Social Life During the Roman Republic




SOCIAL LIFE AT ROME IN THE AGE OF CICERO

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THE LOWER POPULATION (PLEBS URBANA)

The walk we have been taking has led us only through the heart of the city, in which were the public buildings, temples, basilicas, porticos, etc., of which we hear so much in Latin literature. It was on the hills which are spurs of the plain beyond, and which look down over the Forum and the Campus Martius, the Caelian, Esquiline, and Quirinal, with the hollows lying between them, and also on the Aventine by the river, that the mass of the population lived. The most ancient fortification of completed Rome, the so-called Servian wall and agger, enclosed a singularly large space, larger, we are told, than the walls of any old city in Italy;[35] it is likely that a good part of this space was long unoccupied by houses, and served to shelter the cattle of the farmers living outside, when an enemy was threatening attack. But in Cicero's time, as to-day, all this space was covered with dwellings; and as the centre of the city came to be occupied with public buildings, erected on sites often bought from private owners, the houses were gradually pushed out along the roads beyond the walls. Exactly the same process has been going on for centuries in the University city of Oxford where the erection of colleges gradually absorbed the best sites within the old walls, so that many of the dwelling-houses are now quite two miles from the centre of the city. The fact is attested for Rome by the famous municipal law of Julius Caesar, which directs that for a mile outside the gates every resident is to look after the repair of the road in front of his own house.[36]

As a general rule, the heights in Rome were occupied by the better class of residents, and the hollows by the lower stratum of population. This was not indeed entirely so, for poor people no doubt lived on the Aventine, the Caelian, and parts of the Esquiline. But the Palatine was certainly an aristocratic quarter; the Carinae, the height looking down on the hollow where the Colosseum now stands, had many good houses, e.g. those of Pompeius and of Quintus Cicero, and we know of one man of great wealth, Atticus, who lived on the Quirinal.[37] It was in the narrow hollows leading down from these heights to the Forum, such as the Subura between Esquiline and Quirinal, and the Argiletum farther down near the Forum, that we meet in literature what we may call the working classes; the Argiletum, for example, was famous both for its booksellers and its shoemakers,[38] and the Subura is the typical street of tradesmen. And no doubt the big lodging-houses in which the lower classes dwelt were to be found in all parts of Rome, except the strictly aristocratic districts like the Palatine.

The whole free population may roughly be divided into three classes, of which the first two, constituting together the social aristocracy, were a mere handful in number compared with the third. At the top of the social order was the governing class, or ordo senatorius: then came the ordo equester, comprising all the men of business, bankers, money-lenders, and merchants (negotiatores) or contractors for the raising of taxes and many other purposes (publicani). Of these two upper classes and their social life we shall see something in later chapters; at present we are concerned with the "masses," at least 320,000 in number,[39] and the social problems which their existence presented, or ought to have presented, to an intelligent Roman statesman of Cicero's time.

Unfortunately, just as we know but little of the populous districts of Rome, so too we know little of its industrial population. The upper classes, including all writers of memoirs and history, were not interested in them. There was no philanthropist, no devoted inquirer like Mr. Charles Booth, to investigate their condition or try to ameliorate it. The statesman, if he troubled himself about them at all, looked on them as a dangerous element of society, only to be considered as human beings at election time; at all other times merely as animals that had to be fed, in order to keep them from becoming an active peril. The philosopher, even the Stoic, whose creed was by far the most ennobling in that age, seems to have left the dregs of the people quite out of account; though his philosophy nominally took the whole of mankind into its cognisance, it believed the masses to be degraded and vicious, and made no effort to redeem them.[40] The Stoic might profess the tenderest feeling towards all mankind, as Cicero did, when moved by some recent reading of Stoic doctrine; he might say that "men were born for the sake of men, that each should help the other," or that "Nature has inclined us to love men, for this is the foundation of all law";[41] but when in actual social or political contact with the same masses Cicero could only speak of them with contempt or disgust. It is a melancholy and significant fact that what little we do know from literature about this class is derived from the part they occasionally played in riots and revolutionary disorders. It is fortunately quite impossible that the historian of the future should take account of the life of the educated and wealthy only; but in the history of the past and especially of the last three centuries B.C., we have to contend with this difficulty, and can only now and then find side-lights thrown upon the great mass of mankind. The crime, the crowding, the occasional suffering from starvation and pestilence, in the unfashionable quarters of such a city as Rome, these things are hidden from us, and rarely even suggested by the histories we commonly read.

The three questions to which I wish to make some answer in this chapter are: (1) how was this population housed? (2) how was it supplied with food and clothing? and (3) how was it employed?

