Afterlife: Greek and Roman Concepts

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As is the case with other cultures, the Greeks and Romans entertained a variety of ideas about the afterlife, some of which were mutually exclusive; they called on different ideas as the situation required. Thus, they spoke of the dead as present and angry when ill luck and a guilty conscience suggested that the deceased might be wreaking vengeance; they spoke of them as potential benefactors when paying them cult; and on yet other occasions they spoke of them as if they were completely absent from the world of the living. Both because the attitudes varied and because our information for this, as well as most other aspects of Greek and Roman antiquity, is lacunose, any survey, including the one that follows, tends to impose an artificial order on what were actually complex matters.


Although the Greeks and Romans shared many beliefs and practices concerning death, there were also significant differences between the two cultures and they must be treated separately. Greece will be considered first.

Funerary rituals

Children and other surviving kin were expected to ensure that the dead received proper funerary rites; if they did not, the deceased could not be considered truly dead and its soul might wander restlessly between the upper world and the underworld. What constituted "proper rites" varied from place to place and time to time, but honorable disposal of the corpse by burial or cremation was the very least that was required, lest the corpse otherwise become prey for scavengers. Even symbolic burial, such as Antigone performed for her brother by sprinkling dust over his body, would suffice (Sophocles, Antigone 254255). If a body were irretrievable, rites might be performed for the deceased anyway, in hopes that the soul would find rest (e.g., Odyssey 1.290292). People who turned up alive after having had such rites performed were called "double-fated" (deuteropotmoi) and had to undergo a symbolic rebirth (Plutarch, Roman Questions 264f265b; cf. Euripides, Alcestis 11441146).

Ideally, the deceased's female relatives would wash the body on the same day as death had occurred and wrap it in a shroud for burial. The next day would be given over to mourningthe informal mourning of family members being supplemented with that of hired mourners when the family could afford it and the sumptuary laws of the city allowed it. Gifts would be given to the deceased, including small objects such as he or she would have used in life. On the third day, counting inclusively, the body was buried or cremated. Libations were poured into the grave where the body or ashes had been buried and were repeated periodically, usually for at least a year. Survivors might also cut their hair and lay it upon the grave; an absent survivor could dedicate hair at a later date. A marker was set up and could be decorated with ribbons and myrtle branches. Other rituals might also be performed, depending on the desires of the deceased and his or her family. People who had no family could join funerary associations that ensured all of these rites would be carried out. (On burial rites, see Kurtz and Boardman, 1971).


Although any soul could become a ghostthat is, return to wander among the livingthe souls that lacked proper funerary rites and the souls of those who had died too early or violently were particularly likely to return in order to cause problems for people whom they blamed for their misfortunes or people whom they envied. Whole groups of people might suffer because a soul was unhappy: cities beset by famine and pestilence sometimes sought relief by paying special cult to the ghosts of local individuals whom they assumed were causing the problems. There were means of averting ghosts as well; wreaths of a thorny plant called rhamnos were hung on doors and windows in the belief that this would prevent ghosts from entering a house (Photius, Lexicon under "rhamnos "). In some parts of Greece, annual festivals such as the Anthesteria invited ghosts back into the world of the living and treated them well for a few days; the underlying logic seems to have been that if the ghosts were satisfied by this extra attention they would remain peaceful for the rest of the year. Even then, however, special precautions were taken to ensure that the returning ghosts did not take too many liberties while among the living, or outstay their welcome. Other festivals, such as the Genesia (a word formed on the gen - root, meaning "birth" in the sense of those related to one by birth), honored dead relatives, but it is unclear whether the dead were expected to actually return at these times or simply enjoyed the festival from within the underworld.

