What was life like in Rome 2000 years ago? In the following extract from his new book Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day Romanist Philip Matyszak gives us the travellers’ low-down – advising us on how best to get there, where to stay, what to eat, what to wear, where to shop, and how to survive in ancient Rome. After all, when in Rome…
All roads, they say, lead to Rome. But choose carefully which road to take, and just as importantly, when to take it. Go too early and you will struggle against winter storms. Go too late and all the festivals and spectacles will have finished, and everyone who can will have fled the summer heat to the seaside resort of Baiae, or the cool of the Tuscan hills. Really late arrivals will be just in time for the first damp of autumn – the unhealthiest time of year in an eternally unhealthy city.
In short, the journey must be carefully planned. The more organized the traveller, the fewer nasty surprises during the journey. Festina lente, ‘hurry slowly’, the Romans say, and it is good advice. Where are you going to stay? How will you pay? What types of transport are available? The answers may come as a surprise. The Roman world is 2,000 years away, but it is still surprisingly sophisticated.
Make a start as soon as possible by organizing somewhere to stay in Rome. Do this by offering lodgings and hospitality to a Roman visiting your city. The Romans are great travellers, and are as keen (or keener) to save a denarius as anyone else. They also have a strong sense of obligation amounting to a moral code, and once ties of guest-friendship (hospitium) have been forged with a Roman visitor, he will almost certainly leave behind an invitation to stay with him should you come to Rome. This is why any visiting Roman of any importance has people almost falling over themselves to offer food and shelter. The relatively minor inconvenience of putting up a guest for a while is one of the best ways of ensuring roughly equivalent accommodation on a return visit to the imperial city.
Staying in Rome is not cheap, and the journey itself is going to be expensive. While the central areas of the empire are well policed and the roads generally safe from brigands, many petty thieves and riff-raff consider travellers easy prey.
To speed up the journey and save on overnight accommodation, it is best to do the first leg by sea, to the port of Puteoli in Campania, a few days’ journey south of Rome. But be warned: mention a sea voyage to a Roman, and the reaction will probably include a hiss of indrawn breath and a sad shaking of the head. The Romans are natural landlubbers who take to the water with deep reluctance and the gloomy conviction that it is the last thing they will ever do.
Nonetheless, sea travel in this period flourishes to a degree not seen again for well over a millennium.
The supertankers of the day are the huge ships from Alexandria, each capable of carrying one or two hundred passengers and 350 tonnes of Egyptian grain. Most travellers sail on something more modest – on ships like the Europa, a cargo vessel depicted in the plaster of a house in Pompeii. It is about 70 feet long, with a high stern and prow. Powered by a large square-rigged sail, it is steered by an oar at the back. The only living quarters on the ship belong to the captain. Passengers, like the slaves who make up the crew, sleep on deck.
Hitting the Road
Don’t expect to travel the roads in comfort. Sprung suspensions are almost non-existent, and most vehicle axles have a mere handful of fat to allow them to turn on their bearings.
The squeal of badly greased axles will be a constant companion along the roads to Rome (though heavy carts are not allowed to enter the city itself during the day). Horses are rare, and generally used only by the imperial post and the army, and are not particularly comfortable anyway, given the rudimentary Roman saddles and total lack of stirrups (which won’t arrive in Italy for another few centuries). However those who choose to walk, as many do, might obtain a donkey to carry the luggage.
If travelling as a couple, consider a birota, which as the name suggests (bi rota means ‘two wheels’) is a light and relatively speedy two-wheeler – the nearest most travellers will get to a chariot. These (often fantastically ornamented) sports cars of antiquity are more often rich kids’ toys than serious people-carriers. A travelling family should consider a carruca dormitoria, a large covered waggon in which everyone can sleep, so saving the cost of staying overnight at an inn.
The very rich will want a litter, or at least a sedan chair, carried in relays by four to eight slaves, with a footman clearing the peasants from the road before them. Early in the Roman Republic, litters were considered suitable only for the sick and the seriously degenerate, but lately this mode of transport has become more acceptable.
