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.

There was a belief in heaven, but it was not, as we might expect, a place of reward for pious believers. Cicero described such a place:
“all those who have protected or assisted the fatherland, or increased its greatness, have a special place reserved for them in heaven, where they may enjoy perpetual happiness … it is from heaven that the rulers and preservers of the cities come, and it is to heaven that they eventually return [Cicero, cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome 2 at 220-221].”
The implication is that heaven is the place where Gods live – thus one needed to be a God, or become a God, to go there. Unlike the Abrahamic monotheists who dominate our own times, Romans did not generally revere the Gods in the hope of securing a good result in the afterlife. More commonly they prayed for health, safety, success and prosperity in the world in which they actually lived, rather than in some nebulous world that may or may not exist after death. Ambivalence about and disbelief in the afterlife was common:
“Many funerary inscriptions of the imperial age testify to the spread of Epicurean beliefs among the common people. Formulae such as non fui, fui, non sum, non desidero (‘I was not, I have been, I am not, I do not want’ …) were so frequently used that they were abbreviated. For instance NF NS NC signifies non fui, non sum, non curo (‘I was not, I am not, I do not care’…). A Latin inscription from Rome reports a Greek text in which is unveiled the truth about the after-life: ‘Do not go forth nor pass along without reading me; but stop, listen to me and do not leave before you have been instructed: there is no crossing ferry to Hades, nor Charon the ferryman, nor Aeacus holding the keys, nor the dog Cerberus’ [Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion at 379].”

"Prose" (1879) by Alma-Tadema 
Epicureanism – no life after death
Disbelief in the afterlife was so common that when Caesar was pontifex maximus (high priest – the most important religious position in Rome) he was able to argue:
“Death is not a torment but a relief from suffering; it is the end of all human misfortune, beyond which there is no place for grief, or joy [Sallust citing Caesar, cited in Kamm, The Romans at 98].”
Ironically, Caesar himself was thought to have joined the ranks of the divinities upon his death and was thus deified by the senate of Rome. This outcome was seemingly in conflict with his apparently Epicurean beliefs (although it is not certain that Caesar was a card carrying Epicurean) – conscientious Epicureans argue that the Gods do not personally intervene in human affairs; instead they live a life of supreme happiness and tranquility. Within this framework the Gods point the way to living a divinely happy life state and whom we should therefore strive to emulate. Epicurus taught that the best kind of life is one lived without fear, anxiety or desire. Such a life would effectively equate to that of a God’s, and would be both tranquil and pleasurable.

Meanwhile humans, as compounds of atoms, are considered to be both mortal and material; ultimately our atoms dissolve following death … kind of. Lucretius (a Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher who died in 55 BCE) clarifies the Epicurean position on life after death:
“nature dissolves all things in turn into their constituent atoms and never reduces anything to nothing … all things are composed of imperishable particles, nature does not allow any compound to disintegrate until it meets a force that shatters it with an external blow or penetrates the spaces between the atoms and unravels it from within.  
Moreover, if time, which removes compounds from our sight when they get old, annihilated these compounds by destroying all their matter completely, from what matter does the power of procreation continue to bring the various species of animals into the light of life? … therefore things cannot be reduced to nothing … things which we see now do not ever perish completely, because nature builds up one thing from another thing, and does not compound to be born unless aided by the death of another compound …  
Death does not destroy compounds by annihilating the individual atoms; it simply breaks up the compound and releases the atoms. Then it joins each atom to some other atoms … the universe is continually being renewed; and mortals exist through successive exchanges of atoms. One race grows up even as another wastes away, and the generations of living things come and go in brief spans of time; and like runners, they pass on the torch of life [Lucretius, cited in Shelton, As the Romans Did at 422-424].”

