lead-glazed ceramic cup with skeletons

Some Romans believed the that Milky Way was the stairway to heaven and that each star represented a departed soul. Ovid wrote how Venus swept down to the Senate and took the soul of Caesar from his assassinated body and the two of them formed a comet as they flew through the sky. Every person on earth, the famous and not so famous, was supposed have his or her own star, and our expression "to thank you lucky star" comes from that belief." ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Following a custom established by the Etruscans, the first Romans, according to legend, dug a pit in the middle of the city that was said to have made it easier for the living to communicate with their dead ancestors in the Nether World. The first fruits of the harvest and clods of dirt from the homelands of new settlers was thrown in is an offering. During certain holidays the "door of the dead" (a stone at the bottom of the ditch was removed, allowing the spirits to roam the earth for a little while. [Ibid]

On death, Ovid wrote in “Metamorphoses”: Nothing retains its form; new shapes from old. Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly contrives. In all creation, be assured, there is no death - no death, but only change and innovation; what we men call birth is but a different new beginning; death is but to cease to be the same. Perhaps this may have moved to that, and that to this, yet still the sum of things remains the same. [Source: Ovid,, A. D. Melville, E. J. Kenney (2008). “Metamorphoses”, p.359, Oxford University Press]

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Roman View About Pluto (Hades)

For the most part, as best can be determined, the Romans had a similar belief system about the afterlife as the Greeks, with Hades becoming known as Pluto. Hades was both the name of the Greek Underworld and the god that presided over it. According to the Greek myth, after usurping the throne Zeus repelled attacks by giants and conspiracies by other gods. After the dethronement of the Titans a lottery with himself and his brothers Poseidon and Hades was held to decided who would occupy the heavens, the sea and the Underworld . Zeus won. He chose the heavens while Poseidon and Hades were awarded the sea and the Underworld respectively. The word “Hades” came from the Greek term a des , meaning “the unseen” or concealed. It inhabitants were known as ‘shades."


As a place Hades was a depressing Underworld where people went after they died. It wasn't hell. It wasn't a place of punishment for the wicked. It was more like purgatory. It was a place everyone went. No one received extreme forms of punishments other than famous mythological figures like Tantalus, Ixion and Tityos. Tantalus was a friend of Zeus who betrayed him and was condemned to the Underworld, where he sat for eternity next to a pool of water and fruit trees but was unable to drink or eat.

Tartarus in the Underworld was a hell-like place but only certain gods, not mortals, were sent there. Greece was so filled with wicked people that philosophers wondered whether the Underworld was large enough to accommodate all the ones who died since the beginning of time. This gave rise to the belief that maybe Tartarus was is in the southern hemisphere not underground, which in turn discouraged explorers from heading south. The Roman historian Pliny pointed out that it was also strange that even though the route to Hades was well-mapped no miners ever came across it. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,"]

Horace: We All Must Die

Alas, dear friend, the fleeting years
In everlasting circles run,
In vain you spend your vows and prayers,
They roll, and ever will roll on. [Source: Translated by Samuel Johnson (1760)]

“Should hecatombs (1) each rising morn
On cruel Pluto's (2) altar dye,
Should costly loads of incense burn,
Their fumes ascending to the sky:

Carpe Diem

“You could not gain a moment's breath
Or move the haughty king below
Nor would inexorable death
Defer an hour the fatal blow.

“In vain we shun the din of war,
And terrors of the stormy main, (3)
In vain with anxious breasts we fear
Unwholesome Sirius' (4) sultry reign;

“We all must view the Stygian flood (5)
That silent cuts the dreary plains,
And Cruel Danaus' bloody brood (6)
Condemned to everduring pains.

“Your shady groves, your pleasing wife,
And fruitful fields, my dearest friend,
You'll leave together with your life:
Alone the cypress (7)

“After your death, the lavish heir
Will quickly drive away his woe;
The wine you kept with so much care
Along the marble floor shall flow.

Notes: 1) Extravagant sacrifices, consisting of a hundred oxen. 2) The Lord of the Dead. 3) Ocean. 4) When the Dog Star Sirius was in the ascendency in August it was thought to exert a harmful influence on human health. 5) The Styx, the river which the dead crossed into on their way to Hades. 6) Danaus persuaded his fifty daughters to kill their husgbands because he was feuding with their new father-in-law. The women were punished in Hades by having continually carry water in leaking vessels so that their task would never be finished. 7) The cypress, common in Italy, is traditonally associated with mourning.

