of ancient Roman burial practices are the tombs of the social class of freed slaves known as libertini. These slaves, in an attempt to be remembered as wealthy and powerful, modeled their tombs after the style of the rich and noble.
VIII. Personal Obervations
I found the overwhelming desire for immortality to be the most interesting aspect of my topic. It really intrigued me how the ancient Romans were so desperate to be remembered in a favorable way that they would exaggerate their tombs, even going as far as mimicking a different social group, in order to be remembered in a positive light. It also made me think, however, about the importance of immortality. Although it’s hard to imagine it at this point in my life, while researching tombs I can’t help but wonder how I will chose to be remembered when that time comes. It seems that every person in this world has so many accomplishments that to summarize who they were in a few words and pictures would be impossible. What aspects of my life were so noteworthy and important that they defined who I am? Only when I started thinking along these lines could I truly understand why the ancient Roman tombs are the way they are.
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