Life Of Average People in Ancient Rome

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Podcast Transcript

For over 2,000 years, stories have been passed down about the famous and infamous people from ancient Rome. 

While many of these names still are familiar to most people today, it doesn’t really tell us much about how the average person lived back then? 

What was life like for the regular person whose names didn’t make it into the history books?

Learn more about the life of the average person in ancient Rome, and how we know what we know about it, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

I’ve done many episodes on topics from ancient Rome. Usually, it has something to do with this emperor or that battle or some noteworthy event that took place. 

The reason why these topics get covered is really no different than why certain topics are in the news and others aren’t. 

Wars and emperors are things that historians bothered to write about. They didn’t tend to write about the average everyday goings-on, because the contemporary audience they were writing for already knew all those things. 

Moreover, even if someone did document those things, there is a good chance that it was lost. 99% of all ancient Roman literature has disappeared over time. 

We know a lot about Julius Caesar, but we know very little about Antoninus Pius. Antoninus Pius was one of the longest-reigning Roman Emperors, and he oversaw one of the greatest stretches of peace in Roman history, yet very little about him has survived. 

So, what we know about the lives of the common people of Ancient Rome comes from several sources. There were some things written down that did survive that we can get some information from. Most of what we know has come from archaeology. 

The Romans left a lot of ruins for us to learn from. The Romans tended to build with stone, brick, marble, and concrete. Moreover, they were all over the palace, leaving behind entire cities well preserved in the desert, like Timgad in Algeria, and Leptis Magna in Libya. 

There is one other thing that the Romans left us that no other ancient culture has left behind. An almost fully preserved city frozen in time, buried by a volcano. I am of course talking about Pompeii.

The people who lived in the Roman Empire would have lived in a wide variety of places. Life in Jerash, in what is today Jordan, would have been very different than life in Londinium, which is modern-day London. 

So for the purpose of this episode, I’m going to focus on a hypothetical average person who might have lived in the city of Rome sometime in the early imperial period. 

Let’s start with where they lived. 

If you watch any movies or TV shows that depict life in Rome, they will often have characters living in a rather nice villa. That is not at all what an average person would have lived in. 

In the City of Rome, the vast majority of people lived in apartment buildings which were known as insulae. An insula would have been a multistory building that could have been as high as nine stories tall during the republican period.  The word insula comes from the Latin word for island.

Augustus limited the height to about 68 feet or 21 meters, and that was later reduced to 58 feet or 17 and a half meters. 

There were 46,000 of such buildings as early as 150 BC.

The higher up in a building you lived, the cheaper the rent was because you had to walk up and down every day. 

Conditions inside an insula would have varied based on the rent you paid, no different than today. Many of them were basically the equivalent of tenements buildings from the 19th century. 

Many of the insulae, especially for poor people, were extremely dangerous to live in. There was always a risk of collapsing and fire. Most of the buildings were made out of mud-brick and timber.

There were no building or safety codes as we know them today. 

Some higher-end insulae might have had running water, which would involve a connection to an aqueduct. However, most of them had no water and no sewer, and if they did, it could only be on the lower floors. 

If you wanted to get water, you had to haul it from a neighborhood fountain. 

The insulae were often so close together that it was said that you could reach out your window and shake hands with the person in the next building. 

Conditions in an insula could be extremely cramped if you were very poor. In many cases, people would pack together in a small room to save money, which is very similar to stories you hear when people migrate to large cities today. 

The insulae had very poor lighting and almost no insulation. 

Insulae were usually owned by some of the richest men in Rome, meaning that notable figures in history such as Cicero and Crassus were really slumlords. 

There is still one insula standing in Rome today. The Insula dell’Ara Coeli is located on the Capatoline Hill. 

So, if you lived on one of the top floors, what did you do when you had to go to the bathroom? 

In Rome, they had public toilets which were known as latrinae. There was no privacy in a latrina. It was a u-shaped collection of benches against a wall with holes you would sit on like a regular toilet. 

The waste would fall down into water which would then drain out to the Tiber River if you were in Rome. 

There are well-preserved latrinae in both Ostia Antica, outside of Rome, and in Pompeii.  Many people in the upper stories of insulae would often just go in a chamber pot, and throw it out the window. Something which, if you remember back to my episode on sewers, was commonplace for centuries. 

The Roman process of cleaning yourself after you relieved yourself was something most people today would find revolting. They used what was called a tersorium which was just a sponge attached to the end of a stick. 

After you were done, you’d just wash it in a bucket, and everyone used the same one. 

I should also note that urine was often collected and used for washing clothes. While that sounds gross, it would be diluted and it was used because it contains ammonia. 

If you lived in an insula, especially on the upper floors, there is a good chance you didn’t cook your own food. There was little room for a kitchen, pulse carrying wood all the way up for a fire would have been tiring and dangerous. 

Most lower-class Romans would have eaten at a local fast food joint known as a thermopolium. A thermopolium was usually a long counter that would have holes in it where clay pots, known as dolia, would be kept and heated.

There are well-preserved thermopolium in both Pompeii and Ostia Antica where you can clearly see the layout as well as preserved artwork on the counter.  One was recently excavated in Pompeii in 2020 which made the news all over the world. 

