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If You Lived in Ancient Rome: What was it like to live in the capital city of the world's greatest empire? (World History).

Today, Rome is a city of 2.6 million people and the capital of Italy. But 1,900 years ago, Rome was the greatest superpower the world had ever known. It ruled an empire that stretched from Great Britain to Asia (see map, p. 17).

The first Romans were simple farmers. But over time, the Romans began to conquer other lands. By A.D. 117, Rome was at the height of its power. One out of every five people on Earth lived under Roman rule.

It was a time of peace and security known as Pax Romana (Roman Peace). A person could travel safely from Spain to the Middle East on roads built and guarded by Roman soldiers. As the Greek philosopher Aristides (arr-uh-STEYE-DEEZ) said admiringly of Rome, "The whole civilized world lays down the arms [weapons] which were its ancient burden ... You have accustomed all areas to a settled and orderly way of life."

Never in human history had one group controlled as much land and as many countries for so long a time as the Romans did. From Spain to Romania, people still speak languages based on Latin. Roman art and culture influenced the Renaissance. And Roman systems of government and law serve as models for those of many modern nations, including the U.S.

The center of the Roman Empire was the city of Rome itself. Like big cities today, Rome had problems, such as traffic and crime. But also like most modern cities, Rome was full of new ideas, and something exciting was always happening. What was it like to live in Rome? It depended on who you were.


If you enjoy luxury, then you would probably have wanted the life of an aristocrat. Most aristocrats came from Rome's oldest and most powerful families. An aristocrat might have a beautiful marble villa with murals and running water. He might own hundreds of slaves to tend to his every need. He could host fancy dinner parties and serve exotic specialties like stuffed dormice (small rodents).

But an aristocrat's life wasn't all parties and stuffed dormice. Most aristocrats believed in a life of public service. They got up early each morning to meet with their clients. These were people of lower status who depended on them for favors--and the aristocrats could ask them for favors in return.

Aristocrats also had to spend time managing their estates--many became wealthy from the huge farms they owned. Pliny, an aristocrat and writer, said this about his busy days: "If you ask someone, 'What did you do today?' he'll tell you, 'I was at a ... marriage, one fellow asked me to witness a will, another to stand by him in court, another to advise him in rendering verdicts...."

The life of an aristocrat was never a sure thing. He might have to risk his neck leading troops into battle. To stay popular with the people, he had to spend a lot of money putting on festivals and games and could go broke. If the emperor didn't like him, the aristocrat might be exiled or killed, and lose all the privileges he enjoyed.


"The public... longs eagerly for just two things--bread and circuses," wrote the satirist Juvenal. Ordinary Romans were desperate for relief from their cramped, miserable lives.

Commoners typically lived in small, stuffy apartments. Because these apartments often lacked kitchens, people had to buy food from take-out restaurants on the street. The streets were crowded with pedestrians by day and the clatter of supply carts by night. As the poet Martial wrote, "There's nowhere a poor m an can get any quiet in Rome."

Most of Rome's work was done by slaves, so there were few jobs for free Romans. To prevent rebellion, the emperors provided commoners with an allowance of free bread. They were also allowed to use the luxurious public baths.

People looked forward to holidays, when lavish entertainment was provided at public expense. There were so many holidays that Emperor Marcus Aurelius finally limited the number to 135 per year.


Most work fell to slaves, who had been captured in battle. They mined for gold. They taught the young. They did paperwork. Some wealthy Romans had hundreds of slaves.

The philosopher Seneca advised, "Treat your slaves with kindness." Many Romans followed that advice. Some even freed their slaves, making it possible for them to become citizens.

Other slave masters were harsh. Slaves who rebelled could be branded, or forced to wear iron collars. They could also be crucified.


At first, Rome drafted male, property-owning citizens to serve in its army. But as the empire grew, and soldiers had to fight farther from home, Rome turned to professional soldiers.

Army life was hard. Soldiers had to serve for 16 years and could not marry Still, military life attracted many men. They got to see new parts of the world. They had a chance to share in the treasure captured in war. And they served in the army of the greatest empire ever known.


Romans liked going to funny plays. They liked betting on horse races. But most of all, they loved cruel spectacles such as gladiator contests. Gladiators were specially trained slaves who were forced to fight each other--or wild animals--to the death.

Some gladiators became wildly popular, and were given nicknames like "darling of the people." If a gladiator won enough contests, he might be able to win his freedom.

But most gladiators were not that lucky. Thousands could be killed in a single gladiatorial contest.


In Rome's earliest days, wives were supposed to be modest and obedient. Girls were expected to marry early, at age 13 or 14. They were given to their husbands in arranged marriages, and a wife was under her husband's complete control. He could hit her or even put her to death. Her dowry (gift from the bride's family to the groom) became his to keep.

Later on, women could control their own property and will it as they wanted. If they divorced, their dowry was usually returned to them.

Roman women had more rights and freedom than in almost any other ancient land. Although they could not hold public office or vote, they could come and go as they pleased and often wielded great power behind the scenes.


Not all children were wanted. Sickly babies were often left on a hillside to die. Parents who did not want a baby girl might leave her to the same fate.

But children who were wanted were given a circular charm called a bulla to ward off evil spirits. Boys wore the bulla until they were 14; girls until they married.

Roman children liked to play ball and roll hoops with a stick. They also enjoyed board games similar to backgammon, chess, and checkers.

Boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 11 went to school if their parents could afford the fee. Most schools were held in marketplaces. Students learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. The lessons were often boring and repetitive. But students paid strict attention. If they didn't, the teacher might whip or beat them.

Some older boys went on to higher education. They read Greek and Latin poetry and studied geography, history, and mythology. Most importantly, they studied public speaking-an essential skill for succeeding in public life.
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Author:Hanson-Harding, Alexandra
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Dec 10, 2001
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