Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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Silius was a noble, with a nobleman's privileges and also his limitations. The class next in rank below his consisted of the "knights," of whom something has already been said. It will be remembered that these men of the "narrow stripe" were the higher middle class, who conducted most of the greater financial enterprises of Rome and the provinces. While the senatorial order could govern the important provinces, command legions, possess large estates, and derive revenues from them, but could make money in other ways only through the more or less concealed agency of knights or their own freedmen, the knights were free to act as bankers, money-lenders, tax-farmers, and merchants or contractors in a large way, and to take charge of such third-rate provinces as the Caesar might think fit to entrust to them. Money-lending at Rome was an extremely profitable business. Not only was the nobleman often extravagant in his tastes, but when once elected to a public position he was practically compelled to spend money lavishly in giving shows and exhibitions of the kind which will be described immediately, or upon some public building, or otherwise. In consequence he often incurred heavy debts. Meanwhile the smaller traders and agriculturists, who were in competition with slave-labour and other false economic conditions, to say nothing of bad seasons, were frequently in the hands of the usurers. Though efforts were repeatedly made to check exorbitant rates of interest, they were apparently quite as ineffectual as with us. An almost standard charge was at the rate of one-twelfth of the loan, or 8-1/3 per cent, but another common rate was that of one per cent per month. Rates both higher and lower are known to us from particular cases. Naturally the question depended on the security, when it did not depend upon the greed of the one side and the ignorance of the other. Much, however, of what the books call money-lending was only what we should consider legitimate banking. Be this as it may, the knights made large fortunes from the practice. They were also the tax-farmers, who operated in the case of those imposts which were still left indirect. The practice was to make an estimate of the amount of such a tax derivable from a province, to purchase it from the government at as large a margin of profit as possible, and so relieve the state of the trouble and cost of collecting it. For this purpose "companies" were formed, with what we should call a "legal manager" at Rome. The managers would bid at auction for the tax, pay the purchase-money into the treasury, and proceed to get in the tax through local managers and agents in the provinces concerned. It has already been explained that the more important taxation of the empire was at this date direct--a community in Gaul, Spain, Asia Minor, or Syria knowing what its assessment was, taking its own measures, and using its own native or local collectors. The knights at Rome might still advance sums to such communities, but they were not in this case tax-farmers. It is unfortunate that the word "publicans"--bracketed with "sinners"--is used in the New Testament translation for the local collectors like St. Matthew. Not only does the word convey either no notion or a wholly incongruous one to the ordinary reader, but it is apt to mislead those who know its origin. Because the financial companies at Rome, in purchasing the taxes, were taking up a public contract, they were called publicani. But it is not these men who were themselves acting as petty collectors--in any case they had nothing to do with the native collectors appointed by the communities--and it is not these who enjoyed an immediate association with "sinners." The fact is that the Latin word applied to the great tax-farming companies, who were acting for Rome, was afterwards transferred to even the smallest collecting agent with opportunities for extortion and harshness.

The stratum of Roman society below the knights was extremely composite. The slaves, of course, are not included. They have no right to the Roman "toga," nor may they even wear the conical Roman cap, except at the Saturnalia, when everything is deliberately topsy-turvy. Omitting these, we may roughly divide the rest, as the Romans themselves divided them, into "people" and "rabble." The rabble are either persons without regular occupation, or lazzaroni, sheer idlers, loafers, and beggars. Doubtless many of them would execute an errand or carry a parcel for a small copper, otherwise they would be found hanging about the public squares, lounging on the steps or in the precincts of public buildings, such as temples, basilicas, porticoes, and baths, and playing at what the Italians call morra--a more clever and tricky species of "How many fingers do I hold up?"--or at "Heads or Tails." The poor of ancient Rome, like those of modern Italy, could subsist on very plain and simple food. Water, with a dash of wine when it could be got--and apparently at this date wine cost less than a penny a quart--and porridge or bread, however coarse, would suffice, so long as there were amusements, sunshine, and no need to work. Every considerable city of the empire round the Mediterranean would doubtless contain its proportion of such "lewd fellows of the baser sort," but it was naturally the imperial city that contained by far the most. Rome was by no means the only city in which doles of free corn were made and free spectacular exhibitions given. But in other places the distributions were occasional and depended on the bounty of local men of wealth or ambition, whereas at Rome the dole was regular, and the spectacles frequent and splendid. Rome was the capital, and the abode of the emperor. It claimed the privileges of the Mistress City, including the enjoyment of the surplus revenues. Policy also demanded that the rabble should be kept quiet by "bread and games."

