Review: A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome [2007/09] ★★★★

This book about ancient Rome is written in a conversational style, and we walk through the ancient city with the author who acts as our guide, pointing to us various curiosities we encounter in our journey through the day. From 6:00 a.m., the time to explore one as yet silent domus of a wealthy Roman citizen, to 9:00 p.m., the time when, ordinarily, a Roman banquet nears its end, we spend the day exploring the lives of the wealthy, the poor and the slaves in the world’s most populous city in the year 115 CE, while the author also comments on such topics as Roman religion, professions, education, money, games and food. The book, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti, is quite introductory, but still wondrous, and even those who are familiar with the lives of Romans are bound to pick up some interesting facts to explore further.

We start our day at 6:00 a.m. in a Roman domus, a wealthy man’s house. As his family is still asleep, we pause to explore the rich décor, the family’s peristyle, a private garden full of plants, as well as their impluvium, a square basin that collects rainwater in the atrium, gaining some insights: “The most striking thing about Roman houses is the contrast between the abundance of decoration on the walls (frescoes)…and the scarcity of the furniture…The Romans have a completely different approach to interior decoration than we do. Instead of focusing attention on the furniture… they usually try to hide…or camouflage [it]” [Angela, Europa Editions, 2007/09: 37]. Then comes the time for the family to dress (in togae and stolae (women’s togas) and prepare for the day, which for women involves elaborate make-up and hair-styling procedures.

A Roman insula

At around 8:00 a.m., we are on a busy Roman street where shops are opening up, including a dulciatirus (bakery),a specularius (mirror-maker) and a pomarius (greengrocer). We drop by a local temple to Janus and stop at a boarian (cattle) forum. Then, we visit a local elementary school and a slave market, before proceeding to explore the Roman Forum and the Basilica Julia, where trials are in progress. Then, there is a fascinating world of Roman insulae, high apartment buildings. They are an effective solution to the lack of space in the city, and the wealthy usually live on the ground floor, whereas the poor, including various service-men, occupy the upper floors that have no privacy and are far from a water-supply. Angela makes a point of how much of our modern life is based on the Roman life back then, from the design of our apartment blocks, arrangement of our rooms and our trial system to the language we now speak (the word “palace” is derived from the Palatine Hill in Rome where first the Emperor and then the wealthy built their mansions), and the names we give to months.

We find that multicultural Rome in the year 115 CE faced the same problems that now plague any major city: expensive accommodation, lots of traffic and crime (burglaries, graffiti). However, some things do appear different. Alberto Angela writes: “…In Roman times, reading is done aloud, even if you’re alone…Silent reading will make its first appearance in monasteries, as a way of internalising the sacred texts and not disturbing the others who are praying” [Angela, Europa Editions, 2007/09: 111]. This statement is a bit of a simplification of one winning theory that became a popular “fact”. Philologist Jozsef Balogh and then Paul Saenger advocated the theory that, as a rule, Romans always read aloud, providing some evidence, and Saenger stated that reading aloud was “a necessity” because, in Roman times, there were no spaces separating the words in a text, and so the vocal articulation of words was needed “to grasp the meaning”. I think that, undoubtedly, Romans read aloud much more than we do now, and, since public discourse and the art eloquence were very important and much encouraged at their time, it is easy to see reading aloud as being a social norm back then. However, it may also be true that, since the vast majority of the population never progressed beyond their simple alphabet in school, the majority of people simply never progressed onto the next stage in learning to read – silently, and those who were very educated, simply “had” to read aloud both out of habit and to practise for their essential public debates. It is hard to tell how many of these educated people read silently, but it is rather hard to believe that if the words they saw anywhere could have easily been understood simply by looking at them, these people always made that extra effort to vocalise them when they were alone.

After a brief lunch at a popina (a bar with an L-shaped marble counter) and that exciting fight of the gladiators at the Colosseum, it is time for Romans to make their way to public baths. Bathing was quite an elaborate process devoid of privacy, as was going to public restrooms. It is probably difficult for us to grasp how even going to a restroom can turn into “a social party”, but if we consider that the clean water supply was limited, the construction of private cubicles probably costly and impractical, and only the very wealthy could afford their own private plumbing (as they could eating facilities), this lack of privacy is easier to understand. Being and remaining clean and socially acceptable, as well as fed of course, meant sharing everything in public, with the people moving from shared eating facilities to shared toilets to shared entertainment facilities to shared bathing areas throughout the day.

A Roman banquet

At 4:00 p.m. in ancient Rome, the very wealthy, a tiny percentage of the population, are already heading to banquets or “public relations” dinners. These are opulent feasts that can last hours and, during which, meat/fish of all sorts is consumed (pork being very common), with the Romans eating largely with their hands (spoons are also available, but forks are yet to be invented). Apicius was the most famous chef of that epoch, who advocated the alternation of the sweet and the savoury in food, and Romans were also known as being fond of mixing spices, and using many condiments, aromas, and spices (they loved garum, a fermented fish sauce). At around 8:00 p.m. commissatio or “a toasting marathon” begins. Angela finishes his book at around 9:00 p.m. by discussing the Romans’ sexual lives and their rules of sex (there were quite a few: sex was viewed as a gift from the goddess Venus, but a free Roman man should never have been seen being anything but a “dominator” in bed).

If you can forgive the author’s annoyingly distasteful comparative allusions to our own modern life throughout the book, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome is entertaining non-fiction and quite an immersive experience.

Alberto Angela (1962 -) is an Italian palaeontologist, writer, journalist and a television host, popularising science and ancient history in Italy. He is also the author of numerous books, including The Reach of Rome [2013], Three Days of Pompeii [2014] and Cleopatra: The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity [2018].

This is my non-fiction contribution to The Italia Reading Challenge 2022.

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