Daily Life in Ancient Rome

Daily Life in Ancient Rome

The daily life of Roman citizens, at least in the big cities, was anything but dull. Assuming one could get away from one's civic duties and household chores, there were many activities available to distract and entertain. A trip to the baths was cheap and cheerful with the chance to catch up on the latest gossip with fellow bathers. The shops of the forum with their wares from around the Mediterranean world offered a busy and colourful spectacle even if one's purse was a little light. Rarer treats included gladiator battles and animal shows in the amphitheatre that most Roman towns possessed or if there were a circus, thrilling chariot races pulled in the crowds who often violently supported one team against another. Besides all that, there was theatre to watch, public executions to leer at, and perhaps best of all, the great religious feasts on public holidays, top amongst which was the role-reversal mayhem of Saturnalia.

In this collection, we look at all of the above and more - from the public venues to the sell-out performances, the street meals on offer, the private games, public parties, and even the medical practitioners who were no doubt busy on the mornings after.

The chariots themselves were colour-coded (red, white, green, and blue) and could be pulled by teams of 4, 6, 8 or 12 horses. Victorious charioteers not only became rich with large cash prizes but they also became the darlings of the crowd, particularly with those who had placed bets, which were sometimes huge.

Daily life in Ancient Rome

Family had had a very solid social position since the beginnings of Rome. The Roman familia was organised as a patriarchy - it means that the whole authority rested in father’s hands. The usual family consisted of: father, mother, single daughters and those, who were married but still lived with their parents and siblings, unmarried and married sons with their wives and children, and slaves. Father’s authority ranged over all members of family in remote past he could even decide about children's life and death (if he found neonate child illegitimate, he could not accept it and order to ditch it). It is interesting that the son, even if he was married or came of age, was unable to have own estate. He couldn’t inherit and own till the time when the father died. In relation to the slaves pater’s authority was absolute: he could sell, kill, leave or set them free.

There were two sorts of marriage in Rome: in manum, when a woman wasn’t incident to pater’s authority and depends only on her husband, and sine conventione in manum – women was still subject to her father, lived with her parents and siblings, and kept the succession right.

The age border needed to contract marriage was very low – girls had to be just 12 and boys 14 (in fact, this border, especially for boys, was much higher).

During the engagement ceremony, which took place before the wedding, a groom handed a coin or an iron ring to his future wife. The marriage ceremony was usually the same. In witnesses’ presence groom and bride gave hands to each other, and assented to marriage, then gods were asked for blessing. When the first star appeared on the sky, bride left the feast and made for her new house. After her husband, who was waiting on the doorstep, had given water and fire to her, she had to say famous words: Ubi tu Gaius, ibi ego Gaia.

The births of the children were the most important events in family’s life. After a child had been born, it was brought and put in front of the father. If he picked it up, it symbolised that he had found it legitimate. A child was named when it was 10 days old. At first Roman names consisted of 2 parts, then, in the times of the Republic and later, of 3: name, kind of surname and „alias”. There were few names in ancient Rome, so Romans replaced them with acronyms (Marcus –M., Quintus – Qu.).

Children upbringing and the youth

Both boys and girls started their education when they were 7 years old. A personal teacher, who usually was an educated slave, taught wealthier children those, whose parents couldn’t afford private lessons, attended school. Finally organised education system consisted of three levels. During the first stage, a teacher called litterator, taught how to read and write, at the same time calculator explained simple arithmetic. Roman children had to learn multiplication operations by heart, so it was common that they repeated them aloud after their teacher. The next stage included lessons given by gramaticus. That teacher had to have great knowledge from Greek and Roman literature, history and grammar. The third level involved rhetorical educating. Students were acquainted with the elocution rules and gave fictional speeches. Rich Romans’ sons completed their education in Athens or on Rhodes Island, where they attend philosophers’ lectures or rehearsed pronunciation.

Roman houses

Roman streets were filled with the crowds of people making their way to work, school, or just walking, even in the early morning. The poor lived in dilapidated cottages or rented rooms and flats in tenement houses. These narrow and high tenements were built in a quick and dirty way, and they often collapsed or became destroyed by fire. Storeys of such buildings stuck out toward the street, that’s why Cicero said about the Rome as about “a city hung in air on houses’ storeys”. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that poorer citizens avoid staying in their own homes and spend their time in the city, which offered a lot of entertainment to them.

