Saturday, November 8, 2014

What Do Funerary Art & Architecture Reveal About Roman Social Issues?

The funerary art and architecture of the ancient Romans offers a remarkable amount of insight into the social classes and issues of their society.  From the way that the different sculptures and reliefs were made, the details that were put into them, to the depictions of both real-life people and mythological representations, there is a large array of information presented for the discerning scholar.  With just the first small cursory examination, it becomes apparent that the Romans highly valued the idea of preserving the memory of the deceased through the depictions of them on the various tombstones, altars, reliefs, and paintings.  A small portion of these aspects of Roman art will be looked at in respect to what they are conveying regarding Roman society in this essay.

As Clarke said, ‘We [in the western world] commemorate the dead in cemeteries or mausolea, cut off as much as possible from the business of daily life and its traffic.  Nothing could be farther from the Roman mentality, obsessed with prolonging a person’s memory in public: tombs are meant to be seen as often as possible and by as many people as possible.’[1]  This is a fantastic insight into the Roman funerary art and architecture, and opens the eyes to what the Romans were really about in designing and building these structures and works.  They wanted not only to remember the dead, but for everyone else to remember them and learn about them as well.  In the process of doing so, there is also information regarding the social standing and structure of the Romans passed along.

One example can be seen in the funerary relief of a vegetable vendor found in Ostia, Italy.[2]  This relief depicts a robust man in robes, peddling vegetables.  The stand shows bundles of what appear to be grains and bushels of vegetables and perhaps fruit.  There is a large square basket under the table, and a few other bundles and items of various descriptions on the table as well as next to the stand.  The relief itself is made out of painted terracotta, and has been dated to the second century AD.  This relief showcases what the man depicted most likely did for a living.  In this manner, he was ensuring that he was remembered after he was dead.  These types of terracotta reliefs were usually placed next to an inscription that identified the deceased and said a little about them.  There are other surviving terracottas like this one that depict a miller, tugboat operator, innkeeper, doctor, midwife, and smith.[3] 

It should be noted that the public display of the funerary art and architecture in the Roman culture honoured deserving citizens, and seems to have in some way conferred a status or social aspirations.[4]  Romans were very productive and driven people; this is how they managed to construct the great civilization that they did and build magnificent cities, some complete with plumbing and other ‘modern’ conveniences.  These aspirations, goals, and dreams of the people can be seen in their funerary practices as well.  A good example of funerary art that shows the belief and aspirations of someone that was unachieved is that of the statue memorialising Q Sulpicius Maximus, a child that died around eleven years old.
The monument of Q. Sulpicius Maximus is an example of a funeral alter that was used as a means of perhaps increasing ones station.  It appears that the parents of this child were freedmen, and as such were denied certain formal restrictions in Roman society.  However, it also appears that the restrictions of a freedman only lasted for the generation which was freed, and that the children of these freedmen were not bound by the same restrictions and instead able to move throughout society as they desired and were able.  Maximus’ alter depicts him as the child that he was, but adorned in an adults’ toga, symbolic of what he could have become.  This is derived from both the probable aspirations of the boys’ father as well as the reference to Maximus’ winning poetry in Greek.  This shows that he knew Latin and Greek, with Greek being the language of the cultivated Roman, and further evidence of station climbing.  Lastly, the monument was of such a style and quality that it could have passed for one from a Roman family of the upper orders.[5] 

With the custom of building the cemeteries, or communities of the dead, outside the city, people coming or going from a town would have to pass through and see all of the monuments to the dead that were constructed.  This ensured that both the dead were remembered, and the families that they belonged to were bolstered.  How were they raised up?  Well, the bigger and more impressive a tomb, the more that it cost, and by extrapolation, this meant that it was more valuable as a status object.  The tombs of Isola Sacra, outside Ostia, rivalled those of the Vatican.[6]  Further, the deceased was also commemorated on their birth- and death- days, and during the festivals of Parentalia and Lemuria, when family would visit the tomb and drink and feast, utilising the small kitchens that were sometimes built into them.[7] 

Lastly, not all funerary architecture was reserved for just the people of a family, but some for the pets as well.  The tombstone of Helena bears the inscription, ‘Helenae alumnae animae incomparabili ef benemerenti’.[8][9]  This appears to be a memorial for a much loved pet rather than a person.  This would indicate that the Romans felt very strongly about their pets, much like we do today, and honoured them as well with the same types of funeral monuments.  Clearly, this would have been a status symbol of a family, as it showed that they had enough money to make funerary art for their pets. 

Thus, Roman funerary art and architecture reveals a lot about the class structure and how the society viewed its dead.  Further, it also shows how the dead were used to try and change a families social standing.


Clarke, J.  (2003).  Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans.  Berkeley, p. 182

D’Ambra, E.  (1988).  ‘A Myth for a Smith: A Meleager Sarcophagus from a Tomb in Ostia’, in AJA, V. 92, No. 1, pp. 85-99.

D’Ambra, E.  (1998).  ‘The Social Order’, in Roman Art, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Week 3 Tutorial Images, HST256: Art and Architecture Through Roman Eyes, Macquarie University via OUA, Study Period 4 2012.  - Accessed 16 Dec, 2012

[1] Clarke, Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans, p. 182
[3] Myth for a Smith, p. 86
[4] The Social Order, p. 41
[5] Ibid, p. 44
[6] Myth for a Smith, p. 86
[7] Ibid
[8] Loosely translated to “To Helena, foster-child, well deserving and incomparable soul.”[8]  It can be translated that ANIMAE means animal, and that this is the grave of a pet.  This would also explain why the only image carved on the tombstone is a dog. 

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