11 Facts About Roman Life You Should Know

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Wall painting (1st century AD) from Pompeii depicting a multigenerational banquet. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

1. Romans drank watered-down wine

A museum exhibit photographed showing tubs that were used for wine.
Remnants of Roman amphorae used for wine.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wine was a common drink in Roman times, with those unable to afford it drinking water from public fountains. The wine was almost always watered down, typically with one part wine to two parts water. They considered undiluted wine to be befitting to barbarians or more rural citizens. Diluted wine also enabled the Romans to make the most of the wine without becoming drunk and to increase its supply. Flavored with honey, spices, resin, or even seawater, there were many ways of diversifying the wine, and it was treated as a source of nutrition.

2. Many people lived in apartment blocks

The remains of a destroyed roman building.
Remains of a Roman insula’s top floors in Rome.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Space was valuable in Rome, and to make the most of it with such a large population, many citizens lived in insulae, a set of six to eight apartment blocks with a courtyard. The apartments on the ground floor were often shops and businesses, and each insula typically held up to or around 40 people.

3. They didn’t have any tomatoes

Roman Pompeii Painting Still life with glass bowl of fruit and vases Still Life
A still life of Ancient Roman food, painted by a Pompeian painter around 70 AD.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ancient Roman food, painted by a Pompeian painter around 70 AD.[IMAGE]

Ancient Romans’ food differed greatly from modern Italian cuisine, though olive oil was part of the daily diet of most Romans. Tomatoes, now one of the most common and most well-known ingredients in Italian dishes, originated in South America. Instead, Romans used cereals, bread, and native vegetables for their daily diet – the poor were reliant on a monthly allotment of grain, the homeless ate rancid cereal and gruel, and the rich enjoyed imported spices. Meat was rarely available for those who were not wealthy. Dormice were one of the most popular cuts of meat and were even farmed for personal consumption.

4. Bathing together was normal and encouraged

Photograph of Welwyn Roman baths (May 2007)
Ruins of Welwyn Roman baths, uncovered in the 1960s.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most Romans bathed once or twice a week in communal baths, where they could socialize and conduct business. The baths were relatively cheap and free to use on public holidays. On entering a bathhouse, a visitor would go into either the tepidarium (warm room) or frigidarium (cold room). The frigidarium’s cold water may have also been a swimming pool. The tepidarium sometimes only had warm air, but sometimes had a warm bath to dip into, and often offered massages with oils. Next was the caldarium (hot room), a room with a very hot bath and hot air, where patrons could cleanse themselves with olive oil. Some places would also have a laconicum, a dry sweating room likened to a sauna. The tepidarium could be visited twice – once to warm up the body and the second time to cool off from the caldarium before stepping out into colder air outside.

5. The Romans had many forms of entertainment

"Roman gladiators" by American illustrator Howard Pyle depicts a retiarius snaring his opponent with a weighted net in a Roman gladiatorial contest.
“Roman gladiators” by illustrator Howard Pyle depicting a retiarius snaring their opponent with a weighted net.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After dinner, Romans would often spend time on leisure activities like art, dance, music, and sports. They also had board games (Roman Chess, dice, tic-tac-toe, checkers, and more) and ball games like soccer, handball, and catch games. The Tiber River was a popular spot for swimming as well, and some public baths also had room for swimming in the frigidarium or courtyard. Plays, chariot races, and gladiator fights were some of the biggest types of entertainment in Rome and would draw huge crowds.

6. Roman Children went to school every day of the week

A Roman tablet employed in making arithmetical calculations.
A Roman tablet used for arithmetical calculations.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There were no weekend breaks for school, though there were many public holidays. Students would also have days off on market day, and thankfully they still had summer holidays. Children from the age of seven would spend hours each school day learning how to read, write, and use an abacus for mathematics, up until the age of 11 or 12. Their day would start at sunrise and wouldn’t end until sunset, with work all day except for a short lunch.

7. Young children were often cared for by nannies and tutors

This sarcophagus, also called the "Childhood Sarcophagus," depicts the birth of the god Dionysus (the Roman Bacchus) in exquisitely detailed high relief. At the left, the newborn god is nursed by a nymph and surrounded by Silenus-his future teacher-and other attendants, including one preparing a basin for the child's first bath. A panther cub, the god's favorite animal, is seated on the ground. To the right, satyrs and maenads, including a drunken old man, celebrate the god's birth. On the lid, satyrs and maenads-followers of the wine god-feast at a banquet. On the sides of the lid, Dionysus's panther drinks from an overturned wine vessel. The coffin is small, as if made for a child rather than for an adult.
A Roman sarcophagus depicting the birth of Dionysus, including a nursing nymph and his future teacher Silenus.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wet nurses were employed across Rome for newborn babies and were expected to be suitable role models for children due to being big influences in their childhood. Orphans and babies abandoned by their parents were often reared by wet-nurses, and some slave-traders even employed wet-nurses to care for found babies. Pedagogues were male tutors employed to teach children etiquette and life skills. Pedagogues and wet nurses could be slaves or freedmen, and would typically care for all their master’s or employer’s children over the years.

8. Most workers only worked for six hours a day

A gallic-roman harvester. Relief from Trier
Relief from Trier depicting a Roman harvester.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many jobs didn’t require working past midday. Farming, baking, building, trading, and tailoring were the most common jobs, as well as the military. Others might have become doctors, lawyers, writers, and teachers or tutors. People could be paid for their labor and work with coins or food, shelter, or goods.

9. Circus Maximus attracted a larger crowd than the Super Bowl

Racing Chariots Entering The Circus Maximus by Ettore Forti
Racing Chariots Entering the Circus Maximus by Ettore Forti
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The largest chariot race track in Rome, Circus Maximus could hold at least 150,000 seats, though Pliny the Elder estimated audiences could be as large as 250,000. It held events such as the Ludi Romani (Roman Games) each September, wild animal hunts, public executions, and gladiator fights. The audience at Circus Maximus could also be similar to football crowds, cheering on the racers or combatants and supporting their team of choice. The Greek orator Dio Chrysostom noted that the audience would leap, rave, and generally let loose with their language.

10. Roman schools punished students with canes and whips

Image by John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett.
Illustration by John Leech from The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Discipline in schools was strict, as it was believed students would learn better if they feared that they’d be punished if they were wrong. Books were too expensive, and learning was based on remembering what was correct, not learning why it was correct. Even slave and hired tutors could use corporal punishment against students.

11. The length of an hour depended on season and latitude

a stone roman basin sundial
A Roman basin sundial.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Roman timekeeping was variable, and initially, they halved a day between ante meridiem and post meridiem, or before and after midday. With the use of sundials, the time between sunrise and sunset was split into twelve hours. They knew that winter days were shorter and summer days were longer, so hours were adjusted accordingly. The sundials could also be used to calibrate water clocks, which worked indoors and without sunlight.

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