The Greeks and Romans believed in the existence of life after death. However, neither civilization had specific religious teachings about the afterlife. Instead, many of the Greek and Roman ideas about the afterlife developed from ancient myths, the works of writers and philosophers, and the sayings of oracles*. These ideas varied widely and were often contradictory.
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
Greek Ideas of the Afterlife. An important aspect of Greek belief in the afterlife was the idea of separation between a person’s soul and his or her dead body. The Greeks called the soul psyche and the body soma. After death and burial, the soul was freed from the body and began a journey to the world of the dead. A barrier, usually a river, lay between the worlds of the living and the dead. The Greeks believed that the soul was given guidance during its journey. Often the guidance came from the god Hermes or from his assistant, the ferryman Charon, who helped souls cross the river that separated the two worlds.
For the Greeks, the world of the dead was a place of darkness beneath the surface of the earth. The god Hades ruled this underworld, which was also called Hades. Monsters guarded the entrance to Hades, and the dead souls faced such evils and terrors as grief, disease, fear, and hunger. The ferocious, three-headed dog named Cerberus guarded the ferry landing by the river that separated the underworld from the living world.
In Hades, the dead came before a judge who examined their past deeds and assigned appropriate punishments. The judge might sentence those who had committed minor wrongdoing to forever wander about the underworld in a mindless state, knowing neither great suffering nor great joy. Serious wickedness, on the other hand, was punished with severe beatings, heavy labor, starvation, and torture. In earliest Greek thought, all dead souls—both good and bad—lived in Hades. A description of how the early Greeks pictured the underworld is given in Book 11 of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey.
However, some Greeks believed that certain people, particularly heroes* and other virtuous individuals, would not be required to wander through the darkness of the underworld. Instead they would be mysteriously transported to the Isles of the Blessed, also known as Elysium or the Elysian Fields. This magical place was located somewhere beyond the wide river that encircled the earth. In the sun-drenched Elysian Fields, virtuous dead souls experienced great happiness and lived at ease among flower-filled meadows and beautiful landscapes. Originally restricted to relatives of the gods and heroes, this idyllic afterlife was eventually expanded to include ordinary people who had lived good lives or to people who belonged to the cult* called the Eleusinian Mysteries (worshipers of Demeter, the goddess of grain and fertility).
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
OUT WITH GHOSTS!
The Roman festival of Lemuria was held each year in mid-Hay. Its purpose was to rid the household of the lemures, or threatening ghosts. The Romans particularly feared the spirits of those who had died young. They believed that such spirits might be angry because their lives had been cut short. The poet Ovid described the ritual of Lemuria: The father rose at midnight, when ghosts were believed to prowl, and walked barefoot through the house. As he walked, he spit out nine black beans for the ghosts to eat or to protea the living from being carried off. At the same time, he said, "With these beans I redeem me and mine."
In the late 500s B.C., the philosopher Pythagoras and others suggested that the human soul might not die completely after death. They believed that the soul was imprisoned within the body but eventually could be released and reborn in another body. Rather than as a reward, this rebirth was seen as a type of punishment because the soul had to suffer through more lives. A soul could be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth only by living a virtuous and disciplined life.
Roman Ideas of the Afterlife. The myths, philosophy, and religious views of the Greeks had a profound influence on early Roman ideas concerning the afterlife. Like the later Greeks, many Romans believed in the immortality, or everlasting life, of the soul. They also believed, to some extent, in the idea of reincarnation—the rebirth of the soul in a new body. These ideas are reflected in the works of various ancient Roman writers and in Roman rituals and burial practices for the dead.
The Romans believed strongly in the power of the dead to affect the living, so they maintained relations with dead ancestors through various rituals and public festivals. Among the most important of these festivals were the Parentalia, held each year in February, and the Lemuria, held each year in May. During the Parentalia, families visited the tombs of their ancestors and made offerings of food and wine. For the Lemuria, the father of a household followed certain rituals to keep his home and family safe from the ghosts of dead ancestors. The Romans attached great importance to rules regarding the treatment of the dead and to the rituals honoring them.
Like the Greeks, the Romans believed that souls traveled to another place after death. Some Romans thought that virtuous souls returned to a heavenly place after death to enjoy eternal happiness. Wicked souls, on the other hand, suffered great punishments and tortures. In Book VI of his epic, the Aeneid, the Roman poet Vergil created a vivid description of the underworld that consisted of three different regions for the dead. Some of the dead stayed in an area in which they received neither punishment nor rewards. Others suffered in Tartarus, a place of eternal punishment. The more fortunate souls dwelled temporarily in Elysium until they were reincarnated or could return to the realm of eternal happiness.
During the early Roman period, ideas about the afterlife were not part of any organized religious beliefs or religious system. Although some people believed strongly in the notion of an afterlife, others dismissed the idea. During the period of the Roman Empire, however, the belief in immortality took hold as new religious cults gained popularity. These cults were usually dedicated to a particular god or goddess, who would become a follower’s personal protector in life and guide for the soul after death. Because they offered their followers the hope of a peaceful and happy afterlife, and, more importantly, claimed to reveal hidden truths that would lead to a better and richer life on earth, some cults became known as mystery cults.
Despite the teachings of these cults, a belief in an afterlife remained largely personal and individual. It was not until Christianity began to replace pagan* religious cults that the idea of the immortality of the soul and the promise of an afterlife became more widespread. (See also Cults; Death and Burial; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman.)
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian