Past Inspiration: When In Rome

Which culture offers more inspiration than Rome, empire of the ancients? In this post we will take a trip through the streets of ancient Rome. How should we behave when we arrive?

“Do as the Romans do.”

You may imagine yourself marching under the eagle, debating philosophy or giving a great speech in the forum. This would be like equating our lives today with those of a soldier, academic or politician. Most of us are none of these.

We can start from the bottom and work our way up.

Barbarians

You, 50 B.C.
You, 50 B.C.

You probably were not born in Rome itself. The inhabitants of the British Isles, Scandinavia, Central Europe, North Africa and the Near East would have been known to the Romans as “barbarians”. This was a term they borrowed from the classical Greeks.

It conveyed the idea of “not us”, “different”, “uncivilised”. There were a number of Scythians, Iberians, Gauls and Jews living in the city of Rome who would have described themselves as Roman. To an extent, they were. But if you lived beyond the borders of the empire, you were something unimaginable.

You had two heads, antlers and six arms. Children would cry when their mothers told them stories about you. Even if you lived in present-day Italy, you were probably just an “ally”. This gave you some benefits, but you were still not Roman.

Slaves

Shackles

So you are living in the dark forests of Germania or the windswept shores of Britannia. Not so much in the shadow of Rome’s empire as adjacent to it, with your own rich culture. The legions arrive, kill your warriors and take you captive. What happens next?

Do not think of slaves as being set aside from the population of the Roman Empire. They were mingled among free citizens of all standings. Slaves were like the living foundation of the empire, permeating it and feeding it with the energy of their labours.

For many, the existence was miserable. They lived and worked their entire lives on vast farming estates in Sicily or down bleak mine shafts. These slaves were tools for their owners, human cattle.

Others had happier existences. You might be born into slavery in a wealthy household or sell yourself into one to pay a debt. This would allow you some measure of comfort and status. One day you might buy or be granted your freedom.

But you still had no freedom or free will. What did it mean to have no “free will”? Your dominus could make any decision on your behalf. He was free to use you for whatever purpose suited his wants.

Poor

Welcome home
Welcome home

Every city has its poor and Rome was no different. Above is where you would live if you arrived in the city freeborn, seeking out streets paved with gold. It is an insula, but an image of crumbling ruins does not tell you very much.

Tenement inside

This cramped tenement from New York in the early 1900s gives a better impression. You would live in a six or seven storey building, on the top floor. Here there was no ventilation, not even natural light, and no sanitation. You shared the small room with five others.

Home was the ancient wooden equivalent of a skyscraper. It was built to produce fast income from tenants, not withstand the rigours of time. Tenements in ancient Rome burned down or collapsed, often with the tenants still inside.

Pompeii
Pompeii

Suffocating alleyways, utter darkness at night, no police force and grinding poverty all around. You might be robbed, your throat cut by a roaming gang, and nobody would raise a hand to help. Call for the night watchman and expect a beating. He may take your purse as well.

Citizens

Roman family

Why would anyone risk all of the above slavery, poverty and violence? Why not steer away from its borders or escape its grasp?

Citizenship is what you aspire to. As a citizen you gain the protection of Rome’s laws. You cannot be enslaved or killed except in limited circumstances. You can participate in the system of elections. Most importantly, citizenship will be inherited by your children.

One day, a descendant of yours might climb the ladder of Roman politics to become consul. They will look back and proudly state that you were the first of their family to gain the citizenship.

Otherwise, it was an ordinary life. The image immortalised in stone above does not appear alien. It is a family. Roman citizens worked and lived much like you do today. They lived in a modest house on one of Rome’s hills and might have owned a slave or two.

Senators

Senate

The fates seem to favour you. By a combination of birth, wit, work and luck you have found yourself among the most esteemed inhabitants of ancient Rome. You are a senator, with the right to sit in the curia in the forum and run for public office.

Daily life treats you well and yours is a luxurious existence. You have a house on the Palatine Hill, far from the stench of the slums and markets below. Hired thugs patrol the streets around your villa to ward away thieves. Mosaics decorate you floors. Heated private baths, slaves to meet your every whim and magnificent sculptures adorning your atrium.

This all comes with a price and you are in a constant state of war. You may be called upon to lead Rome’s armies against barbarians or rebellious allies. When unrest flares up among the plebs on the city streets, you must step into the fray with shield and sword.

Each year two men are chosen to fill the highest office. But there can only be two consuls out of nine hundred senators. Competition is fierce, often bloody. Your fellow patricians will send a mob to club you to death on the steps of the curia, your wife will slip poison in your wine and your slaves will slit your throat while you sleep.

Even when all of your ambitions are fulfilled and you surpass any Roman who has come before, you must remain vigilant. Beware the Ides of March.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,
Death of Caesar

Second thoughts?

Like me, you might have always fancied taking a trip to ancient Rome. Perhaps you are reconsidering making the journey now.

Farm

Rural life in the ancient world was hard work. It was a tough existence, but rewarding. You gained some security through the anonymous nature of your existence. So why did people travel to the grimy, violent city in search of their fortunes?

In the countryside you inherited land from your father, worked the earth to provide for your family and divided it up between your children when you died. Things remained much the same from one generation to the next, for as long as no armies appeared on the horizon.

In Rome, there was some kind of magic in the air which allowed a man to change his fortunes in one lifetime. With such a vast number of people crushed into a city, the hierarchy could become blurred from time to time.

This was your moment. With enough hard work and a great deal of luck even a slave, Spaniard or slum-dweller could become emperor. Ambition drove Rome’s success and ambition drove people to Rome.

But there were no women…

Livia Drusilla

Something is missing from this post. Where are all the women?

If written history is to be believed, there were only two types of ancient Roman women: prostitutes and empresses (sometimes both). But the ordinary woman would have been there, silent in history but certainly heard at the time.

Toiling as a household slave, washing clothes in the slums, caring for her citizen children, whispering in the ear of her senator husband.

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