Why You Wouldn't Survive Living In the Roman Empire (1)
It's been a terrible day for young Bibulus Flaccus. He just lost all his money at
dice and after a few too many glasses of the lowest grade posca, he got the shock of his
life in the dirty, stinking public toilet. As he relieved himself, a disease-carrying rat bit his
backside and to his astonishment, flames came up through the hole. If that wasn't bad enough,
in a few weeks' time, he's going to have to fight as a gladiator to try and pay off his debts.
Bibulus Flaccus didn't have it easy, and as you'll see today, many Romans didn't.
That's why we doubt you modern-day folks would have lasted long in the empire.
Mr. Flaccus is a guy we just made up, but his crappy day is based on a true story. For instance,
posca was a really cheap alcoholic drink made from water, vinegar, herbs, and salt - booze reserved
for the lowest of the low. A poor Roman could have lost a lot of money after downing a jug of that
and playing the popular betting game of dice. He might have also thought about trying to pay his
debts off by fighting in the gladiatorial arena. We also mentioned him emptying his bowels in
a rather dangerous and disgusting toilet. So, we think we'll talk a bit more about hygiene,
or lack thereof, in the Roman empire, before we get to the business of fighting for your
life and trying to make it through the terrifying ordeal of a Roman childhood.
The Romans were pretty advanced in terms of sanitation, but that didn't mean there weren't
widespread diseases and pervasive filth. Going to the toilet could be a scary thing indeed,
which is why some historians say on the walls of public latrines there was often graffiti relating
to Fortuna, the goddess of luck. And when you did dump your load, there wasn't that much privacy.
The wealthier Romans had private bathrooms with plumbing, so what they dispelled from
their bodies went down the hole into a sewer system. For them, the very thought
of using a dirty public toilet made them want to throw up. In today's show, we're going to
class you as a regular working person in Rome, a plebian, someone who didn't have an en-suite.
In the house, you might have done the deed in a chamber pot and taken the contents out to
the sewer, but many regular people just went out to the public toilets where they would
likely have had to sit above a hole with many other folks next to them also taking a poop.
Their togas might have hidden their private parts, but nothing could hide the noise and smell.
Then there were the rats, which festered around the latrines. They spread disease,
and if that wasn't bad enough, sometimes the build-up of methane could cause fires,
so this is why many Romans prayed when they dropped off the kids at the pool.
According to the book “Death and Disease in Ancient Rome”, matters were made worse because
some people would just throw the contents of their chamber pot into the streets. This exacerbated the
already big problem of disease. Even worse, the sick would bathe in public baths with the healthy,
so getting ill in Rome wasn't hard to do. They might have used a scraper to remove the dirt
when they bathed, and also applied some scented olive oils, but they didn't have soap. This also
made it easier to spread disease. One good thing they did do, though, was not touch their own poop.
To wipe their butts, they often used a sea sponge attached to a stick that was left close to the
toilets in a little man-made stream. These things, called “tersorium”, were shared by everyone. Yuck.
The Roman Empire lasted over a thousand years and of course, some places were filthier than others,
but in general, if we sent you back there now, the majority of you would
have an issue with pooping and bathing. Even the Roman elites would have to be
extremely desperate to use the “bog”, as the British call it. Free women in general never
used the public toilets, and even if a slave girl did have to relieve herself in them, she ran the
risk of being mugged or assaulted. This brings us to crime.
We very rarely hear about the streets of ancient Rome, where the regular people
lived and worked. These streets were not a place you wanted to be after dark.
If you lived in a city there were slums, and even if you didn't live in an ancient Roman project,
you might have been housed with other families in a rather packed ancient-style apartment complex.
We know a little about these areas thanks to the Roman poet named Juvenal,
who didn't have many nice things to say about the poorer parts of Rome.
He joked about walking through the dark streets at night, saying that one of the many hazards
was someone throwing a chamber pot full of human detritus out from a window, and it landing on your
head. In his own words, he said, “There's death in every open window as you pass along at night;
you may well be deemed a fool, improvident of sudden accident, if you go out to dinner
without having made your will.” Many poorer people lived in little
rooms contained in large buildings called “insula”, meaning island.
They were sometimes 100 feet high, so it wasn't much fun walking under those at night.
One guy that lived in one of those buildings wrote that they were so close together he
could lean out of his window and shake hands with the guy in the next building. Generally,
the less cash you had the higher up you lived, because of the dangers up at the top.
