Roman Culture

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016

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The culture of ancient Rome existed throughout the almost 1200-year history of the civilization of Ancient Rome.
Of course Rome was a constantly, and often rapidly evolving culture, and attitudes, styles and institutions developed and changed accordingly.
For this, and most other articles, we have taken the period from the ending of the Republic up to the last of the Julio-Claudian Emperors, with some brief forays into the later Imperial period.
One of the problems with much of the popular portrayal of Ancient Rome is the fact that books, and particularly films, tend to choose styles, behavior and aspects of Roman life from various periods, and mix and match these elements - taking into consideration what will appeal, and often what is acceptable, to contemporary taste, and in the case of films and plays, what is practical and cost effective.
The results, as in 'Caligula', 'Blood and Sand' and 'Gladiator' (to name but a few), are inevitably a 'mish mash' of anachronisms, tailored to modern tastes and expectations.
It should also be noted that while the Ancient Romans left us copious written records, and numerous sculptures, wall-paintings, and mosaics, these often omit crucial information.
For example, there are practically no detailed descriptions of gladiatorial contests, and wall paintings and mosaics that are available are mainly late period, provincial works, of relatively low quality.
Also, surprisingly, there are no detailed descriptions of Roman crucifixions.
Even in representations of daily Roman life we only have a minute residue of all the mosaics, paintings and sculptures - again mostly poor quality provincial work, and practically no panel paintings at all.
Even in terms of archeology, much is missing.
It was long considered, for example, that the descriptions of Caligula's enormous 'pleasure' boats, complete with marble columns, plumbing and pools, were excessive exaggerations of ancient authors - until the remains of one turned up in  lake near Rome. 

Life in ancient Rome revolved around the city of Rome, its seven hills, and its monumental architecture, such as the Flavian Amphitheater (now called the Colosseum), the Forum of Trajan, and the Pantheon.

Roman Forum
The city also had several theaters, gymnasia, and many taverns, baths, and brothels.
Throughout the territory under ancient Rome's control, residential architecture ranged from very modest houses to country villas, and in the capital city of Rome, there were imperial residences on the elegant Palatine Hill, (from which the word palace is derived).
The vast majority of the population lived in the city center, packed into 'insulae' (apartment blocks). 
The city of Rome was the largest megalopolis of that time, with a population that may well have exceeded one million people, with a high end estimate of 3.6 million and a low end estimate of 450,000.
Historical estimates indicate that around 30% of the population under the city's jurisdiction lived in innumerable urban centers, with population of at least 10,000 and several military settlements, a very high rate of urbanization by pre-industrial standards.
The most urbanized part of the Empire was Italy, which had an estimated rate of urbanization of 32%, the same rate of urbanization of England in 1800.
Most Roman towns and cities had a forum, temples and the same type of buildings, on a smaller scale, as found in Rome.
The large urban population required an endless supply of food which was a complex logistical task, including acquiring, transporting, storing and distribution of food for Rome and other urban centers. 
Italian farms supplied vegetables and fruits, but fish and meat were luxuries.
Aqueducts were built to bring water to urban centers, and wine and oil were imported from Hispania, Gaul and Africa.
There was a very large amount of commerce between the provinces of the Roman Empire, since its transportation technology was very efficient.
Eighty percent of the population under the jurisdiction of ancient Rome lived in the countryside, in settlements with less than 10 thousand inhabitants.
Landlords generally resided in cities, and their estates were left in the care of farm managers.
The plight of rural slaves was generally worse than their counterparts working in urban aristocratic households.
To stimulate a higher labor productivity most landlords freed a large number of slaves, and many received wages.
Some records indicate that as many as 42 people lived in one small farm hut in Egypt, while six families owned a single olive tree.
Such a rural environment continued to induce migration of population to urban centers until the early 2nd century when the urban population stopped growing and started to decline.
Starting in the middle of the 2nd century BC, private Greek culture was increasingly in ascendancy, in spite of tirades against the "softening" effects of Hellenized culture from the conservative moralists.
By the time of Augustus, cultured Greek household slaves taught the Roman young (sometimes even the girls); chefs, decorators, secretaries, doctors, and hairdressers all came from the Greek East. 
Greek sculptures adorned Hellenistic landscape gardening on the Palatine or in the villas, or were imitated in Roman sculpture yards by Greek slaves.
The Roman cuisine preserved in the cookery books ascribed to Apicius is essentially Greek.
Roman writers disdained Latin for a cultured Greek style.
Only in law and governance was the Italic nature of Rome's accretive culture supreme.
Against this human background, both the urban and rural setting, one of history's most influential civilizations took shape, leaving behind a cultural legacy that survives in part today.

