The Common People of Rome

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In the early days the authority of the Roman father over his wife, his sons, and his daughters was absolute. He did what seemed to him good for his children. His oversight and care extended to all the affairs of their lives. The state was modelled on the family and took over the autocratic power of the paterfamilias. It is natural to think of it, therefore, as a paternal government, and the readiness with which the Roman subordinated his own will and sacrificed his personal interests to those of the community seems to show his acceptance of this theory of his relation to the government. But this conception is correct in part only. A paternal government seeks to foster all the common interests of its people and to provide for their common needs. This the Roman state did not try to do, and if we think of it as a paternal government, in the ordinary meaning of that term, we lose sight of the partnership between state supervision and individual enterprise in ministering to the common needs and desires, which was one of the marked features of Roman life. In fact, the gratification of the individual citizen's desire for those things which he could not secure for himself depended in the Roman Empire, as it depends in this country, not solely on state support, but in part on state aid, and in part on private generosity. We see the truth of this very clearly in studying the history of the Roman city. The phase of Roman life which we have just noted may not fit into the ideas of Roman society which we have hitherto held, but we can understand it as no other people can, because in the United States and in England we are accustomed to the co-operation of private initiative and state action in the establishment and maintenance of universities, libraries, museums, and all sorts of charitable institutions.

If we look at the growth of private munificence under the Republic, we shall see that citizens showed their generosity particularly in the construction of public buildings, partly or entirely at their own expense. In this way some of the basilicas in Rome and elsewhere which served as courts of justice and halls of exchange were constructed. The great Basilica Æmilia, for instance, whose remains may be seen in the Forum to-day, was constructed by an Æmilius in the second century before our era, and was accepted as a charge by his descendants to be kept in condition and improved at the expense of the Æmilian family. Under somewhat similar conditions Pompey built the great theatre which bore his name, the first permanent theatre to be built in Rome, and always considered one of the wonders of the city. The cost of this structure was probably covered by the treasure which he brought back from his campaigns in the East. In using the spoils of a successful war to construct buildings or memorials in Rome, he was following the example of Mummius, the conqueror of Corinth, and other great generals who had preceded him. The purely philanthropic motive does not bulk largely in these gifts to the citizens, because the people whose armies had won the victories were part owners at least of the spoils, and because the victorious leader who built the structure was actuated more by the hope of transmitting the memory of his achievements to posterity in some conspicuous and imperishable monument than by a desire to benefit his fellow citizens.

These two motives, the one egoistic and the other altruistic, actuated all the Roman emperors in varying degrees. The activity of Augustus in such matters comes out clearly in the record of his reign, which he has left us in his own words. This remarkable bit of autobiography, known as the "Deeds of the Deified Augustus," the Emperor had engraved on bronze tablets, placed in front of his mausoleum. The original has disappeared, but fortunately a copy of it has been found on the walls of a ruined temple at Ancyra, in Asia Minor, and furnishes us abundant proof of the great improvements which he made in the city of Rome. We are told in it that from booty he paid for the construction of the Forum of Augustus, which was some four hundred feet long, three hundred wide, and was surrounded by a wall one hundred and twenty feet high, covered on the inside with marble and stucco. Enclosed within it and built with funds coming from the same source was the magnificent temple of Mars the Avenger, which had as its principal trophies the Roman standards recovered from the Parthians. This forum and temple are only two items in the long list of public improvements which Augustus records in his imperial epitaph, for, as he proudly writes: "In my sixth consulship, acting under a decree of the senate, I restored eighty-two temples in the city, neglecting no temple which needed repair at the time." Besides the temples, he mentions a large number of theatres, porticos, basilicas, aqueducts, roads, and bridges which he built in Rome or in Italy outside the city.

