The Ancestors' Ancestors: Religion and the Cult of the Dead in Archaic Rome

Elizabeth Colantoni

Oberlin College

During the republican and imperial periods, Romans devoted considerable energy to propitiating the spirits of their forefathers, through, for instance, funerary rituals and the celebration of the Parentalia and Lemuria festivals.  They also incorporated their ancestors into their daily lives through the display of wax images of their forefathers in the atria and shrines of their homes.  Despite the centrality of ancestor worship in Roman life, we know little of its significance in earliest Roman culture.  Authors such as Livy who write about Rome's early centuries do not emphasize the role of ancestors in Roman religion at this time.  Nonetheless, ancestor worship and a cult of the dead likely also thrived in Rome during the archaic period.  In this paper, I examine evidence for the attitudes that Romans of the eighth through sixth centuries BC held toward their forebears.  In particular, I focus on the archaeological vestiges of funerary rituals and ancestor worship, and I compare information about these practices with archaeological evidence for religious rituals directed at spirits and deities other than ancestors.  I argue that there was a relationship between ideas about deified ancestors and more general beliefs about the gods in early Rome.  I suggest that conceptions of these two types of supernatural beings—ancestors and gods—influenced one another over the course of archaic and republican Roman history.


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