“I found Rome a city of brick and left it one of marble,” boasted Augustus, and his successors carried on in the same spirit. In the center, the broad hollow more or less ringed by the seven hills, the emperors raised or rebuilt the structures whose remains have drawn tourists for centuries: the forum, or public square, surrounded by the Hall of Records, the Senate House, law courts, temples; the new forums connected with it, with more law courts and temples, as well as colonnades for leisurely strolling; the impressive imperial palaces that crowned the hill flanking it; the vast public baths. Sumptuousness was the keynote also on the upper slopes and crowns of some of the hills, the Quirinal and Caelian and Aventine, the residential quarters favored by the rich. There was even a rural note, on the Esquiline Hill and the Pincian, where a few great potentates lived in mansions surrounded by spacious gardens. However, the moment one left these gilded neighborhoods and moved back toward town center along the depressions between the hills, the city of brick was still very much in evidence. Here were the middle- and lower-class quarters, marked by block after block of apartment houses, packed cheek by jowl to fill every available foot of space. Shops lined the street level, and above them rose three, four, or sometimes even more stories of flats.
Let us follow the denizens of the various quarters in their daily rounds.
First, a well-to-do couple ensconced in a handsome private house, a replica, more or less, of those uncovered in Pompeii. The ancients, with only oil lamps for artificial light, lived between dawn and dusk. As a matter of fact, their way of telling time was to divide this period into twelve hours, even though it meant that from season to season the hours varied in length: on December 21, for example, with dawn about 7:30 a.m. and dusk 4:30, the hours were only forty-five minutes long; in midsummer, with dawn about 4:30 and dusk 7:30, they were seventy-five minutes. The well-to-do, unless they belonged to the ancient jet set, whose members turned night into day and vice versa, rose at dawn along with everybody else, that is, between 4:30 and 7:30 a.m. depending on the time of year. There was no great incentive to linger in bed, since Roman bedchambers were for sleeping, not passing time. Even in a rich man’s home they were mere cubicles (the very word comes from their Latin name - cubiculum), with never more than a small window and often none. Window glass was not used, only shutters; so during cool weather, one either kept them closed and stayed in the dark or opened them and shivered. The furniture was minimal: aside from the bed, just a chair, perhaps a chest, and the inevitable chamber pot.
The morning toilette for the master of the house was simple and quick. As was the universal, ancient practice, he had slept in his underclothes - a light sleeveless knee-length tunic and under it a loincloth, which functioned as undershorts. It took him but a moment to slip on his sandals, dash some cold water over his face - no more was required, since he was sure to go to the barber and the baths later - and if his day included a formal morning call or a session in the Senate or law courts or the like, put on his toga. This might cause some delay: It was no easy job to get this clumsy white robe, round in shape and three yards in diameter, to fall in the proper folds. His valet, an able and quick-witted slave, helped him arrange it, brought him his bite of breakfast, and he was ready for his day.
The lady of the house needed somewhat more time. Usually, she had her own room. She too slept in her underclothes - loincloth, brassiere, and a light tunic that was a sort of shift (Martial has some cutting lines about a frigid wife, presumably literally as well as figuratively, who used to go to bed fully clothed). What could not be hurried was her hairdo, for the fashion in vogue in much of this period called for mountain-like tiers of curls. The ornatrix, the slave girl who did the mistress’s hair and made her up, had no easy job, particularly if the lady of the house was fussy or irascible or both. Makeup involved chalk or white lead on the brow, ashes or powdered antimony for eye shadow, red lead or various plant dyes for rouge and lipstick. The mistress was then draped in her stola, the distinctive garment of a Roman matron, a graceful tunic that fell to her feet, and over this, when ready to go out of doors, she wrapped her pallium, or cloak. Even conservative matrons who wore the traditional white stola went in for colors in the pallium - red, violet, yellow, blue, or combinations. Their less inhibited sisters wore colored stolae as well, at times touched up with embroidery or decorations in the weave.
