[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. 43-62.

Town Life in Ancient Italy



Popular Amusements.  Religious Observances.  Relations with Rome.

While municipal care as well as private liberality was so variously exercised in noble and wise directions, a great deal more seems to have been spent on public amusements and festivities, especially by the rich who courted local popularity. These were, moreover, required by custom to invite a large portion of the community to their private functions. Every gay and joyous event in their families came, in this way, to be very expensive to them. If a rich man celebrated his birthday, his son’s assumption of the toga virilis, prepared for his daughter’s wedding, entered upon the duties of some city office, or dedicated some public building erected at his own expense, — in all these cases, he was regularly forced to invite the city council as guests, often also a large portion of the citizens, sometimes hundreds or even 44 thousands, or provide a gift of money1 in place of such a festival.

Such general banquets as well as public games constituted the principal popular amusements.2 At the former, tables were often spread in the open air; at Ostium, on a certain occasion, 217 were spread.3 Doubtless the dinner was often a complete one, ab ovo usque ad mala.* At Amiternum, June 29, 338 A.D., in addition to bread and wine, two oxen and fifteen sheep were consumed.4 Frequently, however, only bread and wine were furnished, together with money for the purchase of the remainder, or there might be donations of money together with a complete dinner. Frequently on such occasions, the decuriones received three denarii apiece, the augustales two, all others one, a denarius being about twenty-one cents. Sometimes a kind of lottery was provided; in Beneventum the chief magistrate, on a certain occasion, threw lots among the people, the prizes being gold, silver, bronze, linen articles, clothes, and so forth.5 Cakes and sweet wine were very commonly provided; witness the announcement found in Ferentinum, which is in hendecasyllables,6 and runs: —


“Here are sweet wine and cookies for every man;

  Freely offered at your desire till noon time.

  He who reports later, provides for himself.”

In such banquets men only, as a rule, had part, and were alone considered in the largesses of money, or at least they received larger gifts than the women. Sometimes, however, the wives without their husbands were entertained by women of rank.7 An inscription from Veii announces that a lady of that place had provided a banquet for the mothers, sisters, and daughters of the decuriones (the wives being inadvertently omitted), and a bath with free oil for the wives of all classes, during the days on which her husband held games and gave a banquet.8 It is seen from this inscription that at such a banquet the women of the rank of the decuriones were no less sharply separated from other women than their husbands from the rest of the community. We are also told that nuts were sometimes scattered among the children, often including the children of slaves; frequently there were illuminations, of which the people were very fond. Rich men were often fond, also, of feasting the populace annually, probably on their own or the emperor’s birthday, and of providing for the yearly repetition of the same by legacy, or by the 46 establishment of endowed funds.9 In Ferentinum a chief magistrate once presented the people with several pieces of land which he had bought for them or 70,000 sesterces (about $3,750) in order that by means of six-percent returns thereon, the following annual provision might be made: for the citizens, other residents and the married women, who honored his memory, a pound, or about nine ounces, of cakes, and a hemina, or pint, of sweet wine; for each table of the decuriones, in addition to the wine and cakes, ten sesterces (about fifty-five cents); for the sons of the decuriones and the seviri augustales, sweet wine and cake and eight sesterces apiece; for each man at the donor’s table, an additional sestertius; while among the children, whether free-born or not, thirty modii (about fifteen bushels) of nuts were to be scattered.10

But still more expensive than these banquets were the games. Chariot races, however, the principal feature of the circus games at Rome, were not given in the other cities. Augustus probably confined them to Rome because they led to quarrels and tumults of the worst sort.11 Of the remaining games, those of 47 the amphitheater, viz., the baiting of animals and the gladiatorial contests, were far more popular than those of the theater. This is proved by the relative dimensions of the buildings in Pompeii intended for each of these two kinds of entertainment:12 the large theater there held 3,000 to 4,000 persons; the small theater (intended also for a kind of concert performance) about 1,500; while the amphitheater held at least 13,000, if not as many as 20,000. If it is objected that in Campania gladiatorial contests were naturally the most popular, their attractiveness much have been essentially the same elsewhere. Greek games between athletes spread from the Greek city of Naples, and were popular throughout the other cities.13

