Leisure, Recreation, and Daily Life: Overview

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264-476: Leisure, Recreation, and Daily Life: Overview

The Nature of the Sources. The question “What was daily life like in Roman antiquity?” is in some respects easy to respond to, yet, in other ways difficult to answer. It is easy to point to the sources at our disposal; works of art, ruins of buildings, and passages of literature. The difficulty lies in distinguishing between the experiences of those for whom the sources reveal the most, and the experiences of those for whom the sources reveal the least. The majority of people living in the Roman world must have been members of the latter category. Therefore, we can describe the lives of only a fraction of Rome’s population with a great degree of detail and accuracy. That fraction consisted of the economic, social, and political elite—for whom works of art were produced and luxury homes were built, and by whom much literature was written.

Common Experiences. It is not impossible, however, to describe experiences that were common to both the elite and the nonelite of the Roman world. Large public buildings, for example, were intended to accommodate members of all Roman classes. Therefore, members of all classes witnessed the same public spectacles, the same public entertainments in the same buildings at the same time. We know that members of all classes derived essentially the same benefits from public works such as paved roads and public access to water supplied by the aqueducts. We know that the same public bathing experience was available to all Roman citizens wherever there existed public bathing facilities. The process of “Romanization” (the assimilation of Roman culture by peoples outside of the city of Rome proper) fairly guaranteed the consistency of these experiences throughout the Roman world. The experiences that were peculiar to the lower classes are documented less fully, and therefore are known mostly from inference. Such experiences were certainly no less “Roman” or culturally valid for their lack of evidence, and certainly have a place in any general study of Rome.

Roman Calendar. Whether an individual was a senator, farmer, or slave did not change the fact that the sunrises and the sun sets, or the fact that the length of daylight hours changes seasonally. All Romans had to rise at dawn to take advantage of the natural light if they intended to accomplish anything. The position of the sun was precisely the same for all classes in any given location, and so the Roman calendar, with all its faults and peculiarities, was faulty and peculiar to all Romans alike. Still, Romans across the Roman world divided the year into months, the months into days, and the days into hours as best they could. Their market days were held at regular intervals, and they observed religious holidays by ceasing all business and legal activities.

Class Distinctions. Other truly daily activities, such as eating, could certainly reveal distinctions of social and economic class. The poor person’s diet was restricted by cost, and therefore was less elaborate and perhaps less appealing than the diet of wealthy individuals who could afford a wider range of foods than just grain and simple vegetables. The manner of taking one’s meal was also determined by class; who but the rich could afford the space to accommodate the requisite number of dining couches for a formal dinner party, not to mention the expense? It is no surprise that fine silver plate and utensils have been discovered in the urban houses of wealthy families, while the poor no doubt ate from simple earthenware or wooden vessels.

Various Living Arrangements. Living arrangements in the Roman world were as diverse in size, comfort, and decoration as the population was diverse in socio-economic class and individual tastes. Again, the evidence for domestic experience is skewed in favor of the rich, the remains of whose villas and townhouses can be seen in almost all parts of the world where Romans established provinces and colonies. The surviving remains of apartments and tenements, however, give a glimpse into the lives of the more populous lower classes. Nevertheless, we can learn a great deal about the daily life of the Romans from what survives, particularly in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were frozen in time in 79 C.E. because of the eruption of the volcano Mt. Vesuvius. Ostia, Rome’s port city at the mouth of the Tiber River, shows some remarkable differences in housing preferences from those of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Archaeological evidence from these and other Roman cities gives us insight into the layout of Roman houses and trends in their decoration, the nature of ancient apartment complexes, and the conditions of small rental units in buildings otherwise occupied by single families or various businesses.

Combined Evidence. The combination of archaeological and literary evidence helps us to understand certain aspects of living arrangements more fully than we would from either source alone. While we can see how Romans built and decorated their homes from the physical remains around Europe and Africa, we know something of the Romans’ attitudes toward their own domestic experience from literature. Authors such as Pliny, Cicero, and Martial reveal thoughts about living conditions, the distractions of city life, the calm of country life, and the hazards of being a landlord. Without their intellectual contributions we cannot understand houses as homes, or lives as lifestyles.