A wife, unless she joined her husband in a morning call, would spend the early hours at home issuing instructions to her staff of slaves and making sure they carried them out. Housekeeping was relatively simple since there were no carpets to pick up dirt and scant furniture to move about. Floors, of mosaic or concrete, were left uncovered, and aside from the dining room with its couches and table, there was elsewhere little more than chairs, stools, benches, small tables, and lamp stands to hold clusters of oil lamps. Rather than elegant furnishings, Romans preferred to adorn their homes with masterpieces of Greek art, with copies of famous paintings frescoed on the walls, and bronze or stone replicas of famous statues in niches, corners, and along colonnades. Probably the most burdensome housework chores were emptying the ashes from the charcoal braziers, which supplied the only heat, cleaning the oil lamps, and hauling water and wastes.
A select circle of the high and mighty remained at home in the early morning to receive formal calls; on these occasions, the horde of lesser folk who lived off their patronage hurried to pay their respects - and at the same time press for favors they had to ask, pass on useful information they might have garnered, receive confidential instructions, or merely show their face (on occasion their wife’s face as well). In return, they were given a modest handout in food or money; this daily tipping of their retinue by the high and mighty was a standard feature of upper-class life in Rome.
By the third hour – 9:00 a.m. in winter and 7:00 in summer - the well-to-do were at their occupations. A notable who was a member of the Senate might be attending one of the sessions. Another might be at the law courts, either as party to or pleading a case. One of the many who were rentiers might have returned home to consult with his accountant, a highly trained and trusted slave, or dictate correspondence to a secretary, yet another skilled slave.
By noon, their day’s work was done. They joined their wives for a light lunch, had a siesta, and then probably headed for the barbershop to be shaved. This was a leisurely procedure, during which one chatted with the other customers, passing on the day’s gossip; in an age that used neither shaving soaps nor creams but only hot water, it could also be a painful one. About the eighth or ninth hour - 12:30 to 1:30 in winter, two hours later in summer - they joined the throngs heading for the nearest public bath, all save the few wealthy enough to have a private set of baths at home. Here they started out with some exercise: The athletic-minded heaved at weights or worked out with dumbbells or wrestled; the less serious played ball - the young ones strenuous games with a small hard ball, the elderly a decorous tossing back and forth of a medicine ball. This was followed by an anointing with oil and what we would call a Turkish bath, generally ending with a cold plunge. From the baths, they headed back home to don dinner clothes, the cenatoria, “dinner suit,” a light, comfortable tunic of particularly bright colors. Wives too would exchange their stolae for a female version of the garment. Dining would last until dusk or past it, and by then, it was time to go to bed.
The middle class, since they lived in apartments, had no room for a corps of household slaves: The master did without a valet, and the mistress probably had the maid of all work double as ornatrix. If the master was a native-born Roman, living in shabby gentility off his connection with one of the great, he put on a toga and hustled out at the crack of dawn to pay the mandatory morning call. If he was a freedman, or the descendant of freedmen, he dispensed with the toga and donned a street-going tunic, with a cloak over it if the weather was cool, and strode off to the workshop, store, auction ground, warehouse, or whatever, where he earned his living. The poor man, a poverty-stricken freeman or freedman, or a slave living in his own quarters, was of course up at dawn and was out of the house in a twinkling, since he had slept in the clothes he wore by day and all he had to do was lace on his sandals and pull his cloak off the bed, where it had been doubling as a blanket. Both tunic and cloak were dark, either of dark wool or dyed a dark color. White showed the dirt, and cleaning was expensive. His day did not end at noon, since workshops and stores stayed open till dusk or later in winter; the shops along the main streets of Pompeii all had lamps on their fronts to illuminate them after dark. He, no less than his betters, ended up at the public baths, but because of his longer working day, he arrived a good hour or more after they had.
