Chapter 6


Society and daily life

Roman society under both the republic and the empire was rigidly and recognizably structured, while inherent social and economic factors ensured that inequality was maintained. The top ranks in society had the wealth and status to control and exploit property, and to manipulate the legal system. The lower ranks depended for their position on how far they were able to influence the means of production. Land meant wealth, and remained in the family as long as there were natural or adopted heirs. When a family ceased to exist, it was often favoured freedmen or even slaves who reaped the benefits.

The old patrician aristocracy died out when republicanism took hold, to be replaced by the nobility, comprising the families of patricians and wealthy plebeians who had successfully stood for office and then entered the Senate. Through their strings of hereditary hangers-on, their clients (cliens, plural clientes; means listener, and thus ‘follower’), the nobility became the ruling class. With senators barred from participating in state contracts and restricted in trading overseas, a new equestrian class emerged, to whom Gaius Gracchus effectively granted the status of an order of society by giving non-senators who possessed 400,000 sesterces (the same qualification as senators) the right to bid for tax collection in the provinces, and to have control over the jury courts.

Later, Augustus raised the qualification portal for senators to a million sesterces. A decree in the time of Tiberius stipulated that a prospective equestrian and his two previous generations must be free born. Otherwise, it is not generally known whether membership was automatic or conferred by the emperor. Certainly the equestrian ranks provided the state with a host of army officers and provincial officials (including governors), and latterly palace dignitaries.

Roman insensitivity! This bronze coin from Judaea under the administration of Pontius Pilate depicts the crooked staff of the augur (the lituus), a Roman religious symbol that was sure to offend Jews. (© CNG Coins)

As the rich grew richer and the poor poorer, the plebs urbana (city plebs), originally composed mainly of artisans and shopkeepers, became less of a respectable class of society and more of an uncontrolled and uncontrollable rabble, comprising also ruined peasants from the country vainly seeking work and those attracted by the grain dole. They had voting power, for they were always on the spot to exercise it. In AD 14, responsibility for the election of state officials was transferred to the Senate. A new division of society emerged in Rome: plebs who were professional people (teachers, architects, physicians, tradesmen) and plebs quae frumentum accipiebat (plebs who received the grain dole). Especially because the latter could still cause trouble on the streets, Augustus had also interested himself in the supply of housing and water, had provided them with public games, and had distributed cash benefits.

Bronze ticket entitling a family to the grain dole. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

There was a distinction between society in the capital and society in the towns (municipia) of Italy. Each despised the other. When, in the time of Augustus, the powers of the city officials diminished, and the towns themselves received attention from the centre of government, politically minded local citizens began to look for recognition in their own towns, rather than in Rome, laying a basis for local government that has been one of Rome’s most significant legacies.

Traditional values and customs

The Romans were sticklers for tradition as well as for order. To support an obsession with the passing of laws, in which everyone was able to participate, and the creation, in the form of the Twelve Tables in 451/450 BC, of a digest of current legal practice, the Romans claimed a system of mos maiorum, the ‘way [or custom] of our ancestors’. The application of tradition and precedent often had more potency than the law itself, and in addition methods of resolving legal situations covered all aspects of public and daily life, including the conduct of the family and the inviolability of the home. It was not so much the law as the mos maiorum that the brothers Gracchus breached in their pursuit of common justice, and this presaged the downfall of the republic.

Marble relief depicting a family, with house exterior and doors. (VRoma: Leslie Flood)

The Latin term familia is usually translated as ‘family’ or ‘household’, while domus stands for ‘house’ or ‘home’. In Roman times, however, each had a variety of connotations, depending on the circumstances. Thus, familia often meant all those subject to a father’s authority (patria potestas), including his wife (if married under rites that gave him this authority, known as manus), children, adopted children and sons’ children. In practice, domus also came to be used to refer to relatives outside the particular household.

Sarcophagus depicting scenes from family life. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

The term virtus describes a male quality of steadfastness. Women, as well as men, were expected to possess to a considerable degree the essentially Roman quality of pietas, which is untranslatable except as a combination of duty, devotion and loyalty, especially to the gods, but also to one’s country, parents and other relatives. The Romans also prized gravitas, which similarly implies a sense of duty, but in the context of dignified reserve and integrity. Its opposite, levitas, frequently had the meaning of inconstancy.

The economy and money

‘Now that state officials are elected by the Senate and the people have no votes to sell, they have lost interest. Those who once had a say in the election to power of everyone from consul to legionary commander have taken back seats, claiming as their rights just bread and circuses.’

(Juvenal, Satires 10.77–81)

(Left) Sestertius of c. AD 120, depicting Ceres with ears of corn, which in imperial times people demanded as their right, and many received tokens for free issues. (Right) Silver denarius of 113/112 BC: the moneyer, T. Didius, promises to mount a public gladiatorial games if he is elected curule aedile. (© Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Coin symbolizing the grain dole (annona), with the goddess Annona holding a cornucopia, Ceres seated with stalks of grain, and between them a modius, the instrument for measuring amounts. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

The economy of ancient Rome was an issue of great complexity. Imports into Italy, especially of wheat, olive oil and wine, were astronomical, as were those of luxury goods from other parts of the Roman world. Consumer spending was restricted because such a large proportion of the population were slaves, and many others, especially in Rome itself, were on the dole. Meanwhile, the army, whose presence anywhere had the effect of boosting the local economy, was spread around the provinces. The provinces themselves were meant both to be self-supporting and to provide the fiscal treasury with taxes, as well as to supply Rome with staple goods, including pottery from Gaul and Germany.

