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Roman Cemeteries

By Emily Johnston

Studying Roman cemeteries can reveal lots of information about Roman ways of life. Often, graves were decorated with inscriptions and images, which told the passer-by about the person who was buried there – similar to gravestones that we have, although depending how wealthy the person was, their grave markers could be a lot more elaborate. By the late Republic and the Empire, tombs became bigger, with more decoration and in a huge variety of forms. In the Late Empire, burials within catacombs became more common, which could house hundreds of people. 


Roman cemeteries are called necropoleis (sing. Necropolis). This word comes from the Greek word necropolis:necro meaning dead and polis meaning city - translating to “city of the dead”. It was in Roman Law (Twelve Tables, frag. 10.1) that burials were not allowed to take placed within the walls of the city, because they believed that the dead bodies carried pollution.  Therefore, cemeteries were built outside of the gates of the city – with the most expensive spot often being that closest to the city. 


When we think of cemeteries now a days, we often think of quiet and sad places, and there is a separation between the living and the dead. This is very much a Western view of death – where it’s still a taboo subject.  Some archaeologists look to other countries (this is called ethnography) where the dead are celebrated and interacted with. It’s important to not think of Roman cemeteries like the ones we have here in Britain, because there was not the same divide between the living and the dead. In fact, many families had meals at the tombs, and festivals allowed them to celebrate the dead.

An Artefact

Charon's Obol

Many people know of the coin that was often placed in the mouths of the deceased. This custom has been found in many Romans, Greek and Near Eastern burials. The term “Charon’s Obol” refers to the custom of placing a coin in the deceased’s mouth, which could be used to pay Charon, the ferryman who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to the Underworld. Another explanation for the coins is that they were used to stop the soul of the dead returning. In Latin, the coin is sometimes called a viaticum, which means ‘provisions for a journey’ – this could mean the supplies need when a soul passes to the Underworld.  


Many books or films will show this token as a coin, but in some cases individuals were buried with multiple coins, or other metal artefacts. Roman sources say that the coin was usually a low value coin. Archaeological evidence shows that this custom was used in many different places, with different meanings. Often coins were not left in the mouth of the deceased, and sometimes it was more than one coin placed in a burial or cremation. 

A Site

Ostia Antica

Ostia was a port town of Rome, located on the Tiber. Nearby Portus developed huge harbours to import supplies such as grain to Rome, and Ostia had many storage buildings to hold these supplies. Many of the workers at the harbours of Portus lived in Ostia and would commute daily. Because of its location on the Tiber, Ostia was slowly covered by years and years’ worth of sedimentation, which has preserved the city very well. 


Ostia has five associated necropoleis – Porta Romana, Porta Laurentina, Porta Marina, the Pianabellaand the Isola Sacra, which date between the 2nd- 4thcenturies AD. The largest of the cemeteries is the Isola Sacra, which sits on the sacred piece of land between Ostia and Portus. 


The Isola Sacra is very interesting as it shows many of the different tomb architecture types. When studying the tombs, it is fascinating because many of the tombs have dining furniture attached to them, such as tables, couches (biclinium), benches – some even have ovens and wells, so that those visiting can fetch water or bake bread. Many of the inscriptions, including epitaphs and portraits, at the tombs also call out to passers-by to invite them to take a seat at the tombs. These inscriptions also helps to tell us about the lives of those within the tombs. 


Above: Tombs on the Isola Sacra ( source:

Below: Tomb 78 on the Isola Sacra (source:


A Person

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Eurysaces, The Baker 

Eurysaces was a freedman who built an impressive monument for both himself and his wife to be buried in. This tomb dates to around 50-20BC, which is the Late Republic. It is an important tomb to study because it is one of the largest and most notable tombs in Rome. Most of the tomb is still standing and you can still see the remains of the tomb in Rome today, at the Porta Maggiore. The tomb stands at 33 feet, and is built in a style which is different to the classical Roman tomb. Reliefs across the tomb displays the different stages of bread production – such as grinding grain, kneading dough, and baking of the loaves. The circles you can see are thought to represent kneading basins or grain measuring vessels. 


This tombs helps to show what was important to Eurysaces, and how he made his considerable wealth. It is also important because it is one of the most impressive tombs built by a freedman – freedmen often built highly decorated tombs to show off their fortune after being freed.  

Left: The Tomb of the Baker. Source: Hackworth Petersen, L. (2003) The Baker, His Tomb, His Wife and Her Breadbasket: The Monument of Eurysaces in Rome in The Art Bulletin, vol 85, no 2. pages 230 - 257.

Emily Johnston is a PhD candidate in Archaeology - and founder of this website! Her Undergraduate degree thesis researched Roman burials, and used Ostia Antica as a case study. 

She can be found on her personal twitter at @emilyrjohnston and instagram @emilyrebeccajohnston or on any of the archaeo-logic social medias & email! 

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