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Life of social strata in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The statue shows the restored figure with the head of Emperor Nerva, wearing a toga. The toga was a typical garment for male citizens. The toga was put on the tunic, leaving the arm exposed.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

One of the most distinctive and overlooked features of ancient Rome was the huge gulf between the commoners and the patricians. However, this difference has not always existed. This problem grew with the continual territorial changes of the state, the romanization of cities and the enrichment of the aristocracy, which only worsened the situation. The gap existing in Roman society was often overlooked, and all information in historical sources is poor. However, the assumption that in Rome, artisans and ordinary merchants had a hard life can be inferred from the discoveries made at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Their lives were diametrically opposed to those of wealthier and senior citizens. We usually knew ancient Rome as an oasis of prosperity and tranquillity where people grew richer day by day. This was the picture the aristocracy tried to convey, trying to hide its enormous fortune. She resorted to many tricks and machinations.

Walking through the streets of Suburra, the plebeian quarter of Rome, it was easy to see the difference between the way and conditions of commoners and the noble inhabitants of domus. The noise and confusion that reigned in the streets were immediately hit – itinerant sellers, crowds of inhabitants, thieves, frauds, workers, and slaves with sacks on their backs. They were all pacing the narrow streets, discussing, trying to bargain favourable prices. Along the street, there were shops offering food products or handicrafts, warehouses, workshops, and stalls with fruit and greens. People’s apartments were located above the shops, sometimes in five or six-story buildings with an attic. They were built of inferior quality materials, keeping costs as low as possible; their collapsing and fires, the risk of which was exacerbated by wooden floors, the use of portable stoves, oil lamps, torches for lighting, and a small amount of water – were the order of the day. Flats were rented from owners by poor families. The cost of the most miserable flat was very high, it could have reached 2,000 sestertii (the daily wage of a worker was 5 sestertii), and the higher you entered, the worse the conditions were. At the very top, the poorest lived, crammed into small rooms without glass in the windows, unsecured against bad weather, without running water and comforts – the water supply only supplied water to the ground floor. The flats were very modestly furnished: a simple brick bed was covered with a mattress, a table and a few stools. The portable stove was used to heat and cook food. People used to go to the nearest fountain to get water, and public latrines to take care of their needs.

Reconstruction of a Roman shop offering drinking and eating.
Author: Marcus Cartwright | Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Life of a craftsman

Our hero could specialize in various professions, it could be, for example, carpentry, construction, shipbuilding, roofing, or simple cutting of clothes and shoes. The craftsman focused on features that had both social and religious functions. However, here, our Roman citizen is a shoemaker, and a very good one at that. Every day he receives a lot of orders. With a pair of sandals, he can buy himself something to eat for the evening.

Public toilet in Rome.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The food of the masses is called the pulse. Their diet consisted of: chickpeas, cabbage, garlic, onion, legumes, and flour, and washed down with water. If there was a significant holiday then, he could buy, for example, meat that he had previously ordered from a butcher. In addition, if he received a large fee for the sandals he made, he could buy an amphora of wine for dinner, which was a great achievement and pride for him. It is also known that the Roman townspeople were characterized by a strong odour from the mouth. Its cause is in a large amount of garlic eaten. For the Romans, it was healthy and very tasty, so it was often overused. It was also the smell from the mouth that you could tell if you were dealing with someone more powerful or just a simple simpleton. Alternatively, if our hero did not want to prepare a meal himself, he could go to a kiosk or bar, which were abundant in the streets. There he received a good, ready and cheap dish, and at the same time, he met many friends and acquaintances with whom he could talk. As for the style of eating itself, the poorer people ate while standing, which is extremely strange these days.

The craftsman usually lived in a cramped one-room apartment in a tenement house. This room was for him at the same time a living room, a kitchen, and sometimes a toilet. However, if it was one of the richer craftsmen, he had a special pipe that drained urine straight to the sewage system under the city. Usually, however, the craftsman took care of the bowl placed under the laundry in the street. He did it because urine, having a large amount of ammonia, is very good for cleaning clothes. It was nice to know that you helped others by taking care of yourself. Long, dark and narrow corridors led to our hero’s place. The chamber itself consisted of: a bucket, a chamber and a mattress, but if it was someone richer, he could even have a wicker chair or a sofa. The apartment was very modestly equipped, and the resident himself needed only a place to sleep (floor). He spent most of the day working in the workshop anyway. The room also had a wooden door leading to the corridor and one or two windows.
But the question is, could an ordinary simpleton who could barely feed himself have any slave to help? Yes, he could and could have even two or three of them, but it also meant the obligation to maintain the purchased employee. The maintenance itself was hard: food, medicine, clothes, it all cost a lot. The slave was very cheap and not much more expensive than the usual thing. However, for the poor craftsman, buying a slave was completely out of hand. He preferred to spend his money on food and livelihoods.

The life of an aristocrat

A model of a Roman house (domus).
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Rich people, such as famous merchants, senators or generals, lived in villas – luxurious mansions. They were built on a grand scale, and every rich man who wanted to show his enormous fortune invested in “his own house”. The villas have always been surrounded by beautiful, great gardens, decorated with rocks, grottos, statues and gazebos. Additionally, in some places, you could see decorated arcades and arches. Inside, the house was beautifully decorated and cleaned. There were tons of sculptures and mosaics just outside the door. Slaves were everywhere, working all the time trying to keep the apartment in perfect condition.

The aristocracy ate whatever it wanted. The Romans ate three meals during the day: the first breakfast (ientaculum), the second breakfast (prandium), and dinner (price).

The first meal consisted of bread, cheese, fruit, milk, and wine. The second was rarely served to the table, usually cold snacks such as cold meat, fish, salami, salads, vegetables, eggs, cheese, and wine. It was a meal without washing your hands and was therefore often eaten in the garden. Knives were used, not forks, and they were eaten with the left hand, previously rubbed with dry resin. Eating abundant prandium was considered a display of bad taste. The most abundant meal was lunch eaten in the late afternoon hours.
Initially, meals were eaten in the atrium, then in the triclinium. The lunch consisted of three parts: snacks (usually eggs), the actual dinner (meat and fish dishes, with the addition of vegetables) and dessert (fresh and dried fruit). In addition, wines were served and the dinner sometimes extended until late in the evening. The Romans ate their meals lying down, served by a whole host of slaves. Cutlery was not used, it was eaten with the hands. The elite ate exotic dishes, such as rice, which was imported from China, as well as ordinary dishes. The wine was drunk with each meal, there was a lot of fruit (grapes, apples), bread and meat on the table.

The wealthy, thanks to their large wealth, could afford whatever they wanted. They brought water to their villas through small aqueducts, and then distributed it over the thermal baths, showing their greatness and goodness. They spent the money for various very pointless purposes. They bought many gifts for their wives, lovers and themselves. They could be, for example: exotic animals (tigers, lions, elephants, rhinoceros), sculptures, statues, expensive furs and clothes. They had their own boats and galleys on which they sailed around the different seas of the world. They also owned a couple of villas that were situated in more secluded parts of the Empire.

In general, the gap between the wealthy and the common was huge. Until the fall of the Empire, no improvement was found.

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