Life in Ancient Rome

Life in Ancient Rome

In contrast to the ancient Greeks, the Romans were realists not idealists, as seen in their life statues. The Romans were fierce in battle and wonderful architects. They was an elaborate system of roads that led to Rome, hence it was the heart of the empire. Rome was a busy, crowded, noisy, smoky and dusty city with beautiful temples and public buildings. The rich lived in extravagant and gracious homes, with entrance atriums. For those who were not so wealthy, there were apartment buildings and shabby tenements for the poor.

Narrow streets wound between Rome’s seven hills. Transportation was by foot by some. Others were carried in covered litters with curtained couches carried on poles by slaves. Dressed in chain mail or leather armor, soldiers strode through town. Workmen wore belted tunics of wool. Boys hurried to school. Later in the day, citizens strolled around in white wool tunics. Shops lined the streets. In the Forum, courts were in session, and the great Senate orators convened and argued. The city was lively even for the poor. There was always something going on, shows in the theaters, races, and fights in the arenas.

The Roman Military

Military power brought the various provinces under Roman rule. The Roman army created the empire. It was one of the most important cultural factors, for it safegauarded Roman peace and made possible social and cultural developments. It provided mobility geographically and socially for its members. The army helped in spreading various eastern religions and the observances of its official religious ceremonies.

The legions were composed of citizen soldiers. The extension of citizenship to the provinces provided many of the legionaries. The legion was composed of 6,000 men, which was divied into ten cohorts of six centuries, commanded by a legate, with six tribunes serving as staff officers.

The eagle (aquilla) was the principal legionary emblem and object of special honor. It was made of silver or gold and mounted on a pole, carreid by one man. The maiin weapon of the foot soldier was the short sword and the lance.

Legions were supported by auxillia of equal number, made up of specialized troops such as cavalry, slingers, and archers.

Nine or twelve cohorts of five hundred or one thousand men formed the bodyguard of the princeps. Each was commanded by an equestrian with the title of tribune. They were commanded by the praetorian prefects of the guard, which was the most important post in Rome. The praetorian guard held a higher status and received higher pay than other soldiers.

Social Classes

Roman society was stratified but not closed. Military service made possible a certain upward social mobility. The favor of the emperor affected the standing of many families. Class consciousness is very evident in the snoberry of the upper classes fawning on the lower orders.

The aristocracy was composed of the senatorial and equestrian orders. Ownership of land was the principal source of wealth and social standing. There was the municipal aristocracies, composed of the decurions, the members of the municipal senates.

Roman citizens who did not belong to the senatorial, questrian orders, or decurions, were called plebeians.

Slavery was a basic element in ancient society. Much of the work done was from their hands. It was very extensive in both the Hellenistic and Roman periods. About one in five of the residents in Rome was a slave. Slavery might result from war, piracy and brigandage, exposure of a child, sale of a child or self to pay debts, condemnation in the law courts, or birth to a slave mother. Slaves were acquired by purchase from slave dealers, by inheritance, or by home breeding. The legal status of a slave was that of a “thing.”

Wealthy ancient Romans had slaves. In some homes, slaves were treated like valued servants. In others, they were severely abused. Slaves kept the furnaces burning in the bath houses, cooked meals in smoking chimneys in the kitchens, cleaned, sewed, and did the household and garden labor for wealthy Romans. Intelligent and gifted slaves also tutored the kids, kept the accounts, and sometimes ran vast farm estates or commercial departments of their masters’ firms.

Freedmen were former slaves, who played an important role in all phases of life. Upon freedom, they remained in relationship with their previous owners in which there were mutual responsibilities.

Romans had dual citizenship in Italy and in the provinces of the overseas empire. Citizenship could be obtained by the following: (1) birth to citizen parents; (2) manumission of slaves of citizens of Rome; (3) a favor for special service to the empire; and (4) on discharge from service in the auxiliaries or on enlistment in the legions.

Roman citizenship had its priviledges and advantanges: (1) voting; (2) freedom from degrading forms of punishment; and (3) right of appeal to Rome and exemption from ultimate jurisdiction of the local authorities and the Roman governor.

Social Morality

Slavery gave occasion for cruelty and sexual license. Punishiment of criminals was brutal. Gladiator contests and wild beast fights were cruel. Roman policy of “bread and games” keep the population passified and stressed sensual satisfactions. Homosexuality was a common in Greek society, which considered the noblest form of love to be frienship between men. All kinds of immoralities were associated with the gods. Prostitution was a recognized institution. Through the influence of the fertility cults of Asia Minor, Syria, and Phoenica it became a part of the religious rites at certain temples.