  1. It was of course impossible in a city like Rome that each man, married or unmarried, should have his own house; this is not so even in the great majority of modern industrial towns, though we in England are accustomed to see our comparatively well-to-do artisans dwelling in cottages spreading out into the country. At Rome only the wealthy families lived in separate houses (domus), about which we shall have something to say in another chapter. The mass of the population lived, or rather ate and slept (for southern climates favour an out-of-door life), in huge lodging-houses called islands (insulae), because they were detached from other buildings, and had streets on all sides of them, as islands have water.[42] These insulae were often three or four stories high;[43] the ground-floor was often occupied by shops, kept perhaps by some of the lodgers, and the upper floors by single rooms, with small windows looking out on the street or into an interior court. The common name for such a room was coenaculum, or dining-room, a word which seems to be taken over from the coenaculum of private houses, i.e. an eating-room on the first floor, where there was one. Once indeed we hear of an aedicula, in an insula, which was perhaps the equivalent of a modern "flat"; it was inhabited by a young bachelor of good birth, M. Caelius Rufus, the friend of Cicero, and in this case the insula was probably one of a superior kind.[44] The common lodging-house must have been simply a rabbit-warren, the crowded inhabitants using their rooms only for eating and sleeping, while for the most part they prowled about, either idling or getting such employment as they could, legitimate or otherwise.

In such a life there could of course have been no idea of home, or of that simple and sacred family life which had once been the ethical basis of Roman society.[45] When we read Cicero's thrilling language about the loss of his own house, after his return from exile, and then turn to think of the homeless crowds in the rabbit-warrens of Rome, we can begin to feel the contrast between the wealth and poverty of that day. "What is more strictly protected," he says, "by all religious feeling, than the house of each individual citizen? Here is his altar, his hearth, here are his Di Penates: here he keeps all the objects of his worship and performs all his religious rites: his house is a refuge so solemnly protected, that no one can be torn from it by force."[46] The warm-hearted Cicero is here, as so often, dreaming dreams: the "each individual citizen" of whom he speaks is the citizen of his own acquaintance, not the vast majority, with whom his mind does not trouble itself.

These insulae were usually built or owned by men of capital, and were often called by the names of their owners. Cicero, in one of his letters,[47] incidentally mentions that he had money thus invested; and we are disposed to wonder whether his insulae were kept in good repair, for in another letter he happens to tell his man of business that shops (tabernae) belonging to him were tumbling down and unoccupied. It is more than likely that many of the insulae were badly built by speculators, and liable to collapse. The following passage from Plutarch's Life of Crassus suggests this, though, if Plutarch is right, Crassus did not build himself, but let or sold his sites and builders to others: "Observing (in Sulla's time) the accidents that were familiar at Rome, conflagrations and tumbling down of houses owing to their weight and crowded state, he bought slaves who were architects and builders. Having collected these to the number of more than five hundred, it was his practice to buy up houses on fire, and houses next to those on fire: for the owners, frightened and anxious, would sell them cheap. And thus the greater part of Rome fell into the hands of Crassus: but though he had so many artisans, he built no house except his own, for he used to say that those who were fond of building ruined themselves without the help of an enemy."[48] The fall of houses, and their destruction in the frequent fires, became familiar features of life at Rome about this time, and are alluded to by Catullus in his twenty-third poem, and later on by Strabo in his description of Rome (p. 235). It must indeed have often happened that whole families were utterly homeless;[49] and in those days there were no insurance offices, no benefit societies, no philanthropic institutions to rescue the suffering from undeserved misery. As we shall see later on, they were constantly in debt, and in the hands of the money-lender; and against his extortions their judicial remedies were most precarious. But all this is hidden from our eyes: only now and again we can hear a faint echo of their inarticulate cry for help.

  1. The needs of these poorer classes in respect of food and drink were very small; it was only the vast number of them that made the supply difficult. The Italians, like the Greeks,[50] were then as now almost entirely vegetarians; cattle and sheep were used for the production of cheese, leather, and wool or for sacrifices to the gods; the only animal commonly eaten, until luxury came in with increasing wealth, was the pig, and grain and vegetables were the staple food of the poor man, both in town and country. Among the lesser poems ascribed to Virgil there is one, the Moretum, which gives a charming picture of the food-supply of the small cultivator in the country. He rises very early, gropes his way to the hearth, and stirs the embers into flame: then takes from his meal-bin a supply of grain for three days and proceeds to grind it in a hand-mill, knead it with water, shape it into round cakes divided into four parts like a "hot-cross bun," and, with the help of his one female slave, to bake these in the embers. He has no sides of smoked bacon, says the poet, hanging from his roof, but only a cheese, so to add to his meal he goes into his garden and gathers thence a number of various herbs and vegetables, which he then makes into the hotch-potch, or pot-au-feu which gives the name to the poem. This bit of delicate genre-painting, which is as good in its way as anything in Crabbe's homely poems, has indeed nothing to tell us of life in an insula at Rome; but it may serve to show what was the ordinary food of the Italian of that day.[51] The absence of the sides of bacon ("durati sale terga suis," line 57) is interesting. No doubt the Roman took meat when he could get it; but to have to subsist on it, even for a short time, was painful to him, and more than once Caesar remarks on the endurance of his soldiers in submitting to eat meat when corn was not to be had.[52]