Documentary Media. In addition to the remains of public and domestic buildings, and existing literature, Romans documented their lives in various artistic media. Traditional Roman households kept portrait busts of deceased relatives, as well as wax death masks, which were then worn by participants in funeral processions. Larger statuary depicting prominent Roman citizens, as well as art commissioned by the Roman state, allow us to see a more public side of Roman life. From these sources details about Roman clothing come to life. We are able to re-create among other items the forms of the Roman gentleman’s toga, the lady’s palla, and the soldier’s boots. The materials and colors, however, are known mostly through their descriptions in Latin literature, and from what few articles survive of ancient Roman clothing. Careful comparison of the many statues produced throughout Roman history and across the Roman world helps us to understand how clothing differed by region and era.

Contemporary Attitudes. Other aspects of Roman life, such as education, have a narrower range of documentary media. Individuals with a vested interest in education describe the nature of the ancient Roman curricula and the quality of instruction. These same authors also reveal contemporary attitudes about schooling, as well as how some students responded to their instructors. Likewise, the Roman diet has fewer documentary sources than architecture, for example, and what we know comes primarily from literary sources.

Leisure Activities. Some of the most fully documented activities are those leisure-time pursuits enjoyed by crowds around the entire Roman world. As the influence of Rome encroached upon native cultures outside of the capital city and the Italian peninsula, the Romans placed their stamp of Romanitas (“Roman-ness”) everywhere they went. Town planning was standardized to include public baths, a theater, an amphitheater, and a town center or forum. Aqueducts ensured a continuous supply of water for drinking, bathing, laundering, and anything else that required it. Paved roads ensured efficient transportation, particularly of Roman soldiers. Cities on the Italian peninsula and in Gaul, Britain, and Africa displayed the unmistakable characteristics of mother Rome.

Free Time. The large public buildings where all classes of Roman society gathered to relax, to exercise, or to be entertained provide the most obvious evidence of how they spent their leisure time. Various artistic media portray circus races, wild beast hunts, gladiators, and theatrical performances. Many Roman authors discuss these same topics in various literary genres. All these sources combined provide so fully detailed a description of leisure pursuits as to suggest that Romans had too much leisure time at their disposal. Such a suggestion is not entirely inaccurate, but must be considered within a well-defined historical context.

War and Change. The era of the Punic Wars (246–146 B.C.E.) was a dramatic turning point in the development of Roman culture. As a result of the First Punic War (246–241) Rome gained control of the island of Sicily, the first thrust of expansion beyond the Italian peninsula. More importantly in terms of cultural development, Romans were now engaging more actively with societies whose cultural origins were Greek rather than Italian. Until this time, Roman contact with Greek culture was scant and confined to the Greek cities of southern Italy and whatever Rome’s Etruscan neighbors had managed to assimilate. The conquest of Sicily, however, brought Roman soldiers into full contact with things Greek. They naturally had the opportunity to view Greek-style theater and art, both of which found a new home in Rome. They also witnessed the luxury of Greek court life, and the amenities of Greek cities. During the era of the Punic Wars the first playwrights began to work at Rome. The Greek playwright Livius Andronicus was brought from Tarentum to Rome, where he translated the works of Homer and Greek plays. Plautus and Terence were also active during this era and wrote comedies in Latin based on Greek models but intended for a Latin-speaking audience.

Traditions Threatened. As a result of the Second Punic War (218–201 B.C.E.), Rome gained control of Spain and therefore the desirable resources of precious metal mines on the Iberian peninsula. Roman interest and affinity for Greek culture continued to grow as a result of wars fought in the East, particularly with Macedonia (215-147 B.C.E.), and the conquest of these areas had a significant impact on the course of cultural development back at Rome. Many educated Greeks were brought back to Rome, usually as slaves, and they found new homes within the families of Rome’s socially and economically privileged upper classes, where they often functioned as tutors to their owners’ children. Many such Greeks brought with them their philosophical principles and trades, including the practice of medicine. With the destruction of Carthage (146 B.C.E.) following the Third Punic War and the fall of the Greek city-state of Corinth in the same year, Rome’s dominance in the Mediterranean was fixed. The newfound wealth of material resources from the East lined the coffers of both state and private citizens, and from this era forward Romans enjoyed an increase in purchasing power for luxury goods on a scale previously unknown to Rome.

