Culture of ancient Rome
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Ancient Roman culture evolved throughout the almost 1200-year history of that civilization. The term refers to the culture of the Roman Republic, later the Roman Empire, which, at peak, covered an area from Cumbria and Morocco to the Euphrates.
Life in ancient Rome revolved around the city of Rome, its famed seven hills, and its monumental structures such as the Flavian Amphitheatre (now called the Colosseum), the Forum of Trajan and the Pantheon. The city also had several theaters, gymnasiums, and many taverns, baths and brothels. Throughout the territory under ancient Rome's control, residential architecture ranged from very modest houses to country villas, and in the capital city of Rome, there were imperial residences on the elegant Palatine Hill, from which the word "palace" is derived. The vast majority of the population lived in the city center, packed into insulae (apartment blocks).
The city of Rome was the largest megalopolis of that time, with a population that may well have exceeded one million people, with a high end estimate of 3.5 million and a low end estimate of 450,000. The public spaces in Rome resounded with such a din of hooves and clatter of iron chariot wheels that Julius Caesar had once proposed a ban on chariot traffic at night. Historical estimates indicate that around 30 percent of population under the jurisdiction of the ancient Rome lived in innumerable urban centers, with population of at least 10,000 and several military settlements, a very high rate of urbanization by preindustrial standards. The most urbanized part of the empire was Italy, which had an estimated rate of urbanization of 32%, the same rate of urbanization of England in 1800. Most Roman towns and cities had a forum and temples and same type of buildings, on a smaller scale, as found in Rome. The large urban population required an endless supply of food which was a complex logistical task, including acquiring, transporting, storing and distribution of food for Rome and other urban centers. Italian farms supplied vegetables and fruits, but fish and meat were luxuries. Aqueducts were built to bring water to urban centers and wine and oil were imported from Hispania, Gaul and Africa.
There was a very large amount of commerce between the provinces of the Roman Empire since its transportation technology was very efficient. The average costs of transport and the technology were comparable with 18th century Europe. The later city of Rome did not fill the space within its ancient aurelian walls until after 1870.
Eighty percent of the population under the jurisdiction of ancient Rome lived in the countryside in settlements with less than 10 thousand inhabitants. Landlords generally resided in cities and their estates were left in the care of farm managers. The plight of rural slaves was generally worse than their counterparts working in urban aristocratic households. To stimulate a higher labor productivity most landlords freed a large numbers of slaves and many received wages. Some records indicate that "as many as 42 people lived in one small farm hut in Egypt, while six families owned a single olive tree." Such a rural environment continued to induce migration of population to urban centers until the early 2nd century, when the urban population stopped growing and started to decline.
Starting in the middle of the second century BC, in every aspect of the private culture of the upper classes, Greek culture was increasingly in ascendancy, in spite of tirades against the "softening" effects of Hellenized culture from the conservative moralists. By the time of Augustus, cultured Greek household slaves taught the Roman young (sometimes even the girls); chefs, decorators, secretaries, doctors, and hairdressers—all came from the Greek East. Greek sculptures adorned Hellenistic landscape gardening on the Palatine or in the villas, or were imitated in Roman sculpture yards by Greek slaves. The Roman cuisine preserved in the cookery books ascribed to Apicius is essentially Greek. Roman writers disdained Latin for a cultured Greek style. Only in law and governance was the Italic nature of Rome's accretive culture supreme.
Historical and cultural context
Many aspects of Roman culture were taken from the ancient Greeks. In architecture and sculpture, the difference between Greek models and Roman paintings are apparent. The chief Roman contributions to architecture were the arch, and the dome it made possible. While much Roman sculpture was derivative of Greek models, and all deeply indebted to Greek techniques, the Roman character made portraiture the strongest and most original aspect of Roman sculpture. Strongly characterized portrait busts like the surviving portrait bust of Cato the Elder display a clearly envisioned, strongly individual character, not an idealized type such as are typically found in Greek portrait sculptures.
