BMCR 2021.02.12

The ancient Roman afterlife: di manes, belief, and the cult of the dead

, The ancient Roman afterlife: di manes, belief, and the cult of the dead. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020. Pp. 304. ISBN 9781477320204. $55.00.


Even in the context of death, the Roman dead have often been overlooked in favour of their former existence among the living. They generally stagger through historical consciousness only when we have to translate dis manibus on a tombstone epitaph. Even here we summarily dispatch the Roman dead with the formula “to the departed spirits” or similar phrasing that clears its throat over the word dis. Charles King, in contrast, aims to meet the meaning of dis head-on, and in so doing, he revives the Roman dead and restores them to the central location they occupied as deities in the minds of the Roman living. This is no mean feat: though his position is buoyed up by literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence, he must argue at every turn against accreted academic discourse that has denied the Romans much interest in their dead and any real claim on the concept of “belief.” The problem King sees in previous scholarship is the investigative categories deployed to interpret the evidence, including rigid adherence to narrow definitions. Shifted categories and different definitions therefore offer solutions. The various beliefs about the dead to be found in the Roman evidence, King argues, are to be measured against themselves, not against (as previously) what the Greeks and the Christians did and thought respectively.

King divides his discussion into seven chapters. He sequentially builds his argument in favour of recognizing the divinity of the Roman dead – all Roman dead, not just deified emperors – and describes the nature of their transition to becoming divinized dead, their powers, and their cult. Two appendices (“The Larvae” and “The Decline of the Lemuria”) follow. While King recounts previous arguments and theses throughout, there is very little narrative description: almost every sentence is devoted to argumentation. Fortunately for the reader, King adopts a very clear prose style, divides his discussion under sub-headings (and sometimes sub-sub-headings), and provides frequent sign-posts backward and forward to other elements of his discussion in his main text. The result is an eminently readable work.

The first two chapters provide orienting definitions. Chapter 1 (“Di Manes: The Godhood of the Dead”) addresses the di in di manes and the elastic nature of Roman conceptualization of “gods.” By pursuing grammatical and etymological considerations, King determines that di must be taken as an adjective (“divine”). In contrast, manes, which refers to worshipped human dead, has no good English translation (“ghost” or “spirit” do not necessarily suggest the receipt of cult); “the divine manes” therefore is the best rendering of di manes. The category “god” itself consisted of a number of overlapping subcategories describing deities’ various characteristics, powers, and preferences. For example, immortalis and “god” are not synonymous concepts; though public cult deities such as Jupiter and Minerva were immortales, others, such as the divi Augusti, the manes, and perhaps the lares, had once been alive. Although specifics among gods might vary, King identifies five characteristics common to all Roman deities (including the manes): the Romans referred to them as gods; gods could solve problems in ways that humans could not; they answered prayers; they wanted cult; and they could punish those who treated them with negligence or disrespect.  The second chapter (“Di Manes: The Number of the Gods”) argues that the manes were not generally worshipped as the collective dead but rather as the divinized spirits of specific, named individuals. Although manes is a plural noun, literary evidence demonstrates that a single deceased person’s spirit was called a manes. Public celebrations of the dead such as the festivals of the Parentalia and the Lemuria therefore involved the cult of the named dead, that is, of specific, known, and remembered dead persons.

Chapter Three (“Who Worshipped Whom?”) considers how civil and religious law determined who was responsible for the cult of individual dead (specifically the provision of a funeral, burial, and subsequent observance). It also treats the social dynamics that might result in unmandated worship. Discussion of pontifical law suggests that worship of the dead extended well back into the Republic, though the phrase dis manibus is mainly characteristic of imperial tombstones. Indeed, the factors dictating laws of worship are timeless: financial obligation (both as creditor and debtor) and benefaction in life influenced what responsibilities might continue after death. Bonds of pietas also were expected to survive the grave; however, the degree of worship beyond legal obligations could vary considerably based on affection (or lack thereof), and friends or even political supporters, not simply family members, could engage in the cult of a manes to affirm their devotion to or alliances with the deceased. King warns that although worship of a manes communicated the identity of the living with respect to the dead, we should not let this obscure the fact that the Romans were truly worshipping the dead at the same time: the act was not what we would consider symbolic. King also addresses the question of worship of the less immediate, and so less remembered, dead. Using anthropological comparisons, he suggests that the dead went through a multi-stage existence, starting with intense worship as an individual to move (as those who once knew the individual died themselves) to membership in the collective dead.