Bust of Marcus Aurelius, British Museum
Stoicism – the afterlife is unknown
While Epicureans hold that life is merely a random or chance convergence of atoms, and death is but the dispersion of atoms, Stoics (of which Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are the most famous adherents) believe there is a single divine and inherently rational will, which can be called God or Nature or Reason. Since a person’s soul is part of this plan happiness can only be attained when people allow reason to govern their lives and are thus in harmony with the universe (Shelton, As the Romans Did at 426). Stoics believe in a soul which is distinct from the material body:
“My body is that part of me which can be injured; but within this fragile dwelling-place lives a soul which is free. And never will that flesh drive me to fear, never to a role which is unworthy of a good man. Never will I tell lies for the sake of this silly little body … Even now, while we are associated, we will not be partners on equal terms, because the soul will assume all authority [Seneca the Younger, cited in Shelton, As the Romans Did at 428].” 
Within this scheme the Gods are regarded as higher, virtuous beings who can help and instruct men and women on the the best way to live a virtuous life, which equates to a happy life:
“in dealing with good men, the Gods follow the same plan that teachers follow in dealing with their students: they demand more work from those in whom they have the most confidence and hope … The demonstration of one’s virtus [virtue, strength, worthiness] is never an easy thing. Fortune beats and lashes us, but we should patiently endure. This is not cruelty, but a contest, and the more often we enter, the stronger we will be [Seneca the Younger, cited in Shelton, As the Romans Did at 430].”
Marcus Aurelius expanded on the theme of the Stoic view of the relationship between people and Gods:
“He is living with the Gods who continuously displays his soul to them, as content with what they have apportioned, and doing what is willed by the spirit … this spirit is each person’s mind and reason … why not rather pray for the gift of not fearing … or of not feeling grief … rather than that any one of them should be absent or present … This man prays: “how may I sleep with that woman?’ You should pray: “how may I not desire to sleep with that woman?’ [Marcus Aurelius, cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome 2 at 357-358].”
While Stoicism offers a comprehensive vision on the best way to live, the Stoic vision of death is much more hazy. Lactantius, a Christian critic of Pagan thought, stated that Stoics (and Pythagoreans) believe:
“the soul survives after death … since they feared the argument by which it is inferred that the soul must necessarily die with the body, because it is born with the body, they asserted that the soul is not born with the body, but rather introduced into it, and that it migrates from one body to another [Lactantius: Ch XVIII].”
Despite this statement, it seems Stoics have no definitive belief in an afterlife, even though they are supremely conscious of themselves as:
“members of a divine organism … Like the microcosm, the living universe was thought to have an eternal cycle of change. There will come a period … when everything is converted to the divine fire, becomes soul only … Then the fire in turn becomes a wet mass from which the seeds of reason initiate an identical cycle [Urmson and Ree (eds), The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers at 308-309].”
For a contemporary Stoic (and polytheistic) perspective on life after death see What Really Happens When We Die? by M Horatius Piscinus.

"Hypatia" (1901) by Seifert
Neoplatonism – reincarnation until unification with the “One”
While Epicureanism and Stoicism were popular during the early imperial era, the philosophical school which dominated Pagan thought in the 4th and 5th centuries was Neoplatonism – until the Platonic Academy was forcibly closed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 529 CE, as part of a wider persecution of Paganism. Ironically, centuries later, Neoplatonism would be adapted by Christian and Islamic thinkers into Abrahamic theology.

Neoplatonism is a pantheistic philosophy that espouses belief in a supreme deity who is the source out of which everything, including the Gods (and all other living things), flow. The goal of life therefore is, or should be, to unify with this “One”, via spiritual ascension, and this can be achieved through restraint, virtue and the realisation that:
“you are everywhere at once, in the earth, in the sea, in heaven. You are not yet born, you are in the womb, you are old, a youth, dead, in an afterlife. Realise all of these things simultaneously, all times, places, things, qualities, and you can realise God [Plotinus, cited in Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism at 111].”
That quote is by the traditional founding father of Neoplatonism – Plotinus, a Greco-Egyptian who lived most of his life in Rome and died in 270 CE. As for the afterlife, Plotinus held that:
“a soul takes more than one embodied human lifetime to ascend. Hence the doctrine of reincarnation and providential retribution; the human soul survives death and becomes reincarnated according to what the person has accomplished in this life – whether and to what extent she has actualised her lower or higher nature in the previous life or lives. In the course of reincarnation, the soul gradually prepares itself for a discarnated existence. This is a true ascent, after which the soul will no longer be incarnated in any body, but rejoins the bliss, wisdom and eternal perfection of its source [Remes, Neoplatonism at 119].”
Within this scheme the Gods are beings who are necessarily more ascendant than humans – unlike the Gods of Epicureanism, but similar to the Gods of Stoicism, Neoplatonism holds that the Gods may and do intervene in human affairs, but that their benevolence may depend on the soul of the seeker (Remes, Neoplatonism at 171).

