Life in the Roman Empire revolved around the city of Rome, and its famed seven hills. The city also had several theaters. gymnasiums, and many taverns, baths and brothels. Throughout the territory under Rome’s control, residential architecture ranged from very modest houses to country villas, and in the capital city of Rome, to the residences on the elegant Palatine Hill, from which the word “palace” is derived. The vast majority of the population lived in the city center, packed into apartment blocks.
Most Roman towns and cities had a forum and temples, as did the city of Rome itself. Aqueducts were built to bring water to urban centers and wine and oil were imported from abroad. Landlords generally resided in cities and their estates were left in the care of farm managers. To stimulate a higher labor productivity, many landlords freed a large numbers of slaves.
Beginning in the middle of the second century BC, Greek culture was increasingly ascendant, in spite of tirades against the “softening” effects of Hellenized culture. By the time of Augustus, cultured Greek household slaves taught the Roman young (sometimes even the girls). Greek sculptures adorned Hellenistic landscape gardening on the Palatine or in the villas, and much Roman cuisine was essentially Greek. Roman writers disdained Latin for a cultured Greek style.
As the empire expanded, and came to include people from a variety of cultures, the worship of an ever increasing number of deities was tolerated and accepted. The imperial government, and the Romans in general, tended to be very tolerant towards most religions and cults, so long as they did not cause trouble. This could easily be accepted by other faiths as Roman liturgy and ceremonies were frequently tailored to fit local culture and identity.
An individual could attend to both the Roman Gods representing his Roman identity and his own personal faith, which was considered part of his personal identity. There were periodic persecutions of various religions at various points in time, most notably that of Christians. As the historian Edward Gibbon noted, however, most of the recorded histories of Christian persecutions come to us through the Christian church, which had an incentive to exaggerate the degree to which the persecutions occurred. The non-Christian contemporary sources only mention the persecutions passingly and without assigning great importance to them.
In an effort to enhance loyalty, the inhabitants of the empire were called to participate in the Imperial cult to revere (usually deceased) emperors as demigods. Few emperors claimed to be Gods while living, with the few exceptions being emperors who were widely regarded at the time to be insane (such as Caligula). Doing so in the early empire would have risked revealing the shallowness of what the emperor Augustus called the “restored republic” and would have had a decidedly eastern quality to it. It was, for example, his attempt to make himself a god (in the mold of the kings of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which he had conquered) that helped to turn Alexander the Great’s troops against him. Since the tool was mostly one the emperor used to control his subjects, its usefulness was greatest in the chaotic later empire, when the emperors were often Christians and unwilling to participate in the practice.
Usually, an emperor was deified after his death by his successor in an attempt by that successor to enhance his own prestige. This practice can be misunderstood, however, since “deification” was to the ancient world what canonization is to the Christian world. Likewise, the term “God” had a different context in the ancient world. This could be seen during the years of the Roman Republic with religio-political practices such as the disbanding of a senate session if it was believed the Gods disapproved of the session or wished a particular vote. Deification was one of the many honors a dead emperor was entitled to, as the Romans (more than modern societies) placed great prestige on honors and national recognitions.
The importance of the Imperial cult slowly grew, reaching its peak during the Crisis of the Third Century. Especially in the eastern half of the empire imperial cults grew very popular. As such it was one of the major agents of romanization. The central elements of the cult complex were next to a temple; a theatre or amphitheatre for gladiator displays and other games and a public bath complex. Sometimes the imperial cult was added to the cults of an existing temple or celebrated in a special hall in the bath complex.
The seriousness of this belief is unclear. Some Romans ridiculed the notion that a Roman emperor was to be considered a living god, or would even make fun of the deification of an emperor after his death. Seneca the Younger parodied the notion of apotheosis in his only known satire The Pumpkinification of Claudius, in which the clumsy and ill-spoken Claudius is not transformed into a god, but into a pumpkin. In fact, bitter sarcasm was already effected at Claudius’ funeral in 54.