Wealthy Romans couldn’t complain about their houses - they lived in luxury villas, surrounded by vast gardens and ponds. Roman houses consisted of three parts: a front one and a middle, which was covered with tiles and of a peristyle. There were lots of columns, flowers, pictures and a fountain in it. Under a peristyle there was a cellar. Atrium was a kind of a presentable lounge, “family life” concentrated in peristyle and nearby rooms. Slaves lived close to the atrium.


A tunic was the most important part of Roman clothing. It was a kind of a long, white shirt, composed of two cotton pieces without sleeves or with the short ones. Till III century AD wearing a tunic with long sleeves was perceived as a symbol of effeminacy. A tunic that was too long and reached ankles was also unsuitable for men. Also, Roman tunics varied in details depending an office that was held by their owners.

Tunics were worn only in house, if Roman wanted to go out, he had to put a toga on.

Toga was a piece of cotton material that was about 3 metres wide and approximately 6-7 metres long. It was very difficult to compose toga appropriately, so there were ‘special’ slaves who had to deal with it.

Ancient Romans ate three meals during the day: breakfast, lunch and dinner that was eaten late in the afternoon. Breakfast consisted of cheese, fruit, bread, milk or wine. Lunch wasn’t served. Romans usually ate leftovers from the yesterday meals. This meal contained meal dishes, fish, fruit, cheese and wine. The most important and generous was dinner. Romans used to eat it lying on sofas and a lots of slaves had to serve them. Dinner consisted of different sorts of meat, fish with vegetables, snacks, fresh or dried fruit and wine. Ancient Romans didn’t care the tidiness during the mealtime, for example they unscrupulously threw rests of the food on the floor.


Rich Romans spent their spare time on feasts. This activity was treated almost like a sort of sport. Public lectures and literary sets were very popular. Sports and circus games also provided great amusement to thousands of Roman. A lot of time was spent in terms, which were in fact a cultural centre of a city.

Roman entertainment is totally different than the entertainment we see today. Modern society has things like debit card and credit card processing to buy them things that they can't afford at the time. In Roman times, you didn't see this type of thing, you needed the funds to get what you wanted or what you wanted to do.

Near the entrance to the terms there was a man called capsarius, who had to preserve visitor’s property such as money, jewellery and documents. Usually terms had three parts: a room with an arched ceiling and pools with cold water, a small heating room and a room where people could have a cold bath. Besides “simple” baths Romans had a possibility to go to a special room and have a vapour bath. Within term area there were also courts and playing fields, restaurants and porticoes, where visitors could rest and discuss with other people.

Everybody could go to the terms and have a bath, even the poorest, because there were no entrance fees or they were very low. Women also visited terms, but after numerous scandals they had to do not at the same time as men did.

Roman Army and Government

The Roman Army Large illustrated sections on Roman army life and structure
Visual = 5 Content = 5 R2230

Roman Army Illustrated pages of formations, daily life, fort and much more information on the Ancient Roman Legions.
Visual=5 Content=5 R2250

The Roman Legions Very complete site on Roman Military including explanations and timelines of major campaigns, pictures of armor, and much more.
Visual = 5 Content = 5 R2260

Equipment of Roman Legions,Armor, 1, 2, 3 and Centurion Page Well illustrated page of equipment for Roman soldiers
Visual = 5 Content = 5 R2270

Large Weapons of Rome Ballista, Catapulta and Trebuchet
Visual = 5 Content = 5 R2280

Roman Technology One page essay on aqueducts and Roman sewers
Visual = 3 Content = 5 R2290

Roman Government Three essays on Roman government development
Visual = N/A Content = 5 R2300

Twelve Tables Bases of early Roman law
Visual = N/A Content = 5 R2310

#2: Ancient Roman Daily Life: why graffiti was so important in ancient Rome.

So you've visited Rome and thought the graffiti found all over the city is the work of modern vandals? You couldn't be more wrong.

