Social Life During the Roman Republic


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Before giving some account of the way in which a Roman of consideration spent his day in the time of Cicero, it seems necessary to explain briefly how he reckoned the divisions of the day.

The old Latin farmer knew nothing of hours or clocks. He simply went about his daily work with the sun and the light as guides, rising at or before sunrise, working till noon, and, after a meal and a rest, resuming his work till sunset. This simple method of reckoning would suffice in a sunny climate, even when life and business became more complicated; and it is a fact that the division of the day into hours was not known at Rome until the introduction of the sun-dial in 263 B.C.[407] We may well find it hard to understand how such business as the meeting of the senate, of the comitia, or the exercitus, could have been fixed to particular times under such circumstances; perhaps the best way of explaining it is by noting that the Romans were very early in their habits, and that sunrise is a point of time about which there can be no mistake[408]. But in any case the date of the introduction of the sun-dial, which almost exactly corresponds with the beginning of the Punic wars and the vast increase of civil business arising out of them, may suggest at once the primitive condition of the old Roman mind and habit, and the way in which the Romans had to learn from other peoples how to save and arrange the time that was beginning to be so precious.

This first sun-dial came from Catina in Sicily, and was therefore quite unsuited to indicate the hours at Rome. Nevertheless Rome contrived to do with it until nearly a century had elapsed; at last, in 159 B.C., a dial calculated on the latitude of Rome was placed by the side of it by the censor Q. Marcius Philippus. These two dials were fixed on pillars behind the Rostra in the Forum, the most convenient place for regulating public business, and there they remained even in the time of Cicero[409]. But in the censorship next following that of Philippus the first water-clock was introduced; this indicated the hours both of day and night, and enabled every one to mark the exact time even on cloudy days[410].

Thus from the time of the Punic wars the city population reckoned time by hours, i.e. twelve divisions of the day; but as they continued to reckon the day from sunrise to sunset on the principle of the old agricultural practice, these twelve hours varied in length at different times of the year. In mid-winter the hours were only about forty-four minutes in length, while at mid-summer they were about seventy-five, and they corresponded with ours only at the two equinoxes.[411] This, of course, made the construction of accurate dials and water-clocks a matter of considerable difficulty. It is not necessary here to explain how the difficulties were overcome; the reader may be referred to the article "Horologium" in the Dictionary of Antiquities, and especially to the cuts there given of the dial found at Tusculum in 1761.[412]

Sun-dials, once introduced with the proper reckoning for latitude, soon came into general use, and a considerable number still survive which have been found in Rome. In a fragment of a comedy by an unknown author, ascribed to the last century B.C., Rome is described as "full of sun-dials,"[413] and many have been discovered in other Roman towns, including several at Pompeii. But for the ordinary Roman, who possessed no sun-dial or was not within reach of one, the day fell into four convenient divisions, as with us it falls into three,--morning, afternoon, and evening. As they rose much earlier than we do, the hours up to noon were divided into two parts: (1) mane, or morning, which lasted from sunrise to the beginning of the third hour, and (2) ad meridiem, or forenoon; then followed de meridie, i.e. afternoon, and suprema, from about the ninth or tenth hour till sunset. The authority for these handy divisions is Censorinus, De die natali (23. 9, 24. 3). There seems to be no doubt that they originated in the management of civil business, and especially in that of the praetor's court, which normally began at the third hour, i.e. the beginning of ad meridiem, and went on till the suprema (tempestas diei), which originally meant sunset, but by a lex Plaetoria was extended to include the hour or two before dark.

