Take a look at a map of the Roman Empire at the height of its territorial expansion. What strikes you most is how vast it is. It stretches from Scotland to Kuwait, from Portugal to Armenia.
What was is like to live in this world? What kind of people would we have met in its cities? How were the Romans able to create such a great empire, uniting peoples and places that were so diverse? The aim of this book is to take you on a journey through the Roman lands to find the answers to these questions.
Perhaps you are reading this after having read my previous book on Rome, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: an hour-by-hour exploration of daily life in the capital city. I had imagined that typical day as being a Tuesday during the reign of the emperor Trajan.
Now imagine that you are waking up the following day, a Wednesday, and that you are about to leave on a journey that will take you through the entire empire. A journey where you will breathe the atmosphere of exotic places, the smells in the alleyways of Alexandria, Egypt, the fragrances used by the noblewomen strolling on the streets of Milan; where you will hear the sound of hammers and chisels at work in a stonecutter’s shop in Athens; and where you will see the painted shields of legionnaires on the march in Germany and the painted bodies of the barbarians on the empire’s northern border in Scotland.
When I was preparing to write this book, I wondered what kind of story line I could use to guide us on a journey like this through the Roman Empire.
I thought of a coin. A sestertius (or sesterce), to be exact. In fact, by following the peregrinations of a coin as it continually changes hands, it is possible, in theory, to reach any point in the empire within the span of a few years (even as few as three). And, even more important, by following the people who take turns possessing the coin, we can discover their faces, their experiences, the world around them, their homes, their ways of life, their customs and habits.
So we will pass from the hands of a legionnaire into those of a member of the landed nobility; from the hands of a slave to the hands of a surgeon trying, by way of a most delicate operation, to save the life of a baby boy; from a wealthy trader in garum (the famous sauce so loved by the ancient Romans) to a prostitute; from a singer, at risk of dying in a shipwreck in the Mediterranean, to a sailor, all the way up to the emperor. And lots of others.
Obviously, our journey will be imaginary, but nevertheless it is totally plausible. The people you will meet are, with few exceptions, people who actually lived in that same period and almost always in the same places. Their names, occupations, and personal details are real, the fruit of a long labor of research using tombstones, inscriptions, and ancient texts. We even know what many of our characters looked like, thanks to the so-called Fayum portraits, an extraordinary collection of paintings found in Egypt by archaeologists and dating back to the first centuries after Christ, to the very same period in which our journey takes place. They are portraits of ordinary people that would be hung on the walls in the subjects’ homes and then applied, after their deaths, to their mummies. Several of the characters in this book are directly inspired by them.
And so, almost by magic, on the streets of a city, in the back alleys of a port, on the deck of a ship, we will come upon their ancient, but no less familiar, faces. And the spark shining in their eyes will illuminate our view of a little piece of the culture and daily life of their era.
In the same way, the dialogue that you’ll hear pronounced by some of our ancient Romans is almost always “original,” taken from famous works written by Latin writers such as Martial, Juvenal, or Ovid.
My intention has been to provide as realistic an idea as possible of the era, its people, and its places. If, for example, during Trajan’s reign the North African city of Leptis Magna still didn’t have the great baths built just a few years later by Hadrian, then you won’t see them as you follow the sestertius on your tour of the city.
At times, the writing style will be very much like fiction, but every place, every climate, every monument, every landscape that you’ll discover during your reading has been carefully documented in ancient sources and archaeological studies so as to be described in the book as it was seen and experienced by the ancient Romans. If there are any errors in this regard, I ask my readers to accept my apologies.
What I hope to do in these pages, in fact, is to help readers immerse themselves in the reality of daily life in the ancient world. And I want to present lovers of history and archaeology with the tidbits and sensations that are not usually described in books, like the smell of the crowd gathered to watch the chariot races in the Circus Maximus or the arabesques of light projected by the latticework of the windows.
Given that we cannot know everything exactly as it happened during the few years of our journey (which concludes in 117 CE), it has been necessary in some very rare cases to make adjustments. At times, an incident may have actually happened in an era slightly earlier or later than the moment in which I’ve placed it, but even in those cases it is completely plausible that the incident could have happened during our journey.
I have drawn on a variety of sources. First among them are the ancient authors. Then come the archaeologists, who in many cases have recounted their discoveries to me personally. Then, the scholars whose studies and research have provided us with extremely rich descriptions and interpretations of life at the time. It is not possible to list them all here but I will cite one of them as a representative of them all: Professor Lionel Casson, a great student of journeys.
In this behind-the-scenes view of the Roman Empire, you will see that the world of the ancient Romans, at its core, was quite similar to our own. They were the ones who brought about the first instance of globalization in human history: throughout the empire, payments were made in a single currency; there was one official language (Latin, joined by Greek in the eastern empire); nearly everyone knew how to read, write, and do arithmetic; there was a single, universally recognized body of laws; and goods circulated freely throughout the empire. You could sit in a tavern in Alexandria or London or Rome and order a glass of the wine that was being sipped in Gaul or dress your salad with olive oil that came from Spain. At the clothing store across the street you could buy a tunic made from linen grown in Egypt and weaved in Rome (a bit like what happens with T-shirts today). On the road, you might come across motels and fast-food service areas like the ones we have, and rent a vehicle to travel from one city to another. In essence, traveling through the Roman Empire might feel like a fairly familiar experience.
There were problems like ours back then too: a rising divorce rate and a falling birth rate; a slow-moving legal system congested by an overload of litigation; scandals caused by contractors who pilfered the public treasury by charging enormous amounts for public works they never built; intense deforestation to satisfy the demand for timber; the “cementification” of certain coastal areas with the construction of gigantic seaside villas. Plus there were wars in places like Iraq. Trajan’s invasion of Mesopotamia—the same geographical area where the “coalition of the willing” intervened some two thousand years later—allows us to examine military and geopolitical issues, which, at times, are surprisingly similar to our own.
If we think about all the centuries that separate us from the Romans, what stands out is this incredible modernity of an ancient society. As we will see, the secret to the empire’s success was not only its military might but also its dominance in engineering (aqueducts, baths, roads, cities endowed with every conceivable public service), which enabled it to conquer the world of the time.
The journey in this book reflects a “magic moment” of history: for the first time, the whole of the Mediterranean and Europe were united. No other culture or civilization, up to and including the modern era, has been able to do the same. And this unity lasted throughout the first four centuries of the Christian era. It was possible to travel without borders (and without pirates or enemies) from one end to the other. Shortly thereafter, this extraordinary era came to a close, never to reopen again.
Finally, this book features a historical figure without whom our journey would not have been the same: Trajan. The history books don’t pay much attention to this emperor. In Italy today nobody names their own son after Trajan (Traiano)—something that happens quite frequently, on the other hand, with a lot of greats from the past: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Constantine, Alexander, and even Hadrian, Trajan’s successor. Yet Trajan is the emperor who led the Roman Empire to its greatest expansion, giving it a level of prosperity, wealth, social welfare, and a “moment of grace” never equaled in Roman history. The maps that you see in books showing the empire at the height of its expansion depict the empire during Trajan’s reign.
This book hopes to reawaken our interest in this grand historical figure, this optimus princeps, as he was called, and above all in the extraordinary epoch that he was able to forge.