Culture of Ancient Rome

From Academic Kids

Ancient Roman culture evolved throughout the thousand-year history of that civilization. The term refers to the culture of the Roman Republic, later the Roman Empire, which, at peak, covered an area from Cumbria and Morocco to the Euphrates.

Missing image
Julius Caesar, depicted from the bust in the British Museum, in Cassell's History of England (1902)

Generalities of Roman culture

Life in ancient Rome revolved around the city of Rome, located on seven hills, and its monumental structures like the Colosseum, the Forum of Trajan and the Pantheon. The city also had several theaters and gymnasiums, and many taverns, baths and brothels. Throughout the territory under the control of ancient Rome, residential architecture ranged from very modest houses to country villas, and in the capital city of Rome, there were imperial residences on the elegant Palatine Hill, from which the word “palace” is derived. The poor lived in the city center, packed into apartments, which were almost like modern ghettos.

The city of Rome was a large megapolis of that time, with a population of one million people. The public spaces in Rome resounded with such a din of hooves and clatter of iron chariot wheels that Julius Caesar had once proposed a ban on chariot traffic at night. Historical estimates indicate that around 10 percent of population under the jurisdiction of the ancient Rome lived in innumerable urban centers, with population of 10,000 and more and several military settlements. Most of these centers had a forum and temples and same type of buildings, on a smaller scale, as found in Rome.

The large urban population required an endless supply of food which was a complex logistical task, including acquiring, transporting, storing and distribution of food for Rome and other urban centers. Italian farms supplied vegetables and fruits, but fish and meat were luxuries. Aqueducts were built to bring water to urban centers and wine and oil were imported from Spain, Gaul and Africa.

Ninety percent of the population under the jurisdiction of ancient Rome lived in the countryside, in thatched huts and in abject poverty. Landlords generally resided in cities and their estates were left in the care of farm managers. These farm managers treated the manpower under their control very badly. The plight of rural slaves was worse than their counterparts working in urban aristocratic households. Some records indicate that “as many as 42 people lived in one small farm hut in Egypt, while six families owned a single olive tree.” The villagers were also devoid of certain diversions like games and religious festivals. Such a rural environment continued to induce migration of population to urban centers.

Starting in the middle of the second century BCE, in every aspect of the private culture of the upper classes, Greek culture was increasingly in ascendancy, in spite of tirades from the conservative moralists. By the time of Augustus, cultured Greek household slaves taught the Roman young (sometimes even the girls), and chefs, decorators, secretaries, doctors, hairdressers— all came from the Greek East. Greek sculptures adorned Hellenistic landscape gardening on the Palatine or in the villas, or were imitated in Roman sculpture yards by Greek slaves. The Roman cuisine preserved in Apicius is essentially Greek. Roman writers disdained Latin for a cultured Greek style. Only in law and governance was the Italic nature of Rome's accretive culture supreme.

Against this human background, both the urban and rural setting, one of history's best-known civilizations took shape, leaving behind a cultural legacy that still survives today.

Historical and cultural context

Rome's cultural roots

Many aspects of the Roman culture were appropriated from the Ancient Greeks.

Roman sculpture was at its most original in the production of strongly characterized  such as this bust of .
Roman sculpture was at its most original in the production of strongly characterized portraits such as this bust of Cato the Elder.

In architecture and sculpture, the continuity between Greek models and Roman imitations are apparent. The chief Roman contribution to architecture was the arch, and the dome it made possible. While much Roman sculpture was derivative of Greek models, and all deeply indebted to Greek techniques, the Roman character made portraiture the strongest and most original aspect of Roman sculpture. A strongly characterized portrait bust like the surviving portrait bust of Cato the Elder is a clearly envisioned, strongly individual character, not an idealized type such as are typically found in Greek sculptures.

