By Tim Lambert
At its height, the population of the city of Rome was probably over one million. However, the Roman Empire was an agricultural society where most people made their living from farming (although there were many craftsmen). Only a small minority of the population lived in towns.
In the Roman Empire there were two types of people – citizens and non-citizens. Roman citizens had certain privileges. From 89 BC all inhabitants of Italy were made Roman citizens. In 212 AD century, all free people in the Roman Empire were made citizens. (Women had a kind of limited Roman citizenship. They could not vote or hold public office).
In Rome, the upper class were called patricians. The Senators who ruled Rome came from patrician families. Below them were the equites. They were merchants and bankers and sometimes civil servants or army officers. All other free people were called plebeians. Many inhabitants of Rome were very poor. Often they had to live off a ‘dole’ of free grain provided by the government.
Many of the inhabitants of Rome were slaves. Prisoners of war were made slaves and any children slaves had were automatically slaves. Most slaves were probably treated reasonably just to keep them working efficiently. Slaves who worked in mines probably suffered most. Some slaves did manage to save enough money to buy their freedom. Others were granted their freedom by their owners.
In Ancient Rome women could not vote or hold public office. However, women were allowed to own and inherit property and some ran businesses. (In the Bible there is a woman named Lydia who sold purple cloth). In certain trades, some women helped their husbands, especially in silver working and perfumery. Furthermore, some women were priestesses or worked as midwives or hairdressers. Some women were gladiators. However, in the Roman Empire, most jobs were done by men.
Most women were fully occupied with looking after children and doing tasks like spinning wool for the family. Rich women had more freedom, especially if they were widows. Roman women could also divorce their husbands.
In Rome, poor people lived in blocks of flats called insulae. Most were at least five stories high. However they were often badly built, and their walls sometimes cracked and roofs caved in.
Most people lived in just one or two rooms. Furniture was very basic. Rooms were heated by charcoal burned in braziers. The inhabitants used public lavatories. Most obtained water from public fountains and troughs.
It was too dangerous for the inhabitants of insulae to cook indoors and they had to buy hot food from shops. In the center of every Roman town was a rectangular space called the Forum. It was lined by shops and by a public building called the basilica. Markets were also held on the forum.
Roman men wore tunics. Roman citizens wore a semi-circular piece of cloth called a toga. It was folded over one shoulder. men wore white togas made of wool or linen. Senators wore a toga with a purple stripe as a mark of their rank. Women wore long dresses called a stola, dyed different colors. Often they wore a long shawl called a palla.
Ordinary Romans wore clothes of wool or linen but the rich could afford cotton and silk. Roman clothes were held with pins and brooches. Both men and women wore wigs and false teeth.
In the towns, another important building was the public baths. In Roman times people went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize. Roman Baths consisted of a frigidarium or cold room, a tepidarium or warm room, and a caldarium or hot room. You usually finished with a dip in a cold pool. To clean themselves Romans rubbed their skin with oil and scraped it off with a tool called a strigil.
Larger towns also had an amphitheater where ‘sports’ such as cockfighting were held and sometimes gladiators fought to the death. Some Roman towns also had a theater.
In Rome, there was a great amphitheater called the Coliseum. It was built in 80 AD and could hold as many as 55,000 people. A sunshade or velarium could be unfurled over the heads of the spectators.
The people of Rome were also very fond of chariot racing. There were four teams, greens, blues, reds, and whites. Their supporters often gambled on the outcomes of races treated the charioteers as heroes. However, being a charioteer was dangerous and often ended in early death.
The Romans gambled with dice. They also played board games. Roman children played with wooden or clay dolls and hoops. And they played ball games and board games. Children played with toy carts and with animal knucklebones.
Life for Rich People in Rome
Rich people enjoyed luxuries such as mosaics and (in colder parts of the empire) panes of glass in windows and even a form of central heating called a hypocaust. Wealthy Romans also had wall paintings called murals in their houses. The wealthy owned very comfortable furniture. It was upholstered and finely carved. People ate while reclining on couches. Oil lamps were used for light.
Furthermore, some people had a piped water supply. Water was brought into towns in aqueducts that went along lead pipes to wealthy individual houses.
Many wealthy Romans owned large estates in the countryside called villas. They were usually arranged to be self-sufficient. As well as farmworkers there were craftsmen like a blacksmith, a carpenter, and a potter. (Both farm laborers and craftsmen could be slaves). If the owner of the villa was absent a man called a villicus and his wife the villica ran the villa.
A Roman dining room was called a triclinium. The Romans ate a breakfast of bread and fruit called the ientaculum. At midday, they ate a meal called the prandium of fish, cold meat, bread, and vegetables. The main meal was called the cena and was eaten in the evening. The Romans were also very fond of fish sauce called liquamen. They also liked oysters, which were exported from Britain.
