Social Life During the Roman Republic


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We saw that the poorer classes in Rome were lodged in huge insulae, and enjoyed nothing that can be called home life. The wealthy families, on the other hand, lived in domus, i.e. separate dwellings, accommodating only one family, often, even in the Ciceronian period, of great magnificence. But even these great houses hardly suggest a life such as that which we associate with the word home. As Mr. Tucker has pointed out in the case of Athens,[375] the warmer climates of Greece and Italy encouraged all classes to spend much more of their time out of doors and in public places than we do; and the rapid growth of convenient public buildings, porticoes, basilicas, baths, and so on, is one of the most striking features in the history of the city during the last two centuries B.C. Augustus, part of whose policy it was to make the city population comfortable and contented, carried this tendency still further, and under the Empire the town house played quite a subordinate part in Roman social life. The best way to realise this out-of-door life, lazy and sociable, of the Augustan age, is to read the first book of Ovid's Ars Amatoria,--a fascinating picture of a beautiful city and its pleasure-loving inhabitants. But with the Augustan age we are not here concerned.

Yet the Roman house, like the Italian house in general, was in origin and essence really a home. The family was the basis of society, and by the family we must understand not only the head of the house with his wife, children, and slaves, but also the divine beings who dwelt there. As the State comprised both human and divine inhabitants, so also did the house, which was indeed the germ and type of the State. Thus the house was in those early times not less but even more than a house is for us, for in it was concentrated all that was dear to the family, all that was essential to its life, both natural and supernatural. And the two--the natural and supernatural--were not distinct from each other, but associated, in fact almost identical; the hearth-fire was the dwelling of Vesta, the spirit of the flame; the Penates were the spirits of the stores on which the family subsisted, and dwelt in the store-cupboard or larder; the paterfamilias had himself a supernatural side, in the shape of his Genius; and the Lar familiaris was the protecting spirit of the farmland, who had found his way into the house in course of time, perhaps with the slave labourers, who always had a share in his worship.[376]

It would probably be unjust to the Roman of the late Republic to assume that this beautiful idea of the common life of the human and divine beings in a house was entirely ignored or forgotten by him. No doubt the reality of the belief had vanished; it could not be said of the city family, as Ovid, said of the farm-folk:[377]

ante focos olim scamnis considere longis mos erat et mensae credere adesse deos.

The great noble or banker of Cicero's day could no longer honestly say that he believed in the real presence of his family deities; the kernel of the old feeling had shrunk away under the influence of Greek philosophy and of new interests in life, new objects and ambitions. But the shell remained, and in some families, or in moments of anxiety and emotion, even the old feeling of religio may have returned. Cicero is appealing to a common sentiment, in a passage already once quoted (de Domo, 109), when he insists on the real religious character of a house: "his arae sunt, his foci, his di penates: his sacra, religiones, caerimoniae continentur." And this was in the heart of the city; in the country-house there was doubtless more leisure and opportunity for such feeling. In the second century B.C. old Cato had described the paterfamilias, on his arrival at his farm from the city, saluting the Lar familiaris before he goes about his round of inspection; and even Horace hardly shows a trace of the agnostic when he pictures the slaves of the farm, and the master with them, sitting at their meal in front of the image of the Lar[378]. We may perhaps guess that with the renewal of the love of country life, and with that revival of the cultivation of the vine and olive, and indeed of husbandry in general, which is recognisable as a feature of the last years of the Republic, and which is known to us from Varro's work on farming, and from Virgil's Georgics, the old religion of the household gained a new life.

It is not necessary here to give any detailed account of the shape and divisions of a Roman house of the city; full and excellent descriptions may be found in Middleton's article "Domus" in the Dictionary of Antiquities, and in Lanciani's Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome; and to these should be added Mau's work on Pompeii, where the houses were of a Roman rather than a Greek type. What we are concerned with is the house as a home or a centre of life, and it is only in this aspect of it that we shall discuss it here.