It is for these reasons that the names of some 200,000 citizens stood upon a list to receive each month an allowance of corn--apparently between six and seven bushels--at the expense of the imperial treasury. This quantity they took away and made into bread as best they could. In many cases doubtless they sold it to the bakers and others. It must be added that, apart from the free distribution, the imperial stores contained quantities of grain which could always be purchased at a low rate. Occasionally a dole of money was added; in one case Nero gave over £2 per man. Meanwhile there was water in abundance to be had for nothing, brought by the carefully kept aqueducts into numerous fountains conveniently placed throughout the city. While, however, we must recognise that the number of idlers was very large, we must be careful not to exaggerate. It is absurd to assume, as some have done, that because 200,000 citizens are receiving free corn there are 200,000 unemployed. The Roman emperors never intended to put a premium on laziness, but only to deal with poverty. In order to receive your dole of corn it was not necessary to show that you were starving, but only that you were entitled, or in other words, on the list. It is also a mistake to think that any chance arrival among the Roman olla podrida could claim his bushel and a half of corn a week. In any case only Roman citizens could participate. All the poorest workers, whether actually employed or not, could take their corn with the rest. Nor must we forget that among the unemployed there were a considerable number who were, for one reason or another, only temporarily out of work. Nevertheless, it requires no study of political economy to know, nor were Roman statesmen blind to see, that the best way to make men cease to work is to show them that they can live, however shabbily, without. The really surprising thing is perhaps that the Roman government, with its immense funds and resources, stopped short where it did. An unsound economic system had brought about difficult conditions, with which the emperors and their advisers dealt as best they could.

It was inevitable that among so numerous a pampered rabble, and so many impoverished aliens who tried their fortunes in the capital, there should be beggars in considerable numbers. We cannot tell precisely how many they were. You might find them on the bridges, where they marked, as it were, a "stand" for themselves and crouched on a mat, or at the gates, or wherever carriages must proceed slowly on the highroads near the city, as for instance up the slope of the Appian Way as it passed over the south-western spur of the Alban Hills. Other towns would be infested in the same manner. Nor were thieves and footpads wanting in the streets or highwaymen upon the roads, especially in the lonelier parts near the marshes between Rome and the Bay of Naples. The city was, indeed, liberally policed, but Roman streets, as we have seen, were for the most part narrow, crooked, and unlighted at night. As usual, it was the comparatively poor who suffered from the street robber; the rich, with their torches and retinue, could always protect themselves.

After the "rabble" we will take the "people" in the sense current at this date. We must begin by adjusting our notions somewhat. The Romans made no such clear distinction as we do between trades and professions. To perform work for others and to receive pay for it is to be a hireling. Painters, sculptors, physicians, surgeons, and auctioneers are but more highly paid and more pleasantly engaged hirelings. Only so far do they differ from sign-painters, masons, undertakers, or criers. No doubt the theory broke down somewhat in practice, yet such is the theory. That which in our day constitutes a "liberal" profession--a previous liberal education and a high code of professional etiquette--can hardly be said to have existed in the case of corresponding professions at Rome. If the liberality departs from our own professional education and the etiquette is relaxed, we shall presumably revert to the same state of things. A surgeon was commonly a "sawbones," and a physician a compounder and prescriber of more or less empirical drugs. Their knowledge and skill were by no means contemptible, and their instruments and pharmacopoeia were surprisingly modern. Among the Greeks and Orientals their social standing was high, but at Rome, where they were chiefly foreigners, for the most part Greeks, the old aristocratic exclusiveness kept them in comparatively humble estimation, however large might be their fees in the more important cases. Something will be said later as to the state of science and knowledge in the Roman world. For the present it is sufficient to note that artist, medical man, attorney, schoolmaster, and clerk belong theoretically to the common "people," along with butchers, bakers, carpenters, and potters.

