Social Life During the Roman Republic


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The modern traveller of to-day arriving at Rome by rail drives to his hotel through the uninteresting streets of a modern town, and thence finds his way to the Forum and the Palatine, where his attention is speedily absorbed by excavations which he finds it difficult to understand. It is as likely as not that he may leave Rome without once finding an opportunity of surveying the whole site of the ancient city, or of asking, and possibly answering the question, how it ever came to be where it is. While occupied with museums and picture-galleries, he may well fail "totam aestimare Romam."[1] Assuming that the reader has never been in Rome, I wish to transport him thither in imagination, and with the help of the map, by an entirely different route. But first let him take up the eighth book of the Aeneid, and read afresh the oldest and most picturesque of all stories of arrival at Rome;[2] let him dismiss all handbooks from his mind, and concentrate it on Aeneas and his ships on their way from the sea to the site of the Eternal City.

Virgil showed himself a true artist in bringing his hero up the Tiber, which in his day was freely used for navigation up to and even above the city. He saw that by the river alone he could land him exactly where he could be shown by his friendly host, almost at a glance, every essential feature of the site, every spot most hallowed by antiquity in the minds of his readers. Rowing up the river, which graciously slackened its swift current, Aeneas presently caught sight of the walls and citadel, and landed just beyond the point where the Aventine hill falls steeply almost to the water's edge. Here in historical times was the dockyard of Rome; and here, when the poet was a child, Cato had landed with the spoils of Cyprus, as the nearest point of the river for the conveyance of that ill-gotten gain to the treasury under the Capitol.[3] Virgil imagines the bank clothed with wood, and in the wood--where afterwards was the Forum Boarium, a crowded haunt--Aeneas finds Evander sacrificing at the Ara maxima of Hercules, of all spots the best starting-point for a walk through the heart of the ancient city. To the right was the Aventine, rising to about a hundred and thirty feet above the river, and this was the first of the hills of Rome to be impressed on the mind of the stranger, by the tale of Hercules and Cacus which Evander tells his guest. In front, but close by, was the long western flank of the Palatine hill, where, when the tale had been told and the rites of Hercules completed, Aeneas was to be shown the cave of the Lupercal; and again to the left, approaching the river within two hundred yards, was the Capitol to be:

Hinc ad Tarpeiam sedem et Capitolia ducit, Aurea nunc, olim silvestribus horrida dumis.

Below it the hero is shown the shrine of the prophetic nymph Carmenta, with the Porta Carmentalis leading into the Campus Martius; then the hollow destined one day to be the Forum Romanum, and beyond it, in the valley of the little stream that here found its way down from the plain beyond, the grove of the Argiletum. Here, and up the slope of the Clivus sacer, with which we shall presently make acquaintance, were the lowing herds of Evander, who then takes his guest to repose for the night in his own dwelling on the Palatine, the site of the most ancient Roman settlement.[4]

What Evander showed to his visitor, as we shall presently see, comprised the whole site of the heart and life of the city as it was to be, all that lay under the steep sides of the three almost isolated hills, the Capitoline, Palatine, and Aventine. The poet knew that he need not extend their walk to the other so-called hills, which come down as spurs from the plain of the Campagna,--Quirinal, Esquiline, Caelian. Densely populated as those were in his own day, they were not essential organs of social and politics life; the pulse of Rome was to be felt beating most strongly in the space between them and the river where too the oldest and most cherished associations of the Roman people, mythical and historical, were fixed. I propose to take the reader, with a single deviation, over the same ground, and to ask him to imagine it as it was in the period with which we are concerned in this book. But first, in order to take in with eye and mind the whole city and its position, let us leave Aeneas, and crossing to the right bank of the Tiber by the Pons Aemilius,[5] let us climb to the fort of the Janiculum, an ancient outwork against attack from the north, by way of the via Aurelia, and here enjoy the view which Martial has made forever famous:

Hinc septem dominos videre montes Et totam licet aestimare Romam,
Albanos quoque Tusculosque colles Et quodcunque iacet sub urbe frigus.

