Me­mento Mori

A hu­mor­ous ex­am­i­na­tion of Ro­man thought on mor­tal­ity Au­thor Peter Jones Pub­lisher At­lantic Books Re­leased Out now Price £12.99

All About History - - REVIEWS -

The Ro­mans loom large in pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion in the form of bat­tling gla­di­a­tors, em­per­ors good, bad and worse, and armies of le­gionar­ies wag­ing war across seas and con­ti­nents. But when it comes to know­ing the ev­ery­day de­tails of life for the men, women and chil­dren of the empire, it’s likely the reader would be stumped.

Hap­pily for those cu­ri­ous about the Ro­mans’ thoughts and prac­tices around old age and mor­tal­ity, Peter Jones’s Me­mento Mori (‘Re­mem­ber You Die’) serves as a suc­cinct yet nugget-filled guide. Jones sets the scene with an ex­am­i­na­tion of mor­tal­ity then and now. We learn that half of all Ro­man chil­dren were dead by the age of five and eight per cent of the pop­u­la­tion reached the age of over 60. Teenagers made up half the pop­u­la­tion (as Jones quips, it’s a sober­ing thought for some to­day).

We then move into the main ac­tion, which ex­plores top­ics as di­verse as ‘legacy hunters’ (those seek­ing to get writ­ten into wills to make money), Ro­man ideals of the vi­tal­ity of youth, and the im­age of the honourable death.

An emo­tional con­nec­tion to th­ese dis­tant an­ces­tors comes in a sec­tion ex­plor­ing phys­i­cal ded­i­ca­tions to the dead, which il­lus­trates the in­sights a source such as this can pro­vide. It is also pleas­ing to see Jones ac­knowl­edg­ing the class dif­fer­ences on mor­tal­ity prac­tices – the poor could not af­ford ex­pen­sive tombs for ex­am­ple.

The re­sult of all this is an of­ten amus­ing, al­ways il­lu­mi­nat­ing, guide which of­fers an in­trigu­ing van­tage point at which to ex­am­ine Ro­man life.

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