A Roman Day

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A Roman Day



Dividing the Day. Unlike our modern practice of using watches and clocks to keep track of time, the Romans did not have devices that could accurately divide an entire day (our twenty-four-hour period) into smaller parts. Instead, they observed the position of the sun during the day, and with the use of a sundial the Romans could divide the daytime into twelve equal portions called horae (hours). Since the hours of the day during winter are shorter than the hours of the day during summer, the length of a Roman hour fluctuated accordingly. The three principal moments in any day were sunrise, noon, and sunset, and all further subdivision took place between these points in time. The hours of the night were also divided into twelve equal parts.

No Roman “Week.” The Roman concept of a “week” was not based upon a cycle of seven days. Rather, the Romans had a tradition of holding market days (nundinae) at eight-day intervals. The ancient Jews and Christians, however, marked their weeks by observing a festival at seven-day intervals, the Sabbath or Sunday, respectively. Certain days were designated for various festivals, both religious and others. Days that were designated as appropriate for the transaction of business and proceedings of court were called fasti, while days on which these activities could not occur were called nefasti.

Dividing the Month. The Romans observed lunar months with an average of 29.5 days. Their twelve-month year, therefore, naturally fell short of the solar year. The discrepancy necessitated the periodic insertion of an extra month to bring the calendar year into alignment with the solar year. There were three points of reference in every month. The kalendae (calends) was always the first day of the month. The ides (idus) was the fifteenth day of months consisting of 31 days, and on the thirteenth of the other months. The nonae (nones) was always on the ninth day before the ides. Years were dated in relation to the founding of Rome, which according to Roman tradition is set at 753 B.C.E. in modern reckoning. Thus, events in Roman history were chronologically described by the Romans in terms of their happening in years before or after the founding of the city, Ab urbe condita, abbreviated to AVC.

Morning Rituals: The Salutatio. A Roman day typically began at sunrise in order to take advantage of the daylight hours. Breakfast (ientaculum) consisted of cheese and fruit, perhaps leftovers from the previous day, and since bread was a common food item, then surely bread was eaten as part of the first meal of the day. The hours before noon were filled with social calls paid to patrons by their clients. During this greeting ritual (salutatio) members of one social class visited a patron (patronus) of higher social status to pay their respects, perhaps ask for favors, and receive a basket of provisions or money (sportula). The salutatio took place in the atrium of the patron’s house, where clients and patron met formally dressed in their togas. The patron-client system took strict consideration of the socio-economic status of both patron and clients, and a man who functioned as a patron could also be a client of a more prominent citizen. Clients who sought favors from their patron would also be expected to accompany their patron in public, even on visits to his own patron. The crowd of clients accompanying their patron lent an air of prestige to the man, and created a visible token of his power and importance.

Keeping Time. In the origins of the patronage system, patrons were members of patrician families, and clients were plebeians. As some plebeians amassed their own wealth, they, too could become patrons. While slaves did not take part in the salutatio, freed slaves did become the clients of their former masters. In the Republic, Roman men active in politics relied upon their clients to provide political support in return for their patronage, while clients relied upon the financial generosity and protection of their patrons. Patrons expected their clients to campaign and vote for them, as well as appear with them in public. Clients could expect to receive legal advice or representation from their patrons, in addition to their daily allotment of provisions. The relationship between patron and client was useful for both parties. However, when the practice of popular elections waned in the Empire, the patron-client relationship largely degenerated into the pursuit of economic benefits that clients might derive from their patrons. Therefore, clients often became fickle sycophants who pursued patrons based upon the possibility that they might inherit property. If a patron was a childless gentleman, he was often the target of an unscrupulous client’s attention.


Marcus Tullius Cicero, who held the consulship in 63 B.C.E., adhered to traditional republican notions of class and society. In his speech in defense of Murena, Cicero voices the traditional expectations of the patron-client relationship.

Men of small means are only able to earn favours from our order or pay us back in one way and that is by helping us and following us about when we are candidates for office. It is not possible and it cannot be asked of us senators or of the Roman knights that they should attend for whole days their friends who are candidates. If they come in large numbers to our houses and on occasion accompany us down to the forum, if they condescend to walk with us the length of a public hall, we think that we are receiving great attention and respect. It is the poorer men with the time available who provide the constant attention that is habitually given to men of standing and to those who confer benefits.

Source: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Pro Murena 70, translated by C. MacDonald, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass,: Harvard University Press, 1977).

Lunch. The next meal after ientaculum was prandium, or lunch, which Romans consumed at midday. Prandium was not a heavy meal. Rather, the Roman lunch was more of a snack, eaten on the go. City dwellers might either return home for their lunch or purchase something at a tavern or

from a vendor. pick up a quick meal, a drink, or snack in a thermopolium, or popina, which were similar in function to our fast-food restaurants. These shops became popular around the public baths during the Empire when Romans enjoyed a much greater variety of commodities and more leisure time than their ancestors did earlier in the Republic.

