Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ancient Stench and Corpse Removal

My "research" into the stench of ancient cities has thrown some light on a couple of passages in Jewish literature that always puzzled me. The ancients seemed to take a remarkably laid-back attitude to corpse removal, as this quote from Suetonius shows:
During Vespasian's aedileship, the Emperor Caligula, furious because Vespasian had not kept the streets clean, as was his duty, ordered some soldiers to load him with mud; they obeyed by stuffing into the fold of his senatorial gown as much as it could hold ... Then a stray dog picked up a human hand at the crossroads, which it brought into the room where Vespasian was breakfasting and dropped it under the table. (HT: David Noy).
My guess is that the corpses that tended to accumulate in the open were those of foreign travelers, slaves, criminals, or other pariah groups. This explains, I think, why Tobit was able to keep pretty busy at his avocation of burying fellow Jews:
If I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it. (Tobit 1:17) [Tobias said]: “Look, father, one of our own people has been murdered and thrown into the market place, and now he lies there strangled.” (2:3)
And lastly, the Mishnah quotes a saying of Hillel (Pirke Aboth 2:7):
One time he saw a skull (or: head) floating on the waters, he said to it: Because you drowned others, they drowned you; in the end, those who drowned you will drown.
I always thought the occasion for this saying was strange; how likely was it that someone would see a human skull in the water? But now I can see that it would not have been that unusual.


Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...

This is heady (pardon the pun) stuff! Very interesting!


Alcibiades said...

Actually I recently had a question about what the Romans did with the corpses from all the civilians that they executed during their various occupations. If they were burned or buried or just left to rot. This answers it pretty well by inference.