In order to fully appreciate and understand Roman culture it is first essential to have some knowledge of the complex, and rigid, social structure which was at the foundation of all Roman politics, economics, society, religion and the arts .


Social class in ancient Rome was hierarchical, but there were multiple and overlapping social hierarchies, and an individual's relative position in one might be higher or lower than in another.
The status of freeborn Romans during the Republic was established by: 
  • ancestry (patrician or plebeian); 
  • census rank (ordo) based on wealth and political privilege, with the senatorial and equestrian ranks elevated above the ordinary citizen;
  • attainment of honors (the novus homo or self-made man established his family as nobilis, "noble", and thus there were noble plebeians);
  • and citizenship, of which there were grades with varying rights and privileges. Men who lived in towns outside Rome (such as municipia or colonies) might hold citizenship, but lack the right to vote; equally, free-born Roman women were citizens, but could not vote or hold political office. 
There were also classes of non-citizens with different legal rights, such as peregrini (foreigners living permanently in Rome).
Under Roman law, slaves were considered property and had no rights as such.
However, some laws regulated slavery, and offered slaves protections not extended to other forms of property such as animals.
Slaves who had been manumitted (freed) were freedmen (liberti), and for the most part enjoyed the same legal rights and protections as free-born citizens.
Roman society was patriarchal in the purest sense; the male head of household (paterfamilias) held special legal powers and privileges that gave him jurisdiction (patria potestas) over all the members of his familia, a more encompassing term than its modern derivative "family", that included adult sons, his wife (but only in Rome's earlier history, when marriage cum manu was practiced), married daughters (in the Classical period of Roman history), and various relatives, as well as slaves.
The patron-client relationship (clientela), with the word patronus deriving from pater, "father", was another way in which Roman society was organized into hierarchical groups, though clientela also functioned as a system of overlapping social networks.
A patron could be the client of a socially superior or more powerful patron; a client could have multiple patrons.


In the Roman Kingdom and the early Roman Republic the most important division in Roman society was between the patricians, a small elite who monopolized political power, whose ancestry was traced to the first Senate established by Romulus, and the plebeians, who comprised the majority of Roman citizens.
Adult males who were not Roman citizens, whether free or slave, fall outside this division.
Women and children were also not citizens, but took the social status of their father or husband, which granted them various rights and protections not available to the women and children of men of lower rank.
The common assumptions that the patricians and the Roman elite were one and the same throughout the history of ancient Rome, and that all plebeians were of non-elite status throughout the history of ancient Rome, are entirely incorrect.
From the Late Republic era onwards many members of the elite, including an increasing proportion of senators, came from plebeian families.
The first Roman Emperor, Augustus (previously known as Octavian), was of plebeian origin, as were many of his successors.
By the Late Empire, few members of the Senate were from the original patrician families, most of which had died out.
Rome continued to have a hierarchical class system, but it was no longer dominated by the distinction between patricians and plebeians.
Originally, all public offices were open only to patricians, and the classes could not intermarry. 
Plebeians and Patricians were always at odds, due to the fact that Plebeians wanted to increase their power.
A series of social struggles saw the plebs secede from the city on three occasions, the last in 297 BC, until their demands were met.
They won the right to stand for office, the abolition of the intermarriage law, and the creation of office of tribune of the plebs.
This office, founded in 494 BC as a result of a plebeian secession, was the main legal bulwark against the powers of the patrician class, and only plebeians were eligible.
The tribunes originally had the power to protect any plebeian from a patrician magistrate.
Later revolts forced the Senate to grant the tribunes additional powers, such as the right to veto legislation.
A tribune's person was sacrosanct, and he was obliged to keep an open house at all times while in office.
Some patricians, notably Clodius Pulcher in the late 60s BC, petitioned to be assigned plebeian status, in order to accumulate the political influence among the people that the office of tribune afforded.
The conflict between the classes came to a climax in 287 BC when patricians and plebeians were declared equal under the law.
Following these changes the distinction between patrician and plebeian status became less important, and by the Late Republic the only patrician prerogatives were certain priesthoods.
Over time, some patrician families declined, some plebeian families rose in status, and the composition of the ruling class changed. 
A plebeian who was the first of his line to become consul was known as a novus homo ("new man"), and he and his descendants became "noble" (nobiles).
Notable examples of novi homines are the seven-time consul Marius, and Cicero, whose rise was unusual in that it was driven by his oratorical and intellectual abilities rather than, as with Marius, military success.
During the Empire, patricius became a title of nobility bestowed by emperors.