Sometimes ghosts were useful. Specialists knew how to create small lead "curse" tablets engraved with words that compelled ghosts to return to the land of the living and do their bidding. Typically, the specialist commanded the ghost to attack someone on behalf of a paying client. The ghost might be charged with imposing insomnia on a woman whom the client loved, for example, in hopes that she would acquiesce to his demands. It was not only the ghosts' victims who feared such activities; the ghosts themselves resented being called up from their rest in the underworld. For this reason, practitioners frequently focused on the ghosts of those who had died too early or unhappily, or whose bodies were unburied, because, as mentioned above, the souls of such unfortunates could not really enter the underworld, and thus they were more readily accessible (they were also, in their anger, probably more ready to injure the living). The specialists might also promise the ghost that, if it cooperated once, the specialist would protect it from ever being bothered again. The ghosts of dead heroes were considered stronger than ordinary ghosts and were expected to help the living with all sorts of problems: they helped women conceive, aided their native cities during war, and gave prophetic advice, for example. Heroic ghosts, however, could also be much more dangerous than other ghosts when angry. (On ghosts, see Johnston, 1999.)

The land of the dead

Souls might return to earth as ghosts, but most souls, most of the time, stayed in the underground kingdom called Hades, which was ruled over by a god who was also named Hades and by his queen, Persephone. In earliest times, the Greeks seem to have believed that everyone there was treated in the same way. The souls existed in a state that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant; literary portrayals, such as that in Book 11 of the Odyssey, suggest that the underworld was dank and dark, and that there was little to do to pass eternal time. In the Odyssey and elsewhere, souls usually are portrayed as looking like their former bodies (thus women who were famous beauties while alive remained attractive, and mighty warriors still wore their armor). Souls also retained the desires and grudges they held while alive: the soul of Ajax, who felt he had been cheated by Odysseus while alive, refused to return Odysseus's greeting when they met in the underworld. And yet, in spite of the other ways in which life after death replicated what went on before, the souls lacked one of the most important abilities they had while alive: they could not communicate with the living except under special circumstances. In the Odyssey, it is only after Odysseus pours out the blood of a ritually slaughtered ram for them to drink that the souls can chat with him (this probably is a reflection, although exaggerated, of normal funerary ritual, which includes pouring libations into the grave). Physical contact is impossible, too, because souls have no substance: Odysseus cannot embrace his mother's ghost.

A few people do suffer punishment in a special part of the underworld according to the Odyssey and other Greek literary texts, although it is not clear whether the Greeks considered them to be truly dead or to have been transported to the underworld while still alive. Among the most famous are Tantalos, who endures eternal thirst and hunger, and Sisyphos, who is doomed to push a boulder uphill repeatedly. But these are unusual cases of people who had done unusually wicked things; there is no indication that the average person expected to be punished after death. There are also examples, in myth, of people who get extraordinary rewards at the end of their lives, due to their special relationships with the gods. Menelaus, Helen's husband and therefore Zeus's son-in-law, knew he would be carried off to the paradisiacal Elysian Fields at the end of his life, for example, instead of dying (Odyssey 4.561569).

Myth also tells of judges in the underworld. Most commonly mentioned in this role are Minos, the former king of Crete, who was renowned for his fair judgments; his brother Rhadamanthys, who had been a lawgiver in Crete; and Aeacus, who had ruled Aegina. These judges are presented as settling disputes among the dead, rather than deciding the fate of a newly arrived soul; in other words, they also continue with "life" in much the same way as they had before death (e.g., Odyssey 11.568571). It is only in certain mystery cults or philosophical contexts that we hear of judgments or tests that determine the fate of the soul upon its arrival (see below). Aeacus sometimes serves as the gatekeeper for Hades instead of one of its judges. Kerberos, the many-headed dog of Hades, whom the dead souls had to distract with a piece of food in order to enter the land of the dead (and who prevented the souls from ever leaving again), and Charon, who ferried souls across the river Styx, which divided the world of the dead from the world of the living, played a similar role insofar as they also helped to mark the boundary between life and death. In doing this, they made death seem more permanent and irreversible, but they also made the transition seem more familiar, more like the transitions one encountered in life. Most of these figures are mythic only; however, it is unlikely that the Greeks really "believed" in them. Charon is the possible exception: by the Hellenistic period, people began to bury coins with their dead, with which the souls could pay for their passage across the river. The god Hermes, in his role as Psychopompos (guide of souls), was also a figure of real cult. He was expected to help the soul reach the underworld safely and also to guide it back and forth to the upper world again when necessary (for example, during the Anthesteria, when the soul's family needed its help or when a specialist called on it to harm an enemy).

