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Roman View of Afterlife Through Performing Arts, Coursework Example

Pages: 3

Words: 908

Coursework

Ancient Romans had a blurry view of afterlife, though they did believe in some sort of continuation after death (Edwards 6, Kyle 130). Ordinary citizens of Rome believed not only in the rewards and punishments that one would receive for his deeds but also in a connection between the dead and the living (Kyle 130). Thus, Romans traditionally believed that the spirits of the dead could help or threaten them in one way or another, and that the dead may return in the form of ghosts, spirits or demons to hunt the living. These beliefs were reflected in funeral ceremonies as well as in the performing arts and cultural manifestations that characterized the pre-Christian Roman society.

According to Kyle (30), the magic custom of cursing the enemies by writing their names on tablets and dedicating the tablet to a demon reveals a prevalent belief in the power of curses and in the existence of demons. The author further shows that invoking the dead to punish their enemies through the use of tablets was very frequent in Ancient Rome, and the power of these curses, as well as the power of dead spirits of interfering with the living were undisputed by the great majority of the population.  However, the dead were not only believed to interfere in human activities in the shape of spirits, but also as gods.

In the play “Apocolocyntosis”, a political satire on Emperor Claudius written in 55 CE by Seneca the Younger, an important Roman belief appears, namely, the deification of emperors after death. According to this belief, emperors reached the level of the divine after death thus being able to protect and to continue to care for their Empire even in death. In his play however, Seneca mocks this belief according to which all emperors became gods, regardless of their character:  

“Whereas the divine Claudius is by blood related to the divine Augustus and no less also to the divine Augusta, his grandmother, (…) I move that from this day the divine Claudius be a god, with title equally as good as that of any one who has been made so before him, and that this event be added to the Metamorphoses of Ovid” (Seneca the Younger 9).

In this belief, one may easily notice both the influence of the vulgar, who accepted the identification of the emperors with the divine as a testimony of their superiority and of their perpetual connection with the living population, as well as a political tool by means of which the obedience of the population was enhanced. Moreover, in the divinization of the emperor, one can notice the same type of belief regarding the dead as in the case of spirits, namely, connection between the two worlds and continuous influence of the dead over the living.

These two important concepts come to justify the need of spectacular burial ceremonies, which often included musicians, dancing satyrs (Sumi 549), mimes and professional mourners, all of whom had the role of honoring the dead through their performances. Sumi offers, in his article, an extensive analysis of these practices, focusing on the mimes’ performances. The mimes’ role was that of impersonating the dead, by adopting his gestures and facial expressions, were chosen to resemble the deceased and wore masks reminding the family of him (563), with the purpose of bringing him back to life in this manner.  According to Sumi(582-583), the carnival flavor of the roman funeral resembled the public life of the empire and reflected the taste of the Romans for public manifestations. However, there is a different type of signification which may be attributed to this manifestation.

Edwards (19) explains that the funeral procession also included family members wearing the masks of the deceased’s distinguished ancestors. Moreover, one of the family members had the role of reminding the audience the deeds of the dead as a manner of honoring him and of giving him as an example. Indeed, the secondary role of the spectacular funeral, with its masks and musical performances, was that of producing an impression on the young Romans, so that they may be ambitioned to earn their own afterlife praise. Thus, in Edwards’ words,   the young Roman dreamt “to secure the place of his own imago in the funeral pageant of his descendents, to come to life again each time one of them is laid to rest”(20).  As in the case of spirits and apotheosis therefore, the main purpose of the funeral was that of revival of the dead.

It is thus easy to conclude that, though the Roman society had strong afterlife beliefs and the manifestations of these beliefs were included in the performance acts of the time there was no clear picture of what happens to the soul after death. Various interpretations included the transformation into spirits, or the elevation to the divine, in the case of emperors, as well as revival through impersonation. All these beliefs and rituals demonstrate that the Romans believed in a perpetual connection between the dead and the living, and refused to accept death as a complete and final rupture from the material world.

Works Cited

Edwards, Catherine. Death in Ancient Rome. Bury St Edmunds, UK: St. Edmundsburry Press. 2007. Print.

Kyle, Donald. Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. Florence, KY: Routledge. 1994. Print.

Seneca the Younger, Apocolocynthosis. 55 CE. Trans. Allen Perley Ball. Colombia University Press. 1902. Web.5 September 2012.

Sumi, Geoffrey. Impersonating the Dead: Mimes at Roman Funerals. American Journal of Philology 123.4 (2002):559-585. Web. 5 September 2012.

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