The corn which was at this time the staple food of the Romans of the city was wheat, and wheat of a good kind; in primitive times it had been an inferior species called far, which survived in Cicero's day only in the form of cakes offered to the gods in religious ceremonies. The wheat was not brought from Italy or even from Latium; what each Italian community then grew was not more than supplied its own inhabitants,[53] and the same was the case with the country villas of the rich, and the huge sheep-farms worked by slaves. By far the greater part of Italy is mountainous, and not well suited to the production of corn on a large scale; and for long past other causes had combined to limit what production there was. Transport too, whether by road or river, was full of difficulty, while on the other hand a glance at the map will show that the voyage for corn-ships between Rome and Sicily, Sardinia, or the province of Africa (the former dominion of Carthage), was both short and easy--far shorter and easier than the voyage from Cisalpine Gaul or even from Apulia, where the peninsula was richest in good corn-land. So we are not surprised to find that, according to tradition, which is fully borne out by more certain evidence,[54] corn had been brought to Rome from Sicily as early as 492 B.C. to relieve a famine, or that since Sicily, Sardinia, and Africa had become Roman provinces, their vast productive capacity was utilised to feed the great city.

Nor indeed need we be surprised to find that the State has taken over the task of feeding the Roman population, and of feeding it cheaply, if only we are accustomed to think, not merely to read, about life in the city at this period. Nothing is more difficult for the ordinary reader of ancient history than to realise the difficulty of feeding large masses of human beings, whether crowded in towns or soldiers in the field. Our means of transport are now so easily and rapidly set in action and maintained, that it would need a war with some great sea-power to convince us that London or Glasgow might, under certain untoward circumstances, be starved; and as our attention has never been drawn to the details of food-supply, we do not readily see why there should have been any such difficulty at Rome as to call for the intervention of the State. Perhaps the best way to realise the problem is to reflect that every adult inhabitant needed about four and a half pecks of corn per month, or some three pounds a day; so that if the population of Rome be taken at half a million in Cicero's time, a million and a half pounds would be demanded as the daily consumption of the people.[55] I have already said that in the last three centuries B.C. there was a universal tendency to leave the country for the towns; and we now know that many other cities besides Rome not only felt the same difficulty, but actually used the same remedy--State importation of cheap corn.[56] Even comparatively small cities like Dyrrhachium and Apollonia in Epirus, as Caesar tells us while narrating his own difficulty in feeding his army there, used for the most part imported corn.[57] And we must remember that while some of the greatest cities on the Mediterranean, such as Alexandria and Antioch, were within easy reach of vast corn-fields, this was not the case with Rome. Either she must organise her corn-supply on a secure basis, or get rid of her swarms of poor inhabitants; the latter alternative might have been possible if she had been willing to let them starve, but probably in no other way. To attempt to put them out upon the land again was hopeless; they knew nothing of agriculture, and were unused to manual labour, which they despised.

Thus ever since Rome had been a city of any size it had been the duty of the plebeian aediles to see that it was adequately supplied with corn, and in times of dearth or other difficulty these magistrates had to take special measures to procure it. With a population steadily rising since the war with Hannibal, and after the acquisition of two corn-growing provinces, to which Africa was added in 146 B.C., it was natural that they should turn their attention more closely to the resources of these; and now the provincial governors had to see that the necessary amount of corn was furnished from these provinces at a fixed price, and that a low one.[58] In 123 B.C. Gaius Gracchus took the matter in hand, and made it a part of his whole far-reaching political scheme. The plebs urbana had become a very awkward element in the calculations of a statesman, and to have it in a state of starvation, or even fearing such a state, was dangerous in the extreme, as every Roman statesman had to learn in the course of the two following centuries. The aediles, we may guess, were quite unequal to the work demanded of them; and at times victorious provincial governors would bring home great quantities of corn and give it away gratis for their private purposes, with bad results both economic and moral. Gracchus saw that the work of supply needed thorough organisation in regard to production, transport, warehousing, and finance, and set about it with a delight in hard work such as no Roman statesman had shown before, believing that if the people could be fed cheaply and regularly, they would cease to be "a troublesome neighbour."[59] We do not know the details of his scheme of organisation except in one particular, the price at which the corn was to be sold per modius (peck): this was to be six and one-third asses, or rather less than half the normal market-price of the day, so far as it can be made out. Whether he believed that the cost of production could be brought down to this level by regularity of demand and transport we cannot tell; it seems at any rate probable that he had gone carefully into the financial aspect of the business.[60] But there can hardly be a doubt that he miscalculated, and that the result of the law by which he sought to effect his object was a yearly loss to the treasury, so that after his time, and until his law was repealed by Sulla, the people were really being fed largely at the expense of the State, and thus lapsing into a state of semipauperism, with bad ethical consequences.

