What It Was Like To Live In Ancient Rome

Have you ever wondered what was living in ancient Rome like?

This is episode number 3 of the free course Rome 101. You can read the first episode about the Rise of Ancient Rome and the second about The Roman Republic & Julius Caesar.

  1. Engineering, Art & Architecture
  2. Life and Leisure
  3. Ideas and Beliefs
  4. The Roman Legacy

Engineering, Art & Architecture in Ancient Rome

The Romans were superb architects and engineers who built grand buildings and a network of roads all over their empire – some of which still survive today. Their unique technical innovations included arches, aqueducts, concrete, and even the first central heating system! They were skilled artists and craftspeople, too. Influenced by Greek art, Romans produced many beautiful sculptures, frescoes, and mosaics.

How a Roman Aqueduct Works

The Romans were the first and probably the last people before the 19th century to grasp the importance of a proper water supply, not just for drinking but for bathing and public health.

Roman towns and cities needed vast freshwater for drinking, washing, cooking, and flourishing away waste. To help transport the water from natural springs, the Romans built aqueducts. These long structures carried flowing water, slightly downhill, over many kilometers. For most of the length, the water flowed in tunnels.

Over time, 11 different aqueducts were built in Rome. Together, they provided the city with more than 750 million liters (200 million gallons) of water each day. Some of the water was stored in giant cisterns and delivered to buildings through pipes; other water streamed directly from fountains. This water supply was enough for a city of up to one million people.

Roman engineers also built giant drainage channels under their cities to carry away dirt and sewage and prevent settlements from flooding. Even the more impoverished citizens could keep their homes free of human waste by visiting the public restrooms or emptying their toilet pots into the large sewers.

The Roman system was so famous that today We still use a Latin-based word: plumbing. We use it to describe the systems that supply water to our homes. This comes from ‘plumbum,’ meaning ‘lead,’ the metal the Romans used to make water pipes.

Epidemics were rife, and death stalked the streets as doctors knew nothing of how bacteria and viruses spread or could be countered. One source of salvation was that large quantities of fresh water were brought to the city using aqueducts. There was a sewer system to flush out waste. In Rome’s case, the water-borne diseases that typically afflict overcrowded cities were less devastating.

When in Rome, you can visit Parco Degli Acquedotti. It’s one of Rome’s most exciting parks and really underexplored outdoor spaces. Parco Degli Acquedotti offers a taste of the grandeur of the ancient Empire’s famous aqueducts.
The structures were built to bring fresh water from the mountains and countrysides into the city.
That they still stand today is a testament to this incredible feat of engineering.
Exploring the park on foot is one of my favorite free things to do in Rome throughout the year.

Roman Toilets Were Actually Pretty Gross

They could fit up to 20 people on two long benches with holes cut out of the top of them. There was no privacy. In fact, public toilets were seen as a place to chat. There’s nothing like a public restroom for catching up on gossip, right? 

One of the grandest has survived the centuries and can be seen today. It features twenty marble seats arranged around a large rectangular room. Each seat was framed by sculptured brackets in the shape of dolphins, under which water flowed (often second-hand from nearby public baths). As marble was chilly in winter, the most luxurious restrooms were centrally heated.

What did the Romans use for toilet paper? 

Lavatory paper had not yet been invented, and bottoms were wiped with sponges on sticks. At the user’s feet ran a narrow channel with running water, and this was where dirty sponges were doused (sometimes a water-filled jar was used instead). If you were lucky, a servant boy would soak your sponge in vinegar—a minimal concession to hygiene. Was the sponge attached to a stick or reed moistened with vinegar that was given to Christ on the cross borrowed from a forica, one wonders? If so, it was one more humiliation for the dying man.

If you couldn’t afford the restroom, you had to use a bucket. Piss-pots stood at street corners. Their contents were collected for use in the tanning industry and for bleaching togas and other clothes. Some private houses boasted a latrine, whose contents were channeled into a cesspit periodically emptied by manure merchants. Still, most people made do with chamber pots.