The games, particularly those in the amphitheater, were, as has been said, a universally popular form of amusement in ancient Italy, like a ball game or fireworks to-day. It was, therefore, a very severe punishment 48 for a city if it had to forego all games for a season.14 The Roman senate held such a threat over Pompeii after a bloody affray which occurred in the year 59 between the Pompeians and a large crowd which had come over from Nuceria, while games were in progress in the amphitheater.15 The installation of new games, which were to be repeated regularly, required the imperial approval.16 These were conducted on days sacred to the gods and on other festival days either by officers specially appointed, and at public expense, or by means of the interest on funds created for this purpose (at which time the donors made a considerable addition to them); or managed by officers and priests at their own expense, in recognition of honors conferred upon them by the community.17 Games were also very commonly provided by the rich for the sake of popularity. The nouveau riche, particularly, as it seems, loved to display his wealth in this manner. Martial18 waxes sarcastic over the fact that a gladiatorial show had been given in Bologna by a shoemaker, and by a fuller in Modena, whose trade had flourished in connection with the wool-raising for which Modena was famous. Men who had once roamed from city to 49 city seeking employment as trumpeters at these combats, and had afterwards made money in questionable enterprises, used to provide these same combats, and in condescending recognition of the wish of the spectators, make the signal for giving the coup de grâce to the vanquished contestants.19 Games were often given on the occasion of memorial exercises and funeral ceremonies. The younger Pliny praises a friend who had promised the city of Verona a series of combats in the amphitheater, not only because this showed his universal popularity, but also his wish to honor the memory of his deceased wife, a lady of Verona. To be sure, people had been so importunate that he could not refuse; still, the liberality of his programme deserved special praise since it showed a great mind. Among other features of the show was a number of panthers which had been consigned from Africa.20 Not infrequently the giving of these games seems to have been actually forced by what was nothing less than a cold-blooded demand of the people.21 In the reign of Tiberius the mob in a city in the region of Genoa would not let the funeral procession of a primipilarius cross the market-place before they had extorted from the heirs a promise of a gladiatorial combat. When the emperor received 50 news of this, he threw a force of infantry into the city, and imprisoned a large number of the senate and citizens.22 Very often bequests were made in order that games might be given.23 In Pisaurum (the modern Pesaro) a deceased duumvir left a fund of over $54,000 and directed that the interest of two-fifths of it should be spent on a banquet commemorative of his son’s birthday, and that with the interest of the remainder a gladiatorial show should be given every fifth year.24 As a rule, immense sums were spent on these games, which often lasted two, three or four days. In the larger places twenty, thirty and even fifty pairs of combatants appeared, often in expensive armor. Frequently stags, hares, bulls, boars, bears and even panthers and ostriches were baited. The more the blood flowed, the greater honor heaped upon the giver of the show. Even the horrible destruction of criminals by beasts was considered a legitimate part of these games.25 At Trimalchio’s table the conversation turns on a recent gladiatorial combat given in his neighborhood, and on another in prospect. The latter, which is to be a splendid affair and last three days will probably cost $21,000; the wounded fighters are to be slain in the arena before the eyes of the spectators, and the name 51 of the patron will forever be extolled with praise.26 In addition to the contests in the amphitheater, theatrical performances, though less popular, were common enough on account of their smaller expense, and athletic games also were not infrequent. In the reign of Augustus, Aulus Clodius Flaccus, when duumvir, presented in the Forum of Pompeii, at the festival of Apollo, July 6th to the 13th, a procession, a bull-fight and Greek and Roman boxing matches, and in the theater a performance with music and ballet, in which the distinguished Roman pantomimist, Pylades, danced. When, on being reëlected, he became quinquennalis also, he repeated on the first day of the Apollo festival the larger part of the previous programme, and on the second day, at his own expense, presented thirty pairs of athletes and five pairs of gladiators, and together with his colleague thirty-five pairs of gladiators and a baiting of wild beasts, including bulls, boars, bears and other animals.27