No one who has ever stood on the Janiculum, and looked down on the river and the city, and across the Latin plain to the Alban mountain and the long line of hills--the last spurs of the Apennines--enclosing the plain to the north, can fail to realise that Rome was originally an outpost of the Latins, her kinsmen and confederates, against the powerful and uncanny Etruscan race who dwelt in the undulating hill country to the north. The site was an outpost, because the three isolated hills make it a natural point of defence, and of attack towards the north if attack were desirable; no such point of similar vantage is to be found lower down the river, and if the city had been placed higher up, Latium would have been left open to attack,--the three hills would have been left open to the enemy to gain a firm footing on Latin soil. It was also, as it turned out, an admirable base of operations for carrying on war in the long and narrow peninsula, so awkward, as Hannibal found to his cost, for working out a definite plan of conquest. From Rome, astride of the Tiber, armies could operate on "interior lines" against any combination--could strike north, east, and south at the same moment. With Latium faithful behind her she could not be taken in the rear; the unconquerable Hannibal did indeed approach her once on that side, but fell away again like a wave on a rocky shore. From the sea no enemy ever attempted to reach her till Genseric landed at Ostia in A.D. 455.

Thus it is not difficult to understand how Rome came to be the leading city of Latium; how she came to work her conquering way into Etruria to the north, the land of a strange people who at one time threatened to dominate the whole of Italy; how she advanced up the Tiber valley and its affluents into the heart of the Apennines, and southward into the Oscan country of Samnium and the rich plain of Campania. A glance at the map of Italy will show us at once how apt is Livy's remark that Rome was placed in the centre of the peninsula.[6] That peninsula looks as if it were cleft in twain by the Tiber, or in other words, the Tiber drains the greater part of central Italy, and carries the water down a well-marked valley to a central point on the western coast, with a volume greater than that of any other river south of the Po. A city therefore that commands the Tiber valley, and especially the lower part of it, is in a position of strategic advantage with regard to the whole peninsula. Now Rome, as Strabo remarked, was the only city actually situated on the bank of the river; and Rome was not only on the river, but from the earliest times astride of it. She held the land on both banks from her own site to the Tiber mouth at Ostia, as we know from the fact that one of her most ancient priesthoods[7] had its sacred grove five miles down the river on the northern bank. Thus she had easy access to the sea by the river or by land, and an open way inland up the one great natural entrance from the sea into central Italy.[8] Her position on the Tiber is much like that of Hispalis (Seville) on the Baetis, or of Arles on the Rhone, cities opening the way of commerce or conquest up the basins of two great rivers. In spite of some disadvantages, to be noticed directly, there was no such favourable position in Italy for a virile people apt to fight and to conquer. Capua, in the rich volcanic plain of Campania, had far greater advantages in the way of natural wealth; but Capua was too far south, in a more enervating climate, and virility was never one of her strong points. Corfinium, in the heart of the Apennines, once seemed threatening to become a rival, and was for a time the centre of a rebellious confederation; but this city was too near the east coast--an impossible position for a pioneer of Italian dominion. Italy looks west, not east; almost all her natural harbours are on her western side; and though that at Ostia, owing to the amount of silt carried down by the Tiber, has never been a good one, it is the only port which can be said to command an entrance into the centre of the peninsula.

No one, however, would contend that the position of Rome is an ideal one. Taken in and by itself, without reference to Italy and the Mediterranean, that position has little to recommend it. It is too far from the sea, nearly twenty miles up the valley of a river with an inconveniently rapid current, to be a great commercial or industrial centre; and such a centre Rome has never really been in the whole course of her history. There are no great natural sources of wealth in the neighbourhood--no mines like those at Laurium in Attica, no vast expanse of corn-growing country like that of Carthage. The river too was liable to flood, as it still is, and a familiar ode of Horace tells us how in the time of Augustus the water reached even to the heart of the city.[9] Lastly, the site has never really been a healthy one, especially during the months of July and August,[10] which are the most deadly throughout the basin of the Mediterranean. Pestilences were common at Rome in her early history, and have left their mark in the calendar of her religious festivals; for example, the Apolline games were instituted during the Hannibalic war as the result of a pestilence, and fixed for the unhealthy month of July. Foreigners from the north of Europe have always been liable to fever at Rome; invaders from the north have never been able to withstand the climate for long; in the Middle Ages one German army after another melted away under her walls, and left her mysteriously victorious.

