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Death and Burial in the Roman World - 20 credits (HS4308)

Course description

Symbols of the afterlife. Mosaic from Pompei.

Death preoccupies every society and people’s deep-rooted beliefs regarding their mortality are reflected in the rituals that surround the disposal of the dead. This module examines how the dead were treated in the Roman world and how perceptions of death and the afterlife changed from the first century BC to the fourth/fifth centuries AD. The historical and archaeological sources will be explored together and students should expect to acquaint themselves with the evidence from burials, cemeteries and tombstones as well as the work of contemporary writers. Anthropological studies of more recent societies’ treatment of the dead are an important part of studying mortuary and funerary archaeology, and case-studies from modern times will be explored for useful analogies with the Roman world.

The aims of this module are to explore Roman attitudes towards death and how these were manifested in the burial of the dead from the first century BC to the period after the adoption of Christianity in the fourth century. Furthermore, to develop the knowledge and skills required to understand and interpret the disparate archaeological, historical and anthropological evidence relating to this subject. Ultimately the goal is to use this material in order to better understand contemporary Roman beliefs associated with death.

Credits: 20

Availability of module: Alternate (odd) years

Prerequisites: N/A

Necessary for: N/A

Tutor: Dr Peter Guest

Teaching methods

A variety of methods will be used throughout the course, including formal lectures, student-led discussion of important topics in seminars, as well as a visit to the nineteenth-century Cathays Cemetery in Cardiff.

The aim of the lectures is to provide an introduction to a particular topic, establishing the key points of major course themes, identifying important issues and providing guidance for more in-depth reading. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

The primary aim of the seminars will be to generate debate and discussion amongst students. Seminars for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students to analyse and further discuss key issues and topics relating to module. Handouts will be made available prior to the seminars.


One written examination of 2 hours (50% of final mark); one assessed essay of no more than 2500 words in length (50% of final mark).

Summary of course content

  • The Etruscan background
  • Roman funerals and Imperial deaths
  • Physical processes of death and decay
  • Tombs and cemeteries in Roman Italy
  • Signs and Symbols in funerary architecture
  • Anthropology and Ethnography
  • Mortality and demographics
  • Burial in late Iron Age and early Roman Britain
  • From cremation to inhumation
  • Burial in the western Roman Empire
  • The Catacombs
  • Burial in the eastern Roman Empire
  • Burial in later Roman Britain

Learning outcomes

On completion of the module students should have acquired:

  • an understanding of Roman attitudes towards the concepts of death and the afterlife by describing and summarising a variety of anthropological, archaeological, epigraphic and historical sources;
  • a broad knowledge of the numerous burial practices encountered in the Roman world, through the study of burials themselves, funeral monuments and tombstones, as well as literary sources. The goal is to use this material in order to better understand how contemporary beliefs affected the disposal of the dead;
  • the skills to use a variety of sources and select the appropriate archaeological, literary and anthropological evidence when dealing with complex historical and social questions.

Skills that will be practised and developed:

  • effective communication of ideas and arguments in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner, whether in class discussion or in written form;
  • formulation and justification of arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and presentation of appropriate supporting evidence;
  • ability to modify as well as to defend an argument;
  • ability to think critically and challenge assumptions;
  • ability to use a range of IT resources to assist with information retrieval and presentation;
  • time management and the ability to independently organise personal study and workloads;
  • effective team working in seminar or tutorial discussions.

Suggested book purchases


Suggested preparatory reading

Allan, J. 2004 The archaeology of the afterlife. Baird.

Carroll, M. 2006 Spirits of the Dead. Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe. Oxford: OUP.

Chapman, R., Kinnes, I., and Randsborg, K. (eds.) 1981 The Archaeology of Death. Cambridge: CUP

Cumont, F. 1959 After Life in Roman Paganism. New York

Hope, V. 2008. Roman Death. London: Continuum.

Hopkins, K. 1983 Death and Renewal. Cambridge: CUP

Parker-Pearson, M. 1999 The archaeology of death and burial. Stroud: Tempus

Roberts, C.A. 2009. Human Remains in Archaeology. York.