Acceptance of Change. As a result of wars of conquest, Rome’s economic power grew within the last two centuries of the old, traditional Republic, and therefore many of the traditionally elite classes were slow to accept changes that they perceived as a threat to the traditional ways of Roman life. Not every Roman embraced the Hellenistic Greek culture that was seeping into a traditionally conservative, practical Roman society. Marcus Porcius Cato, who advocated the destruction of Carthage, was no enthusiastic supporter of Greek culture, and although he understood the value of learning the Greek language he remained scornful of Greek tutors and disdainful of Romans who affected Greek ways. Such xenophobia explains in part why Romans, who had been enjoying Greek-style entertainment in the form of theatrical productions, did not have a permanent theater in which to produce them until 55 B.C.E. The conservative Roman suspicion of mass public gatherings, particularly of the lower classes, also explains their reluctance to provide a permanent place in which crowds of people might gather. By the time of the Augustan era, Rome had three permanent theaters, at least two circuses, and its first large public bathing facility. Any reservations about public assemblies seem to have been shed by the end of Augustus’s reign (14 C.E.).

Greek Influence. Rome’s growing fondness for large public buildings gleaming with marble exteriors is a direct result of her contact with the Hellenistic cities where Greeks had long been erecting such structures. In spite of such changes in attitudes toward public gathering places, Romans continued to impose upon public audiences a hierarchical structure to reflect the socio-economic distinctions of class and gender. Romans in attendance at the theater and amphitheater sat according to rank; the first fourteen rows of seats were reserved for senators, with equites (knights) behind them, and so on. Women and slaves could occupy the seats furthest from the stage. Only at the circus did men and women mingle freely.

Changing Tastes. As Rome conquered the Mediterranean and beyond, she grew not only rich but also more sophisticated in matters of taste and elegance. The outward appearance of Rome’s large public buildings received aesthetic attention, and so too did private homes, wardrobes, and dinner tables. Many works of Greek art found their way into Roman public buildings and the private homes of Roman generals responsible for subjugating Greek cities. As more territory was amassed in the form of provinces, more Roman men had opportunities to engage in foreign service, and the less scrupulous of them extorted money and property from their provinces. Some of this wealth was spent on expensive building materials in private homes, including various marbles from outside of Italy that were not previously used in domestic architecture.

Cutting Edge. Although the basic shape of clothing did not change radically during the Roman Empire, different fabrics and colors came in and out of fashion as the rich often expressed their affluence by displaying the most recent developments in materials and pigments. Perhaps the most outrageous display of wastefulness was found in Roman dining rooms. At least from the time of Augustus onward we find many literary references to food and contemporary dining practices. Just as some Romans strove to be on the cutting edge of fashion, some also exerted a great deal of effort to create new culinary delights from a host of exotic ingredients. Romans not only served strange new foods but also hosted large dinner parties with entertainment. The host tried to combine a menu of enticingly diverse dishes for a guest list of equally interesting friends and acquaintances.

Conspicuous Consumption. From the era of the Punic Wars onward, Rome periodically enacted sumptuary laws that were meant to curb conspicuous consumption and extravagant personal appearance. The first of these ordinances, the lex Oppia of 215 B.C.E. (Oppian Law), was sponsored by the tribune Gaius Oppius and forbade women to own more than half an ounce of gold, to wear multicolored clothing, or to ride in two-horsed vehicles within the city of Rome. Although this particular law was associated with efforts to reduce the consumption of resources during a period of warfare, not every sumptuary law could claim such an excuse. Naturally these measures were directed at people who could afford to spend a great deal of money on food, houses, and clothing, namely the upper class. The lex Oppia was subsequently repealed in 195, but other laws followed during the next fifty years. Further legislation attempted to regulate the amount of money people could spend on private entertainment, the number of guests at such entertainments, and other aspects of personal conduct. It seems that outside of efforts to conserve resources in times of war, efforts to enforce conformity and adherence to more traditionally frugal Roman customs were the causes for these legal restrictions.

Public Entertainment. Toward the end of the Republic, Romans were spending huge amounts of money not only for their personal comfort but for public entertainment as well. As tastes became more sophisticated along with the expansion of the Roman world, there was a corresponding development in the scale and variety of public entertainment produced at Rome. Entertainment paid for by a public official was deemed necessary to ensure that man’s future political success as he moved up the cursus honorum. Novelty and variety were desirable qualities. Theatrical productions of comedy in the third and second centuries B.C.E. competed with various other attractions, including gladiatorial combat. Although gladiatorial combat was originally associated with funeral rites, and probably of Etruscan origin, eventually the producers of public spectacles realized the potential to please a Roman audience with the violence of bloody sport. Gaius Julius Caesar was the first Roman to produce gladiatorial combat not actually affiliated with the funeral of a deceased family member. Instead, he put on a show to honor the memory of his deceased daughter; a subtle slight of hand that would change the course of public spectacles forever.

