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



  1. The Family   9. Amusements

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



Introduction (§1)
Public and Private Antiquities (§2-3)
Antiquities and History (§4-6)
Antiquities and Philology (§7-10)
Sources (§11-15)

Reference Books (§16)
    Systematic Treatises
    Encyclopedic Works
    Other Works

   1. The topics that are discussed in this book have to do with the everyday life of the Roman people. Such things will be considered as the family, the Roman name, marriage and the position of women, children and education, slaves, clients, the house and its furniture, clothing, food and meals, amusements, travel and correspondence, religion, funeral ceremonies and burial customs. These things are of interest to us in the case of any ancient or foreign people; in the case of the Romans they are of especial importance, because they help to explain the powerful influence which that nation exerted over the old world, and make it easier to understand why that influence is still felt in some degree today.

   2. Public and Private Antiquities. The subjects that have been named above belong to what is called Classical Antiquities, taking their place in the subdivision of Roman Antiquities as opposed to Greek Antiquities. They are grouped loosely together as Private Antiquities, in opposition to what we call Public Antiquities.1 Under the latter head we consider the Roman as a citizen, and we examine the several classes of citizens, their obligations, and their privileges; we study the form of their government, its officers and machinery, its legislative, judicial, and executive procedure, its revenues and expenditures, etc. It is evident that no hard and fast line can be drawn between the two branches of the subject; they cross each other at every turn. One scarcely knows, for example, under which head to put the religion of the Romans, or their games in the circus.

FIG. 1
From a tombstone now in the Vatican Museum, Rome.

   3. In the same way, the daily employment of a slave, his keep, his punishments, his rewards are properly considered under the head of Private Antiquities. But the State undertook sometimes to regulate by law the number of slaves that a master might have, and the State regulated the manumission of the slave and gave him certain rights as a freedman. All such matters belong to Public Antiquities. So, too, a man might or might not be eligible to certain priestly offices, according to the particular ceremony used at the marriage of his parents. It will be found, therefore, that the study of Private Antiquities cannot be completely separated from its complement, though in this book the dividing line will be crossed as seldom as possible.2

   4. Antiquities and History. It is just as impossible to draw the boundary between the subjects of Antiquities and History. Formerly, it is true, histories were concerned little with the private life of the people, but dealt almost solely with the rise and fall of dynasties. They told us of kings and generals, of the wars they waged, the victories they won, and the conquests they made. Then, in course of time, institutions took the place of dynasties and parties the place of heroes, and history traced the growth of great political ideas; such masterpieces as Thirlwall’s and Grote’s histories of Greece are largely constitutional histories. But changes in international relations affect the private life of the people as surely, if not as speedily, as they affect the machinery of government.

   5. You cannot bring into contact, friendly or unfriendly, two different civilizations without affecting the peoples concerned, without altering their occupations, their ways of living, their very ideas of life and its purposes. These changes react in turn upon the temper and character of a people; they affect its capacity for self-government and the government of others, and in the course of time they bring about the movements of which even the older histories took notice. Hence our more recent histories give more and more space to the life of the common people, to the very matters that were mentioned as belonging to Private Antiquities (§§ 1-2).

   6. On the other hand, it is equally true that a knowledge of political history is necessary for the study of Private Antiquities. We shall find the Romans giving up certain ways of living and habits of thinking that seemed to have become fixed and characteristic. These changes we could not explain at all if political history did not inform us that just before they took place the Romans had come into contact with the widely different ideas and different civilizations of other nations. The most important event of this sort was the spread of Greek cultures after the First Punic War, and to this we shall have to refer again and again. It follows from all this that students who have had even the most elementary course in Roman history have already some knowledge of Private Antiquities, and that those who have not studied the history of Rome at all will find very helpful the reading of even the briefest of our school histories of Rome.3

   7. Antiquities and Philology. The subject of Classical Antiquities has always been regarded as a branch (“discipline” is the technical word) of Classical Philology since Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) made Philology a science. It is quite true that Philology, in the common acceptation of the word, is merely the science of language, but even here Antiquities has an important part to play. It is impossible to read understandingly an ode of Horace or an oration of Cicero if one is ignorant of the social life and the political institutions of Rome. But Classical Philology is much more than the science of understanding and interpreting the classical languages. It claims for itself the investigation of Greek and Roman life in all its aspects, social, intellectual, and political, so far as it has become known to us from the surviving literary, monumental, and epigraphic records. Whitney puts it thus: “Philology deals with human speech and with all that speech discloses as to the nature and history of man.” If it is hard to remember the definitions, one can hardly forget the epigram of Benoist: “Philology is the geology of the intellectual world.” Under this, the only scientific conception of Philology the study of Antiquities takes at once a higher place. It becomes the end, with linguistics the means, and that is the true relation between them.

FIG. 3
This building is now used as a Museum of Numismatics in Nîmes (Nemausus), France.