Rome has also had a tremendous impact on Western cultures following it. Its significance is perhaps best reflected in its endurance and influence, as is seen in the longevity and lasting importance of works of Virgil and Ovid. Additionally telling are the many aspects of Classical culture that have been incorporated into the cultures of those states rising from the ashes of the Roman Empire. Latin, the empire's primary language, remains used in religion, science, and law. Christianity was adopted by the official culture in the later 4th century; its triumph over rival officially sanctioned cults, of Mithras, Isis, or Sol Invictus can be partly attributed to its promotion by Roman authorities.
The center of the early social structure, dating from the time of the agricultural tribal city state, was the family, which was not only marked by blood relations but also by the legally constructed relation of patria potestas. The Pater familias was the absolute head of the family; he was the master over his wife (if she was given to him sub manu, otherwise the father of wife retained patria potestas), his children, the wives of his sons (again if married sub manu which became rarer towards the end of the Republic), the nephews, the slaves and the freedmen (liberated slaves, the first generation still legally inferior to the freeborn), disposing of them and of their goods at will, even having them put to death. Roman law recognized only patrician families as legal entities.
Slavery and slaves were part of the social order. The slaves were mostly prisoners of war. There were slave markets where they could be bought and sold. Roman law was not consistent about the status of slaves, except that they were considered like any other moveable property. Many slaves were freed by the masters for fine services rendered; some slaves could save money to buy their freedom. Generally mutilation and murder of slaves was prohibited by legislation, although outrageous cruelty continued.
Apart from these families (called gentes) and the slaves (legally objects, mancipia i.e. "kept in the [master's] hand") there were Plebeians that did not exist from a legal perspective. They had no legal capacity and were not able to make contracts, even though they were not slaves. To deal with this problem, the so-called clientela was created. By this institution, a plebeian joined the family of a patrician (in a legal sense) and could close contracts by mediation of his patrician pater familias. Everything the plebeian possessed or acquired legally belonged to the gens. He was not allowed to form his own gens.
The authority of the pater familias was unlimited, be it in civil rights as well as in criminal law. The king's duty was to be head over the military, to deal with foreign politics and also to decide on controversies between the gentes. The patricians were divided into three tribes (Ramnenses, Titientes, Luceres).
There were two assemblies, the assembly of centuries (comitia centuriata) and the assembly of tribes (comitia tributa), which were made up of all the citizens of Rome. In the comitia centuriata the Romans were divided according to age, wealth and residence. The citizens in each tribe were divided into five classes based on property and then each group was subdivided into two centuries by age. All in all, there were 373 centuries. Like the assembly of tribes, each century had one vote. The Comitia Centuriata elected the praetors (judicial magistrates), the censors, and the consuls.
The comitia tributa comprised thirty-five tribes from Rome and the country. Each tribe had a single vote. The Comitia Tributa elected the Quaestors (financial magistrates) and the patrician Curule Aedile.
Over time, Roman law evolved considerably, as well as social views, emancipating (to increasing degrees) family members.
Customs and daily life
Life in the ancient Roman cities revolved around the Forum, the central business district, where most of the Romans would go for marketing, shopping, trading, banking, and for participating in festivities and ceremonies. The Forum was also a place where orators would express themselves to mould public opinion, and elicit support for any particular issue of interest to them or others. Before sunrise, children would go to schools or tutoring them at home would commence. Elders would dress, take a breakfast by 11 o'clock, have a nap and in the afternoon or evening would generally go to the Forum. Going to a public bath at least once daily was a habit with most Roman citizens. There were separate baths for men and women. The main difference was that the women's baths were smaller than the men's, and did not have a frigidarium (cold room) or a palaestra (exercise area).
Different types of outdoor and indoor entertainment, free of cost, were available in ancient Rome. Depending on the nature of the events, they were scheduled during daytime, afternoons, evenings or late nights. Huge crowds gathered at the Colosseum to watch events like gladiators, combats between men, or fights between men and wild animals. The Circus Maximus was used for chariot racing.
Life in the countryside was slow but lively, with numerous local festivals and social events. Farms were run by the farm managers, but estate owners would sometimes take a retreat to the countryside for rest, enjoying the splendor of nature and the sunshine, including activities like fishing, hunting, and riding. On the other hand, slave labor slogged on continuously, for long hours and all seven days, and ensuring comforts and creating wealth for their masters. The average farm owners were better off, spending evenings in economic and social interactions at the village markets. The day ended with a meal, generally left over from the noon time preparations.