Animals and Sport. Before the end of the Republic, Roman officials were trying hard to exhibit animals not native to Italy in order to produce truly novel spectacles. The first exotic animals came in 275 B.C.E. when Marcus Curius Dentatus brought the first elephants to Rome. The animals were captured from the Greeks fighting under the direction of Pyrrhus in southern Italy, and their display in Rome set the precedent for the use of exotic animals for the entertainment of Roman audiences. A mere display, however, did not hold an audience’s attention for long. Soon these animals were expected to die a bloody and painful death for the delight of the Roman people. Gladiators were trained in large numbers and fought in public spectacles. Just as the Roman appetite for exotic foods grew with the growing hegemony of Rome, so too did the Roman appetite for violent spectator sports.

Public Spectacles. Even though lions were dying by the hundreds by the end of the Republic, the number of public spectacles produced and their variety would reach unprecedented highs during the Roman Empire. As early as the reign of Augustus the emperor realized that the production of public entertainment was a valuable device to keep the masses of Roman people occupied, and therefore less concerned about a government in which they were taking less and less of an active role. Animals were shipped to Rome from all areas of Roman influence. Gladiators were pitted against one another in various combinations of expertise and training. The naumachia or staged naval battle re-created historical maritime events on lakes and artificial bodies of water created for this purpose. Criminals condemned to die by exposure to wild beasts became featured attractions. The spectrum of different displays was limited only by human imagination, for human ingenuity solved any technical issues.

Cruelty Popular. Ironically, one of the crowning achievements of Roman architecture was meant to house public spectacles on an unprecedented scale. The Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum, was dedicated in 80 C.E. and was not only a tremendous feat of Roman engineering but a marvel of technical wizardry as well. The Colosseum employed various sub-arena devices to ensure the greatest variety of stage tricks and the continuous appearance of animals throughout the many hours of frequently produced games. From the surviving literature of Roman antiquity it appears that few people spoke out against the games until the Christian era. Thus, violent and bloody public spectacles continued for generations, and in the Colosseum gladiatorial games continued until 404 C.E. In addition to the Colosseum, the survival of ancient amphitheaters in other cities such as Pompeii, Verona, Corinth (in Greece), and Arles (in France), attests to the widespread popularity of these cruel spectacles throughout the Roman world.

Opposition. While public displays of violent sport were popular and always attracted large audiences, some Romans did not enjoy them and even wrote about their feelings of disgust at the violence. Romans who spoke (or wrote) against the games were few and far between, especially in the pagan era. As Christianity spread in the Roman world, the newly enlightened began to voice their concerns about the violence and meaningless death associated with mass public entertainment. The public arena, of course, had been used to execute Christians beginning in the first century C.E.

Rest and Relaxation. Not every leisure activity necessarily involved viewing violent and bloody sport. Just as the Roman amphitheater provided the most suitable setting for the production and viewing of spectator sports, the Roman baths provided the setting for indulging in comfort and relaxation. The act of public bathing as a social pastime is largely unknown to modern Americans. To a Roman, however, going to the baths was more than a mechanical cleansing routine; it was a social opportunity during which one indulged in pampering oneself, and incidentally an opportunity to take some exercise. The first large imperial bath complex at Rome was constructed by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa during the reign of Augustus, but his contribution to the ritual of bathing pales in comparison to the truly mammoth and opulent facilities that were to follow. Some of the later complexes could accommodate more than one thousand bathers at a time. The comfort and luxury of the imperial thermae can only be approximated by modern health spas. Although Roman baths offered space for exercise, the primary object in patronizing the baths was to relax, socialize, and maintain personal hygiene. The lack of baths in private homes ensured a steady clientele of patrons who used the public baths frequently. Outside of the arenas for public spectacles, the baths were probably the only other place a Roman citizen was sure to be found with any regularity during the Empire. Maintaining the thermae was a huge undertaking that required not only human resources but also enormous quantities of water and fuel for heating. The baths therefore could stay active only so long as these resources were available. During the Gothic War of the sixth century C.E., the aqueducts to Rome were cut, thus leaving many baths out of order.