Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

The Story of Rome From the Earliest Times to the End of the Republic

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We have now traced the career of the people of Rome from the time when they were the plain and rustic subjects of a king, through their long history as a conquering republic, down to the period when they lost the control of government and fell into the hands of a ruler more autocratic than their earlier tyrants. The heroic age of the republic had now long since passed away, and with it had gone even the admiration of those personal qualities which had lain at the foundation of the national greatness.

History at its best is to such an extent made up of stories of the doings of rulers and fighting-men, who happen by their mere strength and physical force to have made themselves prominent, that it is often read without conveying any actual familiarity with the people it is ostensibly engaged with. The soldiers and magistrates of whom we have ourselves been reading were but few, and we may well ask what the millions of other citizens were doing all these ages. How did they live? What were their joys and griefs? We have, it is true, not failed to get an occasional glimpse of the intimate life of the people who were governed, as we have seen a Virginia passing through the forum to her school, and a Lucretia spinning among her maidens, and we have learned that in the earliest times the workers were honored so much that they were formed into guilds, and had a very high position among the centuries (see pages 31 and 50), but these were only suggestions that make us all the more desirous to know particulars.

Rome had not become a really magnificent city, even after seven hundred years of existence. We know that it was a mere collection of huts in the time of Romulus, and that after the burning of the principal edifices by the Gauls, it was rebuilt in a hurried and careless manner, the houses being low and mean, the streets narrow and crooked, so that when the population had increased to hundreds of thousands the crowds found it difficult to make their way along the thoroughfares, and vehicles with wheels were not able to get about at all, except in two of the streets. The streets were paved, it is true, and there were roads and aqueducts so well built and firm that they claim our admiration even in their ruins.


The Roman house at first was extremely simple, being of but one room called the atrium, or darkened chamber, because its walls were stained by the smoke that rose from the fire upon the hearth and with difficulty found its way through a hole in the roof. The aperture also admitted light and rain, the water that dripped from the roof being caught in a cistern that was formed in the middle of the room. The atrium was entered by way of a vestibule open to the sky, in which the gentleman of the house put on his toga as he went out. [Footnote: When Cincinnatus went out to work in the field, he left his toga at home, wearing his tunic only, and was "naked" (nudus), as the Romans said. The custom illustrates MATT, xxiv., 18. (See p. 86.)] Double doors admitted the visitor to the entrance-hall or ostium. There was a threshold, upon which it was unlucky to place the left foot; a knocker afforded means of announcing one's approach, and a porter, who had a small room at the side, opened the door, showing the caller the words Cave canem (beware of the dog), or Salve (welcome), or perchance the dog himself reached out toward the visitor as far as his chain would allow. Sometimes, too, there would be noticed in the mosaic of the pavement the representation of the faithful domestic animal which has so long been the companion as well as the protector of his human friend. Perhaps myrtle or laurel might be seen on a door, indicating that a marriage was in process of celebration, or a chaplet announcing the happy birth of an heir. Cypress, probably set in pots in the vestibule, indicated a death, as a crape festoon does upon our own door-handles, while torches, lamps, wreaths, garlands, branches of trees, showed that there was joy from some cause in the house.


In the "black room" the bed stood; there the meals were cooked and eaten, there the goodman received his friends, and there the goodwife sat in the midst of her maidens spinning. The original house grew larger in the course of time: wings were built on the sides, and the Romans called them wings as well as we (ala, a wing). Beyond the black room a recess was built in which the family records and archives were preserved, but with it for a long period the Roman house stopped its growth.

Before the empire came, however, there had been great progress in making the dwelling convenient as well as luxurious. Another hall had been built out from the room of archives, leading to an open court, surrounded by columns, known as the peristylum (peri about, stulos, a pillar), which was sometimes of great magnificence. Bedchambers were made separate from the atrium, but they were small, and would not seem very convenient to modern eyes.

The dining-room, called the triclinium (Greek, kline, a bed) from its three couches, was a very important apartment. In it were three lounges surrounding a table, on each of which three guests might be accommodated. The couches were elevated above the table, and each man lay almost flat on his breast, resting on his left elbow, and having his right hand free to use, thus putting the head of one near the breast of the man behind him, and making natural the expression that he lay in the bosom of the other. [Footnote: In the earliest times the Romans sat at table on benches. The habit of reclining was introduced from Greece, but Roman women sat at table long after the men had fallen into the new way.] As the guests were thus arranged by threes, it was natural that the rule should have been made that a party at dinner should not be less in number than the Graces nor more than the Muses, though it has remained a useful one ever since.

