The Romans, Christmas & Ancient Life Insurance

In In The Press by PCH Staff

As well as being an important Christian festival many people often aren’t aware that the Christmas celebrations (still held around the mid-winter solstice) were partly based on an ancient Roman religious holiday (called the Saturnalia Festival). This riotous holiday which included parties to which slaves and masters sometimes attended together, the giving and receiving of gifts and various religious observations over a number of days centered around the 17th of December. It was held to celebrate the halfway point of Winter and to encourage the return of the sun in Spring. The Saturnalia festival itself was also being pre-dated by older Pagan celebrations.

Over time, the Romans as they converted to Christianity during and following the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (in the early 4th Century) appropriated their own older pagan holidays and festivals to create a calendar of Christian celebrations throughout the year.

The Romans, it seems were not only innovators when it came to creating or re-tooling religious celebrations. In addition to being responsible for ‘inventing’ Christmas, the Romans were also directly responsible for creating the concept of the modern idea of life insurance.

Around the time of the birth of Christ and immediately thereafter Romans created the concept of burial clubs – a direct forerunner to life insurance with many parallels to modern insurance concepts.

In ancient Imperial Rome – circa the first and second century C.E. (Current Era) – groups of citizens joined together in organized groups or guilds called ‘Collegiums’ or ‘Sodalitas’. These trade guilds of businessmen, merchants and even sometimes criminals were formally recognized by Emperor Hadrian (of the famous wall dividing Roman England from the ‘barbarian’ hordes in the North) in 133 C.E. and set up their associations modeled on existing civic governing bodies (the best known of course being the Roman Senate itself) with a view to forwarding their groups interests. These groups had many and varied aims and goals. Over time numerous groups developed the aim of assisting members and their families with the costs of formal burials. Observing funerary rights in the Empire was complex and expensive, often tied to specific religious rites. There is some evidence that poorer Romans and even slaves took advantage of these burial clubs as otherwise the costs of dying were effectively prohibitive in the ancient world. One such burial society group in Lanuvium (some 32 kilometers South East of Rome) left behind extensive details of the by-laws for their society in an inscription dating to 136 C.E.

This burial society was in essence a private members club solely for the purpose of collecting members voluntary contributions for money to be paid out on the event of the death of the member – the inscription from the 136 C.E. society above runs through the cost of joining the society, monthly premiums, regulations for burying members and a diary of dates of meetings and even meals for members. A kind of early ‘Friendly Society’ with it’s own set premiums and benefit tables – although I’m not sure if there was an ancient equivalent of the Senate Financial Services Authority !

Scholars have also conjectured that a logical outcome of these societies would have been a kind of benevolent society element where in addition to funerary support on death, the burial society also assisted members during their life time with health and general well-being or financial assistance. There is no direct evidence for this although some certainly did provide benefits for cashiered members who left the society (a nominal return on premiums paid, very much like the cancellation of a modern whole of life assurance policy).

There is evidence for similar funeral societies across the whole of the Roman Empire and not just in the city of Rome itself – so it seems that like so much of the best of Roman culture we have simply adopted and adapted a common idea from antiquity and replicated it in modern times in the shape of life insurance policies.

We have taken a bit of a historical break in this article from the usual ‘whys and wherefores’ of modern life insurance and protection that we normally discuss. It would however be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that Premier Choice Healthcare can help with all aspects of life cover for yourself and your legions. We may not be able to provide you with a policy document in latin, but for expert advice on the next best thing and to make sure you give yourself and your family the best present this Saturnalia : Peace of Mind that you have the right Roman Burial Plan in place for your own life and health.

Felix dies Nativitatis (Merry Christmas) and a Prosperous and Protected New Year from everyone at Premier Choice Healthcare

Phil Knight
Independent Healthcare Consultant

Premier Choice is award winning in ensuring individuals, families & companies have the right insurance to face the unexpected with advisors throughout the UK to assist you.