Essential Histories

Essential Histories

Essential Classical Societies

Roman Society Celtic Society Hellenic Diadochi Carthage German Tribes

Scythians Dacia Illyrians Libyans Iberians Arabs


Online Sources Books & Articles Videos

Roman Society

The Family

The Roman family was made up of those persons who were subject to the authority of the Head of the House, known by the Romans as the "pater familias". Members of the family were not necessarily biological relatives, included in the family could be wife, children, adoptives, clients, and household slaves.

Children & Education

Early Education

A young child often was trained at home. The training of the children was conducted by the father and mother in person. Wealthier families who could afford a Greek slave might have the child trained by a Greek slave. Reverence for the gods, respect for the law, obedience to authority, truthfulness, and self-reliance were the most important early lessons for the child to learn. Until the age of seven both boys and girls had their mother for their teacher. From her they learned to speak correctly their native tongue. The mother taught them the elements of reading and writing and as much of the simpler operations of arithmetic as children so young could learn.

From about the age of seven the boy passed under the care of regular teachers and his father, but the girl remained with her mother. From her mother she learned to spin and weave and sew and everything else that needed to be learned about the household economy.

If the father was a farmer, as many Romans were in earlier times, the boy helped in the fields and learned to plow and plant and reap. If the father was a man of high position and lived in the capital, the boy stood by him in his atrium as he received his guests, learned to know their faces, names, and rank, and acquired a practical knowledge of politics and affairs of state.

Since every male Roman was bred a soldier, the father trained the son in the use of arms and in the various military exercises, as well as in the sports of riding, swimming, wrestling, and boxing.

Both the boy and girl learned about the history of the great family of which they were a part, and with it the history of Rome, when for instance on great occasions the cabinets in the atrium were opened and the wax busts of the ancestors displayed.

Elementary Schools

In the elementary schools the only subjects taught were reading, writing, and arithmetic. With regard to the first, great stress was laid upon the pronunciation. In arithmetic harder sums were worked out with the help of the reckoning board known as an abacus.

Grammar Schools

After the Punic Wars contacts followed with other peoples and this led to an extension of Roman education for higher or wealthier classes. Greek language and ideas came to be generally learned in Grammar schools. If a boy was part of the household of a senator and showed signs of extraordinary ability of rudimentary retoric, then he might move on to a school of retoric.

Schools of Rhetoric

The Schools of Rhetoric were formed on Greek lines and conducted by Greek teachers. They were not a part of the regular system of education, but were somewhat similar to modern colleges. If the son was part of a particular noble and wealthy family, or if the young man had shown promise, then he might travel to a school of retoric in Greece, Rhodes or Asia Minor. Julius Ceasar for example travelled to such a school when during his travel he was kidnapped by Cilician pirates.

Professional Training

For professional training no provision was offered. If a young citizen wished to learn about matters of administration, jurisprudence, diplomacy or war, then he would attach himself to an older man who had great experience in these matters.

Slaves & Clients


Slavery was always known at Rome. In the early days of the Republic, the farm was the only place where slaves were employed. The fact that most of the Romans were farmers and that they and their free laborers were constantly called from the fields to fight the battles of their country led to a gradual increase in the number of slaves. As result of Roman conquests after the Punic Wars this led to an abudance of captive slaves from conquered areas. In later years as result of this abundance it became more customary to employ slaves in personal service or in industrial pursuits.

Slaves could not expect gentleness or mercy from their Roman masters. Romans were generally shrewd businessmen who saw the slave as a valuable piece of property. As such the Roman master generally tried to avoid to run the risk of loss or injury of that property by wanton cruelty. Slaves were often fed on coarse food and enjoyed no luxuries.

Punishment of slaves was generally severe. A slave who had fled and was caught, would be send to the quarries, where he would spend the remainder of his life doing hard manual labor. If a slave took part in an inssurection, or made an attempt upon the life of his master, then the penality was death by crucifixion. The most serious insurrections often took place on rural estates on the island of Sicily, but the most famous insurrection was the one led by the Thracian slave known as Spartacus. It is said that when the revolt led by Spartacus failed, as many as 12000 slaves were crucified along the Via Appia, the main southern road towards the city of Rome.