Businessmen and workers put in not only a full day but a full week. There was no regular day of rest to look forward to; Sunday became such only in A.D. 321, after Constantine officially accepted Christianity. The Roman calendar in the second century A.D. included some 135 days in which religious festivals were celebrated, or the government held official games, but these were in no sense public holidays during which everyone dropped his tools or closed shop. No doubt when the games were on, many a craftsman or tradesman knocked off work to spend some time watching the gladiators or chariots, but the only days that guaranteed a man repose were the festivals celebrated by his craft. March 19 somehow came to be sacred to Minerva and was taken off by doctors, cleaners, dyers, and, to the great joy of schoolchildren, teachers. On May 15, merchants honored their patron god Mercury; on June 7, the Tiber fishermen celebrated their own games; on June 9, when women honored Vesta, bakers for some reason took a holiday too; on July 23 and August 17, barge handlers and dockhands honored Neptune and Portunus (god of harbors) respectively, and so on. All slaves, as we have seen, had the Saturnalia off and, hard on its heels, a festival called the Compitalia. Some apprenticeship contracts have survived, and these indicate that, on the average, there were no more than thirty to forty nonworking days in the course of a year.
The millionaires who lived in the mansions on the Quirinal or Esquiline were originally aristocrats, members of Rome’s ancient families whose income came from their landholdings supplemented by some high-level moneylending. The noble Brutus once made a loan to a Greek community that was hard put to pay its taxes, at an interest rate of 48 percent. Crassus, whose fortune helped finance Caesar’s political career, made part of it by snapping up real-estate bargains; he had scouts constantly on the lookout for fires, would arrive hastily on the scene as soon as one was reported, and would offer a knock-down price to the agonized owner. However, two centuries of life under the empire changed considerably the complexion of the wealthy class. It now included men of lesser families, even of humble origin, who, by taking advantage of the opportunities offered in Rome’s burgeoning economy, made their pile - and spent it conspicuously. Some became rich in government service. Narcissus and Pallas, for example, two Greeks who started as slaves in the imperial service, rose to become secretary of state and the treasury respectively under Claudius and Nero; in the process, the first accumulated a fortune of 400 million sesterces ($1.6 billion) and an elegant house on the Quirinal, the second a fortune of 300 million sesterces and a garden estate on the Esquiline. Some made their money through commerce, like Trimalchio, Petronius’s hero, a Greek ex-slave who boasts of how he got his start when he put what money he had into “a cargo of wine, added bacon, beans, perfumes, a load of slaves . . . and netted a cool 10 million on that one voyage.”
The middle class, on the other hand, reversed the ethnic mix: It included a relatively small number of citizens of Roman ancestry and a large number of freedmen of foreign origin whose rise, though it stopped far short of Trimalchio’s dizzy heights, enabled them to live comfortably in a roomy apartment in a good neighborhood with an appropriate staff of household slaves. The native Roman was not at home in trade or commerce, which had always been the work of slaves or freedmen or provincials; this engendered the attitude that these occupations were beneath his dignity. If he could not be a rentier, he was willing to live off the daily handout from some grandee and the dole that every citizen resident in Rome was entitled to. Quick-witted freedmen, with their experience as slave accountants, managers, and secretaries to help them forward and no prejudices to hold them back, were not slow in stepping into the gap, and as the city grew, they gradually took over the spectrum of activities needed to keep it going: They built its houses and monuments, baked its bread, jobbed its wine and meat and vegetables, buried its dead, ran its shops, restaurants, inns, brothels. They filled the ranks of the professions too, although this was not where the money was. Martial cautions a father not to make his son a lawyer or teacher:
He wants an art that’ll make him rich?
A musician - there’s the right career.
Of if the boy seems not too bright,
the building trade or auctioneer.
