A lecturer of Ancient History at Macquarie University once mentioned that the Romans could teach us a thing or two about bureaucracy. I’ve never quite taken the quote too seriously, I mean, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Recently I stumbled upon an inscription (Lanuvium, Italy, 136 C.E.) that exposes a certain sophistication that would rival our own modern social clubs. The inscription reveals a burial society dedicated to Diana & Antinous with a primary purpose of ensuring burial for its members but also serving secondary functions of religious worship and social interaction.
This article will explore the by-laws of the burial society and through these laws, attempt to understand what it meant to belong to a social group in Ancient Rome.
A Funeral Insurance Plan?
If you have had the misfortune of watching daytime television, you may have been inundated with advertisements hawking funeral insurance to the elderly. The key selling proposition aimed at the fear of burdening relatives with funeral costs. By investing a small amount each week, the policy holder secures the finances associated with their own burial.
The inscription mentioned in the introduction appears to meet a similar purpose:
… and may we have made proper and careful arrangements for providing decent obsequies at the departure of the dead! Therefore we must all agree to contribute faithfully, so that our society may be able to continue in existence a long time.
A society dedicated to providing burial for it’s members with regular contributions to a communal treasury:
It was voted unanimously that whoever desires to enter this society shall pay an initiation fee of 100 sesterces and an amphora of good wine, and shall pay monthly dues of 5 asses … It was voted further that upon the decease of a paid-up member of our body there will be due him from the treasury 300 sesterces, from which sum will be deducted a funeral fee of 50 sesterces to be distributed at the pyre; the obsequies, furthermore, will be performed on foot.
It is beginning to look suspiciously like a funeral insurance plan (minus the hawking salesman), we have an initiation fee, regular contributions and a payout upon death.
But why was burial so important?
Burial was more important to the Romans than those living today, their belief in the afterlife tied up with a need for proper burial. Those who were not given the obsequies were the restless spirits, doomed to wander the earth and banished at the festival of Lemuria. Furthermore, a coin was placed under the tongue or upon the eyes to pay the ferryman on the way to the land of the dead.
Burial was essential for a smooth passage to the afterlife.
We must also remember the quote by Cicero that ‘the life of the dead is set in the memory of the living‘, a permanent resting place allowed descendants (and members of the society) to remember the dead and facilitate pious behaviour.
Lastly, the combined resources of the many allowed an individual to attain a burial they could not otherwise afford. The society (collegia) usually had a communal underground vault where remains were placed in small niches upon the wall and marked with an inscription (see below). This post by another blogger refers to it literally as a ‘pigeon house’.
More than a burial society
These societies were more than just a funeral insurance, they regularly gathered together, feasted and offered worship to their patrons (Diana & Antinous*):
Calendar of dinners: March 8, birthday of Caesennius … his father; November 27, birthday of Antinous; August 13, birthday of Diana and of the society; August 20, brithday of Caesennius Slavanus, his brother;…
Responsibility for these feasts were on a rotating roster:
It was voted further that if any master, in the year it is his turn in the membership list to provide dinner, fails to comply and provide a dinner, he shall pay 30 sesterces into the treasury;
And at these banquets, worship was given:
It was voted further that one the festive days of his term of office each quinquennalis is to conduct worship with incense and wine and is to perform his other functions clothed in white…
* Diana being the goddess of the hunt and Antinous a favourite youth of the emperor at the time (Hadrian)
The Fine Print
Now to the bureaucracy, here are the other rules of the society concerning burial:
- If a member commits suicide, they forfeit their payment.
- If a member dies farther than 20 miles from town, 3 men will be chosen to go and arrange a funeral (and paid a fee of 20 sesterces for doing so).
- If they are found guilty of fraud, they will pay a quadruple fine.
- If a member dies farther than 30 miles from town, then funeral expenses maybe claimed against the society by those who buried him.
- If a member dies intestate, than the quinquennalis and the membership will decide the fate of the deceased.
And here are the penalties & complaint procedures:
- Complaints and new business to be brought up at a business meeting and not the banquet.
- Any member who moves from one place to another to cause a disturbance will be fined 4 sesterces.
- Any member who speaks abusively or causes an uproar will be fined 12 sesterces.
- Any member who speaks abusively to a quinquennalis will be fined 20 sesterces.
Open to Slaves
Membership was not completely exclusive as well (even slaves were permitted):
It was further voted that if a slave member of this society dies, and his master or mistress unreasonably refuses to relinquish his body for burial, and he has not left written instructions, a token funeral ceremony will be held.
Offices to be held
The societies also offered members an opportunity to hold office and be granted the benefits that go along with it. Already mentioned has been the quinquennalis which appears to be the equivalent of a president who holds term for 5 years.
For the honour of holding this position, the person would receive:
It was voted further that any member who has administered the office of quinquennalis honestly shall receive a share and a half of everything as a mark of honour, so that other quinquennales will also hope for the same by properly discharging their duties.
A State Approved Society
The last analysis upon the inscriptions concerns the express permission given by the Senate to allow this society to run (with conditions):
These are permitted to assemble, convene, and maintain a society: those who desire to make monthly contributions for funerals may assemble in such a society but they may not assemble in the name of such society except once a month for the sake of making contributions to provide burial for the dead.
It might seem odd that a burial society would require express permission from the Senate, but these were more than just a burial society and people forming together in a social group inevitably could wield some political clout (as revealed in Hadrian’s responses to Pliny the Younger). It was this power that the authorities attempted to regulate against by forcing societies to register with the state and operate under their express approval.
Conclusion & More Information
Burial societies operated in the second century AD were much more than a simple funeral insurance plan, they offered members a chance to socialise, hold office and more importantly, offered a sense of belonging. They were sophisticated in their by-laws, commanded a communal treasury and operated under the permission of the state. They enriched the lives of the individual and gave them a focal point wider than their own family.
For the complete inscription from Lanuvium, see this link.