Slave dealers usually offered their wares at public auction sales. The prices of slaves varied as did the prices of other commodities. The average price for a slave was about a few hundred sestersia (the modern day equivalent of a year salary, or the price of a car).

Slaves could be freed by a legal process known as manumission and many were emancipated when they reached old age and had served their master well. Emancipated slaves enjoyed the status of freedmen and some stayed on in employment with their former masters as free laborers on a small wage.


Clients were dependents of a household, but were not directly part of that household. Many clients were free retainers. In turn for financial support the clients might be called upon by their host to perform certain duties or for instance to aide them in elections.

Dress & Personal Ornaments

From the earliest to the latest times the clothing of the Romans was very simple, consisting ordinarily of two or three articles only. The Romans were influenced in their clothing fashion by the Etruscans to the north and the Greeks to the south of them.


The subligaculum, or the loin cloth was the only undergarment worn by the Romans.


The tunic was worn in the house without any outer garment and probably without a girdle. It was a plain woolen shirt, made of two pieces, back and front, which were sewed together at the sides. It usually had very short sleeves, covering hardly half of the upper arm. It was long enough to reach from the neck to the calf, but if the wearer desired greater freedom for his limbs he could shorten it by merely pulling it through a girdle or belt worn around the waist. Tunics with sleeves reaching to the wrists and tunics falling to the ankles were not unknown in the late Republic, but were considered unmanly and effeminate.

Tunics of women were fuller and longer, usually extending to the feet. There were two basic styles of tunic, both similar to tunics worn by Greek women. The two styles were the more elaborate Peplos and the more common Chiton. At the time of her marriage, the Roman woman donned the stola, a long, sleeveless tunic, frequently if not always suspended at the shoulders from short straps, which was worn on top of another tunic. It is probable that the stola was typically made of undyed wool. The stola was a symbol of marriage, and by the late Republic all women married according to Roman law were entitled to wear it.

The tunic of the ordinary citizen was the natural color of the white wool of which it was made, without trimmings or ornaments of any kind. Knights and senators, on the other hand, had stripes of crimson. Crimson was a kind of deep red akin to purple. The color came from a dye made from a sea mollusk. The Phoenicians, especially those from the city of Tyre, are most famously credited with discovering how to manufacture the purple dye from this mollusk. The purple dye was very expensive and the color itself therefore became associated with that of a high status individual.


Of the outer garments or wraps the most ancient and the most important was the toga. The toga was worn on formal occasions. No foreign nation had a robe of the same material and no foreigner was allowed to wear it, even the banished citizen left the toga, with his civil rights behind him.

Hairstyles & Jewelry

Women relied mostly on elaborate hairstyles and jewelry rather than clothing to vary their appearance. In later years some of these styles were influenced by coiffures adopted by empresses.

Fashionable upper-class women wore considerable amounts of jewelry. One design that persisted from a very early period to late antiquity was the fibula, a pin whose basic design resembled a modern safety pin. It was a useful clothing fastener and was often beautifully decorated. A common collection of jewelry frequently included: earrings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets and rings of gold. Gold bracelets were often fashioned in the form of snakes, and rings often had relief carvings.

Men wore little to no jewelry. Men generally shaved their beards, except for the very poor who could not afford a barber.


By the first century B.C. the use of a mantle called a lacerna came into fashion. The lacerna was a woolen mantle, short, light, open at the side, without sleeves, but fastened with a brooch or buckle on the right shoulder. It seems to have been used first by soldiers and the lower classes and then adopted by their betters on account of its convenience. The better citizens wore it at first over the toga as a protection against dust and sudden showers. The lacerna was so easy and comfortable that it began to be worn not over the toga but instead of it.


Older than the lacerna and used by all sorts and conditions of men was the paenula. The paenula was a heavy coarse wrap of wool, leather, or fur, used merely for protection against rain or cold. It was never considered a substitute for the toga or made of fine materials or bright colors.


Two styles of footwear were in use, slippers or sandals. The slipper was generally worn indoors and the sandal out of doors. The slipper known as the soleae consisted essentially of a sole of leather or matting attached to the foot in various ways, while the sandal was much heavier and less comfortable.