In contrast to the earliest Greek beliefs, the late archaic period saw the development of a system in which the common person might expect to receive either rewards or punishments after death; this concept was fairly widespread by the classical period. In most cases, one's lot was said to depend on one's behavior while alivethings were supposed to be evened up after death. (On the underworld and punishments after death, see Johnston, 1999, and Sourvinou-Inwood, 1995.)

Preparing for the afterlife

Given this idea, preparation for death should have required nothing more than good behavior. But few people led lives of perfect virtue, and most were therefore left anxious about what awaited them. Perhaps because of this, we also find, beginning in the late archaic period, the idea that one can escape from the postmortem effects of bad behavior and even guarantee bliss after death by being initiated into one or more so-called mysteries cults while still alive (the most famous being that at Eleusis, near Athens). Initiates could expect to spend the afterlife in a meadow or other pleasant place, eating, drinking, and dancing. Non-initiates, however exemplary their conduct had been during life, would wallow in mire forever.

The flaw in this system, as its ancient critics already saw, was that once initiated, people could behave however they liked for the rest of their lives. "It would be absurd," said Diogenes the Cynic, "if Agesilaus and Epaminondas [two Spartan generals known for nobility of character] end up in the mire after death, while worthless people, simply because they have been initiated into the mysteries, dwell on the Islands of the Blest" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 6.39). Although a few mystery cults may have required initiates to follow certain rules of ritualized purity for the rest of their lives (e.g., not wearing wool), there does not seem to have been any expectation that they would follow a moral or ethical code.

A variation on this theme suggested that all humanity was doomed to punishment in the underworld because of its connection to the death of Persephone's son, the god Dionysos. Dionysos had been dismembered and eaten by violent gods called Titans; Zeus incinerated the Titans with a thunderbolt, and humanity arose from their smoldering remains. Persephone thereafter held each human responsible for the loss of her son. All that could save one from postmortem misery was to be initiated into mysteries sponsored by Dionysos (who had been reborn following his consumption by the Titans). The Dionysiac mysteries are particularly interesting because they gave the initiates special knowledge of underworld geography: they taught initiates which path to follow and which to avoid once they went below, and also which infernal bodies of water were safe to drink from and which would inflict forgetfulness. Forgetfulness was dangerous because the initiates had to remember to declare in front of certain underworld divinities or guardians who would judge them that they were pure and that Dionysos had released them from any need to atone for his death at the Titans' hands. Reminders of what the initiates learned while alive were engraved on tiny gold tablets that were buried with them.

Reincarnation shows up in a few texts connected with Dionysiac mysteries and in some philosophical systems influenced by Pythagoras and Plato. Although the soul still won rewards or suffered punishments in the afterlife in these systems, it eventually was sent into a new bodily life. Souls that managed to conduct themselves properly for several cycles could win release from incarnation altogether.

The eschatological aspects of mystery cults represent a novel way of thinking about the afterlife that subsequently influenced many other religious and philosophical systems in later antiquity, including Christianity. But it must be stressed that, for whatever reason, most ancient Greeks were not initiated into them. The standard expectation for the afterlife was probably, at best, a rather boring existence and, at worst, retribution for earthly deeds.