None of this was lost on the wise old emperor Vespasian, who reigned in the first century AD. In response to his son Titus, who was prudishly disgusted by a new tax on urine sale, the emperor held up a gold coin. He said: ‘pecunia non olet’—’Money doesn’t smell.’ Cash is cash wherever it comes from.”

Don’t you just hope not many Romans knew that? 

Art in the Ancient Rome

The Romans excelled at mixing the art and architecture of other cultures into their own style. The Romans produced high-quality artworks, many of which still survive today, from delicate ceramics to monumental sculptures.

Sculptures were highly prized, and the Romans would create statues of the most famous citizens to show their power and status. The figures sometimes had ‘removable’ head, though, in case the person became unpopular. The sculpted head of anew hero could then be added in its place!

The Romans painted on various materials, such as wood or ivory. Still, the paintings that have survived the best are frescoes. These bright and beautiful works of art were painted onto wall plaster. Walls and floors were also decorated with mosaics. These were created using tiny, colored stones called ‘tesserae’ that the artists built up into patterns, portraits, and scenes from mythological stories. The artists, known as mosaicists, each had their own styles, patterns, and favorite subjects.

I have different places to admire mosaics in Rome.

  • The incredible Caracalla Baths. Thermae Antoninianae was commissioned by Caracalla in 212 AD. It took 5 years and some 9,000 workers to build one of the most giant and best-preserved ancient thermal baths. Inaugurated in 216 and renovated several times, they ceased to be operative in 537. Gothic King Vitige severed the aqueducts to bend and conquer the city by thirst. I like to see big chunks of the original mosaics created to embellish the floors and beauty salon rooms’ interior, usually portraying gods and muscular athletes.
  • Pudenziana was a martyr. In the church, you can admire some of the city’s oldest mosaics dating back between 410 and 417, created right after Alaric’s Visigoths’ deadly sack of Rome in 410. Images of Imperial Rome were adapted to the Christian message, so Christ is portrayed in Emperor Constantine’s throne. The Apostles dressed like Roman senators. You can admire the mosaics at the Church of Santa Pudenziana. It’s located on 160, Via Urbana. Near the Central Station of Rome. Opening hours: Every day 8,30am-12pm and 3-6pm

Did Rome have walls?

In the third century CE, the risk of barbarian invasions grew. Between the years CE 270 and 282, the emperors Aurelian and Probus refortified the much-enlarged city with a new set of brick-faced concrete walls. They were 19 kilometers (12miles) long; there were 383 towers, 18 main gates, and many posterns; 1,372 hectares were enclosed. The walls ran along the riverbank. For the first time, the Janiculum hill on the far side of the Tiber (above today’s Trastevere) was defended.
These fortifications are remarkably well preserved. They were modified during the Renaissance and formed part of the city’s defenses as late as the nineteenth century. However, the development of artillery made them ineffective.

I suggest you visit the museum situated inside the S. Sebastiano Gate at the Aurelian Walls and offers visitors an educational visit.
The real name of this monumental gate, one of the largest and best conserved in the Aurelian Walls, was Appia, from the critical arterial road it opened out onto. In the Middle Ages, the name was corrupted into Dacia. Porta S. Sebastiano eventually prevailed in honor of the Christian martyr buried in the Via Appia church not far from the walls.

What kind of houses did the Romans live in?

Houses and apartments were as varied as our homes are today: some were grand and beautifully constructed. Others were poorly or cheaply built. It depended on who lived in them!

In the cities, the lowest citizens lived with their families in ‘insulae.’ These were crowded apartment blocks, usually built on top of shops and public snack bars. Life in these flats could be noisy and dirty. The buildings didn’t always have toilets or running water. Because they weren’t made of the best materials, they often cracked and crumbled.

Wealthier people lived in townhouses. Here, the rooms were usually built around a central atrium (a paved courtyard area). Rainwater fell through an opening (called compluvium) into a central pool (the impluvium), which kept the air cool in the house. The impluvium also overflowed into a cistern below the ground. So that the water could be stored and used for drinking or cooking.

The Romans even invented a form of central heating called hypocaust. Warm air, heated by a furnace, moved around the building in spaces underneath the floors and in hollow bricks in the walls.

I have two suggestions for you.

