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.


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