Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.59

Valerie M. Hope, Janet Huskinson (ed.), Memory and Mourning: Studies on Roman Death.   Oxford/Oakville, CT:  Oxbow Books, 2011.  Pp. xxiv, 200.  ISBN 9781842179901.  $50.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Edward M. Schoolman, University of Nevada, Reno (eschoolman@unr.edu)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The premise of Memory and Mourning: Studies on Roman Death, an edited volume based on two conferences held with a similar title in 2008 and 2009 in the Department of Classics of the Open University, is to present a range of studies on the confluence of memory with the surrounding traditions, material creations, and emotions of death in the Roman world. As the introduction by Valerie Hope notes, this multivalent field has grown significantly in recent decades, and some of the contributors to the present volume have previously worked on topics relating to death and memory while others are new to the field. The 10 contributions collected here illuminate the various ways in which a wide range of literary evidence (from poetry to oratory to history) and material culture (from funeral portraits to tombstones to mementos of the deceased) can be brought to bear on the role that the creation of devices for memory plays in the rituals and traditions surrounding death in Rome (or at least the death of those of certain levels of status). Rather than organize the volume by the material or methodology, the editors have innovatively arranged the chapters to follow the progression of dying from the deathbed to the funeral to the commemoration of the dead.

Noy’s opening contribution highlights the Roman perspectives on and illustrations of a ‘good death’ – that is, a peaceful death at home surrounded by family members – and its domestic setting. Dipping into depictions in literature and representations on funerary monuments and archaeological evidence to address the value placed on a death at home, Noy suggests that the overriding factor was the maintenance of ritual after death and in particular the issue of final requests, the creation of a death-mask, and the disposal of the body. The fear of a death away from home was connected to improper or inadequate expressions of these three facets.

The next two contributions by Graham and Erker focus on the actual practice of Roman funerary rituals from complementary perspectives. Graham’s chapter looks at the multiple interactions and experiences with the body after death (from female mourners whose role was to wash and anoint to male onlookers within the house to later funerary specialists), and how these different relationships and the material nature of the body of the deceased contributed to the formation of competing memories among those who had been close to the deceased. Erker’s work takes a narrower view in which the divide in the roles played by men and women in funerary rites is key. These obligations were both religious and social, with woman involved in ritual mourning and the preparing of the body, while men’s roles were significantly externalized, offering eulogies and sacrifices, although the activities of both groups contributed to the preservation of the memory of the deceased.

The issue of the literary representation of these rites is presented in the following three contributions. Houghton’s chapter reassesses the value of extracting descriptions of death, ritual and burial in elegiac poetry without acknowledging the transformation of this material within its contexts. This literary analysis connects the ideas of love and death, disregarding the older ideas of elegiac poets as death-obsessed, but treating death like other major facets of Roman society. The use of death and funerals in history is taken up in Schultze’s look at their depiction in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and in particular the funeral oration, a custom which Dionysius reports to be not only a Roman innovation, rather than Greek, but also a superior custom. Through the specific cases of the funerary rites for Lucretia and Coriolanus, Schultze argues that, for Dionysius, the recording of orations or the descriptions of funerals is connected to his concept of the role of historian. In dealing with the realm of oratory, in this case the Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo of Cicero, the contribution of Brooke points to the defense by Cicero of Rabirius as dominated by the language and image of burial. In addition to setting up the strange context of this seldom studied oration, the main focus is on the way in which the trial reflected on Roman traditions, and how revisiting old events and dead men is used as a tool to influence memory. Although all three contributions differ in their approaches to the depictions of death, they all suggest various ways in which the recording of such effects influences memory and emotion.