Rome's cultural legacy

Its significance is perhaps best reflected in its endurance and influence, as is seen in the longevity and lasting importance of works of Virgil and Ovid. Additionally telling are the many aspects of Classical culture that have been incorporated into the cultures of those states rising from the ashes of the Roman Empire. Latin, the that empire's primary language, remains used in religion, science, and law. Christianity, a religion adopted by the culture as the Roman Empire's downfall neared, has over two billion followers today. Its survival can be partly attributed to its promotion by Roman authorities.

Aspects of the Roman culture

Social structure

The center of the early social structure, dating from the time of the agricultural tribal city state, was the family, which was not only marked by blood relations but also by the legally constructed relation of patria potestas. The Pater familias was the absolute head of the family; he was the master over his wife, his children, the wives of his sons, the nephews, the slaves and the freedmen (liberated slaves, the first generation still legally inferior to the freeborn), disposing of them and of their goods at will, even putting them to death. Roman law recognized only patrician families as legal entities.

Slavery and slaves were part of the social order. The slaves were mostly prisoners of war. There were slave markets where they could be bought and sold. Roman law was not consistent about the status of slaves, except that they were considered like any other moveable property. Some slaves were freed by the masters for fine services rendered; some slaves could save money to buy their freedom. Generally, slaves were treated badly, particularly in the countryside, but mutilation and murder of slaves were considered outrageous[1] (

Apart from these families (called gentes) and the slaves (legally objects, mancipia i.e. 'kept in the [master's] hand') there were Plebeians that did not exist from a legal perspective. They had no legal capacity and were not able to make contracts, even though they were not slaves. To deal with this problem, the so-called clientela was created. By this institution, a plebeian joined the family of a patrician (in a legal sense) and could close contracts by mediation of his patrician pater familias. Everything the plebeian possessed or acquired legally belonged to the gens. He was not allowed to form his own gens.

The authority of the pater familias was unlimited, be it in civil rights as well as in criminal law. The king's duty was to be head over the military, to deal with foreign politics and also to decide on controversies between the gentes. The patricians were divided into three tribes (Ramnenses, Titientes, Luceres).

During the time of the Roman Republic (founded in 509) Roman citizens were allowed to vote. These included patricians and plebeians. Women, slaves and children were not allowed to vote. There were two assemblies, the assembly of centuries (comitia centuriata) and the assembly of tribes (comitia tributa), which were made up of all the citizens of Rome. In the comitia centuriata the Romans were divided according to age, wealth and residence. The citizens in each tribe were divided into five classes based on property and then each group was subdivided into two centuries by age. All in all, there were 373 centuries. Like the assembly of tribes, each century had one vote. The Comitia Centuriata elected the Praetors (judicial magistrates), the Censors, and the Consuls.

The comitia tributa comprised thirty-five tribes from Rome and the country. Each tribe had a single vote. The Comitia Tributa elected the Quaestores (financial magistrates) and the patrician Curule Aedile.

Over time, Roman law evolved considerably, as well as social views, emancipating (to increasing degrees) family members.

People & family

Political and Legal Institutions

Almost at all times since its emergence as a power to reckon with, Rome was both a republic (it legally remained so after it was de facto crowned with an emperor who never was declared a monarch, even though he would even be deified) and an empire (about half of its conquests date before the establishment of the principate). Ancient Romans had no written constitution, but with the passage of lex Hortensia in 287 BC, an approximation of division of governance - executive, judicial and legislative wings - was achieved.

The executive branch of governance was managed by magistrates, who were elected. There was the principle of collegiality, which refers to the fact that any office was held by at least two persons of equal rank, each with an authority to veto acts of the other. A higher magistrate could similarly veto acts of lower magistrates. There were different categories and levels of magisterial offices for different functions.

The Republic

When a palace coup removed the Roman king Tarquin, Romans developed a pathological hatred for the word king, and a Roman Republic was proclaimed. In order to guard against any future autocratic ruler, the power was divided amongst a hierarchy of elected functionaries - the Senate, the Consuls and the Assemblies. Along with this, most of the earlier practices, also continued in some form. The Roman Republic lasted for more than 700 years, from 753 BC (the traditional date for founding of Rome and agricultural settlements on the Palatine hills) until around the time of the assassination of Julius Caesar.

