On 30th October 2015, AshLI brought together Classicists from Oxford and Warwick Universities to stage a Roman funeral procession as part of the Ashmolean Museum’s DEADFriday event.
A cast of twenty, in full costume, including lictors, musicians, mourners, an Archimimus, a funeral director and members of the Roman household, laid to rest the body of Tiberius Claudius Abascantianus, a Roman commemorated in a fine ash-urn in the Ashmolean’s collection. The event was the result of months of preparation, which included making costumes, building a funerary couch complete with corpse, creating an ash urn (with the help of Amy Chaplin, on work experience with us from Cherwell School), learning to play Roman musical instruments, and casting wax imagines from the team’s own faces.
The funeral was repeated twice during the evening, with each performance including an introduction to the cast, excerpts from the Twelve Tables on Roman funeral practices, a eulogy for the deceased, an off-stage cremation and, finally, the installation of Abascantianus’ remains in the family tomb, all accompanied by the sounds of a cornu, an aulos, and team of enthusiastic professional mourners. The museum, packed with over 4,000 visitors, perfectly evoked the bustle and noise of a Roman funeral, with the procession winding its way through the crowds, and with more following along behind.
The funeral was masterminded by AshLI to celebrate the recent installation of new Roman displays in several galleries, and in particular a hand-painted columbarium in the Reading and Writing Gallery housing the original ash urn of the real Abascantianus. The decoration of the niched tomb, with its display of funerary plaques, inscribed ash chests and pierced libation ‘table’, was inspired by the columbarium at the Villa Doria Pamfilii in Rome, and handpainted by Oxford-based designer Claire Venables. Head of the AshLI project, Prof. Alison Cooley, was on hand with a series of short talks to introduce visitors to the new columbarium display and tell the story of the real Abascantianus who had first inspired the event.