Originating from the Italian word 'graffiato' ('scratched'), the beginnings of 'modern' written scratchings which use words to express curses, slogans, love or hate are to be found in the graffiti of daily life in ancient Rome. Graffiti has been discovered not only in ancient Rome but in all parts of the Empire, from Egypt to Greece and beyond.  

Ancient graffiti artists, as well as being well-travelled and prolific, did seem to have some respect for ancient Roman architecture and art. They generally avoided defacing wall paintings and mosaics and most graffiti is found on columns and walls.

Sometimes comic, often lewd, frequently giving information about times and locations of events - an ancient version of fly-posting - graffiti has become a rich source of information for historians about ancient Roman daily life, an indicator of how ordinary people thought and felt. It tells us things like:

  • Who loves whom: "Helena amatur a Rufo" (Rufus loves Helen)
  • . and who hates whom: "Cosmus Equitiaes magnus cinaedus est suris apertis." (Equitas' slave Cosmus is a big pervert with his legs wide open)
  • Which gladiators were popular and why: "Suspirium puellarum Celadus thraex" (Celadus the Thracian makes the girls sigh)
  • . and who had won the most recent fights:  "Albanus scaeva liber victoriarum XIX vicit" (Albanus, left-hander, of free status, victorious) 
  • Who stood for election and what the popular view of them was: (see graffiti of Emperor by Peregrinus, above)
  • Who has been breaking the law: "ladicula fur est" (Ladicula is a thief)
  • Where to find a prostitute: "Nuceria quaeres ad porta romana in vico venerio novelliam primigeniam" (At Nuceria, look for Novellia Primigenia near the Roman gate in the prostitute’s district)
  • . and even comments on the learned men of the day in the ruins of a Roman school was found the inscription: "Socrates taedium est" (Socrates is boring).

Graffiti was written by people at all levels of society, and most of it is surprisingly literate. Being able to see the words and gauge the feelings of commoners who would otherwise be forgotten is one of the appeals of ancient graffiti.

They are exceptional evidence of Roman life, distant echoes for us of public deeds and private passions. The general content of the writings may not be very different from those found on inner city walls today, but searchers after ancient Roman facts can use it to plot the moods of local communities and to examine how they have influenced Italian culture, traditions and history. 

So next time you visit Rome and you're tempted to complain about the graffiti you'll see throughout the city, stop and think: in two thousand years' time that graffiti might be used by historians of the future as a window back onto our own civilization. 

A story of a people who by then will have long passed into the history books.

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"One really must admire Harvey&rsquos achievement in this sourcebook. With just 350 passages (more than half of them consisting of Latin inscriptions, from all over Rome&rsquos empire), Harvey manages to give his readers a real sense of Roman private values and behaviors. His translations of the original texts are superb&mdashboth accurate and elegant. And he contextualizes his chosen passages with a series of remarkably economical but solidly reliable introductions. In a word, Harvey&rsquos sourcebook strikes me as the best now available for a single-semester undergraduate course."
&mdashT. Corey Brennan, Rutgers University&ndashNew Brunswick

"[This book] stands out as a superior work against all the competing texts . . . the work is ideal for students and interested non-professionals. The texts are all translated into clear, accurate English. They are also thoroughly contextualized, both in categories as well as individually.
"This insistence on the historicity of the sources sets the book apart from the norm. The book also benefits from Harvey&rsquos extensive, almost encyclopedic, knowledge of inscriptions, which are used as important sources along with the literary excerpts. Finally, the many photos by the author himself augment the texts and are themselves analyzed as unique sources."
&mdashSteven L. Tuck, Miami University, Ohio

"Here are well chosen pieces, with brief, clear introductions, beautifully translated. A model sourcebook.&rdquo
&mdashThe Reading Room,

"A welcome addition to those seeking to illustrate 'Roman' culture by providing the uninitiated with access to the ancient sources, with Harvey bringing to bear his own particular interest in the epigraphical evidence and introducing a number of texts not usually encountered outside more specialist source collections.
"Those who come to this volume without previous instruction will find much to entertain them, students with teachers to guide them through the maze of mirrors (and Harvey&rsquos running introductions point the way) will find here a useful base for discussion, and scholars who come with an open mind will be glad to have been reminded of a few items they may have forgotten and perhaps to stumble across items previously unnoticed."
&mdashTom Hilliard, Macquarie University, in The Classical Review