The oldest Italian dwelling was a mere wigwam with a hearth in the middle of the floor, and a hole at the top to let the smoke out. But the house of historical times was rectangular, with one central room or hall, in which was concentrated the whole indoor life of the family, the whole meaning and purpose of the dwelling. Here the human and divine inhabitants originally lived together. Here was the hearth, "the natural altar of the dwelling-room of man," as Aust beautifully expresses it;[379] this was the seat of Vesta, and behind it was the penus or store-closet, the seat of the Penates; thus Vesta and the Penates are in the most genuine sense the protecting and nourishing deities of the household. Here, too, was the Lar of the familia with his little altar, behind the entrance, and here was the lectus genialis,[380] and the Genius of the paterfamilias. As you looked into the atrium, after passing the vestibulum or space between street and doorway, and the ostium or doorway with its janua, you saw in front of you the impluvium, into which the rainwater fell from the compluvium, i.e. the square opening in the roof with sloping sides; on either side were recesses (alae), which, if the family were noble, contained the images of the ancestors. Opposite you was another recess, the tablinum, opening probably into a little garden; here in the warm weather the family might take their meals.

This is the atrium of the old Roman house, and to understand that house nothing more is needed. And indeed architecturally, the atrium never lost its significance as the centre of the house; it is to the house as the choir is to a cathedral.[381] And it is easy to see how naturally it could develop into a much more complicated but convenient dwelling; for example, the alae could be extended to form separate chambers or sleeping-rooms, the tablinum could be made into a permanent dining-room, or such rooms could be opened out on either side of it. A second story could be added, and in the city, where space was valuable, this was usually the case. The garden could be converted, after the Greek fashion, and under a Greek name, into a peristylium, i.e. an open court with a pretty colonnade round it, and if there were space enough, you might add at the rear of this again an exedra, or an oecus, i.e. open saloons convenient for many purposes. Thus the house came to be practically divided into two parts, the atrium with its belongings, i.e. the Roman part, and the peristylium with its developments, forming the Greek part; and the house reflects the composite character of Roman life in its later period, just as do Roman literature and Roman art. The Roman part was retained for reception rooms, and the Lar, the Penates, and Vesta, with their respective seats, retired into the new apartments for privacy. When the usual crowd of morning callers came to wait upon a great man, they would not as a rule penetrate farther than the atrium, and there he might keep them waiting as long as he pleased. The Greek part of the house, the peristylium and its belongings, was reserved for his family and his most intimate friends. In Pompeii, which was an old Greek town with Roman life and habits superadded, we find atrium and peristylium both together as early as the second century B.C.[382] At what period exactly the house of the noble in Rome began thus to develop is not so certain. But by the time of Cicero every good domus had without doubt its private apartments at the rear, varying in shape and size according to the ground on which the house stood.[383]

The accompanying plan will give a sufficiently clear idea of the development of the domus from the atrium, and its consequent division into two parts; it is that of "the house of the silver wedding" at Pompeii.

[Illustration: PLAN OF THE HOUSE OF THE SILVER WEDDING. From Mau's Pompeii.]

But in spite of all the convenience and comfort of the fully developed dwelling of the rich man at Rome, there was much to make him sigh for a quieter life than he could enjoy in the noisy city. He might indeed, if he could afford it, remove outside the walls to a "domus suburbana," on one of the roads leading out of Rome, or on the hill looking down on the Campus Martius, like the house of Sallust the historian, with its splendid gardens, which still in part exists in the dip between the Quirinal and the Pincian hills.[384] But nowhere within three miles or more of Rome could a man lose his sense of being in a town, or escape from the smoke, the noise, the excitement of the streets. After what has been said in previous chapters, the crowd in the Forum and its adjuncts can be left to the reader's imagination; but if he wishes to stimulate it, let him look at the seventh chapter of Cicero's speech for Plancius, where the orator makes use of the jostling in the Forum as an illustration so familiar that none can fail to understand it.[385] A relief, of which a figure is given in Burn's Roman Literature and Roman Art, p. 79, gives a good idea of the close crowding, though no doubt it was habitual with Roman artists to overcrowd their scenes with human figures. Even as early as the first Punic war a lady could complain of the crowded state of the Forum, and, with the grim humour peculiar to Romans, could declare that her brother, who had just lost a great number of Roman lives in a defeat by the Carthaginians, ought to be in command of another fleet in order to relieve the city of more of its surplus population. What then must the Forum have been two centuries later, when half the business of the Empire was daily transacted there! And even outside the walls the trouble did not cease; all night long the wagons were rolling into the city, which were not allowed in the day-time, at any rate after Caesar's municipal law of 46 B.C. Like the motors of to-day, one might imagine that their noise would depreciate the value of houses on the great roads. The callers and clients would be here of a morning, as in the house within the walls; the bore might be met not only in the Via Sacra, like Horace's immortal friend, but wherever the stream of life hurried with its busy eddies[386]. Lucilius drew a graphic picture of this feverish life, which is fortunately preserved; it refers of course to a time before Cicero's birth (Fragm. 9, Baehrens):

