10 Amazing Roman Epitaphs

Most tombstones today are dull affairs. If we are lucky, they will have our name on them and the bare facts of our lives. This usually only includes that we were born on such-and-such a day and died—hopefully after a suitably long period—on another date. Not much for future wanderers through graveyards to consider.

The Romans did things a bit differently. Because burials were not allowed within city limits, they buried their dead outside the city walls and often lined the major roads with tombs. These could be simple or extravagant, but many would have lengthy inscriptions known as epitaphs, which called out for passersby to read them and remember the departed.

Here are ten amazing Roman epitaphs which give us insights into the ancient world.

Related: Top 10 Horrible Ends Of Roman Emperors

10 Marital Bliss

It is sometimes easy to imagine that all marriages in the ancient world were simple transactions where a man paid a price to a father and bought a wife. This seems cold-blooded to us and no doubt resulted in a loveless match. Roman funerary inscriptions, however, paint a sometimes very different picture of what marriage could be like. The tombstone of Lucius Sempronius Firmus was set up by his wife and gives the image of a deeply loving partnership.

“Furia Spes made this for her dearest husband, Lucius Sempronius Firmus. When we met as boy and girl, we were joined in love equally. I lived with him for a short while, and in a time when we should have lived together, we were separated by an evil hand. So I ask you, most sacred spirits, to protect my dear husband entrusted to you, and that you be willing to be most accommodating to him in the nightly hours, so I may have a vision of him, and so he might wish that I persuade fate to allow me to come to him more sweetly and quickly.”

Some of the praise heaped on a dead spouse might be conventional and expected, but many have personal details that speak of a truly shared life. One tells readers to go and bathe in the pool of Apollo as the husband and wife used to, adding their regrets that they can no longer.[1]

9 Epitaph for a Child

The rate of infant, childhood, and maternal mortality was terrifyingly high in antiquity. In Euripides’s Medea, he has the title character declare that she would rather stand in the front line of a battle three times than give birth once. For a long time, historians thought that parents who lost a child in the past simply shrugged and moved on because it was so common. But studying the graves they set up reveals the pain that each loss must have caused.

“My baby Acerva was snatched away to live in Hades before she had her fill of the sweet light of life. She was beautiful and charming, a little darling as if from heaven. Her father weeps for her and, because he is her father, asks that the earth may rest lightly on her forever.”

Epitaphs such as this are common, and even the fact that a tomb was made for a dead baby speaks to the devastation their deaths caused. One was written for a child who lived for only “nine sighs.”[2]

8 Epitaph for a Dog

Animals mostly remain silent when we look to the past. They generally leave no written record of what their experience was like. Yet one Roman tombstone from the 3rd century AD gives us insight into how the most treasured pets were treated. This tomb was dedicated to a dog imported to Rome and given the name Pearl:

“Gaul sired me, the shell of the rich sea gave me my name: the honor of that name is becoming to my beauty. Taught to roam unexplored woodlands with courage and to chase hairy game in the hills, unaccustomed ever to be restrained by heavy harnesses or to endure savage beatings with my snow-white body: for I used to lie in my master’s and my mistress’s lap and mastered the art of resting wearily on a spread-out blanket. Even though I used to be able to express more than I was entitled to with my inarticulate mouth—that of a dog!—no one feared my barking. But I have already met my fate, stricken down during ill-omened whelping—me, whom earth now covers under this little marble plaque.”

This tells us that although some dogs suffered horrible beatings, some were kept as companions and lapdogs.[3]

7 More Doggy Epitaphs

Even the Romans recognized that some would laugh at the idea of building a tomb for a mere dog. One reads, “Thou who passest on this path, If haply thou dost mark this monument, Laugh not, I pray thee, though it is a dog’s grave. Tears fell for me, and the dust was heaped above me by a master’s hand.” The owner’s grief was too strong to be stopped by ridicule.

Another describes the life shared by the owner and pet. “How sweet and friendly she was! While she was alive she used to lie in the lap, always sharing sleep and bed. What a shame, Midge, that you have died! You would only bark if some rival took the liberty of lying up against your mistress. What a shame, Midge, that you have died! The depths of the grave now hold you, and you know nothing about it. You cannot go wild nor jump on me, and you do not bare your teeth at me with bites that do not hurt.”

Sometimes, the partnership between master and dog lasted a long time. One epitaph describes how “I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.”[4]

6 What Makes Life Worth Living

Life for the Romans was not all bloody warfare and setting out to conquer the known world. There were quiet moments when life was to be enjoyed. Some took these times to study, work, or simply enjoy life. One tombstone tells us what one man thought were the best things a person could do.

