Although embalming is traditionally considered an Egyptian custom, ancient sources suggest that in imperial Rome the practice was not employed by Egyptians or Egyptianized Romans alone. The mos Romanorum in funerary ritual encompassed both cremation and inhumation, yet embalming appears in Rome as early as the first century AD and evidence points to its limited use during the first three centuries AD. Within the social structure of Rome's dead these preserved corpses certainly occupied a distinct place. Yet who were they and why were they embalmed? It is argued here that various factors allowed for the occasional use of embalming by Romans: (1) an apparent shift in attitudes towards Egypt, (2) the manipulation of death ritual for social distinction, and (3) the flexibility of the traditional Roman funeral, which was able to incorporate deviations in methods of body disposal. Although embalming has been largely ignored as a significant aspect of Roman funerary history, its patrons come from the classes of highest status, including even the imperial household. This fact alone makes it worthwhile to examine this small corpus of evidence. For example, the emperor Nero embalmed his wife Poppaea; such a deviation from standard disposal methods reflects imperial fashion, but also requires us to re-evaluate Nero's reign and, especially, the societal constructs of Neronian Rome. This study attempts to contextualize embalming within Roman society and offer some likely causes and effects of its use.
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