Classics Death
Paul Chrystal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0355


Life and death is a vast subject, potentially taking in a massive chunk of the published output of Greco-Roman scholarship since the time of Homer and his contemporaries. So, some serious restriction of extent is required: this article will focus on life and death and how the two interrelate throughout the Greek and Roman periods. “Death” will cover eschatology, funeral and burial rites, funerary epigraphy, as well as different forms of death such as suicide, death in war and in the arena, death through disease, and murder. Poisonings, toxicology, osteoarchaeology, and forensics are also covered. “Life” will take in life where death impinges on it in whatever form. As with any culture and civilization, life and death were inextricably linked in ancient Greece and Rome: how one led one’s life was dictated to a large degree by belief in and expectations of a further life in the afterworld; similarly, the kind of afterlife one might expect was thought to be predicated on how one conducted oneself during life. The Greek tragedies underscore the absolute necessity for proper burial rites in Greek society while the Romans too had strict rules relating to funerary protocol and ritual. Epigraphy takes in military inscriptions and the formulaic praise, particularly of wives, husbands, children and mothers. We will see much on necromancy, communion with the dead, the underworld journey, underworld topography, and denizens of Hades and Tartarus such as Charon. The section on Postmortem Studies takes in works on memories of the departed, mourning, commemoration of the dead, the Parentalia, dining with the deceased, death pollution, corpse abuse, and cremations that went badly wrong. War death covers military and civilian death in battle and siege, disasters, and atrocities while suicide gives us Lucretia, euthanasia, and depictions of suicide in art. Finally, from murder, toxicology, and forensics we find studies on the effects of lead poisoning, the patricide of Verginia, three infamous women poisoners, and amateur toxicologists—Mithridates and Cleopatra. The citations range from Homer to late Roman, from the Greek polis to the Roman Empire at its widest extent and to its fall; they take in all available types of evidence as found in journal articles, books, visual arts, epigraphy, archaeology, architecture, science, and online sources.

General Studies on Ancient Life and Death

The latest and most comprehensive study of family life and death experiences is in Bøggild Johannsen and Petersen 2019 while Brandt, et al. 2017 is very specific to Asia Minor, based on archaeology and bioarchaeology. Hassett 2018 is a more popular work covering fifteen hundred years of life and death in the urban environment. Morris 2010 clearly demonstrates the value of burial archaeology in revealing Greek and Roman society and social change therein. Allen provides a rural take on death in Roman Britain.

  • Allen, Martyn G., T. Brindle, M. Fulford, L. Lodwick, A. Rohnbogner, and A. T. Smith. 2018. Life and death in the countryside of Roman Britain. New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain 3. Britannia Monograph series, no. 31. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

    This volume focuses on the people of rural Roman Britain—how they looked, lived, interacted with the material and spiritual worlds surrounding them, and also how they died, and what their physical remains can tell us.

  • Bøggild Johannsen, Kristine, and Jane Hjarl Petersen, ed. 2019. Family lives: Aspects of life and death in ancient families. Acta Hyperborea: Danish Studies in Classical Archaeology 15. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

    The whole gamut of life and death in the Greek and Roman family in 340 pages.

  • Brandt, J. Rasmus, Erika Hagelberg, G. Bjørnstad, and S. Ahrens, eds. 2017. Life and death in Asia Minor in Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times: Studies in Archaeology and bioarchaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

    The first book to combine archaeology and bioarchaeology in life and death research in Asia Minor in c. 200 BCE to 1300 CE. The archaeology includes death and territory, family organization, funerary rights, rituals and practices among pagans, Jews, and Christians, inhumation, and early Byzantine cremations. The bioarchaeology chapters use DNA, isotope, and osteological analyses to discuss questions such as demography and death rates, genetics, and osteobiography.

  • Hassett, Brenna. 2018. Built on bones: 15,000 years of urban life and death. London: Bloomsbury.

    A journey around urban life and death based on osteoarchaeology at its most interesting. This book explores the history of humanity’s experiment with the metropolis, and looks at why our ancestors chose city life, and why they/we have largely stuck to it. It explains the diseases, the deaths, and the many other misadventures that we have unleashed upon ourselves throughout the metropolitan past, and what we can look forward to in the future.

  • Morris, Ian. 2010. Death-ritual and social structure in classical Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The author shows the many ways in which the excavated remains of burials can be a major source of evidence for social historians of the Greco-Roman world. Burials have a far wider geographical and social range than surviving literary texts. Examples are from archaic Rhodes, classical Athens, early imperial Rome and the last days of the western Roman empire.

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