Roman death masks—called “imagines”—were actually wax models impressed directly on the face during life, and they bore a remarkable likeness to the person. Displayed during the funerals of the elite, they served as a link between the present and the past and were meant to inspire attendees to patriotic virtue.

The recent defacement of statues in America prompts us to consider the ways in which we memorialize a person, or the ideals, accomplishments, and virtues he represents. No man is perfect, but we desire heroes to admire, and we have an inclination to preserve such people in memory. And so, these two desires come together in the creation of monuments, architecture, and paintings.

Ancient Rome was no exception: The Romans celebrated the life and accomplishments of prominent men and women with marble busts, dedication of buildings, and grand tombs. One rather obscure, crafted memorial—overlooked because the artifacts have not withstood the test of time, and there are very few historical sources about them—are Roman death masks, or as they are commonly referred to in Latin, imagines (imago in the singular). Made of wax, these imagines were impressed directly on the face (expressi cera vultus) and bore a remarkable likeness to the person. They were exclusively intended for the elite male citizen and political classes in Rome.

Like monuments, the death masks commemorated the dead and their political accomplishments and were intended to inspire patriotic virtue. They were more akin to photographs than monuments in the sense that they were made of perishable material, aimed to preserve the likeness of the dead family member, and were displayed at public funerals (usually being worn by actors). Ultimately, these death masks served as a link between the present and the past.

Neither Pliny the Elder nor Polybius—the two primary ancient historians on this subject—indicates precisely when or how the masks were made.[1] Nevertheless, scholars C. Brian Rose and Marianne Lovink, sponsored by the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, sought to recreate imagines. They concluded that these masks were not created directly following the death of the aristocratic citizen, but during his lifetime, most likely between the ages of thirty-five and forty, “when a man had attained the political office of aedile or city clerk.” With the assumption that the mask would have been made during a man’s prime, the imagines would have been a sign of status in Roman society and political prominence during his lifetime and at his funeral.[2]

Polybius describes the funeral of an “illustrious man” and the role of the imagines: “When any distinguished member of the family dies they take [the death masks] to the funeral, putting them on men who seem to them to bear the closest resemblance to the original in stature and carriage.” The representatives of the aristocratic relatives would wear togas and sashes colored “according to the respective dignity of the offices of state held by each during his life,” and then at the rostra they would sit in a row on ivory chairs.[3] Seated there in front of all those gathered at the forum, the actors appeared, with shocking accuracy, to be the living, breathing men they represented.

At the funeral, the new imago would be placed in a wooden shrine, later to join the other imagines of his relatives. The deceased men’s political accomplishments would then be recited in the presence of the attendees. The funeral scene featured a row of generations of noble, powerful men in a state of artificial life, which included both visual and verbal reminders of their character and deeds. Such a funeral emphasized the legacy of the dead man, not merely his own accomplishments.

Because the use of imagines was designed for the politically elite, the masks were in a sense a symbol of patriotism that inspired good conduct and a desire for renown in the living. Observing the row of accomplished ancestors, Polybius concludes, “There could not easily be a more ennobling spectacle for a young man who aspires to fame and virtue. For who would not be inspired by the sight of the images of men renowned for their excellence, all together and as if alive and breathing?”[4] The actors gave the ancestors’ likenesses the semblance of life, and it appears that the achievements of the dead endured long after death. For a Roman, the sight of “living” ancestors and a retelling of their successful and patriotic lives would inspire him to earn his place one day among them by climbing the political ladder, and thus to be similarly remembered for what he did for the patria. He would aspire to achieve the office of consul or earn a triumph, the highest honor a Roman citizen could be given.