The final four contributions all deal with the events after the funeral and in particular focus on the commemoration of the dead in varying media and with different designs. A single monument, a second century funerary altar dedicated by Iulius Secundus to his wife and daughter, is at the core of the chapter by Huskinson. This monument, through its decorative scheme, portraits, and texts, helped to guide the commemoration of the two women, who died at sea. Huskinson suggests that the way in which the altar presents its subjects ‘tames’ the violent manner of their death, providing the observer with a way to memorialize the deceased and recognize the bereaved in a way separate from the circumstances of their deaths. Carroll’s contribution also centers on funerary monuments, but considers the broad category of those monuments set up by freedmen for themselves as well as their former owners who often listed the manumission of slaves in their wills. The manumission of slaves on their deathbed had a number of significant advantages for owners, as it not only proved to be a show of great ostentation, but also created a group of individuals for whom the perpetuation of the memory of their owners became a permanent part of a yearly cycle of funerary rituals. Epigraphic and visual evidence from monuments commonly depicts freedmen and patrons together, or lists freedmen supporting the extended memory of their patrons. This process was, as Carroll’s evidence suggests, ultimately controlled by the patrons, who could dictate in their wills the position that freedmen would be accorded in connection with the upkeep of their memory as an extension of the operae freedmen were obligated to perform, but also reflected the new status granted to the former slaves by their patrons.

Veering away from material monuments, one of the Silvae of Statius offers a rich venue for investigating the literary category of consolatio in Hull’s chapter. This close reading of the poem attempts to destabilize the categorization of this work as simply that of a consolation and demonstrates the many shades of social, political, and religious commentary layered in the text. On its surface, the poem is addressed to Claudius Etruscus on the death of his father, but combines the form of a consolation with political language and parallels to imperial behavior, as well as ideology on issues such as pietas and obligation, turning what might have been a tool for memorialization into something greater. The final chapter by Hope primarily engages texts designed for memorials on objects rather than as literary items. The epitaph of Allia Potestas, a 50-line poem, provides the initial point of inquiry, as it concludes with references to specific items designed for her commemoration, in particular a portrait and a bracelet. Although they only survive as references in this poem, both of these items would have played important though different roles for various audiences, including the author of the poem. The portrait, along with the epitaph, may have been as much a public reminder as a private one, preserving an idealized vision of the deceased Allia; the bracelet, inscribed with her name, would have been a far more intimate reminder as ‘mourning’ jewelry. It is a fitting conclusion as it points out that remembering the dead, and the perpetuation of their memory, was not limited to a specific place, or even a specific moment, but was ever present in Roman society.

This volume presents many ways in which memory (both collective and individual) is created, maintained, and adjusted in the actions and memorials connected to Roman death. Significantly, as is common with many volumes that originate in conferences, the individual contributions rarely engage directly with one another, and the divisions between methodological approaches remains strong. However, although many of the contributions overlap thematically and diverge significantly with respect to their arguments and approaches, this volume’s main value as a whole is in the way it presents serially the social responses to death in Roman society as well as a multiplicity of ways to understand the rituals around death as active components in shaping memory.

Table of Contents

Valerie M. Hope, Introduction (pp. xi-xxiv)
David Noy, ‘Goodbye Livia’: Dying in the Roman House (pp. 1-20)
Emma-Jayne Graham, Memory and Materiality: Re-embodying the Roman Funeral (pp. 21-39)
Darja Šterbenc Erker, Gender and Roman Funeral Ritual (pp. 40-60)
Luke B. T. Houghton, Death Ritual and Burial Practice in the Latin Love Elegists (pp. 61-77)
Clemence Schultze, ‘The sole glory of death’: Dying and Commemoration in Dionysius of Halicarnassus (p. 78-92)
Eleanor Brooke, ‘Cause ante mortua est quam tu natus es’: Aspects of the Funeral in Cicero’s Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo (pp. 93-112)
Janet Huskinson, Bad Deaths, Better Memories (pp. 113-125)
Maureen Carroll, ‘The mourning was very good’. Liberation and Liberality in Roman Funerary Commemoration (pp. 126-149)
Jean-Michel Hulls, Poetic Monuments: Grief and Consolation in Statius Silvae 3.3 (pp. 150-175)
Valerie M. Hope, Remembering to Morn: Personal Mementos of the Dead in Ancient Rome (pp. 176-195)
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