This period was marked by a number of Roman conquests extending over several centuries and culminating (during the period of Julius Caesar), in an extension of the Roman World to the Atlantic Ocean by conquest of Gallia Comata, in the launching of the first invasion of the Britain and in the introduction of Roman influence into what has become modern France.

While the highly efficient Roman military forces conquered fresh territories, they left behind a trail of socioeconomic impacts – conquests brought an endless supply of fresh slave labor, making the poorer Roman citizens jobless, creating unrest and unemployment among the citizenry. To keep them fed and engaged was a daunting task for the administration. A number of measures, including land reforms, were attempted on the one hand; on the other hand, certain events were institutionalized like inducing the criminals, outlaws and debtors to enter arenas for gladiatorial combats resulting in death and mutilation. It is said that “the Roman Republic won an empire, and destroyed itself in doing so.”

See also

The Empire

Augustus (meaning the exalted or the holy one) was proclaimed Emperor by the Roman Senate in 27 BC. The Roman Empire, destined to last for 500 years, continued to expand by adding new territories. Among these were ancient Britain, Arabia, and Dacia, present day Romania. Augustus set into motion a process of political and social stability, resulting in the 200 year Pax Romana, the Roman peace[2] (

The Roman Empire assisted in the development of art, literature, and philosophy of subject nations, and also borrowed from of these civilizations and cultures – the religious and ethical aspects of Judaism, teachings of the new religion of Christianity, finer points of Babylonian astronomy and astrology, and elements from countless other nations like Persia, Egypt, and several eastern civilizations. In the process, they also spread architecture, Latin literature, the Roman style of governance and law. In this way, the Greco-Roman culture, with elements drawn from the experience of two millennia, took shape. It is still reflected in the Western tradition.

See also

Roman Law

Main article: Roman law

Roman law is one of Rome's most remarkable contibutions to European culture. While many other important features of ancient culture were originally invented by the Greeks and merely (first) copied and (later) transmitted to posterity by the Romans, the development of a sophisticated legal system and of a legal science is a characteristically Roman achievement.

The history of Roman law spans almost a thousand years from the law of the twelve tables (449 BC) to Justinian's codes (around 530). The twelve tables still reflect a relatively primitive and pre-scientific legal system. However, from the 2nd century BC, the Romans began to apply the methods and categories of Greek philosophy to legal problems (which the Greeks themselves had never thought of). A legal profession began to emerge and the production of scholarly treatises on Roman law started.

Roman legal science reached its peak in the first two centuries AD when the economic and political condtions of the principate were favorable to the scholarly activity of Roman jurists. However, by the middle of the 3rd century this classical age of Roman law came to an abrupt (and not fully explainable) end. The following centuries saw a general decline of Roman legal culture, which was not stopped by the efforts of emperor Justinian to revive classical Roman law in the 6th century.

Justinian did manage, however, to preserve a great part of the literary legacy of the classical jurists by incorporating their writings in his codes. The Digest, which is the most important part of the codification and was published in 533, is a gigantic collection of fragments from classical text books and commentaries. While it was unknown in western Europe in the early middle ages, it was re-discoverd around 1070 in Italy. From that time onward, Roman law and especially the teachings of the classical jurists preserved in the Digest became the basis of continental European law. It has been said quite rightly, that the Digest is one of the most influential books in European history.

Religion in Rome

Main article: Roman religion

Roman religious beliefs date back to the founding of Rome, around 1400 BC, but the Roman religion commonly associated with the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire did not start forming until around 500 BC when Romans came in contact with Greek culture and adopted many of the Greek’s religious beliefs including the representation of Greek gods in the form of humans.

Private and personal worship was an important aspect of religious practices of ancient Rome. In a sense, each household in ancient Rome was a temple to the gods. Each household had a an altar (lararium), at which the family members would offer prayers, perform rites, and interact with the gods.