Mystery religions – different visions
"Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus" (1900)
by Waterhouse
Epicureanism, Stoicism and Neoplatonism were the most popular philosophical schools during the Roman era but they were not the only philosophical schools, nor was philosophy the only means by which Roman attitudes to death and the afterlife were defined.  A number of mystery religions offered alternative views on the meaning of life and death, however, most revealed their mysteries only to the initiated and each path offered different perspectives so it is not possible to generalise about their visions of the afterlife, even if we had enough information about them to do so:
“In the earlier part of the twentieth century, it was fashionable to [suggest] … that the mystery cults offered their initiates a secure place in the afterlife … This idea has been criticised … For one thing, the different mystery cults do not all seem to offer the prospect of a life after death … Each of them seems rather to have had its own pattern of revealing a mystery and rewarding initiates … [for example, in Mithraism] the progress of the initiate through different phases of revelation seems to be mirrored by the progress of the soul through the stages of the celestial sphere [North, Roman Religion at 69-70].”
Beard et al add:
“Some of the new cults … constructed death much more sharply as a ‘problem’ – and, at the same time, offered a ‘solution’. Certainly, not all the new cults promised life after death; in the case of Jupiter Dolichenus, for example, there is no evidence to suggest that immortality was an issue. And those religions that did make claims about a future life after death presented radically different pictures [Beard et al, Religions of Rome 1 at 289-290].”
Some of the major polytheistic mystery religions of the Roman period were:
  • Dionysian (from Greece – focused on the death and rebirth of Dionysus’/Bacchus’ grapevines; women are known to have been keen participants).
  • Eleusinian (from Greece – focused on Persephone, Demeter and Hades; and the cycle of life and death).
  • Isiac (from Egypt – focused on Isis, her husband Osiris and son Horus; very popular in the 1st and 2nd centuries, especially with women; promised resurrection after death and a blessed afterlife).
  • Jupiter Dolichenus (from Syria – especially popular with the military).
  • Magna Mater (from Anatolia – focused on Cybele; particularly attractive to women (and MTF transsexuals); focused on the death and resurrection of Cybele’s consort Attis).
  • Mithraic  (from Persia – focused on a Romanised interpretation of Mithras; especially popular with the military).
  • Orphic (from Greece – focused on Orpheus and prescribed an ascetic lifestyle in order to reach Elysium after death and avoid the infliction of afterworld punishments).

The wide variety of beliefs in ancient Rome about the afterlife (or lack thereof) leaves the door wide open for Roman polytheists to adopt just about any vision of life after death one can conceive of. Personally, I have no fixed view. Part of me leans towards the Epicurean view of death, another part leans towards Neoplatonism – I guess I believe in a species of reincarnation. I can't accept Stoicism because I cannot bring myself to believe the universe is ruled by an ultimately rational and ordered plan. On the other hand, if I had lived in the Roman era I’m sure I would have been very attracted to some of the mystery religions; the idea of secret initiations and sacred knowledge is somehow very appealing – not the Orphic mysteries however, as I tend to have little faith in traditional Greco-Roman visions of Hades, Elysium and the like ... and yet when my mother died I ensured she had a coin on her person to pay Charon, and I confess I would like the same done for myself – just in case.

"Across River Styx" by
  • M Beard, J North and S Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History, Cambridge University Press
  • M Beard, J North and S Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge University Press
  • A Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction (2nd ed), Routledge
  • J North, Roman Religion, Cambridge University Press
  • S Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism, Cambridge University Press
  • P Remes, Neoplatonism, University of California Press
  • J Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion, Wiley
  • J Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (2nd ed), Oxford University Press
  • J Urmson and J Ree (eds), The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, Routledge
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica -
  • Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy -
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy -
  • St Takla Haymanout Coptic Orthodox Church Alexandria (Early Church Fathers online) - 
Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.


  1. Very interesting, well written and exhaustive post. When you write "The wide variety of beliefs in ancient Rome about the afterlife (or lack thereof) leaves the door wide open for Roman polytheists to adopt just about any vision of life after death one can conceive of. Personally, I have no fixed view" you are perfectly a "Roman Pagan".

    Consider also that frequently we refer to philosophical doctrines while religious perspectives and the visions of the common people were (are) maybe simplier (and for this reason perhaps more complex).

    Death as supreme Limit of the Being is the critical component of Roman paganism. Death provides us with the real meaning, sense and value of Life: for this reason it has to be accepted as such.

    1. Thank you:) It was definitely very interesting to research and brought home just how open and enquiring the ancient mindset was. And as you say, the attitude one has to death (even when we think we have no attitude) inevitably gives meaning to the way we live. Contemplating the reality of death is one of the supreme spiritual exercises we can undertake.

    2. Y0u look at dis stuff?