Food & Meals

Staple Food

The staple food for the ordinary Roman was grain. For the very poor this grain was mashed up in a porridge called puls, for wealthier people the grain was ground up and baked into a coarse bread. In earlier years much of the grain used for consumption was barley, oats, or rye. These grains were initially grown locally or generally imported from Illyrian lands. In later years barley was considered substandard and came to be used as animal fodder, instead later Romans consumed mostly wheat. Spelt was the most commonly used type of wheat. When Rome started to expand, local cultivation of grain ceased and the Romans instead started to rely on imports of wheat, first from Sicily, then from Africa and Egypt. The local lands that had initially been used for grain production were often diverted for the production of grapes.

Olives & Olive Oil

Next in importance to the wheat came the olive. It was introduced into Italy from Greece. The olive was eaten fresh as it ripened and was also preserved in various ways. The olive was also used in the production of olive oil.

Olive oil was used for several purposes. It was employed at first to anoint the body after bathing, it was used as a vehicle for perfumes, it was burned in lamps, and it was an indispensable article of food. As a food it was employed in its natural state as butter is now in cooking, or in relishes, or dressings.

Grapes & Wine

Grapes could be grown almost anywhere in Italy, but the best wines were made south of Rome within the confines of Latium and Campania. The juice as it came from the press was called mustum and was often drunk unfermented. Fermented wine known as vinum, was made by collecting the mustum in huge vat-like jars. One of these was large enough to hide a man and held a hundred gallons or more. These were covered with pitch within and without and partially buried in the ground in cellars or vaults. They were often tightly sealed, and opened only when the wine required attention or was to be removed. The cheaper wines were used directly, but the choicer kinds were drawn off after a year into smaller jars called amphorae. These choicer kinds were clarified and even doctored with spices and honey in various ways, and finally stored in depositories.

After water and milk, wine was the ordinary drink of the Romans of all classes. The Romans always mixed it with water and used more water than wine. A favorite drink was mulsum, made of four measures of wine and one of honey.

Fruits & Vegetables

The apple, pear, plum, quince, olive, and grape were familiar to the peoples in Italy. All these fruits were abundant and cheap in their seasons. By the first century B.C. new fruits were introduced, such as the peach, pomegranate, cherry, and lemon.

Among the nuts were the walnut, hazelnut, these were supplemented by later introductions, such as the almond and the pistachio.

The Romans were familiar with many kinds of vegetables such as artichokes, asparagus, beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, chicory, garlic, lentils, onions, peas, radishes, and turnips.


The Romans ate, pork, beef, and mutton. Of all these meats the flesh of goats was considered the poorest and was primarily eaten by the poorer classes. Beef was a mark of luxury and was quite expensive. Pork was widely used by rich and poor alike, and was considered the choicest of all domestic meats.

The common domestic fowls, like chickens, ducks, geese, as well as pigeons, were eaten by the Romans, and, besides these, the wealthy raised various sorts of wild fowl for the table. Wild animals also were bred for food in similar preserves, the hare and the wild boar were the favorite. The latter was served whole upon the table, as in feudal times. Of particular note was the dormouse, though small in stature, the Romans considered it a great delicacy.

Fish & Garum

By the end of the Republic fish was widely consumed. Salt fish was exceedingly cheap and was imported in many forms from almost all the Mediterranean harbors.

Fish was also used in the production of garum. Garum was a fermented fish sauce and used as a condiment in almost every meal, much like ketchup is today.


Cheese was widely available and the Romans ate plenty of it. It could be made from the milk of goats, sheep or that of cows. The Romans did not use butter as food. There was little knowledge of butter and butter was used as a plaster for wounds.

Seasoning & Spices

Salt was at first obtained by the evaporation of sea water, but was afterwards mined. Its manufacture was a monopoly of the government, and care was taken always to keep the price low. It was used not only for seasoning, but also as a preservative agent.

Vinegar was made from grapes.

Honey took the place of sugar on the table and in cooking.

Anise, cumin, fennel, mint, and mustard were common herbs and were raised everywhere.

The Romans did import an abundant amount of spices from the Far East, but these imported spices were expensive and beyond the reach of the poor.


Ordinary Romans ate at a table in the atrium, while the wealthy lay on a couch known as a lectus in a formal dining room known as a triclinium. Table knives and forks were unknown, the food was cut into convenient portions before it was served, and spoons were used to convey to the mouth what the fingers could not manage.