Many of the gods that Romans worshiped came from the Proto-Indo-European pantheon, others were based on Greek gods. The three central deities were Jupiter (who was the god of rain, thunder, and lightning, of Proto-Indo-European origin), Mars (the good of warfare), called Ares by the Greeks, and Quirinus (who watched over the senate house), one of the truly Roman gods who was associated with the people of Sabine and with the founder of Rome, Romulus.

From simplest form of such private worships and religious practices, religion in ancient Rome developed into an elaborate system, with temples, altars, rituals and ceremonies, priesthood, beliefs of traditional paganism and the cult of the Roman emperors. The power of Ancient Rome spread ever further across a vast geographical area and Romans met with other cults and religions, like cults of Cybele, Bacchus, and Isis, as well as Judaism.

With its cultural influence spreading over most of the Mediterranean, Romans began accepting foreign gods into their own culture, as well as and other religious traditions such as the Cynicism and Stoicism. There were even attempts by many Roman and Greek philosophers to accept other gods that countered their religion such as the Jewish deity Yahweh (viewed as the only Supreme god by the Israelites) by stating that the Jews merely worshiped Jupiter but just under a different name and therefore there should be an acceptance of the Jewish culture. With the fall of the Roman Republic and the reign of the emperors which created the Roman Empire in 31 BC the Roman emperors were considered to be gods incarnate.

Two major philosophical schools of thought that derived from Greek religion and philosophy that became prominent in Rome in the 1st and 2nd century AD was Cynicism and Stoicism which, according to Cora Lutz were “fairly well merged” in the early years of the Roman Empire. Cynicism taught that civilization was corrupt and people needed to break away from it and its trappings and Stoicism taught that one must give up all earthly goods by remaining detached from civilization and help others. Because of their negative views on civilization and of their way of life, in where many of them just wore a dirty cloak, carried a staff, and a coin purse, and slept outdoors, they were the targets of the Roman aristocracy and of the emperor and many were persecuted by the Roman government for being “subversive.” The philosopher Lucian attacked the cynics in his book “The Philosophies for Sale” in which he mocked the cynics by stating “First...stripping you of your luxury...I will put a cloak on you...Next I will compel you to undergo pains and hardships, sleeping on the ground, drinking nothing but water...Leading this life you will say that your are happier than the Great King...Frequent the most crowded market place...and in [it] desire to be solitary and uncommunicative...”

Much of the Roman practices of their religion and philosophy lasted until the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official Roman religion for the Roman Empire in 313 AD. Prior to that Christianity had spread from the Roman province of Palestine, where it was heavily influenced by Judaism, until it started to pick up many beliefs from the Greeks as it was being spread throughout the Roman Empire.

Pagans in Rome

Christianity in Rome

  • Christianity spreading in the Roman empire
  • Christianity persecuted in Rome
  • Christianity the new state cult in Rome
  • Ante-Nicene Fathers

Judaism in Rome

Artistic & intellectual life


The artistic and intellectual life of ancient Romans was rich in content and variety. A section of Roman citizens and the slaves imported from distant lands were highly talented and gave expression to their abilities in forms, which still survive, and tell a story of the high level of this facet of ancient Roman culture.

To cite an example, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeolog[3] (, University of Michigan, USA houses a variety of objects recovered during excavations at Karanis from 1926 to 1935. This collection, like several others all across the world, indicates the depth and dimension of artistic and intellectual life of ancient Romans. Such collections include a variety of vessels with cut decorations, green glass, straw stopper and enclosed wicker; jugs and jars of clay; wall paintings; sculpture and figurines, and coins. The ancient Roman literature continues to be a common cultural heritage of human civilization.

The ground for development of artistic and intellectual faculties began early in childhood, and with a strict pattern of education and schooling.


Before regular schooling system evolved in ancient Rome, home was the learning centre, where children were taught Roman law, customs, and physical training to prepare the boys to grow as Roman citizens and for eventual recruitment in the army. Conforming to discipline was a point of great emphasis. Girls generally received instructions from their mothers in the art of spinning, weaving and sewing.