The Roman Senate

The census divided citizens into six complex classes based on property.
The richest were the senatorial class, who during the Late Republic had to be worth at least 400,000 sestertii, the same as the equites; when Augustus reformed the senate during the first years of the Principate, he raised the property requirement to 1,000,000 sestertii.
The wealth of the senatorial class was based on ownership of large agricultural estates, and by custom members did not engage in commercial activity.
Below the senatores in rank, but above others were the equites ("equestrians"), with 400,000 sestertii, who could engage in commerce and formed an influential business class.
Certain political and quasi-political positions were filled by equestrians, including tax farming and, under the Principate, leadership of the Praetorian Guard.
Below the equites were three more classes of property-owning citizens; and lastly the proletarii, whose property was valued below 11,000 asses.

John William Godward

Free-born women in ancient Rome were citizens (cives), but could not vote or hold political office.
The form of Roman marriage called conubium, for instance, requires that both spouses be citizens; like men from towns granted m,,,civitas sine suffragio, women eligible for legal marriage were citizens without suffrage.
The legal status of a mother, as a citizen, affected her son's citizenship.
The phrase ex duobus civibus Romanis natos ("children born of two Roman citizens") indicates that a Roman woman was regarded as having citizen status.


African Boy Slave
Slaves (servi) were not citizens, and lacked even the legal standing accorded free-born foreigners.
For the most part, slaves were descended from debtors, and from prisoners of war, especially women and children captured during sieges and other military campaigns in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Carthage.
In the later years of the Republic and into the Empire, more slaves came from newly conquered areas of Gaul, Britain, North Africa, and Asia Minor.
Many slaves were created as the result of Rome's conquest of Greece, but Greek culture was considered in some respects superior to that of Rome: hence Horace's famous remark 'Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit' ("Captured Greece took her savage conqueror captive").
The Roman playwright Terence is thought to have been brought to Rome as a slave.

Ancient Roman Boy Slave
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2016
Thus slavery was regarded as a circumstance of birth, misfortune, or war; it was defined in terms of legal status, or rather the lack thereof, and was neither limited to or defined by ethnicity or race, nor regarded as an inescapably permanent condition.
Slaves who lacked skills or education performed agricultural or other forms of manual labor.
Those who were violent or disobedient, or who for whatever reason were considered a danger to society, might be sentenced to labor in the mines, where they suffered under inhumane conditions. 
Slaves subjected to harsh labor conditions also had few if any opportunities to obtain their freedom. 
Since slaves were legally property, they could be disposed of by their owners at any time.
All children born to female slaves were slaves.
Some slave owners, as for instance Tacitus, freed slaves whom they believed to be their natural children.
Slaves who had the education or skills to earn a living were often manumitted upon the death of their owner as a condition of his will.
Slaves who conducted business for their masters were also permitted to earn and save money for themselves, and some might be able to buy their own freedom.
Although many male and female prostitutes were slaves, the bill of sale for some slaves stipulated that they could not be used for commercial prostitution.


