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Death, Pollution, and Roman Social Life

Allison Emmerson

Tulane University

That the dead were polluting—i.e., that corpses posed a danger of making the living somehow unclean, offensive to both the living community and the gods—is thought to be among the most essential Roman beliefs about death. Over the past century, scholars of both literary and material culture have contended that a fear of death pollution was a primary force driving funerary ritual, from the treatment of the corpse immediately after death to the rites performed at the end of the period of mourning, a perspective that has grown even more entrenched in recent decades (e.g., Lindsay 2000; Graham 2011; Lennon 2014; Bond 2016; Paturet 2017). Nevertheless, such an understanding tends to overlook an important point: our earliest references to death pollution emerged only in Late Antiquity (Serv. Ad Aen. 3.64, 4.507, 6.216). This paper problematizes the evidence for a widespread belief in contagious, miasmic death pollution in the Republican and Imperial periods. I argue that the idea of polluting death emerges not from the ancient texts themselves, but from a modern reconstruction that combines those texts without critically evaluating chronological, geographic, or social variation, nor questioning the intentions of authors or requirements of genre. By reexamining the texts outside that traditional narrative, I find a new pattern underlying funerary practices, in which behavior was dictated not by a fear of pollution emanating from dead bodies, but by the obligations and emotions that death imposed on mourners. Importantly, such responses were neither externally-dictated or dogmatic, but internal, changeable, and dependent above all on individual interpretation. Not only does this understanding accord better with the ancient evidence, but also it allows for space and flexibility, acknowledging all that we do not know—and cannot know—of how Romans grappled with the complexity of death.

Session/Panel Title

Blurring the Boundaries: Interactions between the Living and the Dead in the Roman World

Session/Paper Number


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