Protection Epitaphs: Material Connection Between Death and Magic in Ancient Rome

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Virginia Tech


Death culture is a fundamental aspect of human existence, with the primary purpose of commemorating and preserving the identity of the deceased. Epitaphs, a physical object created to mark the tomb, are seen in antiquity and modern cultures. Protection epitaphs, a subset of these epitaphs, are a subculture within ancient Rome that incorporate a request for protection. These epitaphs share a common thread of death culture: care and respect for the dead.

Rituals are cultural practices that follow a set protocol, with roles assigned to the practitioner and target, as well as an observer. In this study of protective death epitaphs, the family (typical practitioner) of the protective epitaph commemorates the deceased or potential target of malicious intent. The ritual is the protocol of placing a statement on a tombstone that asks not to defile the tomb.

The two main types of protection seen in protective death epitaphs are passive and aggressive. Passive protection gives a broad statement in both the request and the potential consequence, while aggressive protection typically gives a broad statement in the request and a more specific consequence.

In conclusion, protection epitaphs are a subset of Roman death culture that emphasizes the importance of care and respect for the dead. This research highlights the underrepresented and marginalized group of people commemorated in these epitaphs and the importance of studying and giving light to their practices and intentions.



death culture, ancient Rome, magic