Burials in Ancient Rome

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, rev. ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017 (rev. 2024).


With elegant wit, the Roman satirist Petronius, a member of Nero's prodigal court, dramatized the extravagant funerary customs of wealthy Romans in his Satyricon, a caricature of Roman high life in the first century CE. His protagonist Trimalchio was an Asiatic self-made freedman and former slave of Maecenas, the eminent Augustan patron of the arts. Holding forth at one of his ostentatious banquets, Trimalchio's free-flowing table-talk turned to his will, and to the generous provisions he was making for his friends, retainers, and slaves.  He then addressed his "dearest friend," the stonemason Habinnas:

"... will you order my [mausoleum] according to my instructions?  My earnest request is that you [carve the figure of] my little dog below my statue and... garlands, perfume [jars], and all the [gladiatorial] contests of Petraites, so that through your kindness, my life can continue after death...  Build it a hundred feet wide at the front, and two hundred feet from front to rear. I'd like fruit trees of all kinds surrounding my ashes, and lots of vines: it's quite wrong for a man to have an elegant house for life, and not to give thought to the longer place of residence.... I want you also to depict ships in full sail and myself sitting on a dais wearing the toga with purple stripes and five gold rings, dispensing coins from a wallet to the people at large... [show] dining halls as well... and all the citizens having a good time in them. On my right, erect a statue of my Fortunata holding a dove, and leading along her puppy... some big wine jars sealed with gypsum to ensure that the wine doesn't leak out... Put a sundial in the middle, so that whoever wants to know time will read my name, whether he wants to or not... and give some thought to whether this inscription strikes you as suitable enough: "Here rests Gaius Pompeius Trimalchio of the household of Maecenas. He was formally declared priest of Augustus... he could have claimed membership of every Roman guild, (but) he refused. He was god-fearing, brave, and faithful. He grew from small beginnings and left thirty million, without ever hearing a philosopher lecture. Farewell, Trimalchio; and farewell, you who read this."  As he uttered these words, Trimalchio began to weep... Fortunata, too, wept, and so did Habinnas.  In fact, the whole household filled the dining-room with cries of grief, as though summoned to a funeral."[i]

Like other Romans of his time, Trimalchio would have built his tomb outside of the city as had been decreed by the Law of the Twelve Tables in the early Republican period.[ii] The law prescribed that all burials in Rome must lie beyond the pomerium, the hallowed strip of land that was kept free of buildings on either side of the wall that circled an Etruscan or Roman town. As the city of Rome expanded, the radius of the burial belt increased, but, with few exceptions, did not infringe on the pomerium until the Late Empire. By that time, Rome was surrounded by underground tombs bordering the highways, which were easy to find and to visit. That being said, there is no way to arrive at an absolute answer to the number of tombs around Rome because of drastic changes to the terrain.[iii]

Answers to the question as to how the catacombs fit within this larger context are still being pursued today, perhaps more avidly than ever before, because of the wish to understand Judeo-Christian history more clearly through learning about the lives and beliefs of the people who built and used the catacombs.  These sites still have a lot to tell us. Yet they must always be considered in the larger context of their location on the outskirts of an ancient metropolis, much damaged by erosion or landslides, as well as modern construction. Not all the pieces of evidence for Christian and Jewish burials in this setting can fit into a seamless whole.

The land for burying lots in Ancient Rome was purchased by individuals and shareholders for their own use or for speculation. Since the cost of burial could vary from 200 to 192,000 sestertii, there were tombs to suit virtually everybody's economic circumstance, from that most humble to the wealthiest. Only the very poorest of Romans were unable to afford tombs and thus were candidates for mass burials in pits (puticuli). Burial methods ranged from simple interment in trenches in the ground or in large clay jars, to placing the remains in modestly built brick chests or in sumptuous, house-like mausoleums.[iv] Such a wide variety of tombs may still be seen in Rome today in sites like the Isola Sacra, a cemetery near Ostia, that served Portus, Rome's seaport area (modern Porto), during the middle and late Imperial eras.  

Fig. 1. Isola Sacra Necropolis. DAPICS n. 2180.

