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Traditionalism and the Ancestral Cult in Ancient Rome

January 29th, 2011 No comments

Traditionalism is a quality that can be found within every culture and civilization. Humankind’s obsession with historical convention spans beyond the limits of recorded history, but takes root at a time that has arguably been called the beginning of civilization. The people of Ancient Rome emphasized the importance of traditionalism to the extent of extreme fanaticism, which ultimately became the Roman Ancestral Cult. The Ancestral Cult is significant because it laid the foundation for Roman religion, which made vital use of ritualism, folklore, and ancestral praise. I contend that tradition and ritualism were two defining qualities of Roman culture, which thrived for thousands of years afterward.

Much of what we know about early Roman life comes from the Greek writer Polybius, who published the earliest preserved historical narrative about Roman life . Ploybius writes about Roman burial practices, which involved the practice of ancestor worship at the funeral and afterward at ritual sacrifices and holiday observances. It was customary for the eldest son to speak first at the funeral. He would begin by praising the virtues of the deceased, as if he were sizing up the shoes that he was expected (or perhaps destined) to fulfill. The Romans honored their dead with tenacity, casting masks of the deceased into household shrines along with other family heirlooms and paraphernalia . The masks would be carefully adorned only during special religious services. Men of the same physical likeness as the deceased would don themselves in clothing that was symbolic of the forebear’s rank, and arrive to the ritual in ceremonious chariots so that all would be reminded of their glorious deeds. This practice of reenactment helped to solidify feelings of pride and ambition in the younger generation, who also sought to bring honor and glory to their family.

Many Ancient Romans preserved a family member’s legacy just as we do, in the epitaph on a tombstone. A noteworthy difference is evident in the dialogue, which would often display an intense amount of grief for whomever was buried below. Basic knowledge regarding Roman history tells us that the Romans were lovers of drama, and this assertion is supported by the poetic nature of their epitaphs. An excellent example of this artistic grieving practice is evident on the gravestone of a Roman woman named Turia, who had been outlived by her dear husband . The kind words of her widower transcend the barrier of linguistic translation, which often taints the poetic nature of the original message. In the closing lines he writes: “Your last wishes I have regarded as law; what-ever it will be in my power to do in addition, I shall do.” Although such passionate words require a great amount of skill, as well as emotion to write, similar messages can be found on many other tombs .

These grieving practices can all be looped into the phenomenon of the Roman Ancestral Cult. This institution provided Romans with religious framework that lasted until the Emperor Constantine converted the empire to Christianity. Many of the customs that were established as a part of the cult survived the Christian conversion, and evolved into practices that can still be observed in Western civilization today. They evolved as parts of a greater phenomenon, which dictated many of the rules and customs in Ancient Roman Culture. Social conventions such as patriarchy and death rituals have roots deep within Roman history, and we continue to exercise them today.