Most Romans had three meals a day. The chief meal was known as the cena and was eaten in the middle of the day, it was preceded by a breakfast called the ientaculum in the early morning and followed in the evening by a supper known as the vesperna. In larger cities the cena was often postponed until the work of the day was finished and a luncheon known as a prandium took its place. The breakfast and prandium were very simple and informal meals.

Late dinner came to be more or less of a social function, as guests were present and the food and service were the best the house could afford. For the very rich some of these late dinners turned into elaborate banquets, with ostentatious display of furniture, plate, and food, and with many courses, vast quantities of food and rare delicacies.

Even the simplest dinner was divided into three parts, the gustus or appetizer, the cena or the dinner proper, and the secunda mensa or dessert. The dinner was made elaborate by having each part served in several courses. As dinners served a social function, they could be prolonged with conversation. The younger men in the capital might follow the cena proper with a drinking bout known as a comissatio.

Ordinary Life

Country Life

Most men in the countryside were farmers, as agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. The farmer worked seven days a week, though the slaves at a farm did most of the hard work. At market days the farmer might go into town and catch up on the latest gossip.

Town Life

The towns were for the most part self-governing. Charters were established for many of the towns and the magistrates were elected by popular vote. Most citizens in town worked in the small shops and plied their crafts. They expected the magistrates to see to it that bread and oil, the two great necessities of life, were abundant and cheap in the markets. They also expected them to furnish entertainment in the shape of games in the amphitheater and theater and of feasts as well. Even small towns had their public baths. The baths were social gathering places where rich and poor alike came to talk and hear the latest news. The bath was regularly taken between the siesta and the main meal. Each town was modeled upon Rome, though domestic architecture varied.


Many ordinary Romans played dice in the inns. The Romans also liked to watch plays at the theatre, of these plays, the comedies were the most popular with the common people. However, the most popular and sought after forms of entertainment were chariot races at the circus and gladiatorial games at the amphitheatre. Chariot races were particularly popular with many young men and many fanatically supported their team, much like football fans today.

Travel & Correspondence

The Romans often used sailing vessels to traverse water. The Roman who traveled by land often did so on foot. Travel by horseback was uncommon but there were vehicles, covered and uncovered, with two wheels and with four, for one horse and for two or more. Many of the more frequented highways had inns along the way. Many of these inns were of an unsavory reputation and higher classes stayed away from them as much as possible. The better roads were paved with gutters to drain the water on either side. Milestones showed the distance from the starting-point of the road and often that to important places in the opposite direction, as well as the names of the consuls or emperors under whom the roads were built or repaired.

Sending letters by special messengers was very expensive, especially over long distances, or over seas. Most correspondence was handled by traders and travelers going in the desired direction, except for the most urgent matters. Thread and wax was used for sealing a letter.

However there was a state-run courier and transportation service under the Roman Empire. A series of forts and stations were spread out along the major road systems connecting the regions of the Roman world. These relay points provided horses to dispatch riders, usually soldiers, and vehicles for magistrates or officers of the court.

The Home


Most ordinary Romans in the capital and other large cities lived inside apartment blocks known as insulae. These insulae were often three stories high. The best apartments were often at ground level and had small shops at the front. Since many of the upper apartments had no heating or running water, most poor Romans took their meals in small restaurants.


The upper classes and some wealthy freedmen resided in a house known as a domus. A typical domus would have an entrance hall known as a vestibulum which led to the main hall in the centre of the houses known as the atrium. Leading off the Atrium were bedrooms known as cubicula, a dining room known as a triclinium where guests could recline on couches and eat dinner whilst reclining, a living room or study known as a tablinum, and a kitchen known as a culina.


Some rich and powerful also had a country house known as villa. There were basically two kinds of villa. The villa urbana was a country seat that could easily be reached from Rome and was often a luxurious mansion. The other was the villa rustica or a farm house estate and was primarily the main house on a commercial farm.

Villa of the very wealthy could be richly adorned with marble columns and statues and some were so grand that they could basically be seen as small palaces.