Since the Romans taught virtue by example rather than by principle, it is not surprising that Polybius believes that after seeing this public funeral, a young Roman man would be encouraged to “endure every suffering for the public welfare in the hope of winning the glory.” One would, as a good Roman ought, exchange temporary suffering for the benefit of the patria and for renown. And even death would not be a deterrent because the memory of glory would live on. According to the Roman sense of virtue, these the deeds of the dead are “rendered immortal” and become a “heritage for future generations.”[5]

Furthermore, the more imagines present, the greater the heritage. “The funeral of the Younger Drusus in AD 23,” J.M.C. Toynbee points out, “was especially noteworthy for the great number of ancestral imagines that were displayed in his cortège.”[6] From a Roman perspective this meant that Drusus had both a remarkable heritage and a remarkable life. As Pliny asserts, “there is no greater kind of happiness than that all people for all time should desire to know what kind of a man a person was.”[7]

In addition to the patriotic undercurrents of the imagines, the role of memory in the funerary ritual was a dutiful and religious concern. Memory served to unite the living and the dead in a non-necromantic manner: “Remembering the dead, collectively and individually, was a duty…. Annual festivals for the dead and the role of the imagines in the funeral, for example, forced the living to acknowledge the dead. The ideal was for interaction between the living and the dead.”[8] In other words, the act of remembering—a social and familial duty—through means of the imagines prevented the dead from passing into non-existence, figuratively speaking. Like the Greeks, Romans believed in the soul and usually some shadowy conception of an afterlife.[9] As the dead, from a Greco-Roman perspective, did not pass into complete oblivion, they ought to be remembered by the living. As Donald G. Kyle explains in Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, “Death masks (imagines) and a funeral oration [served] to link the dead and the living, the past and the present.”[10] In the acknowledgement of the dead there existed a reverence for the dead and the desire to connect with them, to commemorate their lives well lived.

Elite funerals were certainly memorable “shows” in two ways: The funerals were remembered by the people, and the dead were remembered by the living.[11] Memory allowed the dead to remain living in a sense after their passing, but only as long as there were people remembering them and keeping the fragile imagines safe. Indeed, much like childhood tales of the adventures of one’s grandfather, the imagines maintained the survivors’ connection to their loved ones’ personal history and ultimately, their existence.

As conservatives, might we also be encouraged to preserve more carefully and intentionally our familial heritage? The good and the bad ought to be remembered, so that we may understand whence we came, and so that also we may be encouraged to pursue the good that our forefathers pursued and avoid the mistakes they made. When such things are lost, they die with the dead, and this is usually not to our lasting benefit or that of our posterity.

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[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, XXXV.6, with an English translation by H. Rackham (Harvard University Press, 1984); Polybius, The Histories, VI.53, with an English translation by W.R. Paton (Harvard University Press, 1979).

[2] C. Brian Rose with Marianne Lovink. “Recreating Roman Wax Masks.” Expedition, vol. 56, no. 3 (2014), 34. Because of the fragile nature of wax, none of the imagines survived. Furthermore, no surviving literature, history, or art depict their creation in such detail that would reveal the method or the time during which it was made for a person. Valerie M. Hope also supposes that it is more likely that the imagines were taken during one’s lifetime, but does not rule out the “possibility that these masks may also have played a role in the funeral ritual” (Roman Death: The Dying and the Dead in Ancient Rome, 71). J.M.C. Toynbee is more apprehensive about nailing down a strong opinion either way and wishes for some evidence before making a claim: “Neither Polybius nor Pliny gives any support to the view that these masks were death-masks proper, cast directly from the faces of the dead. We would give much to possess a work of Roman art which rendered this highly original and striking feature of the upper-class Roman funerary cortège” (Death and Burial in the Roman World, 47-48).

[3] Polybius VI.53.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Polybius VI.54.

[6] J.M.C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Cornell University Press, 1971), 57.

[7] Pliny XXXV.10.

[8] Valerie M. Hope, Roman Death: The Dying and the Dead in Ancient Rome (Continuum, 2009), 185.

[9] Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Routledge, 1998), 129.

[10] Kyle, 128.

[11] Hope, 89.

The featured image is a photograph of the hall of Roman busts in the Eaton Gallery of Rome of the Royal Ontario Museum, taken by Jason Zhang, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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