One of these consequences was that inconsiderate statesmen would only too readily seize the chance of reducing the price of the corn still lower, as was done by Saturninus in 100 B.C., for political purposes. To prevent this Sulla abolished the Gracchan system in toto; but it was renewed in 73 B.C., and in 58 the demagogue P. Clodius made the distribution of corn gratuitous. In 46 Caesar found that no less than 320,000 persons were receiving corn from the State for nothing; by a bill, of which we still possess a part,[61] he reduced the number to 150,000, and by a rigid system of rules, of which we know something, contrived to ensure that it should be kept at that point. With the policy of Augustus and his successors in regard to the corn-supply (annona) I am not here concerned; but it is necessary to observe that with the establishment of the Empire the plebs urbana ceased to be of any importance in politics, and could be treated as a petted population, from whom no harm was to be expected if they were kept comfortable and amused. Augustus seems to have found himself compelled to take up this attitude towards them, and he was able to do so because he had thoroughly reorganised the public finance and knew what he could afford for the purpose. But in time of Cicero the people were still powerful legislation and elections, and the public finance was disorganised and in confusion; and the result was that the corn-supply was mixed up with politics,[62] and handled by reckless politicians in a way that was as ruinous to the treasury as it was to the moral welfare of the city. The whole story, from Gracchus onwards, is a wholesome lesson on the mischief of granting "outdoor relief" in any form whatever, without instituting the means of inquiry into each individual case. Gracchus' intentions were doubtless honest and good; but "ubi semel recto deerratum est, in praeceps pervenitur."

The drink of the Roman was water, but he mixed it with wine whenever he had the chance. Fortunately for him he had no other intoxicating drink; we hear neither of beer nor spirits in Roman literature. Italy was well suited to the cultivation of the vine; and though down to the last century of the Republic the choice kinds of wine came chiefly from Greece, yet we have unquestionable proof that wine was made in the neighbourhood of Rome at the very outset of Roman history. In the oldest religious calendar[63] we find two festivals called Vinalia, one in April and the other in August; what exactly was the relation of each of them to the operations of viticulture is by no means clear, but we know that these operations were under the protection of Jupiter, and that his priest, the Flamen Dialis, offered to him the first-fruits of the vintage. The production of rough wine must indeed have been large, for we happen to know that it was at times remarkably cheap. In 250 B.C., in many ways a wonderfully productive year, wine was sold at an as the congius, which is nearly three quarts;[64] under the early Empire Columella (iii. 3. 10) reckoned the amphora (nearly 6 gallons) at 15 sesterces, i.e. about eightpence That the common citizen did expect to be able to qualify his water with wine seems proved by a story told by Suetonius, that when the people complained to Augustus that the price of wine was too high, he curtly and wisely answered that Agrippa had but lately given them an excellent water-supply.[65] It looks as though they were claiming to have wine as well as grain supplied them by the government at a low price or gratuitously; but this was too much even for Augustus. For his water the Roman, it need hardly be said, paid nothing. On the whole, at the time of which we are speaking he was fairly well supplied with it; but in this, as in so many other matters of urban administration, it was under Augustus that an abundant supply was first procured and maintained by an excellent system of management. Frontinus, to whose work de Aqueductibus we owe almost all that we know about the Roman water-supply, tells us that for four hundred and forty-one years after the foundation of the city the Romans contented themselves with such water as they could get from the Tiber, from wells, and from natural springs, and adds that some of the springs were in his day still held in honour on account of their health-giving qualities.[66] Cicero describes Rome, in his idealising way, as "locum fontibus abundantem," and twenty-three springs are known to have existed; but as early 312 B.C. it was found necessary to seek elsewhere for a purer and more regular supply. More than six miles from Rome, on the via Collatina, springs were found and utilised for this purpose, which have lately been re-discovered at the bottom of some stone quarries; and hence the water was brought by underground pipes along the line of the same road to the city, and through it to the foot of the Aventine, the plebeian quarter. This was the Aqua Appia, named after the famous censor Appius Claudius Caecus, whom Mommsen has shown to have been a friend of the people.[67] Forty years later another censor, Manius Curius Dentatus, brought a second supply, also by an underground channel, from the river Anio near Tibur (Tivoli), the water of which, never of the first quality, was used for the irrigation of gardens and the flushing of drains. In 144 B.C. it was found that these two old aqueducts were out of repair and insufficient, and this time a praetor, Q. Marcius Rex (probably through the influence of a family clique), was commissioned to set them in order and to procure a fresh supply. He went much farther than his predecessors had gone for springs, and drew a volume of excellent and clear cold water from the Sabine hills beyond Tibur, thirty-six miles from the city, which had the highest reputation at all times; and for the last six miles of its course it was carried above ground upon a series of arches.[68] One other aqueduct was added in 125 B.C. the Aqua Tepula, so called because its water was unusually warm; and the whole amount of water entering Rome in the last century of the Republic is estimated at more than 700,000 cubic metres per diem, which would amply suffice for a population of half a million. At the present day Rome, with a population of 450,000, receives from all sources only 379,000.[69] Baths, both public and private, were already beginning to come into fashion; of these more will be said later on. The water for drinking was collected in large castella, or reservoirs, and thence distributed into public fountains, of which one still survives--the "Trofei di Mario," in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele on the Esquiline.[70] When the supply came to be large enough, the owners of insulae and domus were allowed to have water laid on by private pipes, as we have it in modern towns; but it is not certain when this permission was first given.