"Harvey has compiled [an] attractive new sourcebook of ancient texts meant to provide a more human window into how the ancient Romans lived and thought about their world.
"To his credit, Harvey has done his own new translations for all the passages. . . . This is on the whole a welcome choice, as it lends itself to a consistency in translation style, and his renderings read smoothly, a crucial factor in making the text more accessible and enjoyable to the target market of students who are most likely unfamiliar with these texts.
"Harvey's sourcebook does a remarkable job of packing a wealth of information into a compact, user-friendly volume, and it deserves the full consideration of any teacher looking for a sourcebook to complement a course on ancient Rome. . . for the foreseeable future I will now be using Harvey for my Roman civilization courses, primarily due to its much greater affordability and accessibility to newcomers.&rdquo
&mdashMark Thorne, Luther College, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review

About the Author:

Brian K. Harvey is Associate Professor of Classics, Kent State University.

Daily Life in Ancient Rome

View Inside Format: Paper
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This classic book brings to life imperial Rome as it was during the second century A.D., the time of Trajan and Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus. It was a period marked by lavish displays of wealth, a dazzling cultural mix, and the advent of Christianity. The splendor and squalor of the city, the spectacles, and the day’s routines are reconstructed from an immense fund of archaeological evidence and from vivid descriptions by ancient poets, satirists, letter-writers, and novelists—from Petronius to Pliny the Younger. In a new Introduction, the eminent classicist Mary Beard appraises the book’s enduring—and sometimes surprising—influence and its value for general readers and students. She also provides an up-to-date bibliographic essay.

“Carcopino’s pledge to his readers was to open up to them some traces of the world that lay underneath the grandeur that remains the public face of ancient Rome. . . . No one has ever done it better.”—Mary Beard, from the Introduction

“The author’s vivid depiction of Roman life itself is timeless.”—History Magazine

Daily Life in Ancient Rome

The Roman Empire was vast. It encompassed all of Italy lands around the Mediterranean Sea including parts of North Africa and Egypt east to what is today Romania, Bulgaria, Iran, the Ukraine and west to Spain, France, and Britain.

Movement to and from each area was facilitated by Roman roads and shipping. As a result, the city of Rome had a very mixed population with various cultures, much like the world’s large cities of today.

Around the countryside and outside of the cities, people farmed on land rented from the government and they had a very simple and arduous life. If they lived in small towns, they had occupations that relied on physical labour.

Many migrated to the cities in the hopes of finding better paying jobs and a better way of life. A lot of them were disappointed and there were always hordes of the unemployed, the homeless, and beggars.

Slave Workforce

Slaves were captured by Roman soldiers after every battle on foreign soil. Some were sold to the highest bidders among the upper class, and some were claimed by the Roman government. Besides using slaves in construction and other menial tasks, slave women could sometimes find employment as dressmakers, hairdressers, nannies, and servants in upper class or noble homes.

Some freed slaves were employed as teachers, surgeons, medics, and architects. Many freedmen found employment as tradesmen, such as bakers, carpenters, fishmongers, metal workers, or stablemen. Those who were not lucky to be freedmen lived an extremely harsh life, many dying as a result of poor health, wicked treatment, and terrible punishments.

Housing for the Poor

Cities like Rome were often inundated with migrants looking for shelter and work. Cheap and dangerous buildings were erected to house the poor. In some areas, one could expect annual flooding from the Tiber River. The shelters for the poor were overcrowded and people were constantly afraid of the building collapsing or fire breaking out because people cooked their meagre meals over open fires.

The great fire during Emperor Nero’s reign destroyed a good portion of Rome. Afterwards, there was an effort to build apartment buildings of 5 or 7 stories with balconies for escape. The floor you ended up living on depended on a family’s income.

Families who were lucky enough to live on the first floor paid rent annually. The apartment had a dining area, kitchen, sleeping rooms, and windows with glass – all in all, quite a comfortable living arrangement.