nunc vero a mani ad noctem, festo atque profesto, totus item pariter populus, plebesque patresque, iactare indu foro se omnes, decedere nusquam: uni se atque eidem studio omnes dedere et arti, verba dare ut oaute possint, pugnare dolose: blanditia certare, bonum simulare virum se: insidias facere, ut si hostes sint omnibus omnes.

That this exciting social atmosphere, with its jostling and over-reaching in the Forum, and its callers and dinner-parties in the house, had some sinister influence on men's tempers and nerves, there can be no doubt. Cicero dearly loved the life of the city, but he paid for it by a sensibility which is constantly apparent in his letters, and diminished his value as a statesman. When he wrote from Cilicia to his more youthful friend Caelius, urging him to stick to the city, in words that are almost pathetic, it never occurred to him that he was prescribing exactly that course of treatment which had done himself much damage[387]. The clear sight and strong nerve of Caesar, as compared with so many of his contemporaries, was doubtless largely due to the fact that between 70 and 50 B.C., i.e. in the prime of life, he spent some twelve of the twenty years in the fresher air of Spain and Gaul. Some men were fairly worn out with dissipation and the resulting ennui, and could get no relief even in a country villa. Lucretius has drawn a wonderful picture of such an unfortunate, who hurries from Rome into the country, and finding himself bored there almost as soon as he arrives, orders out his carriage to return to the city. To fill oneself with good things, yet never to be satisfied (explere bonis rebus, satiareque nunquam), was even for the true Epicurean a most dismal fate.[388]

But there was at this time, and had been for many generations, a genuine desire to escape at times from town to country; and Cicero, in spite of his pathetic exhortation to Caelius, was himself a keen lover of the ease and leisure which he could find only in his country-houses. The first great Roman of whom we know that he had a rural villa, not only or chiefly for farming purposes, but as a refuge from the city and its tumult, was Scipio Africanus the elder. His villa at Liternum on the Campanian coast is described by Seneca in his 86th epistle; it was small, and without the comforts and conveniences of the later country-house; but its real significance lies not so much in the increasing wealth that could make a residence possible without a farm attached to it, but in the growing sense of individuality that made men wish for such a retreat. There are other signs that Scipio was a man of strong personality, unlike the typical Roman of his day; he put a value upon his own thoughts and habits, apart from his duty to the State, and retired to Liternum to indulge them. The younger Scipio too (Aemilianus), though no blood-relation of his, had the same instinct, but in his case it was rather the desire for leisure and relaxation,--the same love of a real holiday that we all know so well in our modern life. "Leisure," says Cicero, is not "contentio animi sed relaxatio"; and in a charming passage he goes on to describe Scipio and Laelius gathering shells on the sea-shore, and becoming boys again (repuerascere).[389] This desire for ease and relaxation, for the chance of being for a while your true self,--a self worth something apart from its existence as a citizen, is apparent in the Roman of Cicero's day, and still more in the hard-working functionary of the Empire. Twice in his life the morbid emperor Tiberius shrank from the eyes of men, once at Rhodes and afterwards at Capreae,--a melancholy recluse worn out by hard work.

Everyman had to provide his own "health resort" in those days: there was nothing to correspond to the modern hotel. Even at the great luxurious watering-places on the Campanian coast, Baiae and Bauli, the houses, so far as we know, were all private residences.[390] I do not propose to include in this chapter any account of these centres of luxury and vice, which were far indeed from giving any rest or relief to the weary Roman; the society of Baiae was the centre of scandal and gossip, where a woman like Clodia, the Lesbia of Catullus, could live in wickedness before the eyes of all men.[391] Let us turn to a more agreeable subject, and illustrate the country-house and the country life of the last age of the Republic by a rapid visit to Cicero's own villas. This has fortunately been made easy for us by the very delightful work of Professor O.E. Schmidt, whose genuine enthusiasm for Cicero took him in person to all these sites, and inspired him to write of them most felicitously.[392]

