The Smell of Grief: Odour and Olfaction at the Roman Funeral


  • David Clancy



The Roman funeral has received regular scholarly attention as a ritualised expression of elite identify and performative grief, with emphasis on its visual and auditory elements. By contrast, analysis of the role of smell in funerary rites has typically been relegated to a passing mention, and all too often been dismissed as merely a means of offsetting the dismal odour of a decaying corpse. However, this prioritisation may better reflect contemporary western attitudes to the senses than those of the ancient Romans, who in their literature placed considerable emphasis on the presence of funerary odours, and spent considerable sums of money to treat their dead with the finest spices from across the empire. As Pliny, Plutarch, and others make clear, these materials and the fragrances they produced could provoke strong reactions and accusations of mollitia among the living. And yet, for those bearing witness to the deceased’s departure from one world and their transition to another, the funeral’s olfactory dimensions were central to its form and function. This paper examines the social, ontological and epistemological significance of odour to the Roman funeral – its importance in communicating critical information about the grief endured by the living, the status of the deceased and the success of the ritual itself.


Baroin (2010). – Catherine Baroin, ‘Remembering one's An-cestors, Following in their Footsteps, Being like Them’, in V. Dasen & T. Spath (eds.). Children, Memory, and Family Iden-tity in Roman Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010) 19-48.

Betts (2017). – Eleanor Betts (ed.), Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture (London and New York: Routledge 2017).

Bodel (1999). – John Bodel, ‘Death on Display: Looking at Roman Funerals’, in B. Bergmann and C. Kondoleon (eds.), The Art of Ancient Spectacle (Washington: Yale University Press 1999) 259-81.

Bodel (2000). – John Bodel, ‘Dealing with the Dead: Under-takers, Executioners and Potter’s Fields in Ancient Rome’, in V. Hope (ed.) Death and Disease in the Ancient City (Lon-don: Routledge 2000) 128-51.

Bowersock (1997). – Glen Bowersock, 'Perfumes and Power', in A. Avanzini (ed.) Profumi d'Arabia: atti del con-vegno (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider 1997) 543-56.

Bradley (2012). – Mark Bradley, ‘Approaches to Pollution and Propriety’, in M. Bradley (ed.), Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012) 11-40.

Bradley (2015). – Mark Bradley, Smell and the Ancient Sens-es (London: Routledge 2015).

Brettell et al (2015). – R.C. Brettell, E.M.J Schotsmans, P. Walton Rogers, N. Reifarth, R.C. Redfern, B. Stern and C.P. Heron, ‘‘Choicest Unguents’: molecular evidence for the use of resinous plant exudates in late Roman mortuary rites in Britain’, Journal of Archaeological Science 53 (2015) 639-48.

Butler and Purves (2013). – Shane Butler and Alex Purves (eds.), Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses (London: Routledge 2013).

Caseau (1994). – Béatrice Caseau, Euodia: The Use and Meaning of Fragrances in the Ancient World and their Chris-tianization (100-900 AD) (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University 1994).

Caseau (2001). – Béatrice Caseau, ‘Les usages medicaux de l'encens et des parfums: un aspect de la medecine populaire antique et de sa christianisation’, in S. Bazin-Tachella, D. Queruel & E. Samama (eds.), Air, Miasmes et Contagion: les epidemies dans l'Antiquite et au Moyen Age (Langres: D. Guéniot 2001) 74-85.

Clements (2014). – Ashley Clements, ‘Divine Scents and Presence’, in M. Bradley (ed.), Smell and the Ancient Senses (London: Routledge 2014) 46-59.

De Romanis (1996). – Federico De Romanis, Cassia, cin-namomo, ossidiana: uomini e merci tra Oceano Indico e Med-iterraneo (Rome: L'Erma Di Bretschneider 1996).

Derrick (2017). – Thomas J. Derrick, ‘Sensory archaeologies: a Vindolanda Smellscape’, in E. Betts (ed.), Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture (London and New York: Routledge 2017) 71-85.

Detienne (1994). – Marcel Detienne, The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1994).

Douglas (2002). – Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge 2002).

Dutsch (2008). – Dorota Dutsch, ‘Nenia: Gender and Genre in the Roman Lament’, in A. Suter (ed.), Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford Uni-versity Press 2008) 258-79.

Edwards (1993). – Catherine Edwards, The Politics of Immo-rality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993).

Favro and Johanson (2010). – Diane Favro and Christopher Johanson, ‘Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Ro-man Forum’. Journal of the Society of Architectural Histori-ans, 69 (2010) 12-37.

Flohr (2017). – Miko Flohr, ‘Beyond Smell: the Sensory Landscape of the Roman fullonica’, in E. Betts (ed.), Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture (London and New York: Routledge 2017) 39-53.

Flower (1996). – Harriet Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristo-cratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1996).

Frazer (1989). – James Frazer, Ovid in Six Volumes, Volume V (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1989).

Gell (1997). – Alfred Gell, ‘Magic, Perfume, Dream’, in I. Lewis (ed.) Symbols and Sentiments: Crosscultural Studies in Symbolism (London: Academic Press 1997) 25-38.

