Sunday, 23 February 2014

Roman Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife

"Charon" by
February is the month when ancient Romans traditionally honoured their dead, during the festival of the Parentalia, and this got me thinking about Roman attitudes to the afterlife. Roman polytheism does not provide clear-cut answers about the much pondered question of whether or not there is life after death:
“Traditional Pagan culture offered all kinds of views of death and the after-life: ranging from a terrifying series of punishment for those who had sinned in this life, through a more or less pleasant state of being that followed but was secondary to this life, to uncertainty or denial that that any form of after-life was possible (or knowable) … the official state cult did not particularly emphasise the fate of the individual after death, or urge a particular view of the after-life [Beard et al, Religions of Rome 1 at 289-290].”

Traditional views – realms of the dead
The conventional view of life after death in ancient Rome conceived of an afterlife wherein the soul separated from the body and then typically lived on in the underworld kingdom of Orcus (Dis Pater/Pluto). Sometimes the spirits of the dead might return to the world of the living, as either Manes (protecting spirits of the dead) or Lemures (malevolent spirits of the dead). Over time, Roman ideas about the afterlife came to be strongly influenced by Hellenic visions, which were themselves not always uniform. The features most commonly ascribed to the afterlife included descriptions of Hades being surrounded by various rivers, including the rivers Styx, Acheron and Lethe. From this latter river the dead drank the waters so to forget their former lives. Meanwhile they crossed the river Styx by paying Charon the ferryman – thus the dead customarily had a coin placed in their mouths or their hands lest their souls be stranded in limbo. Upon crossing to the other side of the river they were confronted by Cerberus, the three-headed dog, who prevented unauthorised souls from entering or leaving Hades. Once within Hades, the earthly behaviour of the dead was judged by Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aecus, to determine their fate in the next life. War heroes went to the paradisiacal Elysium, as did, by some accounts, the virtuous. Those guilty of hubris or other behaviour deemed particularly offensive to the Gods might find themselves in Tartarus: a place of divine punishment apparently inhabited by only the most unfortunate of criminals. Meanwhile most of the dead were thought to dwell on in the Asphodel fields, which was neither particularly pleasant nor unpleasant.