Journey to Hades and the Dead

The Greeks believed that the soul was weak and lifeless and needed help to get to Hades. For a long time Hermes performed this duty. Sometimes on the journey the souls were harassed by the Furies. There are also stories about the Erinyes---old hags with snakes for hair, dog heads, black bodies, bat wings and bloodshot eyes---attacking people who had committed particularly nasty crimes such as killing their mother or knocking the sun off course. Once in the Underworld the soul was only a memory of itself

The first thing the Dead had to do when they arrived in the Underworld was cross the river Styx. Greeks traditionally put a coin in the mouth of the dead so they could pay the ferryman to get across the river. After making the crossing the good and the bad walked to the Nether World court where their fate was decided in a "Judgement Day" kind of arrangement by all-knowing judges. The bad sent to the left across the river of fire to the torture chambers of Tartarus and the good were taken to the right towards the blissful Elysian fields. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,"]

Describing Odysseus's encounter with his mother in Hades in the Odyssey , Home wrote: “I tried to find some way of embracing my poor mother's ghost. Thrice I sprung towards her and tried to grasp her in my arms, but each time she flitted from my embrace as it were a dream or phantom." When Odysseus asked his mother why she didn't try to embrace him she explained: “All the people are like this when they are dead. The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together, these perish in the in the fierceness of consuming fire as soon as life has left the body, and the soul flirts away as though it were a dream."

Only later did the idea of a happy afterlife evolve. At first this was only reserved for great heros like Achilles, Menelaus and Diomedes. And later than this it became a place that members of cults who had special rites could go and later than this, ordinary people if they were good.

In Book VI of the Aeneid, by the Roman author Virgil (70-19 B.C.), the hero, Aeneas, travels to the underworld to see his father. By the River Styx, he sees the souls of those not given a proper burial, forced to wait by the river until someone buries them. While down there, along with the dead, he is shown the place where the wrongly convicted reside, the fields of sorrow where those who committed suicide and now regret it reside, including Aeneas' former lover, the warriors and shades, Tartarus (where the titans and powerful non-mortal enemies of the Olympians reside) where he can hear the groans of the imprisoned, the palace of Pluto, and the fields of Elysium where the descendants of the divine and bravest heroes reside. He sees the river of forgetfulness, Lethe, which the dead must drink to forget their life and begin anew. Lastly, his father shows him all of the future heroes of Rome who will live if Aeneas fulfills his destiny in founding the city. [Source: Wikipedia]

Scipio's Dream

The “Dream of Scipio” written by the great Roman politician, orator and intellectual Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.), in the sixth book of “On the Republic,” describes a fictional dream vision by the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus, set two years before he oversaw the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. The dream begins with a visit by his dead grandfather-by-adoption, Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War. The story is particularly noteworthy because of it description of heaven, the afterlife, communication between the living and the dead and what it takes to get into heaven — presumably from the Roman perspective. Some say what Cicero describes is an out of body experience, of the soul traveling high above the Earth, looking down at the small planet, from far away.

Cicero wrote in “On the Republic”, Book VI: “At last, when we retired to bed, I fell in a more profound sleep than usual, both because I was fatigued with my journey, and because I had sat up the greatest part of the night.Here I had the following dream, occasioned, as I verily believe, by our preceding conversation---for it frequently happens that the thoughts and discourses which have employed us in the daytime, produce in our sleep an effect somewhat similar to that which Ennius writes happened to him about Homer, of whom, in his waking hours, he used frequently to think and speak. Africanus, I thought, appeared to me in that shape, with which I was better acquainted from his picture, than from any personal knowledge of him. When I perceived it was he, I confess I trembled with consternation; but he addressed me, saying, Take courage, my Scipio, be not afraid, and carefully remember what I am saying to you... [Source: Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.), “On the Republic”, excerpts from Book VI, (Scipio's Dream) Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 216-241]

“Now, in order to encourage you, my dear Africanus, continued the shade of my ancestor, to defend the state with the greater cheerfulness, be assured that for all those who have in any way conduced to the preservation, defense, and enlargement of their native country, there is a certain place in heaven, where they shall enjoy an eternity of happiness. For nothing on earth is more agreeable to God, the Supreme Governor of the universe, than the assemblies and societies of men united together by laws, which are called States. It is from heaven their rulers and preservers came, and there they return.