People in these buildings weren't exactly secure. If a fire happened, that often meant
mass death. The Roman statesman Cicero once joked, “Two of my buildings have fallen down,
and the rest have large cracks. Not only the tenants, but even the mice have moved out!” It
was no joke for the tenants, of course. There were lots of overpopulated,
crumbling buildings, and since the residents cooked in little metal boxes in their rooms,
there were lots of deadly building fires. If things did go up in flames, tough, everything you
had was gone. The poor couldn't afford insurance, that was a luxury reserved for the rich..
One modern historian wrote about what happened to the poor in the event of a fire,
“You were on your own. At best, you might hope for help from friends or relatives,
or perhaps a wealthy patron.” He said there was no form of banking for these people, meaning when
things turned disastrous, they were truly fudged. But in those dark labyrinths of streets, there was
more to fear than falling poop and dodgy safety standards. A rich person would not travel through
the streets at night, and if they really had to, you can be sure they'd have what Juvenal called
a “long retinue of attendants.” That's because there were so many muggers lurking in the dark.
This also meant that the average person would have to worry about more than just muggers.
Sometimes the rich would walk around in the streets and they'd have their armed
escort beat the crap out of you just for fun, or especially if you'd gotten in their way.
The historian Suetonius wrote that Emperor Nero would do this while dressed up as a
commoner wearing a hat and a wig, and to those that fought back, he'd “wound them,
and throw them in the common sewer.” That was actually pretty charitable for the sadistic Nero.
There were watchmen, called “vigils”, but they mainly focused on fires. In general,
when it came to keeping your valuables or life, when you went out at night you took a risk.
Nonetheless, there were laws as written in the Book of Civil Law
(Codex Iuris Civilis). If you chose the thug life in ancient Rome, you could end up in court and
the outcome could be brutal - but just remember that forms of justice changed over the centuries.
You can find documented cases of when thugs thought they could get away with crime. In one
case, a man sneaked into a shop and put out the lamp in order to steal something. The shopkeeper,
probably a bit of an ancient Charles Bronson character, wasn't having any of that despite
seeing that the thief was armed with a piece of rope that had a chunk of metal connected to it.
They went for it in the street and the result was that thief getting a good beating and
losing one of his eyes. The case went to court, and it was decided that the man had
every right to take that eye. Case closed. But let's say you lived in one of these
God-forsaken places and one day you decided to stand up and fight for your rights by
protesting a recent tax hike. Tax increases were common. Those military campaigns weren't cheap,
and there's evidence of tax increases not just bankrupting regular people but driving
some to starvation. Of course, you'd fight! By the way, there were from time to time general
strikes in Rome when the plebs were virtually starved. These were called “Secessio plebis”
and sometimes came with a threat of whipping or death. Other times there was actual reform
and the elites acceded more power to the people. But let's say you were part of a protest in Rome
that turned into a riot that got out of hand. The emperor surrounded himself with
his praetorian guard and the regular Roman guards were sent to the streets to break up the crowds
and arrest the ringleaders. Even though you aren't a slave, your arrest spells big trouble for you.
You see, you're a person of meager wealth, and because your social status isn't high,
you will be treated worse by the courts. That's just how things were. As one historian remarked,
“Your chances of success in court would depend largely on your status vis-a-vis the accused.”
If you were a slave, it would be even grimmer. It would also be bad if you were a non-citizen.
But even though you are a citizen, you are part of what was called the humiliores
(the lower class); not the higher class, honestiores. You then get sent to the
civil courts and are found guilty of causing violence and inflaming the public's discontent.
There were no long-term prisons for criminals in ancient Rome. As historians like to say,
justice was swift. Not only that, you could be legally tortured before you confessed. That was
fine in the eyes of the state, although this was usually only used for the worst kinds of crimes.
In short, since it was a fairly serious violent crime, you'd be lucky to just get a whipping.
For the same crime, a non-citizen might have found himself being worked to death on one of
the mines or quarries (damnatio in metalla). That meant worked to death, literally. It was a death
sentence and it was slow and agonizing. If during the riot a fire broke out and
someone died and you got the blame, you could expect the worst. In ancient Rome,
this could be brutal. It might simply have been a beheading, but depending on who you annoyed,
it could have meant being burned, buried alive, thrown off a cliff, crucified, impaled,
or even being tied up in a sack with a snake and a rooster and dog and thrown into a river.
As a member of the lower classes, you might also have been forced to fight in the arena
(damnatio ad gladium/ferrum). This really sucked. Gladiators in ancient Rome as we said at the