Roman Beliefs About an Afterlife

itrong distinction must be drawn between the traditional Greek no tions of an afterlife often presented in Roman poetry (as in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice—see page 60) and those that were actually current in Rome and were reflected in rituals and regular ceremonies. The former were taken over by Roman authors, together with much of the paraphernalia of Greek poetry. The latter represent genuine Roman tradition and also appear in verse, although they did not lend themselves to the same treatment as their Greek counterparts.

Common to both traditions was the idea that humans are the union of a body and an insubstantial but life-giving being that in English we call soul, although modern ideas of soul are inevitably influenced by Christianity. The Latin terms are corpus (body) and animus (soul). Animus, which has a feminine by-form, anima,* is etymologically connected with words meaning breathe or blow in languages cognate with Latin. It also has a close parallel in the Greek ave/Aoq (anemos) wind.f

The two words animus and anima overlap in meaning, but the former has a much wider range, as can be seen by comparing the entries in the Oxford Latin Dictionary. Both denote the vital element of a living person, but anima, not animus, is the term used for the soul in the afterlife. This was conceived as a shadowy outline of the body and for this reason is normally called a Shade in English (an alternative Latin word for anima is umbra). It was thought that at the point of death, the anima escaped through the mouth and in so doing rendered the body lifeless. The anima continued to exist but retained any defects or injuries of the body it previously inhabited; for example, the anima of a blind person was also blind. The two traditions, the one derived from Greece and the other indigenous to Rome, differ in the way that the fate and domicile of the anima were perceived. Both are represented in Roman poetry.

According to imported Greek ideas, which go back to Homer and had long been part of Greek poetic tradition, the Shades of the dead went down to the Underworld, a vast underground cavern that constituted the kingdom of the god Pluto and his queen, Proserpina.t This was approached by a long cave and surrounded by five rivers (the Styx, Cocytus, Phlegethon, Lethe, and Acheron), which served the dual purpose of preventing the

*The masculine animus and feminine anima do not represent a distinction between the soul of a man and that of a woman; the terms apply equally to both sexes. A man had both animus and anima, and so did a woman. fThe Greek word for soul (fvxrj) has a different etymology. tHere and elsewhere, names are given in their Latin forms.

dead from escaping and of discouraging the living from rescue attempts. A newly arrived Shade had to be taken over the Styx (or sometimes the Acheron) by a suitably morose ferryman, Charon. (There was no canonical version of Underworld geography, and we are not informed how the dead crossed the other rivers, if in fact it was necessary for them to do so.) The Shade then passed though the entrance to the Underworld, which was guarded by a savage three-headed dog, Cerberus. From there it passed to the general assembly of the dead, who shared a colorless existence because they were devoid of intelligence and feeling.

Two categories of Shades received special treatment. Those who had committed an offense against a divinity were severely punished. Most noteworthy were Ixion, who was fastened to a burning wheel that never stopped turning; Tantalus, who could not drink from the river in which he stood or reach the fruit hanging above his head; Tityus, who was pinned to the ground while two vultures fed on his liver; and Sisyphus, who kept pushing a huge stone up a slope from which it always rolled down. The counterparts to these unfortunates were the inhabitants of Elysium, a paradise reserved for the Shades of a few humans favored by the gods. The idea that Shades could be rewarded or punished is, of course, inconsistent with the notion that the dead were mindless and without feeling, but similar inconsistencies appear in descriptions of other features of the Underworld.

There were variations in these beliefs in Greek writers, and these also were taken over by their Roman successors. Often the Underworld was presented as observing some form of justice, since, on arrival, all the dead were tried by three Underworld judges, Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadaman-thus. Where appropriate, the judges imposed punishments, which were administered by the three Furies. According to another variant, the dead drank of the river Lethe and so forgot their past lives.

The Roman poets were constantly drawing on such Greek stories about life after death, but they themselves would not have believed them. They would rather have inclined toward the old Roman beliefs for which we have evidence both in literature and in the many thousands of grave inscriptions that have survived.

At Rome, cremation was the normal practice. The ashes of the dead were put in a vase, which was deposited in either a grave or columbarium. The original meaning of columbarium was dovecote (a nesting box for doves; cf. columba dove), but it was also used to designate a communal tomb where niches, similar to those of a dovecote, were cut into a wall; it was in these niches that the vases were stored. Both graves and columbaria

Tombstones along the Via Appia outside Rome.

were placed outside the city. It was thought that the great community of the dead lived on in the places where their remains had been placed; if their graves were inside the city limits, this would have entailed the undesirable consequence of allowing the dead to join in the everyday lives of the living. However, since it was thought unreasonable to cut the dead off entirely from society with the living, graves were placed where some form of communication was possible. A favorite location was near a busy road, as modefh' visitors to the Appian Way outside Rome can testify. Epitaphs often begin with the formula siste viator (stop, traveler) and then tell something about the dead person.

At the festival of the Parentalia in February and at other times, offerings were placed on graves. Since the dead still existed and presumably had the power to affect the lives of the living, they were accorded the status of minor supernatural powers and given the collective title di manes* (divine Shades). This term is never used in the singular, even when referring to the Shade of a single person. On tombstones, the usual introductory formula is dis manibus followed by the name of the dead person in the genitive case (to the divine Shades of_).

*Manes is the formal word used for the Shades of the dead but, unlike anima, has no other meaning.

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