The well-to-do citizens, who sacrificed a large part of their means by such contributions for the pleasure and profit of their fellow-citizens, and indeed sometimes bankrupted themselves, often received not a word of thanks.28 As for reimbursement, they wisely entertained no hopes in that direction. 52 At the utmost the senate might now and then, in recognition of the munificence shown by an augustalis, permit him to tap the public water-supply through a three-eighths pipe.29 As a rule, however, a self-sacrificing spirit was recognized by the presentation of municipal and priestly offices, or other honors, of which the erection of a statue was the principal.30 Since the manufacture of art products had come to be very much of a purely mechanical affair, and slaves were employed for this work, statues and similar grants could be bestowed very easily and without serious cost. If it was a question, therefore, of distinguishing some individual, several standing or equestrian statues were voted, or a statue upon a two-horse chariot, or one of gilded bronze. In Brescia the senate on a certain occasion directed that an equestrian statue of gilded bronze be erected to the memory of the son of a decurio, who had died in his sixth year. On hundreds of still existing bases of statues the sentence is to be read, “Satisifed with the honor he has remitted the cost.” The statues were therefore presumably voted when it was certain that the recipient of the honor would bear the expense of the same. In addition he 53 was expected to give some entertainment at the unveiling. In such an era of good feeling there must have been a round of presentations, ceremonial dedications, addresses, conferring of honors, state banquets, largesses of money, and games, in which the propertied class had the honor, and the rest the pleasure. Even the death of a prominent man was an occasion for festivities and the presentation of honors. The senate voted an expression of condolence with the family, presented the burial plot, paid the cost of interment from the city treasury, ordered that the bier should be borne by persons of proper rank, and that the citizens accompany the procession from the Forum. Frequently, in order that the attendance might be as large as possible, the court docket for the day was postponed. Finally one or more statues were erected to the deceased. The family bore the expense of the same, and in addition presented a banquet or public games.31

We know extremely little of the religious life in the cities of Italy, intimately connected though it was with the daily routine. Though it was in general very much the same, yet in different places it 54 showed marked peculiarities. Beside the cult of the gods generally honored, many local cults were retained from pre-Roman times; thus in upper Italy Celtic deities were worshipped, for example, those called Matronæ by the Romans; about Verona, Rætian deities; in Tuscany, old Etruscan deities, as in Volsinii (the modern Bolsena), Nortia, the goddess of fate. Many old Italian cults did not extend beyond the bounds of a single city; thus, Valentia was worshipped in Otricoli alone; Hostia, in Sutri; Ancharia, in Ascoli. Very strange festivals and rites also survived in different places.32 At the midsummer festival of Diana of Aricia, whose temple stood on a declivity of Lake Nemi, below the present site of the city, the whole lake was ablaze at night with torches.33 At the festival of Juno in Falerii, near the modern Civita Castellani, a sacred procession marched to the city from the venerable grove of the goddess. Flutes gave the signal for the advance. First came snow-white cows and other victims, led by a chosen bull with wreathed horns, while a line of maidens followed in gay attire, wearing golden ornaments in the hair. They were veiled in accordance with the Greek fashion, and clad in long white gowns and gold-embroidered shoes; upon their heads they carried sacred vessels. Then came the priestesses, 55 and last the image of the goddess. Along the entire route boys and maidens spread carpets on the streets.34 On such occasions travellers flocked from far and near. There was also a large number of old and celebrated shrines which always drew pilgrims even from great distances. Most prominent among these are, first, the temples of the healing gods, in which votive tables and gifts attested wondrous recovery from diseases of all kinds, and, secondly, the oracle temples, like that of the two Fortunæ at Antium and of FortunaPræneste, where the oracle was given by means of lots which a boy mixed and drew. Processions on the festival days of the gods, as well as on exceptional occasions, were frequent everywhere. If in time of great drought Jupiter was to be implored for rain, the women marched in procession to his temple, barefooted and with loosened hair.35