But the Roman people had come to look for acts of generosity from their political as well as from their military leaders, and this factor, too, must be taken into account in the case of Augustus. In the closing years of the Republic, candidates for office and men elected to office saw that one of the most effective ways of winning and holding their popularity was to give public entertainments, and they vied with one another in the costliness of the games and pageants which they gave the people. The well-known case of Cæsar will be recalled, who, during his term as ædile, or commissioner of public works, bankrupted himself by his lavish expenditures on public improvements, and on the games, in which he introduced three hundred and twenty pairs of gladiators for the amusement of the people. In his book, "On the Offices," Cicero tells us of a thrifty rich man, named Mamercus, who aspired to public office, but avoided taking the ædileship, which stood in the regular sequence of minor offices, in order that he might escape the heavy outlay for public entertainment expected of the ædile. As a consequence, when later he came up for the consulship, the people punished him by defeating him at the polls. To check the growth of these methods of securing votes, Cicero, in his consulship, brought in a corrupt practices act, which forbade citizens to give gladiatorial exhibitions within two years of any election in which they were candidates. We may doubt if this measure was effective. The Roman was as clever as the American politician in accomplishing his purpose without going outside the law. Perhaps an incident in the life of Cicero's young friend, Curio, is a case in point. It was an old Roman custom to celebrate the ninth day after a burial as a solemn family festival, and some time in the second century before our era the practice grew up of giving gladiatorial contests on these occasions. The versatile Curio, following this practice, testified his respect for his father's memory by giving the people such elaborate games that he never escaped from the financial difficulties in which they involved him. However, this tribute of pious affection greatly enhanced his popularity, and perhaps did not expose him to the rigors of Cicero's law.

These gifts from generals, from distinguished citizens, and from candidates for office do not go far to prove a generous or philanthropic spirit on the part of the donors, but they show clearly enough that the practice of giving large sums of money to embellish the city, and to please the public, had grown up under the Republic, and that the people of Rome had come to regard it as the duty of their distinguished fellow citizens to beautify the city and minister to their needs and pleasures by generous private contributions.

All these gifts were for the city of Rome, and for the people of the city, not for the Empire, nor for Italy. This is characteristic of ancient generosity or philanthropy, that its recipients are commonly the people of a single town, usually the donor's native town. It is one of many indications of the fact that the Roman thought of his city as the state, and even under the Empire he rarely extended the scope of his benefactions beyond the walls of a particular town. The small cities and villages throughout the West reproduced the capital in miniature. Each was a little world in itself. Each of them not only had its forum, its temples, colonnades, baths, theatres, and arenas, but also developed a political and social organization like that of the city of Rome. It had its own local chief magistrates, distinguished by their official robes and insignia of office, and its senators, who enjoyed the privilege of occupying special seats in the theatre, and it was natural that the common people at Ostia, Ariminum, or Lugudunum, like those at Rome, should expect from those whom fortune had favored some return for the distinctions which they enjoyed. In this way the prosperous in each little town came to feel a sense of obligation to their native place, and this feeling of civic pride and responsibility was strengthened by the same spirit of rivalry between different villages that the Italian towns of the Middle Ages seem to have inherited from their ancestors, a spirit of rivalry which made each one eager to surpass the others in its beauty and attractiveness. Perhaps there have never been so many beautiful towns in any other period in history as there were in the Roman Empire, during the second century of our era, and their attractive features--their colonnades, temples, fountains, and works of art--were due in large measure to the generosity of private citizens. We can make this statement with considerable confidence, because these benefactions are recorded for us on innumerable tablets of stone and bronze, scattered throughout the Empire.

These contributions not only helped to meet the cost of building temples, colonnades, and other structures, but they were often intended to cover a part of the running expenses of the city. This is one of the novel features of Roman municipal life. We can understand the motives which would lead a citizen of New York or Boston to build a museum or an arch in his native city. Such a structure would serve as a monument to him; it would give distinction to the city, and it would give him and his fellow citizens æsthetic satisfaction tion But if a rich New Yorker should give a large sum to mend the pavement in Union Square or extend the sewer system on Canal Street, a judicial inquiry into his sanity would not be thought out of place. But the inscriptions show us that rich citizens throughout the Roman Empire frequently made large contributions for just such unromantic purposes. It is unfortunate that a record of the annual income and expenses of some Italian or Gallic town has not come down to us. It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the budget of Mantua or Ancona, in the first century of our era, with that of Princeton or Cambridge in the twentieth. But, although we rarely know the sums which were expended for particular purposes, a mere comparison of the objects for which they were spent is illuminating. The items in the ancient budget which find no place in our own, and vice versa, are significant of certain striking differences between ancient and modern municipal life.