The first is the Case Romane al Celio. A little-known Rome museum containing 20 ancient underground rooms on various levels under the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, dating from between the second century and fourth century CE.

According to tradition, the site was the residence of the fourth-century martyrs’ John and Paul, buried in their house following their execution. The complex features the remains of several Roman houses of different periods, including an insula, or apartment block, and a wealthy Domus later converted into an early Christian church. 

Many of the rooms are decorated with frescoes. The site also includes a state-of-the-art museum room containing Roman amphorae, pots, and ancient Roman bricks complete with their imprinted stamps.

The museum, which opened in 2002, is located on Clivo di Scauro, an arched street between the Basilica di S. Gregorio and Villa Celimontana, not far from the Colosseum.

The second is Villa Adriana.

Hadrian’s Villa in english is not really a villa at all. It is more of a township and occupies hundreds of acres of land below the hill town of Tivoli, some 20 miles northeast of Rome. The ‘villa’ was commissioned by the emperor Hadrian, who reigned from CE 117 to 138. He wanted a perfect setting that doubled as a holiday retreat and a center of government.

The setting is perfect, indeed—the loveliest of places. The ruins of thirty-five elaborate stone and brick structures stand among cypresses, maritime pines, and olive trees. Renaissance polymaths were fascinated. As well as stealing its architectural ideas, they stripped the walls of their marble facings. Even the floors of their mosaics, to adorn the palazzi of cardinals. But what remains is still one of the wonders of European civilization.

Here the emperor Hadrian and his guests held their court meetings. Here servants and slaves lived and labored to provide all the necessary services for those in the light above ground.

A curious aspect of the complex is that it represents the Roman world’s miniature as Hadrian saw it. It was his metaphor in brick and stone for the Empire itself. For example, there was a symbolic evocation of the Academy, the grove outside Athens, where the philosopher Plato taught. Canopus, a tourist resort in the Nile delta, was represented by a long, statue-lined pool and a vast half-domed open-air dining room. Apparently, a version of Hades, the underworld to which all human beings descended after death, was constructed. But we do not know where it was located or what it looked like.

If you want to visit one of the best kept and most visited archaeological sites in Italy. It’s just 40 minutes from Rome.

All Roads Really Did Lead to Rome

Have you ever heard the saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome’? From the Roman point of view, they all led from Rome. 

Rome was the center of a road network that stretched to the furthest corners of the Empire. Roads were critical to Roman civilization’s survival, as they helped Romans move troops, goods, and supplies around the Empire.

The roads were built as straight as possible so that that people and goods could travel with more ease. They were simple to navigate and had milestones to show distances. They were even designed with rest stops, where horses could be fed and watered, and exhausted travelers could take a break and eat. Roads were also patrolled by troops to keep travelers safe.

These highways were built over 800 years by legionaries as they marched across the Empire. There were more than 250,000 miles of high-quality Roman streets, of which 50,000 were paved. At their greatest extent, they would have encircled the earth thirty-one times. Some of the roads were simple trackways covered in gravel or crushed rubble, but the major highways were built to last and paved with stone. A major Roman road was built up in layers, with each layer doing an important job. Some of these roads were so well built they are still intact today, 2.000 years later. Maybe you’ve traveled on them!

The road to battle. You can still see the Via Appia (Appian Way) just outside Rome today. The road, started around 312 BCE, allowed Roman troops to travel to the city of Capua, 190 km (118 miles) south of Rome, where they were fighting Samnium’s tribes. It was expensive to build, but the Senate agreed that roads like this were vital. Without them, the Roman legions couldn’t get around quickly enough to defend the Empire’s cities and borders.

Roman Technology was Ahead of its Time

The Romans learned a lot from other cultures, copying the skills and techniques they wanted for themselves and developing their own. Their technical abilities helped them to become one of history’s most powerful and influential civilizations. 

Metal-workers used gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, and mercury from mines in Britain, Spain, and Portugal to produce tools, weapons, nails, coins, and fine jewelry. They hammered copper into thin sheets or heated other ores, such as iron ore, to extract the pure metal. By heating metals into a liquid form, they could shape them using molds and casts.