Roman amphorae from Turkey. An amphora, for transporting or keeping liquids such as wine and olive oil, could have a capacity of 20–25 litres. If it had no other cargo, a merchant ship might well carry 6,000 amphorae, each weighing 50 kilos, in layers. In homes and shops, amphorae could be stored in racks, as shown. (© Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons)

Vast sums were expended on public works and entertainments, as well as on the armed forces. At the end of the day, the emperor was usually blamed for shortages, shortfalls and any other economic problems. However, he always had considerable resources of his own to draw on, particularly from estates which were bequeathed to him or acquired by other means. It is said that Nero confiscated the entire properties of six men who between them owned almost all the corn land in North Africa, and these were still being cultivated as imperial possessions under the rule of Hadrian, sixty years later.

Abacus with beads. Roman numerals were not designed for easy computation. Calculation was done with the help of an abacus, or by a complex system involving the use of the fingers, finger-joints and thumbs of both hands. (VRoma: Landesmuseum, Mainz: Barbara McManus)

Coin of Alexandria, AD 180–192, depicting a ship carrying grain from Egypt to Rome. The whole of Egypt had from the time of Augustus constituted an imperial perquisite, in that he had (in his estimation) acquired it by right, and he passed on to his successors the tradition that the emperor owned the land while those who worked it were his tenants. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Nerva and his immediate successors, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius, inherited from Domitian and his father the habit of moderation in personal expenditure. During their rules, however, there was considerable improvement in the provision of roads and harbours, central government money was granted for new buildings in the provinces, new public assistance programmes were introduced, particularly for the children of poor families in the municipalities, and increased allowances of wine and olive oil, as well as corn, were made to the public in Rome.

Field with olive trees near Hadrian's villa. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The successful conclusion of Trajan’s invasion of Dacia, begun in AD 101, and especially the output of the Dacian gold and silver mines, boosted the imperial exchequer, but it needed a period of comparative peace, and the careful and dedicated attention of Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius to the levying and collecting of taxes, before comparative liquidity was finally, if only temporarily, achieved.

The basic coinage instituted by Augustus comprised the copper quadrans, brass semis, copper as, brass dupondius and sestertius, silver denarius, and gold aureus. Other coins were introduced from time to time to meet inflation. Constantine replaced the aureus with the gold solidus.

quadrans of Nero (reverse), with laurel branch: it is frequently mentioned as the entrance fee to the public baths. (© CNG Coins)

semis of Domitian (= 2 quadrantes). (© CNG Coins)

as of Vespasian (= 2 semisses). (© CNG Coins)

dupondius of Marcus Aurelius (= 2 asses). (© CNG Coins)

sestertius of Hadrian (= 2 dupondii). (© CNG Coins)

denarius of Julius Caesar (= 4 sestertii). (© CNG Coins)

aureus of Augustus (= 25 denarii). (© CNG Coins)

solidus of Zeno, emperor in the East during the later empire. (© CNG Coins)


Romans rose early and usually worked a six-hour day. Free men and freedmen who had work were out and about on their business for the whole morning, contributing to the noise and bustle of urban activity. The import business was centred on Ostia, where goods from overseas were unloaded, checked and stored in warehouses before being transferred to barges for the journey upstream.

Model of a Roman apartment building, Ostia (side view with storage spaces on the ground floor). (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

The building industry accounted for a continual supply of skilled labour in the form of architects, surveyors, supervisors, foremen, sculptors, stonemasons, carpenters and brickworks managers. In the cities and towns, wholesale and retail markets operated, craftsmen plied their trades, and the little shops, taverns and inns did their business. They in their turn were supplied with raw materials and foodstuffs by the agricultural estates.

Cushion and belt shop: sculptural relief of the Augustan age. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Sons tended to follow the trades of their fathers. Apart from the army, the only respectable callings for the upper classes were the law and politics, since so many professional posts in such fields as architecture, medicine, surgery, dentistry, teaching and agricultural management were held by freedmen.

This left a sizeable group of educated, if not always aristocratic, unemployed, many of whom pursued the occupation of client. Queues of them formed at dawn at the houses of the rich, waiting patiently in their best clothes for some gift of money or food, which the patron solemnly dispensed to each in order of social seniority. The more humble or poorer clients would do the rounds of patrons to collect as many donations as possible. That done, clients would mingle with the crowds in the Forum or market, which were as much meeting-places as centres of public or private business.

Trajan's Market, Rome, second century AD. (© Matthias Kabel/Wikimedia Commons)

After work, or the daily round, a visit to the public baths was usually the order of the day, for women as well as men.

Going to the baths: mosaic from Villa del Casale, Sicily. The woman at the centre has her children on either side of her. The two other figures are slaves, one carrying clothes, the other massage utensils. (© Neil Weightman/Wikimedia Commons)

The role of women

Fourth-century AD mosaic from Villa del Casale, Sicily, of female athletes receiving their victory awards. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The Romans believed that all women should be under the control of a guardian, who might be a father, husband or male relative, or someone appointed by the will of a father or husband, or by an official of the state. The only exceptions until the time of Augustus were the six Vestal Virgins; after Augustus the rule was relaxed in cases of free-born women who had had three children and freedwomen who had had four, provided that there was no husband or father to exercise control.