There being no hotels, among which the change-loving Roman of Cicero's day could pick and choose a retreat for a holiday, he would buy a site for a villa first in one place, then in another, or purchase one ready built, or transform an old farm-house of his own into a residence with "modern requirements." In choosing his sites he would naturally look southwards, and find what he sought for either in the choicer parts of Latium, among the hills and woods of the Mons Albanus and Tusculum, or in the rich Campanian land, the paradise of the lazy Roman; in the latter case, he would like to be close to the sea on that delicious coast, and even in Latium there were spots where, like Scipio and Laelius, he might wander on the sea-shore. All this country to the south was beginning to be covered with luxurious and convenient houses; in the colder and mountainous parts of central Italy the villa was still the farm-house of the older useful type, of which the object was the cultivation of olive and vine, now coming into fashion, as we have already seen. For Cicero and his friends the word villa no longer suggested farming, as it invariably did for the old Roman, and as we find it in Cato's treatise on agriculture; it meant gardens, libraries, baths, and collections of works of art, with plenty of convenient rooms for study or entertainment. Sometimes the garden might be extended into a park, with fishponds and great abundance of game; Hortensius had such a park near Laurentum, fifty jugera enclosed in a ring-fence, and full of wild beasts of all sorts and kinds. Varro tells us that the great orator would take his guests to a seat on an eminence in this park, and summon his "Orpheus" thither to sing and play: at the sound of the music a multitude of stags, boars, and other animals would make their appearance--having doubtless been trained to do so by expectation of food prepared for them.[393] Such was the taste of the great master of "Asiatic" eloquence. We are reminded of the fairy tale of the Emperor of China and the mechanical nightingale.

His great rival in oratory had simpler tastes, in his country life as in his rhetoric. Cicero had no villa of the vulgar kind of luxury; he preferred to own several of moderate comfort rather than one or two of such magnificence. He had in all six, besides one or two properties which were bought for some special temporary object; and it is interesting to see what relation these houses had to his life and habits. At no point could he afford to be very far from Rome, or from a main road which would take him there easily. The accompanying little map will show that all his villas lay on or near to one or other of the two great roads that led southwards from the capital. The via Latina would take him in an hour or two to Tusculum, where, since the death of Catulus in 68, he owned the villa of that excellent aristocrat.[394] The site of the villa cannot be determined with certainty, but Schmidt gives good reasons for believing that it was where we used formerly to place it, on the slope of the hill above Frascati. That it really stood there, and not in the hollow by Grottaferrata,[395] we would willingly believe, for no one who has ever been there can possibly forget the glorious view or the refreshing air of those flowery slopes. No wonder the owner was fond of it. He tells Atticus, when he first came into possession of it, that he found rest there from all troubles and toils (ad Att. i. 5.

  1. , and again that he is so delighted with it that when he gets there he is delighted with himself too (ad Att. i. 6). Much of his literary work was done here, and he had the great advantage of being close to the splendid library of Lucullus' neighbouring villa, which was always open to him.[396] At Tusculum he spent many a happy day, until his beloved daughter died there in 45, after which he would not go there for some time; but he got the better of this sorrow, and loved the place to the end of his life.


If this villa was where we hope it was, the great road passed at no great distance from it, in the valley between Tusculum and the Mons Albanus; and by following this for some fifty miles to the south-east through Latium, Cicero would strike the river Liris not far from Fregellae, and leaving the road there, would soon arrive at his native place Arpinum, and his ancestral property. For this old home he always had the warmest affection; of no other does he write in language showing so clearly that his heart could be moved by natural beauty, especially when combined with the tender associations of his boyhood[397]. In the charming introduction to the second book of his work de Legibus (on the Constitution), he dwells with genuine delight on this feeling and these associations; and there too we get a hint of what Dr. Schmidt tells us is the peculiar charm of the spot,--the presence and the sound of water; for if he is right, the villa was placed between two arms of the limpid little river Fibrenus, which here makes a delta as it joins the larger Liris[398].