Teaching, medicine, the law - in Roman times, these professions, with certain exceptions, brought scant return or prestige. The average primary- or secondary-school teacher barely stayed alive on the fees he collected from his students - when he was able to collect. Wealthy families had their own doctors, highly trained slaves or freedmen, almost always Greek. Greek also, either immigrants or freedmen, were the general practitioners who made calls in the Roman apartment houses. They learned their art by going the rounds with some established doctor and assisting him - and the fact that six months of this sort of internship was sometimes considered sufficient speaks volumes. The lawyers fell into several groups. At the top of the profession was a select circle of Roman noblemen who had taken up the study of the law as an intellectual pastime; their learned opinions formed the basis of the magnificent code that is one of Rome’s great gifts to Western civilization. Then there were high-level barristers, like Cicero or his rival Hortensius or Pliny the Younger, who argued cases involving governors and senators and who received handsome gifts as their reward since they were not permitted to charge fees. And then there were the rank and file, the Roman equivalents of ambulance chasers, ready to take any kind of case they could, even to represent a rustic client who had no cash and would pay with a basket of eggs or a sack of wheat. When these fellows in court tried to add a bit of flair, to use some of the things they had learned in law school, their down-to-earth clients quickly called them to heel, as Martial testifies:
Not poison, murder, or felonious assault,
but because a neighbor stole from me
three she-goats, that’s why I’m here in court.
And the judge insists you prove this, see?
So why the orating, gestures, outcries,
on Hannibal’s slitting of Roman throats,
on Marius, Sulla, Carthage’s lies?
Now you get going on my three goats!
There was no public transport of any kind in ancient Rome, which explains why it became a city of densely packed apartment houses. Only the rich, leading a life of leisure, could dwell away on the upper slopes and summits of the hills. Working people had to be accommodated in the limited area within walking distance of the markets and complex of government buildings at the center. The sole solution was the apartment house, and as the population increased, these grew ever taller and closer together. Very few remains have been found in Rome itself, but we can get a fair idea of what they must have looked like from the blocks of flats uncovered at Ostia. Since demand constantly outran supply, apartments were scarce and expensive; landlords were even able to rent out, to those who could afford no better, the dark holes under staircases, cellars totally underground, and tiny garrets under the eaves - in some cases a climb of seven stories and never less than three or four.
The apartment-house dweller took in his stride such discomforts as the lack of heat, water, or sanitary facilities. However, there were two aspects of his existence that there was no getting used to - the threat of fire or collapse. Charcoal braziers and oil lamps were an ever-present hazard, and though the buildings themselves were of brick and coarse concrete, there was enough inflammable material about - wooden floor beams, rafters, and balconies, wood in the furniture, the spreads on the couches and beds - to set flames quickly racing through an entire house. Collapse was just as serious a menace. It took a long time before the emperors established building codes, and even after these were on the books, abuses were rampant. Speculative builders threw up shoddy tenements using poor materials, and as a result, the thunder of floors and walls giving way was all too often heard throughout the city, and wooden buttresses bracing enfeebled walls all too common a sight. Cicero himself was not above owning slum real estate of this kind; in a letter to a friend he reports that “two of my shop properties have collapsed and the rest are developing cracks. Not only the tenants but even the mice have cleared out.”
A city of such size and dense population would have starved or perished in its own filth without the basic urban services. Thanks to the Romans’ practical sense, gift at organization, and engineering skill, it had them - water supply, sewage, street maintenance and cleaning, fire and police departments, food supply, public recreation.
As one enters Rome today from the south, the remains of its aqueducts marching across the plain are still an impressive sight. In the second century A.D., there were ten of these mighty conduits. Running sometimes high above ground on arches and sometimes underground in tunnels, they carried in water from mountain springs and rivers as much as sixty miles away. Rome’s water supply was one of its glories; it is the one city service we know something about, for a stolid, matter-of-fact description written by Frontinus, who was commissioner of aqueducts under Nerva, has survived. The water was brought to public baths, public fountains - there were at least 600 - and other such dispersal points. It was also piped into the houses of those lucky few who had official authorization for the privilege from the emperor. But running water in one’s own home was so desirable an amenity that landlords were constantly bribing the employees of the service to tap the aqueducts for a water main to their houses. Eventually, this draining off of water would significantly reduce the amount arriving at the outlet, and the emperor or commissioner would crack the whip and clean out the welter of illegal pipes.
The city, thus, had no problem so far as drinking or washing was concerned. And it was assured of a full belly, thanks to an arm of the government, created by Augustus, that arranged for, supervised, and distributed the supply of grain, which amounted to upwards of 135,000 tons annually. A certain amount went to the free market for sale to bakers, and a certain amount was retained from which the government issued to resident citizens, rich or poor, a monthly ration of free wheat - the “bread” of the “bread and circuses” that the Roman emperors provided to keep the populace content and thereby avoid civil disorder.