There are some signs that the Romans themselves had occasional misgivings about the excellence of their site. There was a tradition, that after the burning of the city by the Gauls, it was proposed that the people should desert the site and migrate to Veii, the conquered Etruscan city to the north, and that it needed all the eloquence of Camillus to dissuade them. It has given Livy[11] the opportunity of putting into the orator's mouth a splendid encomium on the city and its site; but no such story could well have found a place in Roman annals if the Capitol had been as deeply set in the hearts of the people as was the Acropolis in the hearts of the Athenians. At a later time of deep depression Horace[12] could fancifully suggest that the Romans should leave their ancient home like the Phocaeans of old, and seek a new one in the islands of the blest. Some idea was abroad that Caesar had meant to transfer the seat of government to Ilium, and after Actium the same intention was ascribed to Augustus, probably without reason; but the third ode of Horace's third book seems to express the popular rumour, and in an interesting paper Mommsen[13] has stated his opinion that the new master of the Roman world may really have thought of changing the seat of government to Byzantium, the supreme convenience and beauty of which were already beginning to be appreciated.[14]

Virgil, on the other hand, though he came from the foot of the Alps and did not love Rome as a place to dwell in, is absolutely true to the great traditions of the site. For him "rerum facta est pulcherrima Roma" (Georg. ii. 534); and in the Aeneid the destiny of Rome is so foretold and expressed as to make it impossible for a Roman reader to think of it except in connexion with the city. He who needs to be convinced of this has but to turn once more to the eighth Aeneid, and to add to the charming story of Aeneas' first visit to the seven hills, the splendid picture of the origin and growth of Roman dominion engraved on the shield which Venus gives her son. Cicero again, though he was no Roman by birth, was passionately fond of Rome, and in his treatise de Republica, praised with genuine affection her "nativa praesidia."[15] He says of Romulus, "that he chose a spot abounding in springs, healthy though in a pestilent region; for her hills are open to the breezes, yet give shade to the hollows below them." And Livy, in the passage already quoted, in language even more perfect than Cicero's, wrote of all the advantages of the site, ending by describing it as "regionum Italiae medium, ad incrementum urbis natum unice locum." It is curious that all these panegyrics were written by men who were not natives of Rome; Virgil came from Mantua, Livy from Padua, Cicero from Arpinum. They are doubtless genuine, though in some degree rhetorical; those of Cicero and Livy can hardly be called strictly accurate. But taken together they may help us to understand that fascination of the site of Rome, to which Virgil gave such inimitable expression.

On this site, which once had been crowded only when the Roman farmers had taken refuge within the walls with their families, flocks, and herds on the threatening appearance of an enemy, by the time of Cicero an enormous population had gathered. Many causes had combined to bring this population together, which can be only glanced at here. As in Europe and America at the present day, so in all the Mediterranean lands since the age of Alexander, there had been a constantly increasing tendency to flock into the towns; and the rise of huge cities, such as Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, Corinth, or Rhodes, with all the inevitably ensuing social problems and complications, is one of the most marked characteristics of the last three centuries B.C. In Italy in particular, apart from the love of a pleasant social life free from manual toil, with various convenient resorts and amusements, the long series of wars had served to increase the population, in spite of the constant loss by the sword or pestilence; for the veteran soldier who had been serving, perhaps for years, beyond sea, found it hard to return to the monotonous life of agriculture, or perhaps found his holding appropriated by some powerful landholder with whom it would be hopeless to contest possession. The wars too brought a steadily increasing population of slaves to the city, many of whom in course of time would be manumitted, would marry, and so increase the free population. These are only a few of the many causes at work after the Punic wars which crammed together in the site of Rome a population which, in the latter part of the last century B.C., probably reached half a million or even more.[16]