Spacious saloons or parlors were added to the houses, some of which were surrounded with galleries and highly adorned. In these the dining- tables were spread on occasions of more ceremony than usual. After the capture of Syracuse, and the increase of familiarity with foreign art, picture-rooms were built in private dwellings; and after the second Punic war, book-rooms became in some sort a necessity. Before the republic came to an end, it was so fashionable to have a book-room that ignorant persons who might not be able to read even the titles of their own books endeavored to give themselves the appearance of erudition by building book-rooms in their houses and furnishing them with elegance. The books were in cases arranged around the walls in convenient manner, and busts and statues of the Muses, of Minerva, and of men of note were used then as they are now for ornaments. [Footnote: The books were rolls of the rind (liber) of the Egyptian papyrus, which early became an article of commerce, or of parchment, written on but one side and stained of a saffron color on the other. Slaves were employed to make copies of books that were much in demand, and booksellers bought and sold them.] House-philosophers were often employed to open to the uninstructed the stores of wisdom contained in the libraries.

As wealth and luxury increased, the Romans added the bath-room to their other apartments. In the early ages they had bathed for comfort and cleanliness once a week, but the warm bath was apparently unknown to them. In time this became very common, and in the days of Cicero there were hot and cold baths, both public and private, which were well patronized. Some were heated by fires in flues, directly under the floors, which produced a vapor bath. The bath was, however, considered a luxury, and at a later date it was held a capital offence to indulge in one on a religious holiday, and the public baths were closed when any misfortune happened to the republic.

Comfort and convenience united to take the cooking out of the atrium (which then became a reception-room) into a separate apartment known as the culina, or kitchen, in which was a raised platform on which coals might be burned and the processes of broiling, boiling, and roasting might be carried on in a primitive manner, much like the arrangement still to be seen at Rome. On the tops of the houses, after a while, terraces were planned for the purpose of basking in the sun, and sometimes they were furnished with shrubs, fruit-trees, and even fishponds. Often there were upwards of fifty rooms in a house on a single floor; but in the course of time land became so valuable that other stories were added, and many lived in flats. A flat was sometimes called an insula, which meant, properly, a house not joined to another, and afterwards was applied to hired lodgings. Domus, a house, meant a dwelling occupied by one family, whether it were an insula or not.

The floors of these rooms were sometimes, but not often, laid with boards, and generally were formed of stone, tiles, bricks, or some sort of cement. In the richer dwellings they were often inlaid with mosaics of elegant patterns. The walls were often faced with marble, but they were usually adorned with paintings; the ceilings were left uncovered, the beams supporting the floor or the roof above being visible, though it was frequently arched over. The means of lighting, either by day or night, were defective. The atrium was, as we have seen, lighted from above, and the same was true of other apartments--those at the side being illuminated from the larger ones in the middle of the house. There were windows, however, in the upper stories, though they were not protected by glass, but covered with shutters or lattice-work, and, at a later period, were glazed with sheets of mica. Smoking lamps, hanging from the ceiling or supported by candelabra, or candles, gave a gloomy light by night in the houses, and torches without.

The sun was chiefly depended upon for heat, for there were no proper stoves, though braziers were used to burn coals upon, the smoke escaping through the aperture in the ceiling, and, in rare cases, hot- air furnaces were constructed below, the heat being conveyed to the upper rooms through pipes. There has been a dispute regarding chimneys, but it seems almost certain that the Romans had none in their dwellings, and, indeed, there was little need of them for purposes of artificial warmth in so moderate a climate as theirs.

Such were some of the chief traits of the city houses of the Romans. Besides these, there were villas in the country, some of which were simply farm-houses, and others places of rest and luxury supported by the residents of cities. The farm villa was placed, if possible, in a spot secluded from visitors, protected from the severest winds, and from the malaria of marshes, in a well-watered place near the foot of a well-wooded mountain. It had accommodations for the kitchen, the wine- press, the farm-superintendent, the slaves, the animals, the crops, and the other products of the farm. There were baths, and cellars for the wine and for the confinement of the slaves who might have to be chained.