But of this house we know for certain neither the site nor the plan,--not so much indeed as we know about a villa of the brother Quintus, not far away, the building of which is described with such exactness in a letter written to the absent owner[399], that Schmidt thinks himself justified in applying it by analogy to the villa of the elder brother. But such reasoning is hardly safe. What we do know about the old house is that it was originally a true villa rustica,--a house with land cultivated by the owner that Cicero's father, who had weak health and literary tastes, had added to it considerably, and that Cicero himself had made it into a comfortable country residence, with all necessary conveniences. He did not farm the ancestral land attached to it, either himself or by a bailiff, but let it in small holdings[400] (praediola), and we could wish that he had told us something of his tenants and what they did with the land. It was not, therefore, a real farm-house, but a farm-house made into a pleasant residence, like so many manor-houses still to be seen in England. Its atrium had no doubt retired (so to speak) into the rear of the building, and had become a kitchen, and you entered, as in most country-houses of this period, through a vestibule directly into a peristyle: some idea of such an arrangement may be gained from the accompanying ground-plan of the villa of Diomedes just outside Pompeii, which was a city house adapted to rural conditions (villa pseudurbana).[401]

If Cicero wished to leave Arpinum for one of his villas on the Campanian coast, he would simply have to follow the valley of the Liris until it reached the sea between Minturnae and Formiae, and at the latter place, a lively little town with charming views over the sea, close to the modern Gaeta, he would find another house of his own,--the next he added to his possessions after he inherited Arpinum. Formiae was a very convenient spot; it lay on the via Appia, and was thus in direct communication both with Rome and the bay of Naples, either by land or sea. When Cicero is not resting, but on the move or expecting to be disturbed, he is often to be found at Formiae, as in the critical mid-winter of 50-49 B.C.; and here at the end of March 49 he had his famous interview with Caesar, who urged him in vain to accompany him to Rome. Here he spent the last weary days of his life, and here he was murdered by Antony's ruffians on December 7, 43.

[Illustration: PLAN OF THE VILLA OF DIOMEDES. From Man's Pompeii.]

This villa was in or close to the little town, and therefore did not give him the quiet he liked to have for literary work. It would seem that the bore existed elsewhere than at Rome; for in a short letter written from Formiae in April 59, he tells Atticus of his troubles of this kind: "As to literary work, it is impossible! My house is a basilica rather than a villa, owing to the crowds of visitors from Formiae ... C. Arrius is my next door neighbour, or rather he almost lives in my house, and even declares that his reason for not going to Rome is that he may spend whole days with me here philosophising. And then, if you please, on the other flank is Sebosus, that friend of Catulus! Which way am I to turn? I declare that I would go at once to Arpinum, if this were not the most, convenient place to await your visit: but I will only wait till May 6: you see what bores are pestering my poor ears."[402]

But his Campanian villas would be almost as easy to reach as Arpinum, if he wished to escape from Formiae and its bores. To the nearest of these, the one at or near Cumae, it was only about forty miles' drive along the coast road, past Minturnae, Sinuessa, and Volturnum, all familiar halting-places. Of this "Cumanum," however, we know very little: that volcanic region has undergone such changes that we cannot recover the site, and its owner never seems to have felt any particular attachment to it. It was in fact too near Baiae and Bauli to suit a quiet literary man; the great nobles in their vast luxurious palaces were too close at hand for a novus homo to be perfectly at his ease there. Yet near the end of his life Cicero added to his possessions another property in this neighbourhood, at or near Puteoli, which was now fast becoming a city of great importance; but this can be explained by the fact that a banker of Puteoli named Cluvius, an old friend of his, had just died and divided his property by will between Caesar and Cicero,--truly a tremendous will! Cicero seems to have purchased Caesar's share, and to have looked on the property as a good investment. He began to build a villa here, but had little chance of using it. It may have been here that he entertained Caesar and his retinue at the end of the year 45,[403] as described by him in the famous letter of December 21 (ad Att. xiii. 52); when two thousand men had somehow to be provided for, and in spite of literary conversation, Cicero could write that his guest was not exactly one whom you would be in a hurry to see again.