  1. But we must return to the individual Roman of the masses, whom we have now seen well supplied with the necessaries of life, and try to form some idea of the way in which he was employed, or earned a living. This is by no means an easy task, for these small people, as we have already seen, did not interest their educated fellow-citizens, and for this reason we hear hardly anything of them in the literature of the time. Not only a want of philanthropic feeling in their betters, but an inherited contempt for all small industry and retail dealing, has helped to hide them away from us: an inherited contempt, because it is in fact a survival from an older social system, when the citizen did not need the work of the artisan and small retailer, but supplied all his own wants within the circle of his household, i.e. his own family and slaves, and produced on his farm the material of his food and clothing. And the survival was all the stronger, because even in the late Republic the abundant supply of slaves enabled the man of capital still to dispense largely with the services of the tradesman and artisan.

Cicero expresses this contempt for the artisan and trading classes in more than one striking passage. One, in his treatise on Duties, is probably paraphrased from the Greek of Panaetius, the philosopher who first introduced Stoicism to the Romans, and modified it to suit their temperament, but it is quite clear that Cicero himself entirely endorses the Stoic view. "All gains made by hired labourers," he says, "are dishonourable and base, for what we buy of them is their labour, not their artistic skill: with them the very gain itself does but increase the slavishness of the work. All retail dealing too may be put in the same category, for the dealer will gain nothing except by profuse lying, and nothing is more disgraceful than untruthful huckstering. Again, the work of all artisans (opifices) is sordid; there can be nothing honourable in a workshop."[71]

If this view of the low character of the work of the artisan and retailer should be thought too obviously a Greek one, let the reader turn to the description by Livy[72]--a true gentleman--of the low origin of Terentius Varro, the consul who was in command at Cannae; he uses the same language as Cicero. "He sprang from an origin not merely humble but sordid: his father was a butcher, who sold his own meat, and employed his son in this slavish business." The story may not be true, and indeed it is not a very probable one, but it well represents the inherited feeling towards retail trade of the Roman of the higher classes of society,--a feeling so tenacious of life, that even in modern England, where it arose from much the same causes as in the ancient world, it has only within the last century begun to die out.[73]

Yet in Rome these humble workers existed and made a living for themselves from the very beginning, as far as we can guess, of real city life. They are the necessary and inevitable product of the growth of a town population, and of the resulting division of labour. The following passage from a work on industrial organisation in England may be taken as closely representing the same process in early Rome:[74] "The town arose as a centre in which the surplus produce of many villages could be profitably disposed of by exchange. Trade thus became a settled occupation, and trade prepared the way for the establishment of the handicrafts, by furnishing capital for the support of the craftsmen, and by creating a regular market for their products. It was possible for a great many bodies of craftsmen,--the weavers, tailors, butchers, bakers, etc., to find a livelihood, each craft devoting itself to the supply of a single branch of those wants which the village household had attempted very imperfectly to satisfy by its own labours."

As in mediaeval Europe, so in early Rome, the same conditions produced the same results: we find the craftsmen of the town forming themselves into gilds, not only for the protection of their trade, but from a natural instinct of association, and providing these gilds, on the model of the older groups of family and gens, with a religious centre and a patron deity. The gilds (collegia) of Roman craftsmen were attributed to Numa, like so many other religious institutions; they included associations of weavers, fullers, dyers, shoemakers, doctors, teachers, painters, etc.,[75] and were mainly devoted to Minerva as the deity of handiwork. "The society that witnessed the coming of Minerva from Etruria ... little knew that in her temple on the Aventine was being brought to expression the trade-union idea."[76] These collegia opificum, most unfortunately, pass entirely out of our sight, until they reappear in the age of Cicero in a very different form, as clubs used for political purposes, but composed still of the lowest strata of the free population (collegia sodalicia).[77] The history and causes of their disappearance and metamorphosis are lost to us; but it is not hard to guess that the main cause is to be found in the great economic changes that followed the Hannibalic war,--the vast number of slaves imported, and the consequent resuscitation of the old system of the economic independence of the great households; the decay of religious practice, which affected both public and private life in a hundred different ways; and that steady growth of individualism which is characteristic of eras of town life, and especially of the last three centuries B.C. It is curious to notice that by the time these old gilds emerge into light again as clubs that could be used for political purposes, a new source of gain, and one that was really sordid, had been placed within the reach of the Roman plebs urbana: it was possible to make money by your vote in the election of magistrates. In that degenerate when the vast accumulation of capital made it possible for a man to purchase his way to power, in spite of repeated attempts to check the evil by legislation, the old principle of honourable association was used to help the small man to make a living by choosing the unprincipled and often the incompetent to undertake the government of the Empire.

