Wikijunior:Ancient Civilizations/Romans

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The Roman Empire at its greatest extent in 116 AD

What country did they live in?[edit]

At the start, the Romans lived in a region that now forms part of Italy. Through conquest of nearby peoples, the Roman Empire expanded. At its peak, the empire controlled most of Western Europe, North Africa, Greece, the Balkans, and the Middle East. The capital Rome grew from a simple village to a thriving metropolis. Even today, some 2500 years later, Rome is still a major world city.


What did their buildings look like?[edit]

Remains of the top floors of an insula near the Capitolium and the Aracoeli in Rome.

Many public buildings built by the Romans, were huge works of white marble complete with arches and grand architecture. The average house by comparison was smaller and plainer, being built of bricks and timber. Much of our extensive knowledge of Roman Buildings comes from ruins and remains left in the ground.


Inside a middle class home (a domus), there were many rooms, with distinct functions. These ranged in size, from small cubicles in which they slept, through medium sized rooms in which they eat, to large halls in which they would receive and entertain guests. The rooms in the house normally opened out onto a courtyard. Despite its often small size, the purpose of this courtyard was to provide light and air to the rooms. As well as a courtyard, most wealthy people would also have kept a garden behind the house, in which flowers, fruit vegetables (and even grape vines) would have been grown.


In the city of Rome most people lived in two or three-story apartment buildings called Insulae. Here a whole family lived in only one or two rooms, spending much of their time outside in the courtyards and streets. Water came from nearby public fountains and aqueducts.

The Romans as well as house builders, constructed many public buildings, including temples, marketplaces, forum, and amphitheaters. These public works also included things required for city living like aqueducts and sewers.

Military building was also undertaken, the largest construction being Hadrian Wall at the Northern Fringes of the Roman Empire. Even today remains of it are still visible in Northern England.

What did they eat?[edit]

Both the rich and poor ate bread and porridges made from wheat, barley and other grains. This was their main staple food. Some of the other common foods that they would have eaten were chicken and other birds, beans, lentils, walnuts, eggs, apples, cheese, milk, wine, figs, dates and grapes.

While most of their food would be familiar to us, Romans did have their share of strange or unusual feast items, including wild boar, peacock, snails, and a type of rodent called a dormouse. Another difference was that while the poor people and the woman ate their food while sitting in chairs, the rich men liked to have banquets together where they would lounge on their sides while they ate their meals.

Ancient Roman meals couldn't have included foods that came to Europe from America or from Asia in later centuries. For instance, they didn't have corn, nor tomatoes, nor potatoes, nor cocoa, and no ancient Roman ever tasted a turkey.

What did they wear?[edit]

A Roman man wearing a toga

People in Rome had three types of clothing. Firstly, they wore a loin cloth. This was worn like underwear. Then, over their loin cloth they would wear a tunic and women would sometimes wear two tunics. A tunic was usually made out of wool but occasionally linen. It was a loose garment that fitted over a person's head and was joined at the shoulders and sides. It would resemble a nightgown in our society. Finally, on top of a man's tunic he would wear a toga whenever he went into public, if he could afford one. Togas were large pieces of wool fabric that were wrapped all around the body. Interestingly, only Roman citizens were permitted to wear togas. It was symbol of peace because Roman soldiers also didn't wear togas. Togas were decorated in different ways to indicate rank, like a uniform. For example, a purple fringed toga indicated that the person wearing it was a leader.

Women in Rome also had an outside garment that corresponded to the male toga. It was called a stola and was also made of a large piece of fabric but it was wrapped and attached differently. Woman also wore a warm shawl called a palla when they went out.

Fashion changed as the empire progressed. Initially in Rome both men and woman wore togas but that changed fairly early in the Roman empire. Also, cloaks that were like large ponchos were first primarily used by poor people and soldiers but eventually became the standard dress for even the wealthy. Togas in that era had become purely ceremonial.

Roman men and woman also wore shoes or sandals unless they were extremely poor. They were completely made of leather, even the soles. When visiting one another they would wear them into their friend's home but remove them before eating.

What did their writing look like?[edit]

A roman coin; note the common letters

Romans developed what is now called the Latin alphabet for their writing. The Latin alphabet is nearly the same as the current English alphabet but originally it only consisted of capital letters. Also, the Romans didn't use a few of the letters that are a part of the modern English alphabet such as j, x and w. The Latin alphabet, invented by the Romans, became the base of the writing systems for many languages all over the world today.