In early Rome, inhumation (the laying of the body in the ground or tomb) was a traditional form of burial that persisted even when other methods became fashionable. Cremation generally came into favor around the end of the fifth century BCE, but some old Roman families, such as the Cornelii Scipiones, perpetuated the earliest Roman funerary customs, especially during the third and second centuries BCE, as attested by the sarcophagi and the tuff slabs of this era leaning against the inner walls of their family tomb.[v] The dictator Sulla was the first of the Gens Cornelia to be cremated in 78 BCE, perhaps because he feared posthumous retribution for having exhumed and scattered the mortal remains of his political rival, Marius.[vi] Despite the general popularity of cremation that developed, a vestige of the tradition of interment might be seen, as recorded by Cicero, in the os resectum (keeping a finger of the deceased to be buried in the earth after cremation).

In burial areas near and at Rome, including the Isola Sacra necropolis, the Vatican necropolis,[vii] and many of the cemetery grounds above the catacombs, inhumation and cremation burials lay side by side, even within the same mausoleum, as had been done as far back as the late eighth century BCE in the Archaic Necropolis in the Roman Forum.[viii]

A congenial burial situation was enjoyed by a group of freedmen, whose chamber tomb (cella) was built in the time of the late republic along the route of the ancient via Caelimontana. Along with cremation burials, the tomb housed the inhumed remains of a librarius (a transcriber of books), his wife, and his less official female companion, all of whom, apparently, were former slaves who had earned or been given their freedom.[ix]

During the rule of the emperor Trajan (98-117 CE), cremation began to be phased out in favor of inhumation once again. This was the type of interment that was preferred by Jews, Christians, and members of other Near Eastern sects, in accordance with their religious beliefs. Under the emperor Hadrian and his successors during the first half of the second century CE, burial in elaborately carved sarcophagi or other ornate repositories became fashionable among affluent Romans. Placed in elegantly decorated mausolea or hypogaea, these could have served as status symbols for the families of the deceased.[x] One sepulcher might be restricted to the exclusive burial of one individual, while another might include the extended family of the owners, their freedmen, friends, and even relatives of friends. Meticulously-worded wills provided for the proper upkeep of the tombs as well as continued observance of prescribed rituals. Of great importance also was the maintenance of sepulchral vineyards, orchards, and gardens, as the sources of symbolic funerary offerings such as wine and roses. One of Ausonius' epigraphs specifically requests: "Sprinkle my ashes with pure wine and fragrant oil of spikenard. Bring balsam, too, stranger, with crimson roses. Tearless my urn enjoys unending spring.  I have not died, but changed my state."[xi]

Fig. 2. Columbarium in the Catacomb of San Sebastian, Rome. Built around a central courtyard, each wall contain a number of arched niches for holding cinerary urns. Each wall also has an elaborated doorway with a gabled roof. DAPICS n. 0616.

Another "peculiarly Roman" and innovative form of collective interment, a precursor to the communal catacomb burials, was the columbarium, so-called because of its resemblance to a dovecote. Constructed above or below the ground, the greater part of a columbarium's inner walls was honey-combed with small rectangular or apsidal niches designed to hold clay or marble urns (ollae) containing the ashes of the deceased. Columbaria were publicly or privately owned and of varying degrees of elegance, depending on the economic status of the owners. In addition to ollae, cremated remains also could be placed in elaborately carved chests, altars, and, occasionally, sarcophagi. Epitaphs reveal that the ashes of relatives, freedmen, slaves, and others who had been in the service of imperial or aristocratic families could be interred together in a particular columbarium close to the tombs of their patrons.[xii] They tell us also that their ranks might include, for example, a medicus, an obstetrix (one appropriately named Hygeia), an argentarius, a ciambalista, and members of a collegium symphoniacorum. From inscriptions we also learn the names of the librarians of the Latin and Greek libraries in the Porticus Octaviae as well as those of two officers of the Palatine Library of Apollo during the reign of Tiberius.  Even the pet dog of a Roman lady was deemed worthy of being commemorated by a portrait and a tender inscription over its ashes.

Another common practice was the purchase of burial space in non-private columbaria from fraternal organizations or burial clubs which had bought the land communally, or from companies that had built columbaria for speculation. To encourage remembrance and visits to the deceased, columbaria typically were located near main highways: the via Appia, via Flaminia, and via Latina were lined with them. Their advantageous locations made them desirable sites for this type of investment.

