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What was daily life like in ancient Rome?

Dawn to Dusk: The Highs and Lows of Daily Life in Ancient Rome

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Living in the Mediterranean, daily life in ancient Rome revolved around the climate. Unlike the more northern Europeans of the past and today, the ancient Romans started their days early in the morning and finished work by the early afternoon, as it would have been much too hot to continue their work later into the day.

Most fathers would go out early to set up their businesses for the day ahead, while the lady of household or her servants would use that time to attend to any domestic duties. Depending on the wealth of their parents, children would also need to get up early and dress in preparation for their tutor or parent’s lessons.

What Kind of Clothes Did the Ancient Romans Wear?

Like most things in the daily life of ancient Rome, just getting up was also a process, although not a difficult one. The males and any children would have gone to bed and slept in their tunics. What a man wore during the day, while out on business, would depend on his status.

An ancient Roman family

An ancient Roman family. ( QVAD HISTORIA )

Tunics could be shorter or longer, sometimes reaching the knee or even below it. Some could be decorated depending upon the fabric, but cotton was rarely used, despite Rome’s location near Egypt, where it was produced. The island of Kos was an important trading post for silk. It was also on this island that they created a textile made of both silk and linen. This was also sold in Rome.

 

 

Such richness in materials provided elite ladies with their choice of many colors and fabrics for their clothing. Some males also chose to dress in bright garments. Although many Romans saw the brighter clothing as effeminate and not fitting of a man holding a military position, dressing in light fabrics may have provided more comfort to both men and women in such a warm climate.

Roman citizens could also wear togas in the morning. There was a fold in this garment that could be used as a pocket, which was helpful. But a toga was never really a practical garment and it fell out of favor after the 1st century AD.

When a young child got up each morning they would put on either a bulla (amulet worn like a locket) for a boy or a lunula (crescent moon shaped pendant) for a girl. A phallus was a popular amulet design adopted from ancient Greece. This was believed to protect the wearer and ward off any harm or evil. The pendant would be worn around the neck or kept in a small leather bag.

Etruscan bulla depicting Daedalus and Icarus

Etruscan bulla depicting Daedalus and Icarus ( Public Domain ) and a lunula. ( Public Domain )

Dressing was generally more time consuming for the lady of the house as it was a little more complicated. They wore undergarments for sanitary reasons, voluminous dresses, and an over-tunic. Ladies paid a great deal of attention to the way they looked both inside and outside of the home. Make up played an important role and many women had an array of combs, bottles of perfume, tweezers, and mirrors.

Ancient Roman hairstyles varied as styles changed frequently, especially during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. But these things were apparently important to daily life in ancient Rome because there are some written references mentioning the lady of the house getting angry at her slave if her hair wasn’t arranged to her standards.

Home, The Center of Daily Life in Ancient Rome

Morning was the busiest time of day. The house would be filled with members running about and the kitchen staff would be particularly occupied, although in Roman times breakfast was not a big deal.

When leaving the house, a person may pass a mosaic warning others “Beware of Dog - cave canem .” Sometimes this dog was chained to a wall and meant to deter any would-be burglars. Dogs were also kept as household pets.

Cave canem mosaic

Cave canem mosaic. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Wealthier homes had benches set up outside, where clients would sit while awaiting their turn to see the master of the house. Everyone entered the house by the front door. Depending on the home’s age the client would either walk upon well-kept floors or a mixture of cracked pavement, but there was always a feeling of spaciousness in more wealthier homes.

One very important room was the Roman latrine; in a private house it was normally placed close to the kitchen because it made plumbing easier. Each Roman had their own sponge for cleaning up.

We must remember that Roman towns were not built with “desirable” and “undesirable” sections separating the classes. One could be wealthy and live beside poor neighbors – who often lived in flats called insula.

When the lady of the house went out to the market, she would usually lock up her jewelry. She may  have also gone out with a slave or even been carried in a ‘litter’. During the daytime she would not be bothered by wheeled traffic while out in the streets, as these were banned until the night.

Woman carried in a litter through ancient Roman city streets

Woman carried in a litter through a ncient Roman city streets. ( Massimo Todaro /Adobe Stock)

The afternoon saw the children freed from the torments of the classroom, which left them with only two thoughts: either to play or find something to eat. So, as soon as they reached home, they would head straight for the kitchen and plead with the cook to give them food. If this were not the case, they would run out into the garden to play.

Homes with even a modest income would have a garden of some sort. Most Romans were very fond and proud of their gardens and the space fulfilled both practical and pleasurable purposes. A garden may have included some trees for shade, a fountain, and maybe even some statues and perches for birds.