In ancient Rome, the cloth and the dress distinguished one class of people from the other class. The tunic worn by plebeians (common people) like shepherds and slaves was made from coarse and dark material, whereas the tunic worn by patricians was of linen or white wool. A magistrate would wear the tunica augusticlavi; senators wore a tunic with broad strips, called tunica laticlavi. Military tunics were shorter than the ones worn by civilians.
The many types of togas were also named. Boys, up until the festival of Liberalia, wore the toga praetexta, which was a toga with a crimson or purple border. Magistrates in office also wore this. The toga virilis, (or toga pura) or man's toga was worn by men over the age of 16 to signify their citizenship in Rome. The toga picta was worn by triumphant generals and had embroidery of their skill on the battlefield. The toga pulla was worn when in mourning.
Even footwear indicated a person’s social status. Patricians wore red and orange sandals, senators had brown footwear, consuls had white shoes, and soldiers wore heavy boots. Women wore closed shoes of colors like white, yellow or green.
The woman's stola looked different than a toga, and was usually bright colored. A fibula (or brooch) would be used as ornamentation or to hold the stola in place. A palla, or shawl also accessorized a Roman woman.
Since the beginning of the Republic until 200 BC, ancient Romans had very simple food habits. Staple food was simple, generally consumed at around 11 o’clock, and consisted of bread, salad, olives, cheese, fruits, nuts, and cold meat left over from the dinner the night before. Breakfast was called ientaculum, lunch was prandium, and dinner was called cena. Appetizers were called gustatio, and dessert was called secunda mensa (or second table). Usually, a nap or rest followed this.
The family ate together, sitting on stools around a table. Later on, a separate dining room with dining couches was designed, called a triclinium. Fingers were used to take foods which was prepared to be handled with fingers beforehand and spoons were used for soups.
Wine was considered a staple drink, consumed at all meals and occasions by all classes and was quite cheap; however, it was always drunk mixed with water. This was the case even during explicit evening drinking events (comissatio) where an important part of the festivity was choosing a arbiter bibendi (Judge of Drinking) who was, among other things, responsible for deciding the ratio of wine to water in the drinking wine. Wine to water ratios of 1:2, 1:3, or 1:4 were commonly used. Many types of drinks involving grapes and honey were consumed, as well. Mulsum was honeyed wine, mustum was grape juice, mulsa was honeyed water. The per-person-consumption of wine per day in the city of Rome has been estimated at 0.8 to 1.1 gallons for males, and about 0.5 gallons for females. Even the notoriously strict Cato the Elder recommended distributing a daily ration of low quality wine of more than 0.5 gallons among the slaves forced to work on farms.
Drinking non-watered wine on an empty stomach was regarded as boorish and a sure sign of alcoholism whose debilitating physical and psychological effects were already recognized in ancient Rome. An accurate accusation of being an alcoholic—in the gossip-crazy society of the city bound to come to light and easily verified—was a favorite and damaging way to discredit political rivals employed by some of Rome's greatest orators like Cicero and Julius Caesar. Prominent Roman alcoholics include Mark Antony, Cicero's own son Marcus (Cicero Minor) and the emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero whose soldiers gave him the unflattering nickname Biberius Caldius Nero (lit. boozer of pure wine, Sueton Tib. 42,1). Cato the Younger was also known as a heavy drinker, frequently found stumbling home disoriented and the worse for wine in the early hours of morning by fellow citizens.
During the Imperial period, staple food of the lower class Romans (plebeians) was vegetable porridge and bread, and occasionally fish, meat, olives and fruits. Sometimes, subsidized or free foods were distributed in cities. The patrician's aristocracy had elaborate dinners, with parties and wines and a variety of comestibles. Sometimes, dancing girls would entertain the diners. Women and children ate separately, but in the later Empire period, with permissiveness creeping in, even decent women would attend such dinner parties.
Schooling in a more formal sense was begun around 200 BC. Education began at the age of around six, and in the next six to seven years, boys and girls were expected to learn the basics of reading, writing and counting. By the age of twelve, they would be learning Latin, Greek, grammar and literature, followed by training for public speaking. Oratory was an art to be practiced and learnt and good orators commanded respect; to become an effective orator was one of the objectives of education and learning. Poor children could not afford education. In some cases, services of gifted slaves were utilized for imparting education.