Other urban services were not quite as effective as water and food supply. Sanitation, for example, had some serious lacks. There was a good enough system of sewers to carry off rainwater, water from the public baths, and other waste waters. There were public latrines in all the bath complexes and spotted about the streets - an absolute necessity in a city where only private homes or ground-floor flats had facilities of their own. The latrines were first-class: They had handsome and durable marble seats, were flushed by a constant stream of running water, and were even heated, considerately sparing the users the chill of cold stone during the winter months. A commission existed to “repair, pave, and maintain streets.” Unfortunately, its functions did not include house-to-house garbage collection, and this led to indiscriminate dumping of refuse, even the heedless tossing of it out of windows. “Think . . . of the number of times,” says Juvenal, “cracked or broken pots fall out of windows, of the amount of weight they bring down with a crash onto the street and dent the pavement. Anyone who goes out to dinner without making a will, is a fool . . . you can suffer as many deaths as there are open windows to pass under. So send up a prayer that people will be content with just emptying out their slop bowls!” There is a long section in the corpus of Roman law given over to causes for action “against those who pour or throw anything on passersby,” which goes into all the niceties of liability (for example, if a slave did the dumping, who was liable, he or his master? If a guest, he or the host?).
One of Augustus’s most welcome innovations was to give Rome its first fire and police departments. For policing the city during the daylight hours, he established a corps of 3,000 men, organized on military lines and sharing the barracks of the emperor’s special guard; subsequent emperors increased the number. The fire department took care of whatever policing was done at night, which was not very much. This was a body of 7,000 recruited from freedmen. They were not all housed in one barracks, but in seven main stations and fourteen branch stations strategically placed throughout the city. Each station had its staff of specialists: pump and water handlers; “hookers,” who presumably used their instruments as modern firemen do; “blanketers,” that is, men with blankets soaked in vinegar for smothering flames; catapultists for knocking down walls; and “mattress men,” perhaps for catching people jumping from the upper stories. Each station also had four doctors for administering first aid to the staff or victims. Part of the personnel stayed at the ready in the stations, and part, equipped with buckets of water and axes, made the rounds of the city all night long. The intent was to catch a fire just as quickly as possible because, without modern pumps to bring water to the upper stories, there was no stopping it once it had taken hold.
Lastly, we come to public recreation. Here we again discern the Roman genius for building and organizing. If the people of Rome had to sardine themselves into waterless and airless chambers for the night, they at least were able to prelude this by washing and relaxing in public facilities that have never been outdone for size and splendor. The public baths erected by the emperors were vast structures, the biggest covering the equivalent of several city blocks, and the opportunity for a complete Turkish bath - warm room, hot room, sweat room, followed or preceded by a cold plunge - was only one of the amenities they offered. The bathing area occupied the center of the complex; surrounding it were gardens with paths for walking, exercise courts, meeting rooms, recital and lecture halls, shops where massages or beauty treatments were to be had. One could easily while away the better part of an afternoon there, watching the games being played, chatting with friends, listening to recitations, buying a snack or drink from the vendors who circulated about, as well as bathing. Augustus’s great minister Agrippa built the first of the imperial public baths sometime before 19 B.C. The next was contributed by Nero, a gorgeous structure on which he spared no expense; as Martial quipped, “What worse than Nero? What better than his baths?” One of the greatest of them dates from just after the period that particularly concerns us, the Baths of Caracalla, so enormous that Rome’s current summer opera performances, including productions of Aïda that call for camels, chariots, and horses, as well as an army of supers, are staged in the ruins of what was once the hot room.
The public baths provided some area for strolling. There was still more in the new forums the emperors built off the original one, in various porticoes they erected, and in a number of public gardens, including some that once belonged to Julius Caesar and that he donated to the people of Rome. For the intellectually minded there were public libraries. Users could take books out or read them there - although the ancient way of reading, aloud and not silently, might have created problems on a busy day. And then there were the nearest things to museums that the ancient world offered, temples that had, by virtue of various dedications, become repositories of art and other cherished objects. During Rome’s centuries of conquest its generals plundered ruthlessly, and they brought back art by the cartload to adorn their capital.
