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History of burial practices in Rome

The influences of Christianity on Roman burial practices

Catacombs of Domitilla Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus Iconography of the Catacombs

Early Christianity in Rome

Romans were very open to other religions, which is apparent in their adoptions of gods from several different religions[1]. This was not only a cultural enrichment but additionally a way to keep peace in their conquered areas. Newly subjected people were allowed to practice their religion if also Roman gods were worshipped[2]. Christians, however, refused to obey this condition, thus they were commonly punished, often with persecution. Even though Christianity was not legalized until the 4th century, out of the 54 emperors in the first 3 centuries only a dozen actively persecuted Christians[3]. This explains how Christian influences reached deep into the Roman empire, eventually even Rome itself. Another reason for acceptance of Christianity constitutes a special agreement between Romans and Jews, which was made to maintain peace, pax deorum, under Roman reign. This policy allowed the Jewish community to not honour the common Roman gods but their own[4]. This affected mostly the early Christians aswell since in its beginnings Christianity was considered a Jewish sect[5]. So even though the Christians were persecuted in certain time periods, they were generally able to stay in the Roman empire, thus influence its culture like many other religions did.

Burial Practices in Rome

Before Christianity originated, the main practice to dispose bodies of the dead in Rome was cremation[6]. However, this practice changed when the Christian and Jewish influences reached Rome in the 1st and 2nd century. The two monotheistic religions believed in burial of the body for resurrection. As a natural consequence, the first graveyards originated in the 1st century. One of these was on the area where later the Catacombs of Domitilla formed. With the expansion of Christianity including its belief in resurrection in Rome, burial space quickly became scarce, so the people started to search for solutions which they found in digging deeper into the earth. This was the start of the catacombs in Rome.

Marble sarcophagus with the myth of Selene and Endymion

After the introduction of burial by the Christians and Jews the Romans and pagans also started to adopt this practice. Romans were at first did not buried underground, like in catacombs or graveyards, but in stone sarcophagi, coffins made of marble[6]. These sarcophagi were elaborately decorated and often depicted how the person died, for example, a lion with a sheep in his mouth would symbolise a violent death like murder. Additionally the sarcophagi show depictions of the life story of the person being laid to rest in it. Common themes were profession, faith, or accomplishments[7]. This way, anyone who would pass the sarcophagi would learn the life story of the passed Roman, thus the person would remain remembered.


  1. Roman Empire(2012). Retrieved from: http://www.roman-empire.net/religion/religion.html
  2. Michael Grant (2016). Roman religion. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-religion
  3. “Persecution in the Early Church.” ReligionFacts.com. 19 Nov. 2016. Web. Accessed 18 Nov. 2017. www.religionfacts.com/persecution-early-church
  4. Smallwood, E.Mary (2001). The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian : A Study in Political Relations. Brill Academic Publishers. p. 539.
  5. Wasson, D. L. (2013, November 13). Roman Religion. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Roman_Religion/
  6. Fife, S. (2012, January 18). The Roman Funeral. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/96/
  7. Awan, Heather T (April 2007). “Roman Sarcophagi.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rsar/hd_rsar.htm

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