Roman Agriculture

The best farm was considered a vineyard, followed by an irrigated garden, willow plantation, olive orchard, meadow, grain land, forest trees, and lastly acorn woodlands. Though Rome relied on resources from its many provinces acquired through conquest and warfare, wealthy Romans developed the land in Italy to produce a variety of crops.

Cows provided milk, and oxen and mules did the heavy work on the farm. Sheep and goats were cheese producers, and were prized for their hides. Horses were not widely used in farming, but were raised by the rich for racing or war. Sugar production centered on beekeeping.

Land Ownership

Land ownership was a dominant factor in distinguishing the aristocracy from the common person, and the more land a Roman owned, the more important he would be in the city. Soldiers were often rewarded with land from the commander they served. Though farms depended on slave labor, free men and citizens were hired at farms to oversee the slaves and ensure that the farms ran smoothly.

In the early years farms in Rome were small and family-owned. These small farms were gradually squeezed out of existence. Contact with Carthage, Greece, and the Hellenistic East improved agricultural methods. Roman agriculture reached its height in productivity and efficiency during the late republic and early empire.

Large estates were called Latifundia and held land in excess of 500 iugera. One iugerum was equal to about 0.65 acres or a quarter of a hectare.


There was much commerce between the provinces of the empire, and all regions of the empire were largely economically interdependent. Some provinces specialized in the production of grain, others in wine and others in olive oil, depending on the soil type.

Economics & Mechanization

A family of 6 people would need to cultivate about 20 iugera of land if the family owned animals.

The Romans improved crop growing by watering growing plants using aqueducts. Extensive sets of mills existed in Gaul and Rome to grind wheat into flour. Larger grain farms employed a mechanical reaper that was pulled by oxen.

The Roman Army

The Roman army during the Republic had a levy system and adopted the manipular organization from the Samnites. In time this army developed into a standing army supplemented with short term conscription and foreign mercenaries. During and after the 2nd Punic War, Roman armies were often accompanied by units of non-Italian mercenaries. These mercenaries were often Numidian light cavalry, Cretan archers, and Balearic slingers, who provided specialist functions that Roman armies had previously lacked.

The legions consisted almost entirely of heavy infantry. A typical legion numbered about 5,000 men, of which typically 4,200 were infantry and the remainder cavalry. Legions were flanked by the auxilia. Auxilia were a corps of regular troops recruited mainly from Roman subjects who did not hold Roman citizenship, often from conquered areas.

The term of service for an ordinary soldier in the army was typically 20 years, with 25 years for an auxilia. Auxilia and legionaries alike would be offered plots of land after their service in the army had ended and auxilia would also be offered Roman citizenship.

The manipular structure was gradually phased out, and the much larger cohort became the main tactical unit of a legion. A typical cohort consisted of 6 centuries each commanded by a centurion assisted by junior officers. Each century was typically made up of 10 contubernia. The contubernia was the smallest tactical unit in the Roman army and consisted of 8 men each. The remaining number of men required for a full count was taken up by various noncombatants attached for administrative, logistical or other purposes within the legion.

A century was commanded by a Centurion, who was assisted by an Optio or lieutenant and a sergeant Tesserarius. It had a banner or signum which was carried by a Signifer. Also, each century provided a Buccinator, who played a buccina, a kind of horn used to transmit acoustic orders.

Roman Religion

The religion of the Romans was originally a simple animism, that is, a belief in spirits or powers. These spirits were not personified and were initially not conceived of as human in form. Temples and statues of gods came with Estruscans. As the Romans came in contact with other peoples and their religions, and as they developed from a small Italian community to an imperialistic nation, their religion inevitably changed. Gods of conquered communities were brought in.

Priestly Colleges

Worship of the gods and proper assignment of festivals and its calender was organized by priestly colleges. Of these priestly colleges, the pontifices were in charge of the calender and the flamines in charge of the festivals, while the augurs interpreted the will of the gods through auspices. One of the oldest and most famous colleges was that of Vesta, whose worship was in care of the six Vestal Virgins.

Household Religion

The pater familias was the household priest and in charge of the family worship, he was assisted by his wife and children. The Lar Familiaris was the protecting spirit of the household in town and country. In the country, the Lares were also the guardian spirits of the fields and were worshiped at the crossroads. The shrine for the Lar Familiaris was commonly found inside the atrium.