Hardie (2006). – Philip Harvie, ‘Statius’ Ovidian Poetics and the Tree of Atedius Melior’, in R. Nauta, H-J. Van Dam and J. Smolenaars (eds.) Flavian Poetry (Leiden: Brill 2006) 207-21.

Harvey (2006). – Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salva-tion: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press 2006).

Hope (2009). – Valerie Hope, Roman Death: The Dying and the Dead in Ancient Rome (London: Continuum 2009).

Hope (2019). – Valerie Hope, ‘Vocal Expression in Roman Mourning’ in S. Butler and S. Nooter (eds.) Sound and the Ancient Senses (London: Routledge) 61-76.

Hopkins (1983). – Keith Hopkins, Death and Renewal (Cam-bridge: Cambridge University Press 1983).

Howes (1991). – David Howes, ‘Olfaction and Transition’, in D. Howes (ed.), The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1991) 128-47.

Ingold (2011). – Tim Ingold, ‘Stop, Look and Listen!’, in T. Ingold (ed.), The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London: Routledge 2011) 243-88.

Johanson (2011). – Christopher Johanson, ‘A Walk with the Dead: A Funerary Cityscape of Ancient Rome’, in B. Rawson (ed.), A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2011) 408-430.

Johnston (1999). – Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: En-counters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press 1999).

Kyle (1998). – Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in An-cient Rome (London: Routledge 1998).

Lanciani (1892). – Rodolfo Amedeo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company 1892).

Laurence (2016) – Ray Laurence, ‘Towards a History of Mo-bility in Ancient Rome (300 BCE to 100 CE)’, in I. Östenberg and J. Bjørnebye (eds.), The Moving City: Processions, Pas-sages and Promenades in Ancient Rome (London: Blooms-bury Academic 2016) 175-86.

Lennon (2012). – Jack J. Lennon, ‘Pollution, Religion and Society in the Roman World’, in M. Bradley (ed.), Rome, Pol-lution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-versity Press 2012) 43-58.

Lilja (1972). – Sara Lilja, The Treatment of Odours in the Po-etry of Antiquity (Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica 1972).

Lindsay (2000). – Hugh Lindsay, ‘Death-Pollution and Funer-als in the City of Rome’, in V. Hope and E. Marshall (eds.) Death and Disease in the Ancient City (London: Routledge 2000) 152-73.

Majid and Burenhult (2014). – Asafa Majid and Niclas Buren-hult, ‘Odors are Expressible in Language, as Long as you Speak the Right Language’. Cognition 130 (2014) 266-70.

Majid et al. (2018). – Asafa Majid, Seán G. Roberts, Ludy Cilissen, Karen Emmorey, Brenda Nicodemus, Lucinda O’Grady, Bencie Woll, Barbara LeLan, Hilário de Sousa, Bri-an L. Cansler, Shakila Shayan, Connie de Vos, Gunter Senft, N.J. Enfield, Rogayah A. Razak, Sebastian Fedden, Sylvia Tufvesson, Mark Dingemanse, Ozge Ozturk, Penelope Brown, Clair Hill, Olivier Le Guen, Vincent Hirtzel, Rik van Gijn, Mark A. Sicoli and Stephen C. Levinson, ‘Differential Coding of Perception in World’s Languages’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115.45 (2018) 11369-11376.

McLaughlin (2010). – Raoul McLaughlin, Rome and the Dis-tant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China (London: Bloomsbury 2010).

Metcalf & Huntington (1991). – Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington, Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mor-tuary Ritual (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991).

Moore (1949). – Frank Gardner Moore, Livy, History of Rome, Volume VII (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1949).

Noy (2000). – David Noy, ‘Building a Roman funeral pyre’, Antichthon 34 (2000) 30-45.

O’Sullivan (2011). – Timothy M. O’Sullivan, Walking in Ro-man Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011).

Potter (1999). – David Potter, ‘Odour and Power in the Ro-man Empire’, in J. Porter (ed.), Constructions of the Classical Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1999) 169-89.

Potter (2014). – David Potter, ‘The Social Life of the Senses: Feasts and Funerals’, in J. Toner (ed.), A Cultural History of the Senses in Antiquity (London: Bloomsbury Academic 2014) 23-44.

Rindisbacher (1992). – Hans J. Rindisbacher, The Smell of Books: A Cultural-historical Study of Olfactory Perception in Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1992).

Scheid (1984). – John Scheid, ‘Contraria Facere: renverse-ments et deplacements dans les rites funeraires’. Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli. Sezione de ar-cheologica e storia antica 6 (1984) 117-39.

Sperber (1975). – Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1975).

Toner (2014). – Jerry Toner (ed.) A Cultural History of the Senses in Antiquity: 500 BCE-500 CE (London: Bloomsbury Academic 2014).

Toynbee (1996). – Jocelyn Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 1996).

Wheeler (1988). – Arthur Leslis Wheeler, Ovid in Six Vol-umes, Volume VI (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1988).

Whittaker (1969). – C. R. Whittaker, Herodian in Two Vol-umes, Volume I (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1969).