Christianity, originally a Jewish religious sect, emerged in Roman Judea in the first century AD. The religion gradually spread out of Judea, initially establishing major bases in first Antioch, then Alexandria, and over time throughout the Empire. For the first two centuries, the imperial authorities largely viewed Christianity simply as a Jewish sect rather than a distinct religion. Suetonius mentions passingly that: “Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief” but he does not explain for what they were punished
Tacitus reports that after the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 some in the population held Nero responsible and that to diffuse blame, he targeted and blamed the Christians. The war against the Jews during Nero’s reign, which so destabilized the empire that it led to the first civil war since the days of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, as well as Nero’s suicide, plausibly provided an additional rationale for persecutions against this ‘Jewish’ sect.
Persecution of Christians would be a recurring theme in the Empire for the next two centuries. Eusebius and Lactantius document the last great persecution of the Christians under Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century at the urging of Galerius. This was the most vicious persecution of Christians in the Empire’s history. After Diocletian, however, the fact that emperors were often Christians themselves lessened whatever persecutions may have still been occurring.
As the 4th century progressed, Christianity had become so widespread that it became officially tolerated, then promoted (Constantine I), and in 380 established as the Empire’s official religion (Theodosius I). By the 5th century Christianity had become the Empire’s predominant religion rapidly changing the Empire’s identity even as the Western provinces collapsed. This would lead to the persecution of the traditional polytheistic religions that had previously characterized most of the Empire.
Many aspects of Roman culture were borrowed from the Greeks. In architecture and sculpture, the difference between Greek models and Roman paintings are apparent. The chief Roman contributions to architecture were the arch and the dome. Rome has also had a tremendous impact on Western cultures following it. Its significance is perhaps best reflected in its endurance and influence, as is seen in the longevity and lasting importance of works of Virgil and Ovid. Latin, the Republic’s primary language, remains used in religion, science, and law.
The center of the early social structure was the family, which was not only marked by blood relations but also by the legally constructed relation of patria potestas. The Pater familias was the absolute head of the family; he was the master over his wife, his children, the wives of his sons, the nephews, the slaves and the freedmen, disposing of them and of their goods at will, even putting them to death. Roman law recognized only patrician families as legal entities.
Slavery and slaves were part of the social order; there were slave markets where they could be bought and sold. Many slaves were freed by the masters for services rendered; some slaves could save money to buy their freedom. Generally mutilation and murder of slaves was prohibited by legislation. It is estimated that over 25% of the Roman population was enslaved.
Following various military conquests in the Greek East, Romans adapted a number of Greek educational precepts to their own fledgling system. Home was often the learning center, where children were taught Roman law, customs, and physical training to prepare the boys to grow as Roman citizens and for eventual recruitment into the army. Conforming to discipline was a point of great emphasis. Girls generally received instruction from their mothers in the art of spinning, weaving, and sewing.
Schooling in a more formal sense was begun around 200 BC. Education began at the age of around six, and in the next six to seven years, boys and girls were expected to learn the basics of reading, writing and counting. By the age of twelve, they would be learning Latin, Greek, grammar and literature, followed by training for public speaking. Oratory was an art to be practiced and learnt, and good orators commanded respect. To become an effective orator was one of the objectives of education and learning. In some cases, services of gifted slaves were utilized for imparting education.
The native language of the Romans was Latin. Although surviving Latin literature consists almost entirely of Classical Latin, an artificial and highly stylized and polished literary language from the 1st century BC, the actual spoken language was Vulgar Latin, which significantly differed from Classical Latin in grammar, vocabulary, and eventually pronunciation. Rome’s expansion spread Latin throughout Europe, and over time Vulgar Latin evolved and dialectized in different locations, gradually shifting into a number of distinct Romance languages. Many of these languages, including French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish, flourished, the differences between them growing greater over time. Although English is Germanic rather than Romanic in origin, English borrows heavily from Latin and Latin-derived words.
