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From Town Life in Ancient Italy, A Translation of Professor Ludwig Friedländer’s “Städtewesen in Italien im ersten jahrhundert,” by William E. Waters, The Students’ Series, Boston: Benj. H. Sanborn & Co., 1906; pp. 1-12.

Town Life in Ancient Italy



Appearance and Condition of the Towns

THE traveller in ancient Italy was made aware of his gradual approach to some city within his route by the appearance of suburban villas, gardens, and the monuments erected to the memory of the dead. Since it was the custom of residents of Rome to spend the heated portion of the year in the country if possible, it was but natural to find, in such regions as were unusually salubrious or famed for the beauty of their location, not merely the villas of ordinary citizens of means, but also the palaces of Roman senators and even those of the emperors. Indeed, the rich and powerful went so far as to possess three or four villas so situated as to be adapted each for the enjoyment of a particular season of the year.1

The parks and gardens enclosing these villas were beautified with fountains and statues, and surrounded 2 by walls and clipped hedges which were set here and there with many trees gracefully pruned. Doubtless the parks and gardens of modern Italy are much like them.2 Many trees and plants, however, which we consider to be characteristic of Italy, such as the lemon and the orange, were either not known at all in that country at the beginning our era, or but slightly. Pears and apricots were then just being introduced. By the year 30 A.D. the pistachio was being cultivated; and at the time of the destruction of Pompeii, the melons from the gardens of Campania were rousing the interest of many a botanist, and giving a new zest to lovers of fancy gardening.3

There might be found, around any of the larger cities a considerable stretch also of kitchen gardens, whence noisome odors frequently rose; for underground conduits brought refuse to them from the great sewers of the city.4 That, as a matter of fact, gardening, as well as the keeping and housing of farm animals, was possible only outside the limits of the city is shown in the case of Pompeii,5 for in the excavation of the city there has been found but a small number of skeletons of animals. Otherwise, 3 a large number of animals, with the possible exception of so fleet-footed a creature as the dog, might be found to have perished in that catastrophe. In other suburban gardens of this description, large quantities of lilies, roses, and violets6 were cultivated, and particularly the common gilliflower and wallflower, either for the manufacture of perfumes7 or for decoration. The ancient Romans were specially fond of these and a few other varieties of flowers, and used them freely for garlands, for strewing couches and floors, and for ornamenting the house on festive occasions. They were also used in decorating graves.

The olive groves, vineyards, orchards, and kitchen gardens often furnished, not only the markets of the nearest city, but also those more distant. Pompeii, for example, exported wine, cabbages, figs and onions.8 The principal food of the people consisted of vegetables and preparations made from wheat, which came generally from Africa and Egypt; while wine was the universal drink, and oil took the place of butter, since the latter was employed only as a medicine.9

The monuments to the dead, which we have named as the third evidence which apprised the ancient 4 traveller of his approach to some town, were also surrounded by garden plots. These were not only outside the city, therefore, but were on both sides of the highway.10 In the special acts of many municipalities the burial of the dead within the city walls was permitted, in violation of the general law. Eventually, however, Hadrian issued a rescript prohibiting all intramural burials.11

Mid such surroundings, then, one would pass through a suburb occupied by people of the lower class, such as muleteers12 and peddlers, and reach one of the gates of the city proper. Cities, however, which in earlier times had been securely fortified were now open. Since Rome had become mistress of the world and universal peace seemed within grasp, there was no thought of any peril threatening Italy, the very heart and home of the government. Strong ramparts (and even Pompeii had them) appeared, therefore, to be useless, and they were torn down wherever they hindered the expanding life and commerce of the city. In Pompeii, for the entire distance from the Forum Triangulare to the Porta Herculanea, the walls were actually displaced by three-story houses.13


The streets resembled those of modern oriental cities; there were those with shops and those without them.14 The latter were of the better class, as, for example, the so-called Street of Mercury, in Pompeii, with a row of imposing houses, and well described as the Strada della Signoria.15 These streets were pervaded with a deathlike stillness. There was nothing like the line of front windows which we are wont to feel as an essential feature in the exterior of modern houses. To walk through such a street was like passing along old-fashioned garden walls, relieved only now and then by a closed door. It was only in the upper stories that windows were occasionally seen; but even they were too frequently concealed behind wooden shutters and projecting balconies.16 As for Roman residences, the rule was to build about an inner court, through which all the required light was furnished, a style of building which survives nowhere else in Europe save in the patios of Seville. There were, therefore, on the ground floor, no windows which looked upon the street, while in the upper stories they were isolated and irregular. It was with the discovery of the white transparent glass, which was made in France about 1330 A.D., that the style of house building was completely though gradually changed; with this came 6 the change in the appearance of the front of the houses, and of course of the streets themselves.17 Yet, although in Germany glass windows came into use in private houses as early as the sixteenth century, they were seen in Italy much later. Even in the eighteenth century, in the largest cities like Florence and Milan, openings for windows were often simply pasted over with paper.