   8. But it happens that the study of the languages in which the records of classical antiquity are preserved must first occupy the investigator, and that the study of language as mere language—of its origin, its growth, its decay—is in itself very interesting and profitable. It happens that the languages of Greece and Rome cannot be studied apart from literatures of singular richness, beauty, and power, and the study of literature has always been one of the most attractive and absorbing to cultivated men. It is not hard to understand, therefore, why the study of Antiquities has not been more prominent in connection with philological training. Such study was the end to which only the few pressed on. It was reserved, at least in systematic form, for the trained scholar in the university. From the courses in Greek and Latin conducted in our colleges it was crowded out by the more obvious, but not more essential or interesting, subjects of linguistics and literary criticism, or it was presented in those courses at best in the form of scrappy notes on the authors read in the classroom or in the dismembered alphabetical arrangement of a dictionary.

   9. Within more recent years, however, a change has been taking place, a change due to several causes. In the first place, the literary criticism which was once taught exclusively in connection with classical authors and which claimed so large a part of the time allotted to classical study has found a place in the departments of English. Secondly, a shift of emphasis has relieved college courses of much elementary linguistic drill that was formerly considered necessary. In the third place, the last seventy-five years have seen a very great advance in the knowledge of Classical Antiquities; it is possible to present in positive dogmatic form much in fields wherein, at one time, guesswork and speculation played a large part.

   10. Finally, modern theories of education, which have narrowed the stream of classical instruction only to deepen its channel and quicken its current, have caused more stress to be laid upon the points of contact between the ancient and the modern world. The teacher of the classics has come to realize that the obligations of the present to the past are not to be so clearly presented and so vividly appreciated in connection with the formal study of art and literature as in the investigation of the great social, political, and religious problems which throughout all the ages have engaged the thought of cultivated men.

   11. Sources. It has already been remarked (§ 7) that Classical Philology draws its knowledge from three sources, the literary, monumental, and epigraphic remains of Greece and Rome. It is necessary that we should understand at the outset precisely what is meant by each of these. By literary evidence we mean the formal writings of the Greeks and Romans, that is, the books which the published that have come down to us. The form of these books, the way they were published and have been preserved, will be considered later. For the present it is sufficient to say that only a mere fraction of these writings has come down to our day, and that of the surviving works we possess no originals, but merely more or less imperfect copies. It is true, nevertheless, that these form as a whole the most important of our sources of information, largely because they have been most carefully studied and are best understood.

   12. By monumental evidence we mean all the things actually made by the Greeks and Romans that have come down to us. These things are collectively very numerous and of very many kinds: coins, medals, pieces of jewelry, armor, pottery, statues, paintings, bridges, aqueducts, fortifications, ruins of cities, etc. It is impossible to enumerate them all. It is upon such remains as these that most of the surviving inscriptions (§ 13) are preserved. Of the first importance for the study of the private life of the Romans are the ruins of the city of Pompeii, preserved to us by the protection of the ashes that buried it at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 A.D.

   13. By epigraphic evidence we mean the words that were written, scratched, cut, or stamped on hard materials, such as metal, stone, or wood, usually without thought of literary finish. These vary from single words to records of very considerable extent, and are briefly called “inscriptions.” The student may get a good idea of the most ancient and curious by merely turning over a few pages of Ritschl’s Priscae Latinitatis Monumenta Epigraphica or of Egbert’s Latin Inscriptions. The legends stamped on coins and medals are of great historical importance; many of these coins are now to be found in American collections. With modern inscriptions on similar materials and for similar purposes every student is, of course, familiar.

   14. It will be seen at once that the importance of these sources will vary with the nature of the subject we are studying and the fullness of their preservation. For example, we may read in a Roman poet a description of an ornament worn by a bride. A painting of a bride wearing such an ornament would make the description clearer, but any doubt that might remain would be removed if there should be found in the ruins of Pompeii (§ 12) a similar ornament with its character proved by an inscription upon it. In this case all three sources would have contributed to our knowledge.

   15. For other matters, especially intangible things, we may have to rely solely upon descriptions, that is, upon literary sources. But it may well happen that no Roman wrote a set description of the particular thing that we are studying, or that, if he did, his writings have been lost, so that we may be forced to build up our knowledge bit by bit, by putting together laboriously the scraps of information, mere hints perhaps, that we find scattered here and there in the works of different authors—authors, it may be, of very different times. It is not hard to understand, therefore, that our knowledge of some things pertaining to Roman Antiquities may be fairly complete, while of others we may have no knowledge at all. It may be worth remarking of literary sources that the more common and familiar a thing was to the ancients, the less likely is it that we shall find a description of it in ancient literature.

   16. Reference Books. The collecting and arranging of the information gleaned from these sources has been the task of scholars from very early times, but so much has been added to our knowledge by recent discoveries that all but the later books may be neglected by the student. A convenient list of reference works in English is Professor McDaniel’s Guide for the Study of English Books on Roman Private Life. A list giving selections from the constantly increasing number of books treating of Roman Antiquities will be found on pages 409-412 of this book; at the head of Chapters I-XVI there will be given passages to be consulted in certain standard works. These works have been arranged in two classes, systematic treatises and encyclopedic works, a list of which will be found on pages 23-26. The student who lacks time to consult all these books should select one at least of the better and larger works in each class for regular and methodical study. The study should be warned not to neglect a book merely because it happens to be written in a language that he does not read fluently; the very part that he wants may happen to be easy to read, and many of these works contain illustrations that tell their own stories independently of the letterpress that accompanies them.

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