It was customary for marriages to be arranged, and for the size of the dowry to match the social standing of the prospective bridegroom.

Mid-second-century BC urn with scenes from the lives of the deceased: (centre) on military service; (right) his marriage ceremony, at which the couple clasp right hands, while in his left he holds a scroll. (VRoma: Museo Montemartini: Ann Raia)

There were several ways of celebrating a marriage, of which the simplest involved the consent of both parties, without rites or ceremony. Each of the other three gave the husband legal power over his wife:

  1. By cohabiting for a year without the woman being absent for a total of three nights.
  2. By a symbolic form of purchase, in the presence of a holder of a pair of scales and five witnesses.
  3. By full ritual, in the presence of the pontifex maximus.

After the second century AD a different kind of ritual emerged, which began with a formal betrothal, at which the prospective bride slipped a gold ring on to the finger now known as the ‘wedding finger’ in the presence of the guests. For the marriage ceremony itself she wore a veil of flaming orange-red, surmounted by a simple wreath of blossom.

Women in Roman times, though discriminated against, and subjected to abuse by poets such as Horace and Juvenal, were still capable of standing up for themselves when aroused. One of the most contentious pieces of Roman legislation was the Oppian Law, brought in on the proposal of the tribune Gaius Oppius after Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in 216 BC with the object of reducing spending on luxury goods. Among its conditions were that no woman should possess more than half an ounce of gold, wear a dress dyed in a variety of colours, or ride in a horse-drawn carriage in a city or town (or even within a mile of one) except on holy days.

Relief showing a family in a horse-drawn carriage. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

In 195 BC, two of the tribunes of the people proposed to the tribal assembly that the law should be repealed; two others, Marcus and Publius Junius Brutus, announced that they would veto the repeal. While the heated debate was going on, women rushed out of their houses and blocked the streets and entrances to the Forum, protesting that at a time of prosperity they too should be restored to their former splendour. The next day, joined by others from the suburbs, they mass-picketed the homes of the two Brutuses, and agreed to cease demonstrating only if the veto was withdrawn. This was done, and the motion to rescind the law was carried unanimously.

Fourth-century AD mosaic from Villa del Casale, Sicily, depicting prostitute with a client. It would appear that those whose only or principal source of income came from this trade were required to register with the aedile. (© Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikimedia Commons)

In such a restricted environment it is not surprising that there seem to have been a comparatively small number of women in professional jobs.

Market stall with cabbages, kale, garlic, leeks and onions. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press, 1969)

There are, however, records of a few female doctors, clerks and secretaries, as well as hairdressers, for whom training was obligatory, teachers and the occasional fishmonger, vegetable seller, dressmaker, and wool or silk merchant.

Female gladiators (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

No Roman woman displayed the essential quality of pietas more sublimely than Pompeia Paulina, the young wife of the aged Seneca, when Nero’s emissary came to order him to commit suicide. Paulina insisted on dying with him, and they sliced open the veins in their arms with a single stroke of a knife. That was not, however, the end of the story. Because of Seneca’s age and the spareness of his frame, his blood was so sluggish that he had to cut open the veins in his legs, too. After persuading Paulina, who was streaming with her own blood, to retire to another room, he dictated a long statement to his secretaries, then ordered his doctor to give him poison. When this did not do the trick, he had himself lifted into a hot bath and was asphyxiated by the steam. Meanwhile, Nero, hearing what had happened and refusing to accept responsibility for Paulina’s death, gave orders for her to be revived. While soldiers stood over them, her staff bandaged her arms and staunched the bleeding. She lived on, faithful to her husband’s memory, the pallor of her face and body testifying to the extent to which her soul had been destroyed.

Wall painting from the 'Villa of the Mysteries', Pompeii, depicting a woman with a scroll and a child reading. (VRoma: Paula Chabot)

Certainly women were able to attain a degree of education and to absorb and reflect the culture of the times. A few even managed to have some fun, as well as influence: notably Sempronia, whom Catiline earmarked as a potential recruit to his cause in 63 BC. She was from an excellent family, married with children, and beautiful. She had studied Greek and Latin literature, sang to her own accompaniment on the lyre, and danced gracefully. She was witty, charming, wrote poetry and was a marvellous conversationalist. However, she was also promiscuous, broke promises, reneged on debts and was even an accessory to murder.

First-century AD wall painting from Pompeii of a woman playing the lyre in the company of her lover, while another woman stands by. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Even more politically aware were the two imperial consorts Livia (58 BC–AD 29), wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, and Agrippina the Younger (AD 15–59), wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. Tacitus implies that both poisoned their husbands. Irrespective of whether suggestions of strings of other murders – and, in the case of Agrippina, of lovers too, including her own brother and son – are justified, both women undoubtedly manipulated the system to ensure that their sons by earlier marriages became emperor, and both sons grew to demonstrate active distaste for their mothers.