Common to the ancient and the modern city are expenditures for the construction and maintenance of public buildings, sewers, aqueducts, and streets, but with these items the parallelism ends. The ancient objects of expenditure which find no place in the budget of an American town are the repair of the town walls, the maintenance of public worship, the support of the baths, the sale of grain at a low price, and the giving of games and theatrical performances. It is very clear that the ancient legislator made certain provisions for the physical and spiritual welfare of his fellow citizens which find little or no place in our municipal arrangements to-day. If, among the sums spent for the various objects mentioned above, we compare the amounts set apart for religion and for the baths, we may come to the conclusion that the Roman read the old saying, "Cleanliness is next to godliness" in the amended form "Cleanliness is next above godliness." No city in the Empire seems to have been too small or too poor to possess public baths, and how large an item of annual expense their care was is clear from the fact that an article of the Theodosian code provided that cities should spend at least one-third of their incomes on the heating of the baths and the repair of the walls. The great idle population of the city of Rome had to be provided with food at public expense. Otherwise riot and disorder would have followed, but in the towns the situation was not so threatening, and probably furnishing grain to the people did not constitute a regular item of expense. So far as public entertainments were concerned, the remains of theatres and amphitheatres in Pompeii, Fiesole, Aries, Orange, and at many other places to-day furnish us visible evidence of the large sums which ancient towns must have spent on plays and gladiatorial games. In the city of Rome in the fourth century, there were one hundred and seventy-five days on which performances were given in the theatres, arenas, and amphitheatres.

We have been looking at the items which were peculiar to the ancient budget. Those which are missing from it are still more indicative, if possible, of differences between Roman character and modes of life and those of to-day. Provision was rarely made for schools, museums, libraries, hospitals, almshouses, or for the lighting of streets. No salaries were paid to city officials; no expenditure was made for police or for protection against fire, and the slaves whom every town owned probably took care of the public buildings and kept the streets clean. The failure of the ancient city government to provide for educational and charitable institutions, means, as we shall see later, that in some cases these matters were neglected, that in others they were left to private enterprise. It appears strange that the admirable police and fire system which Augustus introduced into Rome was not adopted throughout the Empire, but that does not seem to have been the case, and life and property must have been exposed to great risks, especially on festival days and in the unlighted streets at night. The rich man could be protected by his bodyguard of clients, and have his way lighted at night by the torches which his slaves carried, but the little shopkeeper must have avoided the dark alleys or attached himself to the retinue of some powerful man. Some of us will recall in this connection the famous wall painting at Pompeii which depicts the riotous contest between the Pompeians and the people of the neighboring town of Nuceria, at the Pompeian gladiatorial games in 50 B.C., when stones were thrown and weapons freely used. What scenes of violence and disorder there must have been on such occasions as these, without systematic police surveillance, can be readily imagined.

The sums of money which an ancient or a modern city spends fall in two categories--the amounts which are paid out for permanent improvements, and the running expenses of the municipality. We have just been looking at the second class of expenditures, and our brief examination of it shows clearly enough that the ancient city took upon its shoulders only a small part of the burden which a modern municipality assumes. It will be interesting now to see how far the municipal outlay for running expenses was supplemented by private generosity, and to find out the extent to which the cities were indebted to the same source for their permanent improvements. A great deal of light is thrown on these two questions by the hundreds of stone and bronze tablets which were set up by donors themselves or by grateful cities to commemorate the gifts made to them. The responsibility which the rich Roman felt to spend his money for the public good was unequivocally stated by the poet Martial in one of his epigrams toward the close of the first century of our era. The speaker in the poem tells his friend Pastor why he is striving to be rich--not that he may have broad estates, rich appointments, fine wines, or troops of slaves, but "that he may give and build for the public good" ("ut donem, Pastor, et ædificem"), and this feeling of stewardship found expression in a steady outpouring of gifts in the interests of the people.

The practice of giving may well have started with the town officials. We have already noticed that in Rome, under the Republic, candidates for office, in seeking votes, and magistrates, in return for the honors paid them, not infrequently spent large sums on the people. In course of time, in the towns throughout the Empire this voluntary practice became a legal obligation resting on local officials. This fact is brought out in the municipal charter of Urso,[95] the modern Osuna, in Spain. Half of this document, engraved on tablets, was discovered in Spain about forty years ago, and makes a very interesting contribution to our knowledge of municipal life. A colony was sent out to Urso, in 44 B.C., by Julius Cæsar, under the care of Mark Antony, and the municipal constitution of the colony was drawn up by one of these two men. In the seventieth article, we read of the duumvirs, who were the chief magistrates: "Whoever shall be duumvirs, with the exception of those who shall have first been elected after the passage of this law, let the aforesaid during their magistracy give a public entertainment or plays in honor of the gods and goddesses Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, for four days, during the greater part of the day, so far as it may be done, at the discretion of the common councillors, and on these games and this entertainment let each one of them spend from his own money not less than two thousand sesterces." The article which follows in the document provides that the ædiles, or the officials next in rank, shall give gladiatorial games and plays for three days, and one day of races in the circus, and for these entertainments they also must spend not less than two thousand sesterces.