“Though at these words I was extremely troubled, not so much at the fear of death, as at the perfidy of my own relations; yet I recollected myself enough to inquire, whether he himself, my father Paulus, and others whom we look upon as dead, were really living. Yes, truly, replied he, they all enjoy life who have escaped from the chains of the body as from a prison. But as to what you call life on earth, that is no more than one form of death. But see, here comes your father Paulus towards you! And as soon as I observed him, my eyes burst out into a flood of tears; but he took me in his arms, and bade me not weep.”

Cicero on the Soul and Why Man Lives on Earth

Cicero wrote in “On the Republic”, Book VI: “When my first transports subsided, and I regained the liberty of speech, I addressed my father thus: You best and most venerable of parents, since this, as I am informed by Africanus, is the only substantial life, why do I linger on earth, and not rather hasten to come hither where you are? That, replied he, is impossible; unless that God, whose temples is all that vast expanse you behold, shall free you from the fetters of the body, you can have no admission into this place. Mankind have received their being on this very condition, that they should labor for the preservation of that globe, which is situated, as you see, in the midst of this temple, and is called earth. [Source: Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.), “On the Republic”, excerpts from Book VI, (Scipio's Dream) Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 216-241]

“Men are likewise endowed with a soul, which is a portion of the eternal fires, which you call stars and constellations; and which, being round, spherical bodies, animated by divine intelligence, perform their cycles and revolutions with amazing rapidity. It is your duty, there fore, my Publius, and that of all who have any veneration for the gods, to preserve this wonderful union of soul and body; nor without the express command of him who gave you a soul, should the least thought be entertained of quitting human life, lest you seem to desert the post assigned to you by God himself.

“But rather follow the example of your grandfather here, and of me, your father, in paying a strict regard to justice and piety; which is due in a great degree to parents and relations, but most of all to our country. Such a life as this is the true way to heaven, and to the company of those, who, after having lived on earth and escaped from the body, inhabit the place which you now behold.”

Heaven, Celestial Harmony and Music in the Milky Way

Cicero wrote in “On the Republic”, Book VI: “This was the shining circle, or zone, whose remarkable brightness distinguishes it among the constellations, and which, after the Greeks, you call the Milky Way. From thence, as I took a view of the universe, everything appeared beautiful and admirable; for there, those stars are to be seen that are never visible from our globe, and everything appears of such magnitude as we could not have imagined. The least of all the stars, was that removed furthest from heaven, and situated next to earth; I mean our moon, which shines with a borrowed light. Now the globes of the stars far surpass the magnitude of our earth, which at that distance appeared so exceedingly small, that I could not but he sensibly affected on seeing our whole empire no larger than if we touched the earth with a point. [Source: Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.), “On the Republic”, excerpts from Book VI, (Scipio's Dream) Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 216-241]

“And as long as I continued to observe the earth with great attention, How long, I pray you, said Africanus, will your mind be fixed on that object; why don't you rather take a view of the magnificent temples among which you have arrived? The universe is composed of nine circles, or rather spheres, one of which is the heavenly one, and is exterior to all the rest, which it embraces; being itself the Supreme God, and bounding and containing the whole. In it are fixed those stars which revolve with never-varying courses. Below this are seven other spheres, which revolve in a contrary direction to that of the heavens. One of these is occupied by the globe which on earth they call Saturn. Next to that is the star of Jupiter, so benign and salutary to mankind. The third in order, is that fiery and terrible planet called Mars. Below this again, almost in the middle region, is the Sun---the leader, governor, the prince of the other luminaries; the soul of the world, which it regulates and illumines, being of such vast size that it pervades and gives light to all places. Then follow Venus and Mercury, which attend, as it were, on the Sun. Lastly, the Moon, which shines only in the reflected beams of the Sun, moves in the lowest sphere of all. Below this, if we except that gift of the gods, the soul, which has been given by the liberality of the gods to the human race, every thing is mortal, and tends to dissolution, but above the moon all is eternal. For the Earth, which is in the ninth globe, and occupies the center, is immoveable, and being the lowest, all others gravitate towards it.