Onyx cameo of Livia holding a bust of the deified Augustus. In his will, Augustus formally adopted her into his line, with the name Julia Augusta. Here, Livia wears a diadem and displays the attributes of several goddesses. (VRoma: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Barbara McManus)

Livia had a distinguished aristocratic pedigree. At nineteen, however, and six months pregnant, she was forced to divorce, or be divorced by, her husband, in order to marry Octavian, who had conveniently divorced his own wife. After they had faced down the public outcry at the circumstances of their marriage, the union, during which she received unprecedented honours, lasted for fifty-three years. Though she had no more surviving children after Tiberius (a premature baby died), she was in other respects a traditional and successful Roman upper-class wife who even spun and wove material for her husband’s clothes. As a traditional Roman wife, she organized the household. But she also organized much else besides: she received imperial clients and provincial embassies, commissioned public buildings and dedicated them in her name, established charities, presided at banquets, and is said to have interceded on behalf of a man accused of plotting against Augustus. As a good wife should, she helped her husband with his correspondence, and altogether eased his imperial burden, while undoubtedly increasing her own influence. This unprecedented crossing of the boundary between private and public spheres made ancient historians such as Tacitus and Cassius Dio uneasy, and may be the reason for their hostility. But there had never been a Roman empress before, and someone had to lay down the ground rules. Livia filled the position very well indeed, as is suggested by Augustus’ public recognition of her role. She was finally deified in AD 42, at the instigation of her grandson Claudius.

Claudius may have had Livia’s role in public affairs in mind when he decided to marry his thirty-four-year-old niece Agrippina. (He was twenty-five years her senior.) As with Livia, much of what we know about her comes from historians to whom the notion of a woman wielding political clout was anathema.

Agrippina was granted the title of Augusta, which even Livia did not receive until after her death. Her portrait, and title, appeared on the reverse of coins of Claudius, an unprecedented privilege for a ruler's wife during her lifetime. (© CNG Coins)

In AD 50, Claudius formally adopted Agrippina’s son, who took the name Nero. As he was three years older than Claudius’ own son Britannicus, Nero now took precedence over his stepbrother. If Agrippina was responsible for Claudius’ death four years later, then it may have been because her husband’s unpredictable nature made her position precarious, and because she wanted to exercise full control while Nero was still too young to do so himself.

Gold and silver coins of 54 AD carry portraits of Agrippina and Nero facing each other, but it is her inscription which encircles them: in full, 'Agrippina Augusta, wife of the divine Claudius, mother of Nero Caesar'. Nero's inscription is relegated to the reverse of the coin, round an oak wreath. (VRoma: Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow: Barbara McManus)

Not only was she now the widow of a god, but in the East she herself was hailed as divine. She was, in effect, regent for her teenage son, but he was still influenced by his teachers Burrus and Seneca. Several factors, or a combination of them, have been suggested for Nero deciding, or being persuaded, to get rid of her. Nero revelled in the power that his new position gave him, and it may be that his tutors convinced him that Agrippina’s activities were bad for the state. It was not enough for her to be in control; she wanted to be seen to be in control. In the time of Claudius, she had been used to attending meetings with foreign diplomats, but she always sat apart from the emperor. Now, on one occasion, it was clear as she entered the hall that she intended to sit beside Nero on the platform. Seneca managed, by quick thinking, to circumvent a major lapse in protocol by whispering to Nero to rise and go to meet her.

By the end of 54 AD, Nero had begun to assert himself. Both heads still appear on the coins, but facing in the same direction, with Nero's to the fore. The inscription, now, is his: 'Nero, son of the divine Claudius, imperator, holder of tribunician power, consul'.

Agrippina interfered, too, in the emperor’s emotional entanglements. Nero was also paranoid about his personal safety, and it is more than likely that fear motivated him to take the action he did. So, after several botched attempts, a woman with a most remarkable curriculum vitae – to successive Roman emperors she was great-granddaughter, granddaughter (by adoption), sister, wife (as well as niece) and mother – was finally murdered.


There was an accepted convention in the ancient world that it was a mark of humanity to inflict slavery, rather than slaughter or maiming, as a penalty for being on the losing side in a battle or war. By using slave labour, the Romans perpetuated an institution that had existed in Egypt since at least 2600 BC, and had continued under the empires of China, India, Babylon and the Greeks. In the first century AD, probably one in three of the population of Rome was a slave. This was also the proportion of black slaves to whites in the American South in the 1850s. Nor does it seem that the treatment of the slaves who worked the vast farmlands of Italy was much harsher than or different from that meted out to African slaves on the American and West Indian plantations in the eighteenth century, or that the majority of household slaves were worse off than many domestic staff in Europe at an even later date.

Four female slaves dress the wife's hair: relief from a family tomb from Neumagen. (VRoma: Landesmuseum, Trier: Barbara McManus)

One of the functions of official provincial tax-collectors, especially in Asia Minor, was to kidnap potential slaves and ship them to the specialist slave markets, one of the biggest of which, at Delos, could process 10,000 slaves in a single day.

Julius Caesar as a general. He was responsible for large-scale enslavement. (VRoma: National Archaeological Museum, Naples: Barbara McManus)

Until the empire, marriage between slaves was not recognized, and their children automatically assumed the status of slave, too. A slave could keep what he could save towards buying his freedom, but if he ran away and was caught, the punishment was either branding or death. There was hardly any aspect of daily life, or of work or the leisure industry, in which slaves were not involved, and their treatment, which was entirely the responsibility of their owner, varied according to their skills and the labour that was required of them.