Chapter Four (“The Manes in the Context of Roman Religion: Beliefs and Variations”) tackles the critical concept of “belief.” King’s discussion joins other approaches to Roman religion that question whether cold functionality and the irrelevance of “belief” are maintainable positions.[1] King demonstrates well that “belief” can be absent from Roman religious sentiments only if we define “belief” with Christianizing overtones. We ourselves do not commonly use “belief” this way, King points out, and there is no particular reason to impose it on non-Christian Roman ideas. “If it is not ‘belief’ when the Romans say that their gods exist and can perform acts of power, then what is it?” King asks (65). He dismisses attempts to substitute circumlocutions and euphemisms (“ritual”, “symbolism”) for “belief” in academic discourse, and discourages equating the existence of non-identical ideas with “indifference”: the co-existence of multiple beliefs does not lead to the conclusion that belief itself was alien. Identifying divine polymorphism, pietas, and orthopraxy as elements that supported a system of considerable variety, King furthermore advocates using “belief clusters” as an interpretive means of approaching Roman religion: we should compare and contrast variations to identify a graded system of most common elements. This system becomes the standard by which to measure the evidence, not the presence or absence of a unified doctrine.

King uses this model to consider, as the title of Chapter Five indicates, “The Powers of the Dead.” Three major powers emerge, which are not mutually exclusive: the manes can determine when life ends (and so can be petitioned to prolong life); they are cognizant of the actions of the living and can intervene in their lives; they can secure a better afterlife existence for those who worship them. Rituals involved in festivals such as the Parentalia, the Lupercalia, and the opening of the Mundus (the “doorway” to the underworld) are examined to demonstrate that appeals were made to the dead for protection from death itself; public and private curses point to the destructive abilities of the dead.  Oath-taking and divinatory practices reveal conviction in the dead’s interest in the actions of the living. Belief that the dead broker a better post-mortem existence for a newly deceased worshipper did not always depend upon Greek concepts of Tartarus and Elysium.

Chapter Six (“The Manes in the Context of the Funeral”) treats the transformation of a dead person’s spirit into a manes through funerary ritual. King unfurls the various elements of the Roman funeral (a subject he intends to return to in a subsequent work) to identify those that “make” a dead person a manes and initiate the new manes’ cult: the slaughter of a (male) pig and the heaping of earth upon the remains. Without these acts, the dead person’s spirit would be trapped near its corpse, in contrast to the existence enjoyed by a manes free from its physical remains.

The Final Chapter (“Festivals, Ceremonies, and Home Shrines”) considers the festivals of the Parentalia and the Lemuria, often understood to worship the benevolent dead and to banish the malevolent dead respectively, through the lens of “belief clusters.” Since this approach allows for a variety of beliefs to exist without compromising the identification of common characteristics, he concludes that the two rituals may be regarded as less different than similar in their attentions to and communications with the individual known and named dead; the disappearance of the Lemuria by the early third century AD may be explained, King maintains, by the probability that it was considered redundant with the Parentalia. The chapter ends with a consideration of the multiple, optional ways individual worshippers could do cult to a manes – birthday offerings, attentions given to home shrines with effigies, intermittent visitations to the tomb (itself a cult site since the funeral), even avenging the dead were all possible means.

In his brief conclusion, King offers suggestions for re-examinations that could be made in light of his findings: the attractions of mystery cults and early Christianity must be considered against the fact that their promises for an afterlife were not unique, and the interpretation of tombstone images depicting the dead in mythological trappings may need recalibration. Readers will undoubtedly be left with their own collection of concepts that may need revisiting (a small but persistent entry on this reader’s list: rethink what made Vespasian’s deathbed pronouncement, vae puto deus fio, a joke [Suet. Vesp. 23] – or perhaps rethink how witty Vespasian’s wit was).

King presents many attractive impressions of Roman society in his study. It is possible to banish the need to balance the impression of love for individual living persons with widespread disinterest in them when they died. Indeed, the exceptional inclusiveness of Roman cult of the dead brings relief in such a high-mortality context: only those who lived in exceptional social and economic isolation or who were otherwise denied funerary ritual would have been excluded from becoming a manes and receiving some sort of cult. Even slaves’ manes were collectively acknowledged (albeit in a typically Roman way of asserting control over their relationships, pp. 113-114). It is possible, however, that not all readers will be completely satisfied by every element of King’s discussion. For myself, I am not sure that the last word has been had on the nature of the Lemuria or its disappearance; while King’s application of “belief clusters” to the festivals of the dead is attractive, the conclusion of Lemurian “redundancy” with the Parentalia is unsatisfying within the general impression he has so convincingly drawn of Roman attitudes towards the dead in the rest of the book. But King’s major thesis – that Romans regarded their dead as gods, thought about them, communicated with them, attended to them, and intended to join them – is conclusively presented. Historians should not neglect the Roman dead; the Romans themselves certainly did not.


[1] E.g., L. Driediger Murphy’s Roman Republican Augury (OUP: 2019) reviewed here: BMCR 2020.01.41.