There was one important form of recreation that the denizens supplied for themselves - social clubs. These were a universal feature of the Roman world, to be found in small towns as well as major centers. Usually they were organized according to business or trade, running the gamut from, say, the Shipowners Association, whose members were all substantial businessmen who were able to elect even an emperor as their honorary patron, to humble organizations of stevedores or other manual laborers whose membership was totally slave. They were in no sense guilds or unions; their prime function was to serve as social clubs and burial societies, to maintain quarters where the members could hold banquets on fixed occasions or merely get together whenever they had free time, and to enable members to build up a fund to ensure they got decent burial when they died. Here, for example, is part of the bylaws of a humble group that calls itself the Association of Diana (the goddess) and Antinoüs (the deified favorite of Hadrian):
It was voted unanimously that whoever desires to enter this society shall pay an initiation fee of 100 sesterces [$400] and an amphora of good wine, and shall pay his monthly dues of 5 asses [about $5]. It was voted further that, if anyone has not paid his dues for six consecutive months and the common lot of mankind befalls him, his claim to burial shall not be considered, even if he has provided for it in his will. It was voted further that upon the decease of a paid-up member of our body there will be deducted a funeral fee of 50 sesterces to be distributed at the pyre [among those attending]; the obsequies, furthermore, will be performed on foot. . . .
It was voted further that if any slave member of this society becomes free, he is required to donate an amphora of good wine. . . .
Masters of the dinners, appointed four at a time in turn in the order of the membership list, shall be required to provide an amphora of good wine each, and for as many members as the society has bread costing 2 asses, sardines to the number of four, a setting, and warm water with service. . . .
It was voted further that if any member desires to make any complaint or bring up any business, he is to bring it up at a business meeting, so that we may banquet in peace and good cheer on festive days.
It was voted further that any member who moves from one place to another [at a banquet] so as to cause a disturbance shall be fined 4 sesterces. Any member, moreover, who speaks abusively of another or causes an uproar shall be fined 12 sesterces. Any member who uses abusive or insolent language to a president at a banquet shall be fined 20 sesterces. . . .
From the excavations at Ostia we get a good idea of what the headquarters of a rich society looked like, with inner gardens, colonnades, elegant dining rooms and salons, a multitude of small chambers. The likes of the Association of Diana and Antinoüs must have been satisfied with whatever bare hall or cellar they could afford. Sometimes these lowly groups were lucky enough to convince the prominent businessman whom they had honored with election as patron to show his gratitude by standing the expense of a clubhouse.
Water, free bread, promenades, the baths, private club - these went a long way toward brightening the days of the Roman apartment-house dweller. What darkened them were the same factors that darken life in so many cities of today: Rome was overcrowded, noisy, and violent.
The apartment houses lined streets that were twisted and narrow. The whole of the great city had no more than a half dozen of what we would call main avenues, and these rarely were wider than twenty to twenty-five feet. Lesser avenues were twelve to sixteen feet, and side streets a mere six. Hardly any, main or minor, ran in a straight line; most wound about exactly as in the older parts of Rome today. And those that mounted the slopes of the seven hills were not only narrow but steep. In the populous quarters, all streets were forever in shadow because of the towering buildings on both sides and forever jammed because of their scanty width. Julius Caesar faced up to the situation and passed a law banning all wheeled vehicles from dawn to dusk; the only exceptions were the carts that carried in materials for the erection of public buildings and carried out debris from demolitions connected with these, and the carts that hauled away the refuse of the street cleaners. The law was enforced for centuries and applied in all the other cities of Italy, not merely Rome. But this did not solve the problem of pedestrian traffic. “I hurry,” says Juvenal, “but there’s a wave ahead of me in the way, and the crowd is so dense the people behind jam against my back and sides. Someone rams me with his elbow, someone else with a pole, this fellow cracks my head with a two-by-four, that one with a ten-gallon jug, my shins are thick with mud, now I’m being trampled by somebody’s big feet - and there goes a soldier’s hobnail in my toe!” Not only were the streets narrow to begin with, but shopkeepers used to spill out into them to gain additional room, which reduced the free passage even further - pedestrians had to squeeze past butchers chopping on their blocks, barbers shaving customers in the chair, sausage-sellers grilling their wares, and - just as in modern Rome - the tables of the neighborhood restaurants and bars.