Martial and Juvenal, in the first and early second century A.D., confirm the dismal picture of Roman morality. Inscriptions on graves are an important source for giving an estimate of moral virtue in the ancient world.

Roman Families

In early times, from 600 B.C. to about 1 A.D. Before the Imperial Age, families were organized rather like mini Greek city-states. Everybody in one family lived in one home, including the great grandparents, grandparents, parents and kids.

The head of the family was the oldest male. That could be the father, the grandfather, or perhaps even an uncle. Each family had slightly different customs and rules, because the head of the family had the power to decide what those rules were for his family. He owned the property, and had total authority, the power of life and death, over every member of his household. Even when his children became adults, he was still the boss. But, he was also responsible for the actions of any member of his household. He could order a kid or a grown-up out of his house, but if they committed a crime, he might be punished for something his family did. In poor families, the head of the house might decide to put a sick baby out to die or to sell grown-ups in his family into slavery, because there wasn’t enough food to feed everyone. A woman had no authority. Her job was to take care of the house and to have children.

During the Imperial Age, late 1 A.D. to about 500 A.D. Things changed very rapidly towards the end of 1 A.D. Although families still lived in one home, during the Imperial Age, women could own land, run businesses, free slaves, make wills, be heirs themselves, and get a job in some professions. The ancient Romans tried to help their family grow through marriage, divorce, adoption, and re-marriage. After a divorce, ex-in-laws were still important, as were their children. Adopted children had the same rights as any of the other children, rights based on their sex and age. In addition to wives and children, wealthy ancient Roman homes supported slaves.

Apollodorus (mid-fourth century B.C) said, “We have courtesans for pleasure, handmaidens for the day-to-day care of the body, wives to bear legitimate children, and to be a trusted guardian of things in the house,” (Demosthenes 59.122).

Women managed the home in the hushand’s ahsence. Slave girls were in well-to-do homes. Macedonian women had greater independence and importance in public affairs. Roman woman attained more and more liberry, higher legal status, and great power and influence. In the first century, women from noble families came to excel in vice and immortality as well.

Jewish women were not as restricted in public appearance as Greek women but did not have the freedom of first century Roman women. She was the mistress of the home, but was not qualified to appear as a witness in court and was exempt from fulfilling religious duties. She was to maintain an attractive appearance for her husband. Her influence in the family was considered greater than the man’s.

The Hellenistic world lived under the shadow of too many mouths to feed. Families of four or five children were very rare. There was a desire for two sons, and a daughter was an economic liability.

Overpopulation was addressed with infanticide. Abortions were often attempted, but were fatal to the mother. They were made illegal under Septimius Severus. Unwanted children were simply left to die on the trash heap or in an isolated place. Sometimes slave traders took them. Girls were reared for prostitution. Greeks and Romans did not view infanticide in the small moral light as it was by Jews and Christians. Newborns were not considered a part of the family until acknowledged by the father as his child and received by a religious ceremony. Jewish law prohibited abortion and exposure, which was adopted by Christians. Miscarriages were common and infant mortality was extremely common. Life expectancy in the ancient world was much lower than in modern times.


The olives, the vine, grain, and sheep were the basis of the agricultural economy of the Mediterranean world. The food supply for Rome increasingly came from Egypt and Africa. There was no large industry in the ancient world. The traditional industries were ceramics, mining, textiles, and small handicrafts. Those with money could invest in commercial enterprises.

Mediterranean cities were built around a marketplace (Gk. agora, Lat. forum). The Forum was the main marketplace and business center, where the ancient Romans engaged in commerce. It was also a place for public speaking. The ancient Romans were great orators, for they loved to talk. The orators were not to argue, but to argue convincingly. People thronging the Forum would stop and listen, then wander away to do shop. They would also leave a gift at a temple for one of their gods. The Forum was also used for festivals and religious ceremonies. It was a very busy place.

The Hellenistic and Roman periods were characterized by the strong contrast between the low wages paid the poor and the great liberality of the rich. The wealthy could give to public works and respond to needs in times of crisis, but they could not pay adequate wages.

After Augustus, there are indications of prosperity reaching a climax in the early second century. Not all regions shared equality in the prosperity. The provinces of Asia and African flourished more than others. The cities of Asia seem to have prospered under the Roman peace, and their gratitude was expressed in the promoting of the imperial cult.

In the first century, Palestine was lest prosperous than other regions. Palestine provides olives, wine, and cereals (wheat and barley). The Jordan valley was known for its groves of date palms and balsam trees. Sheep and goats were raised and fishing was common.

