Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Roman views of death and the attraction of Christianity
Image: Roman death scene
I’ve been continuing to read William Stearns Davis’s A Day in Old Rome (Allyn and Bacon, 1925, 1966). Chapter IX is on “Physicians and Funerals.” Davis describes how Roman funerals were fashionable affairs in the early imperial period. Romans desired to be remembered by their friends and families after their deaths, putting little stock in the idea of the “immortality of the soul” or emphasis on life after death. Of immortality, Davis notes: “Epicureans deny it outright, and Stoics more than doubt. Sometimes a very gross view of death is taken, that it is merely the careless end of a round of sensual pleasures” (173). He cites a Roman tomb inscription:
Bathing, wine, and love-affairs—these hurt our bodies, but they make life worth living. I’ve lived my days. I reveled, and I drank all that I desired. Once I was not then I was; now I am not again—but I don’t care! (173).
It struck me that the Christian belief in the resurrection would have been very strange to the Romans, not to mention the Christian proclamation, as summed up in places like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Such beliefs made the early believers willing to suffer and even to die as martyrs. They were not living for just this life. One can see how this was not only strange but, most importantly, winsome and attractive.