As you approach the world’s largest city you will first see a smudge on the horizon made by the smoke from Rome’s half a million or so hearth fires, forges and bakeries.
From the grand villas on hillsides to the endless miles of market gardens and the huge stone aqueducts marching across the landscape, the countryside round about has been pressed into the service of this great city. From here, Rome makes itself ever more strongly felt as the first tombs appear on family plots on the sides of the road, up to when you reach the city walls and cross the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Rome itself.
Talking of tombs, it is illegal to bury corpses within the sacred city of Rome itself, though the privilege may be granted to an extremely distinguished individual. Only Rome’s great Valerian family, Vestal Virgins and the Caesars themselves have this as a right, and the Valerians choose not to exercise it. The Romans, hardened to massive child mortality, might bury the very young in the garden, as we might inter a deceased pet.
Everyone else is buried outside the city, so the approach to Rome is lined with an increasing number of tombs. There is no consensus on what a tomb should look like, so there is considerable variety in ornamentation and shape. The early Romans buried their dead, but for centuries cremation has been the norm, though still not universally adopted – and recently burial has come into fashion.
Amid the dead, the occasional family is seated at a picnic, as the Romans quite enjoy taking a meal with the dear departed. Most Romans also belong to funeral clubs which take a small payment every month towards the cost of the contributor’s funeral.
The Romans conscientiously assist future demographers by recording the age of the deceased on tombstones generally with the letters DM (Dis Manibus, ‘to the spirits of the underworld’; roughly the equivalent of RIP). Inscriptions may carry details of the grieving parent or spouse who erected the memorial. Sometimes the elegies are unexpectedly moving, such as this:
Stop for a moment, stranger, and read this brief message.This ugly tomb houses a lovely woman, called Claudia by her parents. She loved her husband wholeheartedly and gave him two sons. One is still on this earth, the other is under it. She was a lively companion, yet demure. She kept house and spun wool. That’s all. Now be on your way.
Where to stay
On arrival in Rome, take stock for a few moments. Where you are going to stay should not just be determined by the cost of your lodgings. The type of housing, quality of neighbour, distance to the sanitary facilities, and how far you are prepared to walk to anywhere interesting or important are all vital considerations.
When meeting Romans, knowing the basics of what to wear and what to eat will help to avoid unnecessary social embarrassment. Nothing is guaranteed to ruin a good dinner party like a guest who turns up wrongly dressed, and then blanches (or worse) when confronted with sow’s udders stuffed with giant African snails. And since Rome operates without street signs – on the friendly principle that if you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t belong and shouldn’t be there – some basic grasp of city navigation is essential.
The Romans navigate by their hills. You may hear phrases like ‘Aulus lives on the Caelian,’ or ‘It’s one of those shops in the Quirinal- Viminal valley,’ so it is important to know which hills are where. Everyone knows that Rome has seven hills, but in fact the reality is more complicated.
Worth knowing to the traveller is the Quirinal: home to Rome’s upper middle class. Visitors will almost certainly spend some time on the Quirinal, since it now houses Rome’s finest shopping arcades. Before the general Vespasian became emperor, his family lived here, and you can still visit the templum gentis Flaviae (the temple of the Flavian family) which was built on the site of the ancestral home by Vespasian’s son Domitian.
In addition, followers of the cult of Chrestus (as he is known in these times) will probably seek lodgings among the Levantine and Jewish traders in the Transtiberim district just outside the pomerium to the west of the Tiber, one of the most cosmopolitan areas in a thoroughly cosmopolitan city.
Where you stay in Rome depends upon your budget, your needs, and how long you intend to remain in town. Most of the living quarters in Rome are rented, and most landlords will be happy to rent rooms by the month, the week, or even (for requirements of a particular nature) by the hour.
However, as previously observed, rather than renting, visitors would ideally stay with a hospes, a friend who has offered hospitality in a town house; preferably on one of the better hills, high enough to catch the breeze, but not so high as to be out of reach of the aqueducts.