Fairs and markets were often part of the religious festivals, and the consent of the Roman senate was necessary before holding them.36 These naturally attracted visitors from all sides. A fair was held for several days in Cremona in the year 69, “which drew a large part of Italy.”37 At such places could doubtless be seen collected for display the most approved 56 products of Italian industry:38 coarse woolen fabrics and cloths from the coast of Genoa, finer material from Parma and Modena, brownish red woollen stuff for soldiers’ coats, and for livery, from Canossa, purple garments from Tarentum, costly carpets and shaggy frieze from Padua, red and black pottery ware from Arezza and Cuma, iron ware made in the shops of Pozzuoli from German metal, sausages from Lucania, fish sauce from Pompeii, oil and olives from Venafro, Umbria, and the neighborhood of Bologna, wine from the most varied localities; for Italy was the principal wine-producing country of antiquity, furnishing about two-thirds of the eighty celebrated varieties which could be bought.

All the cities of Italy must constantly have had various relations with Rome, since many of their people spent more or less time there, attracted by the pleasures which the capital offered, or for the sake of study, or business of any kind, particularly cases at court, or in the employ of the government or in military service. The imperial guard of the Prætorians, numbering nine or ten thousand men, was recruited, for the most part, from Italy. Its life was made attractive by the larger pay received and the shorter service required. The police force of Rome, numbering some three thousand, was similarly recruited 57 in Italy. Her youth, when capable of bearing arms, eagerly sought to enter the one or the other of these honorable and brilliant fields of service. When Severus reorganized the guard by including the veterans of the legions, a large part of the youth of Italy took up the career of the gladiator or the bandit.39 The ambitious and talented flocked to Rome from all quarters of Italy in order to make their fortunes in any of the numerous callings open to them there, and many succeeded in reaching high positions. Men from the municipalities were continually elevated to the equestrian, and even to the senatorial rank. In the latter case they broke connection with the societies of their native city, since the first rank in the empire, that of Roman senator, was limited to the capital city exclusively. The equites who remained in their native towns, were, as has been said, the foremost and most eminent there; but many of them left their homes forever, in order to rise from one important position to another in imperial service or in the army, either in Rome or in the provinces. That each city was proud of eminent men whom it had produced goes without saying. Cicero states that “even the hills and fields of Arpinum” rejoiced in the brilliant career of himself and his brother; if one met an Arpinate, he was sure to hear something about Marius, possibly about 58 Cicero.40 And this is still the case, for every inhabitant knows the names of the two, the houses in which they were born are pointed out, and their busts adorn the city hall. No city in the ancient world, certainly, failed to erect statues to those of its citizens of whom it could be proud. Thus, Herculaneum honored the family of Nonius Balbus. But, on the other hand, those of the rural aristocracy, whether knights or senators, who had met with success in Rome, evinced their attachment to their native towns by making various gifts. The two brothers Stertinius, who had acquired wealth in Rome as physicians to the emperor and in their general medical practice, applied it to extensive building, in beautifying their native city, Naples.41 We have spoken of certain gifts made by the younger Pliny to Como, his native town. He presented it also with a fund for the support of freeborn boys and girls, and bequeathed another for the erection, equipment and maintenance of thermæ; with the interest of a third, amounting to more than $6,000, one hundred of his freedmen were to be cared for during their lives, and after their death an annual festival was to be provided for the entire population.42 In the reign of Trajan a very distinguished lady, Ummidia Quadratilla, died in the eightieth year of her age, in her native town 59 Casinum (the modern San Germano) below Monte Cassino; a short inscription found there announces that she built for the city a temple and an amphitheater. The ruins of the latter are still to be seen.43