The native language of the Romans was Latin, an Italic language. An inflectional and synthetic language, Latin relies little on word order, conveying meaning through a system of affixes attached to word stems. Its alphabet, the Latin alphabet, is based on the Old Italic alphabet, which is in turn derived from the Greek alphabet.
Although surviving Latin literature consists almost entirely of Classical Latin, an artificial and highly stylized and polished literary language from the 1st century BC, the actual spoken language of the Roman Empire was Vulgar Latin, which significantly differed from Classical Latin in grammar, vocabulary, and eventually pronunciation. Also, although Latin remained the main written language of the Roman Empire, Greek came to be the language spoken by the well-educated elite, as most of the literature studied by Romans was written in Greek. In the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which became the Byzantine Empire; Greek was the main lingua franca as it had been since the time of Alexander the Great, while Latin was mostly used by the Roman administration and its soldiers. Eventually Greek would supplant Latin as both the official written and spoken language of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The expansion of the Roman Empire spread Latin throughout Europe, and over time Vulgar Latin evolved and dialectized in different locations, gradually shifting into a number of distinct Romance languages beginning in around the 9th century. Many of these languages, including French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish, flourished, the differences between them growing greater over time. Although English is Germanic rather than Romanic in origin—Britannia was a Roman province, but the Roman presence in Britain had effectively disappeared by the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions—English borrows heavily from Latin and Latin-derived words, drawing from ecclesiastical usage, from Romance languages like French, and even, more recently, consciously adapting words from Classical Latin authors.
Although Latin is an extinct language with very few remaining fluent speakers, it remains in use in many ways. In particular, Latin has survived through Ecclesiastical Latin, the traditional language of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the official languages of the Vatican City. Although distinct from both Classical and Vulgar Latin in a number of ways, Ecclesiastical Latin was more stable than typical Medieval Latin, and more Classical sensibilities eventually re-emerged in the Renaissance with Humanist Latin. Due to both the prevalence of Christianity and the enduring influence of the Roman civilization, Latin became western Europe's lingua franca, a language used to cross international borders, such as for academic and diplomatic usage. Although it was eventually supplanted in this respect by French in the 19th century and English in the 20th, Latin continues to see heavy use in religious, legal, and scientific terminology, and in academia in general.
Roman literature was from its very inception influenced heavily by Greek authors. Some of the earliest works we possess are of historical epics telling the early military history of Rome. As the republic expanded, authors began to produce poetry, comedy, history, and tragedy.
During the reign of the early emperors of Rome there was a golden age of historical literature. Works such as the 'Histories' of Tacitus, the 'Gallic Wars' by Julius Caesar and 'History of Rome' by Livy have been passed down to us. Unfortunately, in the case of Livy, much of the script has been lost and we are left with a few specific areas: the founding of the city, the war with Hannibal, and its aftermath.
Virgil represents the pinnacle of Roman epic poetry. His Aeneid was produced at the request of Maecenas and tells the story of flight of Aeneas from Troy and his settlement of the city that would become Rome. Lucretius, in his On the Nature of Things, attempted to explicate science in an epic poem. Some of his science seems remarkably modern, but other ideas, especially his theory of light, are no longer accepted. Later Ovid produced his Metamorphoses, written in dactylic hexameter verse, the meter of epic, attempting a complete mythology from the creation of the earth to his own time. He unifies his subject matter through the theme of metamorphosis. It was noted in classical times that Ovid's work lacked the gravitas possessed by traditional epic poetry.
Catullus and the associated group of neoteric poets produced poetry following the Alexandrian model, which experimented with poetic forms challenging tradition. Catullus was also the first Roman poet to produce love poetry, seemingly autobiographical, which depicts an affair with a woman called Lesbia. Under the reign of the Emperor Augustus, Horace continued the tradition of shorter poems, with his Odes and Epodes. Martial, writing under the Emperor Domitian, was a famed author of epigrams, poems which were often abusive and censured public figures.
