Roman Society & Life

The Census

In the beginning was the census.

Every five years, each male Roman citizen had to register in Rome for the census. In this he had to declare his family, wife, children, slaves and riches. Should he fail to do this, his possessions would be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.

But registration meant freedom. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor’s list as a citizen (manumissio censu).

Throughout the entire republican era, registration in the census was the only way that a Roman could ensure that his identity and status as a citizen were recognized. Fathers registered their sons, employers their freedmen.

Primarily the census served to count the number of citizens and to assess the potential military strength and future tax revenue. Most important, the census transformed the city into a political and military community.

But the census performed a highly symbolical function. To the Romans the census made them more than a mere crowd, or barbarian rabble. It made them a populus, a people, capable of collective action.

To the Roman the census was one of the foundation stones of their civilization.

With the census itself being of such importance, the job of compiling the lists was not simply left to anonymous scribes. It was overseen by two censors. These were incorruptible and noble-blooded men of substance who were appointed for their proven integrity and authority.

It was their role to scrutinize each man, carefully evaluating his riches and his rank and placing him in his rightful place within the civic hierarchy of Rome.

In assessing the lower ranks of Roman society, little was taken into account but their material belongings. However, for the citizens of high position in the hierarchy were subjected to the most penetrating gaze of the censor.

And it was an uncomfortable thing indeed, to be inspected in such a way. For very much was at stake.

The censors, looking into a man’s public and private lives, might decide to move a citizen a few rungs down the social ladder if he had, for example, turned a blind eye to his wife’s adulteries, committed perjury, fathered no children, appeared on the stage (actors were seen with contempt by Roman society) or failed to cultivate his land properly.

The civilized City

The entire concept of Roman life seemed to center around the city, be this the city of Rome itself or any other town.

The countryside was a nice place to retire to for a while in order to stay in touch with nature. Yet it was seen as an unsuitable place for a true citizen. Romans were after all social creatures, which craved being part of a society.

The truly civilized citizen had to be more than educated or successful. No, in the Roman mind set it was necessary to belong. The Roman needed a community, a family, or at least a group of friends around him. No better place was there for this than the city.

And so if one was to look at Roman cities merely as hives of economic life where people settled merely to find jobs, entertainment and convenience one would only see part of the picture.

The idea of living of cities, like with the Greeks, was a cultural statement in itself. To them it represented an advancement from the mere existence as a peasant living off the land. One might say they saw themselves as a further step in the evolution of man.

For it was the barbarian tribes who still lived dispersed all over the countryside. In the Roman mind, cities formed its inhabitants into greater, abler, nobler beings.

No-one more so than the highborn Roman was a citizen. For, if he was expected to succeed against all odds in his political career, continuing the lineage of his forefathers, then this was only possible in the city. Only there could he ever hope to win office and match father’s achievements. Only there could he exercise his rights as a citizen.

Though to be a citizen also meant to prove oneself. A Roman was always subject to the gaze of his fellow citizens. And it was in their eyes that he was to show himself a worthy person, respectful to his parents, loyal to his patrons, able in raising his family and just towards his slaves.

just as the Roman craved society, so was he made to prove himself worthy of membership in it.

The City of Rome

If Romans lived in cities throughout the empire, then their greatest city, naturally, was the city of Rome itself.

Had it originally started as a small settlement on the Palatine Hill it had grown into the greatest city of the ancient world.

The Forum

In the earliest days of Rome the Forum was an uninhabited swamp, but soon the marshy plain at the bottom of the Palatine Hill was drained and the first paved streets, most of all the Via Sacra, were built. The Via Sacra, the oldest Roman street, was to remain most important street at the very heart of the city.

From these early beginnings the Forum changed several times, but it always remained the center of Roman life. In the early days political life was restricted to the comitium the northern corner of the Forum whilst the rest of the open square would be occupied by the market.

In the later days of the republic the shops and the market were largely moved to make way for a greater public meeting space, as well as for Caesar’s Forum. Caesar built his new Forum on one side of the Via Sacra and the Basilica Julia on the other.

Generally it was Caesar’s contribution which initiated the Forum’s greatest splendour. Every emperor in turn set out to add to the architectural glory of Rome’s centre.

With the growth of the empire and the increase in Rome’s population the old Forum became to small to cope with the sheer weight of numbers. In time other fora were added, the Forum of Caesar, of Augustus, of Vespasian, of Nerva and that of Trajan.

The people in the Forum varied considerably as the day went on. Life in the Forum reached its height at about 11 o’clock each day (the Roman ‘fifth hour’).

Wheeled vehicles were prohibited from driving through the streets of Rome from sunrise until the Roman ‘tenth hour’ (4 o’clock in the afternoon) This meant that during the daytime pedestrians alone made up the huge crowds which filled the streets and squares, except for some wealthy people, particularly women, being carried in litters by their slaves.