The first thing to note in studying the daily life at Rome is that the Romans, like the Greeks, were busy much earlier in the morning than we are. In part this was the result of their comfortable southern climate, where the nights are never so long as with us, and where the early mornings are not so chilly and damp in summer or so cold in winter. But it was probably still more the effect of the very imperfect lighting of houses, which made it difficult to carry on work, especially reading and writing, after dark, and suggested early retirement to bed and early rising in the morning. The streets, we must remember, were not lighted except on great occasions, and it was not till late in Roman history that public places and entertainments could be frequented after dark. In early times the oil-lamp with a wick was unknown, and private houses were lighted by torches and rude candles of wax or tallow.[414] The introduction of the use of olive oil, which was first imported from Greece and the East and then produced in Italy, brought with it the manufacture of lamps of various kinds, great and small; and as the cultivation of the valuable tree, so easily grown in Italy, increased in the last century B.C.,[415] the oil-lamp became universal in houses, baths, etc. Even in the small old baths of Pompeii there were found about a thousand lamps, obviously used for illumination after dark.[416] But in spite of this and of the invention of candelabra for extending the use of candles, it was never possible for the Roman to turn night into day as we do in our modern town-life. We must look on the lighting of the streets as quite an exceptional event. This happened, for example, on the night of the famous fifth of December 63 B.C., when Cicero returned to his house after the execution of the conspirators; people placed lamps and torches at their doors, and women showed lights from the roofs of the houses.

An industrious man, especially in winter, when this want of artificial light made time most valuable, would often begin his work before daylight; he might have a speech to prepare for the senate, or a brief for a trial, or letters to write, and, as we shall see, as soon as the sun had well risen it was not likely that he would be altogether his own master. Thus we find Cicero on a February morning writing to his brother before sunrise,[417] and it is not unlikely that the soreness of the eyes of which he sometimes complains may have been the result of reading and writing before the light was good. In his country villas he could do as he liked, but at Rome he knew that he would have the "turba salutantium" upon him as soon as the sun had risen. Cicero is the only man of his own time of whose habits we know much, but in the next generation Horace describes himself as calling for pen and paper before daylight, and later on that insatiable student the elder Pliny would work for hours before daylight, and then go to the Emperor Vespasian, who was also a very early riser.[418] After sunrise the whole population was astir; boys were on their way to school, and artisans to their labour.

If Horace is not exaggerating when he says (Sat. i. 1. 10) that the barrister might be disturbed by a client at cock-crow, Cicero's studies may have been interrupted even before the crowds came; but this could hardly happen often. As a rule it was during the first two hours (mane) that callers collected. In the old times it had been the custom to open your house and begin your business at daybreak, and after saluting your familia and asking a blessing of the household gods, to attend to your own affairs and those of your clients.[419] Although we are not told so explicitly, we must suppose that the same practice held good in Cicero's time; under the Empire it is familiar to all readers of Seneca or Martial, but in a form which was open to much criticism and satire. The client of the Empire was a degraded being; of the client in the last age of the Republic we only know that he existed, and could be useful to his patronus in many ways,--in elections and trials especially;[420] but we do not hear of his pressing himself on the attention of his patron every morning, or receiving any "sportula." All the same, the number of persons, whether clients in this sense or in the legal sense, or messengers, men of business, and ordinary callers, who would want to see a man like Cicero before he left his house in the morning, would beyond doubt be considerable. Otherwise they would have to catch him in the street or Forum; and though occasionally a man of note might purposely walk in public in order to give his clients their chance, Cicero makes it plain that this was not his way.[421]

Within these two first hours of daylight the busy man had to find time for a morning meal; the idle man, who slept later, might postpone it. This early breakfast, called _ientaculum_[422], answered to the "coffee and roll" which is usual at the present day in all European countries except our own, and which is fully capable of supporting even a hard-working man for several hours. It is, indeed, quite possible to do work before this breakfast; Antiochus, the great doctor, is said by Galen to have visited such of his patients as lived near him before his breakfast and on foot[423]. But as a rule the meal was taken before a busy man went out to his work, and consisted of bread, either dipped in wine or eaten with honey, olives, or cheese. The breakfast of Antiochus consisted, for example, of bread and Attic honey.