Here we see the modern practice reversed. City officials, instead of receiving a salary for their services, not only serve without pay, but are actually required by law to make a public contribution. It will be noticed that the law specified the minimum sum which a magistrate must spend. The people put no limit on what he might spend, and probably most of the duumvirs of Urso gave more than $80, or, making allowance for the difference in the purchasing value of money, $250, for the entertainment of the people. In fact a great many honorary inscriptions from other towns tell us of officials who made generous additions to the sum required by law. So far as their purpose and results go, these expenditures may be compared with the "campaign contributions" made by candidates for office in this country. There is a strange likeness and unlikeness between the two. The modern politician makes his contribution before the election, the ancient politician after it. In our day the money is expended largely to provide for public meetings where the questions of the day shall be discussed. In Roman times it was spent upon public improvements, and upon plays, dinners, and gladiatorial games. Among us public sentiment is averse to the expenditure of large sums to secure an election. The Romans desired and expected it, and those who were open-handed in this matter took care to have a record of their gifts set down where it could be read by all men.

On general grounds we should expect our system to have a better effect on the intelligence and character of the people, and to secure better officials. The discussion of public questions, even in a partisan way, brings them to the attention of the people, sets the people thinking, and helps to educate voters on political and economic matters. If we may draw an inference from the election posters in Pompeii, such subjects played a small part in a city election under the Empire. It must have been demoralizing, too, to a Pompeian or a citizen of Salona to vote for a candidate, not because he would make the most honest and able duumvir or ædile among the men canvassing for the office, but because he had the longest purse. How our sense of propriety would be shocked if the newly elected mayor of Hartford or Montclair should give a gala performance in the local theatre to his fellow-citizens or pay for a free exhibition by a circus troupe! But perhaps we should overcome our scruples and go, as the people of Pompeii did, and perhaps our consciences would be completely salved if the aforesaid mayor proceeded to lay a new pavement in Main Street, to erect a fountain on the Green, or stucco the city hall. Naturally only rich men could be elected to office in Roman towns, and in this respect the same advantages and disadvantages attach to the Roman system as we find in the practice which the English have followed up to the present time of paying no salary to members of the House of Commons, and in our own practice of letting our ambassadors meet a large part of their legitimate expenses.

The large gifts made to their native towns by rich men elected to public office set an example which private citizens of means followed in an extraordinary way. Sometimes they gave statues, or baths, or fountains, or porticos, and sometimes they provided for games, or plays, or dinners, or lottery tickets. Perhaps nothing can convey to our minds so clear an impression of the motives of the donors, the variety and number of the gifts, and their probable effect on the character of the people as to read two or three specimens of these dedicatory inscriptions. The citizens of Lanuvium, near Rome, set up a monument in honor of a certain Valerius, "because he cleaned out and restored the water courses for a distance of three miles, put the pipes in position again, and restored the two baths for men and the bath for women, all at his own expense."[96] A citizen of Sinuessa leaves this record: "Lucius Papius Pollio, the duumvir, to his father, Lucius Papius. Cakes and mead to all the citizens of Sinuessa and Cædici; gladiatorial games and a dinner for the people of Sinuessa and the Papian clan; a monument at a cost of 12,000 sesterces."[97] Such a catholic provision to suit all tastes should certainly have served to keep his father from being forgotten. A citizen of Beneventum lays claim to distinction because "he first scattered tickets among the people by means of which he distributed gold, silver, bronze, linen garments, and other things."[98] The people of Telesia, a little town in Campania, pay this tribute to their distinguished patron: "To Titus Fabius Severus, patron of the town, for his services at home and abroad, and because he, first of all those who have instituted games, gave at his own expense five wild beasts from Africa, a company of gladiators, and a splendid equipment, the senate and citizens have most gladly granted a statue."[99] The office of patron was a characteristic Roman institution. Cities and villages elected to this position some distinguished Roman senator or knight, and he looked out for the interests of the community in legal matters and otherwise.