Apart, however, from such illegal means of making money, there was beyond doubt in the Rome of the last century B.C. a large amount of honest and useful labour done by free citizens. We must not run away with the idea that the whole labour of the city was performed by slaves, who ousted the freeman from his chance of a living. There was indeed a certain number of public slaves who did public work for the State; but on the whole the great mass of the servile population worked entirely within the households and on the estates of the rich, and did not interfere to any sensible degree with the labour of the small freeman. As has been justly observed by Salvioli,[78] never at any period did the Roman proletariat complain of the competition of slave labour as detrimental to its own interests. Had there been no slave labour there, the small freeman might indeed have had a wider field of enterprise, and have been better able to accumulate a small capital by undertaking work for the great families, which was done, as it was, by their slaves. But he was not aware of this, and the two kinds of labour, the paid and the unpaid, went on side by side without active rivalry. No doubt slavery helped to foster idleness, as it did in the Southern States of America before the Civil War;[79] no doubt there were plenty of idle ruffians in the city, ready to steal, to murder, or to hire themselves out as the armed followers of a political desperado like Clodius; but the simple necessities of the life of those who had no slaves of their own gave employment, we may be certain, to a great number of free tradesmen and artisans and labourers of a more unskilled kind.

To begin with, we may ask the pertinent question, how the corn sold cheap by the State was made into bread for the small consumer. Pliny gives us very valuable information, which we may accept as roughly correct, that until the year 171 B.C. there were no bakers in Rome.[80] "The Quirites," he says, "made their own bread, which was the business of the women, as it is still among most peoples." The demand which was thus supplied by a new trade was no doubt caused by the increase of the lower population of the city, by the return of old soldiers, often perhaps unmarried, and by the manumission of slaves, many of whom would also be inexperienced in domestic life and its needs; and we may probably connect it with the growth of the system of insulae, the great lodging-houses in which it would not be convenient either to grind your corn or to bake your bread. So the bakers, called pistores from the old practice of pounding the grain in a mortar (pingere), soon became a very important and flourishing section of the plebs, though never held in high repute; and in connexion with the distributions of corn some of them probably rose above the level of the small tradesman, like the pistor redemptor, Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, whose monument has come down to us.[81] It should be noted that the trade of the baker included the grinding of the corn; there were no millers at Rome. This can be well illustrated from the numerous bakers' shops which have been excavated at Pompeii.[82] In one of these, for example, we find the four mills in a large apartment at the rear of the building, and close by is the stall for the donkeys that turned them, and also the kneading-room, oven, and store-room. Small bakeries may have had only hand-mills, like the one with which we saw the peasant in the Moretum grinding his corn; but the donkey was from quite early times associated with the business, as we know from the fact that at the festival of Vesta, the patron deity of all bakers, they were decorated with wreaths and cakes.[83]

The baking trade must have given employment to a large number of persons. So beyond doubt did the supply of vegetables, which were brought into the city from gardens outside, and formed, after the corn, the staple food of the lower classes. We have already seen in the Moretum the countryman adding to his store of bread by a hotch-potch made of vegetables, and the reader of the poem will have been astonished at the number mentioned, including garden herbs for flavouring purposes. The ancients were fully alive to the value of vegetable food and of fruit as a healthy diet in warm climates, and the wonderfully full information we have on this subject comes from medical writers like Galen, as well as from Pliny's Natural History, and from the writers on agriculture. The very names of some Roman families, e.g. the Fabii and Caepiones, carry us back to a time when beans and onions, which later on were not so much in favour, were a regular part of the diet of the Roman people. The list of vegetables and herbs which we know of as consumed fills a whole page in Marquardt's interesting account of this subject, and includes most of those which we use at the present day.[84] It was only when the consumption of meat and game came in with the growth of capital and its attendant luxury, that a vegetarian diet came to be at all despised. This is another result of the economic changes caused by the Hannibalic war, and is curiously illustrated by the speech of the cook of a great household in the Pseudolus of Plautus, who prides himself on not being as other cooks are, who make the guests into beasts of the field, stuffing them with all kinds of food which cattle eat, and even with things which cattle would refuse![85] we may take it that at all times the Roman of the lower class consumed fruit and vegetables largely, and thus gave employment to a number of market-gardeners and small purveyors. Fish he did not eat; like meat, it was too expensive; in fact fish-eating only came in towards the end of the republican period, and then only as a luxury for those who could afford to keep fish-ponds on their estates. How far the supply of other luxuries, such as butchers' meat, gave employment to freemen, is not very clear; and perhaps we need here only take account of such few other products, e.g. oil and wine, as were in universal demand, though not always procurable by the needy. There were plenty of small shops in Rome where these things were sold; we have a picture of such a shop (caupona) in another of the minor Virgilian poems, the Copa, i.e. hostess, or perhaps in this case the woman who danced and sang for the entertainment of the guests. She plied her trade in a smoky tavern (fumosa taberna), all the contents of which are charmingly described in the poem.[86]

