[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]

[Click on the footnote symbols and you will jump to the note on the bottom on the page. Then click on the symbol there and you will be magically transported back to where you were in the text.]


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. 30-43.

Town Life in Ancient Italy



The Fiscal Management of Rural Cities

In the early centuries of the empire taxes were levied upon citizens for municipal purposes only in exceptional cases. The defraying of necessary expenses was a burden which the rich alone bore. They supplemented the municipal revenues, when necessary, by contributions which were voluntary, thus parting with a much larger portion of their means than would have been the case under a general tax. Such sacrifices were, however, made light for them; for citizens living in Italy paid neither a 31 property nor land tax, but only an inheritance tax and a few indirect taxes. Diocletian introduced the land tax, and thus brought Italy to the level of the provinces.

A city generally received its regular income from some very valuable real estate which it owned, lying outside of the city limits, either in Italy or in the provinces. Capua, for instance, had possessions in Crete.1 Such property consisted not only of farms, meadow lands and woods, but also of lakes and mines, and was leased to a tenant during his life, or even to hereditary tenants. There was, in the next place, the income from such public buildings as shops, stores, baths, or even hotels, like that, for example, which was built by the town of Hispellum, the modern Spello, at the much-frequented springs of Clitumnus.2 With these should be mentioned the revenues derived from the piping of water from aqueducts, by means of which house and land tenants could bring water into their buildings or to their fields, and the owners of private baths could supply their establishments.3 Many cities also collected toll-gate fees.4 To the third source of revenue 32 belong the assessments made upon officials, decuriones, augustales, priests, and priestesses, when entering upon their duties. Finally, cities had, as a rule, a permanent capital derived from bequests and legacies, which, from Nerva’s time,5 they were allowed to accept. When, moreover, earthquakes, conflagrations, or other great calamities occurred, generous aid was always rendered by the imperial treasury. Thus the city of Bologna received $500,000 in the year 53, after a great fire in that city. The emperors also took interest in, and patronized, any extensive building, or similar outlay undertaken by the cities of the empire.6

On the other hand, cities were not then forced to bear all the heavy burdens of modern city government. Public worship was indeed a matter of public provision.7 But there was no maintenance and support of soldiers at public expense, since these had quarters in no city in Italy except Rome. There was no heavy expense attached to city government; for the higher officials, as has been said were unpaid, and there must always have been ready at command a large number of public slaves for the lower grades of service. Education was entirely left to private enterprise originally, and continued more or less so in later times; of the status of medical practice 33 we know very little. The heaviest items of expense for a city were the erection and preservation of its buildings, the care of public grounds and institutions, public entertainments and holidays, the purchase of flour and oil. The handling of these two principal foods was not left the prey of private speculation, but was guarded and controlled, even by the enactment of fixed market prices; besides, each city had its grain and oil accounts managed by the ædiles or by special commissioners, that both might be secured easily and cheaply in times of general scarcity.8

In all these various directions public enterprise was supported in a truly wonderful way by the voluntary contributions of wealthy citizens. The best inheritance from the republican period was this commendable spirit of self-sacrifice for the public good. Yet popular opinion went so far as to expect and demand of the rich and the prominent their generous services for the public weal, and thus they undoubtedly often allowed themselves to be involved in considerable sacrifice against their will. The patriotic citizen, in indulging his ambition to make some contribution to the glory and renown of his native city, did so to the best of his means, and sometimes went beyond his means or completely ruined himself. According to the opinion of those times, “building and making gifts of money” were 34 the virtuous occupations of the rich man.9 By thus showing his contempt for money he won the greatest glory. By special legal enactment, furthermore, the preservation of those inscriptions was guaranteed in which persons who erected public buildings were named.10 The passionate jealousy between the cities, each one of which strove to equal or excel its neighbor, not infrequently impelled patriotic individuals to undertake the entire expense of erecting buildings. This is definitely confirmed by the fact that, though there was as a rule no necessity of securing the imperial sanction for erecting public buildings at private expense, the necessity did exist when such buildings were erected by one city in rivalry with another.11 The value which the imperial government attached to the beauty and attractiveness of cities is shown in the prohibition contained in the laws governing Latin cities, that houses are not to be torn down unless a new building is to stand upon the site in the near future.12 Probably the cities of Italy never made so attractive an appearance as at this time, when a large number of their citizens coöperated with the general and local governments for their beauty and adornment. Numerous inscriptions, 35 still preserved, attest the erection of important public buildings, like porticos, temples, theaters, amphitheaters, bridges, by private persons at their own expense. Other inscriptions show that even individuals of moderate means were moved to bear their share in making their cities prosperous and comfortable, by seeing, for example, that the streets were well paved, the public playgrounds graded and enclosed, sun-dials erected, stalls provided for the tradespeople, tables of stone for their wares, with weights and measures duly inspected, and so forth.13