Children playing ball games, detail. Marble, Roman artwork of the second quarter of the 2nd century AD

Children playing ball games, detail. Marble, Roman artwork of the second quarter of the 2nd century AD. (Marie-Lan Nguyen/ CC BY 3.0 )

Ancient Roman Life Wasn’t All Work and No Play

In ancient Roman times, one of the most enjoyable parts of the afternoon was when it was time to eat. People took their meal in the garden or in a simple area put aside for dining known as triclinium. In the more well-off habitations, there would be a clear marker between indoors and outdoors, but the poor in their insulas did not have that luxury.

Games would also take place in the afternoon, and one favorite of the Classical period was ‘Knucklebones’, similar to dice games today. Emperor Augustus was known to love this game but small children were kept away from the game since there was a choking hazard.

The children also had time to play with their pets in the afternoon. Pets were often dogs, cats, or even mice. Some girls also had pet hens. Horace writes that children kept mice as pets and harnessed them to small toy carts.

The fifth hour usually marked lunch time. Unfortunately, this was also about the time when the people of Pompeii had their meal so dramatically interrupted. This would have also been the time when the priest of the Goddess Isis would eat lentils, eggs, and nuts – there are many preserved examples of these items which have been discovered by archaeologists.

Sale of bread at a market stall. Roman fresco from the Praedia of Julia Felix in Pompeii

Sale of bread at a market stall. Roman fresco from the Praedia of Julia Felix in Pompeii. (Public Domain )

A simple lunch for a family may have included bread, beans, herrings, and onions. Others also ate olives, figs, and salads – similar to Italians today. People drank water or sometimes added honey to the beverage to give it more of a wine flavor. Apicius was a great social historian and his writings tell us much about Roman food and the means of cooking and food preparation.

By the time we reach what was called the sixth hour, after eating and drinking, it was time for the family to rest, for the sun outside would have been extremely hot. After their naps, people would take a bath or exercise or even go out to watch games or the fun of the races. This would be enjoyed by the middle classes or rich.

Little comfort could be gained for the poorer members of society, but they could also go to the baths. This was the one place that all Romans could attend, and we must remember just how important they were to this society. Baths also gave single people the opportunity to meet someone, form a romance, or arrange a marriage.

Main pool in the Roman baths in Bath, UK

Main pool in the Roman baths in Bath, UK . ( Anthony Brown /Adobe Stock)

In the late afternoon, after bathing, exercising, and playing games, people could go to the local arena before returning home. There they could watch fights between gladiators and/or animals and wild beast hunts – though these events did not suit everyone’s taste, even in ancient Rome.

A Quiet, Or Lively, Evening at Home

By the time the family had reached the ninth to tenth hour of the day, it was time for dinner, cena. This was an important moment in ancient Roman daily life, and the significance of this routine event has passed down to us today – we often view this time as a moment to eat and talk and later be entertained, with no other distractions or demands.

The Roman ladies took their place beside the men of the household and this time could also include their children. Everyone had the opportunity to talk about what they had done, seen, or heard that day. This time could also include deciding on which guests to invite to their home.

Marriage funerary relief of a Roman family. 2nd - 3rd century AD

Marriage funerary relief of a Roman family. 2nd - 3rd century AD. (Mary Harrsch/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

If guests were expected in the evening, the kitchen would be a very busy place, with various dishes prepared and wine poured and brought out. While this was going on the hosts may dress for dinner - a Roman custom. They would wear light garments known as synthesis. Unless people were at the emperor’s table, togas would not be worn. Only light sandals would be worn upon entering the home. And even some diners at the table may have chosen to be barefoot.

Down in the kitchen everyone would be working very hard, as many Roman foods could be elaborate and difficult to prepare. A kitchen staff could include several people, such as the main carver, scissor, and other chefs trained in preparing different parts of meals, but this would of course depend on a family’s wealth as well.

‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture

‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (1847) by Thomas Couture. ( Public Domain ) Daily life in ancient Rome wasn’t all parties.

At the end of a long day the guests would prepare themselves to go, or be escorted home as protection against the dangers of the streets. Then the lady of the house would retire to her room, and maybe her husband would join her for a short time before going to his own room.

All the lamps in the home would be put out by the slave or home owners. Finally, all the eyes in the home would close, with hopes of a good night’s sleep, except perhaps the watchful eyes of the main door keeper and his alarm (dog), who were there to deter prowlers.

Top image: What was daily life like in ancient Rome? Source:  philippe paternolli / Adobe Stock

By John S. Richardson

References

Everyday Day Life in... The Batsford series of books.

Simon James. 1990. Ancient Rome. London.

David J. Symons. 1987. The Costume of Ancient Rome. London.

Jerome Carcopino. 1941. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Harmondsworth.

Robin Birley. 2000. Civilians on Rome's Northern Frontier.

Allison Jones Lindsay. 1987. Women in Roman Britain. London.

S.F. Bonner. 1977. Education in Ancient Rome. London.

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