Roman glassworkers were masters of their trade. Some of their techniques are still not understood! For example, they made vases using different layers of colored glass. They somehow managed to carve away the top layers to make ‘relief’ pictures on the surface, called cameos.

All over the Empire, construction projects relied on a new Roman invention: the strong and waterproof concrete. It was much easier to transport than heavy blocks of stone, plus it was cheap, easy to use, and could be laid in any shape.

Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome

Daily life in Rome was very different for wealthy Romans and poor commoners. Where you lived, the food you ate, and whether or not you went to school depended on what level of society you belonged to – and if you were a slave, you had no rights at all. However, all Roman citizens, even the poorest, were entitled to free entertainment. Chariot racing and gladiators contests, in particular, were viral.

What kind of society was Rome?

Roman society was divided into many different levels. Firstly, you could either be free or a slave. If you were free, you were either a Roman citizen or a non-citizen or foreigner, called peregrinus. Citizens had more rights and didn’t have to pay as many taxes to the government. They were also allowed to wear a toga: a long, wooden garment wrapped and folded around the body.

Citizens were also divided into different social classes. 

Like the Greeks, the Romans had a strict class system, though it was a bit more flexible: you could buy your way up from one class to the next. Going from top to bottom, the Roman classes were:

  • Patricians. The top class of Roman citizens. Only patricians became senators. Senators had the power to command legions and run parts of the Empire. They could also be priests.
  • Equestrians. Originally descended from the cavalrymen of the early days of Rome, these people were the Roman middle class and often ran the business side of the Empire.
  • Plebeians. The Roman working classes. Without wealthy families to house and feed them, the Roman poor were often worse off than slaves. There was a flourishing network of robbers, muggers, and highway thieves.
  • Slaves. They belonged to their owners, but they were often very well treated and could win or buy their freedom. Freed slaves, known as freedmen, sometimes became surprisingly rich and powerful.

Roman women. In Roman life, women did not enjoy the same rights as men. Very few girls received an education, and women were not allowed to be emperors, serve in the Senate or the army, or work in government. Unless they had a very high status, they usually had domestic duties (in the home). They remained under the power of their fathers, even after marriage. However, women were allowed to inherit their parent’s property, which meant that some could own property and start their own business.

The paterfamilias, the father of the household, had great importance upon the family. Father’s word was law, and he could beat or imprison his children and divorce his wife if she was ugly or talked too much. If his wife was unfaithful, the paterfamilias could put her to death. When Augustus discovered that his daughter, Julia, had been sleeping with half the Roman aristocracy, he had her exiled to a tiny island for the rest of her life. Parents also arranged their children’s marriages. A young Roman man counted himself very lucky if he got a wife anything like his own age: Girls could marry at 12, and they often did.

What did Romans do for fun?

Most of Rome’s citizens were in the lower classes, so the emperor ensured that every person got a monthly ration of grain and free entertainment. A poet called Juvenal summed up these gifts as ‘bread and circuses.’ Juvenal argued that the mass of people paid little thought to severe issues such as their liberty. All they cared about was their own immediate needs and pleasures. Today, the phrase has a broader meaning, including welfare benefits and popular culture.

Like many things in their culture, the Romans borrowed their types of theatre from the ancient Greeks. People went to theatres to see comedies, pantomimes, and tragedies, or to hear poets recite their work. We know that wealthy people enjoyed theatre, as they added scenes from plays to the decorations inside their houses.

There were two leading racecourses in Rome: the Circus Maximus beneath the Palatine hill and the smaller Circus Flaminius. Chariots were usually drawn by four horses, but on occasion up to ten, while novices drove two-horse chariots. They waited in twelve starting boxes, charged down a long straight, maneuvered sharply and dangerously around a cluster of three turning posts, galloped back, turned again, and so on for seven laps. A race at the Circus Maximus, which was more than 350 meters long and had a capacity of 250,000 spectators (now it is only a scrappy stretch of grass), lasted about a quarter of an hour.

Racing was hazardous, and there were frequent spectacular and lethal pile-ups, especially at the turns. Charioteers always carried a knife with them to cut themselves free in the event of a crash. Tremendous tactical skill was required. It was important not to take a turn too wide to allow a competitor to overtake. A favorite trick was to crowd opposing chariots and cause a collision.