Schooling in a more formal sense was begun around 200 BC. Education began at the age of around six, and by next six to seven years, boys and girls were expected to learn basics of reading, writing and counting. By the age of twelve or so, they would be learning Latin, Greek, grammar and literature, followed by training for public speaking. Oratory was an art to be practiced and learnt and good orators commanded respect, and to become an effective orator was one of the objectives of education and learning. Poor children could not afford education. In some cases, services of gifted slaves were utilized for imparting education.

See also


Material culture of Rome

Roman clad in a
Roman clad in a toga
  • Roman clothing

In ancient Rome, the cloth and the dress distinguished one class of people from the other class. The tunic worn by plebians (common people) like shepherds and slaves was made from coarse and dark material, whereas the tunic worn by patricians was of linen or white wool. A magistrate would wear the tunic augusticlavia; senators wore a tunic with broad strips, called tunica laticlavia. Military tunics were shorter than the ones worn by civilians.

Even footwear indicated a person’s social status. Patricians wore red sandals, senators had brown footwear, consuls had white shoes, and soldiers wore heavy boots. Women wore closed shoes of colors like white, yellow or green.

See also

Since the period of the Republic until 200 BC, ancient Romans had very simple food habits. Staple food was simple, generally consumed at around 11 o’clock, and consisted of bread, salad, olives, cheese, fruits, nuts, and cold meat left over from the dinner the night before. A nap or rest followed this.

The family ate together, sitting on stools around a table. Later on, a separate dining room with dining couches were designed. Fingers were used to take foods. Spoons had come, but table knives and forks were yet to appear. Consuming alcoholic beverages by men were socially accepted, but women were not expected to consume drinks. By the time of the Roman Empire, women were also consuming drinks.

During the Imperial period, staple food of the lower class Romans (plebeians) was vegetable porridge and bread, and occasionally fish, meat, olives and fruits. Sometimes, subsidized or free foods were distributed in cities, and school children were generally served with lunch by the local authorities. The patricians aristocracy had an elaborate dinners, with parties and wines and a variety of eatables. Sometimes, dancing girls would entertain the diners. Their women and children ate separately, but in the later Empire period, with permissiveness creeping in, even decent women would attend such dinner parties.

See also

Architecture & facilities

Main article: Roman architecture

In initial stages, the ancient Roman architecture reflected elements of architectural styles of the Etruscans and the Greeks. Over a period of time, the style was modified in tune with their urban requirements, and the civil engineering and building construction technology became developed and refined. The Roman concrete has remained a riddle[4] (, and even after more than 2000 years some of ancient Roman structures still stand magnificently like the Pantheon (with one of the largest single span domes in the world) located in the business district of today’s Rome.

The architectural style of the capital city of ancient Rome was emulated by other urban centers under Roman control and influence [5] (, like the Amphitheatre, Verona, Italy; Arch of Hadrian, Athens, Greece; Temple of Hadrian, Ephesos, Turkey; a Theatre at Orange, France; and at several other locations, for example, Lepcis Magna, located in Libya[6] ( Roman cities were well planned, efficiently managed and neatly maintained. Palaces, private dwellings and villas, were elaborately designed and town planning was comprehensive with provisions for different activities by the urban resident population, and for countless migratory population of travelers, traders and visitors passing through their cities.

Marcus Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman architect’s treatise “De architectura”, with various sections, dealing with urban planning, building materials, temple construction, public and private buildings, and hydraulics, remained a classic text till Renaissance.

See also

Roman economy

Main article: Roman commerce

The ancient Rome commanded vast geographical area, with natural and human resources. The economy remained focused on agriculture and trade[7] ( Grains, olives and grapes were main agricultural produce, and olive oil and wine constituted main exports. Two tier crop rotation was practiced but farm productivity was low. In lieu of money, surplus farm output could be tendered as tax.