This distinction was held in high esteem, and recipients of it often testified their appreciation by generous gifts to the town which they represented, or were chosen patrons because of their benefactions. This fact is illustrated in the following inscription from Spoletium: "Gaius Torasius Severus, the son of Gaius, of the Horatian tribe, quattuorvir with judicial power, augur, in his own name, and in the name of his son Publius Meclonius Proculus Torasianus, the pontiff, erected (this) on his land (?) and at his own expense. He also gave the people 250,000 sesterces to celebrate his son's birthday, from the income of which each year, on the third day before the Kalends of September, the members of the Common Council are to dine in public, and each citizen who is present is to receive eight asses. He also gave to the seviri Augustales, and to the priests of the Lares, and to the overseers of the city wards, 120,000 sesterces, in order that from the income of this sum they might have a public dinner on the same day. Him, for his services to the community, the senate has chosen patron of the town."[100] A town commonly showed its appreciation of what had been done for it by setting up a statue in honor of its benefactor, as was done in the case of Fabius Severus, and the public squares of Italian and provincial towns must have been adorned with many works of art of this sort. It amuses one to find at the bottom of some of the commemorative tablets attached to these statues, the statement that the man distinguished in this way, "contented with the honor, has himself defrayed the cost of the monument." To pay for a popular testimonial to one's generosity is indeed generosity in its perfect form. The statues themselves have disappeared along with the towns which erected them, but the tablets remain, and by a strange dispensation of fate the monument which a town has set up to perpetuate the memory of one of its citizens is sometimes the only record we have of the town's own existence.

The motives which actuated the giver were of a mixed character, as these memorials indicate. Sometimes it was desire for the applause of his fellow citizens, or for posthumous fame, which influenced a donor; sometimes civic pride and affection. In many cases it was the compelling force of custom, backed up now and then, as we can see from the inscriptions, by the urgent demands of the populace. Out of this last sentiment there would naturally grow a sense of the obligation imposed by the possession of wealth, and this feeling is closely allied to pure generosity. In fact, it would probably be wrong not to count this among the original motives which actuated men in making their gifts, because the spirit of devotion to the state and to the community was a marked characteristic of Romans in the republican period.

The effects which this practice of giving had on municipal life and on the character of the people are not without importance and interest. The lavish expenditure expected of a magistrate and the ever-increasing financial obligations laid upon him by the central government made municipal offices such an intolerable burden that the charter of Urso of the first century A.D., which has been mentioned above, has to resort to various ingenious devices to compel men to hold them. The position of a member of a town council was still worse. He was not only expected to contribute generously to the embellishment and support of his native city, but he was also held responsible for the collection of the imperial taxes. As prosperity declined he found this an increasingly difficult thing to do, and seats in the local senate were undesirable. The central government could not allow the men responsible for its revenues to escape their responsibility. Consequently, it interposed and forced them to accept the honor. Some of them enlisted in the army, or even fled into the desert, but whenever they were found they were brought back to take up their positions again. In the fourth century, service in the common council was even made a penalty imposed upon criminals. Finally, it became hereditary, and it is an amusing but pathetic thing to find that this honor, so highly prized in the early period, became in the end a form of serfdom.

We have been looking at the effects of private generosity on official life. Its results for the private citizen are not so clear, but it must have contributed to that decline of independence and of personal responsibility which is so marked a feature of the later Empire. The masses contributed little, if anything, to the running expenses of government and the improvement of the city. The burdens fell largely upon the rich. It was a system of quasi-socialism. Those who had, provided for those who had not--not merely markets and temples, and colonnades, and baths, but oil for the baths, games, plays, and gratuities of money. Since their needs were largely met by others, the people lost more and more the habit of providing for themselves and the ability to do so. When prosperity declined, and the wealthy could no more assist them, the end came.

The objects for which donors gave their money seem to prove the essentially materialistic character of Roman civilization, because we must assume that those who gave knew the tastes of the people. Sometimes men like Pliny the Younger gave money for libraries or schools, but such gifts seem to have been relatively infrequent. Benefactions are commonly intended to satisfy the material needs or gratify the desire of the people for pleasure.

Under the old régime charity was unknown. There were neither almshouses nor hospitals, and scholars have called attention to the fact that even the doles of corn which the state gave were granted to citizens only. Mere residents or strangers were left altogether out of consideration, and they were rarely included within the scope of private benevolence. In the following chapter, in discussing the trades-guilds, we shall see that even they made no provision for the widow or orphan, or for their sick or disabled members. It was not until Christianity came that the poor and the needy were helped because of their poverty and need.

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the common people of rome