Roman Trade and Travel

Trade flourished under the empire. Epictetus stated, “Caesar has obtained for us a profound peace. There are neither wars nor battles, nor great robberies nor piracies but we may travel all hours, and sail from east to west” (Discourses 3.13.9). Roman ships and land travels reached India, Celyon, and China. The quantity and extent of trade is staggering. They involved highly developed commercial activity.

The Romans built thousands of miles of wonderful roads, to connect every part of the empire back to Rome. Up until about a hundred years ago, people were still using these roads, as roads. In recent years, instead of building new roads, modern engineers simply covered many of the old Roman roads with a coat of asphalt.

The route most frequented by travelers and most important to the early history of Christianity was the great central route that made Ephesus and Corinth significant transit points. Antioch and Alexandria were the great commercial centers of the east, which were the point of contact for Syria and Egypt respectively with the Roman world.
There seems to have been no formal traffic code, including what side of the road to drive on; but there were various laws about what you could and could not do on a given type and location of road, and when you could do it. The real danger on a road was ambush by highway robbers, which shows that a travelling vehicle could be alone on any given stretch of road.


Archaeology shows that coinage made its first appearance in western Asia Minor in the seventh century B.C. Alexander the Great had an extensive coinage. About 211 B.C., Rome introduced a new silver coinage, the denarius (equal to ten bronze asses) and the sestertius (two and a half asses), which were to remain the standard coins for Roman currency. A special gold coin in Greece was struck in honor of Flaminius, who defeated Philip V of Macedon in 197 B.C., are the first coins to carry a portrait of a living Roman. Julius Caesar was the first politician in his lifetime to be portrayed in Rome. During the Second Triumvirate it was common to have a portrait and title on coinage.

Coins were used by rulers for propaganda, making known government policies and ideology, or commemorating events. This was a means to communicate to a large number of people with the messages the government wanted to convey. From the time of Caligula the emperor’s titles and portraits appear on the obverse of principal coins. Roman coins are a valuable historical source.

Roman Inscription

The ancient Romans wrote quite a bit. Much of their pottery was signed. Very often, the bricks used to make buildings were stamped with their makers names. Lead pipes leading to these buildings, by law, were stamped. Scholars have found 200,000 Latin inscriptions and, incredibly, several thousands are still being found every year. From a stash of letters written by just plain enlisted men, preserved by being waterlogged from being dumped in a well in Scotland, it would appear that some of the Roman army could read and write. Scholarly estimates are at around 30% of all adult men in Imperial times had the ability to read and write.

In spite of the many inscriptions and other pieces of the past scholars have labored to put together for us, we still don’t know much about ancient Roman daily life. We know quite a bit about Roman government, which was famous for power and law, and a great deal about Roman religion, with its many Roman gods and festivals. But, we still don’t know whether the ancient Romans had wastebaskets, or how common cats were, or whether anyone kept a dog indoors. We don’t know if they made their bed in the morning or folded up their bedclothes stashed them away and used the bed as day furniture; or indeed, whether most of the time they had beds or just futons on the floor. We know they had temples, but what did they do in there? It will be interesting to see what will be discovered, as scholars continue to find inscriptions, and to put pieces of the past together.


The ancient Romans enjoyed many different kinds of entertainment. Most events were free, which meant poor people could attend as well as the rich. Plays were performed in large open-air theaters. There were lots of theatres, and even the small ones could seat 7,000 people.

The Colosseum was a huge public entertainment center. It could seat 45,000 spectators. This is where the ancient Romans gathered to watch bloody combat between gladiators, and battles between men and wild animals. There many people were thrown to the lions. To see men being killed was very entertaining to the ancient Romans. On occasion, they flooded the Colosseum with water, to hold naval battles, where many competitors died.

The Circus Maximus was another public entertainment center, and was just a single, specific facility in Rome. The Maximus was used mostly for chariot racing. It could seat 250,000 people. There were other circuses in ancient Rome.

Early Christian moralists and apologists criticized three types of “spectacles” in the pagan world: those of the theatre, the arean (amphitheatre), and the circus. Tertullian refers to them as “the customary pleasures of the maddening circus, the bloodthirsty area, and the lascivious theatre,” (On the Spectacles).

Roman Religion and Religious Life

The Romans were a hard people with little imagination. The principal early cultural contact of the Romans was with the Etruscans, who ruled at Rome for a time. The Romans took over native institutions and integrated them with their own. Temples, cults images, and methods of divination was taken over from the Etruscans.
Most of the early Roman deities had no personality. There were countless small deities who were strictly departmental and functional. New circumstances frequently led to the recognition of new divine powers to be pacified or used for the benefit of the people.

