Ancient Roman Realities Revealed!
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
When most people think of Ancient Rome, several images may come to mind. Some may think of their enduring engineering feats and construction marvels, like the impressive aqueducts, the marble triumphal arches, the numerous victory columns, the theaters, amphitheaters, circuses, and other monuments.
Others may recall stories of their seemingly undefeatable military acumen and their well-equipped and disciplined legions.
Some might imagine a life of wealth and luxury, envisioning opulent Roman villas filled with mosaic floors and frescoed walls and ceilings. Lavish homes in which the patrons and guests reclined on sofas in the Triclinium and feasted on an abundance of delicacies from across the Empire.
Of course, EVERYONE is familiar with the power, status, and glory of the Emporer, as well as the pomp and circumstance that was attached to that position.
These are the visions that come to mind when someone mentions Ancient Rome. Certainly, it is easy to be impressed and awed by the immense splendor of the Empire. Two millennia later, we still walk their ruins and hear their stories. But it is equally easy to overlook the FACT that THAT splendor ONLY affected a minuscule percentage of the population. What most people DO NOT recall or may not know of Ancient Rome, is HOW the TYPICAL ROMAN LIVED.... the overwhelming majority of people living in Rome. The everyday struggles, dangers, worries, and inconveniences that the everyday Roman experienced, somehow gets lost in our idyllic vision and awe of the enduring Ancient Empire. So let's go behind the facade of marble and explore the grittier REALITIES of Rome.
Within a framework of information that I gleaned from Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete PhD, at the University of Wisconsin via The Great Courses, I want to share with you the struggles and dangers of living in Rome, which in actuality played a much greater role in the everyday life of the city's inhabitants than did the city's glories. These grim hazards can be summed up by the 5 Fs ... floods, fires, famines, filth, and fevers! One thing to keep in mind as we consider these hazards is that the population of Rome was 1 million people by the end of the 1st c. BC and stayed that size for a few centuries. Rome was the LARGEST city of that time and certainly a HUGE city to be accommodated by an ancient pre-industrial infrastructure. It wasn't until nearly 2000 years later, around 1850, that other cities, namely London and Paris, reached populations that size. So Rome was a true megalopolis.
The city of Rome was built on seven hills along the Tiber River in a particularly flood-prone location. Between the hills were low lying marshlands. The vast majority of people lived in wooden three to six story housing complexes, called insulae, established along the low swampy areas. Wealthy Romans naturally chose to build their villas on the hilltops. When the Tiber River swelled over its banks, which it frequently did, then those low lands were flooded with water. There were major floods about every 25 years and minor ones nearly ever five. The worst ones could result in water rising 50 ft above normal, inundating houses, monuments, the Forum, the Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, the theaters, and more. At such times, boats were even needed to navigate the streets. The floods were unquestionably severe and destructive. They not only weakened architecture causing building collapse but also destroyed food stores as the waters flooded into the storage warehouses. Additionally, the floods caused the sewer systems to back up, spreading waste, filth, and disease throughout the city.
Fires also posed a constant threat to Rome's inhabitants. Lighting during the night depended on torches as well as lamps fueled by burning olive oil. Cooking was over open flames. Since many apartments, particularly the insulae, did not have kitchens, fires were often made on the floors inside the apartments. In such a scenario you can only imagine how easy it would have been for a blaze to ignite from a spark that jumped or a lamp that tipped over. Small fires occurred daily and large fires that destroyed entire neighborhoods occurred nearly every other year. The narrow, twisted maze of streets made it difficult to halt the spread of an established fire. Roman fire brigades resorted to simply pouring buckets of water on the flames. With such a method only very small fires could successfully be extinguished. One of the biggest fires that devastated Rome, and many of you may be familiar with, is the Great Fire of 64 AD during the reign of Nero, which took hold in a particularly populous location along the Circus Maximus. That fire burned for 9 days and completely devastated 10 of 14 districts. You may recall the notorious phrase 'Nero fiddled while Rome burned.' It was following that fire that Nero built his Golden House (Domus Aurea) over most of the burned land.
