Two thousand years ago, a traveler on his way to Rome would be greeted by its citizens long before reaching the city itself. All along the highways leading into the capital, columned sepulchers, shrunken follies, and walled-in villas lined the streets. Tombs addressed themselves to passersby, like Burma-Shave signs from the beyond:
You are human, stop and contemplate my tomb, young man, in order to know what you will be. I did no wrong. I performed many duties. Live well, for soon this will come to you.
To the spirits of the departed Lucius Annius Octavius Valerianus. I escape. I flee. Goodbye Hope and Fortune. There will be no more prayers from me, so have your sport with others.
These tombs greeted everyone seeking to get to the city—long before reaching the metropolis, one first had to pass through the necropolis, gathered around the edge of the city like a photographic negative of Rome itself.
The corpse has proved one of the most consistently bedeviling problems of the city, ancient and modern. Simultaneously sacred and polluting, the dead cannot simply be disposed of. Attitudes toward death among Romans varied, but some form of proper burial was always extremely important; only the poorest of the poor were buried in the mass graves well outside of town. Even for those who were cremated, some part of the corpse was first removed so at least a token of the body could be buried. Many in Rome joined burial clubs in which members paid dues so as to have their funeral costs covered. Those who could afford it allowed their slaves to be buried in their crypts, which was more than just altruism—offering burial for one’s slaves had the additional benefit of ensuring that others were invested in the upkeep of your tomb.
The Twelve Tables, the ancient law of Rome, specifically prohibited burial inside the pomerium, the symbolic edge of the city defined by its walls. A boundary marker found outside the city made the enforcement clear: “For the public good. No burning of corpses beyond this marker in the direction of the city. No dumping of rubbish or corpses. Take a shit farther on if you want to avoid trouble.”
Roman law took this prohibition seriously: fines for city burial could run five times the annual salary of a legionary. Exceptions were made for children less than forty days old and for important figures—Caesar fought for and won special dispensation to be buried within the pomerium. If the Romans could not bury their dead inside the city, they nonetheless wanted them close by—the corpse itself may have been polluting, but the grave was not, and families often made pilgrimages to the monuments of loved ones. But in general, contact with the dead body was defiling—so defiling that undertakers, paradoxically, could not be buried in communal cemeteries, having debased themselves in life by accepting money for working with death.
This attitude toward death changed sharply with the introduction of Christianity, which had far-reaching consequences for the topography of the city. Most cultures have venerated their dead heroes, but what made Christianity different was its veneration not just of saints but of their physical bodies. Romans found this aspect of Christianity particularly repugnant and complained of how Christians “collected the bones and skulls of criminals made them out to be gods, and thought that they became better by defiling themselves at their graves.”
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