Varro thus describes life at a rural household: "Manius summons his people to rise with the sun, and in person conducts them to the scene of their daily work. The youths make their own bed, which labor renders soft to them, and supply themselves with water-pot and lamp. Their drink is the clear fresh spring; their fare, bread, with onions as a relish. Every thing prospers in house and field. The house is no work of art, but an architect might learn symmetry from it. Care is taken of the field that it shall not be left disorderly, and waste or go to ruin through slovenliness or neglect; and, in return, grateful Ceres wards off damage from the produce, that the high-piled sheaves may gladden the heart of the husbandman. Here hospitality still holds good; every one who has but imbibed mother's milk is welcome. The bread-pantry, the wine-vat, and the store of sausages on the rafter,--lock and key are at the service of the traveller, and piles of food are set before him; contented, the sated guest sits, looking neither before him nor behind, dozing by the hearth in the kitchen. The warmest double-wool sheepskin is spread as a couch for him. Here people still, as good burgesses, obey the righteous law which neither out of envy injures the innocent, nor out of favor pardons the guilty. Here they speak no evil against their neighbors. Here they trespass not with their feet on the sacred hearth, but honor the gods with devotion and with sacrifices; throw to the familiar spirit his little bit of flesh into his appointed little dish, and when the master of the household dies accompany the bier with the same prayer with which those of his father and of his grandfather were borne forth."

The pleasure villa had many of the appointments of the town house, but was outwardly more attractive, of course. It stood in the midst of grassy slopes, was approached through avenues of trees leading to the portico, before which was a terrace and ornaments made of box-trees cut into fantastic forms representing animals. The dining-room stood out from the other buildings, and was light and airy. Perhaps a grand bedchamber was likewise built out from the others, so that it might have the warmth of the sun upon it through the entire day. Connected with the establishment were walks ornamented with flowerbeds, closely clipped hedges, and trees tortured into all sorts of unnatural shapes. There were shaded avenues for gentle exercise afoot or in litters; there were fountains, and perhaps a hippodrome formed like a circus, with paths divided by hedges and surrounded by large trees in which the luxurious owner and his guests might run or exercise themselves in the saddle. [Footnote: Roman extravagance ran riot in the appointments of the villa. One is mentioned that sold for some $200,000, chiefly because it comprised a desirable fish-pond. A late writer says of the site of Pompey's villa on a slope of the Alban hills: "It has never ceased in all the intervening ages to be a sort of park, and very fine ruins, from out of whose massive arches grow a whole avenue of live oaks, attest to the magnificence which must once have characterized the place. The still beautiful grounds stretch along the shore of the lake as far as the gate of the town of Albano.... The house in Rome I occupy, stands in the old villa of Mæcenas, an immense tract of land comprising space enough to contain a good-sized city.... Where did the Plebs live? and what air did they and their children breathe? Who cared or knew, so long as Pompey or Cæsar fared sumptuously? What marvel that there were revolutions!"]

In such houses the Roman family lived, composed as families must be, of parents and children, to which were usually added servants, for after the earlier times of simplicity had passed away it became so fashionable to keep slaves to perform all the different domestic labors, that one could hardly claim to be respectable unless he had at least ten in his household. The first question asked regarding a stranger was: "How many slaves does he keep?" and upon its answer depended the social position the person would have in the inquirer's estimation. The son did not pass from his father's control while that parent lived, but the daughter might do so by marriage. The power of the father over his children and grandchildren, as well as over his slaves was very great, and the family spirit was exceedingly strong.

When a man and a woman had agreed to marry, and the parents and friends had given their consent, there was sometimes a formal meeting at the maiden's house, at which the marriage-agreement was written out on tablets and signed by the engaged persons. It seems, too, that in some cases the man placed a ring on the hand of his betrothed. It was no slight affair to choose the wedding-day, for no day that was marked ater on the calendar would be considered fit for the purpose of the rites that were to accompany the ceremony. The calends (the first day of the month), the nones (the fifth or seventh), and the ides (the thirteenth or fifteenth), would not do, nor would any day in May or February, nor many of the festivals.

In early times, the bride dressed herself in a long white robe, adorned with ribbons, and a purple fringe, and bound herself with a girdle on her wedding day. She put on a bright yellow veil and shoes of the same color, and submitted to the solemn religious rites that were to make her a wife. The pair walked around the altar hand in hand, received the congratulations of their friends, and the bride, taken with apparent force from the arms of her mother, as the Sabine women were taken in the days of Romulus, was conducted to her new home carrying a distaff and a spindle, emblems of the industry that was thought necessary in the household work that she was to perform or direct. Strong men lifted her over the threshold, lest her foot should trip upon it, and her husband saluted her with fire and water, symbolic of welcome, after which he presented her the keys. A feast was then given to the entire train of friends and relatives, arid probably the song was sung of which Talasia was the refrain. [Footnote: See page 22.] Sometimes the husband gave another entertainment the next day, and there were other religious rites after which the new wife took her proud position as mater-familias, sharing the honors of her husband, and presiding over the household.