However lonely and quiet the residence streets were in the cities of Italy, when one entered the business streets he found plenty of noise and bustle.18 Here the walls of the ground floor were everywhere concealed behind all kinds of little structures, which opened directly on the street and gave the passer-by a full view of their interior, in case the screens were not lowered. These structures were used as stores, workshops, places of business, and restaurants.19 It was there that the proprietor, in loose tunic, sold his wares to his customers over the solid stone counter; here artisans sat upon their low stools and toiled at their trades, in cap and apron; here the common people took their meals in cook shops, and drank their cup of wine poured from a bottle which was chained to a column; here, also, barbers shaved their customers, almost beneath the eyes of passers-by; and it was to the physician’s and to the barber’s 7 shop that men strolled for idle conversation, as they still do to-day20 about the druggist’s in some of the smaller towns of Italy.

The streets were comparatively narrow; and on account of the better shade thus afforded, there was undoubtedly an advantage in their narrowness.21 In Pompeii the five principal streets are straight, but not quite eight metres wide. There are narrower ones about half as wide, while the narrowest, mere alleys, are about two and a half to three metres wide.22 Yet, in spite of this narrowness, and the still greater contraction caused by building out into the street, as described above, the crowding was not so dangerous as it is, for instance, in the Toledo at Naples. For, in the first place, the streets had sidewalks whose combined width, in Pompeii, equalled that of the portion meant for vehicles;23 in the second place, horseback riding and driving for business or pleasure were forbidden except at the closing hours of the day, when the traffic ceased to be active. Travellers therefore very often passed through the cities at night.24 The streets were everywhere well laid, and, if possible, with lava blocks, as in Pompeii, which has almost a million square feet of lava paving.25 The portion of the street 8 intended for wagons was laid with blocks which fitted quite closely. In the Middle Ages (excluding the work of the Arabs in Spain) street paving was first undertaken in Palermo.26 This was before 1000 A.D. It was about the end of the twelfth century that it was begun in Paris, whence it spread very slowly into the cities of Middle and Northern Europe. Dresden began to pave its streets in the sixteenth century, and Berlin not before the seventeenth.27 Street lighting, on the other hand, was just as little known in antiquity as in the Middle Ages. At night, the front stores were closed with wooden shutters, which were made doubly secure by bolts and chains.28 Very often the owners slept in their stores; sometimes in rooms directly over, which were rented from the proprietors of the houses of which the stores formed the front.29 In Pompeii, houses with more than one upper story were an exception.30 They were also the exception probably in the majority of the cities of Italy. Such reasons as prevailed in Rome for building houses with numerous upper stories — as the high value of the ground and the steady increase in population — could 9 prevail in other cities only in exceptional instances, if at all.

The principal streets led from the gates of the city to its central point, the Forum, which was often both public square and market. It was laid with broad slabs, and surrounded by the most beautiful public buildings, with their graceful columns, — such as the basilica and the temples, — and richly graced with statues, often of deserving citizens. The Forum was also entirely free from vehicles of all kinds.

The walls of the houses were frequently covered with various advertisements. These were done in vermilion, in Pompeii. Rome alone possessed any such medium of communication as a daily paper. It was the custom in that city to publish daily upon a white bulletin board an official report of such local news as was of general interest. Numerous copies of the same were carried into every portion of the empire, and were read with curiosity in the provinces, and often awaited with great eagerness,31 since men followed with keenest interest what occurred in the capital. This Roman Daily Advertiser must have had its subscribers in all the cities of Italy, who undoubtedly imitated the fashions and manners of Rome. In the absence of local newspapers of any kind, the walls of houses, and even tombs, were used like fences 10 to-day, for the posting of notices.32 The owners had apparently no right to prevent this; they could only give warning. This they did by formal notice, or by painting two snakes, which represented the protecting spirits of the house, and were meant to prevent all disfigurement of it. The writing of these notices and advertisements was a regular trade. In Pompeii, those that were put up in the last years of the city show, by the similarity of handwriting, that they were the work of one and the same person. There were notices about coming performances in the theatre, of houses to rent, of stolen goods; but almost all that have been found are appeals for votes and endorsements of candidates for public office.