On busy streets such houses often have cubicles built into the front where small shops offer a variety of clothing, artifacts or snacks.
In quieter areas, the wallsare often painted red for the first four or five feet and white thereafter. The windowless, fortress-like façade is unbroken except for a very solid wooden door which, even if open, will have a custodian on sentry duty just within – a reminder that Rome by night can be a very lawless place. ‘You’ll be considered a pretty careless type if you go out for dinner without making a will,’ remarks the satirist Juvenal. ‘Be grateful if nothing worse than a bucketful of slops hits you over the head on the way home. This town is full of violent drunks who can’t sleep well until they have beaten someone up.’
Most Roman houses teem with life, from children racing about the columns of the atrium to toothless grandmothers sitting by the fire, slaves hurrying about their business, and second cousins, in-laws and other female relatives settling down to weaving or needlework accompanied by banter, gossiping or back-biting (domestic relationships among extended families can be fraught, and it is the job of the senior woman of the household, the materfamilias, to make sure all runs smoothly).
This is a good moment to introduce another of the problems of living in Rome – noise. There is nowhere in this city where a poor man can have a quiet moment to gather his wits. Schoolteachers are deadly, first thing in the morning [Roman classes begin at dawn, and are often held outdoors] and even before dawn the bakers will have wakened you. The coppersmiths hammering away jar your nerves all day, while here the money changer idly jangles coins on his grimy table, and there, a man hammering Spanish gold into dust whacks away at his worn-out stone with a shiny mallet. Martial, Epigrams 12.57
The Romans have a habit of siting cesspits uncomfortably close to wells, so it will come as a relief to know that Rome itself has an extensive sewer system which is regularly flushed with waste water from the aqueducts. The oldest and largest of Rome’s sewers is the Cloaca Maxima, which runs under the Forum and is large enough to take a boat through, if that is your idea of fun. Many apartment buildings have gravity-feed facilities connected to the sewers or to a central cesspit, but many others make use of the tried and trusted chamber pot. Sometimes ordure is collected for agricultural purposes; in other places it is simply dumped in the streets, which is why some streets have little stepping stones to allow members of the public to cross without soiling their feet.
Try to find lodgings close to a public bath, where a constant stream of waste water from the baths runs under the toilet seat, which is basically a bench with strategically situated holes on which you can sit and exchange the gossip of the day with fellow patrons of the facility. Watch for youths whose idea of a joke is to surreptitiously ignite a hank of wool soaked in oil in an upstream toilet. Having this burning mass sail just under your posterior can effectively ruin your day.
What to eat
Food is important to the Romans, and the taking of it generally a social occasion. Vegetables and cheeses are plentiful. With growing prosperity, many Romans eat meat once a week or more, usually poultry, but also pork and beef.
(Or both together in the ‘Trojan pig’ – a suckling pig stuffed with other meats.) Town houses usually have their own kitchens. There are different sized cauldrons for boiling things, while the ovens are beehive-shaped constructions of clay which are heated with wood or charcoal.
Wine is freely available, as are delicacies like dates imported from Africa and Palmyra. Try for instance dulcia domestica, a delicious dessert of pitted dates stuffed with dried fruit, nuts, cake crumbs and spices, all soaked in fruit juice or wine.
Also worth knowing is that the Romans like their food highly spiced, perhaps because, in a society with only rudimentary ideas of how to preserve food, a pungent taste disguises the fact that the food is past its best. Many dishes include the piquant fish sauce garum, which is generally imported from Spain or the Middle East.
Shopping, even in the capital of the world, is a rather hitand- miss affair. In addition to Rome’s impressive array of foodstuffs, there is much to be had in Rome. Specialist shops cater for particular needs, such as the perfume sellers on the Vicus Unguentarius. Many other goods are produced by specialist craftsmen who may follow their own idiosyncratic schedules. For example, wine can be purchased in quantities from a cupful in a caupona to a boatload at the emporium, but if you are after a particular type or vintage, you might have to wait until a shipment comes in. Most Romans develop relationships with tradesmen they deal with often, so strangers are at a disadvantage.