While wealthy Romans enjoyed lavish feasts and grazed on delicacies from across the Empire, about 80% of Rome's inhabitants ate a monotonous meal consisting of only 3 ingredients, 80% of the time! These three ingredients were grain, typically in the form of bread, olives most commonly in the form of olive oil, and wine. That means they ate these three items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner 80% of the time. How boring! Due to Rome's vast size, local food sources were NOT enough to sustain the population. 500,000 tons of these 3 foods were imported from other areas of the empire every year, particularly from Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, and Spain, during the summer sailing months. To even begin to appreciate the massive scale of these imports, consider Monte Testaccio in current Rome. This hill is not a natural landscape. It actually resulted artificially, composed of thousands upon thousands of broken pottery vessels and amphorae from Spain and North Africa which were used to transport olive oil and wine. Over a span of three hundred years, the trash heap of discarded containers grew into a "mountain" a quarter-mile long and 150 feet high. Since the population of Rome was so dependent on imports to supply its needs, it is understandable that natural disasters, piracy, crop failures, war, and mismanagement could all disrupt the food supply. If any of these occurred it could easily result in food shortages or famine, both of which would provoke rioting!
The continual by-products of such a large population are sewage and corpses. One million inhabitants crammed together in urban Rome produced approximately 350,000 gallons of urine, 100,000 pounds of feces, and 150 dead bodies per day. Add to that the waste and excrement of the many animals, like horses, donkeys, sheep, and dogs crowding the streets, as well as routine garbage, refuse, and backed-up sewers. It all adds up to a lot of filth. Most all of this filth simply accumulated on the streets. Now add in a bit of Mediterranean heat and not surprisingly, it resulted in rampant germs and overwhelming stench. By modern standards, the hygiene and sanitation of that era were absolutely appalling. Although many people were treated to formal burials upon death, a good number of corpses were simply abandoned. These were routinely left on the streets to decompose or be scavenged by animals. Decomposing animal carcasses were also a common sight. Also, most homes did not have latrines connected to the sewer. When Romans used chamber pots on the upper floors of the insulae, they frequently were too lazy to carry the full, heavy, smelly chamber pot down the flights of stairs and over to the main sewage drain. They simply emptied the chamber pot by pouring it out the window, when no one was looking. Imagine being a passerby walking beneath that window and getting struck by falling human waste! Court records of that time reveal that getting struck by falling excrement was the most commonly litigated lawsuit. The overwhelming amount of refuse and associated stench explains why many wealthy Romans preferred to be carried through the streets on litters fashioned with perfumed curtains.
As you can likely imagine, inhabitants of Rome living in such conditions suffered from a broad array of diseases. Forensic studies on ancient skeletons and historical records of that time reveal that malnutrition and lack of a varied diet made many maladies near universal. Among those were scurvy, pellagra, beriberi, and rickets. Poor sanitation and crowding fostered the growth and spread of diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, parasites, worms, and open sores to name a few. On top of that, plagues and epidemics frequently burdened the population. What I find particularly interesting, yet quite disturbing, is that doctors of that time instructed patients suffering from these maladies to soak in the hot, public thermal baths as a remedy for their afflictions. Unlike the chlorinated pools of today, the ancient Romans used NO FORM of disinfectant in their baths. You can fathom the number of germs incubating in the 'petri dishes' of the warm thermal baths. While a Roman may have walked out of the bath "free of surface dirt" they may very well have picked up something far worse! So, the next time you view the impressive ruins of the Baths of Diocletian or the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, you may want to keep that in mind.
As we now enter July and the European Union re-opens its borders to welcome tourists, though sadly not Americans, visitors can once again walk the streets of Rome, Italy. As you do, you will be amazed and will marvel at the BEAUTY of the numerous ancient relics, ruins, and monuments. But while expectedly being in awe of the vast glories of the Empire, try to remember how life really was for the average Roman ... the vast majority!