Let us now descend from the Janiculum, and try to imagine ourselves in the Rome of Cicero's time, say in the last year of the Republic, 50 B.C., as we walk through the busy haunts of this crowded population. We will not delay on the right bank of the Tiber, which had probably long been the home of tradesmen in their gilds,[17] and where farther down the rich were buying land for gardens[18] and suburban villas; but cross by the Pons Aemilius, with the Tiber island on our left, and the opening of the Cloaca maxima, which drained the water from the Forum, facing us, as it still does, a little to our right. We find ourselves close to the Forum Boarium, an open cattle-market, with shops (tabernae) all around it, as we know from Livy's record of a fire here, which burnt many of these shops and much valuable merchandise.[19] Here by the river was in fact the market in the modern sense of the word; the Forum Romanum, which we are making for, was now the centre of political and judicial business, and of social life.

We might go direct to the great Forum, up the Velabrum, or valley (once a marsh), right in front of us between the Capitol on the left and the Palatine on the right. But as we look in the latter direction, we are attracted by a long low erection almost filling the space between the Palatine and the Aventine, and turning in that direction we find ourselves at the lower end of the Circus Maximus, which as yet is the chief place of amusement of the Roman people. Two famous shrines, one at each end of it, remind us that we are on historic ground. At the end where we stand, and where are the carceres, the starting-point for the competing chariots, was the Ara maxima of Hercules, which prompted Evander to tell the tale of Cacus to his guest; at the other end was the subterranean altar of Consus the harvest-god, with which was connected another tale, that of the rape of the Sabines. All the associations of this quarter point to the agricultural character of the early Romans; both cattle and harvesting have their appropriate myth. But nothing is visible here now, except the pretty little round temple of a later date, which is believed to have been that of Portunus, the god of the landing-place from the river.[20]

The Circus, some six hundred yards long, at the time of Cicero was still mainly a wooden erection in the form of a long parallelogram, with shops or booths sheltering under its sides; we shall visit it again when dealing with the public entertainments.[21] Above it on the right is the Aventine hill, a densely populated quarter of the lower classes, crowned with the famous temple of Diana, a deity specially connected with the plebs.[22] The Clivus Patricius led up to this temple; down this slope, on the last day of his life, Gaius Gracchus had hurried, to cross the river and meet his murderers in the grove of Furrina, of which the site has lately been discovered. If we were to ascend it we should see, on the river-bank below and beyond it, the warehouses and granaries for storing the corn for the city's food-supply, which Gracchus had been the first to extend and organise.

But to ascend the Aventine would take us out of our course. Pushing on to the farther end of the Circus, where the chariots turned at the metae, we may pause a moment, for in front of us is a gate in the city wall, the Porta Capena, by which most travellers from the south, using the via Appia or the via Latina, would enter the city.[23] Outside the wall there was then a small temple of Mars, from which the procession of the Equites started each year on the Ides of Quinctilis (July) on its way to the Capitol, by the same route that we are about to take. We shall also be following the steps of Cicero on the happy day September 4, 57 B.C., when he returned from exile. "On my arrival at the Porta Capena," he writes to Atticus, "the steps of the temples were already crowded from top to bottom by the populace; they showed their congratulations by the loudest applause, and similar crowds and applause followed me right up to the Capitol, and in the Forum and on the Capitol itself there was again a wonderful throng" (ad Att. iv.

  1. .

We are now, as the map will show, at the south-eastern angle of the Palatine, of which, in fact, we are making the circuit;[24] a and here we turn sharp to the left, by what is now the via di San Gregorio, along a narrow valley or dip between the Palatine and Caelian hills--the latter the first we have met of the "hills" which are not isolated, but spurs of the plain of the Campagna. The Caelian need not detain us; it was thickly populated towards the end of the Republican period, but was not a very fashionable quarter, nor one of the chief haunts of social life. It held many of those large lodging-houses (insulae) of which we shall hear more in the next chapter; one of these stood so high that it interfered with the view of the augur taking the auspices on the Capitol, and was ordered to be pulled down.[25] Going straight on reach the north-eastern angle of the Palatine, where now stands the arch of Constantine, with the Colosseum beyond it, and turning once more to the left, we begin to ascend a gentle slope which will take us to a ridge between the Palatine and the Esquiline[26]--another of the spurs of the plain beyond--known by the name of the Velia. And now we are approaching the real heart of the city.