Across the bay, and just within view from the higher ground between Baiae and Cumae, lay the little town of Pompeii, under the sleeping Vesuvius. Here, probably just outside the town, Cicero had a villa of which he seems to have been really fond, and the society of a quiet and gentle friend, M. Marius. Whether we can find the remains of this villa among the excavations of Pompeii is very doubtful: but our excellent guide Schmidt assures us that he has good reason for believing that one particular house, just outside the city on the left side of the road in front of the Porta Herculanea, which has for no very convincing reason ever since its excavation in 1763 been called the Villa di Cicerone, really is the house we wish it to be. But alas! an honest man must confess that the identification wants certainty, and the chance of finding any object or inscription which may confirm it is now very small.

If Cicero were summoned suddenly back to Rome for business, forensic or political, he would hasten first to Formiae and sleep there, and thence hurry, by the via Appia and the route so well known to us from Horace's journey to Brundisium, to another house in the little sea-coast town of Antium. This was his nearest seaside residence, and he often used it when unable to go far from Rome. After the death of his daughter in 45 he seems to have sold this house to Lepidus, and, unable to stay at Tusculum, where she died, he bought a small villa on a little islet called Astura, on the very edge of the Pomptine marshes, and in that melancholy and unwholesome neighbourhood he passed whole days in the woods giving way to his grief. Yet it was a "locus amoenus, et in mari ipso, qui et Antio et Circeiis aspici possit.[404]" It suited his mood, and here he stayed long, writing letter after letter to Atticus about the erection of a shrine to the lost one in some gardens to be purchased near Rome.

This sketch of the country-houses of a man like Cicero may help us to form some idea of the changeful life of a great personage of the period. He did not look for the formation of steady permanent habits in any one place or house; from an early age he was accustomed to travel, going to Greece or Asia Minor for his "higher education," acting perhaps as quaestor, and again as praetor or consul, in some province, then returning to Rome only to leave it for one or other of his villas, and rarely settling down in one of these for any length of time. It was not altogether a wholesome life, so far as the mind was concerned; real thought, the working out of great problems of philosophy or politics, is impossible under constant change of scene, and without the opportunity of forming regular habits.[405] And the fact is that no man at this time seriously set himself to think out such problems. Cicero would arrive at Tusculum or Arpinum with some necessary books, and borrowing others as best he could, would sit down to write a treatise on ethics or rhetoric with amazing speed, having an original Greek author constantly before him. At places like Baiae serious work was of course impossible, and would have been ridiculed. There was no original thinker in this age. Caesar himself was probably more suited by nature to reason on facts immediately before him than to speculate on abstract principles. Varro, the rough sensible scholar of Sabine descent, was a diligent collector of facts and traditions, but no more able to grapple hard with problems of philosophy or theology than any other Roman of his time. The life of the average wealthy man was too comfortable, too changeable, to suggest the desirability of real mental exertion.

Nor has this life any direct relation to material usefulness and the productive investment of capital. Cicero and his correspondents never mention farming, never betray any interest in the new movement, if such there was, for the scientific cultivation of the vine and olive.[406] For such things we must go to Varro's treatise, written, some years after Cicero's death, in his extreme old age. In the third book of that invaluable work we shall find all we want to know about the real villa rustica of the time,--the working farm-house with its wine-vats and olive-mills, like that recently excavated at Boscoreale near Pompeii. Yet it would be unfair to such men as Cicero and his friends, the wiser and quieter section of the aristocracy, to call their work altogether unproductive. True, it left little permanent impress on human modes of thought; it wrought no material change for the better in Italy or the Empire. We may go so far as to allow that it initiated that habit of dilettantism which we find already exaggerated in the age lately illuminated for us by Professor Dill in his book on Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, and far more exaggerated in the last age of Roman society, which the same author has depicted in his earlier work. But it may be doubted whether under any circumstances the Romans could have produced a great prophet or a great philosopher; and the most valuable work they did was of another kind. It lay in the humanisation of society by the rational development of law, and by the communication of Greek thought and literature to the western world. This was what occupied the best days of Cicero and Sulpicius Rufus and many others; and they succeeded at the same time in creating for its expression one of the most perfect prose languages that the world has ever known or will know. They did it too, helping each other by kindly and cheering intercourse,--the humanitas of daily life. It is exactly this humanitas that the northern mind of Mommsen, in spite of its vein of passionate romance, could not understand; all the softer side of that pleasant existence among the villas and statues and libraries was to him simply contemptible. Let us hope that he has done no permanent damage to the credit of Cicero, and of the many lesser men who lived the same honourable and elegant life.

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Social Life in Roman Empire