Let us now see how the other chief necessity of human life, the supply of clothing, gave employment to the free Roman shopkeeper.

The clothing of the whole Roman population was originally woollen; both the outer garment, the toga, the inner (tunica) were of this material, and the sheep which supplied it were pastured well and conveniently in all the higher hilly regions of Italy. Other materials, linen, cotton, and silk, came in later with the growth of commerce, but the manufacture of these into clothing was chiefly carried on by slaves in the great households, and we need not take any account of them here. The preparation of wool too was in well regulated households undertaken even under the Empire by the women of the family, including the materfamilias herself, and in many an inscription we find the lanificium recorded as the honourable practice of matrons.[87] But as in the case of food, so with the simple material of clothing, it was soon found impossible in a city for the poorer citizens to do all that was necessary within their own houses; this is proved conclusively by the mention of gilds of fullers[88] (fullones) among those traditionally ascribed to Numa. Fulling is the preparation of cloth by cleansing in water after it has come from the loom; but the fuller's trade of the later republic probably often comprised the actual manufacture of the wool for those who could not do it themselves. He also acted as the washer of garments already in use, and this was no doubt a very important part of his business, for in a warm climate heavy woollen material is naturally apt to get frequently impure and unwholesome. Soap was not known till the first century of the Empire, and the process of cleansing was all the more lengthy and elaborate; the details of the process are known to us from paintings at Pompeii, where they adorn the walls of fulleries which have been excavated. A plan of one of them will be found in Mau's Pompeii, p. 388. The ordinary woollen garments were simply bleached white, not dyed; and though dyers are mentioned among the ancient gilds by Plutarch, it is probable that he means chiefly fullers by the Greek word [Greek: Bapheis].

Of the manufacture of leather we do not know so much. This, like that of wool, must have originally been carried on in the household, but it is mentioned as a trade as early as the time of Plautus.[89] The shoemakers' business was, however, a common one from the earliest times, probably because it needs some technical skill and experience; the most natural division of labour in early societies is sure to produce this trade. The shoemakers' gild was among the earliest, and had its centre in the atrium sutorium;[90] and the individual shoemakers carried on their trade in booths or shops. The Roman shoe, it may be mentioned here, was of several different kinds, according to the sex, rank, and occupation of the wearer; but the two most important sorts were the calceus, the shoe worn with the toga in the city, and the mark of the Roman citizen; and the pero or high boot, which was more serviceable in the country.

Among the old gilds were also those of the smiths (fabri ferrarii) and the potters (figuli), but of these little need be said here, for they were naturally fewer in number than the vendors of food and clothing, and the raw material for their work had, in later times at least, to be brought from a distance. The later Romans seem to have procured their iron-ore from the island of Elba and Spain, Gaul, and other provinces,[91] and to have imported ware of all kinds, especially the finer sorts, from various parts of the Empire; the commoner kinds, such as the dolia or large vessels for storing wine and oil, were certainly made in Rome in the second century B.C., for Cato in his book on agriculture[92] remarks that they could be best procured there. But both these manufactures require a certain amount of capital, and we may doubt whether the free population was largely employed in them; we know for certain that in the early Empire the manufacture of ware, tiles, bricks, etc., was carried on by capitalists, some of them of noble birth, including even Emperors themselves, and beyond doubt the "hands" they employed were chiefly slaves.[93]

But industries of this kind may serve to remind us of another kind of employment in which the lower classes of Rome and Ostia may have found the means of making a living. The importation of raw materials, and that of goods of all kinds, which was constantly on the increase throughout Roman history, called for the employment of vast numbers of porters, carriers, and what we should call dock hands, working both at Ostia, where the heavier ships were unladed or relieved of part of their cargoes in order to enable them to come up the Tiber,[94] and also at the wharves at Rome under the Aventine. We must also remember that almost all porterage in the city had to be done by men, with the aid of mules or donkeys; the streets were so narrow that in trying to picture what they looked like we must banish from our minds the crowds of vehicles familiar in a modern city. Julius Caesar, in his regulations for the government of the city of Rome, forbade waggons to be driven in the streets in the day-time.[95] Even supposing that a large amount of porterage was done by slaves for their masters, we may reasonably guess that free labour was also employed in this way at Rome, as was certainly the case at Ostia, and also at Pompeii, where the pack-carriers (saccarii) and mule-drivers (muliones) are among the corporations of free men who have left in the form of graffiti appeals to voters to support a particular candidate for election to a magistracy.[96]