“He lived 52 years. To the Spirits of the Dead of Tiberius Claudius Secundus. He has everything with him here in his tomb. Baths, wine, and sex corrupt our bodies, but baths, wine, and sex make life worth living. Merope, slave of the emperor, made this for her dear slave husband as well as for herself and their descendants.”[5]

5 Regina

Hadrian’s Wall marked the northern extent of the Roman world, and thousands of people lived and died in the forts and cities surrounding it. One tomb discovered there gives us a window into the mixing of people that occurred under Roman rule. The intricately carved stone shows a woman decked in jewelry but holding a distaff—a tool used in spinning—representing the mastery of work within the household that women were expected to cultivate.

The inscription in Latin reads, “To the spirits of the departed and to Regina, his freedwoman and wife, a Catuvellaunian by tribe, aged 30, Barates of Palmyra set this up.” But underneath this, there is a line written in the Palmyrene script that says, “Regina, the freedwoman of Barate, alas.”

Palmyra was a major city in Syria, so it seems Barates traveled to Britain, and there bought a local slave called Regina, Latin for Queen, before freeing her and marrying her. Whether she had a choice in this is unrecorded. The fact that Barates had an inscription added in his native language suggests that, in his mind at least, it was a happy marriage.[6]

4 The Boy Poet

In AD 94, a young boy called Quintus Sulpicius Maximus stepped onto a stage in front of the emperor in Rome and created a poem on the spot as part of a competition for the Capitoline Games. He was competing against poets who were already grown adults. Quintus did not win but apparently impressed the crowd, who cheered him. Then tragedy struck. Just months later, the boy died, apparently from working too much. His grieving parents set up a grave with a lengthy inscription and a copy of his poem on a gravestone with a statue of the young poet.

“Though but a lad of twelve short years was I, I left this contest for the land of shades. Disease and weariness reft me away, For of the Muses dreamed I, morning, noon, and night. I pray you for the sake of this poor lad, Pause here and see his off-hand verses’ dainty grace.”

Scholars are not overly impressed by the quality of Quintus’s poem, though it was a remarkable achievement for one so young. What shines through the epitaph are the hopes placed on the boy by his parents, whose names reveal them to have been former slaves. Had Quintus lived and risen to fame, his humble family would have risen with him.[7]

3 The Gladiator

Gladiators have become a potent symbol of the Roman tendency for blood lust in the popular imagination. Fighters in often exotic garb would battle it out to the roars of the crowd. The best gladiators were among the first star athletes in history. Gladiators probably did not fight to the death every time, however, as it would be a very costly form of entertainment. One who did die in combat left an accusation in his epitaph.

“Here I lie victorious, Diodorus the wretched. After breaking my opponent Demetrius, I did not kill him immediately. But murderous Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis [referee of the games] killed me, and leaving the light I have gone to Hades… A good friend buried me here because of his piety.”

It seems that although Diodorus had knocked down Demetrius first, and the match should have ended, the referee allowed Demetrius to continue. That is when Diodorus was slain.[8]

2 When Life Gives You Lemons…

Roman epitaphs often included a little philosophy meant to comfort the living who read them. Many tombs had the letters NFFNSNC carved on them, which stands for a Latin phrase that means “I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care.” When we are dead, we no longer exist, so we cannot be troubled by anything. Some might find this a little stark.

One grave had a slightly different piece of wisdom about someone who died too young. Sextus Iulius Felicissimus was apparently both a doctor and a fighter in the arena when he was slain, aged just 19. His foster parents put up a lengthy inscription to honor one with all the beauty and power of youth but added a philosophical ending. “Why does my loss cause you pains? One cannot overcome the order imposed by fate. Human affairs are just like lemons: either they tumble to the ground when ripe, or they get collected before.” Death is coming for everyone.[9]

1 Children Lost in Accidents

If you managed to survive your birth, then there was no certainty that you would live to be an adult. Many gravestones set up to commemorate children give the circumstances of death, and many are from accidental causes. Some of these could still happen today, like a two-year-old falling off a ladder, or a teenager falling from a tree. Others are more specific to the lifestyle of the ancient world.

Children, especially enslaved children, would be put to work while still young. One child was gored to death by a bull while he was feeding the cattle on the farm, and the epitaph records he was dead before his mother could run to him in the field. Another was crushed by a pile of wooden stakes that fell on them from a farm cart. Natural disasters are also referenced in epitaphs to children, such as when one was killed during an earthquake. The fires which routinely broke in Rome also claimed many children.

There are two cases of young people being struck by javelins. A fourteen-year-old called Myra was struck through the neck after a javelin was thrown by “an innocent hand,” probably during exercise. When Diotimus was hit by a javelin, which pierced down to the bone, however, the epitaph blames a “murderous hand.” It also explains that the evildoer who threw the javelin is now dead at the bottom of the sea, which might suggest they either killed themselves or were murdered in revenge.[10]

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