Seeing the Ordinary: Uncovering Ancient Romans

Robert Knapp

The ancient material we have available to us almost all comes from elite writers. Like elites in other times and places, their concerns are those of their own class, not of the rest of society – unless that ‘rest’ impinges on their lives in some notable fashion. As we read these sources we are drawn into the lives of the elite: we are intrigued by their political adventures, their intellectual achievements, their artistic and architectural triumphs.

And rightly so. The lives of the rich and famous are fascinating. At times we can envy the lives that their wealth and status brought them, and even dare to imagine that, had we lived back then, lives like theirs would be ours; we would be the Ciceros, the Caesars, the Cleopatras, or the Marcus Aureliuses. From the Olympian heights of the “Glory that was Rome”, the fog-shrouded plains below, where all the common people (circa 98% of the population) lived and worked, seem almost not to exist at all.

Sculptors in Ancient Rome, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1877 (private collection).

So who were those ordinary folks? What were their prospects, hopes, dreams? What would their lives look like from their own perspective? A somewhat Quixotic challenge unfolds: what would emerge if the elite sources, with all their biases, were as much as possible laid aside? As a narrative of ordinary Romans based on other sources emerged, what would it look like?

While two elite literary sources (the novels of Petronius and Apuleius) provide a couple of lively adventures in everyday life, somewhat amazingly, there is virtually no literary output surviving from non-elites. In fact, the most extensive examples are the writings in the New Testament. Here, brief glimpses of daily life appear to illustrate attitudes of masters to slaves, slaves to masters, men to figures of authority, and so on. But a number of other non-elite sources give us some direct insight into specific aspects as well.

Funerary stele of one Publius Longidienus, of the 1st century BC/AD, found in Ravenna (now in that city’s National Museum). It says, in part, “Publius Longidienus, shipbuilder, was enthusiastic about his calling.’’ (CIL 11.139 = ILS 7725).

What might be called para-literary works include fables and proverbs, papyrus documents from daily life, magical texts, a guide to dream interpretation, and an astrological catalogue. In their formulations, these reveal a great deal about how ordinary people managed their lives, because the clever fable, the plaintive letter to an official, the requests for a given magical result, the dream that needed to be interpreted, and any effort at astrological casting, all reveal a realm of strategies, hopes and fears based securely in people’s daily experiences and expectations.

Finally, material culture offers up a rich (if fragmentary) panorama of daily life. Epigraphs written on stone draw us into the world of everyday Romans. We find merchants and soldiers, husbands and wives, slaves and freedmen expressing themselves through words and decorative images. Artistic works such as wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum and mosaics from disparate corners of the empire often offer almost accidental glimpses into the world of the non-elite population. The information in all these sources can be woven together into a colorful tapestry of the ordinary.

Roman banquet scene from 1st-century AD Pompeii (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

As it turns out, the lives of ancient people were varied and complex. The interest comes from both recognizing expected aspects as well as sometimes stumbling across the unexpected. Fear of failure in business, disease, the dangers of travel, the tensions of love all affect males. Heterosexual relations including philandering is much in evidence, but alongside that is clear evidence of commitment to marriage and appreciation of a wife, as well as homosexual activity. From the elite and well-document point of view, labor was despised; they valued a life of self-reliance, leisure, and public service. But ordinary men valued hard work, whether manual or as a merchant or as an artisan. This attitude more than any other opposes the mind-set of ordinary men to that of the elite. A prejudice against work simply did not exist for most people in the Roman world.

In a male-dominated culture, women were routinely thought of as inferior to men in many ways. There is no evidence for any sustained opposition to this among ordinary people, either by men or by women, so far as we know. The story of ordinary women involves seeing how they live within this cultural definition. Marriage, child-bearing and child-rearing were the primary careers; these were highly valued by men and women, and both took pride in a good marriage relationship. A wife’s life was hardly that of a sequestered jewel, nor was it that of a liberated virago. But in order to thrive, or even to survive, both husband and wife needed to work hard as partners; there are some grave relief sculptures that marvellously illustrate this.

Relief of 2nd-century AD for the professional midwife Scribonia Attice: she could be the figure on the left and related to the figure on the right (found in Ostia Antica and now in the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome).

Women could also act quite widely on their own. Evidence from Egypt shows women in control of property, addressing magistrates, and engaging in business, the latter also illustrated on grave reliefs. One source even points out that they participated in street riots, right along with the men. The available evidence offers little to show women being dissatisfied with their lot; rather, they worked hard within the cultural confines. For women, marriage or spinsterhood were the two common life routes. Outside of those lives – lives which could be fulfilling as for any humans – there were few options. But women, much like gladiators, had a commodity to sell – their bodies.