Bloodthirsty gladiator contests were also hugely popular. Gladiators were trained to fight in different styles, using weapons and armor. The official opening of the Colosseum in AD 80 was an elaborate affair. Shows took place on 123 days; 11.000 animals, tame and wild, were killed, and 10.000 gladiators fought contests. 

The opening celebrations apparently included a battle between elephants. Gladiators fought in single combat or groups, and there were also infantry and naval battles. For the latter, we are told, the arena was filled with water. One of the sea-fights was inspired by a famous historical event: the struggle in 413 BC between the Athenians and the Syracusans, first in Syracuse’s grand harbor and then on land. In this Roman restaging, 3.000 men took part, but we do not know how many died. On this occasion, history’s judgment was reversed, and the ‘Athenians’ defeated the ‘Syracusans.’

Fight to death. Some gladiator contests involved prisoners of war, who were forced to fight each other to death. Slaves were also made to fight as gladiators, but some people become gladiators by choice. They would train hard to become skilled, unbeatable fighters. Many fights were not to the death. If there was a stalemate, the emperor might ask the crowd to decide who should be killed and who should be let go.

The Colosseum is Rome’s most impressive ruin and the largest arena in the world, a record it still holds today. The outer wall is a little under 48m (160ft). The central arena is an oval measuring 86m (287ft) by 54m (180ft). The building could seat between 50.000 and 80.000 people.

What were the Roman Baths used for?

The public baths, known as thermae, were an essential part of Roman culture. Visiting the tub was a great way to stay happy and healthy, and people often met up with friends and business partners there. Male and female bathers visited at different times, and some of the larger bath-houses had separate areas for men and women.

The bathing process lasted several hours. Usually, a bather would do some exercise in the outside gym before a slave gave him or her a message with aromatic oils. The slave might also clean the bather’s skin by coating it with oil, which was then scraped off using a curved blade called a ‘strigil.’ 

Bathers then had a choice: they could go for a dip in the ‘natatio’ (cold swimming pool) or enter a ‘tepidarium’ (warm room). After the warm room, they went to the ‘caldarium’ (hot room) to let their bodies sweat before soaking in a hot pool. The final room was the ‘frigidarium’ (cold room), which contained a large, cold plunge pool.

This wasn’t the end of the bath-house experience. The rest of the visit was spent at snack bars, walking in the ornate gardens, listening to a poet, watching an acrobat, or playing dice games with buddies.

Healthy Romans. We know about Roman medicines and health treatments from Romans who were writing at the time. Unwashed wool was coated in honey and rubbed into cold sores or dipped in wine or vinegar to treat a wound. Roman doctors also made medicinal pills using ingredients they could gather from the Mediterranean religion. These included onions, carrots, parsley, cabbage, alfalfa, hawthorn, hibiscus, and chestnut.

What did the Romans use to eat?

The Romans are famous for their rich diet and lavish feasts. However, most of the population ate very simple food and could only dream of the feasts’ treats!

It was difficult to store fresh food, especially in the winter, or if it was being transported over long distances. The Romans developed many ways of preserving food, such as smoking, salting, and pickling. They disguised their none-too-fresh ingredients in a salty fish sauce called ‘garum’ if all else failed.

On city streets, fast-food bars called ‘thermopolia’ were owned and run by freed slaves. These sold nourishing stews and porridge, washed down by wine. The bars were popular among more impoverished people, who didn’t have kitchens and running water in their apartments. They were also great places for meeting up, chatting, and exchanging gossip.

Slaves used the busy shops and ‘forum’ markets to buy the meat, vegetables, and oil they needed to cook their wealthy masters’ meals. If a slave’s master held a banquet at his house, several courses, consisting of numerous small dishes, would be served, and the shopping list would be huge.

Unusual dishes. Wealthy Romans liked their food to be experimental. Their slaves served up plates of animal tongues, while the cooks baked dormice or roasted ostriches, peacocks, and the legs of giraffes. One of the more ambitious roasts involved stuffing a chicken inside a duck, the duck inside a goose, and the goose inside a pig. All this before cooking up the whole lot inside a cow! If the master of the house needed a cold, refreshing drink, he might even send his slaves into the hills to fetch snow for making a flavored ‘slushy.’ 

