“SIT TIBI TERRA LEVIS” – Burial rites and concepts of the afterlife in the Roman Empire


On ancient Roman epitaphs, one can often read a wish that was expressed to accompany the deceased on their journey to the afterlife: “SIT TIBI TERRA LEVIS” (“May the earth weigh lightly upon you”). Dr. Andreas Hensen used this motto, made famous by the Roman epigrammatist Martial (c. 40–104 AD), to introduce his lecture on Roman burial customs and rituals. Since 2012, the ancient historian and archaeologist has been director of the Lobdengau Museum in Ladenburg, one of the most preeminent museums of the Rhine-Neckar region covering the Roman era; he is a lecturer at the Institute for Classical Archaeology of the Centre for Ancient Studies and at the Seminar for Ancient History and Epigraphy of Heidelberg University.

In his lecture, Hensen outlined various aspects of commemoration of the dead in ancient Rome, such as the transmission of actions and rites and the design of burial sites. Using examples from archaeological excavations, he provided information on forms of burial and accompanying gifts for the deceased, and also explained the information conveyed by the grave inscriptions. The literary and inscriptional sources and archaeological finds consulted by Hensen largely date back to the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and are derived from the capital city of Rome, its immediate surroundings, and the Rhine provinces of that time. “We must realize that all practices relating to the mortuary cult have their roots in much older concepts from the Mediterranean, especially from Greek culture, and are subject to processes of acculturation, which we describe here with the word ‘romanization,’” Hensen said.

Actions, rites, and honoring the dead
Although the burial customs described in the sources were the norm above all among the wealthy and influential classes, the following procedure outlined by Hensen was more or less universal practice: “When a person was dying, his or her close relatives gathered at the deathbed. The eyes of the deceased were closed; this was followed by the conclamatio – his or her name was called out loudly. The corpse was then washed, anointed, dressed in accordance with the standing of the deceased, and laid on a funeral couch (lectus funebris). This lying-in-state, which lasted several days, was accompanied by vigil guards and professional mourners. The cortege gathered on the day of the funeral for the procession (pompa funebris). At a public cremation site (ustrina), a woodpile was erected that served as a pyre for the deathbed; dishes with food, vessels with incense, urns with fragrant ointments, and personal belongings of the deceased were placed there. A close relative ignited the funeral pyre, and the embers were finally extinguished with water, wine, or milk. A very close relative, usually the head of the household (pater familias), collected the bones in a vessel or cloth (ossilegium). After depositing the mortal remains of the deceased in the burial pit, the relatives partook in a meal (silicernium) at the open grave. A place setting with food and drink was also provided for the deceased. There followed a nine-day period of mourning, which ended with a further meal (cena novendialis) at the grave and a purification offering (lustrum).”

According to the Roman conception, the souls of the deceased now became part of the realm of the Manes (di manes), who lived on in the grave as benevolent guardian spirits of the family. This had far-reaching consequences: The days of commemoration had to be observed with fixed rites and grave offerings; if these were neglected, it was feared that the ancestors would be transformed from friendly manes into displeased lemures, who rose from the graves and wandered about restlessly. These in turn could mutate into dangerous larvae, which roam around as ghosts, frighten the negligent descendants and take revenge on them by causing serious harm.

Location of the burial sites
The principle formulated in Roman law that a deceased person may neither be buried nor cremated within the confines of the city remained valid until the beginnings of Christianization: “The necropolises were therefore located outside the cities and settlements – although not in an isolated place as in our day and age, but as close as possible to the busy arterial roads.” As examples, Hensen mentioned the funerary monuments on the Via Appia outside Rome, the Via dei Sepolcri outside the city walls of Pompeii and, in southwestern Germany, the cemetery of Municipium Arae Flaviae, today’s Rottweil am Neckar.

Forms of burial at the Roman cemetery in Heidelberg
Hensen cited the example of the large necropolis of Heidelberg – which was archaeologically investigated during the development of the Heidelberg University campus in Neuenheimer Feld in the 1950s and 1960s and, with around 1,500 burials, is one of the best-preserved necropolises of the Roman Empire – to demonstrate what scientific conclusions can be drawn regarding burial and funeral rites on the basis of the layout and furnishings of the tombs and the selection of burial gifts. From 1999 to 2009, Hensen led the interdisciplinary working group that archaeologically evaluated the excavations in Heidelberg as part of a project of the German Research Foundation (DFG).

“In Ancient Rome, one thing above all was very important: The mortal remains had to be covered with earth,” Hensen explained, and pointed out two types of burial: cremation, in which the deceased is burned on a funeral pyre, and inhumation, with burial of the unburned corpse. Cremation was the clearly dominant form of burial up until the onset of late antiquity in the 3rd century AD; this was also the case in Heidelberg, where 96 percent of the 1,500 graves contained cremated remains. Inhumation, on the other hand, was considered a form of burial for the very poor, who could not afford the wood for a funeral pyre, as well as for newborn babies and infants. “In the course of late antiquity, the custom of inhumation gradually became more widespread. Today, of course, we can see an opposite trend: Over the last hundred years, in Central Europe we have been witnessing a gradual move away from inhumation and a steadily increasing trend towards cremation and urn burials. There are various different motives for this development,” Hensen reported.

Tableware, pitchers for libations, oil lamps, containers for anointing oil, and even coins were placed as burial gifts next to the solid container (urna) with the bones of the deceased. The coin offering dates back to a well-known custom that had already been practiced in classical Greece: “The ferryman Charon, who guided the souls of the deceased across the river Styx to Hades, was to be remunerated for this service with the so-called obulus.” The choice of epitaph and the design of the funerary monuments could likewise be seen as a means of social representation for a family or could provide information about the profession of the deceased, Hensen explained using further examples from southwestern Germany.

Dealing with death in the Roman era
Since this world and the hereafter were seen as realms that were to be fundamentally separated from one another in both spatial and spiritual terms, contact between the two spheres was organized by religion and legislation: “The pax deorum was to be maintained at all costs. This was a state of peace between the world of the living and the sphere of the gods, which included the spirits of the dead – a peace that had to be constantly balanced and monitored.” The presence of graves in everyday life made regular confrontation with death and one’s own finite existence an unavoidable necessity. This is what no doubt constitutes the great difference to the level of significance accorded to death and commemoration in our time, Hensen explained.

What we learn about the manes, lemures and larvae as spirits of the dead may paint a rather bleak picture of existence in the afterlife, but apparently not everyone thought this way. Hensen concluded his lecture with a philosophical musing that can be read on the tombstone of a certain Donnia Italia around 200 AD in Lectoure (Lactora) in southern France: “Non fui me mini non sum non curo” – I had not been, I was, I remember, now I am no longer, what do I care?

Dr. Andreas Hensen
Lobdengau-Museum, Ladenburg

Dialog in the Museum
May 23, 2023
Mercedes-Benz Museum
70372 Stuttgart

Dr. Andreas Hensen
Lobdengau-Museum, Ladenburg