In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Death and Burial in the Roman Age

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of Death and Burial
  • Death, Bereavement, and Funerals

Classics Death and Burial in the Roman Age
John Pearce
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 September 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0356


Evidence for death and burial in the Roman age extends across all materials surviving from Antiquity, literary texts, the remnants of memorials to the dead, inscriptions, images, and burials themselves, both the remains of the dead and the objects used in the rituals for burying them. This diversity of source material and the relevance of funerary evidence to so many aspects of ancient life continue to fragment scholarship. The allocation of epitaphs, architecture, images, artifacts, and the remains of the dead to separate disciplines has compounded their decontextualization from funerary ensembles. The subject area has also been divided by different approaches depending on the region and period concerned: the dominant interests in late Roman burials, for example, have been the investigation of Christian conversion or migration into the Roman world. However, some unifying trends can be observed. In recent decades attention has shifted to exploring the mass of burial evidence for what it reveals of Roman society, its social structures, demographic characteristics, and so on. This has been given extra impetus by the results of archaeological fieldwork, creating a sample of well-excavated burials and human skeletal remains which now rivals the numbers of inscribed memorials. The optimism of reading off social structures or demographic characteristics from funerary evidence has been replaced with an emphasis on exploring how groups and individuals negotiated their relationships to their communities through rituals and monuments. This essay presents Roman behavior in relation to death, bereavement, and commemoration, mainly using material evidence in its broadest sense. It is necessarily selective, giving examples of key syntheses and datasets and of developing approaches. In some cases (especially monuments) it gives some greater weighting to English language publications, especially where they provide gateways to non-Anglophone scholarship. After opening sections on general works on death and burial and on the Roman funeral and mourning, the essay discusses in turn monuments, funerary rituals as reconstructed from archaeological evidence, and late Roman burial practice, including its relationship to conversion to Christianity. It concludes with case studies where different forms of evidence, architectural, artistic, artifactual, osteological, etc. combine to produce a richer view of monuments and processes, in specific cultural and social contexts across the empire. Study of human remains from a demographic or paleopathological perspective is outside the scope of this essay, though some bibliographic pointers are given in the first section (Overviews of Death and Burial). Recent work on osteological and biomolecular characteristics of the skeleton is however noted where its integration with the evidence for rituals has significantly enriched the study of identities in death.

Overviews of Death and Burial

Toynbee 1996 (unrevised from the 1971 original) is the only single volume to address the entirety of the evidence for Roman death and burial, literary, epigraphic, and archaeological. In its emphasis on monuments, and their architectural and cultural classification, and on afterlife beliefs (eschatology), it reflects the priorities of scholarship established in the 19th century. The long review Rife 1997 offers systematic bibliographic updates of the evidence Toynbee assesses. Morris 1992 evaluates the historiography of Roman death. The author uses case studies from the Greek and Roman world to advocate the investigation of burial evidence for insights into society and culture, partly by drawing on the wider field of funerary archaeology. In this wider field Parker Pearson 1999 (a single-author volume) and the Tarlow and Nilsson Stutz 2013 handbook are key expositions of current approaches to interpreting the material remains of the dead. In both cases a “post-processual” perspective emphasizes how the identities of the deceased are manipulated or contested to serve the purposes of the living, but they also present the methodological advances which enable a much fuller reconstruction of mortuary rituals from archaeological excavation. The review Pearce 2017 focuses on the impact of these advances on the study of Roman funerary rituals and on the insights into the funerary process which can now be drawn from archaeological evidence, especially for non-elites. While the insights from human skeletal remains into Roman demography are the subject of another article in Oxford Bibliographies (“Ancient Demography”), nonetheless the fruits of osteological and biomolecular study have been fundamental in driving a more fully contextualized analysis of archaeological data, in relation to every dimension of social identity which can be studied through the remains of the dead. Contributors to the edited volume Scheidel 2018 on the relationship between science and ancient history give an up-to-date assessment of the potential of osteological and biomolecular approaches in a rapidly changing field; Gowland 2017 and Killgrove 2018 assess this potential with reference respectively to Britain and Rome.

  • Gowland, Rebecca. 2017. Embodied identities in Roman Britain: A bioarchaeological approach. Britannia 48:177–194.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0068113X17000125

    This article illustrates how human bioarchaeological (skeletal and biomolecular) data contribute to the understanding of demography and identity in Rome’s provinces. It exploits new data and methodological innovations, using Britain as an example.

  • Killgrove, Kristina. 2018. Using skeletal remains as a proxy for Roman lifestyles: The potential and problems with osteological reconstructions of health, diet, and stature. In The Routledge handbook of diet and nutrition in the Roman world. Edited by Claire Holleran and Paul Erdkamp, 245–258. London: Routledge.

    An overview of the analytical potential of the human skeleton in relation to diet, health, and stature, with examples drawn from study by the author and others from recently excavated samples from Rome.

  • Morris, Ian. 1992. Death ritual and social structure in classical Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Bridges the divide between the study of mortuary evidence from the ancient world and wider archaeological research. Though now outdated in some respects, especially on human skeletal study, it remains a milestone text as an accessible critique of previous scholarship and a prospectus for future work.

  • Parker Pearson, Michael. 1999. The archaeology of death and burial. Stroud, UK: Sutton.

    Explores the historiography of mortuary archaeology and argues for post-processual approaches focused on burial archaeology and social identity, emphasizing the manipulation of the dead by the living in their negotiation of roles and identities.

  • Pearce, John. 2017. Introduction: Death as a process in Roman funerary archaeology. In Death as a process: The archaeology of the Roman funeral. Edited by John Pearce and Jake Weekes, 1–26. Oxford: Oxbow.

    Reviews the recent historiography of Roman death and burial and assesses the opportunities for improving knowledge of ritual process based on funerary evidence, with examples from across the Roman world.

  • Rife, Joseph L. 1997. Review of J. M. C. Toynbee. Death and burial in the Roman world. Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.6.10. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996.

    A long review, systematically providing updated references to all aspects of Roman death discussed by Toynbee, especially funerary architecture.

  • Scheidel, Walter, ed. 2018. The science of Roman history: Biology, climate, and the future of the past. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Contributors discuss insights for ancient demography from osteological and biomolecular study of human skeletal remains (Sperduti, et al. with a general discussion; Gowland and Walther on stature; Tuross and Campana, aDNA).

  • Tarlow, Sarah, and Liv Nilsson Stutz, eds. 2013. Handbook on the archaeology of death and burial. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Offers up-to-date summaries of key methodological and theoretical aspects of funerary archaeology, mainly from a post-processual and contextualizing perspective. The period and regional summaries pay limited attention to the ancient world.

  • Toynbee, Jocelyn M. C. 1996. Death and burial in the Roman world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Although touching on all aspects of death and burial, in practice its focus lies on monuments, especially from central Italy and on afterlife beliefs. Still a useful introduction, it gives greater attention to the formal characteristics of monuments than their social context. Reprint of 1971 book (London: Thames and Hudson).

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