Roman Food Supply

With its growing population, Rome needed huge and reliable supplies of food. The main crop was wheat, which was ground to make flour for bread. Much of Rome’s grain supply came from Egypt and northern Africa. It was vital for Rome to control the Mediterranean Sea to ensure that ships carrying grain arrived safely at Ostia, Rome’s port.

Two other significant crops were olives and grapes. Olives were squeezed in presses to make oil, which was transported around the Empire in large vessels, called ‘amphorae.’ Olive oil was prized for cooking. Still, it was also used in lamps and for washing in public baths. Grapes, grown in vineyards, were again pressed, sometimes by human feet, other by a machine, and made into wine.

Most people in the Roman world were farmers. Many would have farmed just a few acres, growing cereals, grapes, olives, apples, celery, and onions. Many upper-class Romans owned a country villa and adjoining farm. Some of the country estates (called latifundia) were very large. They specialized in producing certain foodstuffs and livestock for export to the cities. Estates in Spain were famous for their olive oil, while Britain exported wooden goods and beer.

How to Starve Rome. When the Visigoths besieged Rome in 408 CE, they occupied the harbor at the River Tiber’s mouth. The deliveries of grain from overseas could not get through. Shortly after the siege began, the daily ration of bread (given to each citizen) had to be halved. Then it was reduced to a third. As the weeks went by, people began to starve. After a few months, the siege worked. The Senate paid the Visigoths to leave Rome in peace.

Ideas and Beliefs in Ancient Rome

The Romans were great thinkers. They produced many famous historians, poets, and philosophers. Religion was an essential part of Roman life. People believed in many gods and goddesses and were very superstitious, always looking out for good or bad “omens” or signs from the gods. Around 380 CE, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, and the old forms of Roman religion gradually disappeared.

Big Ideas from the Roman Empire

The Romans, influenced by the Ancient Greeks, thought deeply about the world and expressed their ideas through poetry, history, philosophy, and literature. Many of their ideas are still discussed and valued today.

One of the most famous poets was called Virgil, 70-19 BCE. He wrote an epic Latin poem called The Aeneid that was so epic, he never finished it! The poem tells the story of a mythological hero named Aeneas, who became the Roman people’s ancestors. He loved to blend mythological stories with the history of Rome.

Other writers wanted to tell the real history of the Romans. Livy, 59 BCE -17 CE, wrote an enormous set of books about the foundation of Rome. Much of what We know about the Romans comes from his work. But perhaps the most remarkable Roman historian was Tacitus, 56 – 120 CE. In incredible detail, he described the reigns of Rome’s first emperors, as well as the Germanic tribes beyond the Empire’s borders.

Seneca the Younger, 4 BCE – 65 CE, and Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 CE, were famous Stoic philosophers. They believed that the world was chaotic and beyond our control, but We can control our own thoughts and beliefs and be good people.

Today, Marcus Aurelius is perhaps best known for his collection of essays called Meditations. Some of his most famous passages were written from outposts and battlefields as he sought to expand the Roman Empire. Through these essays, he shared his thoughts on balancing the conflict of real-life with philosophy’s values.

I have often wondered how every man loves himself more than all the rest of men. But yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

Marcus Aurelius

Roman Gods

Roman Gods

The Romans had gods for almost everything. Janus was the god of the beginnings and doorways and was the chief guardian of the house. Cardea was the goddess of door hinges, while Limentius was the god of the threshold. Vesta was the goddess of the fireplace, the spiritual center of a Roman home. 

There was even a god of manure, called Sterculius, and a god of mold known as Robigus.

The 12 main gods and goddesses were:

  • Jupiter, the leader of the sky
  • Apollo, the god of the Sun
  • Minerva, goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, and the sponsor of arts
  • Juno, Protector of marriage
  • Vulcan, the god of fire and the forge
  • Diana, goddess of the wild
  • Mars, the god of war
  • Vesta, goddess of the home and family
  • Ceres, goddess of corn and harvest
  • Venus, goddess of love and beauty
  • Mercury, the winged messenger
  • Neptune, lord of the sea

Roman religion blended lots of different traditions, rituals, ideas, and superstitions. As the Empire expanded, the Romans also “borrowed” beliefs, habits, and gods from the places they’d conquered.

