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Funeral rites of the religio Romana celebrate the transition from life as a birth into a new life. Roman iconography depicted this transition as a journey across the Western Seas to the Blessed Isles where an eternal spring blooms in the Garden of Venus. The dead were believed to sail across the Western Seas to the Blessed Isles where they would take up their new life as one of the divine Manes. Images of the Blessed Isles show the souls of the dead as winged Cupids, children of Venus, engaged in idyllic settings. Among the Cupids is an infant Minerva wearing Her helmet and aegis and an infant Hercules wearing His lion skin, where both of these deities played a role in mortals attaining immortality as Lares. The journey to the Blessed Isles was at times depicted with the recently deceased riding in a carriage drawn by Cupids to a port. Otherwise shown was the voyage across the Western Seas with the deceased in a boat manned by cupids and propelled along its way by the Gods of the seas.

Roman iconography depicted the journey of the dead sailing to the Blessed Isles on ships or else as Nerieds and Cupids led over the waves by friendly sea creatures. At times they are seen in chariots pulled by a team of doves, the bird of Venus, driven by Cupid, as though heading to port. At times the soul is depicted as a psyche with butterfly wings, conducted by Cupid, or else the person is seen being received by the winged figure of a Lasa, as in a wall painting at Pompeii. Other depictions are of the Blessed Isles where the Manes appear as cupids or putti engaged in viticulture and farming, and among them is an infant Minerva as the conqueress of death. At times Roman views on death and the journey to the Blessed Isles was reflected in funeral rites.



Roman skepticism towards immortality is often mentioned in histories of the Religio Romana, but were in fact exceptionally rare. Certain schools of philosophy taught that the material soul perished along with the body and was recycled through Nature. Thus there are found expressions of our mortality. "We are mortals, not immortals."[1]

"When life ends, all things perish and turn to nothing." [2]

"We are and were nothing; look, reader, how swiftly we mortals pass from nothing to nothing."[3]

Philosophical indifference to death is then found with the expression, non fui, fui, non sum, non curo. Other schools of philosophy held that the souls of the dead had to face a trial as to their disposition. For his wife Cornelia, daughter of Scribonia, Propertius wrote a poem of her virtues as though she stood in judgment before censor L. Aemilius Paulus, concluding, "The case for my defense in completed. Rise up, my witnesses, who weep for me, while kindly Earth requites my life's desserts. Even Heaven has unbarred its gates to the virtuous. May I be found worthy that my bones may be carried to join my honored ancestors."[4]

This idea of a judgment of the deceased is also sometimes expressed on inscriptions. "Now if virtue is rewarded among the Manes, within the changeable shadows, then I pray that the Mother may give honor and gratitude to you." [5]


Roman philosophers recorded their thoughts towards death. Keep in mind though that those Roman opinions that have come down to us came from only the higher class of Roman society, though not the highest, and these do not really express popular beliefs. In fact some were specifically offered to contrast with the views of the "vulgar masses." Then, too, what has filtered down to us were ancient texts that were seen, for one reason or another, as agreeing with the views of the Christian copyists who preserved select writings over others.

What happens to you when you die?

When you die (as a good Roman), you are escorted to the River Styx by spirits. There, you and the other recently life-challenged are met by Charon, the ferryman. A coin, an obolus, will have been placed in your former body's mouth to pay Charon (although an aureus gets you a better seat in the boat, some believed). This payment is not representative of money so much as of the relationship between god and man, acknowledging your debt to the gods and their protection and guidance to you.

On the other side of Styx, you will pass Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog belonging to Father Dis, god of the Underworld. Cerberus will be friendly — he only becomes unfriendly when shades try to get out of the Underworld unauthorized.

You will go before the three judges, Minos, Rhadamanthos and Aeacus, who will ask you to account for your life. After you've made your accounting, you will be given the water of the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and one of five Rivers in the Underworld, which makes you forget your past life. You will be sent to the Elysian Fields (a version of paradise) if you've been a warrior or hero; The Plain of Asphodel, if you've been a good citizen, where you will continue to live a good life as a shade; or — if you've really offended the gods — to Tartarus, where you'll be punished by the Furies until your debt to society is paid. (There's no "eternal damnation" in the Roman underworld, although you can be there a pretty long time, depending on what you've done.) Your punishment depends on your crime.

Every once in a while, Dis or Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, will reprieve a candidate for the entire process and send him or her back to live again, especially if the deceased was unjustly murdered. He is given the Water of Forgetfulness and sent back across the Styx, presumably with a treat for Cerberus! (This is where the old phrase, " a sop for Cerberus" comes from — a bribe.)

Dis, while he is God of the Underworld, is NOT the God of Death. He does not decide who lives and dies. Instead, this is determined by the Three Fates. However, Dis does dispatch the god of death, Mors or Thanatos, to do his duty. He also has some connection with Morpheus, god of dreams.

Interestingly, Dis Pater is the only god with no name. He is known by the name of his kingdom: Hades, Pluto, or Dis, all of which refer to the secret riches of the earth.


  1. {{{2}}}: XI 856 (EN DE)
  2. Bucheler, Carmina Latina Epigraphica I, 1895; no. 420)
  3. CLE II, 1897; no. 1495)
  4. Prepertius IV 11
  5. Anthologia Latina II 1147.2

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