Tombstones: A Source to Different Facets of Emotions in Roman Society


By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

An aspect of life that tombstones brought to light was the strong emotions that tied together spouses, family members, and friends. How did funerary epitaphs provide us with in-depth knowledge about the Roman society that would otherwise have been lost?

Roman sculpture from Walters Art Museum depicts the triumphal march of Dionysus.
Sculpture of Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus gives an idea of Roman society who celebrated not only the triumphs over land but death by the deceased as well.
(Image: Walters Art Museum/Public domain)

Emotions on Tombstones

Tombstones had different and unique inscriptions on them which described the deep love and emotion for a deceased person. One grave marker recorded a husband’s grief over his young wife’s death: ‘To the eternal memory of Blandina Martiola, a most blameless girl, who lived eighteen years, nine months, five days.’

Another inscription expressing deep affection read, ‘Erected by Lucius Aurelius Hermia, freedman of Lucius, a butcher on the Viminal Hill. She who preceded me in death was my one and only wife. She was chaste in body, with a loving spirit. She lived faithful to her devoted husband and was always optimistic. Even in bitter times, she never shirked her duties.’

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Elaborate Inscriptions

The image by TM has a detailed inscription on an Epitaph of Grabplatte Johann Wauer Hochkirch.
Detailed inscription on tombstones gave an idea about the personality, marital status, and age of the deceased. (Image: TM/CC BY-SA 2.0 DE
( domain)

In addition to the touching detail, most inscriptions illustrated the early ages at which some women were married. One tombstone commemorated a woman married at a very young age, ‘When alive, my name was Aurelis Philematium. I was chaste and modest, unsoiled by the common crowd, and faithful to my husband. My husband whom I have now left was a fellow freedman and was truly like a father to me. We were married when I was seven. Now I am forty and death has me. Through my constant care, my husband flourished.’

One epitaph preserved the history of a love that was cut short, ‘Furia Spes, freedwoman of Sempronius Firmus, provided this memorial for her dearly beloved husband. When we were still a boy and girl, we were bound by mutual love as soon as we met. I lived with him for too brief a time. We were separated by a cruel hand when we should have continued to live in happiness. I, therefore, beg you, spirits of the dead, that you look after the loved one I have entrusted to you and that you be well disposed and kind to him during the hours of the night, so that I may see him, and so that he, too, may wish to persuade fate to allow me to come to him softly and soon.’

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Restrained Inscriptions

Funerary inscriptions emphasized the deep passion existing between some couples, but others were more restrained, though listing qualities that one partner found congenial in the other. For example, one from Rome read, ‘Here lies Amymone, wife of Marcus, most good and most beautiful, wool-spinner, dutiful, modest, careful, chaste, stay-at-home.’ Modesty and the ability to sew were among the most common positive attributes ascribed to women by their husbands.

The affection that some parents felt for their children also reflected in those inscriptions, ‘Spirits who live in the underworld, lead innocent Magnilla through the groves and the Elysian Fields directly to your places of rest. She was snatched away in her eighth year by cruel fate while she was still enjoying the tender time of childhood. She was beautiful and sensitive, clever, elegant, sweet, and charming beyond her years. This poor child who was deprived of her life so quickly must be mourned with perpetual lament and tears.’

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Epitaphs with Threats

Some Romans were concerned with ensuring that their bodies laid undisturbed in the graves after death than with recording their accomplishments while alive. An inscription of that type stated, ‘Gaius Tullius Hesper had this tomb built for himself, as a place where his bones might be laid. If anyone damages them or removes them from here, may he live in great physical pain for a long time, and when he dies, may the gods of the underworld deny entrance to his spirit.’

Given that his tombstone epitaph consisted mostly of a threat, one imagined that in life, Hesper likely had a rather sour, crabby personality.

Advise on a Tombstone

Graves were situated along the roads leading into cities, some people chose to use their tombstones to give advice to those passing by or simply to express their beliefs. One such monument declared, ‘To the spirits of the departed. Titus Flavius Martialis lies here. What I ate and drank is with me here, what I left behind is gone forever.’

A rather pessimistic stone read, ‘Do not walk by this epitaph, traveler, but stop, listen, learn, and then proceed. There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon, no caretaker Aeacus, no dog Cerberus. All those who die become bones and ashes, nothing more. I speak the truth. Go, now, traveler, lest even though I am dead, I seem to you long-winded.’

Some stones offered comments which preserved their authors’ temperament. One such inscription stated, ‘I was not. I was. I am not. I care not.’

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Funerary Epitaphs- Resource of Roman Society

Picture of Roman tombstone by Walter R with inscription on it which was a highlight of Tomestone Epitaphs in in ancient Rome.
Funerary epitaphs with varied details on tombstones became a source to solid personal data of ancient Romans, helpful for historians to analyze (Image: Walter R/Shutterstock)

Funerary epitaphs provided knowledge about facets of Roman society, a proven rich resource. Tombstones conveyed information about the range of professions and the types of employment available to ancient Romans. Historians performed statistical analyses in order to discern patterns of mortality and to extrapolate information about life expectancy.

The greatest contribution of tombstones was the manner in which they recorded the actual feelings of individuals, demonstrated the universality of basic emotions such as love, hate, jealousy, and pride. Tombstones even preserved one of the most complicated characteristics of human beings, which is a love of humor. Many of the messages were plainly drafted to amuse and entertain the reader, and the fact that some of them can still do so after 2,000 years is surely one of the most remarkable aspects of this extraordinary body of evidence.

Incredible Source from the Ancient World

Every source that survived from the ancient world was an exception, while thousands were lost forever. The ones that have survived are somewhat representative of the many others that did not and can offer a window into the lives of their authors. 

Famous works of literature and philosophy reflected the perspective of elites, there were some types of surviving written records that give insights into the lives of ordinary people too. Collectively, those sources offered a rare but precious perspective on the lives, hopes, fears, and dreams of the majority of ordinary people who lived in the Roman world.

Common Questions about the Roman Society

Q: What is written on the tombstone?

Tombstones have inscriptions written on them which describe the deep love and emotion for a deceased person. These also demonstrate the universality of basic emotions such as love, hate, jealousy, and pride.

What is an example of an epitaph?

Some people used their tombstones to give advice to those passing by or simply to express their beliefs. One such example is, ‘To the spirits of the departed. Titus Flavius Martialis lies here. What I ate and drank is with me here, what I left behind is gone forever.’

Q: What is a funerary Epitaph?

Funerary epitaphs provided knowledge about facets of Roman society and proven to be a rich resource. Those conveyed information about the range of professions and the types of employment which were available to ancient Romans.

Q: What were women’s roles in ancient Rome?

In ancient Rome, there were working women in different professions like doctors, nurses, and teachers.

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