Roman Mausoleums in Ancient Times

  • Charlotte de Haas - Faculty of Spatial Sciences

The Mausoleum of Hadrian [12].

A mausoleum is an external and free-standing building enclosing the burial chamber/interment space of a deceased person/people. Inside the mausoleum can be tombs tombs with the remains of people inside [1]. The origin of the word 'mausoleum' comes from the tomb of Maussollos, a Persian satrap of Caria, at Halicarnassus [2]. His tomb was founded in 353 BC by his wife Artemisia [3].

1. Tombs and funerary altars in ancient Rome
2. Imperial cult and mausoleums

Tombs and funerary altars in ancient Rome

A sculpted relief of the apotheosis
(transformation into gods) of
Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina.
It shows how people thought
of a deceased emperor [13].

Tombs have always been used as a final resting place for the dead. The tombs in ancient Rome have been following the same development course as in Egypt and elsewhere: starting with burial in a cave or the underground, the tombs evolved into more developed structures in order to house the dead [4]. Therefore burial became a more important matter, and tombs came into being and developed into an important element of the hierarchical systems [5]. The status of the deceased person or persons would be interpreted from the wealth that is displayed in the grave goods, and the structures like enclosing gullies or inscriptions and statues [6].

In ancient Rome, a funerary altar was linked to the tradition of constructing altars in order to honour the gods. Funerary altars were used to glorify the deceased due to the acceptance that an altar acts as the symbol of adoration [7]. During the Augustan-Tiberian period, members of the ruling class became interested in erecting funerary monuments [8]. Noble and aristocratic families added inscriptions or headstones to the existing burial to commemorate the deceased [8] . After the death of an emperor would be buried inside the city, but outside the residential area. Since most Romans had to be buried outside the city this was a great honour which was only reserved for the most important people [9].

Statue of Hadrian inside his
mausoleum. These type of
statues were often placed in
mausoleums in order to
decorate and help the
visitors to remember the
deceased person[14].

Imperial cult and mausoleums

One element in the Roman state religion was the imperial cult: since worshipping a living emperor was culturally unacceptable in Rome, emperors (not all) were declared 'divus' after their death and were venerated like gods [10]. There were temples erected in honour of Julius Caesar after his death and to Augustus during his lifetime [11].

Because the Romans believed that the deceased emperors would become gods after they died (instead of becoming a spirit like other Romans) the monuments that were erected to honour them were more expensive and impressive than of other Romans [9]. A mausoleum focuses exclusively on the deceased person or persons. The absence of a religious foundation inside the mausoleum makes that the focus won't be on a god or religion, but on the deceased person or persons. The luxurious decoration helps showing the importance of the deceased person or persons (or their place in the hierarchical system). The fact that a mausoleum is a free-standing building shows that the deceased person or persons was or were important, since the whole building is founded for them, and for no one else [3].


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  2. Livius (2015) Maussolus, [Online], Available: [21 Nov 2016].
  3. (2016) Mausoleum, [Online], Available: [29 Oct 2016].
  4. Ancient History Encyclopedia (2009) Tomb, [Online], Available: [29 Oct 2016].
  5. China Internet Information Center (2004) Ancient Tombs and Mausoleums, [Online], Available: [28 Oct 2016].
  6. Spoilheap (2013) Burial Practices by Period, [Online], Available: [21 Nov 2016].
  7. Coulton, J. J. (2005) 'Pedestals as 'altars' in Roman Asia Minor', Anatolian Studies, vol. 55, January, p. 128.
  8. Mouritsen, H. (2005). 'Freedmen and Decurions: Epitaphs and Social History in Imperial Italy', The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 95, November, pp. 45-51.
  9. Ancient History Encyclopedia (2012) The Roman Funeral, [Online], Available: [20 Nov 2016].
  10. BBC (2011) The Imperial Cult, [Online], Available: [29 Oct 2016].
  11. Oxford Biblical Studies Online (2016) Emperor Worship, [Online], Available: [29 Oct 2016].
  12. Places to See in Your Lifetime (2015) Discover Castel Sant'Angelo - an Ancient Jewel of Rome, Italy, [Online], Available: [28 Apr 2017].
  13. Studyblue (2014) Base of Column of Antoninus, [Online], Available: [28 Apr 2017].
  14. Following Hadrian (2016) Portraits of Hadrian, [Online], Available: [19 Apr 2017].