The chief concern, however, of the city and of patriotic inhabitants was that an ample supply of water for drinking and bathing should be furnished by aqueducts, springs or wells. The extensive building of aqueducts throughout the Roman Empire puts modern times to shame.14 Nothing so distinguishes the cities of ancient Italy from those of to-day, and to the credit of the former, as the luxury of cleanliness. There was no lack of public or private baths, for the heating of which wood was cut in the forests owned by the cities.15 Even villages had several bathing establishments. To what extent they recognized it as their duty to provide good and cheap 36 baths has been understood from facts long known, but from none more clearly than the fortunate discovery of an ordinance of a mining town in southern Portugal.16 The lessee of the public baths there was obliged to have them open from dawn until one o’clock for men, and from that hour until seven for women. The former had to pay an entrance price of three-fourths of a cent, the latter a cent and a half, which was twice the charge made at Rome. It was stipulated that fresh-flowing water should be in the cold and warm tanks mornings and afternoons, and each kept at a certain temperature. The boiler was to be cleaned out once a month and rubbed each time with tallow. It may be presumed that what was provided in a mining town in a distant province was to be found in the smallest village in Italy. For no purpose were funds established or bequests made more frequently, so far as evidence goes, than for the erection and equipment of baths, and for their free use, not only by citizens and people of the neighborhood, but at times also by strangers and slaves.17 In Bologna, for example, a fund of about $22,000 was left in order that men as well as boys and girls might enjoy the privileges of a certain bathing 37 establishment 18 A citizen of Tivoli directed his heirs to keep open for general use a bathing establishment connected with his house.19 A city official of Misenum presented the public baths with four hundred wagon loads of hard wood, with the proviso that his descendants, fulfilling the legal conditions at the same time, should receive certain municipal offices.20 Officials also rented baths for the duration of their term of office, and kept them for general free use21 In Præneste (the modern Palestrina) a president of the association of freedmen was buried at public expense, and his statue placed in the Forum because by will he had provided free baths for the space of three years for his fellow-citizens.22 Provision was sometimes made by means of which oil could be bought for use on holidays. The father of the younger Pliny, L. Cæcilius Cilo, bequeathed to the city of Como over $2,000 by means of the interest on which, at the festival of Neptune, the oil was to be provided yearly in the thermæ and all the baths of Como for anointing the gymnasts in the exercises on the playground.23

The habit of daily bathing, moreover, in connection with that liking which southern people still feel for 38 getting together and conversing in public places, made of the spacious, bright, and ornamented rooms of the baths, as the remains of Pompeii show they must have been, most popular places of recourse, where one might see his acquaintances, hear the news, or pass the hours away. The baths were commonly filled at the noon hour, when business was at a lull; refreshments were often to be had, so that the effect must have been not unlike that of a modern café.

Similarly, in the care and support of the poorer portion of the population, the generosity of the rich kept pace with the provisions made by the city itself. Gifts and bequests were frequent for the purchase of oil and flour to be distributed without price, or at an average price in time of scarcity.24 But private generosity went even farther. Gifts were evidently frequently made by means of which parents were enabled to educate their children to the age of self-support. A wealthy woman in Terracina, for instance, bequeathed a sum of more than $50,000, from the interest of which one hundred boys and girls were to receive monthly money enough to purchase the flour they needed, the boys until they were sixteen years old, the girls until they were thirteen, at which age the latter usually 39 married.25 By means of a similar fund created at Atina the children received, upon completing their schooling, a sum of money amounting to more fifty dollars. From Nerva’s time the emperors also began to establish funds for the education of the poor children of freeborn parents.26 Trajan extended these children’s institutions all over Italy; this explains the relief found in the Forum at Rome in 1872 representing Italia with her children kneeling gratefully before the emperor. These imperial funds, however, were meant usually for boys; for we see that in the provision made by Trajan for the city of Veleia, which was near Parma, 246 boys were to have a share, but only 35 girls.

There were not only charitable foundations for children, but also for the helpless and aged.27 Of the public care of the sick we know but little. However, as early as the beginning of the second century, in most places there seem to have been city physicians who were paid out of the city treasury. Galen also narrates that in many cities spacious rooms, with large openings for an abundance of light, were placed at the service of physicians for the treatment of the 40 sick.28 When one considers how many widely scattered institutions of this sort there were in the ancient world, with regard to which we have but the meagrest and most casual information, he cannot but admit that the care of the poor and the sick even in the cities of ancient heathendom was organized on a much more comprehensive scale than has been commonly admitted.29 Finally, it is to be noted here that burial plots were laid out, not only by the community,30 but also by private individuals. For example, in Sassina, in Umbria, a person presented a burial plot, allowing ten square feet for each grave, for citizens and residents, excepting those who had pursued some dishonorable career, like that of the gladiator, or had sought self-destruction and disgrace by hanging.31 In Bergomum a person established a fund which forever relieved all citizens from payment of the burial fee usually charged by the community; thus the last honors might be fully rendered to the dead.32

