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dead, disposal of

Correct disposal of the dead was always a crucial element in easing the soul of the deceased into the next world. However, the forms of burial varied enormously. Great significance was attached to the choice of inhumation, cremation, or some other rite (e.g. Herodotus 3. 38; Lucretius 3. 888–93), but there is rarely any reason to see a direct correlation between specific methods and specific racial, class, or religious groups.


In prehistory there was enormous variation. An inhumation burial is known from mesolithic times in the Franchthi cave (Argolid), while in Thessaly cremation cemeteries go back to early neolithic. In the early bronze age rich grave goods were sometimes used, particularly in the multiple inhumation tombs of the Cyclades and Crete. In the late bronze age, there was for the first time considerable uniformity on the mainland, with multiple inhumations in rock-cut chamber-tombs being the norm. In early Mycenaean times a few people were buried in spectacular tholos-(beehive) tombs. Very large cemeteries of chamber-tombs have been found at Mycenae and other sites. This pattern extended as far north as Thessaly, but in Macedonia and Epirus individual inhumation in stone-lined cist-graves, grouped together under mounds of earth, was normal. After the destruction of the Mycenaean world c.1200 bce, regional variations returned in the ‘Dark Age’. Inhumations in cists with the body contracted were normal at Argos (1); cremation on a pyre with just a handful of the ashes scattered in the grave at Lefkandi; on Crete, chamber-tombs with multiple inhumations until about 1000, and then multiple cremations with the ashes placed in urns. At Athens, adult rites changed frequently—inhumations in cists in the 11th cent.; cremations with the ashes in urns, c.1000–750; inhumations in earth-cut pit-graves, c.750–700; cremations in the grave itself, c.700–550; and then inhumations in pit-graves, tile-covered graves, or sarcophagi from about 550 onwards. Early archaeologists associated both cist burial and cremation with the Dorian invasion at various times, but these correlations are not convincing.

There were, however, a few generally observed rules. Cremation with the ashes placed in a metal urn (usually bronze), in the Homeric style, tended to be associated with warrior burials throughout antiquity. Children were rarely cremated, and in most places infants were buried inside amphoras or storage pots. Starting in the 6th cent. there was a general trend towards simpler burials, which may have been accompanied by sumptuary laws. Inhumation in pit-graves or tile graves was adopted for adults in most parts of Greece by the 6th or 5th cent. The main exception was western Greece, where adults were inhumed in giant storage pots from the Dark Age to Hellenistic times.

Rich grave goods and elaborate tomb markers went out of style everywhere for most of the 5th cent., but returned around 425. There was a great flowering of funerary sculpture at Athens in the 4th cent. Funerary spending escalated still further after 300, and in the 3rd–1st cents. bce the massive ‘Macedonian’-style vaulted tombs, often with painted interiors, are found all over Greece. The most spectacular of these are the late 4th-cent. royal tombs, possibly of Philip (1) II and his court, at Vergina in Macedonia (see aegae). Athens was an exception to this general pattern. Cicero (Leg. 2. 66) says that Demetrius (3) of Phalerum banned lavish tombs, probably in 317, and indeed no monumental burials are known from Attica between then and the 1st cent. bce. Lucian (On Mourning21) called cremation a ‘Greek custom’, but he was probably thinking in purely literary terms, drawing on classical passages such as Herodotus 3. 38. In Roman times inhumation was the strict rule throughout the whole Greek east, although the precise forms varied—from tile graves at Athens to chamber-tombs at Cnossus, built tombs at Dura Europus, and spectacular rock-cut tombs at Petra. Greek settlers in the near east, from Egypt to Bactria, generally adopted rites very similar to the local population's practices.


Burial customs in prehistoric Italy were as varied as those in Greece. The earliest graves found at Rome date to the 10th cent. bce, and include both urn cremations and inhumations. There is, however, no reason to see these as belonging to different racial groups. Roman burials were until about 100 bce generally rather simple, in marked contrast to their neighbours the Etruscans, who built complex chamber-tombs which often housed cremations in unusual urns, accompanied by rich grave goods. From the 8th cent. on the customs of southern Italy were heavily influenced by Greek settlers, and inhumation generally replaced cremation. Impressive local traditions of tomb-painting developed, particularly in Campania.

At Rome itself, few burials are known from republican times, suggesting that rites were so simple as to leave few archaeological traces. Across most of Europe in the 5th–3rd cents. the bulk of the population was disposed of relatively informally, often by exposing the body on platforms. In Italy there is some evidence for mass burial of the poor in huge open pits. The use of these puticuli at Rome in the late republic is mentioned by Varro (Ling. 5. 25; cf. Hor.Sat. 1. 8; Festus, entry under ‘puticuli’), and a few were excavated in the 1880s. By the 3rd cent. bce some of the rich were being cremated with their ashes placed in urns and buried in communal tombs. By the 1st cent., cremation was the norm, and according to Cicero (Leg. 2. 57) and Pliny (1) the Elder (HN 7. 187) even the ultra-conservative Cornelii gave up inhumation in 78 bce. At about the same time, Roman nobles began building very elaborate tombs modelled on those of the Greek east, with monumental sculptures and elaborate stone architecture.

The spiralling cost of élite tombs ended abruptly under Augustus, who built himself a vast mausoleum. Other nobles were careful to avoid being seen as trying to rival the splendour of the imperial household (but see cestius epulo, c.). Simpler tombs, organized around modest altars, came into fashion for the very rich, while the not-quite-so-rich and the growing number of funerary clubs (see clubs, roman) (collegia) adopted the columbarium (2) (a word meaning ‘dovecot’, coined by modern scholars). The earliest example dates to c.50 bce, but they became common after c. ce 40. They were barrel-vaulted brick and masonry tombs with niches for urns, usually holding 50–100, although one example found at Rome in 1726 held 3,000 urns.

Urn cremation was adopted all over the western empire in the 1st and 2nd cent. ce, although there were always significant local variations. By about ce 150, the empire can be divided into a cremating, Latin-using west and an inhuming, Greek-using east. But during the 2nd cent. members of the Roman élite adopted inhumation, probably as a conscious emulation of Hellenistic practices, and in the 3rd cent. this rite gradually swept across the whole west. The change has no obvious links to Christianity or any other religious movement. However, it was certainly convenient for the spread of Christianity, which generally opposed cremation, which destroyed the body and posed difficulties for some visions of the day of resurrection. By the late 4th cent., certain practices found widely in western cemeteries—an east–west orientation, the use of lime on the walls of the grave, and the decline of grave goods—might indicate the presence of Christians. At Rome itself, there was a general shift around 300 away from traditional cemeteries in favour of catacombs and burial within basilicas.

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