The sons and daughters of better-off Romans went to a primary school called a Ludus at the age of 7 to learn to read and write and do simple arithmetic. At 12 or 13 boys went to secondary school where they would learn geometry, history, literature, and oratory (the art of public speaking).
Teachers were often Greek slaves. The teachers were very strict and they frequently beat the pupils. Boys and girls from rich Roman families were educated at home by a tutor. Children wrote on wax tablets with a pointed bone stylus. (Adults wrote on a form of paper called papyrus, which was made from the papyrus plant).
The Romans are also famous for the network of roads they built across the Empire. Rich people traveled by horse or on long journeys by covered wagon. Sometimes they were carried in litters (seats between two long poles).
Roman ships had a single main mast, which carried a rectangular sail, although some ships also had small sails at the bow and stern. Roman ships did not have rudders. Instead, they were steered by oars. The Romans also built lighthouses to aid shipping.
In the first century, the Roman legionary wore segmented armor (lorica segmentata). He threw a spear called a pilum and fought with a short sword called a gladius. A curved rectangular shield protected him. There were also auxiliary soldiers, both infantry and cavalry. When they finished their service (after 25 years) they became Roman citizens.
When they were on the move Roman soldiers marched at a steady pace. They covered 30 km a day. At the end of each day, they built a camp. They dug a ditch and used the earth to make a rampart. An army on the move carried wooden stakes, which were erected on the rampart. The soldiers slept in tents.
Roman soldiers also formed a formation called a testudo (the Latin word for tortoise). They held their shields over their heads to form an interlocking ‘roof’. (Soldiers at the front held their shields in front of them to form a ‘wall’). The testudo protected soldiers from arrows and javelins.
For sieges, the Roman army also had large wooden catapults and giant crossbows called ballista. When an area was newly conquered legionaries built roads and bridges. Legionaries also manned permanent stone forts along the frontiers of the empire.
The Romans were polytheists. They worshiped many gods. Jupiter was king of the gods. His wife Juno was the goddess of women and marriage. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom and crafts. Mars was the god of war and Mercury was the messenger of the gods. Neptune was the god of the sea and Bacchus was the god of wine. Diana was the goddess of the Moon and of hunting. Ceres was the goddess of crops. Saturn was the god of farming. Venus was the goddess of love and beauty and Vulcan was the god of blacksmiths. Pluto was the god of the underworld, where the dead dwelt.
The Romans believed it was important to keep the gods happy. To do this sacrifices were made outside the god’s temple. Houses usually had a shrine called a lararium where the family made offerings of food and wine to the gods who, they believed, protected their household. Children were also given a charm called a bulla to protect them from evil.
The Romans were usually tolerant in religion but they sometimes persecuted Christians. The Romans also introduced religions from the East. By the 3rd century, Mithraism was popular. It involved the worship of the Persian god Mithras, the god of light and the sun.
In the late 1st and 2nd centuries the Romans practiced cremation. However, in the 3rd century, they began to bury the dead. Citizens were buried in cemeteries outside the walls.
Persecution of Christians ended in 312 when Constantine converted to the new faith. In 395 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The Romans conquered Greece and afterward, doctors in the Roman Empire were often Greeks. Many of them were slaves. Doctors had low status in Rome. However, the state paid public doctors to treat the poor. The Romans also had hospitals called valetudinaria for their wounded soldiers.
Later in Roman times, Galen (130-200 AD) became a famous doctor. At first, he worked treating wounded gladiators. Then in 169 AD, he was made a doctor to Commodus, the Roman Emperor’s son. Galen was also a writer and he wrote many books.
Galen believed in the theory of the four humors. He also believed in treating illness with opposites. So if a patient had a cold Galen gave him something hot like pepper. Galen was also interested in anatomy. Unfortunately by his time dissecting human bodies was forbidden. So Galen had to dissect animal bodies including apes. However, animal bodies are not the same as human bodies and so some of Galen’s ideas were quite wrong. Unfortunately, Galen was a very influential writer. For centuries his writings dominated medicine.
In the first century BC, a Roman named Varro suggested that tiny animals caused disease. They were carried through the air and entered the body through the nose or the mouth. Unfortunately with no microscopes, there was no way of testing his theory.
The Romans were also skilled engineers and they created a system of public health. The Romans noticed that people who lived near swamps often died of malaria. They did not know that mosquitoes in the swamps carried disease but they drained the swamps anyway.
The Romans also knew that dirt encourages disease and they appreciated the importance of cleanliness. They built aqueducts to bring clean water into towns. They also knew that sewage encourages disease. The Romans built public lavatories in their towns. Streams running underneath them carried away sewage.
Last revised 2023