Between thirteen and fourteen hundred of these have thus far been copied33 from the walls of Pompeii. The majority of them date from the last years of Pompeii, and are concerned with the election of ædiles, since the duties of these officials, corresponding with those of a modern board of police, touched the interest of the lower class in a very vital way. There were also endorsements of a general nature, describing the candidate as honorable, or highly honorable, or worthy, young men. But some were 11 more to the point, as: “Vote for Gaius Iulius Polybius, he provides fine bread.” “Vote for Bruttius Balbus [for duumvir], he will manage the city treasury well.” These appeals are signed, not only by individual voters, but sometimes by women as well; and by persons acting in groups also, as for instance, by a merchant “with his creditors,” or by a master workman “with his apprentices.” Often they are signed by clubs, guilds and societies. Thus we incidentally derive some understanding of the importance of various kinds of organizations in the life of the city. We find that, during the excitement over elections in Pompeii, such men as these were interested: members of the union of wood sellers, of salt workers, donkey drivers, porters, dyers, fullers, dealers in dry goods, in drugs, in fruits; also the union of bakers, hotel keepers, barbers, goldsmiths; a ball team also figures, as well as two religious brotherhoods, — the worshippers of Isis and of Venus. The patron goddess of Pompeii was Venus, and it is even officially called the “Venus city.” The organizations mentioned were probably religious in their origin, each maintaining the worship of some special deity, just as in the Middle Ages certain guilds honored patron saints. It seems, too, that in the cities of Italy, “young men’s clubs,” or “clubs of the youth,” were very common, whose patron god was often Hercules.34 12 Their games are mentioned frequently, and may have belonged to the most attractive of the popular amusements. These associations, moreover, had festival days, and marched in procession, when undoubtedly the images of the patron deities were carried.35

The entire matter of club organization was strictly regulated, the special consent of the emperor or the senate being necessary. From all appearances, this was given sparingly, and with great caution. Associations for defraying funeral expenses might, however, be formed among the poor without this consent, and doubtless existed everywhere.36 In many cities there were clubs of veterans, who had grown gray in years of service on the Rhine or on the Euphrates, and had returned to spend the remainder of their days in their native homes.37


1  Friedländer, Sittengeschichte Roms, 6th ed., I. 246 f.; II. 107 f.; III. 100 f.; Mommsen, Hermes, XIII. p. 115.

2   Friedländer, II. 267 ff.

3  Ibid., III. 61

4  Ibid., III. 170.

5  In the twelve years from 1861 through 1872, besides 93 human skeletons, there were found 3 of dogs, 7 of horses, 11 of chickens, 2 of turtles, and 1 of a pig; see Nissen, Pompeian. Stud., p. 571.

6  Friedl., III. 110; II. 284 ff.

7  Blümner, Gewerbliche Thätigkeit der Völker des klassischen Alterthums, p. 116; Plin., Nat. Hist., XIII. 26; Martial, 9, 60, 4.

8  Nissen, Pompeian. Stud., p. 207; Mau-Kelsey, Pompeii, p. 14.

9  Marquardt, Privatleben der Römer, I. 328, 2.

10  Petronius, Satiræ, 62: venimus intra monumenta; Friedl., Sittengeschichte, III. 771.

11  Ulpian, Digg., XLVII. 12, 395.

12  Friedl., ibid., I. 73, 1.

13  Overbeck-Mau, Pompeii, p. 42.

14  Overbeck-Mau, p. 57.

15  Nissen, ibid., p. 544.

16  Nissen, p. 28; Overbeck-Mau, p. 266.

17  Nissen, 597.

18  Overbeck-Mau, 57 and 376 ff. , p. 1

19  Friedl., I. 10.

20  Friedl., I. 420, 7.

21  Tacitus, Annales, XV. 43.

22  Nissen, 544, 567; Overbeck-Mau, 58; Mau-Kelsey, Pompeii, 221.

23  Overbeck-Mau, 58.

24  Friedl., I. 73 f.

25  Nissen, 523.

26  Hartwig, Aus Sicilien, 1869, II. 158. After Cordova, which Abderrhaman II. had paved about 850 A.D., Palermo appears to have been the first city of Europe in which, according to the Ibn Haukal, at least the principal street was paved with stone slabs before the year 1000 A.D.

27  Nissen, 517; Friedl., III. 25, 3.

28  Juvenal, III. 303 f.

29  Overbeck-Mau, 376 ff.; Friedl., I. 66.

30  Nissen, 377; Mau-Kelsey, Pompeii, p. 239 f.

31  Hübner, De senatus populique Romani actis. See also Mau-Kelsey, Pompeii, pp. 475-479.

32  Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL), IV.; Kiessling, Neue Jahrbücher, 1872, 57 ff.; Overbeck-Mau, 468 ff.; Willems, Les élections municipales à Pompeii, in the Bulletin de l’Académie de Belgique, 1886, 51-190. This last printed in separate form.

33  Willems, ibid., p. 54. See, however, Mau-Kelsey, chs. lv.-lvii.

34  Henzen-Orelli, III. Indic., p. 173, under cultores Herculis.

35  Friedl., I. 307, 2.

36  Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, III. 140 ff.

37  Willmanns, Exempla Inscriptionum, II. Indic., p. 636, Veterani.


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