The Romans also invented a way to write the capital letters in cursive. They also didn't use punctuation the way that we do today.

Roman numbers were written with letters as well. These are called Roman numerals.

  • M = 1,000
  • D = 500
  • C = 100
  • L = 50
  • X = 10
  • V = 5
  • I = 1

2008 is written as MMVIII in Roman numerals.

In the Middle Ages, it was very hard to do maths with these numbers, and Arabic numbers (the ones we use today) began to be used. People found that banking and doing maths was much easier with these new number symbols.

What did they believe?[edit]

The Romans, like many other ancient civilizations, were polytheistic; this means they worshipped many gods. Each god or goddess, a female god, would be connected to a certain part of people’s life. If you were a fisherman you might pray to Neptune, the god of the sea. However if you were a warrior you would pray to Mars the god of war. All these gods and goddesses had different stories. These long stories of the gods have lived on in writings on pots and in scripts, or books, by ancient people. Most of the Roman gods were taken from the Greek culture. For example, the god Neptune was taken from the god Poseidon. Today, the names of the Roman gods are used as names for planets!

Romans were generally tolerant of other polytheistic religions, and often adopted foreign gods into their religion, including Egyptian gods. Emperors sometimes declared themselves to be gods. Monotheists such as Christians, who believe in only one god, were distrusted because they refused to worship the emperors and were often persecuted.

Are some of them famous even today?[edit]

This 19th Century fresco imagines Cicero denouncing Catiline in the Senate. Cicero mentions in his first speech against Catiline that the other senators have stood up and moved away from him, leaving him alone.

Roman history and literature have had a strong and continuous influence on Western culture for thousands of years, so many Roman statesmen, poets, and philosophers remain famous today.

Julius Caesar is probably the most famous Roman of all time. He was a Roman military and political leader and one of the most influential men in world history. As a general, he led invasions of France and Britain. Most people in Rome thought Caesar was a hero, but his enemies said that he only cared about winning fame and power for himself. When the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army, he was afraid of what they would do to him, so he began a civil war. Four years later, Caesar won the war and became dictator for life. A group led by Cassius and Brutus, who called themselves the Liberators, killed Caesar at a meeting of the Senate because they thought it was the only way to save the republic. However, Caesar's friends defeated the Liberators in the ensuing civil war, and the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. Caesar is also famous for reforming the calendar and for several books he wrote about his military campaigns.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was another famous Roman statesman. Many of Cicero's books, speeches, and letters have survived, and we know more about him than any other Roman. Cicero didn't come from a noble family, but he rose rapidly in politics because of his talent for public speaking. Cicero began his career in public office as a quaestor, a low-level official who managed the finances of the state. Because the people of Sicily found him to be honest and fair, they asked him to prosecute the corrupt governor of their island. Cicero prepared for a full trial, but after his opening speech, the governor saw that there was little chance of winning against Cicero and chose to leave the country. Cicero became known as Rome's greatest public speaker, and his successful prosecution entitled him to take the governor's seat in the Senate, giving him a freedom to speak that would not normally have been available to such a young member. Cicero gave some of his most famous speeches denouncing a plan by Catiline, an impoverished nobleman, to murder Rome's ruling class and seize power by force. Cicero was called "father of his country" for stopping the conspiracy. After the fall of the Roman Republic, the new rulers had him killed for speaking out against them. One of Cicero's most famous books is On Duties, which was considered the greatest work of moral philosophy through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. When printing was invented, it was the second book to be printed after the Bible.

Vergil has been considered Rome's greatest poet ever since his own lifetime. He was born into a wealthy family, and spent his childhood on the family farm in northern Italy before being sent to large cities for school when he was 12. Vergil moved to Rome after the government seized his family's farm and he had to go to the capital to ask for it back. There, Vergil became a favourite of the emperor and other rich and important people. Vergil's most famous work is the Aeneid, a long poem about the founding of Rome that he worked on for the last 11 years of his life. When he was dying, he asked his friends to burn the draft, because he didn't want anyone to read his unfinished work. The emperor asked Vergil's friends to ignore his wishes and prepare the poem for publication.

Another famous Roman was Pontius Pilate. He was the governor of the Roman ludaea (Judea) province from 26 AD until 36 AD. In modern times he is best known as the man who, according to the Christian Bible, presided over the trial of Jesus Christ and ordered his crucifixion.

