Ancient Roman Mythology & the Afterlife Explained

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Death is one of the few truly universal human experiences. That may be why virtually all cultures have had beliefs about the afterlife. Learning about these belief systems can help us learn more about these cultures and their values in general.

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Consider the example of the ancient Romans. Ancient Roman afterlife beliefs reflect a vast mythology, complete with various gods and rituals.

This overview will cover what the ancient Romans believed about the afterlife. That said, this is a rich topic. You may want to do further research if what you learn in this guide interests you.

Did Ancient Romans Believe in an Afterlife?

Yes. While we don’t necessarily know much about very early Roman afterlife beliefs (for reasons this article will touch on later), researchers do agree that there was a period in ancient Rome when beliefs and rituals surrounding the afterlife were widespread throughout all of society.

That’s important. In some cultures, afterlife rituals and practices may have varied depending on class, wealth, and similar factors. For example, a culture might reserve special funeral rites for the elite members of society.

That generally wasn’t the case in ancient Rome. Although wealth may have influenced the nature of burial and funeral practices to some extent, for the most part, all people and classes throughout ancient Rome adhered to the same traditions (or at least attempted to).

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What Did Ancient Romans Believe About the Afterlife?

Ancient Roman beliefs about the afterlife overlap very much with ancient Greek beliefs. In general, the mythologies of the ancient Romans and ancient Greeks have a lot in common.

Ancient Roman mythological and spiritual beliefs about the afterlife are somewhat complex. Scholars have written entire books on this subject alone. However, the following points should give you a basic idea of what the ancient Romans thought about life after death.

(That said, it’s worth noting that information about certain ancient Roman beliefs is actually quite limited. Scholars know that at some point, ancient Roman afterlife beliefs began to mirror Greek afterlife beliefs, but they’re not sure when this occurred, nor do they know much about ancient Roman afterlife beliefs before the Greek influence.)

Immediately after death

In ancient Roman mythology, when a person died, they would meet Mercury, a messenger god. Mercury would escort the deceased to the Styx, the river one would have to cross to reach the underworld. They would pay Charon, the ferryman, to bring them across the river.

Judgment

According to the ancient Romans, after crossing the river Styx, the deceased would meet Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus, gods of the underworld who judged the dead.

What happened next would depend on a person’s status and deeds in life. If they had been a soldier or similar figure and the gods judged them worthy, they would travel to the Fields of Elysium. Worthy ordinary citizens traveled to the Plain of Asphodel.

Punishment

In ancient Roman belief systems, eternal damnation didn’t exist. However, not all souls would immediately travel to the Fields of Elysium or the Plain of Asphodel after judgment.

Sometimes, the gods would determine that the deceased had committed a crime or crimes in life for which they still needed to receive punishment. When this happened, the gods would first send them to Tartarus, a Hell-like realm where the Furies would torture them until they had repaid their debt. Once the torture was over, the soul could move on.

The nature of Tartarus

In the Aeneid, Virgil offered a description of Tartarus that may shed light on what the ancient Romans thought about this part of the afterlife.

According to Virgil, “Tartarus itself plunges headlong down through the darkness twice as far as our gaze goes up to Olympus rising toward the skies.” While Greek descriptions of Tartarus focus on its misty, gloomy features, in Virgil’s description, the realm’s overall “wicked” qualities define it.

Additionally, Virgil described a hydra with 50 heads that guarded the gates to Tartarus, ensuring no one could enter or escape without permission from the gods.

The way in which the Furies would torture someone in Tartarus would vary on a case-by-case basis. The idea was to ensure the punishment would fit the crime. A well-known example from Greek mythology comes from the story of Sisyphus.

After cheating death on multiple occasions, the Furies punished Sisyphus by forcing him to continuously push a boulder up a hill, with the boulder always falling back down, forcing Sisyphus to begin the task anew.

Elevation to god status

According to the ancient Romans, there were also instances when some very important figures became gods after their deaths. For example, many believed that Julius Caesar had become a god. This is another element of ancient Roman afterlife beliefs the Greeks shared.

How Did Ancient Romans Prepare for the Afterlife?

Preparing for the afterlife was a ritualized process that, again, the ancient Romans practiced throughout their society. It consisted of the following elements:

Burial with artifacts

Preparation for the ancient Roman afterlife often involved steps loved ones would take after someone had died. For example, after a death, loved ones would bury the deceased with various artifacts, such as food and jewelry. 

A coin would be the most important artifact. It served as payment for Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx.

These rituals played a very important role in Roman burials and Roman funerals. The ancient Romans believed that if they failed to give a loved one a proper burial, their soul could not travel to the afterlife, leaving them stuck in a purgatory-like realm. Additionally, like the Greeks, the ancient Romans believed that failing to adhere to established funeral rites would result in hauntings from angry spirits later.

However, some scholars believe that by a certain point in Greek history, many of the figures involved in the afterlife were purely mythological. In other words, even those who practiced these rituals may not have believed they actually existed.

The placement of a coin with the body indicates Charon may have been an exception. Because ancient Greek and ancient Roman mythology and history overlap so much, it’s possible the same holds true about the Romans. These rituals may thus have been more symbolic in nature.

Preparation for death and cremation

If it was clear someone was about to die in ancient Rome, the nearest relative would kiss them. This symbolized catching their last breath. The person who kissed the deceased would also be the one to close their eyes immediately after their death.

Partially because ancient Roman afterlife beliefs and practices developed over time, there’s some conflicting information regarding how loved ones would treat the body of the deceased following their passing. Some accounts indicate that ultimately a body was to be cremated. Loved ones would only permanently bury a small part of the body, such as a finger.

Prior to cremation, Romans would keep the deceased’s body in their home for up to seven days. During this mourning period, loved ones and relatives would lament the death and limit their eating. At various times, they might also perform a ritual that involved calling out to the spirit of the deceased.

(The practice of keeping the body in the home for several days after a death may have also served as memento mori, or reminder of one’s own eventual death. Many cultures throughout society have used burial and funeral rituals to help the living become more comfortable with the knowledge that they too must die one day.)

A symbolic “burial” would then occur. Before cremating a body, the Romans would throw some dirt on it. They would then perform a cremation with a funeral pyre.

Once the funeral pyre had completely burned the corpse, loved ones would pour milk and wine on the remaining bones and ashes to feed the deceased’s spirit. A child of the deceased, typically a son, would also sift through the remains to find a bone. Finding a bone meant the deceased had moved on and joined Di Manes, or “divine spirits.”

Following cremation

Rituals involving preparation for the afterlife didn’t end after cremation. For nine days after cremating a loved one, mourning ancient Romans would keep themselves relatively separate from their communities. They would spend this time formally consecrating a grave to bury the deceased’s ashes, which they would usually keep in a cinerary urn. They would also sacrifice a sow and gelded ram.

To ensure the deceased’s spirit remained happy and content, in the days, weeks, and months following a death, ancient Romans would also return to graves to leave gifts and perform rituals. 

Ancient Roman Afterlife Beliefs: Exploring the Underworld

Again, while this hopefully answered some of your questions about the ancient Roman afterlife, it’s still just a general overview. There are plenty of books, documentaries, and other resources on this subject that can teach you even more. For more information about a similar topic, check out our guide on the Roman catacombs.


Sources:
  1. “Afterlife: Greek and Roman Concepts.” Encyclopedia.com, Encyclopedia.com, encyclopedia.com
  2. “Did the ancient Romans believe in an afterlife?” All About History, AllAboutHistory.org, allabouthistory.org
  3. Macquire, Kelly. “Tartarus.” World History Encycledia, WorldHistory.org, worldhistory.org
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