During these busy hours in the city centre there was a tremendous hustle and bustle in the Forum. Affairs of state were debated in the offices. In the basilica businessmen made deals, financiers discussed loans and the money-change’s had their stands, and stood jingling their money noisily in their hands to attract the attention of any potential customers.

Close to the courtrooms the baying of the spectators and the loud voices of the lawyers could be heard from quite a distance. In other places perhaps the loud screeching of a quarrel or a fight, about to break out could be heard. Sometimes, if a public figure had died, his funeral procession would lead through the Forum. Fathers would traditionally bring their sons to the Forum when their offspring wore his toga for the first time.

As the empire expanded the crowds on the Forum became yet bigger and more colourful. It appeared that nearly every nationality was present on the Forum in the days of empire. But the Romans were not very fond of such foreigners. Most despised of all were the Orientals. Eastern businessmen and scholars were the targets of a traditional Roman hatred of the eastern civilizations (one need only look at the Roman attitude toward Cleopatra and Mark Antony).

Nobles would move about on the Forum always followed by a group of clients, eager to please their patron and sure to see that he came to no harm. Many such nobles flaunted their wealth, adorned in costly clothes, expensive rings and having with them exotic pets.

And where there was such wealth, there was of course also many doubtful characters moving about, keen to reap the benefit of such riches.

Quacks, soothsayers and charlatans of all shapes and sizes were all around.

The Forum may have lain at the heart of the centre of Rome, but it was not the only place of public life. Other areas too were busy during the day.

Shops and Markets

With the growth of the Forum the old market had been forced to go elsewhere. With the Forum being the centre of Roman life the shops obviously clung to as closely as they could. And so the streets leading from the Forum boasted many shops. The Via Sacra itself had shops, but so did the streets leading out of the Forum, foremost the vicus iugarius, the vicus tuscus and the argiletum.

The vicus tuscus is said to have been the host of many spice shops. The argiletum was host to many bookshops and shoe shops.

To the east lay the poor man’s market of Rome in the quarter of the subura, no selling foods more suited to those with limited money, like simple vegetables and chickens.

To the south of the Forum lay the velabrum, the general market, the forum boarium and the forum cuppedinis, the market for luxury goods. These were huge markets, feeding the greatest city of the world.

The wealthy Romans might go shopping near the saeptia in the Campus Martius where the luxury shops could be found, selling amongst other things the most expensive slaves in Rome.

The Subura

But the wealthy would stay well clear of the district east of the Forum known as the subura. This was the poorer part of Rome, not merely housing the less fortunate, but also the many prostitutes of the city.

The narrow alleys were notoriously dangerous to any stranger, with many criminals waiting to rob the purse of a hapless stranger.

This is not to say that the subura was dangerous to all. There was indeed some distinguished patricians living there. Julius Caesar, for example, lived there, until he became pontifex maximus.

Though it was clear to all not be venture into certain parts of the subura, and particularly not to go there when darkness began to set.

The subura also had a large market, where the poor and the slaves who were in charge of households did their shopping. Vegetable stores were abound, barber shops, wool, merchants, blacksmiths, coppersmiths and other stores essential to daily life in Rome. Tough the atmosphere was very rough, and gangs controlled some of the streets.

All streets radiated from the centre of the city, leaving the forum they became broader and straighter, until at reaching the gates of Rome they led away to the rest of the empire in form of Roman roads.

A Roman’s Identity and Honour

It was to others that a Roman had to look for any confirmation of his ability and identity.

In Roman society confirmation by others was sought as well as required. Be they the elders of his family, his patron or his clients, army comrades, or even – in an election – the people of Rome; no Roman could be his own judge, but could see himself only through the eyes of others.

One needs also to consider that Romans didn’t know of modern day psychology and hence did not analyze their thoughts and feelings. They looked not inwards but to others to understand themselves. For it was the opinion of others which dictated the opinion a Roman ultimately held of himself.

‘A good man’ was hence a man deemed worthy by others, a man deemed honourable. But so too, in the Roman mind set honourable was only what was actually honoured. Glory or honour were also measured only in the recognition it drew from others.

Great, noble deeds might be done, but without people knowing of them there was no glory, no fame and no advantage to be gained from them.

And to Romans the only advantage to be gained from glory and honour was to use it to climb the social ladder. Any credit among one’s fellow men gained by one’s ability, either in office or on the battlefield, was immediately used to further one’s political fortunes; all in the hope of finally achieving that distant goal – a seat in the Roman senate.

Hence any achievement was blatantly bragged about to make absolutely sure everyone knew about it. And anyone too dignified to do the bragging oneself, simply found others who would do it for them.

And so in Rome, where nobility, military and political leadership were all intertwined, there would be no end of bragging, showing-off and a boundless supply of flattering rumours.