Collegia funeraticia, or burial societies, generally were organized for the benefit of the less prosperous or for slaves. Even after 64 BCE, when most other autonomous organizations came to be prohibited by Rome for fear of their being possible sources of political disturbances, funerary societies and "a few genuine artisans' clubs of long standing and proven respectability" were tolerated and protected by decree.[xiii] As a result, especially during the second and third centuries CE, a large number of collegia were formed that assumed responsibility for proper burials and for carrying on commemorative services like banquets and sacrifices. To gain such legal standing, certain already-established groups added the function of burial to their original purposes, or ostensibly supplanted other activities with funerary responsibilities. The term collegium itself often came to connote a burial society. The members of these clubs, affiliated through religious, familial, social, or occupational associations, are believed to have met monthly for the payment of dues for their funerary expenses and for occasional social activities.

According to David Noy, "the Christian catacombs were expected to provide (burial places) for the very poor," and he presumed that similar arrangements might have been made for the Jewish poor, although no documentation for such provision has been found.[xiv] It is unlikely that separate burial areas existed for most of the Jews and early Christians before the catacombs were developed, and except for the more prosperous families or larger groups who could purchase their own hypogaea, adherents to these religions were probably buried amongst the general population. Yet, since according to imperial Roman decree, synagogues were allowed to raise and administer funds for the needs of their congregation, it was undoubtedly seen by both groups to be a communal responsibility to assure proper burial for their members.[xv]

The disturbance and desecration of graves and the appropriation of their furnishings were always major concerns in the ancient world. In a fifth-century BCE Phoenician inscription, Tibnat, King of Sidon, warns:

Whatever person you may be who shall turn over this coffin, do not open it upon me and do not anger me... and if you shall open it upon me and if you shall anger me, may you not be bestowed with offspring in this life under the sun and may your resting place be with the shades.[xvi]

That such an inscription was used in a king's burial indicates that commoners and personages of high rank shared the anxiety about corpse desecration. The same fear is evident in the elaborate precautions taken by the ancient Egyptians to prevent grave disturbances (usually without success).

The legalistically minded Romans tried to prevent mishaps that would threaten the well-being of the deceased, bodily or spiritually. Roman law held all graves to be inviolable, and a penalty was imposed for grave disturbances. A late fourth-century CE Jewish tombstone from Catania in Sicily, in Latin except for the opening line in Hebrew, bears a relatively mild admonition:

"Peace upon Israel.  Amen, Amen, Peace. Samuel. I, Aurelius Samuel, have bought a memorial for myself and for my wife, Lassia Irene, who died the twelfth day before the Kalends of November (14), the day of Venus (Friday) of the eighth month, Merobaudes being Consul for the second time, with Saturninus; she lived twenty-three years with peace. I adjure you by the victories of those who rule, I adjure you by the respect due to the patriarchs, I adjure you by the law that the Lord gave to the Jews: let no one open the memorial and place a stranger's body on our bones. But if anyone will open it let him give ten silver pounds to the treasury."[xvii]

Fig. 3. Epitaph dedicated by Aurelius Samohil (Samuel) to his wife in 383 CE (JIWE 1, pp. 187-192, n. 145; CIJ 1, n. 650). Castello Ursino Museum, Catania. DAPICS n. 2286.

Aurelius Samuel's inscription is rare because it points to an exact date by naming the consulships and thus the Roman year, 383 CE, as well as the month and day of Lassia's death, October 2.[xviii]

A group of inscriptions from Beth She'arim in Ancient Palestine from the Late Ancient era addressed the same problem. In one set, the departed one piously evoked (in Greek) the divine law of the Torah and probably the same Roman imperial edict to which Aurelius Samuel referred: "Nobody shall open (this tomb), in accordance with divine and secular law."  This comparatively mild admonition in Greek was reinforced with a much more ominous warning in Aramaic: "Anybody who shall open this burial upon whosoever is inside, shall die of an evil end."[xix]

In spite of the fines, warnings, and curses against violation of burials, the vandalizing of tombs and "borrowing" of materials were common occurrences, causing tremendous confusion for the archaeologists of today, since it is often not possible to determine accurately where some of the epigraphic evidence originally belonged.