Freedmen (liberti) were freed slaves, whose free-born children were full citizens.
The status of liberti developed throughout the Republic as their number increased.
Livy states that freedmen in the Early Republic mainly joined the lower classes of the plebeians. 
Juvenal, writing during the Empire when financial considerations dictated economic class, describes freedmen who had been accepted into the equestrian class (see above).

Freedmen were often highly educated, and made up the bulk of the civil service during the early Empire.
The Augustan poet Horace was himself the child of a freedman from Venusia in southern Italy.
Many became enormously wealthy as the result of bribes, fraud, or other forms of corruption, or were given large estates by the Emperor they served.
Other freedmen engaged in commerce, amassing vast fortunes often only rivalled by those of the wealthiest nobiles.
Many of the Satires of Juvenal contain angry denouncements of the pretensions of wealthy freedmen, some 'with the chalk of the slave market still on their heel'.
Juvenal saw these successful men as 'nouveaux riches', who were far too ready to show off their (often ill-gotten) wealth.
Another famous caricature is seen in the absurdly extravagant character of Trimalchio in the 'Satyricon'.
Fellini - Satryican
The 'Satyricon', or 'Satyricon liber' ("The Book of Satyr-like Adventures), is a Latin work of fiction believed to have been written by Petronius, The Satyricon is an example of Menippean satire, which is very different from the formal verse satire of Juvenal or Horace. The work contains a mixture of prose and verse (commonly known as prosimetrum); serious and comic elements; and erotic and decadent passages. As with the Metamorphoses (also called The Golden Ass) of Apuleius, classical scholars often describe it as a "Roman novel", without necessarily implying continuity with the modern literary form.
The majority of freedmen, however, joined the plebeian classes, and often worked as farmers or tradesmen.


Temple of the Capitoline Jupiter - Optimus Maximus
At the center of Roman culture was the Roman religion.
The Romans thought of themselves as highly religious, and attributed their success as a world power to their collective piety (pietas) in maintaining good relations with the gods.
According to legendary history, most of Rome's religious institutions could be traced to its founders, particularly Numa Pompilius, the Sabine second king of Rome, who negotiated directly with the gods.
This archaic religion was the foundation of the mos maiorum, "the way of the ancestors" or simply "tradition", viewed as central to Roman identity.
The priesthoods of public religion were held by members of the elite classes.
There was no principle analogous to "separation of church and state" in ancient Rome.
During the Roman Republic (509 BC–27 BC), the same men who were elected public officials served as augurs and pontiffs.
Priests married, raised families, and led politically active lives.
Julius Caesar became Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) before he was elected consul.
The augurs read the will of the gods, and supervised the marking of boundaries as a reflection of universal order, thus sanctioning Roman expansionism as a matter of divine destiny.
The Roman triumph was at its core a religious procession, in which the victorious general displayed his piety, and his willingness to serve the public good, by dedicating a portion of his spoils to the gods, especially Jupiter, who embodied just rule.
As a result of the Punic Wars (264–146 BC), when Rome struggled to establish itself as a dominant power, many new temples were built by magistrates in fulfillment of a vow to a deity for assuring their military success.
Roman religion was thus practical and contractual, based on the principle of do ut des, "I give that you might give."
Religion depended on knowledge and the correct practice of prayer, ritual, and sacrifice, not on faith or dogma, although Latin literature preserves learned speculation on the nature of the divine, and its relation to human affairs.
Even the most skeptical among Rome's intellectual elite such as Cicero, who was an augur, saw religion as a source of social order.
For ordinary Romans, religion was a part of daily life.
Each home had a household shrine at which prayers and libations to the family's domestic deities were offered.
Neighborhood shrines, and sacred places, such as springs and groves dotted the city.
The Roman calendar was structured around religious observances.
In the Imperial era, as many as 135 days of the year were devoted to religious festivals and games (ludi).
Women, slaves, and children all participated in a range of religious activities.

