The Sunday Section: Snippets of ... Roman Life circa AD14

During our home-ed years, and for my writing, I’ve amassed information covering a fair few random topics.  Feel free to ‘take’ whatever suits or is of interest, but please don’t assume that whatever I put on here is the definitive list of the titled topic – I tend to focus more on what grabs my interest, or is relevant at that particular time; I’m very much of the “Hey!  Who knew?” class of information-gatherer ;)  Also, feel free to point out any mistakes.

So, the Romans …


  • Only the seriously rich could afford to have houses.
  • Ordinary citizens lived in badly constructed high-rise flats that filled Rome.
  • Cramped and noisy, they were a big reason why many people spent so much time at the arena and at public baths.
  • Compared to less than 2,000 houses, there were nearly 50,000 of these equivalents of ‘tower blocks’.
  • Dangerous and crowded, the housing was akin to Third World slum dwelling, renowned for simply falling down.
  • The first floor usually consisted of a few luxury apartments, with several different rooms – for those who were rich, but not ‘seriously’ rich.  For those on the subsequent floors, it wasn’t uncommon to find whole families crammed into one room, with practically no sanitation.


It was a given in Roman life that the gods and goddesses offered divine protection, but only if the Romans performed the right rituals and sacrifices.

The only female priesthood in Rome was the cult of Vesta, and this made the Vestal Virgins (sacerdos Vestalis) the most important women in the city, outside of the royal family.


Veiled Vestal Virgin, Chatsworth House

The Vestal priestesses held a unique and highly privileged position but had to pay a high price – the minimum term for a servant of Vesta was 30 years, and while they held that position, they were forbidden to have sex.

The Vestals were encouraged to take part in day to day life.

In exchange for a vow of purity, they were rewarded with a high status in society.

To be chosen as a Vestal virgin was one of the highest accolades a Roman woman would have; though, of course, at the age of 6 or 7, this meant nothing to the chosen girl, but her family would be amongst the most honoured in the city.

The total number of vestal virgins were 18 at any one time – 6 were novices, 6 were practising priestesses, and 6 were tutors.

The chosen girl had to undergo a special ritual, very much like a wedding with the girl marrying the city of Rome itself.

The priestesses’ main duty was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta, a tradition which dated back to the importance of fire in primitive communities probably because, back then, the lighting of a fire would have been time-consuming and difficult.

The lives of the priestesses were controlled by rules and rituals.

They were involved in all ceremonies that were performed for the welfare of the city.

They made the mola salsa (salt cake) that was used at festivals, and were also required to preserve it and other sacred objects.

They were at the forefront of theFordicidia, held on the 15th April, in honour ofTellus Mater, the goddess of Mother Earth, which involved the sacrifice of pregnant cows.  The calves were burnt by the chief Vestal Virgin, and the ashes preserved.  These ashes would eventually be mixed with the blood of a horse sacrificed in an October festival(see below), to be burnt in the April festival called thePalilia, which was related to the founding of Rome.

It was important for the young women to retain their virginity for that represented purity, and that purity was important to the survival of Rome.  If the Romans, represented by the priestesses, were pure, then the gods would be pleased; if they were not pure, then the gods would get angry and the Roman state would face danger.

A vestal who lost her virginity was buried alive amid solemn ritual.  She would be led down steps to a room which consisted of a bed and a lamp, and left with food.  Once she was in the room, the steps were removed, and the entrance covered with dirt.  There she was left to die.

The October festival that involved the horse sacrifice didn’t have a name, but the victim was referred to as the ‘October Horse’ – the rite took place on the Ides of October, what we would call October 15th. It started with a 2-horse chariot race in honour of the god Mars.  The horse on the right side of the winning pair was the one to be sacrificed, probably killed by a spear; its tail was cut off and the blood dripping from this would be used in th Palilia. The horse’s head was severed and decorated with ribbons and bread because the sacrifice was related to a successful grain crop.


'Roman Soldier on Horseback' - HF Moreau

The Roman army was made up of professional soldiers, not conscripts; they were long-term soldiers who served for more than 20 years, and formed the backbone of the Roman army.

It was an elite fighting force, with strict rules of entry – one had to be a Roman citizen, had to be physically fit, and had to have a letter of recommendation.

A Roman legionary fortress was more than a mere military camp, it was a miniature city.  At its centre was the commander’s house; in front of that, the headquarters; around them the hospital, bath-house, workshops, houses for the other officers.  More workshops and granaries lay in the main street, all designed to service the 60 or so barrack blocks housing more than 5,000 soldiers.  With about 8 men to a room, it must have been cosy!

The legion was made up of 5,500 Roman citizens, organised in 10 cohorts; each regular cohort contained 480 men in 6 centuries.  A century consisted of only 80 men, not 100, despite the title of ‘century’ – each century was 10 squads of 8 men who lived together in the barracks.

The army had a duty roster – guard duty (protecting the camp); patrols (if on border or frontier); daily chores (cleaning out latrines) – made it easier for the officers to keep a close eye on their men.

The average Roman soldier seems to have spent most of his life building something – roads, forts, aqueducts … The army built most of the Roman monuments in Europe, and this architecture set an example that would influence subsequent European civilisation.

Every recruit was taught to jump onto a horse in full armour!

Every Roman legion had 120 cavalrymen of whom the most trusted became the personal bodyguard of the legionary commander; they were calledsingularis (picked men).

The soldier was well supported in medical terms because the army needed to keep it's well-trained, expensive soldiers – a valuable commodity – in good health.  They had field doctors – medici (from which we get the word ‘medic’), and field and fort hospitals.

The soldier was paid 3 times a year but money was deducted for clothing, food, weapons damaged or lost … He was also made to save money for pensions and burial clothes … There were also ‘unofficial expenses’, bribes paid by each unit to the centurions to get them out of the worst jobs.  At the end of it, the soldier would be left with ‘small change’.

The way Roman civilisation worked ensured the soldier would always get paid – soldiers guard the cities; cities raise taxes; taxes pay soldiers; soldiers spend in the cities.