The wives and daughters made the cloth and the dresses of the household, in which they had ample occupation, but their labors did not end there. [Footnote: Varro contrasts the later luxury with past frugality, setting in opposition the spacious granaries, and simple farm arrangements of the good old times, and the peacocks and richly inlaid doors of a degenerate age. Formerly even the city matron turned the spindle with her own hand, while at the same time she kept her eye upon the pot on the hearth; now the wife begs the husband for a bushel of pearls, and the daughter demands a pound of precious stones: then the wife was quite content if the husband gave her a trip once or twice in the year in an uncushioned wagon; now she sulks if he go to his country estate without her, and as she travels my lady is attended to the villa by the fashionable host of Greek menials and singers.] The grinding of grain and the cooking was done by the servants, but the wife had to superintend all the domestic operations, among which was included the care of the children, though old Cato thought it was necessary for him to look after the washing and swaddling of his children in person, and to teach them what he thought they ought to know. The position of the woman was entirely subordinate to the husband, though in the house she was mistress. She belonged to the household and not to the community, and was to be called to account for her doings by her father, her husband, or her near male relatives, not by her political ruler. She could acquire property and inherit money the same as a man could, however. When the pure and noble period of Roman history had passed, women became as corrupt as the rest of the community. The watering-places were scenes of unblushing wickedness; women of quality, but not of character, masquerading before the gay world with the most reckless disregard of all the proprieties of life. [Footnote: Cato the Elder, who enjoyed uttering invectives against women, was free in denouncing their chattering, their love of dress, their ungovernable spirit, and condemned the whole sex as plaguy and proud, without whom men would probably be more godly.]


The garments of Roman men and women were of extreme simplicity for a long period, but the desire of display and the love of ornament succeeded in making them at last highly adorned and varied. Both men and women wore two principal garments, the tunic next to the body, and the pallium which was thrown over it when going abroad; but they also each had a distinctive article of dress, the men wearing the toga (originally worn also by women), a flowing outer garment which no foreigner could use, and the women the stola, which fell over the tunic to the ankles and was bound about the waist by a girdle. Boys and girls wore a toga with a broad border of purple, but when the boy became a man he threw this off and wore one of the natural white color of the wool.

Sometimes the stola was clasped over the shoulder, and in some instances it had sleeves. The pallium was a square outer garment of woollen goods, put on by women as well as men when going out. It came into use during the civil wars, but was forbidden by Augustus. Both sexes also wore in travelling a thick, long cloak without sleeves, called the pænula, and the men wore also over the toga a dark cloak, the lacerna.

On their feet the men wore slippers, boots, and shoes of various patterns. The soccus was a slipper not tied, worn in the house; and the solea a very light sandal, also used in the house only. The sandalium proper was a rich and luxurious sandal introduced from Greece and worn by women only. The baxa was a coarse sandal made of twigs, used by philosophers and comic actors; the calcæus was a shoe that covered the foot, though the toes were often exposed; and the cothurnus, a laced boot worn by horsemen, hunters, men of authority, and tragic actors, and it left the toes likewise exposed.

An examination of the mysteries of the dressing-rooms of the ladies of Rome displays most of the toilet conveniences that women still use. They dressed their hair in a variety of styles (see page 155), and used combs, dyes, oils, and pomades just as they now do. They had mirrors, perfumes, soaps in great variety, hair-pins, ear-rings, bracelets, necklaces, gay caps and turbans, and sometimes ornamental wigs.


The change that came over Rome during the long period of the kingdom and the republic is perhaps as evident in the table customs as in any respect. For centuries the simple Roman sat down at noon to a plain dinner of boiled pudding made of spelt (far), and fruits, which, with milk, butter, and vegetables, formed the chief articles of his diet. His table was plain, and his food was served warm but once a day. When the national horizon had been enlarged by the foreign wars, and Asiatic and Greek influences began to be felt, hot dishes were served oftener, and the two courses of the principal meal no longer sufficed to satisfy the fashionable appetite. A baker's shop was opened at the time of the war with Perseus, and scientific cookery rapidly came into vogue.