The meal over, the man of politics or business would leave his house, outside which his clients and friends or other hangers-on would be waiting for him, and proceed to the Forum,--the centre, as we have seen, of all his activity--accompanied by these people in a kind of procession. Some would go before to make room for him, while others followed him; if bent on election business, he would have experienced helpers,[424] either volunteers or in his pay, to save him from making blunders as to names and personalities, and in fact to serve him in conducting himself towards the populace with the indispensable blanditia.[425] Every Roman of importance liked to have, and usually had, a train of followers or friends in descending to the Forum of a morning from his house, or in going about other public business; what

  1. Cicero urges on his brother in canvassing for the consulship may hold good in principle for all the public appearances of a public man,--"I press this strongly on you, always to be with a multitude."[426] It may perhaps be paralleled with the love of the Roman for processions, e.g. the lustrations of farm, city, and army,[427] and with his instinctive desire for aid and counsel in all important matters both of public and private life, shown in the consilium of the paterfamilias and of the magistrate. Examples are easy to find in the literature of this period; an excellent one is the graphic picture of Gaius Gracchus and his train of followers, which Plutarch has preserved from a contemporary writer. "The people looked with admiration on him, seeing him attended by crowds of building-contractors, artificers, ambassadors, magistrates, soldiers, and learned men, to all of whom he was easy of access; while he maintained his dignity, he was gracious to all, and suited his behaviour to the condition of every individual; thus he proved the falsehood of those who called him tyrannical or arrogant."[428]

Arrived at the Forum, if not engaged in a trial, or summoned to a meeting of the senate, or busy in canvassing, he would mingle with the crowd, and spend a social morning in meeting and talking with friends, or in hearing the latest news from the provinces, or in occupying himself with his investments with the aid of his bankers and agents. This is the way in which such a sociable and agreeable man as Cicero was loved to spend his mornings when not deep in the composition of some speech or book,--and at Rome it was indeed hardly possible for him to find the time for steady literary work. It was this social life that he longed for when in Cilicia; "one little walk and talk with you," he could write to Caelius at Rome, "is worth all the profits of a province."[429] But it was also this crowded and talkative Forum that Lucilius could describe in a passage already quoted, as teeming with men who, with the aid of hypocrisy and blanditia, spent the day from morning till night in trying to get the better of their fellows.[430]

After a morning spent in the Forum, our Roman might return home in time for his lunch (prandium), which had taken the place of the early dinner (cena) of the olden time. Exactly the same thing affected the hours of these meals as has affected those of our own within the last century or so; the great increase of public business of all kinds has with us pushed the time of the chief meal later and later, and so it was at Rome. The senate had an immense amount of business to transact in the two last centuries B.C., and the increase in oratorical skill, as well as the growing desire to talk in public, extended its sittings sometimes till nightfall.[431] So too with the law-courts, which had become the scenes of oratorical display, and often of that indulgence in personal abuse which has great attractions for idle people fond of excitement. Thus the dinner hour had come to be postponed from about noon to the ninth or even the tenth hour,[432] and some kind of a lunch was necessary. We do not hear much of this meal, which was in fact for most men little more than the "snack" which London men of business will take standing at a bar; nor do we know whether senators and barristers took it as they sat in the curia or in court, or whether there was an adjournment for purposes of refreshment. Such an adjournment seems to have taken place occasionally at least, during the games under the Empire, for Suetonius (Claud. 34) tells us that Claudius would dismiss the people to take their prandium and yet remain himself in his seat. A joke of Cicero's about Caninius Rebilus, who was appointed consul by Caesar on the last day of the year 45 at one o'clock, shows that the usual hour for the prandium was about noon or earlier; "under the consulship of Caninius," he wrote to Curius, "no one ever took luncheon."[433]

After the prandium, if a man were at home and at leisure, followed the siesta (meridiatio). This is the universal habit in all southern climates, especially in summer, and indeed, if the mind and body are active from an early hour, a little repose is useful, if not necessary, after mid-day. Busy men however like Cicero could not always afford it in the city, and we find him noting near the end of his life, when Caesar's absolutism had diminished the amount of his work both in senate and law-courts, that he had taken to the siesta which he formerly dispensed with.[434] Even the sturdy Varro in his old age declared that in summer he could not possibly do without his nap in the middle of the day.[435] On the other hand, in the famous letter in which Cicero describes his entertainment of Caesar in mid-winter 45 B.C., nothing is said of a siesta; the Dictator worked till after mid-day, then walked on the shore, and returned, not for a nap but for a bath.[436]

