1. The Family
  2. Roman Names
  3. Marriage and Women
  4. Children and Education
  5. Slaves and Dependents
  6. The House and Furniture
  7. Dress and Ornaments
  8. Food and Meals
  9. Amusements
  10. Travel and Correspondence
  11. Sources of Income
  12. Farming and Country Life
  13. Town Life
  14. Funeral Customs
  15. The Roman Religion
  16. The Water Supply of Rome

The Private Life of the Romans
by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston
Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932)


Table of contents


Chapter 13: TOWN LIFE

REFERENCES: Dill, 196-250; Reid, 436-522; Abbott, Society and Politics, 3-21; Abbott, The Common People, 145-204; Mau-Kelsey, 485-508; Friedländer, Town Life; Abbott and Johnson, 56-68, 138-151, 197-231.

Introduction (§455)

City Government (§456)

Town Council (§457)

Equitēs (§458)

Augustālēs (§459)

Plēbs (§460)

Public Buildings (§461)

Schools (§462)

Town Life and City Life (§463)

   455. Little is told us in literature about the life of the country towns (mūnicipia). This is the more remarkable because most of the great writers were not Roman-born but came from the mūnicipia of Italy or the provinces. Most of our information is derived from the inscriptions that the citizens of these towns have left behind them, and from the excavations. These remains, dating chiefly from the Imperial Age, may be studied not merely in Italy but in all the provinces.

   456. City Government. The towns were for the most part self-governing. The charters of some of them have been found. The magistrates were elected by popular vote, and the election notices painted on the walls at Pompeii show that all classes took a lively interest in the elections. This does not mean that the spirit of the municipalities was democratic. The classes were divided by clearly-drawn lines. The candidates for office must come from those who were eligible for membership in the town council (cūria); for this there was a property qualification. They must be free-born and of good reputation and not engaged in any disreputable business. No salaries were attached to the offices, however. Indeed, each magistrate was expected to pay a fee (honōrārium) on his election, and to make substantial gifts for the benefit of the citizens and the beautifying of the town. Like the great magistrates at Rome they were entitled to the toga praetexta, the curule chair, the attendance of lictors, and special seats at the games.

   457. Town Council. The cūria, or town council, usually consisted of one hundred members (decuriōnēs), including the ex-magistrates. They had to be of a certain age, at least twenty-five; they had to possess the required amount of property, and be free-born. They were entitled to the best places at the games and to the bisellia (§ 355). Apparently they used the city water free of charge, and at any public entertainment or distribution of money they were entitled to a larger share than the common people. Each probably paid a fee on his admission to the cūria and was expected to make generous gifts of some sort for the benefit of his city.

FIG. 296
This temple is in the main part of the Forum of Pompeii. To the north is Vesuvius.

   458. Equitēs. Members of the equestrian order made up the aristocracy of the mūnicipia as the “nobles” did at Rome. Conspicuous among them were the retired army officers, occasionally tribunes, but more often the centurions who were sometimes retired with equestrian rank, particularly the prīmipīlāriī, or men who had attained the chief centurionship of their legions. Such a man might come back to cut a big figure in his home town (patria), or might settle in the province where he had seen service (§ 416). In either case inscriptions often survive to tell us of his war record and his benefactions to his native town.

   459. Augustālēs. Below and apart from these were rated the wealthy freedmen. Ineligible for office and council as they were, a special distinction and an opportunity for service and generosity were provided for them in the institution of the Augustālēs, a college of priests in charge first of the worship of Augustus and then of the following emperors. Each year the decuriōnēs selected a board of six (sēvirī) to act for that year. At the public ceremonies of which they were in charge they were entitled to wear a gold ring like that of the equitēs and the bordered toga. They paid a fee on election, provided the necessary sacrifices, and proudly rivaled the decuriōnēs in gifts to the community.

   460. Plēbs. Then came the plēbs, the citizens not entitled to serve in the council, and below them the poor freedmen. These were the men who kept or worked in the small shops and made up the membership of the many guilds of which we find traces at Pompeii and which must have been very much the same in other cities (§ 420). However hard their work and simple their fare, they could not have found their life mere drudgery. They expected the magistrates to see to it that bread and oil, the two great necessities of life, were abundant and cheap in the markets. They also expected them to furnish entertainment in the shape of games in the amphitheater and theater and of feasts as well. Even small towns had their public baths, where the fee was always low, and was sometimes remitted for longer or shorter periods by the generosity of wealthy citizens (§ 372).

FIG. 298

   461. Public Buildings. In its baths, theater, and amphitheater, fora, basilicas, paved streets, bridges, aqueducts, arches, and statues, each town was modeled upon Rome. Domestic architecture varied. The Roman houses in Britain and Africa are not of the type that we find at Pompeii (§ 186). But in public buildings and public works the towns were Roman—as can be easily seen wherever their remains are found. Some of the most striking examples are in Africa, where in the Imperial Age the Romans maintained thriving towns in regions that are desert now (§ 435). The strong civic pride of each town and the keen rivalry between neighboring towns expressed itself particularly in handsome buildings and in public works. It has often been said that at no other time in the world were there so many beautiful towns as there were in the Roman Empire during the third century of our era. Yet this does not mean that municipal taxation was heavy or that the revenues from lands and other city property paid for all these works. Much was expected from the generosity of the official class, and much was received (§§ 456-457). Others, women as well as men, gave liberally. The amphitheater at Pompeii (§ 353) was given by two men who had held high office in the city. A very lively and distinguished old lady, Ummidia Quadratilla, gave a temple and amphitheater at Casinum. Among the gifts of Pliny the Younger to his native town was a library with funds for its maintenance (§ 402). The dedication of such a building was often celebrated by the donor with a feast for the community, where the citizens shared according to their rank (§ 456). Inscriptions regularly commemorated such gifts. Sometimes in appreciation of his generosity the cūria voted a citizen a statue of honor; sometimes he paid for the statue, too!

FIG. 299
The seats have been restored for use in modern times.

   462. Schools. But the municipalities did not show the large and elaborate school buildings conspicuous in our towns now (§ 120), nor were there likely to be school taxes. Until a very late period education remained generally a private matter. There were occasional endowments from the wealthy for educational purposes, as, more often, for other charitable foundations. Elementary schools must have been established in the Italian towns and throughout the provinces generally with the spread of Roman influence. The more advanced schools would naturally be found only in the larger towns and cities. At the beginning of the second century of our era Pliny the Younger tells of contributing largely to a fund to open a school in his native town of Comum, that the boys might not have to go to Mediolanum (Milan). The arguments he uses for the education of the boys at home are very much like those used for the establishment of junior colleges in many of our towns at present. Some boys were sent to Rome for the sake of better schools and more famous teachers than the country and provincial towns afforded. Agricola found the establishment of schools in Britain a useful aid in strengthening the Roman hold on the conquered territory.

   463. Town Life and City Life. At all times the man who was Roman-born looked down on the country towns and their people. The satirists indeed contrast the quiet simplicity of the municipality with the turmoil and vice of cosmopolitan Rome. But then, as now, many preferred the complexity and excitement of the great city with all its discomforts to the greater amount of comfort that their incomes would have brought them in a town. Property of course was cheaper and rents were lower in the small town. It was possible to live there in a comfortable house on an income that provided only a cramped lodging in one of the great īnsulae of the city. Tunic and sandals could be worn instead of the heavy and expensive toga (§ 240) and shoes (calceī: § 251). The range of interests in the small town was narrower, often intensely local. To the energetic and generous citizen this local interest and civic pride offered an outlet, and that it was a welcome one is shown by the keen competition for local honors until a late period of the Empire.

FIG. 301


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