Annexation of Egypt, Sicily and Tunisia in North Africa provided a continuous supply of grains, which were moved from there to deficit zones of the ancient Rome. Production and transportation of grains and food related products dominated the trading activity, and generated huge profits for a class of people, and this prosperity resulted into indulgence of luxurious consumption by a particular class of aristocracy. The life of luxury entailed exotic imports, including spices from the Malabar coast of India, silk from China and the Far East, Ivory and wild animals from Africa, minerals from the Great Britain and Spain, precious stones, and an endless supply of slaves of all description and classification. The network of trading routes proved the saying that all roads “lead to Rome.” Sea routes were also developed and transportation of merchandise, particularly grains, were a big activity all along several ports across the Mediterranean coast.

Industrial and manufacturing activities constituted a small proportion of total products. The single biggest such activity was mining and quarrying of stones, which provided basic construction materials for the magnificent monuments of that period.

The economy was largely dependent on the slave labor and slaves constituted around 40 percent of the population. Many slaves were highly skilled and functioned as singers, jewelers, scribes, bartenders, and even physicians. A slave’s demand and price was dependent on his / her skill sets, thus a slave trained in medicine was equivalent to 50 agricultural slaves. In the later period, cheap labor started to replace slave labor, as hiring on day-to-day basis became economical then investing in slaves.

The ancient Roman had a very developed coinage system, and coins of brass, bronze, copper, silver and gold were in circulation, and were accepted even beyond the realm of the ancient Rome. Ancient Roman coins have been discovered in a land as far as in India. In some instances, barter system was also practiced.

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Sports & Entertainment

The ancient city of Rome had a place called Campus, near the Tiber river. This was a place for drill ground for Roman soldiers. Over a period of time, the Campus became city’s field and track playground. Even Caesar and Augustus are said to have frequented the place. Imitating the Campus in Rome, similar grounds were developed in several other urban centers and military settlements.

In the campus, the youth assembled to play and exercise, which included jumping, wrestling, boxing and racing. Riding, throwing, and swimming were also preferred physical activities. In the countryside, pastime also included fishing and hunting. Females did not participate in these activities. Ball playing was a popular sport and ancient Romans had several ball games, which included Handball (Expulsim Ludere), field hockey, catch, and some form of Soccer.

Board games played in ancient Rome included Dice (Tesserae), Roman Chess (Latrunculi), Roman Checkers (Calculi), Tic-tac-toe (Terni Lapilli), Roman and Egyptian Backgammon (Tabula).

There were several other activities to keep people engaged like chariot races, musical and theatrical performances, public executions and gladiatorial combat. In the Colosseum, Rome’s amphitheatre 50000 persons could be accommodated.

See also

A Roman's day & other issues

Life in the ancient Roman cities revolved round the Forum, the central business district, where most of the Romans would go for marketing and shopping, trading and banking, and for participating in festivities and ceremonies. The Forum was also a place where orators would express themselves to mould public opinion, and elicit support for any particular issue of interest to him or others. Before sunrise, children would go to schools or tutoring them at home would commence. Elders would dress, take a breakfast by 11 o'clock, have a siesta and in the afternoon or evening would generally go to the Forum. Going to public bath at least once daily was a habit with most of Roman citizens. Children and slaves were not allowed to use these baths, and there were separate hours for men and women.

Different types of outdoor and indoor entertainment, free of cost, were available in the ancient Rome. Depending on the nature of the events, they were scheduled during daytime, afternoons, evenings or late night. Huge crowds gathered at the Collosseum to watch events like gladiators, combats between men, or fights between men and the wild animals. The Circus Maximus was used for chariot racing. Endless such activities were also conducted in other cities under the ancient Rome.

Life in the countryside was slow but lively, with numerous local festivals and social events. Farms were run by the farm managers, but estate owners would sometimes take a retreat to the country side for rest, enjoying the splendor of the nature and the sunshine, including activities like fishing, hunting, and riding. On the other hand, slave labor shall be slogging continuously, for long hours and all seven days, and ensuring comforts and creating wealth for their masters. The average farm owners were better off, spending evenings in economic and social interactions at the village markets. The day ended with a meal, generally left over from the noon time preparations.

See also

Foreign cultural relations

Places of special interest

See also

Further Reading

External links

fi:Rooman valtakunnan kulttuuri


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