The gods and goddesses of the Greek religion were absorbed into the Roman religion. The Romans used old Etruscan or Latin names, though Zeus became Jupiter. At the same time, Artemis (the Greek goddess of hunting) was called Diana.

Specific temples were dedicated to each god’s worship, called a “cult,” and each cult had its own priests. Different cults became popular at various times. For example, the worship of Mitras, a bull-slaying god, was widespread between the 1st and 4th centuries CE.

There were also hundreds of minor gods and spirits who looked after every aspect of life, from the weather, nature, and farming, to health, luck, and prosperity. People had altars and shrines at home, where offerings were made.

What religion did the Romans believe in?

The Romans were deeply religious, but their religion was a complex web of superstitions. It had little or nothing to do with individual spirituality or with theological doctrine. In fact, the spirit’s life was regarded with deep suspicion; all that was required were ceremonial formulas for ascertaining the gods’ will and averting their displeasure.

From large to small, every aspect of life was governed by ritual. Whether it was the repair and maintenance of a bridge or the business of making a treaty. The crucial point was that religious ceremonies had to be conducted with absolute accuracy. If a mistake was made, or there was some interruption—for example, if a rat squeaked or a priest’s hat fell off—the entire procedure had to be repeated. On one occasion, a sacrifice had to be conducted thirty times before the priest got it right.

Specialist priests from Etruria (Tuscany), the haruspices, examined and interpreted the intestines of sacrificed animals for anything irregular or unusual. Domestic animals—a lamb, a goat, or a young ox, or more modestly a chicken—were slaughtered in vast numbers. Their throats were slit with a special knife, and their blood was gathered in a shallow dish for pouring on the altar. The meat was cooked, formally offered to the relevant god, and then eaten by the worshippers. 

The Roman year was liberally sprinkled with public festivals. In the first century CE, Rome enjoyed one day of holiday for every workday. This looks like an almost suicidal approach to agricultural and industrial productivity. But in practice, workers did not get down tools for every festival. The idea of a weekend had not yet been invented!

Rome had a market day held every eight days (the so-called nundinum, or ninth day). Under the emperors, this was reduced to a seven-day week (inspired by the solar system’s seven planets, as then understood). But there was no ‘Lord’s Day’ for rest, relaxation, and religious observance.

Some festivals were moveable feasts. The pontifices—priests who were members of the College of Pontiffs and had supreme control of the state religion—decided these celebrations’ dates. They also kept a record of the significant events of every year, the Annals. Some days were believed to be lucky (fasti), and others accursed (nefasti). A public business could only be conducted on a lucky day. The pontifices decided which days fell into which category.

Surprising Facts About Magic And Superstition In Ancient Rome

The roman people had a firm belief in fortune-telling and the supernatural. Certain events or natural happenings were seen as omens (signs) of either good or bad fortune to come. This belief that natural phenomena could predict the future was probably adopted from the Etruscans.

People who told the future and interpreted what the signs meant were called ‘augurs’ and soothsayers. They saw any natural disaster as a sign that the gods were angry and needed to be pleased. They also used tools, such as the patterns made by flying birds or the entrails from human or animal sacrifices, to help them.

If the omens weren’t good, emperors and generals would sometimes delay their actions, such as marching into battle. Other emperors would not begin their daily routines until they had talked to a soothsayer. Emperor Claudius established a college of soothsayers to protect this tradition.

They were fascinated by magic and astrology, which they saw as part of everyday life’s fabric, the dark side of religion. Spellbooks were published, and ‘magical papyri’ have been unearthed from Egypt’s bone-dry sands. This reveals the lengths to which people were willing to go to unleash the powers of darkness. Although magic had long been illegal, it became increasingly popular under the emperors. It was employed for many purposes. As healing illnesses beyond the reach of conventional medicine, hurting, even killing, one’s enemies. And even improving one’s sex life and compelling the object of one’s affections to respond in kind.

