A couple of tidbits about the ancient Romans are in the news today. I’ve always been fascinated by the Roman Empire. It was the world’s first great polyglot empire, and almost every aspect of their society can be seen reflected today in modern western societies. Universal public education, public works projects, and the welfare state were all largely invented by Rome; just to name a few off the top of my head. Their contribution to modern law and government hardly needs to be mentioned.
They lasted for hundreds of years, pretty good for a nation, let alone an empire. The big secret to their empire, and the main reason they grew and prospered for so long was that to be a rich, powerful, and respected Roman meant having productive estates and being educated patron of the arts. The accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake was frowned upon, it was far more desirable to accumulate productive farms and factories that could generate wealth for the empire.
Granted this is a generalization about a rich complex society that we are still learning about. The classical world really did pretty much dissolve starting in 395 AD, the last year the Roman Empire was unified. The collapse lasted over a century, but it varied place to place. Some Roman cities that had known nothing but peace for centuries were attacked by barbarian armies with as little as two hours notice. Can you imagine? The death knell for the classical world was the world wide calamity of 535 AD. So much was lost, but much of it is being rediscovered my modern science today.
One recent discovery is that the residents of Pompeii mostly subsisted on fast food. This isn’t a surprise, in fact it confirms what has been discovered elsewhere. Most Roman homes had very limited cooking and kitchen facilities. The sumptuous Roman feast so popular in lore and media was something the elites enjoyed, not the man or woman in the street. And those are the people whose lives and perspective I find fascinating.
If you were a typical urban Roman, you lived in a small second, third, or fourth story apartment. The first floor was shops, many of which served food. That’s where you ate. Your housing, entertainment, some of your food, bathing facilities, and eduction was provided by the state. (Literacy in the Roman Empire was over 90 percent, comparable to any modern nation.) Once a year for a month or so you had to work for your city, building roads or whatever needed to be done to keep a city running. For spending money day jobs were available, but there was very little by way of steady work. (Why hire fickle employees when you can just buy a slave?) If you were ambitious and wanted a career, your choice was basically the army or voluntary slavery.
Being a legionnaire wasn’t a bad deal, like the modern army you got room, board, medical care, and a steady salary. Um, the enlistment period was twenty years, but if you survived (and most did) you got a pension and medical care for life. Plus you got Roman citizenship, which was how Rome integrated new peoples into the empire. Voluntary slavery was the other route, basically it was similar to indentured servitude. You served some rich person for a number of years, hopefully acquiring a valuable skill in the process, and eventually were free with a decent nest egg.
The point I am making, is that being a Roman wasn’t too bad. You could live on welfare if you wanted and have a decent life. Free food, free lodging, and any number of things like the Colosseum or Circus Maximus (chariot racing) to go and watch for free entertainment. No wonder something like 75% of the population of Rome lived on the dole, why not?
And now thanks to modern technology, we can actually see what life on the street looked like to the typical Roman. Working together scientists and scholars have created a three dimensional computer simulation of Rome at its height in 320 AD. In an ambitions project over 7000 buildings and monuments have been recreated as they were then. While only a handful of the buildings and such have been recreated in detail, the project is ongoing and will be available for public use. Historians have already found it useful, they were able to determine how many people the Colosseum could hold, long a topic of debate. Turns out it could hold 48,000 to 50,000 people. Not too shabby.
Some limited access can now be had at Rome Reborn. That’s where I’m going as soon as I hit the publish button. Ciao!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. Credit: Rome Reborn Project/AP)