The genre of satire was traditionally regarded as a Roman innovation, and satires were written by, among others, Juvenal and Persius. Some of the most popular plays of the early Republic were comedies, especially those of Terence, a freed Roman slave captured during the First Punic War.
A great deal of the literary work produced by Roman authors in the early Republic was political or satirical in nature. The rhetorical works of Cicero, in particular, were popular. In addition, Cicero's personal letters are considered to be one of the best bodies of correspondence recorded in antiquity.
Most early Roman painting styles show Etruscan influences, particularly in the practice of political painting. In the 3rd century BC, Greek art taken as booty from wars became popular, and many Roman homes were decorated with landscapes by Greek artists. Evidence from the remains at Pompeii shows diverse influence from cultures spanning the Roman world.
An early Roman style of note was "Incrustation", in which the interior walls of houses were painted to resemble colored marble. Another style consisted of painting interiors as open landscapes, with highly detailed scenes of plants, animals, and buildings.
Portrait sculpture during the period utilized youthful and classical proportions, evolving later into a mixture of realism and idealism. During the Antonine and Severan periods, more ornate hair and bearding became prevalent, created with deeper cutting and drilling. Advancements were also made in relief sculptures, usually depicting Roman victories.
Music was a major part of everyday life in Ancient Rome. Many private and public events were accompanied by music, ranging from nightly dining to military parades and manoeuvres. In a discussion of any ancient music, however, non-specialists and even many musicians have to be reminded that much of what makes our modern music familiar to us is the result of developments only within the last 1000 years; thus, our ideas of melody, scales, harmony, and even the instruments we use would not be familiar to Romans who made and listened to music many centuries earlier.
In the initial stages, the ancient Roman architecture reflected elements of architectural styles of the Etruscans and the Greeks. Over a period of time, the style was modified in tune with their urban requirements, and the civil engineering and building construction technology became developed and refined. The Roman concrete has remained a riddle, and even after more than two thousand years some of ancient Roman structures still stand magnificently, like the Pantheon (with one of the largest single span domes in the world) located in the business district of today’s Rome.
The architectural style of the capital city of ancient Rome was emulated by other urban centers under Roman control and influence, like the Verona Arena, Verona, Italy; Arch of Hadrian, Athens, Greece; Temple of Hadrian, Ephesos, Turkey; a Theatre at Orange, France; and at several other locations, for example, Lepcis Magna, located in Libya. Roman cities were well planned, efficiently managed and neatly maintained. Palaces, private dwellings and villas, were elaborately designed and town planning was comprehensive with provisions for different activities by the urban resident population, and for countless migratory population of travelers, traders and visitors passing through their cities.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a first century BC Roman architect’s treatise “De architectura,” with various sections, dealing with urban planning, building materials, temple construction, public and private buildings, and hydraulics, remained a classic text until the Renaissance.
Sports and entertainment
The ancient city of Rome had a place called the Campus, a sort of drill ground for Roman soldiers, which was located near the Tiber river. Later, the Campus became Rome’s track and field playground, which even Julius Caesar and Augustus were said to have frequented. Imitating the Campus in Rome, similar grounds were developed in several other urban centers and military settlements.
In the campus, the youth assembled to play and exercise, which included jumping, wrestling, boxing and racing. Riding, throwing, and swimming were also preferred physical activities. In the countryside, pastime also included fishing and hunting. Females did not participate in these activities. Ball playing was a popular sport and ancient Romans had several ball games, which included Handball (Expulsim Ludere), field hockey, catch, and some form of Soccer.
Board games played in ancient Rome included Dice (Tesserae or Tali), Roman Chess (Latrunculi), Roman Checkers (Calculi), Tic-tac-toe (Terni Lapilli), and Ludus duodecim scriptorum and Tabula, predecessors of backgammon.
There were several other activities to keep people engaged like chariot races, musical and theatrical performances, public executions and gladiatorial combat. In the Colosseum, Rome’s amphitheatre, 50,000 persons could be accommodated. There are also accounts of the Colosseum’s floor being flooded to hold mock naval battles for the public to watch.