However, those who sought shelter on the upper floors of apartment buildings had no such luxury. Sometimes more than one family shared one room. These rooms were often rented by the day. The poor carried water from public fountains. Garbage including human waste was just dumped into the streets.

Housing for the Upper Classes

By as early as 312 BC, aqueducts had been constructed bringing water into the cities to serve as drinking water for the citizens, and to bring water to the public baths and toilets. By 33 BC, there were 170 public baths in Rome alone, and by 400 AD, Rome had 800.

The public baths were used by the upper class for social gatherings and to conduct business. The upper classes had extensive walled villas built with many rooms and gardens with cement pipes that brought water directly to their homes. A sewage system was also constructed that used gravity to get rid of waste, as most villas were built on hills.

A Brief History of Gladiatorial Combat

The first recorded gladiator games were organized by two Etruscan sons in 264 BC to commemorate the death of their father. However, the first ‘official&rsquo games didn&rsquot begin until 105 BC. Gladiatorial combat was a way for the aristocracy (and later, Emperors) to display their wealth, celebrate military victories and birthdays, mark visits from prominent officials, or to distract the people from the various social and economic problems they faced.

Emperor Vespasian ordered the construction of the Colosseum in Rome which began in 72 AD, but he died before its completion. Titus opened the Colosseum in 80 AD with a spectacular 100-day festival of gladiator games. Construction was finally completed in around 96 AD during the reign of Domitian, and events regularly attracted crowds of up to 50,000 people. Notably, women were allowed compete until Septimius Severus banned them in 200 AD. Honorius outlawed the games in 404 AD, some five years after closing gladiator schools. Apparently, the final straw came when a monk, who jumped between two fighters in combat, was stoned to death by the outraged crowd.

Inside the Colosseum. Get Your Guide

Ancient Rome and Religion

Religion played a very important role in the daily life of Ancient Rome and the Romans. Roman religion was centred around gods and explanations for events usually involved the gods in some way or another. The Romans believed that gods controlled their lives and, as a result, spent a great deal of their time worshipping them.

The most important god was Jupiter. He was the king of gods who ruled with his wife Juno, the goddess of the sky. Other gods were:

Mars God of War
Mercury The messenger of the gods
Nepture God of the Sea
Janus God of the Doorway
Diana Goddess of Hunting
Vesta Goddess of the Hearth
Minerva Goddess of Healing and Wisdom
Venus Goddess of Love

After the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC to AD 14), the emperor was also considered to be a god and he was worshipped on special occasions. Each god had a special festival day which was usually a public holiday. This holiday gave people the opportunity to visit the temple for whichever god was being celebrated. At this temple, priests would sacrifice animals and offer them to the god.

Animals being led to slaughter at a temple sacrifice

Temples to worship the gods were built throughout the Roman Empire. Temples usually always followed the same building pattern. The roof was triangular shaped and supported by great pillars. Steps led up to the main doorway that was usually built behind the pillars. The inside of the temple would have been very well decorated and there would have been a statue of the god in it. There would also have been an altar where a priest would have served the god and made sacrifices. People called augurs could also be found in the temples. These people used the entrails of the dead animals to predict the future. The Romans took these predictions very seriously and few ignored the advice of an augur.

Each family home would also have a small altar and shrine. The Romans had personal household gods or spirits called ‘lares’ which were worshipped every day at home. The shrine contained statues of the ‘lares’ and the head of the household led family prayers around the shrine each day. The service was considered so important that family slaves were also invited. It is believed that most Romans were more keen to please their ‘lares’ than the public gods such as Jupiter.

A family shrine at a house in Pompeii

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. (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 . ( 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 rigid naming system, particularly during the period of the Republic, gave little room for parental choice. This meant that many Romans had very similar names to each other.

The Romans also liked to honor their ancestors, and at the same time attach a level of prestige, to their children by naming them after prominent people who had achieved great things in the past.

Please click on the link below to read a comprehensive article on Roman naming practices during the Principate period of Roman history.

Watch the video: Daily Life in Rome (December 2021).