Effect of Wealth on Daily Life in the Roman Empire

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  • 0:02 Roman Life for the Rich
  • 1:51 Roman Life for the Poor
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The daily experiences of a rich Roman and a poor Roman could not be more different, even though both groups lived in one of the greatest empires that the world has ever known. This lesson explains a day in the life of each.

Roman Life for the Rich

For the rich, life in ancient Rome was about as good as one could imagine. A wealthy man would wake up to find his slaves already busy doing the household work. In fact, one would be waiting to help him put on his toga, a heavy garment that was perhaps the most difficult part of a rich Roman's day. After ensuring that his wife had everything she needed to oversee the household and that his sons were off to either a private tutor or a private school, he would begin his day. From there, our imaginary Roman would meet with his clients. This sounds strange for us today, but in ancient Rome, maintaining cultural links with the masses was of the utmost importance for any aspiring politician. Meeting with his clients would involve doling out enough money to keep them happy and willing to riot on behalf of their patron. If you want to imagine this as a sort of version of the entourages of today's hip-hop stars, that would be surprisingly apt.

After meeting with his clients, a wealthy Roman would then go to the Senate, if he was a member, or the Forum, in order to catch up on the news of the day. Wealthy Romans often had concerns far beyond the city's walls, often in the form of huge farms in the provinces. Chaos in a distant land could spell trouble for wealthy Romans in the city. After the forum, a wealthy Roman would then opt for some form of entertainment, often at the bathhouse or from a covered seat at the amphitheater. This was often as much about talking business as pleasure, and is, in that respect, much like golfing for businessmen today. These events would be heavily catered, meaning that our rich Roman would not have to eat until late. Upon his return to his domus, a large townhouse with multiple courtyards, a wealthy Roman would then go to a friend's home, or have friends to his house, for a feast, all prepared by expert culinary slaves.

Roman Life for the Poor

For the man standing in the masses of the rich Roman's clients, however, life was very different. Instead of waking up in a luxurious domus and having slaves cater to his needs, a poor Roman would be falling over the bodies of his family members. Up to ten people would often share a room in an insula, a sort of ancient Roman apartment building up to seven stories tall. The Romans didn't provide indoor plumbing for these buildings, nor were they all that safe. Needless to say, our poor Roman would want to get out of it as quickly as possible and would only return to sleep. He would quickly put on a tunic, much more comfortable than a toga, but less stately, and head out of his room.

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