Roman religious beliefs date back to the founding of Rome, around 800 BC, but the Roman religion commonly associated with the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire did not start forming until around 500 BC when Romans came in contact with Greek culture and adopted many of the Greek’s religious beliefs including the representation of Greek gods in the form of humans.
Private and personal worship was an important aspect of religious practices of ancient Rome. In a sense, each household in ancient Rome was a temple to the gods. Each household had an altar (lararium), at which the family members would offer prayers, perform rites, and interact with the household gods.
Many of the gods that Romans worshiped came from the Proto-Indo-European pantheon, others were based on Greek gods. The three central deities were Jupiter (who was the god of rain, thunder, and lightning, of Proto-Indo-European origin), Mars (the god of warfare), called Ares by the Greeks, and Quirinus (who watched over the senate house), one of the truly Roman gods who was associated with the Sabines and with the founder of Rome, Romulus.
From simplest form of such private worships and religious practices, religion in ancient Rome developed into an elaborate system, with temples, altars, rituals and ceremonies, priesthood, beliefs of traditional paganism and the cult of the Roman emperors. The power of ancient Rome spread ever further across a vast geographical area and Romans met with other cults and religions, like cults of Cybele, Bacchus, and Isis, as well as Judaism.
With its cultural influence spreading over most of the Mediterranean, Romans began accepting foreign gods into their own culture, as well as other philosophical traditions such as Cynicism and Stoicism. There were even attempts by many Roman and Greek philosophers to accept other gods that countered their religion, such as the Jewish deity Yahweh (viewed as the only supreme God by the Israelites) by stating that the Jews merely worshiped Jupiter but just under a different name and therefore there should be an acceptance of the Jewish culture. With the fall of the Roman Republic and the start of the reign of the emperors which created the Roman Empire in, the Roman emperors were considered to be gods incarnate.
Two major philosophical schools of thought that derived from Greek religion and philosophy that became prominent in Rome in the 1st and 2nd century AD was Cynicism and Stoicism which, according to Cora Lutz were “fairly well merged” in the early years of the Roman Empire. Cynicism taught that civilization was corrupt and people needed to break away from it and its trappings and Stoicism taught that one must give up all earthly goods by remaining detached from civilization and help others. Because of their negative views on civilization and of their way of life, in where many of them just wore a dirty cloak, carried a staff, and a coin purse, and slept outdoors, they were the targets of the Roman aristocracy and of the emperor and many were persecuted by the Roman government for being "subversive". The philosopher Lucian attacked the Cynics in his book "The Philosophies for Sale" in which he mocked the Cynics by stating "First...stripping you of your luxury...I will put a cloak on you...Next I will compel you to undergo pains and hardships, sleeping on the ground, drinking nothing but water...Leading this life you will say that your are happier than the Great King...Frequent the most crowded market place...and in [it] desire to be solitary and uncommunicative..."
Much of the Roman practices of their religion and philosophy began to dwindle after 312, when the Roman Emperor Galerius legalized Christianity, hitherto brutally suppressed. Soon after his death, Emperor Constantine switched allegiance from Apollo to Christus as his patron, and won the battle of Milvian Bridge in 313. Under Constantine's direction, the Council of Nicaea (325) was held to decide the elements of orthodox Christianity, although Constantine himself was only baptized shortly before his death. Through all this, a few pagans clung to the old Roman religion – even enjoying something of a brief Renaissance under Julian the Apostate (361–63) – and continued to be tolerated until the reign of Theodosius I, who finally outlawed paganism in 390.
- Ancient Rome
- Classical antiquity
- Gallo-Roman culture
- Roman Britain
- Sexuality in ancient Rome
- Social class in ancient Rome
- Theatre of ancient Rome
- Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
- Tom Holland, The Last Years of the Roman Republic ISBN 0-385-50313-X
- Ramsay MacMullen, 2000. Romanization in the Time of Augustus (Yale University Press)
- Paul Veyne, editor, 1992. A History of Private Life: I From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)
- Karl Wilhelm Weeber, 2004. Nachtleben im Alten Rom (Primusverlag)
- Karl Wilhelm Weeber, 2005. Die Weinkultur der Römer
- J.H. D'Arms, 1995. Heavy drinking and drunkenness in the Roman world, in O.Murray In Vino Veritas