We cannot follow the course of the history of increasing luxury in its details. Towards the end of the republic, breakfast (jentaculum), consisting of bread and cheese, with perhaps dried fruit, was taken at a very early hour, in an informal way, the guests not even sitting down. At twelve or one o'clock luncheon followed (prandium). There was considerable variety in this meal. The principal repast of the day (cæna) occurred late in the afternoon, some time just before sunset, there having been the same tendency to make the hour later and later that has been manifested in England and America. There were three usual courses, the first comprising stimulants to the appetite, eggs, olives, oysters, lettuce, and a variety of other such delicacies. For the second course the whole world was put under requisition. There were turbots and sturgeon, eels and prawns, boar's flesh and venison, pheasants and peacocks, ducks and capons, turtles and flamingoes, pickled tunny-fishes, truffles and mushrooms, besides a variety of other dishes that it is impossible to mention here. After these came the dessert, almonds and raisins and dates, cheese-cakes and sweets and apples. Thus the egg came at the beginning, and the apple, representative of fruit in general, at the end, a fact that gave Horace ground for his expression, ab ovo usque ad mala, from the egg to the apple, from the beginning to the end. [Footnote: The practical side of the Roman priesthood was the priestly cuisine; the augural and pontifical banquets were, as we may say, the official gala days in the life of a Roman epicure, and several of them form epochs in the history of gastronomy: the banquet on the occasion of the inauguration of the augur Quintus Hortensius, for instance, brought roast peacocks into vogue.--Mommsen. Book IV., chap. 12.]

The Roman dinner was served with all the ostentatious elegance and formality of our own days, if not with more. The guests assembled in gay dresses ornamented with flowers; they took off their shoes, lest the couch, inlaid with ivory, perhaps, or adorned with cloth of gold, should be soiled; and laid themselves down to eat, each one adjusting his napkin carefully, and taking his position according to his relative importance, the middle place being deemed the most honorable. About the tables stood the servants, dressed in the tunic, and carrying napkins or rough cloths to wipe off the table, which was of the richest wood and covered by no cloth. While some served the dishes, often of magnificent designs, other slaves offered the feasters water to rinse their hands, or cooled the room with fans. At times music and dances were added to give another charm to the scene.

The first occupation of the Romans was agriculture, in which was included the pasturage of flocks and herds. In process of time trades were learned, and manufactures (literally making with the hand, manus, the hand, facere, to make) were introduced, but not, of course, to any thing like the extent familiar in our times. There were millers and shoe-makers, butchers and tanners, bakers and blacksmiths, besides other tradesmen and laborers. In the process of time there were also artists, but in this respect Rome did not excel as Greece had long before. There were also physicians, lawyers, and teachers, besides office-holders. [Footnote: There were office-seekers, also, and of the most persistent kind, throughout the whole history of the republic, and they practised the corrupt arts of the most ingenious of the class in modern times. The candidate went about clad in a toga of artificial whiteness (candidus, white), accompanied by a nomenclator, who gave him the names of the voters they might meet, so that he could compliment them by addressing them familiarly, and he shook them by the hand. He "treated" the voters to drink or food in a very modern fashion, though with a more than modern profusion; and he went to the extreme of bribing them if treating did not suffice. Against these practices Coriolanus haughtily protests, in Shakespeare's play. Sometimes candidates canvassed for votes outside of Rome, as Cicero proposed in one of his letters to Atticus.]

When the Roman wished to go from place to place he had a variety of modes among which to choose, as we have already had suggested by Horace in his account of the trip from Rome to Brundusium. He might have his horse saddled, and his saddle-bags packed, as our fathers did of yore; he could do as one of the rich provincial governors described by Cicero did when, at the opening of a Sicilian spring, he entered his rose- scented litter, carried by eight bearers, reclining on a cushion of Maltese gauze, with garlands about his head and neck, applying a delicate scent-bag to his nose as he went. There were wagons and cars, in which he might drive over the hard and smooth military roads, and canals; and along the routes, there were, as Horace has told us, taverns at which hospitality was to be expected.

The Roman law was remarkable for embodying in itself "the eternal principles of freedom and of subordination, of property and legal redress," which still reign unadulterated and unmodified, as Mommsen says; and this system this strong people not only endured but actually ordained for itself, and it involved the principle that a free man could not be tortured, a principle which other European peoples embraced only after a terrible and bloody struggle of a thousand years.

One of the punishments is worthy of mention here. We have already noticed its infliction. It was ordered that a person might not live in a certain region, or that he be confined to a certain island, and that he be interdicted from fire and water, those two essentials to life, in case he should overstep the bounds mentioned. These elements with the Romans had a symbolical meaning, and when the husband received his bride with fire and water, he signified that his protection should ever be over her. Thus their interdiction meant the withdrawal of the protection of the state from a person, which left him an outlaw. Such a law could only have been made after the nation had become possessed of regions somewhat remote from its centre of power. England can now exile its criminals to another hemisphere, and Russia to a distant region of deserts and cold, but neither country could have punished by exile before it owned such regions.

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