Vestal Virgin - 'Invocation'
Frederic Lord Leighton 
Some public rituals could be conducted only by women, and women formed what is perhaps Rome's most famous priesthood, the state-supported Vestal Virgins, who tended Rome's sacred hearth for centuries.
The Romans are known for the great number of deities they honored.
The presence of Greeks on the Italian peninsula, from the beginning of the historical period, influenced Roman culture, introducing some religious practices that became as fundamental as the cult of Apollo.
The Romans looked for common ground between their major gods and those of the Greeks, adapting Greek myths and iconography for Latin literature and Roman art.
Etruscan religion was also a major influence, particularly on the practice of augury, since Rome had once been ruled by Etruscan kings.
Imported 'mystery religions', which offered initiates salvation in the afterlife, were a matter of personal choice for an individual, practiced in addition to carrying on one's family rites and participating in public religion.

The mysteries, however, involved exclusive oaths and secrecy, conditions that conservative Romans viewed with suspicion as characteristic of "magic", conspiracy (coniuratio), and subversive activity. 
Sporadic, and sometimes brutal attempts were made to suppress religions which seemed to threaten traditional morality and unity, as with the senate's efforts to restrict the Bacchanals in 186 BC.
As the Romans extended their dominance throughout the Mediterranean world, their policy in general was to absorb the deities and cults of other peoples rather than try to eradicate them, since they believed that preserving tradition promoted social stability

Sol Invictus
Goddess Isis
One way that Rome incorporated diverse peoples was by supporting their religious heritage, building temples to local deities that framed their theology within the hierarchy of Roman religion. 
Inscriptions throughout the Empire record the side-by-side worship of local and Roman deities, including dedications made by Romans to local gods.
By the height of the Empire, numerous international deities were cultivated at Rome, and had been carried to even the most remote provinces, among them Cybele, Isis, Epona, and gods of solar monism such as Mithras and Sol Invictus, found as far north as Roman Britain.

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Because Romans had never been obligated to cultivate one god, or one cult only, religious tolerance was not an issue in the sense that it was (and still is) for competing monotheistic systems.
The monotheistic rigor of Judaism posed difficulties for Roman policy that led at times to compromise, and the granting of special exemptions, but sometimes to intractable conflict.
In the wake of the Republic's collapse, state religion had adapted to support the new regime of the emperors.

Joseph Christian Leyendecke
Augustus, the first Roman emperor, justified the novelty of one-man rule with a vast program of religious revivalism and reform.
Public vows formerly made for the security of the republic now were directed at the wellbeing of the emperor.
So-called "emperor worship" expanded on a grand scale the traditional Roman veneration of the ancestral dead and of the Genius, the divine tutelary of every individual. Imperial cult became one of the major ways Rome advertised its presence in the provinces and cultivated shared cultural identity and loyalty throughout the Empire.
Rejection of the state religion was tantamount to treason.
This was the context for Rome's conflict with Christianity, which Romans variously regarded as a form of atheism and novel superstitio.


Two major philosophical schools of thought that derived from Greek religion and philosophy that became prominent in Rome in the 1st and 2nd century AD was Cynicism and Stoicism which were fairly well merged in the early years of the Roman Empire.
Cynicism taught that civilization was corrupt and people needed to break away from it and its trappings, and Stoicism taught that one must give up all earthly goods by remaining detached from civilization and help others.
Because of their negative views on civilization, and of their way of life, in where many of them just wore a dirty cloak, carried a staff, and a coin purse, and slept outdoors, they were the targets of the Roman aristocracy and of the emperor, and many were persecuted by the Roman government for being "subversive".
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'The Story of Gracchus tells the tale of a young Roman boy, brought up in Athens.
When his father is recalled to Rome, at the end of the Reign of the Emperor Nero, Marcus, and his father and mother travel from Piraeus (the port of Athens) to Brundisium (in South East Italy) by boat.
They newer reach their destination, however, as the boat they are traveling on is attacked by pirates.
Marcus' mother and father are cruelly killed, and Marcus is taken, by the pirates, to Cydonia, in Crete, where he is sold as a slave to a slave-dealer called Arion.
Arion sells on Marcus to a 'mystery buyer' at a fabulously high price, and after a high speed journey through the night, Marcus and Terentius, - the 'mystery buyer', arrive at a magnificent Villa in Baiae, near Neápolis.
It is there that Marcus' real adventure begins ...............

this is an adult 'serial' novel for 18+ only

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016