What is left of them today?[edit]

At its pinnacle, the Roman Empire covered much of Europe, northern Africa, and some of the Middle East. There are many different ethnicities in these regions. Some of them are the direct descendants of Roman citizens while other people and ethnicities emerged through immigration into these areas from other regions. In Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire, there are currently Italian people who have a blend of Roman heritage and other people that emigrated to the area after the Roman Empire dissolved.

Many modern European languages have evolved from Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. These are called Romance languages, and they include Italian, Spanish, and French. Romance languages are also spoken in many countries in South America and Africa.

Some other languages in Europe that didn't directly descend from Latin were influenced by it. For example, languages like English, Hungarian, and Turkish are all written with versions of the Latin alphabet, even if they had other writing systems of their own. The English language has been heavily influenced by Latin ever since 1066, when England was conquered by people who spoke French. In fact, over half of English words were borrowed from French or Latin, including joy, charity, continue, army, animal, actor, reptile, and library.

Beauty in Ancient Rome[edit]

The use of cosmetics in ancient Rome was not exclusively for women. Men also used them to improve their appearance, and perfumes and to wax it was considered acceptable. Excessive effort to improve the appearance, would have caused a man to fall into laugh during the time of the Republic. However, there were many who wore makeup, combed their hair and look after your body with baths and massages.

To wax was considered too effeminate, but to show all the hair with splendor was too rude for the Roman taste. Because of that, they had found a middle ground. To wax it was used resin paste or pumice. The elderly, didn't do all this ways to improve beauty because it would have been considered ridiculous, as was seen firstly as a preparation for sexual matters.

To wear trousers was a disgrace because it was something typical of the barbarians.

Men used to have short hair but women instead choose between a great variety of hairstyles. Because of Julius Caesar who came after a war and was blond and tanned, then blond became fashionable. Sometimes they used wigs which were made of hair which they cutted to the Gallic slaves.

For the Roman women was very important to had the skin white and soft with the cheeks a little bit rosy.

For the teeth they used pumice power to whiten them. They had also fake teeth.

Baths made up of milk by donkeys was a very exclusive and expensive treatment to exfoliate the skin. Some of the important persons who had it were Cleopatra or Popea Sabina.

Plastic surgery was also known and used for example in scars.

Marriage in Ancient Rome[edit]

Romans didn't gave lots of importance to marriage like in present days. Most people just came and lived together without any type of ceremony.

Only one of three couples reached marriage.

The oldest way of marriage was the usus which could come immediately into a divorce if the wife stayed out during three consecutive nights.

In Roman times, marriage was private. It didn't had any type of document or record which proved it. However, this sacrament had certain legal effects, since the children had to inherited the father's name and fortune.

Women as property[edit]

Roman marriage could become legal in two ways:

  • the manum conventioin form, in which the bride's father gave the property of her daughter to his future son-in-law.
  • or the sine manu, in which the girl continues to be owned by the father and the husband only receives the benefit. If she committed adultery, for example, the father could kill her even if the husband has forgiven her.

Slaves in Rome[edit]

The Romans got slaves between the ones they took in battle or in conquered cities, among the children of slaves or children which were abandoned. Sometimes they bought slaves from other countries. Finally there was the case of men who were forced to be slaves as a result of debts.

The slave ( which were called mangones or mercatores venalicii) always followed the armies or bought their human merchandise in major markets of Rome and Delos. Ordinary slaves were sold on a rotating platform (catasta). A table (titulus) was around their necks as a sign indicating its origin, age, abilities and physical or mental defects, and the certification that were free of any crime. The best were kept in separate rooms in taverns, and showed only to wealthy clients.

The children of slave parents was given the name of vernae, as a distinction from the free-born. All the ones belonging to one owner were called, as a whole family. The employees at residences of the city were urban families, while the ones who lived in the villa were called rustic families. However, it was common for slave to serve in both.

In ancient times their number was small, because the houses were very simple, often made by the owner. But as they grew larger and more splendid, the number of slaves increased. There was one for almost every task, which was characteristic of a large house. When the population of Italy was estimated to be about six million people, there was a slave for every three inhabitants, and population in the city of Rome was much higher.

The list of slaves tied to some Roman houses is long: tailors, barbers, cooks, bakers, also musicians, dancers of both sexes and mimes and jugglers groups to divert the host and his guests, especially when they were at the table. There were buffoons who by their faults, weaknesses or thoughts made laugh. The favorite of the ladies were the dwarfs trained to fight and dance.