From the late third century B.C., Roman deities were identified with those of the Greeks. Zeus was Egypt’s Ammon, but Rome’s Jupiter. On the Capitoline hill a temple was dedicated around 50 B.C. to Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno. They were the principal gods of Rome. Temples in other cities to Jupiter Capitolinus were often called the Capitol.
The word “piety” was used most frequently to designate the religious attitudes by Pliny and Tacitus. For example it can be found in Tacitus’ account in his Histories of the rebuilding of the Capitol, the temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno, and Minerva, which stood on one of the hills of Rome. Destroyed in 68–69 A.D., Tacitus describes thse ritual of rededicating the ground on which the temple was to be reconstructed, Hist. 4:53. In this account the rebuilding of the Capitol is at once a religious and a civic occasion. It was an act of piety toward the gods, but it is civic in that it was a public occasion involving the populace as a whole and was presided over by the representative of the people and the political head of the empire, the emperor. There was a tremendous religious ceremony that embraced all citizens. Priests, senators, equestrians, soldiers, and large number of the people took part in the event. Sacrifices of a pig, a sheep, and an ox were offered along with prayers to the three Capitoline gods, beseeching their aid and protection for Rome.

Originally “piety” was used to designate the honor and respect one showed to members of one’s family, children to parents, children and parents to grandparents, and everyone to one’s ancestors. But it took on a wider sense, designating loyalty and obedience to the customs and traditions of Rome, to inherited laws, to those who lived in previous generations. As time went on, the term acquired a more religious sense, meaning reverence and devotion to the gods and to the ritual or cultic acts by which the gods were honored, as in the offering of sacrifices. Piety toward the gods was thought to insure the well-being of the city, to promote a spirit of kinship and mutual responsibility to bind together the citizenry.

Roman religion was not confined to the public realm. It also played a part in the life of the family, in associations and clubs. Romans were not only religious but also considered themselves religious. They thought that religious devotion set them apart from other peoples. Cicero writes “If we care to compare our national characteristics with those of foreign peoples, we shall find that, while all other respects we are only the equals or even the inferiors of others, yet in the sense of religion, that is in worship for the gods, we are far superior,” Nat. D. 2:8.

In the cities of the ancient world, religion was interwoven with social and political life. The gods were thought to preserve the city of Rome and to insure the orderly transition from one emperor to another. Through the providence of the gods the earth came to life each spring, the wheat bloomed, the trees bore fruit, and the heavens opened to provide rain. The emperor was presented as the restorer of the whole world.

The Romans did not consider their religion superstitious. “Religion has been distinguished from superstition not only by philosophers buy by our ancestors,” stated Cicero. “Superstition” implied “groundless fear of the gods” whereas religion consisted in “pious worship of the gods,” Nat. D. 1.117, 2.72. The superstitious person engaged in religious practices that neither honored the gods nor benefited men and women. Superstition is believed to lead to irrational ideas about the gods, so it is concluded that the consequence is atheism.

In matters of religion the Romans were very conservative, suspicious of innovations and mistrustful of new religious ideas and practices. Plutarch wrote “One should not distort and sully one’s own tongue with strange names and barbarous phrases, to disgrace and transgress the god-given ancestral dignity of our religion.”

The historian Dio Cassius recorded a presumed speech of Maeccenas to the emperor Augustus, in which he advises Augustus how to achieve immorality as the emperor of Rome. “If you wish to become immortal pursue a life of virtue and worship the divine according to the tradition of your fathers… Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should abhor and punish, not merely for the sake of the gods, but such men by brining in new divinities in place of the old, persuade many to adopt foreign practices, from which spring up conspiracies, factions and political clubs which are far from profitable to a monarchy. Do not therefore permit anyone to be an atheist or a sorcerer” (Dio Cassius 52.36.2). Written in the early third century, it could be almost taken as a commentary on the response of Pliny to the Christian groups there. For Dio was a native of Bithynia, the province in which Pliny served as governor.

The religion of the Romans was bound up with the life of the state, with the ideas of Rome and the fortunes of the empire. When a person moved from one city to another, he or she adopted the gods of the new city.

The idea of “conversion,” that is a conscious and individual decision to embrace a certain creed or way of life, was wholly foreign to the ancients. There is no concept of an intense personal experience nor the metaphysical or theological speculation, that is taken for granted in Christianity, found in Roman religion. By the standards of religion familiar to most Westerners and our tendency to view religion as a private and individual experience, the religious attitudes of Romans seem superficial and emotionally unsatisfying. But if one views them as a form of public piety, ancient Roman religion is quite intelligible. Religion can be as much concerned with the public life of a society as it is with the private lives of individuals.