Slaves working at bleaching and carding cloth: copy of a first-century wall painting from the workshop of Verecundus. (© Wolfgang Rieger/Wikimedia Commons)

Slaves were trained to fight each other, and wild animals, to the death in the arenas of the empire. During the later republic, gangs of them worked in fetters on agricultural estates and were chained up in semi-underground barracks at night. Others did not suffer so much. Great numbers of herdsmen were required, and in 8 BC Gaius Caecilius Isodorus, himself a former slave, left a staff of 4,116, most of whom would have been employed in this capacity. Cato the Elder, who acquired young slaves as an investment and sold them at a profit after training, laid down that a staff of twelve (a manager and his wife, and eleven hands) was the right number to work a farm of 150 acres devoted to olive-oil growing and sheep. There is little doubt that Roman technology could have devised many labour-saving devices, particularly for use on the farm, if an abundance of slave labour had not been an economic fact of life.

Terracotta lamp depicting a shepherd whose name was Tityrus. (VRoma: Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels: Barbara McManus)

Slaves worked in the mines and in the potteries. They constituted the state's labour force for building and maintaining public works, and in other government services, such as the mint and the corn supply. They were also its white-collar workers, responsible for keeping the machinery of bureaucracy and administration working. They served as accountants in private businesses, too, and as secretaries, teachers, librarians, doctors, scribes, artists and entertainers. And they constituted the private staff of villas, townhouses and palaces.

Household slaves had perquisites, but some suffered unusually severe hazards. Vedius Pollio, an equestrian and a friend of Augustus, threw condemned slaves into a tank of moray eels, claiming that no other creature tore a man to pieces so utterly and instantaneously. The poet Martial (c. AD 40–104), by his own account, laid into his cook if a meal was not up to scratch.

'You say your hare is not cooked and call for the whip. You'd rather cut up your cook, Rufus, than your hare' (Martial, Epigrams 3.94). Wall painting of slaves preparing a meal, AD 50–75. (VRoma: Getty Museum, Santa Monica: Barbara McManus)

Pliny the Elder used to invite the better-educated members of his staff to join him after dinner for conversation, and remarked of his luxury villa at Laurentum that most of the rooms in the wing that housed his slaves were also perfectly suitable for putting up guests. Seneca observed that in general people were extremely arrogant, cruel and abusive to their slaves; his advice was to treat inferiors as you would want to be treated by your masters. The contrary attitude is illustrated by an incident that took place shortly before his enforced suicide. In AD 61, the city prefect had been murdered by one of his own slaves after an altercation. As was the custom, all the slaves of the household were lined up to be taken out and executed. The people besieged the Senate to protest at the unfairness of the punishment, but the pro-hanging lobby in the Senate prevailed. An enormous crowd, armed with stones and flaming missiles, then tried to halt the process. Nero rebuked the public, and ordered that the entire route along which the condemned slaves were being led to their execution should be lined with soldiers. It was also proposed that all the freedmen who had been in the house at the time should be deported. This was vetoed by the emperor on the grounds of unreasonable cruelty.

Mosaic of slaves serving at a banquet, from Carthage, third century AD. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

A slave could purchase his freedom or achieve it by a process of manumission that was at the discretion of his owner, but this became such a popular process at the beginning of the empire that Augustus introduced laws to restrict it. A freedman had full rights of citizenship except that of holding public office. Some freedmen became even richer than the masters they had once served.


A boy (centre) recites his lesson to a home tutor: from a second-century AD sarcophagus relief of M. Cornelius Statius. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

At the beginning of the republic, education was left entirely to the parents, and consisted of a mixture of martial and practical arts. Boys were expected to emulate their fathers, and girls their mothers. From about 250 BC, largely as a result of the influx of educated Greek slaves, tutors were employed in richer homes or were set up as teachers of informal schools.

A boy apologizes to his teacher for being late: copy of a second-century AD relief. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Towards the end of the republic, a two-tier educational system evolved, leading to higher education in oratory and philosophy. At about the age of seven, children of the privileged classes were sent to a primary school (often presided over by a single teacher), where from dawn to the middle of the afternoon, with a break for lunch at home, they learned reading, writing and arithmetic. Girls as well as boys could benefit from this basic schooling, which was often conducted in premises seemingly designed as shops, with open fronts on to the street. Pupils sat on wooden benches and wrote their exercises on tablets which they rested on their knees.

Formal education for girls ceased at the age of twelve, but boys who showed academic promise were sent on, if their parents could afford the fees, to ‘grammar’ schools, where they stayed until they assumed the toga virilis, pursuing a curriculum which emphasized Greek as well as Latin literature.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) refers to verses 'dictated to me by flogger Orbilius' (Epistles 1.70–71), but in spite of references to corporal punishment in literature and art, it does not seem that it was any more frequent or severe than in many schools in Britain well into the twentieth century. The scene here, on a first-century gilt bronze mirror, draws on Dionysiac symbolism. A maenad and a cupid hold the boy down over a table, with an open tablet and stylus underneath. Silenus, attendant on Bacchus, does the flogging, while another cupid keeps the score on a slate. In a niche above is Minerva, patroness of learning. (VRoma: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Barbara McManus)

By the end of the first century AD, it had become accepted that rhetoric should be taught in special schools at a higher level, though a pupil might be expected to have had an introduction to the subject before embarking on higher education. Rhetoric (or oratory), as a subject as well as an art, originated in Sicily in the fifth century BC, and was developed in Athens and Asia Minor before becoming an accepted topic for study in Rome.