But in a society in which so much depended on the light in which others saw you, their view could not only elevate you, but so too it could destroy you.

Any news, be it good or bad, spread like wildfire in a society that spent much of the day gossiping in the public baths, or mingling at the forum. Graffiti was scribbled on walls, and in the inns drunken songs might ridicule the high and mighty. In the theatres actors would in their plays praise or deride public figures of the day.

And so Rome was a city of rumours, for the entertainment of the many and for the advancement of those whose worst fate could be, not to be talked about.


Nobility was not simply bestowed upon an individual. It was gradually built up or torn down by a family. ‘Three fathers’ was the duration required to establish a man’s noble status. The father, grandfather and great-grandfather had each to have exercised a higher magistracy. In other words, for a child to be noble, it was essential that he had been subject solely to the authority of relatives who were magistrates. Even the nobility of Octavian, whose great-grandfather had been a mere freedman, was called into question. It mattered little that a man’s family had been noble in the past, an interruption of the three generations was all it took to deprive him of his noble status.

The Client System

A client was a loyal supporter to a high-standing Roman family. The head of the higher family would be the patronus, the patron.

Clients acted as a kind of ‘clan’ to the patron. They supported him loyally in any venture, be it military or political. Meanwhile the patron would aid his clients, representing their political interests through the office he held, or even defending them in the courts as their lawyer, should it be necessary.

This bond between patron and client was one of the very foundations of Roman society. Fides, loyally, was a prized virtue, which held together families, as well as the social order through the client system.

Such Roman loyalty was felt not merely to particular men, but to their families. And so, should a patron die, his client would hence support his heir. Should the client die, his son would support the same patron. Some noble families could indeed count on the support of very many people, in the city of Rome, as well as in the countryside towns.

More so, even entire kingdoms could become clients to the very Roman commander who had conquered them.

And it is worth pointing out just how deep the Roman idea of fides ran. Titus Labienus had been a general of Julius Caesar’s throughout his conquest of Gaul. But, whatever friendship might have formed between Caesar and his loyal commander, once the civil war began between Caesar and Pompey, Labienus had to change sides. For he was from Picenum, a town which was a client of Pompey’s.

this goes to show that the client system could also be very much military in nature – at least during the days of the Roman republic.

A patron could raise an army, recruited from among his clients, if he had the means to maintain it. Or he could, should he desire, also create his own small force as a personal armed guard.

For this one needs to consider that, prior to the reign of Augustus, there was no such thing as a police force. A patron’s armed guard might therefore be used to protect the patron as well as his clients.

The client system truly formed the foundations of the Roman state. It created stability, as of course the unwavering loyalty of clients could keep families in power for centuries.

But so too did it create a kind of welfare network in a state which largely hadn’t the means to support the poor and deprived.

The client system surrounding a patron would look out for its individuals. They would act as a kind of police, making sure no harm came to their own, that nothing was stolen from them. should one be struck down by poverty, the other clients, – and so too most likely the patron, – would see to it that one would get a loan, a daughter might be provided with a dowry, or at least the group would see to it that the deceased would get a decent funeral.

If the patron might not always provide help personally, it would most often be he who orchestrated it, perhaps asking other clients to help out one of his supporters who had fallen upon hard times. But the wealth of most patrons of course allowed him to hand out money to those they deemed deserving of such aid.

And so, maintaining guards, organizing any help, defending people in the courts, even openly handing out money, it is no wonder that the patrons were seen as protectors of their group.

It was for the purpose of representing their clients in court in was that most sons of high-ranking families were trained in law. And should matters fail and one struggle to get a retrial, then a patron might always call on some of his clients to stage demonstrations outside the courthouse, making their ‘public’ outrage heard over such ‘miscarriages of justice’.

It remains to be said that the word patronus later became the Italian word padrino, the expression used to describe the godfather in the Mafia. And, on closer inspection, the Roman client system with its loyalty and solidarity does show many similarities to the Mafia. It is also telling that the Mafiosi refer to a common cause as ‘la cosa nostra’ (our cause) and regard themselves as family, ‘la familia’.

The Working Day

A Roman would usually get up early and work a six hour day.

This of course was only the case for working men. Women stayed at home. Even the task of queuing for the tokens which granted a family its monthly grain dole was done by the men of the house.

And so the many workers, traders and businessmen of the city, be they freemen or freedmen would work all morning, adding to the wild hustle and bustle of the their town or city.

Trade of all sorts naturally centered around Rome. Ostia was a hive of activity, where goods from overseas arrived and was loaded onto barges which carried them up the river to the great capital. All kinds of jobs would be at Ostia. From simple labourers who unloaded the ships, to bureaucrats who checked the arriving goods, wholesale tradesmen and warehouse managers.

