Death in the Ancient Greek & Roman Cultures

The gladiator embodied the Romans' view of death as entertainment.
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The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed death in a complex manner. While their death rituals had many similarities, the meaning of death and the afterlife varied between the two cultures. Additionally, they believed that the manner in which a person died said a great deal about him or her. Finally, the ways in which both Greeks and Romans viewed death still have ramifications to this day.

1 Burial vs. Cremation

The Romans’ tendency to cremate their dead instead of burying them likely came from the influence of the Greeks. Both cultures routinely cremated their dead, according to the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri. Although both cultures also buried their deceased, archeological evidence suggests that cremation played a much more prominent role. For the Romans especially, the practice became so widespread that a fifth-century decree forbade Romans from cremating their dead within the city limits. However, due to Constantine and Christianity's influence on society, burial became the standard method of disposing of dead bodies by 400 A.D.

2 Burial Rituals

The Greeks and the Romans shared similar rituals when it came to burying their dead. In both cultures, the bodies of the dead were cared for. Loved ones washed and prepared bodies for funeral rites, which included a time when friends and family members could come and view the body. Women typically performed these rituals. Funerals featured dancing, singing and prayer. The custom of making the gravesite beautiful after the funeral was also common in both cultures.

3 Death as Entertainment

“The Hunger Games,” the book series by author Suzanne Collins, took inspiration from one of the darkest views of death to come out of Roman Society. According to Illinois Wesleyan University, death as entertainment actually began as a funeral ritual. Wealthy people living in Roman society used gladiatorial-style games as a representation of man fighting against death and losing. Eventually, these funeral rituals gained widespread popularity. Usually, those who died in the games were slaves, although Roman citizens became gladiators as punishment. People of both genders and from all social classes participated.

4 Views on the Afterlife

Despite espousing beauty throughout their culture, the Greeks' view of death wasn't optimistic or beautiful. The person's soul or psyche left the body and went to Hades. It was a pessimistic place. Once the soul reached Hades, the god of the underworld, also called Hades, determined if the soul of the dead went to heaven, known as the Elysian Fields, or hell, known as Tartarus. However, until the Classical age, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the Greeks didn't have a concept of the rewards of heaven or the punishments of hell. These beliefs developed later along with funeral rituals and memorials.

Buffy Naillon has worked in the media industry since 1999, contributing to Germany's "Der Spiegel" magazine and various websites. She received a bachelor's degree in German from Boise State University. Naillon also attended New York University and participated in the foreign exchange program at Germany's Saarland University. She is completing her master's degree in educational technology at Boise State.