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Transgressing the Dead in Ancient and Renaissance Rome

Mario Erasmo

University of Georgia

Corpse abuse in ancient Rome, or more properly, the corpse abuse of (in)famous individuals (Marius' ashes scattered by Sulla; Pompey's decapitation and corpse abuse; and Sejanus' corpse dragged by a hook then tossed into the Tiber) is frequently an epilogue to personal or political enmity. Corpses are vulnerable to abuse ranging from verbal and physical assault, mutilation, and non-disposal. Funerary rituals surrounding disposal magnify the effects of abuse against "life-like" corpses, including the prothesis that imitates the position of one in repose and the laying out of a body for cremation or burial in a supine posture. Etruscan sarcophagi with effigies of the deceased reclining and seemingly social extend the metaphor of life to the dead. Do transgressive acts against the dead extend or negate this metaphor of a permeable boundary between life and death?

This paper examines transgressions against the dead, in particular focusing on the treatment of the corpses of Agrippina the Younger and the so-called Tulliola. Tacitus (Annals 14.9), and Suetonius (Nero 34), offer varying accounts of Nero's inspection of his mother's corpse prior to disposal, but a similar feature of the narratives is Nero's sexualized viewing of Agrippina's body. Parallels of the transgression of an ancient Roman woman's corpse extend to the Renaissance. In 1485, the body of a perfectly preserved woman incorrectly identified as Tulliola, Cicero's daughter, was discovered in a sarcophagus unearthed along the Via Appia Antica and exhibited outside Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill. For several days curious spectators lined up for an opportunity to view and touch the pagan corpse until Pope Innocent VIII Cybo had the body secretly removed and anonymously disposed. The abuse suffered by a potentially nude Tulliola at her "second prothesis" over one thousand years after her first, is as transgressive as Agrippina's, yet with more viewers/abusers at what was the first modern exhibition of an ancient corpse.

Session/Panel Title

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

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