The construction industry would also require enormous numbers. For in a time without building machines, it would be simple manpower which would shift earth or break stones.

Architects and engineers, surveyors, foremen, sculptors, stonemasons, carpenters, bricklayers and simple day labourers. All these were necessary to build not merely grand monuments, but also the apartment blocks to house the masses, or the residences of the rich.

The cities and towns contained markets of all kinds, shops, inns and taverns, all in turn consuming raw materials or requiring agricultural produce which needed to be brought in from the countryside.

Sons usually followed in the footsteps of their fathers, inheriting their profession and their business. The upper classes meanwhile found themselves restricted to a career in either the army, law or politics. Other professions were deemed to be too lowly for their kind.

And so many of the other ‘academic’ jobs such as architecture, medicine, surgery, dentistry, teaching and agricultural management were usually done by freedmen.

The fact that so few jobs were deemed acceptable to the upper classes meant that there was a large group of people who were effectively unproductive.

Not all of this group need necessarily have been aristocratic – some for example might be artists with little income, but they largely made their living as clients.

They would quite literally queue outside the house of their rich patron, dressed in their finest clothes, waiting to be given either money or food. Such were teh responsibilities of the patron that they, within reason, could be expect to be supported.

His ‘work’ done, the client would then be free to spend his day like any other Roman, heading for the forum or the markets, perhaps to read the daily news which would be hung up in public places. Or else he might take an early bath. For as the working day ended, the bathing began. The women just as much as the men would head for the public bath houses. Bathing was a social affair. Even the rich, who might have their own bath houses, would hardly do so alone, but invite friends to join them.

It was the way the Roman working day came to a close, before one would finally retire for dinner, cena.


Latium, the area around Rome, was initially an agricultural region. But the early influence of the Etruscans and the Greek colonies in Italy had inspired the creation of a local industry.

Pottery was introduced from Campania and the art of bronze-casting from Etruria.

Rome’s conquest of Italy didn’t stifle industry but encourage it. It may well have been that Roman law and order, as well as the political stability provided the reasons for trade to thrive.

Also Rome never used its authority to insist on goods from the capital be given any preference. Its dependent territories didn’t buy goods from Rome due to force, but because they chose to do so.

Gradually, as Rome extended its power and empire with conquests, the increasing population and demands for luxuries, as well as the construction of large public works caused many industries to flourish.

But Rome, although important as an industrial centre, was largely a city which consumed goods, rather than producing them.

Imports exceeded exports by far (with the exception of bronze goods which were exported all over the empire).

As the unrivalled metropolis, Rome achieved an absolute lead in in the production of luxury goods, particularly in articles of precious metals, such as jewelry and engraved cups.

Foreign craftsmen who migrated to the city, mostly Greeks, created refined masterpieces in their workshops.

Meanwhile the building trade naturally became far more developed in Rome than anywhere else.

Industry though flourished elsewhere. Genoa, Ostia and Ravenna were Rome’s major harbours, providing her with warships as well as benefiting from the rise in shipping trade.

Como, Sulmona, Salerno and Puteoli were centres of the iron industry which received great quantities of iron ore from the minors of Elba.

Campania grew rich not only on its fertile soil which grew, among other things, some of the best wines, but also for its industrial products. Bronzes from Capua, terra cotta ware from Puteoli, Cumae and Ischia, glass form Cumae, Sorento and Pompeii, liquamen from Pompeii. Apulia produced the finest wool.

Northern Italy supplied bronze articles from Bergamo, bricks from Modena and amphorae from Pola. So, too, did it boast a famous woollen industry at Istria, Padua and Parma and dye works at Aquileia. Aquileia was further also known for its cloth making and glass industry, as well as for its workshops for amber (sucinum) which was imported from as far away as the Baltic in northern Europe.

Industry benefited much from the existence of a large, almost limitless empire. Technical advances were helped by the unity of the empire which much helped the spread of new ideas. But so too, the policing of the seas and the construction of the famous Roman roads aided trade into the most distant countries.

And all the while the vast city of Rome and its massive standing army provided vast a demand for goods.

The rich eastern provinces sent to Rome rare and exotic goods, fashioned in their factories and workshops from materials from yet more far flung regions of the world. Silk from China, emeralds from Scythia, perfumes from Arabia, glass and papyrus from Egypt (Egypt was the oldest glass-producing country if the Mediterranean and hence had vast expertise in the matter, producing by far the finest glassware of the day).

In the western and northern provinces, too, industries were greatly developed, entering into competition with Italian producers. Spain already in the days of empire should produce some of the finest steel, but also provided fine wool and the highest quality liquamen.

Gaul became famous for its bronze work, shoes, and woollen industry. Noricum produced the finest weapons, the Rhine valley the best earthenware.


A famous line of Cicero, which very well describes the status of Roman women, reads as follows;

‘Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians.’