A prostitute’s cubicle in the 1st-century AD Lupanar (brothel), Pompeii, Italy (photo courtesy of Michael Larvey).

The life of a common prostitute – a girl forced into the trade by parents, a greedy owner, or simple desperation – was brutal. Work was on the streets or in small cubicles, as can be seen in a brothel uncovered at Pompeii. The women were at the mercy of pimps and johns. But it was a business open to talent, and some prostitutes prospered. On a road south of Rome, in front of a temple of Venus, four prostitutes opened a restaurant that served, we must suppose, more than viands: an inscription tells us of their enterprise.

Para-literary sources offer up new and different views of slavery – an accepted fact of life for both slaves and masters. Perhaps one family unit in seven owned one or more slaves. The evidence does no reveal any anti-slavery ideology, nor any movement toward universal emancipation. A slave would have two parallel goals: to manage as well as possible in slavery, and to look toward freedom.

The footprints of two enslaved girls, along with two inscriptions, one in Oscan meaning “Detfri of Herens Sattis signed with this footprint,” the other in Latin meaning, “Amica of Heren(niu)s signed when we laid out the tile,” found in Pietrabbondante, Italy, and dated to c. 100 BC (photo courtesy of David Monaco).

We can learn about the steady job a poor man could hope for as a soldier in the army. Death might come, and you might be sent to watch over Picts at Hadrian’s Wall, far from the Mediterranean sun. But life was brutal almost anywhere, and most often brutal without the sorts of amelioration a military life offered. There were no other opportunities to compare with military service.

Other men took a short-cut to fame and fortune by training as gladiators. Many free persons bound themselves over into semi-slavery for the chance to fight in the arena against other free persons, as well as against trained slaves. Men, if they survived the first one or two bouts, might expect to win or draw in ten, twenty or more fights and retire to their wife and family. In the meantime, the aura of manliness brought its own reward in fame (there were a few women gladiators as well).

A gladiator’s grave. Gladiators worked in troops, often pitted against one another. His dog was probably his most reliable friend (image from L. Robert, Les gladiateurs dans l’Orient grec  (E. Champion, Paris, 1940) fig. 4).

Finally, many ordinary people turned to crime as an answer to their daily needs. Petty crime was rampant – pickpockets, burglars, and muggers operated routinely, especially in towns. Bandits and pirates lurked beyond. These were organized bands of predators: the authorities could never eliminate them, and even controlling them was usually a hit-and-miss affair. Ancient evidence and comparative material from more well-documented times reveals their world. It turns out that bandits and pirates, as despicable as they were, lived a more egalitarian, free life outside the constraints of society than their victims within.

It is important to recall that life in general in the ancient world was much harder and more hazardous than it is today, at least compared to lives of people living in the rich world. For ancients, there were no powerful painkillers, such as we use today, debilitating accidents were frequent, becoming pregnant meant risking one’s life, half of children would die before reaching puberty, unwanted children could be abandoned, and old age was the experience of only a fortunate few. In addition, traveling was dangerous; catastrophes such as famine or earthquake took many lives; wars laid a heavy toll on soldiers and civilians alike.

Yet all was not bleak. Although ordinary people could almost never rise into the elite, their lives could take a turn for the better, and children could be better off than their parents. For most, however, life did not change from one generation to the next. That is the nature of a static, pre-industrial society such as the Roman empire’s. But within that overall condition, the ordinary people lived out astonishingly varied lives. They might not change history with a famous victory or influential writings or portentous religious conversion, but their lives are no less worth studying. Seeing them as they were, not as the elite pretended they were, is a fascinating and rewarding exercise from which we still have much to learn.

Robert Knapp is a Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His Invisible Romans (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2011) attempts to shine light on understudied groups in the Roman Empire.

Further Reading

Roman social history had long suffered from an emphasis on elites’ lives. That said, the non-elites have increasingly gotten excellent treatments. Especially accessible are Sandra Joshel, Slavery in the Roman world (Cambridge UP, 2013), Henrik Mouritsen, Freedmen in the Roman world (Cambridge UP, 2011), D. S. Potter and D. J. Mattingly, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (Univ. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1999) on gladiators, Eve D’ambra, Roman Women (Cambridge UP, 2007), and Thomas A. McGinn, The Economy of Prostitution in the Roman World (Univ. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2004). J. R. Clarke offers excellent glimpses based on visual arts in Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2003); Teresa Morgan is brilliant in her Popular Morality in the Roman Empire (Cambridge UP, 2007). I also recommend the historical fiction of Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis: their books paint realistic pictures of the lives of ordinary Romans.