[i] Petronius, The Satyricon, trans. P. G. Walsh (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 59-60.
[ii] The earliest known codification of Roman laws occurred in 450 BCE when they were inscribed or painted on wooden tablets and displayed in the Roman Forum.
[iii] L. Hertling & E. Kirschbaum, The Roman Catacombs and Their Martyrs, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1956), p. 21.
[iv] The jars, typically two-handled storage vessels, particularly amphorae, were employed in modest burials both as grave markers and to serve as funnels for the libations offered by mourners.
[v] Similar burials were discovered in the Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, differing only in the use of marble tiles instead of tuff slabs: N. Muller, "Il cimitero degli antichi Ebrei posto sulla via Portuense," in Dissertazioni della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, ser. 2:12 [1915], pp. 223-224.
[vi] Cicero, De Legibus 2.22:56; Pliny, Historia Naturalis, 7.14:187. 
[vii] M. Guarducci, Peter, the Rock on which the Church is Built, transl. by Msgr. P. Coveney (Vatican City: Reverenda Fabbrica di S. Pietro in Vaticano, 1977), pp. 12-14.
[viii] J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Ancient World, London: Thames & Hudson, 1971, p. 39.
[ix] Toynbee, Death and Burial, p. 117.
[x] A hypogeum (singular) is an underground chamber, either naturally occurring or deliberately carved.
[xi] Detailed instructions for burial, the creation of various types of funerary monuments, the planting of orchards, and the continuation of rituals such as presenting offerings and traditional funerary repasts were discovered in a ninth-century parchment, the Epitaphia Heroum 31, transcribed from the marble tombstone of a Roman buried in ancient Andematunnum (Langres). Two pages of this copy were found in the binding of a tenth-century manuscript in a library at Basel: G. B. de Rossi, Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana 1:1, pp. 94-95.
[xii] Toynbee, Death and Burial, pp. 113-114.
[xiii] E. M. Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. A Study in Political Relations (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2001), p. 134.
[xiv] D. Noy, "Where were the Jews of the Diaspora Buried?" in M. Goodman, ed., Jews in a Greco-Roman World (Oxford-New York: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 86-87.
[xv] Refer to J-B. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum 1: Europe (Vatican City: Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 1936), pp. 90-91. Communal responsibility for providing proper burials has been an integral part of Jewish tradition. Alan Dershowitz, in his autobiography Chutzpah (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1991), pp. 35-36, recounts that upon arriving in the United States in 1888, his grandfather, like other newly arrived Jewish immigrants, helped establish a benevolent society to assist their compatriots in adapting to their new home. Alongside offering "sick benefits, interest-free loans... and other necessities... one of the first items of business for (such a) cevra ("friendship circle") was to purchase burial plots for the members and their families so that they could be assured eternal rest in sanctified ground."
[xvi] N. Avigad, Beth She'arim 3: Report on the Excavations During 1953-1958. Catacombs 12-23 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1976), p. 235, nn. 12-23.
[xvii] The translation is by Noy (see JIWE 1, pp. 187-192, n. 145; CIJ 1, n. 650). In the Roman calendar, three fixed points in each month were used for counting days: Kalends, the first day of the month; Ides, the 13th or 15th day depending on the specific month; and Nones, the 9th day before the Ides. Roman years were recorded in relation to the terms of each consul, providing later historians with a basis for calculating Roman chronology.
[xviii] According to Noy (JIWE 1, p. 190), this Italian Jewish epitaph is unique in naming a day of the week, although it was a relatively common practice in the contemporary epigraphic habits, including those of Christians. 
[xix] These two inscriptions are painted in red above the back wall of an arcosolium (arched niche) in Catacomb 12 at Beth She'arim (see Avigad, Beth She'arim 3, p. 23 and p. 223, pl. 3:3-5). Additional epitaphs in Beth She'arim that employ threats while also conveying a belief in immortality and judgment can be found in Room 5 in Catacomb 11 (inscription to Hesychios, in M. Schwabe and B. Lifshitz, Beth She'arim 2: The Greek Inscriptions (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1974), pp. 112-114, no. 129) and in Room 2 in Catacomb 13 (see op. cit., pp. 139-140, no. 162).

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