A woman’s guardian would inevitably be a man. Normally, it would be first the father and then her husband, but, in case of the early death of her father or husband, it could also be a male relative appointed in the man’s will or even by a state official.

Until the end of the Roman republic there were only the six vestal virgins who were free from such guardianship. Then, after the reign of Augustus, guardianship was no longer applied to women, whose father and husband had died and who had already borne three children (3 children for freeborn women, 4 for freedwomen).


If modern society frowns on the use of slavery, then what needs to be considered is that Rome followed in the footsteps of the ancient civilizations which had gone before it and who had all used slave labour. It was hence understood as quite a normal thing for the vanquished to be taken into slavery, or to purchase slaves from the barbarian realms.

If ancient Egypt had used slaves at least two and a half thousand years before the Romans, then also the Babylonians, Indians, Chinese, Persians and Greeks employed slavery as a normal part of their societies. And the fact that slavery continued in the west for as long as the nineteenth century on American plantations – and that in other parts of the world it still exists today – shows that Rome was merely one period in a truly long lasting tradition.

Questions could also be asked if many ’employed’ poor of 19th century Britain could perhaps be described as little more than slaves.

However, it can be said that the Romans, from roughly 200 BC onwards, based much of their society on the exploitation of slavery. Their economic systems became heavily dependent on the widespread existence of slave labour.


In the early days of the Roman republic, the education of children was completely in the hands of their parents.

Even as great and powerful men such as Cato the Elder or Aemilius Paulus took their time to personally teach their children basic skills like counting.

In a society so centered on the family, this was the natural thing to do.

If boys were largely taught by their fathers, then girls were taught by their mothers, which was consistent with the different roles they would play in later life. And, according to those separate roles, boys of landowning households (and therefore required to serve in the army) would also be introduced at an early age to some form of martial arts.

But with the growth of the empire in the third century BC the wealthier households gradually began to send their children to schools which employed educated Greek slaves as teachers.

Towards the end of the Roman republic, with the increased wealth of a part of Roman society education began to further improve, including also a form of higher education in subjects such as philosophy and oratory. The children of the wealthy went to primary school from about the age of seven. Such schools would usually be housed in a simple shop, with open access to the street. It would be run by one teacher and the children would sit on simple benches.

Their day would begin early in the morning and last roughly the middle of the afternoon, with a break in between for lunch. They would learn basic things such as reading, writing and arithmetic.

If this basic education was for both girls and boys, then at the age of twelve, education would stop for all girls and most boys. Those boys who seemed most promising – and whose parents could afford more schooling – would now continue on being trained until they reached manhood and received their toga virilis. Their education now would largely center on Greek and Latin literature.

This level of education was by now far removed from the early republican Romans to whom the basic skills of reading, writing and counting seemed enough.

There seems to be little evidence that corporal punishment was any more frequent or severe than it was in many western schools well into the twentieth century.

The school year begun in March after the Quinquatrus, a holiday in honour of Minerva. There were holidays on festive days and every ninth day (nundinae). There is no proof for the existence of summer holidays, but historians assume that some such period will have existed.

The languages of Greece and Rome were taught in the school of the grammaticus (or in the case of rich households by a grammaticus visiting the house). Poetry was particularly studied, and some attention was given to the fundamentals of history, geography, physics and astronomy (at least such necessary to understand the poetic texts).

It is in this function that the grammatici in Rome, who were largely Greek, decided much of the fate of Roman literature. For it was to a large extent their choices of texts which influenced the later taste and literary tradition of Rome. Texts, however refined, which were not read in schools and were therefore not in demand went out of circulation and did not survive

The use of Greek became widespread in the Roman world through such education, particularly in aristocratic families. Even plays were written which required from their audience that it understood at least some of it. Even many women of noble households, despite their inferior education, understood Greek.

Rhetoric, a subject hard to imagine being widespread at modern day schools, was introduced to Roman schools early on. It appeared to have originated in Sicily as early as the fifth century BC and was further developed by the Greeks of Athens and Asia Minor (Turkey).

Within rhetoric itself, there was three defined subjects; the pure art form itself, to be learned as any other art to broaden the mind of the individual; persuasion, the ability to win an audience over to one’s point of view; and legal oratory, the ability to act as an effective speaker in a court of law.

If rhetoric was taught from the early days of the republic onwards, then by the first century AD there was special schools which could cater for the more advanced pupils.

The basic schools did introduce children into the traditional Roman faith, adding further to the moral values which children would be given at home. But the older boys would also be introduced into the basics of Greek philosophy. This led to the upper classes finding alternative, more sophisticated world views than merely old superstitions and the Roman state religion. And so Greek philosophy and art established itself at the very heart of Roman identity. And the wealthy were eager to expose their offspring to the sophistication of Greece. Cicero in his youth listened to lectures given by great Greek philosophers like Phaedrus the Epicurean and Philo of Larissa. Horace as a young man studied in Athens, being exposed to the various branches of Greek philosophy.