Roman literature was from its very inception influenced heavily by Greek authors. Some of the earliest works we possess are of historical epics telling the early military history of Rome. As the republic expanded, authors began to produce poetry, comedy, history, and tragedy. Virgil represents the pinnacle of Roman epic poetry. His Aeneid tells the story of flight of Aeneas from Troy and his settlement of the city that would become Rome. Lucretius, in his On the Nature of Things, attempted to explicate science in an epic poem. The genre of satire was common in Rome, and satires were written by, among others, Juvenal and Persius. The rhetorical works of Cicero are considered to be some of the best bodies of correspondence recorded in antiquity.
In the 3rd century BC, Greek art taken as booty from wars became popular, and many Roman homes were decorated with landscapes by Greek artists. Portrait sculpture during the period utilized youthful and classical proportions, evolving later into a mixture of realism and idealism. Advancements were also made in relief sculptures, often depicting Roman victories.
Music was a major part of everyday life. The word itself derives from Greek μουσική (mousike), “(art) of the Muses”. Many private and public events were accompanied by music, ranging from nightly dining to military parades and maneuvers. In a discussion of any ancient music, however, non-specialists and even many musicians have to be reminded that much of what makes our modern music familiar to us is the result of developments only within the last 1,000 years; thus, our ideas of melody, scales, harmony, and even the instruments we use would not be familiar to Romans who made and listened to music many centuries earlier.
Over time, Roman architecture was modified as their urban requirements changed, and the civil engineering and building construction technology became developed and refined. The Roman concrete has remained a riddle, and even after more than 2,000 years some Roman structures still stand magnificently. The architectural style of the capital city was emulated by other urban centers under Roman control and influence. Roman cities were well planned, efficiently managed and neatly maintained.
The city of Rome had a place called the Campus Martius (“Field of Mars”), which was a sort of drill ground for Roman soldiers. Later, the Campus became Rome’s track and field playground. In the campus, the youth assembled to play and exercise, which included jumping, wrestling, boxing and racing. Riding, throwing, and swimming were also preferred physical activities. In the countryside, pastime also included fishing and hunting. Board games played in Rome included Dice (Tesserae or Tali), Roman Chess (Latrunculi), Roman Checkers (Calculi), Tic-tac-toe (Terni Lapilli), and Ludus duodecim scriptorum and Tabula, predecessors of backgammon. There were several other activities to keep people engaged like chariot races, musical and theatrical performances,
A Gladiator (Latin: gladiator, “swordsman”, from gladius, “sword”) was an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals. Some gladiators were volunteers who risked their legal and social standing and their lives by appearing in the arena. Most were despised as slaves, schooled under harsh conditions, socially marginalized, and segregated even in death. Irrespective of their origin, gladiators offered audiences an example of Rome’s martial ethics and, in fighting or dying well, they could inspire admiration and popular acclaim. They were celebrated in high and low art, and their value as entertainers was commemorated in precious and commonplace objects throughout the Roman world.
The origin of gladiatorial combat is open to debate (see next section). There is evidence of it in funeral rites during the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BCE, and thereafter it rapidly became an essential feature of politics and social life in the Roman world. Its popularity led to its use in ever more lavish and costly spectacles or “gladiatorial games”. The games reached their peak between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE, and they persisted not only throughout the social and economic crises of the declining Roman state but even after Christianity became the official religion in the 4th century CE. Christian emperors continued to sponsor such entertainments until at least the late 5th century CE, when the last known gladiator games took place.
In recent years, question relating to ancient demographics have received increasingly more scholarly attention, with estimates of the population size of the Roman empire at its demographic peak now varying between 60-70 million (“low count”) and over 100 million (“high count”). Even by adhering to the more traditional value of 55 million inhabitants, the Roman Empire constituted the most populous Western political unity until the mid-19th century and on a global scale probably until around AD 1000.