Doctors and surgeons also were mostly slaves or free men, at least in Republican times, and the same happened with the private secretary of the lord of the house.

Slaves of rich people[edit]

The rich Roman was always accompanied by one or more slaves (pedisequus) which had to carry any object his owner may need like to the baths or to a party. They also carried a torch at night. Another type of slaves were the lectiarii or the carriers of chairs. In the city, it was only permitted to sit to ladies and senators.

There were also the readers, which were the slaves who read to their owners while he was a the bath or at the table. There were also the ones who wrote documents and took care of the library of the house. The cellarius had the keys to the warehouse and the wine cellar.

The procurator was the principal in the family of slaves and was the one who manage the money and the expenses of the family.

The slave was absolute property of the house owner and had no legal protection against him.

Children in Ancient Rome[edit]

When a child was born in ancient Rome, the birth was did at home while invoking the protection of the goddess Juno Lucina ("she is the goddess who brings children into light").

The men did not attend births, not even the father of the child or the doctor who presented later. Everything was did by the midwife, except in the poorest families who couldn't afford to any midwife, since they used to be expensive. In that case, the woman had no choice but to be assisted by her own relatives.

It was the midwife who watched the baby to check its vitality and to find possible deformities. She announced the sex, but not with words but by signs, and cut the umbilical cord with a distance of four fingers from the womb. Because of this they didn't used any metal instruments. There were some alternatives like glass, ceramic or even a crust of hard bread. After that, she tied the cord with a wire of wool and cleaned and bath the newborn.

Then, ceremonies began. Immediately a sacred meal was offered to Picumno and Pilumno, sons of Jupiter presiding over marriage and guardianship of children. To try to prevent the dangers since that time, at night three men met on the threshold, one armed with an ax, the second with a club and the third with a broom. The first two struck the door and the third was sweeping the floor, which was considered that the place was clean of evil spirits.

The child was placed at the foot of the paterfamilias (father or in his absence, the paternal grandfather, great grandfather or person in place). Tollere FILIUM, which meant to raise the newborn in his arms, meant he was recognizing as his, although it was not his natural son, and because of that he was entitled to enjoy and spend all the rights and privileges as a member of a Roman family. This ceremony took place in dies lustricus, eight days after birth if it was a girl and nine when it was a boy.

The newborn (pupus) was then purified at the family altar in a ceremony called lustratio. The guests had to gave him his or her first toys (crepundia), small glass beads that were placed over the baby's shoulder so the metallic sound amused the child as a modern rattle. Toys were shaped like flowers, swords, axes and crescents, and also offered some special identification if the child got lost.


Shows and entertainment in Ancient Rome[edit]

Shows were one of the most important and characteristic features of Roman life, which occupied, on a schedule on the IV century, 176 days a year. Many came from the Republic, and others were initiated and added by the emperors. The extraordinary spectacles and shows were held on occasions such as anniversaries or triumphs. Along with free food distributions, were the most common ways of gain the sympathy of the people and to distract them from government issues and economic problems: panem et circenses, bread and circuses.


The organization of such events had many difficulties. One of them was to get animals for the shows and to train them. The emperors established a monopoly for hunting and for the possession of elephants and installed in Laurentum an elephant park, near Rome. In this regard there is an anecdote from Plutarch, who noted that in a show in Rome, (which had also dogs acting), an elephant missed a trick in the performance and was seen the next night rehearsing the trick on his own.


Emperors also like gladiators fights and maintained gladiators training schools in Rome, and later in other places like some people of the Republic did on the past.


The imperial ceremonies were usually accompanied by meals for everyone, that could be served in the theater or in the circus, or maybe in outside in different points of the city. In these cases the emperor attended personally. In other occasions the emperor threw a type of coins called missilia, which gave some advantages to the ones who could get one of those.


Nero gave birds, groceries, tickets for the distribution of wheat, clothes, jewelry, paintings, slaves, cattle, trained animals, and finally, boats, blocks of flats and parcels of land. Elagabalus gave gold and silver, food, costumes, camels, donkeys, cattle and deer.


In Emerita Augusta (now Mérida, Spain) the shows were announced on posters painted in red and black that were distributed throughout the city, and in the intervals between races, they also threw missilia or sparsiones.

References[edit]

Classics Unveiled