Then there was the noise. Since the apartments were small and uncomfortable, Romans spent most of their waking hours in the streets, the way they do in the older parts of the city today. From dawn to dusk there was a babble of voices, of shopkeepers and peddlers hawking, of beggars whining, of schoolchildren chanting their lessons, of people just passing the time of day. Add to that the din that came from the artisans’ shops, the incessant tapping of coppersmiths, the heavy pounding of blacksmiths, the sawing and hammering of carpenters, the chiseling of stonecutters, and so on. The racket along certain streets must have been infernal. Nor did night bring any surcease, thanks to the banning of traffic during the day; that was when one began to hear the tramping of hooves, the cracking of whips, the swearing of teamsters, the creaking of carts, and the tortured squealing of their wheels - which alone would awake the dead, since the only lubricants known were animal fat and the lees of olive oil, and there was never very much of either to spare. As Juvenal observed, “It takes a lot of money to get a night’s sleep in Rome.”
When dusk fell, the rank and file secured themselves behind bolts and bars until dawn. For there was no street lighting in ancient Rome, and only those who could afford a retinue of slaves to light up the way with torches and to serve as bodyguard dared walk about in the dark. To go out alone was an invitation to be mugged. “Here is the prelude to the fighting,” explains Juvenal, “if it’s fighting when he does all the punching and all you do is get hit. He stands in your way and orders you to stop, and you’ve got to obey; what can you do when you’re being forced by someone raging mad and, what’s more, stronger than you are? ‘Where are you from?’ he hollers, ‘whose beans and rotgut have you filled your belly with . . . ? So you won’t talk? You talk or get a kick in your rear. . . .’ It makes no difference whether you try to say something or retreat without a word, they beat you up all the same. . . . You know what the poor man’s freedom amounts to? The freedom, after being punched and pounded to pieces, to beg and implore that he be allowed to go home with a few teeth left.” Things must have improved somewhat with the introduction of street lighting, but this did not take place until the fourth century A.D.
If ancient cities eventually achieved street lighting, there are two other simple yet immensely useful municipal services that they never achieved at all - the comprehensive naming of streets with the posting of these names on signs, and the numbering of houses. To be sure, certain Roman streets did have names. We know that what is today the Corso was in ancient times the Via Lata, “Broadway,” that what is today the lower part of Via Cavour was the Argiletum, the main avenue through one of Rome’s most crowded quarters. There were streets named after the activities concentrated on them (Vicus Sandalarius, “Street of the Sandal Makers,” Vicus Argentarius, “Street of the Money-Changers”); after a monument nearby or to which they led (Vicus Apollinis, “Apollo Street,” after the Temple of Apollo nearby, Vicus Portae Collinae, “Street of the Porta Collina,” since it led to that gate); after the inhabitants (Vicus Patricius, “Patrician Street,” Vicus Tuscus, “Etruscan Street”). But others bore no names at all, and none bore street signs. And the numbering of houses simply did not exist. As a consequence, in ancient Rome one gave directions thus:
You know that house there, the one that belongs to Cratinus, the millionaire? Well, when you get past that house, go straight down the street there to the left, then when you get to the temple of Diana go right. Then just before you get to the town gate, right by a watering pond there, you’ll find a little bakery and, opposite it, a carpenter’s shop. That’s where he is.
Or a person would say, “He told me it was the seventh building from the town gate.” On letters, one simply put down the name of the recipient, never an address. And on dog collars, all one could do was inscribe: “Return me to the house of Elpidius on the Caelian Hill.”