Domestic Life

It is impossible to generalize about domestic life in the ancient Roman world. The Empire was vast. Climates, natural resources, and customs varied widely. The food, clothing, ousing, careers, and leisure activities in Roman Britain or Gaul differed greatly from those in the North African provinces or the Roman East.

A tetradrachm from the Augustus period with Imp Caesar inscription.
Terracotta Lamps, 1st-2nd Centuries AD
Oil-burning lamps like these were the primary source for artificial light in Roman houses. Cheap lamps were made of terracotta, more expensive ones of bronze or even gold. The lamps pictures here depict a running warrior and a racing chariot. Lamp stands for multiple hanging or resting lamps would have been essential for lighting larger rooms. Because the olive oil used for fuel was expensive, a household on a tight budget would have tried to use lamps judiciously.
Object #MS2117

Life for the ordinary Roman was not easy. The urban center of Rome was the most sophisticated of ancient cities. Nevertheless, the average citizen of Rome lived in rented quarters in multi-storeyed apartment complexes called insulae. These were for the most part crowded, squalid, noisy, and expensive. Except for a coal brazier, they had no heat, no running water, and no toilet facilities.

Most Romans, however, lived in rural areas. Yet for the average farmer, life was no better than for the urban dweller. Farming was largely a family enterprise and women and children were expected to participate in the back-breaking work of farm chores. Mandatory military service took men away from farms for long periods of time. while the wealthy landowner could afford to purchase more slaves for laborers, the poor farmer was often forced to sell his land and look for employment in the already crowded cities.

The Empire was rich, and many Romans prospered and filled their homes with the comforts of the well-t-do. For the most part, it is the remains of their life that fill museum collections. Remember, however, how few Romans shared in this kind of life.

The Roman House

Housing varied greatly throughout the Empire. For those who could afford a house, whether in Rome or outside the city, furnishings were usually sparse. One might find beds with mattresses of fine-combed wool set on wooden slats or ropes, a cupboard, and small tables in a bedroom. Couches, chairs, and small tables furnisehd the dining and sitting rooms. Ordinary furniture was made of wood. More extravagant versions were made of marble, wood, and bronze or with inlay.

The waslls of Roman interiors were normally coated with successive layers of plaster. The top layer contained alabaster or marble dust that could take a high sheen. A srange of pigments was available for imitating colored marble or painting elaborate pictorial scenes. Sometimes the houses and villas of the wealthy had more elaborate wall deocartion of inlaid colored marbles or glass plaques.

Mosaic flooring, the decorative equivalent of carpting, was in near universal use throught the Roman empire. In the 3rd-2nd century BC this art form was modified through the use of tesserae-cubes of stone, glass, or glazed terracotta cut in uniform sizes. Tessellated mosaics became the norm in the Roman period.

Mold-pressed glass relief plaque of Medusa head.
Mold-Pressed Glass Relief Plaque, Possibly Made in Rome, 1st-2nd Centuries AD
The image of the snaky-headed Medusa is a popular Greek and Roman apotropaic device to ward off evil and provide protection. Relief rondels of this type may have served as architectural ornament, inlaid into walls.
Object #MS5656A

Dining in the Roman House

According to ancient authors, Romans of the Imperial period normally ate three meals a day: ientaculum, a light breakfast of bread, cheese, and fruit after sunrise; prandium, a midday lunch of eggs, fish, cold meats, vegetables, and bread; and, in the evening, cena, the main meal of the day.

The eating habits of the Romans varied from region to region and from class to class. Just as in our culture, Roman households established their own dining schedules and menus. By the time of the Roman Empire a great variety of foods were available to the prosperous Roman citizen.

Cena for an ancient Roman could have been a simple meal or a grand banquet. It was erved in the triclinium, or dining room. Men and women both dined in the reclining position, propped on cushions, while children sat on stools besides the couches. Dining utensils included knives, toothpicks, and spoons. The fork had not yet been invented and eating with one's hands was expected! Slaves brought around towels and water bowls for washing hands between courses. The wealthy dined on vessels of silver and gold, while the average citizen might have had a set of glass plates, bowls, and cups for special occasions and ceramic dishes for everday use.

Amber and blue glass squat jug with trefoil mouth. Handles, base and band on rim blue.
Glass Squat Jug, Probably from Aleppo. Syria, 4th Century AD
Object #MS5134

Women in Roman Society

Romans of the Republican and Imperial periods maintained a conservative ideal of womanhood. This ideal included loyalty to the family, a personal austerity and modesty in habits and lifestyle, civic responsibility, and generosity.

By law Roman women were subject to male guardians throughout their lives, as daughters, granddaugthers, sisters, or wives. Roman women were not granted the right to participate in civic or political matters until the edict of AD 212 made every freed slave a full Roman citizen. Throughout the Roman Empire, however, women from the elite classes of society did indeed exercise significant political power. This was particularly true for members of the imperial family. Even Roman women outside the ruling classess sometimes achieved considerable financial independence and used that independence for the civic good and for political ends. Within the home most Roman women exercised power and a degree of autonomy.

Roman women of all classes took part in religious activities, though the majority of the cults were dominated by men. Mystery cults, such as the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, were particularly attractive to women, who were given roles as priestesses. The rituals themselves offered some degree of excitement and escape from a woman's everyday life.

Marble bust of a woman with layers of curled hair.
Marble Portrait of a Middle-Aged Woman, Probably from Sardinia, Ca. AD 10-20
The Roman ideal of the modest woman with strength of character is expressed in this powerful, individual portrait of an unidentified female. The close dating of the sculpture comes from a comparison of the hair style with that on representations of Livia and Julia, the wife and daughter of Augustus.
Object #MS4919
Gold earings of stylized faces with three gold balls dangling below.
Roman Empire, 3rd Century AD, Object # 58-9-2A, B
Gold jewelry was greatly prized, and the purity of the gold almost never dipped below 18 carats (about 75% pure gold). Silver jewelry, which corrodes, has not survived in great quantities from the Roman period.
Object #58-9-2

Roman Children

The day-to-day raising and educating of Roman children were the prime responsibilities of the mother. For the lower classes this meant seeing that children were prepared for their life's work. Girls learned how to run a household, cook, clean, sew, embroider, and weave. Boys learned the father's occupation or apprenticed at a young age in a trade.

Educated upper-class women taught their children the basics of reading and writing Latin and Greek. A nurse or a pedagogue (a slave who served as tutor and servant) might also be employed. Roman girls might be married as wearly as 12 or 13 years of age. Their level of education depended on the mother's ability and interest in teaching or the family's ability to hire a tutor.

Boys of middle- and upper-class families were sent to private elementary schools where they were taught reading, writing, and arthimatic. After their primary education, boys might study with a more advanced teacher who could teach the ocre subjects of Latin literature, Greek literature and rhetoric, and perhaps geography, history, science, music, and mathematics.

We know very little about Roman children and their daily activities, however. From the archaeological remains of games and toys we can suppose that there were leisure times when household chores were done and children were free to enjoy themselves.

Marble bust of a child with chubby cheeks and short hair.
Marble Portrait of the Boy Caligula (?), Early 1st Century AD
The head bears a striking resemblance to representations of the boy Caligula. Modelling private funerary portraits of children after members of the imperial family was common. Thus this could as well portray an unidentified boy, done in the guise of a Julio-Claudian prince.
Object #MS4030