“When I had recovered myself from the astonishment occasioned by such a wonderful prospect, I thus addressed Africanus Pray what is this sound that strikes my ears in so loud and agreeable a manner? To which he replied It is that which is called the music of the spheres, being produced by their motion and impulse; and being formed by unequal intervals, but such as are divided according to the most just proportion, it produces, by duly tempering acute with grave sounds, various concerts of harmony. For it is impossible that motions so great should be performed without any noise; and it is agreeable to nature that the extremes on one side should produce sharp, and on the other flat sounds. For which reason the sphere of the fixed stars, being the highest, and being carried with a more rapid velocity, moves with a shrill and acute sound; whereas that of the moon, being the lowest, moves with a very flat one. As to the Earth, which makes the ninth sphere, it remains immovably fixed in the middle or lowest part of the universe. But those eight revolving circles, in which both Mercury and Venus are moved with the same celerity, give out sounds that are divided by seven distinct intervals, which is generally the regulating number of all things.

“This celestial harmony has been imitated by learned musicians, both on stringed instruments and with the voice, whereby they have opened to themselves a way to return to the celestial regions, as have likewise many others who have employed their sublime genius while on earth in cultivating the divine sciences.

“By the amazing noise of this sound, the ears of mankind have been in some degree deafened, and indeed, hearing is the dullest of all the human senses. Thus, the people who dwell near the cataracts of the Nile, which are called Catadupa, are, by the excessive roar which that river makes in precipitating itself from those lofty mountains, entirely deprived of the sense of hearing. And so inconceivably great is this sound which is produced by the rapid motion of the whole universe, that the human ear is no more capable of receiving it, than the eye is able to look steadfastly and directly on the sun, whose beams easily dazzle the strongest sight.”

Communication Between Heaven and Earth

Cicero wrote in “On the Republic”, Book VI: “While I was busied in admiring the scene of wonders, I could not help casting my eyes every now and then on the earth. On which Africanus said, I perceive that you are still employed in contemplating the seat and residence of mankind. But if it appears to you so small, as in fact it really is, despise its vanities, and fix your attention for ever on these heavenly objects. Is it possible that you should attain any human applause or glory that is worth the contending for? The earth, you see, is peopled but in a very few places, and those too of small extent; and they appear like so many little spots of green scattered through vast uncultivated deserts. And those who inhabit the earth are not only so remote from each other as to be cut off from all mutual correspondence, but their situation being in oblique or contrary parts of the globe, or perhaps in those diametrically opposite to yours, all expectation of universal fame must fall to the ground. [Source: Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.), “On the Republic”, excerpts from Book VI, (Scipio's Dream) Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 216-241]

“You may likewise observe that the same globe of the earth is girt and surrounded with certain zones, whereof those two that are most remote from each other, and lie under the opposite poles of heaven, are congealed with frost; but that one in the middle, which is far the largest, is scorched with the intense heat of the sun. The other two are habitable, one towards the south---the inhabitants of which are your Antipodes, with whom you have no connection---the other, towards the north, is that which you inhabit, whereof a very small part, as you may see, falls to your share. For the whole extent of what you see, is as it were but a little island, narrow at both ends and wide in the middle, which is surrounded by the sea which on earth you call the great Atlantic ocean, and which, notwithstanding this magnificent name, you see is very insignificant. And even in these cultivated and well-known countries, has yours, or any of our names, ever passed the heights of the Caucasus, or the currents of the Ganges? In what other parts to the north or the south, or where the sun rises and sets, will your names ever be heard? And if we leave these out of the question, how small a space is there left for your glory to spread itself abroad? and how long will it remain in the memory of those whose minds are now full of it?