Roman ingenuity of solving problems of all sorts was not only to apply itself to engineering and architecture, but also to the mundane matter of clothing.

Food and Drink

What must be considered when trying to paint a picture of Roman cookery, is that many basic foodstuffs known to us in the modern western world, were simply not available to the Romans.

The Romans had no coffee, tea, sugar, liqueurs, truffles, potatoes, French beans, or even tomatoes.

As the Romans had no sugar, sweets were made with honey or must (grape-juice).

The use of bread seems to have become general only at the beginning of the second century BC. Previous to this grain was used as puls, a mashed up form of corn gruel.

Olives and olive oil, as still with Mediterranean countries today, stood in high esteem.

The most widespread vegetables were broad beans, lentils and chick peas, lettuces, cabbages and leeks.

The available fruits at first were apples, pears, wild cherries, plums, grapes, walnuts, almonds and chestnuts. Also dates, imported from north Africa, were widely available. But time gradually introduced the Romans to new produce. The art of cultivating cherry trees found its way to Italy, from the eastern kingdom of Pontus after the Mithridatic wars. From Armenia the apricot was brought back home. Also from the east came citrus fruits. But they arrived rather late, by the fourth century AD.

The beverage of the Roman world, as with the Greeks, was wine. It was more than a mere drink, but a sign of civilization. For beer, though known, was seen as fit for barbarians.

Wine would also be mixed with honey to a refreshing aperitif called mulsum.

The best wines, such as Caecuban, Setian, Massic or Falernian, came from the border regions between Latium and Campania

The Army

Apart from at the banquets of the rich, meat was rarely a part of the Roman diet.

The diet of the Roman army, shows us much about the Roman ideas of nutrition. The Roman word for wheat is frumentum. And it was the same word which eventually came to describe army rations itself. Generally the army ration consisted of little else than wheat. The soldiers themselves then ground the grain they were given and made it into things such as porridge or bread.

Whenever possible the monotonous army diet was naturally supplemented with whatever came to hand. Pork, fish, chicken, cheese, fruit or vegetables. But the basic ration of frumentum always formed the basis of the diet. So much so, that if in times of supply difficulties the grain would fail to reach the troops and instead other foodstuffs (even meat !) were handed out, there would be discontent among the ranks.

Naturally the officers of the army enjoyed a more versatile diet. Archaeologists working along Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain discovered records for the household of a commander of a fort from around AD 100. These records listed choice cuts of pork, even piglet, chicken, venison, anchovies, oysters, eggs, radishes, apples, lentils, beans, lard and butter.

The Poor

The poor in the city of Rome largely depended on the corn dole to supply them with grain. During the From 122 BC onward a grain ration was available to the Roman poor at half price, having already previously been sold at a reduced market price, subsidized by the state. In 58 BC it became completely free. The in AD 274 emperor added small rations of pork, oil and salt to the meager dole.

The country poor will no doubt have had a healthier diet, than their urban counterparts. They will have lived from what the harvest and the animals of the farms they worked on provided them with, and what they could find in the wild. For instance, Romans, just as modern day Italians, were very fond of mushrooms.

The Wealthy

The cuisine of a culture is largely defined, still today, by those who possess the wealth to eat what they fancy, rather than what they can afford. And the Romans were of course no exception.

The day began with jentaculum (breakfast). This might consist of pieces of bread dipped into a dish of wine, or with some cheese, with dried fruit, or honey.

Lunch was called prandium. It was usually a light meal. Perhaps made up of what was left of the previous day. Dinner, cena, was the main meal of the day. It would begin toward late afternoon, perhaps after one had enjoyed a bath. Starting early, it could last for hours.

The dinner parties of the wealthy were elaborate, at times gluttonous affairs.

Rather than sit, the Roman dinner guest reclined on his left elbow, picking the food off the table with his fingers.

The dinner was made up of three main courses, which could in turn consist of any number of dishes.

The first course, the starter, coudl consist of eggs prepared in many different ways. So too could it be a selection of salads, vegetables, shellfish, snails or – a Roman delicacy – roasted, stuffed dormice.

A rich host might well present his guests not with any particular of these starters, but with a selection of all of them.

As for the main course, this would invariably consist of some meat dish. Once more, depending on the host’s wealth it could be a whole range of dishes. Many dinner parties given by Roman grandees were meant to impress the guests. And so meats might not merely restrict themselves to beef, lamb and pork – or fish. But almost any kind of animal might be pressed into service at the rich man’s dinner table. Veal, sucking pig, boar, venison, hare, wild goat, kid, porpoise, bream, hake, mackerel, mullet, oysters, sole, chicken, duck, goose, partridge, thrush, turtle dove, even crane, flamingo and ostrich !