Men of the two upper classes maintained a continual relation with their native towns by assuming for themselves and their successors the obligation of representing the city, and possibly even individual citizens, as their patrons or attorneys in cases at law and otherwise, and in general by looking out for their best interests in every way.44 Any eminent members of the community, particularly primipilarii, could become patrons, or attorneys; but the honor was, as a rule, given to knights and senators, though in no instance were any excluded who were closely related to the city by birth or family connection. The list of senators of Canossa, mentioned on page 16, gives, before the list of decuriones, the names of thirty-nine patrons of the city, of whom thirty-one were senators and eight knights. It goes without mention that every city sought to secure its influential friends in upper circles in Rome, particularly at court and in the senate. How zealous people were, as a rule, to satisfy every whim of a senator is shown by the fact that in Trajan’s reign, Aquilius Regulus, a very rich and influential senator, sent to the cities 60 of Italy and the provinces one thousand copies of an obituary note, which he had composed in memory of a young son of his, with instructions to the decuriones to see that it was read in public by a herald gifted with a specially good voice, whom they were to select from their midst. The order was obeyed.45

It is only rarely and incidentally that Roman authors speak of the cities of Italy. We know, however, that conditions there gave the Romans plenty of material for burlesque. In the older Roman plays the country gentry were often represented on the stage. Unfortunately we have only the names of such plays as the Women of Brindisi, the Lady of Sezza, the Lady of Velletri. The strutting dignity and importance of municipal officials is often derided, — for example, the severe bearing and freezing manner with which an ædile of Arezzo ordered the false measure of a tradesman to be broken, or another ordered his attendants to stamp upon a mess of fish for which too high a price was asked.46 Occasionally we are told that petty jealousies and meannesses were felt more keenly in the intimacy and closeness of rural life than in the great metropolis.47 61 On the other hand, it was conceded that in the rural towns one could find more virtue, decency and good breeding than in the capital. In very good repute in this regard stood the cities of Lombardy, especially Padua and Brescia.48 For the relaxation, quiet and inexpensiveness of a small city, many sighed who were specially sensitive to the shady side of the galling, expensive and strenuous life of Rome. In a small place one could live luxuriously on slender means.49 There he ate from dishes of pottery, clad himself in a coarse blue-hooded mantle; there perhaps once in two weeks he put on the burdensome and expensive toga of a Roman citizen, which by many was worn for the first time when they were stretched upon the bier. A dinner gown often lasted ten years. When an oft-repeated ghost-play was presented in some small city on festival days, in the grass-grown theater, and country children buried themselves in their mothers’ bosoms in terror at the white masks and huge mouths of the goblins eager for children’s blood, then senators and people could be seen in the same attire, and even the mighty ædiles were content with the white tunic on such days.50 In Capua, in Naples, one could divide his time between 62 work and relaxation, undisturbed by burdensome distractions and obligations.51 In Præneste, Volsinii, and other places of beautiful situation, it was not necessary, as in Rome, to live in wretchedly constructed apartments, ever threatening to tumble down, whence there was no chance to escape in case of fire. There, or in Sora or in Frusino, a fine house might be bought at a price which in Rome one paid as the yearly lease for gloomy quarters. He could raise his cabbage in his own little garden, watered from a well-flowing spring. It was, after all, something to be able to name a little piece of land one’s own, no matter in what quarter of the world, though it might be big enough to accommodate only a lizard. For such reasons does Juvenal’s friend, of whom he gives us a picture in a satire composed in the last year of Trajan’s reign, finally settle down in what was then the still and lonely Cumæ, after finding that life in the great metropolis had become unendurable.52


1  Pliny, To Trajan, 116 ff.; Apuleius, Apologia, 88.

2  Divisiones, CIL, X. 2, pp. 1181-1183, and CIL, XIV. p. 596; Henzen, Indic., p. 192 ff.; Wilmanns, Indic., p. 663, Largitiones.

3  CIL, XIV. 375.

4  CIL, IX. 4215.

5  CIL, IX. 1655.

6  CIL, X. 5844.

7  CIL, IX. 3171 (Corfinium): quæ ob dedicationem statuar. filiorum suorum epul. dedit. mulierib. sing. (denarios singulos).