The food which was served was not very good. Many of the foods we have today didn’t exist at that period in history, and there was no refrigeration and little in the way of food preservation.

Different thermopolium would have specialized in different dishes, and the artwork would have advertised what they were selling. It usually would have been some sort of stew or soup. They may have also sold cheese, wine, or salted fish. 

The average lower-class Roman would have had little to no fruit or meat. Most of the low-end meals would have been some sort of grain-based gruel, with bread and low-quality olive oil. Meat would sometimes be available on holy days when animals would be sacrificed and the meat sold at a discount.

The closest thing I can think of today which could compare to a ??thermopolium would be the hawker stands in Singapore. The quality is radically better, but they still serve people who live in small apartments in densely crowded areas. 

The poorest Romans also received a grain dole of 35-40 kilograms of wheat per month, for free. However, you had to be a Roman citizen to collect it.  The wheat was given out as wheat, not flour, so you had to take it to a miller to grind it, and to a baker to bake it, because poor Romans didn’t have the equipment to do either. 

Going about your daily business on the streets of Rome was a dangerous affair. Getting hit by a flying object falling off an insula was not an uncommon occurrence. This could be anything from a ceramic tile from the roof, to the contents of a chamber pot. 

Also, there were no police in Rome. At least nothing like we would consider police who were there to enforce laws and protect people from crime. 

Safety was enforced on a neighborhood level. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone had an incentive to ensure that crime was kept in check. 

Vigilante justice was common and socially accepted. There was a court system, but it required a lawyer, so it often wasn’t used by people who were poor. If you did take a case to court, you would usually have to be your own investigator. 

Most people think that Romans walked around wearing togas. This is not true. The toga was reserved for more formal affairs and was more akin to wearing a suit. They were reserved for adult men. 

Formal wear for women would be a stola. For reference, the Statue of Liberty is wearing a stola. On top of this, they would often wear a mantle called a palla

Most people, including men and women of all social classes, would wear a tunic for everyday use. There might be some variation in the length of the sleeves, and how far down it would go, but tunics were the Roman equivalent of a t-shirt and jeans. 

Likewise, undergarments were also usually worn. There are some mosaics from women’s bathhouses that show women exercising while wearing something very close to what we would call a bikini today. 

Romans never wore pants. Pants were looked down upon and were considered barbaric….as they were literally worn by barbarians. Just before the western empire fell, a law was passed banning the wearing of trousers. 

Roman shoes usually consisted of open-toe leather sandals, but shoe styles varied widely over time and across the empire. 

If you were a free Roman, aka not a slave, the work day was actually rather short. Most people would work about six hours from 6 am to noon. The afternoons were often reserved for attending games and going to the bath. 

Baths were all over Rome and they were for everyone of every social class. They were affordable even for the poor, and poor people could go about once a week, and they were free on holidays. 

Around the time of Julius Caesar, there were 170 baths in Rome, and that number rose to 800 several centuries later. 

The bath was a place for doing business as well as for getting clean. A bath would usually include three pools of hot, warm, and cold water, known as the caldarium, the tepidarium, and the frigidarium. There would also usually be a gym for physical exercise, and other amenities depending on the clientele. 

After the bath, you might attend one of the games, which might have been thrown by a wealthy Roman who was running for office. 

The most popular spectator sport was chariot racing, which I’ve discussed in previous episodes. People had teams they supported which corresponded to color. 

Gladiatorial games were also popular, but they weren’t what you see in movies. The vast majority of gladiatorial competitions were not to the death. One estimate put the number of fatal competitions at about one in five. 

There were also games that just consisted of slaying beasts in the arena. These animals were often brought in from far away, often from Africa, at enormous cost. 

Chariot racing was much cheaper to stage than arena games were. 

The last thing average Romans had to worry about was death. Death was something that you might encounter on a regular basis in Rome. 

Romans engaged in both burial and cremation. All burials had to be done outside of the walls of Rome. Wealthy people would often have elaborate tombs or mausoleums. 

Poor people would join a funeral club or a funeraticium collegium in Latin. Because a funeral was expensive, they would pay a small fee each month to ensure that they received an honorable funeral when they died. 

The extremely poor were often just thrown in a huge mass grave called a puticuli, which was really more of a garbage dump. Avoiding this fate was the reason for the funeral clubs. 

Ancient Rome would probably not have been a very nice place to live if you weren’t one of the wealthy elite. It was dirty, smelly, had poor sanitation, and your diet would have been deficient in a host of vitamins and nutrients if all you ate was mostly just wheat every day, which is exactly what happened to many poor Romans. 

Studying the lives of ancient people gives us a better understanding of where we came from, and just how far we’ve come. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener salanc1981 over at Apple Podcasts in Great Britain. They write, 


I could listen to Gary read the phone book. He would undoubtedly make it amazingly interesting

Thanks, salanc!  I was going to do something cheeky like actually read from a telephone book, but instead I want to share a story about a telephone book.

When I first visited Iceland in the year 2000, before I went I had read that in Iceland the phone book was actually listed in alphabetical order by first name, not by last name. This is due to the fact that Iceland still practices patronymic naming, where your last name is just your father’s name plus “son” or “daughter” at the end. 

I get to my hotel room in Reykjavik and the first thing I do is open up the phone book to check, and sure enough. It was listed by first name. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.