The dinner party would end with a dessert such as fruit, cake or pudding.

When at their villa in the country, a place the rich liked to retire to once in a while, meals naturally would be somewhat simpler and more rustic. As a starter asparagus, – most likely grown especially for the master at his farm, as they were rare, – together with fresh eggs. As a main course there could be chicken and tender milk-fed kid. Finally, for dessert pears, grapes and apples.


If the rich host’s ambition with exotic meats was to impress, then the sauces which were served with all these dishes tended to be the same, and their strong taste invariably made all teh dishes taste much the same. These sauces, although sounding rather gruesome today, in fact formed much of the basis of Roman cuisine. The main such sauce was liquamen, a intense fish sauce produced in factories. Other sauces, derived from liquamen, added variety. These were most of all garum, but also oxugarum, muria, allec.

The means of producing liquamen are known to us. Fish entrails, mixed with finely chopped fish, or small whole fish, were pounded and stirred into a mix. This was then placed in the sun and was frequently stirred until it fermented. With evaporation of much of the water during the fermentation process, the thick sauce left behind was liquamen.

Though this liquamen could be further separated. A basket could be placed into the vessel containing the liquamen. The liquid which filtered into the basked was garum, whereas that which stayed in the pot was allec.

Garum was the most sought after and hence most expensive sauce. But Rome’s wealth allowed for a large demand of all these fish sauces, and hence production of it was found in distant places. For example, records suggest that the finest garum was that imported from Spain. Though considering its production process, one must assume, that to us today it would be a most nauseating concoction.

Holidays and the Games

The Roman working day, when compared to that of modern life, was short. But there was also a staggering number of public holidays. Under emperor Claudius for example the Roman year had 159 public holidays. Roman festivals and games emerged from their once humble agricultural origins to celebrations of empire and the shows which were held on most of them became the stuff of legends, the gladiatorial combats in particular and of course, so too, the chariot races.

The Family

In the Roman world, the family would include everyone within a certain household. the father of the family, the paterfamilias, the wife (unless she had arranged a marriage by which she still remained a warden of her father), the children and the slaves of the household.

If the family centered on the paterfamilias and his genius (the spirit of the father’s life force, with which he creates the next generations), then it was indeed the oldest living father who ruled over his family, independent from how many generations had followed his own. And so it could be that a great-grandfather held sway over a family. The adult fathers and grandfathers would still be subject to their paterfamilias. And it could therefore well be that they all lived under the same roof. At the death of great-grandfather, each grandfather would then split off with his own wife, descendants and slaves to become a paterfamilias himself.

The authority of the paterfamilias was such that in effect only his word counted. In theory an adult son could not enter into any form of contract without agreement of his father. In practice however, it would generally be so that the sons, once matured were granted their independence by their father.

After all, it would have been impossible for any young man to pursue a political career, if he was still entirely bound to the authority of his father.

If many modern people might imagine that these large families would live all under one roof only due to poverty, then that perception would be wrong. For also rich families are said to have lived this way. It was simply an essential part of the Roman way of life to live surrounded by one’s family.

If the amount of six generations, the best a Roman could practically hope ever to know in his life time, was called the parentes, then the parentalia was a festival dedicated especially to those deceased family members whom any of the living members still remembered. And so if the parentalia is generally referred to as the ‘festival of the dead’, this is not precisely correct, as it wasn’t held in honour of all the ancestors (majores) but purely for those of the parentes whom the living had once known.

The Gens

Romans, apart from belonging to a family would also belong to a gens, which is perhaps best describe as a clan. This wider concept of relation appeared in one’s name. So one might for example belong to the Fabii, or to express this differently, one might belong to the Fabia gens.

In some cases a further surname might be added to differentiate a specially distinguished family from other members of that gens. So for example the Cornelii Scipiones, who were part of the Cornelia gens.

It is the gens which make us speak of the Julian or Flavian emperors and the other such dynasties.

There was no nobility to be gained from being part of a gens. Nobility was established in Rome by the holding of high offices over generations, not by being born to a particular gens. And since Roman society was a mobile structure, where people could receive names not only by birth but also by adoption or enfranchisement the gens was largely meaningless.

Although there was some ties to the gens. If a Roman died without any heir, not even a distant, six-degree relative, then his money would be left to the gens.

Also some of these gens had rites particular only to them. The Fabii would each year perform a ceremony on the Quirinal Hill. Notably, this ritual was even performed when the Gauls were famously besieging Rome’s Capitoline Hill.


By all accounts Roman marriages appeared mostly a rather cold affair. Love had nothing to do with it. Nor did fidelity in the modern sense of the word. Procreation was what counted. Meanwhile Roman men would go to all kind of lengths to prove that they weren’t hen-pecked, while their wives hungered for the slightest bit of affection.