At this point starts the Sacra via,[27] so called because it is the way to the most sacred spots of the ancient Roman city,--the temples of Vesta and the Penates, and the Regia, once the dwelling of the Rex, now of the Pontifex Maximus; and it will lead us, in a walk of about eight hundred yards, through the Forum to the Capitol. It varied in breadth, and took by no means a straight course, and later on was crowded, cramped, and deflected by numerous temples and other buildings; but as yet, so far as we can guess, it was fairly free and open. We follow it and ascend the slope till we come to a point known as the summa sacra via, just where the arch of Titus now stands, and where then was the temple of Jupiter Stator, and where also a shrine of the public Penates and another of the Lares (of which no trace is now left) warn us that we are close on the penetralia of the Roman State. Here a way to the left leads up to the Palatine the residence then of many of the leading men of Rome, Cicero being one of them.

But our attention is not long arrested by these objects; it is soon riveted on the Forum below and in front of us, to which the Sacred Way leads by a downward slope, the Clivus sacer. At the north-western end it is closed in by the Capitoline hill, with its double summit, the arx to the right, and the great temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva facing south-east towards the Aventine. It is of this view that Virgil must have been thinking when he wrote of the happy lot of the countryman who

nec ferrea iura
insanumque forum aut populi tabularia vidit.[28]

For the Forum is crowded with bustling human figures, intent on the business of politics, or of the law-courts (ferrea iura), or of money-making, and just beyond it, immediately under the Capitol, are the record-offices (tabularia) of the Roman Empire. The whole Sacra via from this point is crowded; here Horace a generation later was to meet his immortal "bore," from whom he only escaped when the "ferrea iura" laid a strong hand on that terrible companion. Down below, at the entrance to the Forum by the arch of Fabius (fornix Fabiana), the jostling was great. "If I am knocked about in the crowd at the arch," says Cicero, to illustrate a point in a speech of this time, "I do not accuse some one at the top of the via Sacra, but the man who jostles me."[29]

The Forum--for from this point we can take it all in, geologically and historically--lies in a deep hollow, to the original level of which excavation has now at last reached. This hollow was formed by a stream which came down between the Esquiline and the Quirinal beyond it, and made its exit towards the river on the other side by way of the Velabrum. As the city extended itself, amalgamating with another community on the Quirinal, this hollow became a common meeting-place and market, and the stream was in due time drained by that Cloaca which we saw debouching into the Tiber near the bridge we crossed. The upper course of this stream, between Esquiline and Quirinal, is a densely populated quarter known as the Argiletum, and higher up as the Subura,[30] where artisans and shops abounded. The lower part of its course, where it has become an invisible drain, is also a crowded street, the vicus Tuscus, leading to the Velabrum, and so to our starting-point at the Forum Boarium.

Let us now descend the Clivus sacer, crossing to the right-hand side of the slope, which the via Sacra now follows, and reach the Forum by the fornix Fabiana. Close by to our left is the round temple of Vesta, where the sacred fire of the State is kept ever burning by its guardians, the Vestal Virgins, and here too is their dwelling, the Atrium Vestae, and also that of the Pontifex Maximus (Regia), in whose potestas they were; these three buildings, then insignificant to look at, constituted the religious focus of the oldest Rome.[31] A little farther again to the left is the temple of Castor and the spring of Juturna, lately excavated, where the Twins watered their steeds after the battle of the lake Regillus. In front of us we can see over the heads of the crowd the Rostra at the farther end of the Forum, where an orator is perhaps addressing a crowd (contio) on some political question of the moment, and giving some occupation to the idlers in the throng; and to the right of the Rostra is the Comitium or assembling-place of the people, with the Curia, the ancient meeting-hall of the senate. In Cicero's day the mere shopman had been got rid of from the Forum, and his place is taken by the banker and money-lender, who do their business in tabernae stretching in rows along both sides of the open space. Much public business, judicial and other, is done in the Basilicae,--roofed halls with colonnades, of which there are already five, and a new one is arising on the south side, of which the ground-plan, as it was extended soon afterwards by Julius Caesar, is now completely laid bare. But it is becoming evident that the business of the Empire cannot be much longer crowded into this narrow space of the Forum, which is only about two hundred yards long by seventy; and the next two generations will see new Fora laid out larger and more commodious, by Julius and Augustus in the direction of the Quirinal.