Dinner. The main meal of the day (cena) took place in the late afternoon or early evening. What individuals ate for dinner depended upon their financial resources and the formality of the occasion. For example, a poor person or family might have eaten simple dishes of vegetables or fruits, soups made of grains, perhaps some meat, and of course bread. Meat was always expensive and may not have been a featured course of a common meal. The very poor ate a great deal of grain, which could be baked as bread or ground and boiled into porridge called puls. Although drinking water was available, wine mixed with water was the preferred beverage, or vinegar mixed with water in poor homes.

Dinner Parties. Fancier meals and dinner-parties could be quite elaborate and involve several courses. Formal dining took place while the diners reclined on couches arranged in a group of three called a triclinium. Each couch could accommodate three diners comfortably. Wealthy Romans often had more than one room in their houses that they could use for dining, and sometimes they ate outside, much the way we do when the weather permits. Poorer people did not have the space in their homes for such dining arrangements, so they probably ate while sitting.

Family Time. The cena was the one meal of the day that brought family members together at the table. The children of the household participated in making sacrifices to the gods, which involved a small offering of food and drink from the family table. Cena also gave parents the opportunity to teach their children proper manners so that they might learn to conduct themselves suitably as adults when they eventually became established in their own homes.


By the time of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the patron/client relationship was very different from that during the Republic. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, tutor to the emperor Nero in the first century C.E., expresses a more jaded assessment of this system than Cicero had done nearly a century earlier.

Your clients? But none of these men courts you for yourself; they merely court something from you. People used to hunt friends, but now they hunt pelf; if a lonely old man changes his will, the morning-caller transfers himself to another door.

Source: Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger),Epistulae merales ad Lucilium 19.4. translated by Richard M. Gummere, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917).

The Convivium. When a rich person or family entertained guests at dinner, the cena became a convivium, or banquet. This convivium involved several courses, including appetizers (gustum, gustatio, orpromulsis) a main course (mensa prima or Caput cenae), and dessert (mensa secunda). A patron often entertained his social equals as well as his clients at dinner parties; this meal gave the patron the opportunity to maintain social and political contacts as well as perpetuate the reciprocal obligations of the patron-client relationship. Guests usually brought their own large cloth napkins to dinner so that they could take home leftovers from the party. If a patron did not wish to dine with his clients, he could simply provide food items for the client’s basket (sportula) to be taken home.

Going to Market. Many items familiar to the modern diet were also popular in antiquity. Vegetables, including asparagus, lettuce, onions, and cucumbers; meats, such as pork, lamb, and hare; and poultry, such as chicken, duck, and pigeon were all available in the ancient marketplace. Seafood, in varieties no longer available to us, tempted the ancient Roman palate. Cheeses, cured hams and sausages, mushrooms, truffles, and assorted breads found their way into Roman meals. Apples, pears, and plums were some of the fruits enjoyed by Romans, usually eaten at the end of a meal. A particularly Roman condiment made of fermented fish, called garum or liquamen, was used to flavor almost any dish, and does not really have an exact parallel in modern, western cuisine.

Grow Your Own. Inhabitants of rural areas and those who owned large estates could grow or produce their own food. Citizens living in Rome and in the urban centers around the Roman world, however, bought much of their food in shops and specialized markets such as the vegetable and cattle markets. In Rome during the Republic, these food shops were established around the Forum and other locations within the city. In 179 B.C.E. the separate food shops were consolidated in one large market building called the macellum, which was demolished during the reign of Augustus and replaced by other similar structures in the city. The standard characteristics of a macellum included a central circular structure called a tholos, which was supplied with water and drains for the sale of fish, and a ring of shops around this central structure. The macellum at Pompeii serves as a good example of this type of building. It is a large rectangular building with a central tholos and a row of shops along one interior wall. The drains of the tholos were found to be full of fish scales, which shows the tholos to have housed a fish market.


Gaius Valerius Catullus, a poet of the first century B.C.E., wrote a poem attacking a certain Asinius Marrucinus for his gauche behavior during a dinner party at which the poet was also a guest. Catullus was apparently a victim of Marrucinus’ thieving hand!

Asinius Marrucinus, you do not make a pretty use of your left hand when we are laughing and drinking; you take away the napkins of people who are off their guard. Do you think this is a good joke?

Source: Catullus, Carmina 12.1-4, translated by Francis Ware Cornish, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).


Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome, translated by Anna Herklotz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Antony Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction (London & New York: Routledge, 1995).

L. Richardson Jr., Pompeii: An Architectural History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).

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A Roman Day

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