Tombstone Epitaphs and the Meaning of Funerary Inscriptions in Ancient Rome

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE ROMAN EMPIRE: FROM AUGUSTUS TO THE FALL OF ROME

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

During a funerary ceremony, a male family member would deliver an eulogy in which he would recount the deeds of the deceased. A procession then traveled outside the city for the burial of the dead. However, what were the female relatives expected to do during these funeral ceremonies?

Image showing a Renaissance sculpture, housed in Vatican City
In ancient Rome, female relatives of the deceased would mourn and participate in the burial procession. Some families also hired professional mourners and musicians.
(Image: Vitaly Minko/Shutterstock)

Procession for Cremation

Close female relatives of the deceased screamed, beat themselves, tore out their hair, scratched their cheeks until they bled, rolled on the ground, and pound their heads against the ground. The family also hired musicians, and professional mourners, the people who made a living by screaming and wailing. Some funerary ceremonies had become ostentatious spectacles that on several occasions, laws were passed to limit how much could be spent on them.

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What Property Rights Meant in Ancient Rome?

Romans were concerned about leaving their property to the desired person. The main purpose of a will was to designate somebody as the heir. This was different from modern wills, in which the main purpose is usually to distribute property. The heir inherited not only all or most of someone’s property but also assumed the testator’s identity and status. The oldest son was normally made the heir whose first duty was to see to the funeral of the deceased. An heir not only acquired the property and the rights of the testator but also inherited any debts which did not mean that debts were paid out of the estate and he got what was left. Instead, he was legally responsible for the deceased’s debts, even if those exceeded the value of the inheritance.

The shortest will consist of just four words: ‘Be X, my heir.’ This achieved all that was necessary. To be valid, a will named an heir, disinherit anyone eligible, and was written at a special ceremony with seven witnesses who were adult males, neither blind nor insane. One of the witnesses was designated the libiprens, who held up a set of scales while the will was written and signed, and all witnesses signed for the will to become valid.

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Different Connotations in a Will in Ancient Rome

To include specific gifts of money or property to people other than the heir, a line called, ‘the legacy to the will’ was added, describing the property or the amount of money and the person to whom it would go. Another very common part of a will was the posthumous manumission or freeing of the testator’s favorite slave or slaves. If a person hated someone, a legacy of rope and a nail was left for them; the message was that they should tie the rope to the nail and then hang themselves from it. It was illegal in a will, however, to slander the Emperor in any way.

Funerary Inscriptions in Ancient Rome

Photograph of a tombstone with elaborate epitaphs which was not limited to just rich Romans but everyone.
Roman tombstones included achievements, personality, and philosophy of the deceased person. (Image: Hungarian National Museum/Public domain)

Funerary inscriptions were another source to provide insight into the lives of ordinary Romans. A tombstone represented their final chance to make a statement to the people of the present and hold the possibility of speaking to people of the future.

Ancient Roman tombstones were more descriptive, often featuring lengthy epitaphs, describing the deceased person’s life, achievements or personality, offered bits of philosophy, or recorded a message that he or she wished to leave for posterity. Those funerary inscriptions preserved data about the lives, achievements, and aspirations of average Romans.

Right to Epitaphs

Tombstones were not limited to the wealthiest Romans but a broad spectrum of Roman society, from the most powerful aristocrats to the humblest artisans. For example, the epitaph of a member of the illustrious Scipio family, ‘elected to the highest offices in the government, had conducted a successful military campaign, served as aedile, consul, and censor.’ Simultaneously, simple craftsmen like ‘Gaius Atilius, son of Gaius, a cobbler of soldier’s boots,’ or merchants like ‘Lucius Clavius, freedman of Lucius, olive oil dealer from the Carinae district,’ and even slaves like ‘Zeuthus, barber, and slave of Aulus Plantius.’

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Writings on the Epitaphs

Some tombstones preserved the careers of public entertainers such as Gladiators. One read: ‘To the departed spirit of Marcus Antonius Niger, veteran gladiator of the Thracian style. He lived 38 years and fought 18 times. Flavia Diogenes paid for this monument to be made for her well-deserving husband.’ Another epitaph recorded the tragic story of a child who raced chariots but apparently died in a crash: ‘I, who rest here, was named Florus. I was a child charioteer who wanted to race swiftly but was even more swiftly overtaken by death. Ianurius put up this monument to his dear adopted son.’

Funerary Inscriptions about Women

Funerary inscriptions revealed that many women worked. Many of them were doctors. For example:

‘To the departed spirit of Julia Saturnina, 45 years of age, wonderful wife, excellent physician, most blameless woman. Erected by her husband Cassius Philippus out of gratitude. She lies here, and may the earth rest lightly upon her.’

Statue of Vibia Sabina, grand neice of Emperor Trajan was a well educated woman.
Funerary inscription of women revealed that most of them were educated and had great careers in medicine, education, and accounting. (Image: Flickr: Vibia. Author: Iessi, 10 October 2006./CC BY 2.0/Public domain)

Other professions attested to women’s tombstones included scribe: ‘To Hapate, short-hand writer of Greek. She lived for 25 years. Pittosus erected this monument to his most affectionate wife,’ or merchant: ‘Thymele, Marcella’s dealer in silk’ or actress: ‘Luria Privata, an actress in mime shows, lived 19 years. Bleptus made this monument.’

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Epitaphs of Men

The epitaphs of men also illustrated a variety of jobs, from humble laborers like ‘Publius Marcius Philodamus, construction worker, freedman of Publius,’ or those with more specialized careers: Here lie the bones of Quintus Tiburtinus Menolavus, freedman of Quintus, who made living slaughtering animals for sacrifices.’ Some men took great pride in their jobs, as in the case of a teacher whose epitaph stated:

‘Having left the famous city of Bithynia Nikaia as a young man, I came to the land of the Italians, and in the sacred city of Rome, I taught mathematics and geometry. This is the monument that I, Basileus, made, having paid for the work by making a living with my mind.’

Common Questions about Epitaphs and Funerary Inscriptions in Ancient Rome

Q: What do you write in an epitaph?

An epitaph often features lengthy inscriptions, describing the deceased person’s life, achievements or personality, offering bits of philosophy, or a message that he or she wished to leave for posterity.

Q: What is the importance of epitaph?

Epitaphs are important as those give a glimpse of the deceased person’s personality, career, and personal life. It also was a way to praise them after they were gone.

Q: What is a funerary inscription?

The funerary inscription is a source to provide insight into the lives of deceased Romans, representing their chance to make a statement to the people of the present. Funerary inscriptions preserved data about the lives, achievements, and aspirations of average Romans.

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