Weird History

What It Was Like To Live In Ancient Rome During Its Golden Age  

Melissa Sartore
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Ancient Rome was at its apex from the second century BC through the second century AD. During the Pax Romana of the first and second centuries AD, Rome benefited from the expansion of its empire, with vast amounts of wealth and diverse cultural influences flooding into its borders. 

What was Ancient Rome like? It had a little bit of everything. The city of Rome was a bustling urban center full of commoners, animals, and politicians - all running into each other on crowded streets, in public buildings, and at any number of sporting events. Life in Ancient Rome was full of excitement, with plenty of opportunities for entertainment and spectacle contributing to the cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Living in Ancient Rome was not without challenges, however. The life of a Roman citizen depended on social and economic status. Poverty and noise were just two problems that prompted the government to regulate the difficult conditions within the city, with moderate levels of success.

To live in Ancient Rome was like living in any major city, full of pros and cons - but rarely with a dull moment.

The City Was Overpopulated, But Housing Was Also Extremely Limited
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Photo:  Italo Gismondi/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

As early as the sixth century BC, Rome began taking census information to assess the numbers and needs of its population. While the Romans kept records on population, historians debate the accuracy of the data. The population of Rome itself is generally believed to have been in the hundreds of thousands during the first century BC, perhaps as high as 800,000 during the reign of Augustus (r. 27 BCE-14 AD). The population of the city continued to go up, hitting as many as 1 million residents during the second century AD.

The population was a mix of free men and women of varying degrees of wealth. High numbers of slaves contributed to the crowded conditions in Rome, where space became increasingly limited. The development of insulae, or tenements, was the result of a need to house the large population. Insulae contained numerous apartments alongside businesses and shops, with large numbers of people living in close confines. Insulae were several stories high, poorly built, and home to poor and moderately wealthy Romans alike. They were also vulnerable to fires, collapse, and the spread of disease.

Wealthy Residents Within The City Lived In Houses Close To The Imperial Palace

One alternative to an insula was a single-family home called the domus. Wealthy Romans lived in domus - and the more money they had, the larger their home. Domus featured one or two stories with reception halls and living rooms called atria. Numerous bedrooms, dining rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom accompanied outdoor spaces for relaxing. Larger houses could have multiple bathrooms and even private baths. 

A domus in Rome was necessarily smaller than a house in one of the other cities in the Roman Empire thanks to the limited space and topography of the city. Some homes in the city could be more like villas, although villas were usually found in more rural settings. Villa-like locations were called horti, although the term also was used to describe gardens and the specifics remain somewhat unclear. 

Locations of domus in Rome are difficult to identify, although they were presumably located outside the danger of a rising Tiber River and close to places of imperial importance. Domus could span an entire city block and, unlike insulae, were stand-alone structures that didn't face crowded Roman streets directly. 

People From All Walks Of Life Enjoyed The Public Baths
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Photo: Lawrence Alma-Tadema/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Everyone from slaves to Roman emperors visited public baths in the city. Called thermae by the first century BC, public baths included hot and cold rooms with pools, steam rooms, and dry heat rooms where people could clean themselves, carry out business transactions, and socialize.

Men and women used the same baths until the practice was forbidden by Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD) during the second century AD. Hadrian himself frequented baths in Rome, famously giving a veteran he saw "rubbing his back and the rest of his body against the wall" one of his own slaves to perform the duty. The veteran was scraping oil off his body, something that would usually be accomplished with a strigil. Most wealthy Romans had slaves or servants to scrape them, but their poor counterparts were forced to do it themselves. Soon after, with "a number of old men rubbing themselves against the wall for the purpose of arousing the generosity of the Emperor, he ordered them to be called out and then to rub one another in turn."

The number of baths in Rome increased from the first century BC through the fifth century AD. Baths also became more luxurious and included additional features like gymnasia and fountains. Historians estimate roughly 170 public baths existed in Rome in 33 BC, with the number rising to between 800 and 900 by 400 AD.

Emperors such as Trajan, Caracalla, and Diocletian gifted Rome elaborate baths that could serve thousands of Romans at one time. Diocletian (r. 284-305 AD) built the largest, a structure with massive pools lined with marble-clad walls and granite columns.

People Didn’t Often Wash Their Clothes, But When They Did, They Used Urine
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Photo:  Thomas Henry Dyer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The job of washing clothes in Rome fell to the fuller. Many Romans didn't wash their own clothes and fullers provided an essential service in the city. Without the use of soap, fullers were tasked with cleaning linen and woolen garments, bleaching them to rid them of sweat and grime. The best way to accomplish this was by using urine, often collected from pots found throughout the streets of Rome. An alternative to human urine was urine from animals, both of which contained ammonia - an ideal cleaning agent

Clothing was put into a vat with water and urine, where fullers would stomp on the garments. By the late first century AD, urine was such a valued commodity that Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD) put a tax on urine collected in public.

According to Roman historian Suetonius, "When Titus [Vespasian's son] found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public conveniences, he held a piece of money from the first payment to his son's nose, asking whether its odour was offensive to him. When Titus said 'No,' he replied, 'Yet it comes from urine.'"