[Illustration: FIG. 69.--SURGICAL INSTRUMENTS. (Pompeii.)]

Setting aside the aristocratic and wealthy classes on the one hand, and the pauperised class on the other, we have lying between them the workers, whether native Romans or the emancipated slaves, who are now citizens known as "freedmen." To these we must add the rather shabby genteel persons whom we have already described as "clients." Among workers are found men and women of all the callings most familiar to ourselves, with one exception. They do not include domestic servants. Romans who could afford regular servants kept slaves. It 18 true that occasionally one of the poorer citizens, even a soldier on furlough, might perform some menial task connected with a household, such as hewing wood or carrying burdens; but such services were regarded as "servile." With this exception there is scarcely an occupation in which Roman citizens did not engage. In such work they often had to compete with slave-labour. It is probable, doubtless, that the greater proportion of the slave body were employed as domestic servants. But many others tilled the lands of the larger proprietors. Others laboured under the contractors who constructed the public works. Others were used as assistants in shops and factories. It is obvious that such competition reduced the field of free labour, when it did not close it entirely, and the free labour must have been unduly cheapened. But to suppose that all the Roman work, whether in town or country, was done by slaves is to be grossly in the wrong. Romans were to be found acting as ploughmen and herdsmen, workers in vineyards, carpenters, masons, potters, shoemakers, tanners, bakers, butchers, fullers, metal-workers, glass-workers, clothiers, greengrocers, shopkeepers of all kinds. There were Roman porters, carters, and wharf-labourers, as well as Roman confectioners and sausage-sellers. To these private occupations must be added many positions in the lower public or civil service. There was, for example, abundant call for attendants of the magistrates, criers, messengers, and clerks. Unfortunately our information concerning all this class is very inadequate. The Roman writers--historians, philosophers, rhetoricians, and poets--have extremely little to say about the humble persons who apparently did nothing to make history or thought. They are mentioned but incidentally, and generally without interest, if not with some contempt, except where a poet is choosing to glorify the simple life and therefore turns his gaze on the frugal peasantry, who doubtless did, in sober fact, retain most of the sturdy old Roman spirit. About the soldiers we know much, and not a little about the schoolmasters. The connection of the one occupation with history and of the other with authors will account for this fact. Something will be said of the army and also of the schools in their special places. Keepers of inns are not rarely in evidence in the literature of satire and epigram, and no language seems too contemptuous for their alleged dishonesty. But of inns enough has been said. We learn that the booksellers made money out of the works of which they caused their slaves to make copies, and which they sold in "well got up" style for four shillings, or, in the case of slender volumes, for as little as fourpence-halfpenny. But to this day we do not know how much profit an author drew from the bookseller, or how it was determined, or whether he drew any at all. It is most reasonable to suppose that he sold a book straight out to the publisher for what he could get. Otherwise it is hard to see how any check could be kept upon the sales. The only occupation upon which literature offers us systematic information is agriculture, including the pasturing of cattle and the culture of the vine. For the rest we derive more knowledge from the excavations of Pompeii than from any other source. From actual shops and their contents, from pictures illustrating contemporary life, and from inscriptions and advertisements, we are enabled to reconstruct some picture of commercial and industrial operations. We can see the fuller, the baker, the goldsmith, the wine-seller, and the wreath-maker at their work. We can discern something of the retail trade in the Forum; or we can see the auctioneer making up his accounts.

[Illustration: FIG. 70.--BAKER'S MILLS. (Pompeii.)]

[Illustration: FIG. 71.--CUPIDS AS GOLDSMITHS. (Wall Painting.)]

[Illustration: FIG. 72.--GARLAND-MAKERS.]