8  CIL, XI. 1, 3811.

9  Digest, XXXIII. 1, 23.

10  CIL, X. 5853: favorabile est, ai pueris plebeis sine distinctione libertatis nucum sparsionem modiorum XXX . . . præstiterint.

11  Nissen, p. 111; cf. Marquardt, Staatsverwaltung, III. 528, 6. Juvenal, III. 223, seems to imply that the circus games were essentially Roman: —

Si potes avelli circensibus, optima Soræ

aut Fabrateriæ domus aut Frusione paratur;

cf. XI. 52: —

Ille dolor solus patriam fugientibus

caruisse anno circensibus uno.

12  Nissen, pp. 116 and 252; cf. Mau-Kelsey, chapters XX., XXI., and XXIX.

13  Friedl., II. p. 418, 10, and p. 635.

14  Hist. Aug. Marc. Antonin. 25. Avid. Cass. 9.

15  Tacitus, Annales, XIV. 17.

16  Mommsen, Staatsrecht, II. 887, 7; CIL, IX. 1156; X 1211.

17  Friedl. II. 423.

18  Martial, III. 16, 59, 99.

19  Juvenal, III. 35 ff.

20  Pliny, Epist., VI. 34.

21  Digest., XLVIII. 6, 10: qui ludos pecuniamve ab aliquo invito polliceri publice privatimve per iniuriam exegerit.

22  Suetonius, Tiberius, 37.

23  Digest., XXXIII. 1, 6 and 1, 21, 3; CIL, II. 4514.

24  Orelli, 81.

25  Friedl., II. 423 ff.

26  Petronius, chap. 45.

27  CIL, X. 1074 d.

28  Petronius, chap. 45: et revera, quid ille nobis boni fecit, etc.

29  CIL, X. 4760 (Suessa): . . . Aug. II. . . . quod . . . munus familiæ gladiatiriæ ex pecunia sua diem privatum secundum dignitatem coloniæ ediderit; cf. above, p. 18, note 2.

30  Friedl., III. 257 ff.

31  Cf. Funus publicum in the Notabilia varia in the Indices of CIL, X. and XIV. Cf. X. 3903 (Capua): vadimoniaque eius diei dif[ferantur ne per quas r]es possit imped[itus esse populus.] On the gift of a burial plot during the life of the recipient, cf. CIL, XIV. 2466 (Castrimœnium).

32  Friedl., III. 593 f.

33  Ovid, Fasti, III. 269; Friedl., II. 117, 7.

34  Ovid, Amores, III. 13.

35  Petronius, chap. 44.

36  Wilmanns, Ephemeris Epigraph., III. 279 f.

37  Tacitus, Historia, III. 30.

38  Blümner, Gewerbliche Thätigkeit d. Völker d. Klass. Altert., dritter Abschitt, §§ 19-23.

39  Friedl., I. 372-376.

40  Cicero, Pro Plancio, 8, 19.

41  Friedl., I. 130, 4.

42  Mommsen, Hermes, III. 102; Friedl., I. 252.

43  Orelli, 781; Friedl., III. 205.

44  Marquardt, Privatl., I. 202.

45  Pliny, Epistolæ, 4, 7, 2.

46  Persius, I. 129; Juvenal, X. 100; Horace, Satiræ, I. 5, 34.

47  Martial, XII. præfatio.

48  Pliny, Epistolæ, I. 14, 4; Martial, XI. 16, 8; Tacitus, Annales, XVI. 5: sed qui otis e municipiis severaque adhuc et antiqui moris retinente Italia . . . advenerant, etc.

49  Martial, IV. 66.

50  Juvenal, III. 168 ff.

51  Cass. Dio, LXXVI. 2; Statius, Silvæ, III, 5, 78 ff.

52  Juvenal, III. 190 ff. 223ff.

Elf.Ed. Notes

*  ab ovo usque ad mala — “From the egg to the apples”, i.e. soup to nuts. From Horace, Satires I, iii, 6-7.


[The End of the Online Text of Town Life in Ancient Italy, by Friedlander, translated by Waters.]


[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]