This paper considers a set of passages from classical Latin literature of the first century BC and first century AD that indicate awareness of the particular transformations undergone by a human body during the process of open-air cremation. Evidence for the extent of cremation throughout the Roman West is reviewed, as are indications that mourners frequently remained near the pyre throughout the lengthy transformation of the corpse into bone-remnants and ash. In addition, archaeological, ethnographic, and forensic evidence documenting the step-by-step changes undergone by the burning body is introduced. Against this backdrop, numerous passages from authors such as Horace, Vergil, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, Seneca, Lucan, Statius, and Suetonius take on new significance. Although authors occasionally cite crematory details as such, they more frequently make use of such details in non-crematory contexts in order to achieve a variety of literary and aesthetic goals, including economy of description, reflection on the circulation of substance, and clarification of the process of ekpyrosis, or cosmic conflagration. For these writers considered as a group cremation serves as an indicator of both the abject nature of the human condition and of its potential sublimity. The calculated displacement of key aspects of the crematory process onto non-crematory events and practices mirrors and extends the liminality associated with crematory rites.
Research Article| April 01 2016
At the Threshold of Representation: Cremation and Cremated Remains in Classical Latin Literature
Classical Antiquity (2016) 35 (1): 1–44.
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Thomas Habinek; At the Threshold of Representation: Cremation and Cremated Remains in Classical Latin Literature. Classical Antiquity 1 April 2016; 35 (1): 1–44. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ca.2016.35.1.1
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