First-century BC bronze statue of Roman orator. (VRoma: Archaeological Museum, Florence: Barbara McManus)

While the schools taught traditional religious observances and supplemented the training children received at home in conduct and morality, older boys, as they grew up, were exposed to the influence of the various branches of Greek philosophy, in which the upper classes at least came to find a more acceptable guide to life than the religion of the state.

A scholar reads a scroll beside an open cabinet containing a further supply. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Leading citizens employed resident philosophers. When Cicero was about eighteen, he attended lectures in Rome given by Phaedrus the Epicurean; shortly afterwards he listened to Philo of Larissa, head of the Academic school of philosophy, to whose doctrines he remained generally faithful for the rest of his life. When Horace was eighteen, he studied philosophy in Athens, where in addition to the Academics and the Epicureans he would have come under the influence of the Stoics and the Peripatetics.

The Roman calendar

Portable sundial: (1) its ground plan; (2) the face in perspective; and (3) its elevation. The winter solstice (bruma) is given as the eighth day before the calends of January, that is 23 December, and the summer solstice (solstitium) as the eighth day before the calends of July, i.e. 22 June. (From Cyril Bailey, The Legacy of Rome, Clarendon Press, 1923)

The reformed calendar which Julius Caesar instituted in 46 BC enabled the traditional agricultural year, based on the orbit of the earth around the sun, to be reconciled with the revolution of the moon around the earth. His year of 365 days (366 every fourth year) consisted of seven months of thirty-one days, four of thirty days, and one of twenty-eight days (twenty-nine every fourth year).

A slight, and temporary, adjustment had to be made in the time of Augustus, when it was discovered that the pontifices had misinterpreted the instructions and decreed a leap year every three years instead of every four. The year was still actually eleven minutes and fourteen seconds too long, which it remained until Pope Gregory XIII in the sixteenth century corrected the error and adjusted the incidence of the leap year so that it does not fall on the opening year of a century unless that year is divisible by 400. Thus, the year 2000 was a leap year but 2100 will not be.

Each month was divided into three parts by three special days: kalendae (the calends) always fell on the first day of the month; idus (the ides) signified the notional day of the full moon, and was the fifteenth day of March, May, July and October and the thirteenth day of all the rest; and nonae (the nones) occurred on the ninth day before the ides in each case, including in the calculation the day at each end of the period. Thus, the nones of March was 7 March: that is, the ninth day before the ides. A date was always reckoned according to the number of days it fell before the next special day, with both that day and the special day included in the calculation. Thus, 16 March was known as ‘the seventeenth day before the calends of April’.

Certain days were given over to religious and other festivals and celebrations, almost all of which took place on dates of an uneven number, which were regarded as being lucky. Other days were designated fasti, indicating that civil and judicial business could be conducted; comitales, on which a meeting of an assembly could be held; and nefasti, on which neither could take place. The Romans worked an eight-day week, with the eighth day by our reckoning, or the ninth by theirs, being nundinae. This was the day on which traditionally the farmers downed tools and went to market.

Water-clock described by Vitruvius (fl. c. 50–26 BC). From the tank (A) water drips at a uniform rate through the small pipe (B) into the reservoir (C), in which is a float (D). Shaft (E) is attached to the upper surface of the float. As it rises, its teeth rotate the cog-wheel (F), to which is attached a hand, the position of which indicates the hour on the front of the dial. (From Cyril Bailey, The Legacy of Rome, Clarendon Press, 1923)

The Roman day was divided into twelve hours of equal length, from sunrise to sunset, and likewise during the night. Thus, the length of an hour, and the hour itself, varied according to the season of the year. The ninth hour of the day gave its name to Nones, a church service held at about 1500 hours. At some point in the Middle Ages this was brought forward to the sixth hour, that is about midday. The name Nones persisted, however, and gave the word ‘noon’ its meaning of the middle hour of the day. So when we speak of ‘a.m.’, we mean ante meridiem (before the middle of the day); p.m. is post meridiem (after the middle of the day). Sundials or water-clocks, or a combination of both, were employed to tell the hour.

Roman numerals

The basic symbols by which Roman numerals were – and still are – expressed are:

  • I = 1 (a single digit)
  • V = 5 (a graphic representing five fingers)
  • X = 10 (the fingers of two hands joined)
  • L = 50 (adapted from a Chalcidic sign)
  • C = 100 (adapted from a Chalcidic sign; it is also the first letter of the word for a hundred, centum)
  • D = 500 (half the Chalcidic sign Ф, which represented a thousand)
  • M = 1,000 (the first letter of the word for a thousand, mille; not used separately as a numeral before the second century AD)

Numbers other than these were expressed by adding symbols after the higher numeral – e.g. VI = 6, XII = 12, CLXI = 161 – or by subtracting those that preceded the higher numeral – e.g. IV = 4, XL = 40 – or by a combination of both processes – e.g. XLI = 41, CDXIII = 413. In medieval times and beyond, dates were represented by Roman numerals – e.g. MCCCLXII = 1362. The year 1996 was MCMXCVI.