Where to shop
Ask a Roman about shopping, and she (shopping in Rome is generally done by women) will probably do a quick mental count up to nine. This is because the best variety and freshest foods are generally found at the nundinae, markets which are held every ninth day (which is why they have this name).
What to buy
Sadly the proud Roman coinage has become increasingly debased over the centuries, and older coins change hands at a premium.
To give you some idea of the economy, a Roman soldier gets an annual salary of 450 denarii, but various gifts, subsidies and bonuses besides.
A town house in a good area will set the buyer back about half a million denarii, and a pint of mediocre wine about a sestertius (around a quarter of a denarius). The price which everyone watches very carefully is that of grain. The Roman pleb is very dependent on grain (the average Roman consumes about two pounds of wheat bread per day), and displeasure at high prices is marked with riots and unrest. After a good harvest, expect to pay about 5 denarii for a modius of grain. A modius is close to 2 gallons, and will produce about 20 loaves of bread which, given that Roman loaves are about 1 pound each, adds up to exactly 10 days’ supply.
With clothing, you will pay about 15 denarii for a solid pair of boots or about 20 for a pair of fashionable ladies’ slippers. Cloth and clothing are relatively costly, since all fabric is hand-woven. In fact even aristocratic women may cut costs by getting their wool fresh from the sheep and spinning and weaving it themselves.
If cost is not an issue, those wanting to push the boat all the way out can spend over 100,000 denarii a pound for top quality, purple dyed silk, bearing in mind that half a dozen human beings or a pet lion might come for the same price.
However, no one in Rome knows where silk comes from. This mysterious cloth is imported from the East, from outside the boundaries of the empire. An inquisitive Syrian merchant called Maes Titanus followed the Silk Road back through Nabatea and Arabia through Parthia but finally gave up at the ‘stone tower’ in Central Asia (probably in modern Uzbekistan). The Romans do know of China. Chinese records speak of a visit from merchants from the emperor An’tun (probably Antonius or Marcus Aurelius), but trade between the two empires is done through intermediaries.
Spices and ivory are regularly imported from India, and even from the fabled island of Taprobane (Sri Lanka) where there has been a trade mission since the time of the emperor Hadrian. Cotton, pearls, ivory, cinnamon, pepper and frankincense: all are available at a price, though if you want the best, leave Trajan’s Market and go to the shops along the Via Sacra, the road leading into the Forum of the Romans. Walk gently, as this is probably the most expensive retail street in the world. For lower prices and more everyday commodities, try the Vicus Sandaliarius and other roads running parallel to the Via Sacra on the Esquiline side. The Argiletum is particularly good for books.
All so temtping! Can you make it in ancient Rome on five denarii a day? Well, that’s up to you, but at least now you’ll know where to spend your coins – and how.
Oh, but before you go, be sure to have these useful phrases to hand. Vade in pace.
Pecuniam mihi monstra Show me the money
Quantum est? How much is that?
Hoc est nimis! It’s too expensive!
Nonnullis desunt Some bits are missing
Pecuniam mihi redde Give me back my money
Pistrix rapaca Greedy shark
Utrum per diem an per horam? Is that by the day or by the hour?
IN THE BAR
Vinum bellum iucundumque est, sed animo corporeque caret It’s a nice little wine, but it lacks character and depth
Da mihi fermentum Give me a beer
Ad multos annos! Cheers!
Pace tuaWith your permission
Eheu! Mea culpa Oops! My fault
Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur Whatever is said in Latin sounds profound
Fortasse, haec olim meminisse nobis juvabit Perhaps we’ll look back at this one day and smile
O tempora, o mores! Oh the times, the morality!
Res Romae cognosco I know things about Rome
Vade in pace Go in peace
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 23. Click here to subscribe