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The History of Insurance - Part 3

Updated: Feb 16

Continuing this series on the history of insurance, I explore the Romans and, in particular, burial societies which they established.

Burial societies can be considered an early form of friendly or mutual society in which a group of people join together for a common financial purpose.

In order to better understand why burial societies were formed, it is necessary to understand the Roman view on death.

They believed in the immortality of the soul and had a complicated belief system about life after death. They believed that when you died, you were met by Mercury, the messenger god and son of Jupiter and taken to the river Styx that flowed nine times around the underworld.

There, you paid the ferryman, Charon, a fee to cross the river. Once across the Styx, you were met and judged.

It was for this reason that a coin was included in the preparations of the corpse prior to cremation which, I understand, was more common than burial up until the middle of the second century.

After judgment, you would then be sent to:

  • The Elysian Fields (a version of paradise) if you were a warrior or hero

  • The Plain of Asphodel, if you’d been a good citizen, where you would continue to live a good life

  • Tartarus, where – if you had really offended the gods – you would be punished by the Furies until your debt to society was paid.

All three areas of the underworld were ruled over by Pluto, brother of Jupiter. The ancient Romans believed that it was very important that their loved ones had a proper burial, otherwise they would be denied entrance into the underworld and spend eternity in a purgatory-like existence.

Performing funeral offices was a solemn religious duty, devolving upon the surviving members of the family. If a body was lost at sea, or unrecovered for any other reason, the ceremonies were just as piously performed.

The Burial Societies

Early in the Empire, associations were formed for the purpose of meeting the funeral expenses of their members, whether the remains were to be buried or cremated, or to build columbaria (see below), or for both.

These co-operative associations started originally among members of the same guild or among persons of the same occupation.

They provided for the necessary funeral expenses by paying a small fixed sum every week into the common fund. The sum was of a size that was easily within the reach of the poorest member. When a member died, a stated sum was drawn from the treasury for their funeral.

One burial society known as that of “Diana and Antinous” created in 133 AD had its constitution laid down by the Roman Senate, apparently anxious to avoid gatherings for political conspiracy as club members were to meet only once a month and then only to collect the club dues.

The society had a ‘joining fee’ of 100 sesterces and an amphora (a two-handled container) of good wine followed by monthly subscriptions of 5 asses (1.25 sesterces). I understand that half a sesterce would buy a loaf of bread.

Upon death, a sum of 300 sesterces was paid out to cover funeral expenses. A committee saw that the rites were decently performed.

If the purpose of the society was the building of a columbarium, the cost was first determined and the total divided into shares with each member taking as many as they could afford and paying their value into the treasury.


A columbarium is a vault, constructed to hold cremated remains. These structures were intended to receive great numbers of urns and originated when the high price of land made the purchase of private burial grounds impossible for the poorer classes.

Due to their resemblance to a dovecote or pigeon house – with separate compartments – they were called columbaria after columba, which is Latin for dove or so I understand!

Sometimes a benevolent person would contribute toward the expense of the undertaking, and then such a person would be made an honorary member of the society with the title of patronus (or patrona if female) – hence the modern-day term ‘patron’.

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