Towards the end of the republic, thousands were denoted by a line above the numeral. For exmaple, 10,000 and 5,000:

Hundreds of thousands were denoted by additional lines on each side. For example, 1,000,000 and 500,000:


Various types of Roman dress worn by different social classes. (VRoma: Landesmuseum, Mainz: Barbara McManus)

Roman clothes had to be simple. Only wool and, to a lesser extent, linen were available, and because needles were of bronze or bone, and thread of only the coarsest quality, stitching or sewing was neither elegant nor particularly effective. Buttons and buttonholes were therefore rare; clothing was fastened or held together mainly by enormous safety-pins, belts or knots, or not at all. As underwear, both men and women wore a loin-cloth knotted round the waist, with a belted tunic or shift with short or long sleeves. For the poorer classes, slaves and small children, this was the limit of their attire.

The toga and the palla. (From Antony Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction, Routledge, 1995)

The outer garment, the classic toga for men and the palla for women, was the standard, and statutory, formal dress for a Roman citizen. It was simply a vast blanket, draped round and over the body, leaving one arm free, and probably held together only by its own weight and its folds. The palla was rectangular in shape. It has been concluded that the toga was in the form of a segment of a circle, along the straight edge of which ran the purple (more like a reddish-pink) stripe of the toga praetexta (worn by boys and also by men of senatorial rank), and that it was about five metres long and two metres wide at its deepest point.

Conjectural diagram of a toga. (From Sir John Edwin Sandys (ed.), Companion to Latin Studies, Cambridge University Press, 1913)

Those who were standing for public office were in the habit of whitening their toga with chalk, and were thus known as candidati (‘clothed in glittering white’). For dinner-parties, at which the toga could have been a burden, it was often replaced by the synthesis, a kind of dressing-gown. Cloaks were worn out of doors in bad weather. There was little difference between the footwear of men and women; both usually wore sandals tied around the ankle with thongs, or on more formal occasions the calceus, a soft leather shoe.

Replica of a Roman sandal. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Roman Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Roman leather shoes (top) and modern replicas (bottom). (VRoma: Saalburg Museum: Barbara McManus)

For men, shaving was the rule between about 100 BC and AD 100, performed with iron razors by a slave or at one of the innumerable barber’s shops that were features of urban life. Women wore their hair up in a variety of styles: from the simple, often with a knot or lock at the back falling to the nape, to the intricately curled and over-ornate.

Hairstyles. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Book of the Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press, 1970)

Food and Drink

The ordinary Roman was not a great eater of meat. The army diet was a balanced one of wheat (which the soldiers themselves ground and made into porridge, bread or biscuits), some red meat (usually bacon), fish, poultry, cheese, vegetables, fruit, salt, olive oil and raw wine. Officers did rather better. At home, porridge and bread were the staples for most Romans, with many city-dwellers reliant on the corn dole for their needs.

Family meal. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Book of the Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press, 1970)

In more well-to-do homes, jentaculum (breakfast), for those who wanted it, might be bread dipped in wine, or eaten with cheese, dried fruits or honey. The equivalent of lunch was prandium, again a light meal, often consisting of left-overs from the previous day. The main meal of the day, cena, was eaten in the middle of the afternoon, after work and the bath. This could, and often did, go on for hours. Dinner-parties were elaborate, and could be either dignified or disgusting affairs, depending on the tendencies of the host and his choice of guests. Over-indulgence was the rule rather than the exception. Dinner guests reclined on their left elbow at an angle of about forty-five degrees to the table, on couches set against three sides of it, and ate with their fingers.

The meal consisted of three parts, within each of which there could be any number of courses served individually or together. Hors d'oeuvre might be eggs presented in a variety of ways, salads, cooked vegetables, shellfish, snails and, occasionally, roast stuffed dormice.

Couple reclining at dinner, served by slaves. (Kunthistorisches Museum, Vienna. © mbell1975/Flickr)

Still-life mosaic of food for cooking: two species of fish, two kinds of vegetable, seafood and a plucked chicken. (VRoma: AICT: R. Scaife)

The main courses illustrate the varieties of meat, game, fish and fowl that were available, or which were pressed into service in the form of exotic-sounding dishes: not just beef, lamb, pork, venison, hare, bream, hake, mackerel, mullet, oysters, sole, chicken, duck, goose and partridge, but veal, suckling-pig, boar, wild goat, kid, porpoise, crane, flamingo, ostrich, thrush and turtle-dove. Most main dishes were served in sauce, the basic ingredient of which was a factory-made fish concoction called liquamen. The meal would conclude with dessert: fruit, cakes and puddings.

Juvenal provides a hypothetical guest with a simple country meal: home-grown asparagus and farm eggs as starters; chicken and milk-fed kid for the main course; local pears, oranges, grapes and apples to finish. Meanwhile, Martial describes the menu for a dinner-party for seven that he gave in the country:

  • Hors d'oeuvre: mallow leaves, lettuce, chopped leeks, mint, rocket, mackerel garnished with rue and sliced egg, sow's udder marinated in tuna-fish brine.
  • Main courses, all served together: tender cuts of lamb with beans and spring greens, and a chicken and a ham left over from previous dinners.
  • Dessert: fresh fruit washed down with vintage wine from Nomentum.