The baker, for example, was his own miller. There are still standing the mills, with the upper stone--a hollow cylinder with a pinched waist--capable of revolving upon the under stone and letting the flour drop into the rim below. Into the holes in the middle of the upper or "donkey" stone, and across the top, were fixed wooden bars, which were either pushed by men or drawn by asses yoked to them. The oven is still in place, and, charred as they are, we are quite familiar with the round flat loaves shaped and divided like a large "cross" bun. The dough was kneaded by a vertical shaft with arms revolving in a receptacle, from the sides of which other arms projected inwards, so that there was little room for the dough to be squeezed between them. We have pictures of the fuller, to whom the woollen garments--the togas and tunics, and the mantles of the women--were regularly sent to be washed by treading in vats, to be beaten, stretched, and bleached with sulphur, and to have their naps raised with a comb or a bunch of thorns. The goldsmith is depicted at his furnace or his anvil. The garland-makers are at work fastening the blossoms or petals on a ribbon or a tough strip of lime-bark. Dealers in other goods are showing the results of their labour to customers, who carefully examine them by eye, touch, and smell. The tablets containing the receipts for sales and rents still exist as they were found in the house of the shrewd-looking Jucundus the auctioneer. They formally acknowledge the receipt of such-and-such sums realised at an auction, "minus commission," although unfortunately they do not happen to tell us how much the commission was. We see the venders of wine filling the jars for customers from the large wine-skin in the waggon. In conclusion to this subject it should be observed that all manner of descriptive signs were in use; and just as one may still see a barber's pole or a gilt boot in front of a shop, or a painted sign at a public-house, so one might see the representation of a goat at the door of a milk-vender, or of an eagle or elephant at the door of an inn.

[Illustration: FIG. 74.--PLOUGH. (Primitive and later forms.)]

Meanwhile out in the country we can perceive the farm, with its hedges of quick-set, its stone walls, or its bank and ditch. The rather primitive plough--though not always so primitive as it was a generation or so ago in Italy--is being drawn by oxen, while, for the rest, there are in use nearly all the implements which were employed before the quite modern invention of machinery. It may be remarked at this point that the rotation of crops was well understood and regularly practised. Then there are the pasturelands, on the plains in the winter, but in summer on the hills, to which the herdsmen drive their cattle along certain drove-roads till they reach the unfenced domains belonging to the state. There they form a camp of huts or wigwams under a "head man," and surround their charges with strong fierce dogs, whose business it is to protect them, not only from thieves, but also from the wolves which were then common on the Apennines--where, indeed, bears also were to be met. There was no want of occupation in the country in the time of haymaking, of the vintage, or of olive-picking. Even the city unemployed could gather a bunch of grapes or pick an olive, just as they can with us, or just as the London hop-picker can take a holiday and earn a little money in Kent. In the vineyards, where the vines commonly trailed upon low elms and other trees, various vegetables grew between the rows, as they still do about Vesuvius; on the hills were olive-groves, which cost almost nothing to keep in order, and which supplied the "butter" and the lamp-oil of the Mediterranean world.

[Illustration: FIG. 75.--TOOLS ON TOMB.]

We need not waste much compassion upon the life of the Roman working class. It is true that there was then no doctrine of the "dignity of labour," but that there was reasonable pride taken in a trade reputably maintained is seen from the frequent appearance of its tools upon a tombstone. In respect of the mere enjoyment of life, the labourers, of the Roman world were, so far as we can gather, tolerably happy. They had abundant holidays, mostly of religious origin; but, like our own, so frequently added to, and so far diverted from religious thoughts, that they were more marked by jollity and sport than by any solemnity of spirit. The workmen of a particular calling formed their guilds, "city companies," or clubs, in the interests of their trade and for mutual benefit. There was a guild of bakers, a guild of goldworkers, and a guild of anything and everything else. Each guild had its special deity--such as Vesta, the fire-goddess, for the bakers, and Minerva, the goddess of wool-work, for the fullers--and it held an annual festival in honour of such patrons, marching through the streets with regalia and flag. Doubtless the members of a guild acted in concert for the regulation of prices, although the Roman government took care that these clubs should be non-political, and would speedily suppress a strike if it seriously interfered with the public convenience. The ostensible excuse for a guild, and apparently the only one theoretically accepted by the imperial government, was the excuse of a common worship. It is at least certain that the emperors jealously watched the formation of any new union, and that they would promptly abolish any which appeared to have secret understandings and aims, or to act in contravention of the law. In the towns which possessed local government the municipal authorities were still elected by the people; and the guilds, especially of shopkeepers, could and did play their parts in determining the election of a candidate. The elections might make a difference to them in those ways in which modern town-councillors and mayors, may influence the rates, the conditions of the streets, the rules of traffic, and so forth. There are sixteen hundred election notices painted, in red and black about the walls of Pompeii, and we find So-and-So recommended by such-and-such a trade as being a "good man," or "an honest young man," or a person who will "keep an eye on the public purse." It is amusing to note that, in satirical parody of such appeals as "the fruitsellers recommend So-and-So," we find that "the petty thieves recommend So-and-So," or we get the opinion of "the sleepers one and all." Special objects connected with these and other associations were the provision of "widows' funds," and of proper burial for the members. Of the importance of the latter to the ancient world we shall speak when we come to a funeral and the religious ideas connected with it.