One of magic’s fundamental principles was sympathetic, or ‘fellow feeling,’ which allowed the part to be taken for the whole. So, for example, removing some hair or nail clippings from a barber’s shop gave the spellbinder power over their original owner. Alternatively, and more ambitiously, the principle of ‘like for like’ explained the use of wax dolls, which, when pierced with a needle, communicated pain, or even death, to their human originals. Another version of this same principle involved human sacrifice. One living person was killed to save another or volunteered his or her own life in the act of self-immolation, like Alcestis handing herself over to death in place of her husband in the play by Euripides.

The best way of countering magic was to seek protection. Amulets, for example, worn on the body prevented demons from taking it over. One of them reads: ‘Save Esther from evil tormentors, the evil eye, spirits, monsters, and night ghosts.

People wore amulets, or lucky charms, to ward off bad spirits such as the ‘evil eye.’ This was when a demon, ghost, evil spirit, or witch looked at you in a certain way, which could make you sick, cause an accident or give you some form of bad luck.

For a Roman, something as ordinary as spilling wine, was thought to be a bad omen. Another disastrous sign was a black cat entering the house or a snake falling from the roof. People believed in evil spirits such as werewolves, vampires, and old women who could turn into birds. Simultaneously, children were terrified of the Lamia and the Mormo, which sucked children’s blood. The Lamia was a fierce spirit. Romans believed it roamed around looking for children to eat.

Young girls wore a lunula for protection against the evil eye but put it aside when they were married.

Young boys wore a bulla around the neck as a locket to protect against evil spirits.

Everyone believed in astrology. The emperor Augustus used the sign of the sea-goat (Capricorn) on his coins.

What Festivals Were Celebrated in Ancient Rome?

The Roman calendar was packed full of religious festivals. These were known as feriae (holy days) and were generally dedicated to one or more gods or spirits. Romans believed that these minor gods and spirits controlled every aspect of life. The festivals were intended to keep them happy so that the harvest (and people’s health) would be good.

Some of the feriae were held on fixed days of the calendar. For example, Saturnalia was a winter festival held in the week following December 17th. It was quite similar to Christmas, and it was dedicated to Saturn, the god of seed-sowing and agriculture. And involved feasting, drinking, visiting friends, and exchanging gifts. Wealthy masters would trade places with their slaves. A slave would wear his master’s clothes for the day and be waited on by him. 

Other feriae marked special occasions or even particular threats. For example, the priests or magistrates might announce a holiday if a brilliant military victory had taken place or if they felt Rome was in grave danger.

Events dedicated to a god, or several gods, often involved a procession to a temple dedicated to them. Prayers were recited, and offerings and animal sacrifices would be made in front of the temple steps. The animals’ vital organs were often burned so that the rising smoke would carry the offerings up into the world of the gods. The rest of the animal was eaten later on, at the feast: a tasty barbecue for the people.

The Roman Legacy

Many Roman creations and inventions are still in use today, from concrete and central heating to Roman numerals. Many modern roads trace the routes carved out by the Romans. With its grand columns and porticos, Roman architecture is found in many important public buildings, such as our banks and courthouses.

The Roman idea of piping water into cities for everyday use and hygiene remains an essential part of town planning. The Roman invention of a gigantic sewer, which ran under Rome’s streets, is the forerunner of all our modern drainage systems.

Most modern-day democracies follow Roman ideas such as elected leaders, law-making assemblies, and a separate justice system. The Romans gave us many other legal ideas, including trial by jury, contracts, and wills.

The Romans even invented the modern calendar. In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar brought in reforms, which divided the year into 365 days and 12 months for the first time. He also introduced the idea of the leap year. Finally, many languages have evolved from Latin. These are called the “Romance languages,” which included French, Spanish, and Italian.

Whenever the Romans conquered new or “barbarian” lands, their subjects were introduced to the Roman alphabet. It has gone on to become the most widespread alphabet in the world. Until around the 5th century, the Roman alphabet read from right to left, not left to right. In the classic Roman alphabet, the letters J, U, and W were missing, and the letters K, Y, and Z were only used for Greek origin words.

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