“Besides all this, if the progeny of any future generation should wish to transmit to their posterity the praises of any one of us which they have heard from their forefathers, yet the deluges and combustions of the earth which must necessarily happen at their destined periods will prevent our obtaining, not only an eternal, but even a durable glory. And after all, what does it signify, whether those who shall hereafter be born talk of you, when those who have lived before you, whose number was perhaps not less, and whose merit certainly greater, were not so much as acquainted with your name? [Source: Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.), “On the Republic”, excerpts from Book VI, (Scipio's Dream) Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 216-241]

“Especially since not one of those who shall hear of us is able to retain in his memory the transactions of a single year. The bulk of mankind, indeed, measure their year by the return of the sun, which is only one star. But, when all the stars shall have returned to the place whence they set out, and after long periods shall again exhibit the same aspect of the whole heavens, that is what ought properly to be called the revolution of a year, though I scarcely dare attempt to enumerate the vast multitude of ages contained in it. For as the sun in old time was eclipsed, and seemed to be extinguished, at the time when the soul of Romulus penetrated into these eternal mansions, so, when all the constellations and stars shall revert to their primary position, and the sun shall at the same point and time be again eclipsed, then you may consider that the grand year is completed. Be assured, however, that the twentieth part of it is not yet elapsed.

How One Wins a Place in Heaven

Cicero wrote in “On the Republic”, Book VI: “Why, if you have no hopes of returning to this place, where great and good men enjoy all that their souls can wish for, of what value, pray, is all that human glory, which can hardly endure for a small portion of one year? If, then, you wish to elevate your views to the contemplation of this eternal seat of splendor, you will not be satisfied with the praises of your fellow-mortals, nor with any human rewards that your exploits can obtain; but Virtue herself must point out to you the true and only object worthy of your pursuit. Leave to others to speak of you as they may, for speak they will. Their discourses will be confined to the narrow limits of the countries you see, nor will their duration be very extensive, for they will perish like those who utter them, and will be no more remembered by their posterity. [Source: Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.), “On the Republic”, excerpts from Book VI, (Scipio's Dream) Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 216-241]

“When he had ceased to speak in this manner, I said Oh, Africanus, if indeed the door of heaven is open to those who have deserved well of their country, although, indeed, from my childhood, I have always followed yours and my father's steps, and have not neglected to imitate your glory, still I will from henceforth strive to follow them more closely.

“Follow them, then, said he, and consider your body only, not yourself, as mortal. For it is not your outward form which constitutes your being, but your mind; not that substance which is palpable to the senses, but your spiritual nature. Know, then, that you are a god---for a god it must be which flourishes, and feels, and recollects, and foresees, and governs, regulates and moves the body over which it is set, as the Supreme Ruler does the world which is subject to him. For as that Eternal Being moves whatever is mortal in this world, so the immortal mind of man moves the frail body with which it is connected.

“For whatever is always moving must be eternal, but that which derives its motion from a power which is foreign to itself, when that motion ceases must itself lose its animation. That alone, then, which moves itself can never cease to be moved, because it can never desert itself. Moreover, it must be the source, and origin, and principle of motion in all the rest. There can be nothing prior to a principle, for all things must originate from it, and it cannot itself derive its existence from any other source, for if it did it would no longer be a principle. And if it had no beginning it can have no end, for a beginning that is put an end to will neither be renewed by any other cause, nor will it produce anything else of itself. All things, therefore, must originate from one source. Thus it follows, that motion must have its source in something which is moved by itself, and which can neither have a beginning nor an end. Otherwise all the heavens and all nature must perish, for it is impossible that they can of themselves acquire any power of producing motion in themselves.

“As, therefore, it is plain that what is moved by itself must be eternal, who will deny that this is the general condition and nature of minds? For, as everything is inanimate which is moved by an impulse exterior to itself, so what is animated is moved by an interior impulse of its own; for this is the peculiar nature and power of mind. And if that alone has the power of self-motion it can neither have had a beginning, nor can it have an end.

“Do you, therefore, exercise this mind of yours in the best pursuits. And the best pursuits are those which consist in promoting the good of your country. Such employments will speed the flight of your mind to this its proper abode; and its flight will be still more rapid, if, even while it is enclosed in the body, it will look abroad, and disengage itself as much as possible from its bodily dwelling, by the contemplation of things which are external to itself.

“This it should do to the utmost of its power. For the minds of those who have given themselves up to the pleasures of the body, paying as it were a servile obedience to their lustful impulses, have violated the laws of God and man; and therefore, when they are separated from their bodies, flutter continually round the earth on which they lived, and are not allowed to return to this celestial region, till they have been purified by the revolution of many ages. Thus saying he vanished, and I awoke from my dream.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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