Scholars face two problems in dealing with Rome: there is little evidence for Roman beliefs and practices in early periods, and, as time went on, the Romans adopted from the Greek literary texts that they admired Greek modes of expressing ideas about deathand probably Greek beliefs and practices as well. Thus, for example, Book 6 of Vergil's Aeneid, where Aeneas visits the underworld, models itself closely on Book 11 of the Odyssey. It does add some interesting variations: Vergil adds a Limbo-like realm for the souls of infants and of those who died after falsely being accused of crimes, as well as a special area for suicides; he also seems to draw on Pythagorean ideas of reincarnation in some parts of Book 6. Whether these additions reflect actual differences between Greek and Roman beliefs or, rather, Vergil's interest in them for thematic and narrative reasons is impossible to say. We also know that the Romans were influenced by the Etruscans in their religious beliefs, and that they were highly interested in death and the afterlifebut because we can say little about the Etruscans themselves with certainty, this does not help much. Moreover, some "Greek" ideas that the Romans may have borrowed are also found in Etruscan sources, making it hard to say whether the Romans got them from the Greeks or the Etruscansor perhaps even whether the Greeks themselves borrowed them from the Etruscans early on. Charon, who seems to be related to a figure called Charu in Etruscan sources, is a case in point. The survey that follows points out a few salient ways in which the Romans differed from the Greeks, but most of what was said above about the Greeks is generally true for the Romans as well (e.g., they particularly feared the ghosts of the unburied and thereby put a high value on funerary rites).

The funeral and care of the dead

When a person was about to die, his nearest relative bent over to kiss him, so as to catch his last breath (Seneca, To Marcia 3.2). The same person closed the eyes of the deceased (Vergil, Aeneid 9.486487), and then all the relatives began a practice called conclamatio, or "calling out to" the dead, which was periodically repeated until the body was cremated (Servius on Vergil, Aeneid 6.218). Timing of the burial differed from the Greeks as well; Romans kept the body of the deceased within the house for up to seven days and expected family members to continue lamenting and eating only meager amounts of food during the entire period. Before cremation, a little bit of dirt was thrown on the corpse to symbolize burial, or else a small part of the body, such as a finger, was cut off to be buried. The rest of the body was burned. After the funeral pyre had consumed the corpse, survivors poured milk and wine over the ashes and bones, to feed the deceased. (Later, the bones were interred in a tomb.) For nine days following cremation, family members continued to set themselves apart from the rest of the community. During this period, a sow and a gelded ram were sacrificed and the grave was formally consecrated. (On burial rites, see Toynbee, 1971.)

As soon as a son, when sifting through the ashes of his father's funeral pyre, found a bone, he proclaimed that the father had joined the Di Manes, or "divine spirits"in other words, the ancestors (Varro, in Plut., Moralia 267b). As in Greece, care was taken to keep these spirits happy and beneficent through funeral banquets and other graveside offeringsespecially red flowers, which were offered at a festival called the "day of roses," or at another called the "day of violets." A nine-day festival called the Dies Parentes (days of the parents) was held in February and concluded with a day called the Feralia (the "carrying" of food and other gifts to tombs); this honored the dead as kindly beings who watched over their descendants. During another festival, the Lemuria, which was held for three days in May, the head of each household had to perform rituals at night to rid the family of malevolent ghosts (lemures or larvae ). In particular, he had to toss black beans onto the floor with his eyes averted, while he asserted that the beans were meant to redeem himself and his family. The ghosts were expected to gather up the beans and leave contented.

The Romans asserted from an early time that certain founding fathers had become gods after their deathsRomulus and Aeneas, for example. Starting with Julius Caesar, the Roman Senate went further, regularly deifying exceptional individuals after death, particularly emperors and members of the imperial family. The Greeks had occasionally done this as well for important rulers, starting in the Hellenistic period, but had never fully embraced the idea. (See Price, 1984.)

See Also

Orphic Gold Tablets.


Johnston, Sarah Iles. Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. Berkeley, 1999.

Kurtz, Donna C., and John Boardman. Greek Burial Customs. Ithaca, N.Y., 1971.

Price, S. R. F. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge, UK, 1984.

Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. "Reading" Greek Death: To the End of the Classical Period. Oxford, 1995.

Toynbee, J. M. C. Death and Burial in the Roman World. Baltimore, 1971; reprint, 1996.

Sarah Iles Johnston (2005)