The most difficult task in dealing with antiquity is to visualise the actual life as it was lived. In the life of the humbler citizens the remains of Pompeii lend more help than anything else to the desired sense of reality, but they are the remains of Pompeii, not of Rome. Nevertheless there are many points in which we may fairly argue from the little town to the larger, and it is customary to adopt this course.

[Illustration: FIG. 76.--POMPEIAN COOK-SHOP.]

We may, therefore, think of the common people among these ancients as very much alive in their frank curiosity, their broad humour, their love of shows, and their keen enthusiasm for the competitions, their interest in petty local elections, their advertising instincts, their insatiable fondness for scribbling on walls and pillars, whether in paint or with a "style," a sort of small stiletto with which they commonly wrote on tablets. The ancient world becomes very near when we read, side by side with the election notices, a line from Virgil or Ovid scrawled in a moment of idleness, or a piece of abuse of a neighbouring and rival town--such as "bad luck to the Nucerians"--or a pretty sentiment, such as "no one is a gentleman who has not been in love," or an advertisement to the effect that there are "To let, from July 1, shops with their upper floors, a flat for a gentleman, and a house: apply to Prinus, slave of So-and-So"; or "Found wandering, a mare with packsaddle, apply, etc."--the latter, by the way, painted on a tomb.

[Illustration: FIG. 77.--IN A WINE-SHOP.]

For places of social resort there were the baths, the colonnades, the semicircular public seats, the steps of public buildings, the shops, and the eating-houses and taverns. The middle classes, in the absence of the modern clubs, met to gossip at the barber's, the bookseller's, or the doctor's. Those of a humbler grade would often betake themselves to the establishments corresponding to the modern Italian osterie, where were to be obtained wine with hot or cold water and also cooked food. As they sat on their stools in these "greasy and smoky" haunts they might be compelled, says the satirist, to mix with "sailors, thieves, runaway slaves, and the executioner," but even men of higher standing were often not unwilling to seek low pleasures amid such surroundings, especially when, as was frequently the case, there was provision for secret dicing beyond the observation of the police.

From literature, meanwhile, we may fill in their vivacious language, the courteous terms the people apply to each other, such as "you ass, pig, monkey, cuckoo, chump, blockhead, fungus," or, on the other side, "my honey, my heart, my dove, my life, my sparrowkin, my dainty cheese." But to go more fully into matters like these would carry us too far afield.

We will end this topic with a last look at the ordinary free workman, who wears no toga, but simply a girt-up tunic, a pair of boots, and a conical cap, and who goes home to his plain fare of bread, porridge, lentil soup, goats'-milk cheese, "broad" and "French" beans, beetroot, leeks, salted or smoked bacon, sausages, and black-pudding, which he will eat off earthenware or a wooden trencher, and wash down with cheap but not unwholesome wine mixed with water. He has no pipe to smoke; he has never heard of tea, coffee, or spirits. He may have been told that certain remote barbarians drink beer, and he may know of a thing called butter, but he would not touch it so long as he can get olive-oil. However humble his home, he will endeavour to own a silver salt-cellar, and to keep it as an heirloom.

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