Thus we may safely conclude that there was a very considerable amount of employment in Rome available for the poorer citizens, quite apart from the labour performed by slaves. But before closing this chapter it is necessary to point out the precarious conditions under which that employment was carried on, as compared with the industrial conditions of a modern city. It is true enough that the factory system of modern times, with the sweating, the long hours of work, and the unwholesome surroundings of our industrial towns, has produced much misery, much physical degeneracy; and we have also the problem of the unemployed always with us. But there were two points in which the condition of the free artisan and tradesman at Rome was far worse than it is with us, and rendered him liable to an even more hopeless submersion than that which is too often the fate of the modern wage-earner.

First, let us consider that markets, then as now, were liable to fluctuation,--probably more liable then than now, because the supply both of food and of the raw material of manufacture was more precarious owing to the greater difficulties of conveyance. Trade would be bad at times, and many things might happen which would compel the man with little or no capital to borrow money, which he could only do on the security of his stock, or indeed, as the law of Rome still recognised, of his person. Money-lenders were abundant, as we shall find in the next chapter, interest was high, and to fall into the hands of a money-lender was only another step on the way to destruction. At the present day, if a tradesman fails in business, he can appeal to a merciful bankruptcy law, which gives him every chance to satisfy his creditors and to start afresh; or in the case of a single debt, he can be put into a county court where every chance is given him to pay it within a reasonable time. All this machinery, most of which (to the disgrace of modern civilisation) is quite recent in date was absent at Rome. The only magistrates administering the civil law were the praetors, and though since the reforms of Sulla there were usually eight of these in the city, we can well imagine how hard it would be for the poor debtor in a huge city to get his affairs attended to. Probably in most cases the creditor worked his will with him, took possession of his property without the interference of the law, and so submerged him, or even reduced him to slavery. If he chose to be merciful he could go to the praetor, and get what was called a missio in bona, i.e. a legal right to take the whole of his debtor's property, waiving the right to his person. And it must be noted that no more humane law of bankruptcy was introduced until the time of Augustus. No wonder that at least three times in the last century of the Republic there arose a cry for the total abolition of debts (tabulae novae): in 88 B.C., after the Social War; in 63, during Cicero's consulship, when political and social revolutionary projects were combined in the conspiracy of Catiline; and in 48, when the economic condition of Italy had been disturbed by the Civil War, and Caesar had much difficulty in keeping unprincipled agitators from applying violent and foolish remedies. But to this we shall return in the next chapter.

Secondly, let us consider that in a large city of to-day the person and property of all, rich or poor are adequately protected by a sound system of police and by courts of first instance which are sitting every day. Assault and murder, theft and burglary, are exceptional. It might be going too far to say that at Rome they were the rule; but it is the fact that in what we may call the slums of Rome there was no machinery for checking them. No such machinery had been invented, because according to the old rules of law, still in force, a father might punish his children, a master his slaves, and a murderer or thief might be killed by his intended victim if caught red-handed. This rude justice would suffice in a small city and a simple social system; but it would be totally inadequate to protect life and property in a huge population, such as that of the Rome of the last century B.C. Since the time of Sulla there had indeed been courts for the trial of crimes of violence, and at all times the consuls with their staff of assistants had been charged with the peace of the city; but we may well ask whether the poor Roman of Cicero's day could really benefit either by the consular imperium or the action of the Sullan courts. A slave was the object of his master's care, and theft from a slave was theft from his owner,--if injured or murdered satisfaction could be had for him. But in that age of slack and sordid government it is at least extremely doubtful whether either the person or the property of the lower class of citizen could be said to have been properly protected in the city. And the same anarchy prevailed all over Italy,--from the suburbs of Rome, infested by robbers, to the sheep-farm of the great capitalist, where the traveller might be kidnapped by runaway slaves, to vanish from the sight of men without leaving a trace of his fate.

It is the great merit of Augustus that he made Rome not only a city of marble, but one in which the person and property of all citizens were fairly secure. By a new and rational bankruptcy law, and by a well-organised system of police, he made life endurable even for the poorest. If he initiated a policy which eventually spoilt and degraded the Roman population, if he failed to encourage free industry as persistently as it seems to us that he might have done, he may perhaps be in some degree excused, as knowing the conditions and difficulties of the problem before him better than we can know them.




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Social Life in Roman Empire
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