One of the functions of religion is to relate institutions, roles, and the events of family and society to an ultimate reality like birth, crowing of a king, eating food and drinking wine, waging war and making peace, or the coming of age. Religion places the ordinary and extraordinary events of social and individual life within a sacred and cosmic frame of reference. The coins people use in business transactions, the statues one passes in the city, the public buildings in which business is conducted, arches and pillars, public holidays, literature, art and education are vehicles through which religious feelings were expressed in the ancient world.

Religion was at the heart of social and cultural life. Roman games were religious events as well as shows for gladiators or gymnastic contests. And early Christian reflecting on the world in which he lived, said “What is a stage show without a god, a game without a sacrifice” (Pseudo-Cyprian, De spectaculis 4).
The Romans were concerned for the actions of the gods. It was a common idea in the ancient world that deities needed food and drink sacrificed to them. Rome had both domestic worship and state calendar observances. Calendar ceremonies were performed by the state.

Romans made time, each day, to honor their gods. The ancient Romans had gods for nearly everything. There were temples all over the Roman Empire. There was a temple in the Forum. Every home had a household god. Most ancient Romans had some sort of shine in their home, which might be a small display or a grand, separate room, to honor the household god. The ancient Romans brought offerings of meat and other items to many temples. Honoring their gods was part of ancient Romans everyday life.
Religion was closely connected with society in the Greco-Roman world. It was official and a part of the civil order. Each city had its patron deity or deities. Sacrifice and prayer were a part of meetings of the assembly and council, and priests of the public cults were selected like magistrates. Temples were built out of public funds. Taxes were levied for the support of certain cults. The state decided expenditures for the cult and derived income from it. “Sacred Laws” were enacted by the cities to regulate official cults.

Each city had a patron deity who protected it. If the city was powerful the god became pan-Hellenic, such as Athena. Other cults, not properly civic, had an international character based on legend, suc as (Delos — the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis), an orcle (Delphi — Apollo), or ancient games (Olympia — Zeus).

The citizen or sojourner who respected and practiced the civic cult and the priest were called “pious.” The local sanctuary with its temples, treasures, priesthood, and festivals drew visitors. The importance of the local civic cults is found in the way Rome identified itself with them. The imperial religion was associated with them. The important cults were joined to the emperor and national deity.

Augustus’ program for restoring order to Roman government and society included regulation of religious affairs. He revived old cults, filled priesthood vacancies, and rebuilt eighty-two temples.

The imperial cult

Civic cults often had mysteries, oracles, healing among others attached to them. The climax of civic religion was reached in the ruler cult of Hellenistic-Roman times. The ruler cult stated as an expression of gratitude to benefactors and was an expression of homage and loyalty. It was a matter of giving to the ruler. Supernatural assistance was not expected from him in the same way it was sought from the gods. It was politically and socially important and served to test loyalty. The ruler cult became the focal point of the early church’s conflict with paganism.

The cult of the Roman emperors had its cause in the peace, prosperity, and flourishing of the eastern provinces during the first two centuries of the Christian era, but its background was much older. The Latins honored ancestors and men, but kept the distinction between divine and human. The Greeks blurred the line. The expressions of the ruler cult under the empire show the influence of Greek ideas. The origins of the imperial cult are diverse.
The pharaoh in Egypt was king because he was divine, the son of a god. This idea was passed to the Ptolemies. Egypt provided the most important single eastern source to the development of the ruler cult in the Greek world. In the Assyro-Babylonian world, the king was the official deity, by reason of office. He was the chosen servant of the gods and was to exercise divine functions.

Greek heroes were men who had become gods because of their achievements or of benefits conferred on others. The gods were regarded by the Greeks as the supreme type of human excellence.

The modes of the imperial cult varied according to the nature of the organization that practiced it — provinces, a group of individual cities, professional corporations, military corps, colleges of freedmen. Direct worship of the living emperor with temples, altars, priest, and sacrifices was contrary to official Roman policy and the western provinces. However the imperial cult was advanced in various ways.

At Rome both Caesar and Augustus had temples dedicated to them as gods of Rome. The strength and popularity of the imperial cult is seen in the large number of private associations that took as their patrons the emperor instead of one of the traditional deities. The imperial cult was strongly bound to the monarchy that Christian emperors could not abolish its trappings.


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