In its care also of educational interests, the public was supported by the patriotism of individuals. National educational institutions existed in the 41 Roman Empire only at the great centers of intellectual life, as at Rome, Alexandria, Athens, and later, Constantinople. In the other cities there were simply local schools, and these sprang up only gradually. Originally, as has been said, education was left to private enterprise, which was everywhere stimulated by the exemption from public burdens which was enjoyed by the teacher, as well as by the physician.33 Such exemption is granted even in the ordinance of the mining town in Portugal mentioned above; for a school existed even there, or at least was in contemplation. Parents were accustomed to send their boys from the small towns to a near city or to Rome, when they wished to give them an education extending beyond that which the local school could offer. The school which old Statius kept in Naples was popular with the boys of Apulia and Lucania.34 Horace tells us that his father was dissatisfied with the school of a certain Flavius in his native town, Venusia, to which the burly sons of powerful centurions went with tablets and pen-cases in their hands, and that, in spite of his modest means, his father sent him to Rome that he might receive the education which was given to sons of knights and senators.35 About 100 A.D., there being no teacher of oratory in Comum, boys from that town who wished to pursue 42 this study were obliged to go to Milan, which was fortunately near. The younger Pliny proposed to the families interested therein that they raise the honorarium for such a teacher by means of a subscription; he himself, though childless, contributed a third of the amount needed. To give the entire sum seemed unwise on account of the political intrigues which frequently exerted a bad influence in the appointment of teachers in towns where positions were bestowed and paid by the public.36 As in the case of Comum, it was necessary to turn to Rome to secure the right man for the place;37 candidates furnished with testimonials from distinguished persons of the locality presented themselves, and gave a public trial of their knowledge and pedagogical skill. Gellius attended in Brindisi such an election of a teacher sent out from Rome. The candidate interpreted a passage from Vergil very poorly and incorrectly, and then invited the audience to propound questions. In reply to one put by Gellius, he showed his complete ignorance.38 In addition to their salaries, meritorious teachers received honors; a teacher of Latin at Verona, who belonged to the rank of the augustales, received the distinction of being promoted to the rank of decurio;39 to many, 43 statues were erected after their death.40 Judging from the fact, also, that Pliny presented the city of Comum with a library of considerable value, and added a fund of 100,000 sesterces for its maintenance and increase,41 it may be supposed that such patriots were certainly generous toward the cause of education.


1  Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, I. 157, 5.

2  Pliny, Epist., VIII. 8, t: balineum Hispellates . . . publice præbent, præbent hospitium.

3  Mommsen, Zeitschrift für geschichtliche Rechtswissenschaft, XV. 305 f.; Friedl., III. 146, 3.

4  Vectigal rotarium; Mommsen, Hermes, I. 55 with note.

5  Friedl., III. 202, 2.

6  Ibid., III. 206 ff.

7  Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, II. 83.

8  Hirschfeld, Philologus, XXIX. 83-85.

9  Martial, IX. 22; Friedl., III. 151, 1.

10  Digest, L. 10; Friedl., III. 201, 4.

11  Digest, L. 10; Friedl., III. 201, 6.

12  Mommsen, Abhandlungen der Sächischen Gesellschaft, II. 480.

13  Friedl., III. 202, f.

14  Ibid., III. 145 f.

15  Frontinus, De Controversiis Agrorum II. in Lachmann’s edition of the Gromatichi, II. 55: sunt silvæ de quibus lignorum cremia in lavacra publica minstranda cæduntur.

16  Hübner et Mommsen, Lex metalli Vipascensis; Ephem. epigraph, III. 165-189.

17  Cf. the section Notabilia varia, of the Indices of the CIL, X. 2 and XIV., Balneum. Orelli, 2287, Henzen, 6085.

18  Orelli, 3325.

19  Digest., XXXII. 35, 3.

20  IRN, 2575, or Orelli, 3772, or CIL, X. 3678.

21  Digest., XIX. 2, 30.

22  CIL, XIV. 3015.

23  Mommsen, Hermes, III. 60.

24  Friedl., III. 151, 2.

25  Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, II. 143, 5 (a fund for Atina): 144, 4 (Terracina); CIL, XIV. 350 (Ostia).

26  Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, pp. 141 ff.

27  Paulus, Digest., XXX. 122: (legata) in alimenta infirmæ ætatis puta senioribus vel pueris puellisque.

28  Friedl., I. 336 f.

29  Bormann, however, rightly questions the genuineness of inscription No. 114 in Orelli, = Wilmanns, 2506, = CIL, XI. 1, 426*, on gratuitous distribution of drugs in Lorium.

30  Cf. Frontinus in the passage cited on p. 35.

31  Orelli, 4404; Mommsen, De Collegiis, p. 100, No. 11.

32  CIL, V. 5228.

33  Friedl., I. 315 f., 336 f.

34  Statius, Silvæ, V. 3, 162 ff.

35  Horace, Satiræ, I. 6, 71 ff.

36  Pliny, Epist., IV. 13.

37  Fronto, ad Amicos, I. 7 (Naber); Friedl., I. 325.

38  Gellius, Noctes Attic., XVI. 6.

39  Friedl., I. 317, 3.

40  Friedl., III. 257, 3.

41  Friedl., I. 252.


[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]