Strip-cartoon wall painting from the Inn of Salvius at Pompeii. Man on left, to barmaid: 'Over here!' Man on right: 'No, it's mine!' Barmaid: 'The one who ordered it shall have it. Oceanus, come here and drink it!' (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Wine was the national, and natural, drink, usually diluted with water (beer was for Britons and Gauls). It was also mixed with honey to make mulsum, a cooling aperitif which accompanied the first course at dinner. The best wine-producing region in Italy was on the border between Latium and Campania, from which came the excellent Caecuban, Setian, Falernian and Massic vintages.

Interior of restaurant, Ostia, with original counters and wall paintings. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Holidays and the games

Not only was the official Roman working day a short one by modern standards, but there were comparatively few of them in the year, except for slaves, who in any case were not allowed to attend public entertainments as spectators. During the rule of Claudius, 159 days in the year were designated public holidays, on 93 of which shows were offered at public expense. Originally the games had religious significance, but under the republic ever more secular games were introduced, ostensibly to celebrate notable events, some of which lasted as long as a fortnight.

Roman theatre, Ostia, showing seats, orchestra and stage. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

There were two kinds of games: ludi scaenici, or theatrical events; and ludi circenses. The former, however, suffered overwhelming competition from other forms of spectacle.

Reconstruction drawing by G. Gatteschi of the Circus Maximus. (From Albert Kuhn, Roma, R & T Wasbourne, 1913: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

Ludi circenses took place in the custom-built circuses, or race-tracks, and amphitheatres. It is not difficult for modern sports fans to appreciate the Romans’ passion for chariot-racing, and their devotion to the particular team they supported, with its colours of white, green, red or blue. The public adulated the most successful drivers, and there was heavy on-course and off-course betting.

Mosaic of two-horse chariot and (behind) four horsemen, each in his colours, from the basilica of Junius Bassus, consul in 331 AD. The driver may be Bassus himself. (© Sailko/Wikimedia Commons)

The drivers were usually slaves, but they were also professional sportsmen who could earn vast sums from winning. Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who died at the age of forty-two having driven chariots for twenty-four years, had 1,462 wins from 4,257 starts; he was also placed 1,437 times. In the reign of Augustus there might be ten or twelve races in a day; during and after the time of Caligula, twenty-four a day was commonplace.

The chariots themselves were constructed to be as light as possible, and were drawn by two, four or even more horses: the higher the number, the greater was the skill required of the driver, and the more sensational were the crashes and pile-ups. A race was usually seven laps of the track – about 4,000 metres in the Circus Maximus in Rome – with a hair-raising 180-degree turn at each end of the spina, the narrow wall that divided the arena. Though the start was staggered, there were no lanes and apparently no rules.

Of course, the Romans have a reputation for blood lust because of their love of the ludi circenses (although there is evidence that the Etruscans attached religious significance to gladiatorial combat). The single rule of such bouts was that similarly armed contestants or teams of contestants did not normally fight each other. The most usual contest was between a moderately protected and helmeted swordsman and a retiarius, who was armed only with a net and a trident. It was each man for himself, and any who appeared less than enthusiastic were prodded into action with red-hot irons, while other attendants stood by to drag off the corpses and pour sand over the pools of blood.

Third-century AD mosaic of a gladiatorial fight. One of the gladiators holds up his finger to acknowledge defeat. (VRoma: Praehistorisches Museum, Munich: Barbara McManus)

It was sometimes left to the crowd to signify whether a wounded and downed gladiator should be finished off by his opponent. This they did by waving their handkerchiefs for a release, or giving the ‘thumbs-down’ signal for death.

The gladiators were slaves, condemned criminals or prisoners of war, all of whom were regarded as expendable. So were wild animals, which were rounded up in their natural habitats and transported in their thousands to be hunted down and slaughtered in the confines of the arenas of the Roman empire.

An ostrich and other exotic birds and animals being loaded aboard a ship bound for Rome, from a mosaic in the Corridor of the Great Hunt, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily. (René Seindal)

To celebrate the opening of the Colosseum in AD 80, 5,000 wild beasts and 4,000 tame animals were killed in one day. For variety, animals would be goaded to fight each other. Alternatively, or as an additional attraction, the animals tore apart contingents of condemned (and unarmed) criminals: Christians were regarded as especially good sport.

Bestiarii (beast fighters) with whips try to distract a bear mauling a fallen gladiator. From a floor mosaic of the second or third century AD, Nennig. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)

The third and most spectacular form of combat, which involved flooding the arena or transferring the show to a suitable stretch of water, was the naumachia, or sea-fight. The idea seems to have originated with Julius Caesar. The greatest naumachia was staged by Claudius in AD 52 on the Fucine Lake, to celebrate the completion of the brick-lined tunnel that had been built to drain it (constructed by 30,000 workmen over the course of eleven years). The emperor put 19,000 armed criminals into two fleets of ships and positioned rafts around the edge of the lake to block off any escape routes. While the battle raged on the water, soldiers fired catapults and missile-throwers from behind ramparts on the shore.

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