Now making our way towards the Capitol, we pass the famous temple or rather gate of the double-headed Janus, standing at the entrance to the Forum from the Argiletum and the Porta Esquilina; then the Comitium and Curia (which last was burnt by the mob in 52 B.C., at the funeral of Clodius), and reach the foot of the Clivus Capitolinus, just where was (and is) the ancient underground prison, called Tullianum, from the old word for a spring (tullus), the scene of the deaths of Jugurtha and many noble captives, and of the Catilinarian conspirators on December 5, 63. Here the via Sacra turns, in front of the temple of Concordia, to ascend the Capitol. Behind this temple, extending farther under the slope, is the Tabularium, already mentioned, which is still much as it was then; and below us to the south is the temple of Saturnus, the treasury (aerarium) of the Roman people. Thus at this end of the Forum, under the Capitol, are the whole set of public offices, facing the ancient religious buildings around the Vesta temple at the other end.

The way now turns again to the right, and reaches the depression between the two summits of the Capitoline hill. Leaving the arx on the left, we reach by a long flight of steps the greatest of all Roman temples, placed on a long platform with solid substructures of Etruscan workmanship, part of which is still to be seen in the garden of the German Embassy. The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, with his companions Juno and Minerva, was in a special sense the religious centre of the State and its dominion. Whatever view he might take of the gods and their cults, every Roman instinctively believed that this great Jupiter, above all other deities, watched over the welfare of Rome, and when a generation later Virgil placed the destiny of Rome's mythical hero in the hands of Jupiter, every Roman recognised in this his own inherited conviction. Here, on the first day of their office, the higher magistrates offered sacrifice in fulfilment of the vows of their predecessors, and renewed the same vows themselves. The consul about to leave the city for a foreign war made it his last duty to sacrifice here, and on his return he deposited here his booty. Here came the triumphal procession along the Sacred Way, the conquering general attired and painted like the statue of the god within the temple; and upon the knees of the statue he placed his wreath of laurel, rendering up to the deity what he had himself deigned to bestow. Here too, from a pedestal on the platform, a statue of Jupiter looked straight over the Forum,[32] the Curia, and the Comitium; and Cicero could declare from the Rostra, and know that in so declaring he was touching the hearts of his hearers, that on that same day on which it had first been so placed, the machinations of Catiline and his conspirators had been detected.[33] "Ille, ille Iupiter restitit; ille Capitolium, ille haec templa, ille cunctam urbem, ille vos omnes salvos esse voluit."

The temple had been destroyed by fire in the time of Sulla, and its restoration was not as yet finally completed at the time of our imaginary walk.[34] It faced towards the river and the Aventine, i.e. south-east, according to the rules of augural lore, like all Roman public buildings of the Republican period. From the platform on which it stands we look down on the Forum Boarium, from which we started, connected with the Forum by the Velabrum and the vicus Tuscus; and more to the right below us is the Campus Martius, with access to the city by that Porta Carmentalis which Evander showed to Aeneas. This spacious exercise-ground of Roman armies is already beginning to be built upon; in fact the Circus Flaminius has been there for more than a century and a half, and now the new theatre of Pompeius, the first stone theatre in Rome, rises beyond it towards the Vatican hill. But there is ample space left; for it is nearly a mile from the Capitol to that curve of the Tiber above which the Church of St. Peter now stands; and on this large expanse, at the present day, the greater part of a population of nearly half a million is housed. I do not propose to take the reader farther. We have been through the heart of the city, as it was at the close of the Republican period, and from the platform of the great temple we can see all else that we need to keep in mind in these chapters.

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Social Life in Roman Empire