Life in the Roman World


The Roman Way of Life

A Roman would usually get up early and work a six hour day.

This of course was only the case for working men. Women stayed at home. Even the task of queuing for the tokens which granted a family its monthly grain dole was done by the men of the house. And so the many workers, traders and businessmen of the city, be they freemen or freedmen would work all morning, adding to the wild hustle and bustle of the their town or city.

Trade of all sorts naturally centered in Rome. Ostia was a hive of activity, where goods from overseas arrived and was loaded onto barges which carried them up the river to the great capital. All kinds of jobs would be at Ostia. From simple labourers who unloaded the ships, to bureaucrats who checked the arriving goods, wholesale tradesmen and warehouse managers . The construction industry would also require enormous numbers. For in a time without building machines, it would be simple manpower which would shift earth or break stones, all of which was carried out across the Roman World.




Roman Domus

One distinct difference between the civilized Roman world and the barbarians was their housing. Whereas barbarians lived in primitive huts, Rome took to housing its people in sophisticated brick-built houses,.domus The Roman was much more than a place of dwelling for a Roman familia. It also served as a place of business and a religious center for worship. The size of a domus could range from a very small house to a luxurious mansion. In some cases, one domus took up an entire city-block, while more commonly, there were up to 8 domus per insula (city-block). All domus were free-standing structures. Some were constructed like modern-day townhouses with common walls between them, while others were detached.

Because safety was a primary concern in ancient Rome, domus did not face the streets. Similarly, there were rarely outside-facing windows for this reason, but most domus did have two front rooms open to the street. Some families ran their own stores from these rooms, while others leased them out to others.


The wealthy would stay well clear of the district east of the Forum known as the subura. This was the poorer part of Rome, not merely housing the less fortunate, but also the many prostitutes of the city. The narrow alleys were notoriously dangerous to any stranger, with many criminals waiting to rob the purse of a hapless stranger.

Roman Housing Apartment blocks


As elsewhere, whether on a farm or in the city, daily life still centered on the home, and when people arrived in the city, their first concern was to find a place to live. Space was at a premium in a walled metropolis like Rome, and from the beginning little attention was paid to the housing needs of the people who migrated to the city - tenements provided the best answer. The majority of Roman citizens, not all of them poor, lived in these apartment buildings or insulae. As early as 150 BCE, there were over 46,000 insulae throughout the city. Most of these ramshackle tenements were over-crowded and extremely dangerous resulting in residents living in constant fear of fire, collapse, and in some areas there was the susceptibility to the flooding of the Tiber River. Initially, little concern from the city was given to designing straight or even wide streets (streets, often unpaved, could be as narrow as six feet or as wide as fifteen, These “flats” were usually five to seven stories in height (over seventy feet); however, because many of these tenements were deemed unsafe, laws were passed under Emperors Augustus and Trajan to keep them from becoming too tall; unfortunately, these laws were rarely enforced.


Poverty throughout the city was apparent, whether through one’s lack of education or manner of dress, and life in these tenements reflected this disparity. The floor on which a person lived depended on one’s income.  The lower apartments - the ground floor or first floor of an insulae - were far more comfortable than the top floors. They were spacious, containing separate rooms for dining and sleeping, glazed windows, and, unlike the other floors, the rent was usually paid annually. The higher floors, where rent was paid by the day or week, were cramped, often with only one room to a family. A family lived in constant fear of eviction. They had no access to natural light, were hot in the summer and cold in the winter with little or no running water -  this even meant a latrina or toilet. While the city’s first sewer system or Cloaca Maxima had appeared in the six century BC, it did not benefit those on the upper floors, lower floors had access to running water and indoor toilets. Refuse, even human waste, was routinely dumped onto the streets, not only causing a terrible stench but a breeding ground for disease. For many, the only alternative was to use the public toilets. Combine the lack of street lights, the decaying buildings, and the fear of fire, life on the upper floors of the tenements was not very enjoyable for many of the poor.



An insula dating from the early 2nd century A.D. in the Roman port town of Ostia Antica

The atrium was one of the most richly decorated rooms in the domus. For one, symbols of the family’s wealth and hereditary power were present, in addition to imagines, wax representations of the family’s ancestors. Paintings and mosaics were also commonplace, and many examples of these have been preserved in houses from Pompeii.

Finally, before a funeral, the body of the deceased was displayed in the atrium with his/her feet always pointed toward the door. The body was then viewed by family and friends.


Rome in the Fouth Centry


Rome in the Age of Constantine as it appeared at the time of Constantine AD 306-337, when the city had reached its greatest size.