Caesar, as he was Cicero's guest, must have taken his bath in the villa, probably that at Cumae (see above, p. 257). Most well-appointed private houses had by this time a bath-room or set of bath-rooms, providing every accommodation, according to the season and the taste of the bather. This was indeed a modern improvement; in the old days the Romans only washed their arms and legs daily, and took a bath every market-day, i.e. every ninth day. This is told us in an amusing letter of Seneca's, who also gives a description of the bath in the villa of the elder Scipio at Liternum, which consisted of a single room without a window, and was supplied with water which was often thick after rain.[437] "Nesciit vivere," says Seneca, in ironical allusion to the luxury of his own day. In Cicero's time every villa doubtless had its set of baths, with at least three rooms,--the apodyterium, caldarium, and tepidarium, sometimes also an open swimming-bath, as in the House of the Silver Wedding at Pompeii.[438] In Cicero's letter to his brother about the villa at Arcanum, he mentions the dressing-room (apodyterium) and the caldarium or hot-air chamber, and doubtless there were others. Even in the villa rustica of Boscoreale near Pompeii, which was a working farm-house, we find the bath-rooms complete, provided, that is, with the three essentials of dressing-room, tepid-room, and hot-air room.[439] Caesar probably, as it was winter, used the last of these, took in fact a Turkish bath, as we should call it, and then went into a tepidarium, where, as Cicero tells us, he received some messenger. Here he was anointed (unctus), i.e. rubbed dry from perspiration, with a strigil on which oil was dropped to soften its action.[440] When this operation was over, about the ninth hour, which in mid-winter would begin about half-past one, he was ready for the dinner which followed immediately.[441] This we may take as the ordinary winter dinner-hour in the country; in summer it would be an hour or so later. In an amusing story given as a rhetorical illustration in the work known as Rhetorica ad Herennium,

  1. 63, the guests (doomed never to get their dinner that day except in an inn) are invited for the tenth hour. But in the city it must have often happened that the hour was later, owing to the press of business. For example, on one occasion when the senate had been sitting ad noctem, Cicero dines with Pompeius after its dismissal (ad Fam. i. 2.3). Another day we find him going to bed after his dinner, and clearly not for a siesta, which, as we saw, he never had time to take in his busy days; this, however, was not actually in Rome but in his villa at Formiae, where he was at that time liable to much interruption from callers (ad Att. ii. 16). Probably, like most Romans of his day, he had spent a long time over his dinner, talking if he had guests, or reading and thinking if he were alone or with his family only.

The dinner, cena, was in fact the principal private event of the day; it came when all business was over, and you could enjoy the privacy of family life or see your friends and unbend with them. At no other meal do we hear of entertainment, unless the guests were on a journey, as was the case at the lunch at Arcanum when Pomponia's temper got the better of her (see above, p. 52). Even dinner-parties seem to have come into fashion only since the Punic wars, with later hours and a larger staff of slaves to cook and wait at table. In the old days of household simplicity the meals were taken in the atrium, the husband reclining on a lectus,[442] the wife sitting by his side, and the children sitting on stools in front of them. The slaves too in the olden time took their meal sitting on benches in the atrium, so that the whole familia was present. This means that the dinner was in those days only a necessary break in the intervals of work, and the sitting posture was always retained for slaves, i.e. those who would go about their work as soon as the meal was over. Columella, writing under the early Empire, urges that the vilicus or overseer should sit at his dinner except on festivals; and Cato the younger would not recline after the battle of Pharsalia for the rest of his life, apparently as a sign that life was no longer enjoyable.[443]

But after the Second Punic war, which changed the habits of the Roman in so many ways, the atrium ceased to be the common dining-place, and special chambers were built, either off the atrium or in the interior part of the house about the peristylium, or even upstairs, for the accommodation of guests, who might be received in different rooms, according to the season and the weather.[444] These triclinia were so arranged as to afford the greatest personal comfort and the best opportunities for conversation; they indicate clearly that dinner is no longer an interval in the day's work, but a time of repose and ease at the end of it. The plan here given of a triclinium, as described by Plutarch, in his Quaestiones conviviales,

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Social Life in Roman Empire