Funeral Rites

The Roman sense of family life applied also to a person’s death. Ideally members of the family were to be present when a Roman died. On the point of death he was picked up and laid down on the bare earth and one of his closest relations would catch his last breath with a kiss, before closing his eyes.

When he had died, those present would preform the so-called conclamatio, calling the dead man loudly by name. (This tradition survives until this day at the death of a pope, when the dead pontiff is called three times by his Christian name).

Next began the preparation of the body. The women of the house, or men trained for the job (pollinctores), washed the body with water, anointed and embalmed it. a small coin was placed under the deceased’s tongue, for him to pay Charon with on his journey to the underworld. The dead man was then dressed in his best clothes and was displayed in the atrium of the house.

The length of time for which a body was displayed depended largely on his position. A poor man would usually be buried the same day he died, whereas the emperors were on display for up to a week.

The corpse was alas either buried or cremated after the funeral ceremony (funus). Cremation eventually became the more widely used practice, with burial being merely for the poor.

Funerals of the poor and of children were generally carried out by night, to attract least attention. Meanwhile the funerals of nobles and public figures were performed during the day with great pomp and ceremony.

Such funerals tended to be announced publicly in advance by heralds.

The funeral procession, was preceded by pipers and musicians playing various instruments, next came torch bearers and the praeficae, hired women who wailed and cried in grief (this tradition of hiring mourners continues in some countries today).

Such processions were by no means necessarily very somber affairs. Dancers and clowns might even be part of the procession. More so, jokes would be made at the dead man’s expense and onlookers might even jeer and shout abuse.

Part of the procession were also masked people, playing the part of the dead man’s ancestors. So, if, for example, several ancestors had been consuls, than the same number of masked figures would be dressed in the insignia of consuls as part of the funeral procession. In early Rome these representatives of ancestors were carried aloft lying on a stretcher of sorts. Later though (already from about 200 BC), they would travel in chariots.

Next in the procession came men dressed in black bearing the fasces, the little figurines representing the spirits of the ancestors. Alas followed the body being carried aloft in a coffin or on a stretcher.

If the dead man had been a public figure, the procession would cross through the forum, where it halted and the dead man’s son would hold a funeral speech.

The eventual last rites had to be performed outside the city limits. This dated back to the ancient Laws of the Twelve Tables, which stated that no cremations or burial were to take place within the city of Rome.

The simplest form of cremation was to dig a trench in the ground, which then would be filled with wood, before the corpse was placed on top and all was set alight. In this form of cremation the hole was then closed again, burying the ashes in the ground.

But more commonplace was the building of a pyre upon which the body was placed. Objects which belonged to the dead man, or such which he held very dear might be placed with him.

An ancient custom also required that the dead man’s eyes should be opened one last time before being closed again and that he should receive one last kiss.

A relative or friend (or, in the case of an emperor, a high ranking state official) would then set the pyre alight.

Once the pyre had burnt down the glowing ashes would be put out with wine and a relative would collect the bones and place them in an urn. The urn might alas be placed in a niche memorial (columbarium) with an inscription or even a bust, or, in case of rich and powerful families, the urn might be placed in a family monument or mausoleum.

It is worth pointing out that almost all funerals were entrusted to undertakers, even those of the poor. It was a very lucrative profession, but so despised, that undertakers were only allowed lesser civil rights than normal citizens. Undertakers employed a number of people, the pollinctores, who washed, anointed and embalmed the body, the vespillones who placed the corpse in the coffin and carried it to the grave or pyre (if no relatives were there to do this) and the dissignatores who arranged and directed the funeral procession.

The Roman House

One distinct difference between the civilized Roman world and the barbarians was their housing. Whereas barbarians lived in primitive huts, Rome took to housing its people in sophisticated brick-built houses, not so different from what people live in today.

Roman Addresses

In today’s world we are simply used to street names and house numbers. It’s a simple and effective system, but it was not used by the Romans. In small towns, this might not have posed very big problems to a stranger visiting a person and seeking his house. People would know and could easily direct him. But in the large cities, most of all in Rome itself, finding people could be a serious problem.

In Rome some major streets had names, but most didn’t. Hence Romans simply described where we state a house number. People would state that they lived near certain landmarks. These could be statues, major roads, public baths, temples, gardens, even particular trees. Sometimes nameless streets would be described by what points they connected, and were referred to as ‘the road to….’.

And even where streets had names, further descriptions were necessary in order to guide a visitor or delivery man to the house.

If a public figure lived nearby, of whom many people would know his house, then this would used to help describe the addresses of his neighbours.

In practice a person’s house or flat could only be found by asking one’s way.

All in all, the knowledge of the Romans’ lack of definite addresses helps paint a picture of the organized chaos that was the city of Rome.