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Meet the Romans with Mary Beard 3/3 (Cardo Maximus)
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In this final episode, Mary delves even deeper into ordinary Roman life by going behind the closed doors of their homes. She meets an extraordinary cast of characters – drunken housewives, teenage brides, bullied children and runaway slaves – and paints a more dynamic, lusty picture of Roman family life.
Mary uncovers their preserved beds, furniture and cradles, tries on Roman wedding rings and meets some eccentric wives like Glyconis, praised by her husband for liking a drink or two, and Allia Potestas, who lived in a Roman ménage a trois.

Ancient Rome was once the centre of a vast empire

'that stretched from Spain to Syria,

'dominating the Western world for over  years.

'In many ways, we still live under its shadow.'

Like it or not, the Romans are still all around us -

in our laws, in our architecture, in our roads.

And we keep on recreating them in film and fiction.

And every year, thousands of us trek here, to Rome,

to see the monuments up close.

'But hidden all over the modern city, in its walls,

'behind its facades, even under its streets,

'is something much harder to find but just as captivating -

'the forgotten voices of its ordinary people.'

Here's a great kid, holding his little pet dog.

And I guess it's his mum and dad on either side.

And up above, there's the tombstone

of "Curiatia Ammia."

And she was someone's best-beloved partner, "concubina amatissima."

'In this series,

'I'm getting the voices of these Romans speaking again,

'to piece together a more intriguing view of ancient Roman life.'

This wasn't just a mugging...

..this was mass murder!

'They'll reveal a world so different from our own,

'and yet eerily familiar.'

She liked to get a bit drenched in Bacchus.

So what he's saying is, she was a bit of a wild thing,

and she really liked a drink or two.

'We've already seen how the Empire turned Rome

'into the world's first global city,

'where everyone, everything was from somewhere else.

'Now I'm going down into the streets to explore its slums,

'its bathhouses and bars,

'where the crime, sex and humour in everyday Roman life

'shows us what it was really like

'to live in an ancient city of a million people.'

We think of ancient Rome as all white, marble columns,

and classical order.

But actually, it was a chaotic place, rambling and dirty.

It was a right mess.

It was as much a shanty town as it was Trafalgar Square or Washington DC.

Welcome to my Rome.

This is a fantastically detailed model of the ancient city of Rome.

It's got all the familiar things in it -

the Coliseum, the Imperial Palace,

the temples, the gleaming marble, the pleasure gardens.

But for my taste, it's all a bit grand.

And it's a bit misleading,

because it misses out so many important things

that I want to try and get back in.

The smell. The dirt.

The pubs. The slums.

And it doesn't answer the questions that we want to ask.

What was it like to be a kid in this city?

Where did you go to the lavatory?

What did you do if you got ill?

What was it like to be just an ordinary Roman?

'So how do we start to answer these questions?

'In fact, there's a lot more evidence than you might think,

'hidden away all over modern Rome.'

When you first come into a place like this,

what hits you in the eye is the rich Romans.

The great and the grand.

But look behind them, look at the wallpaper, as it were,

and you'll hear a babble of ordinary Roman voices

trying to be heard.

In fact, behind this emperor, here,

there's the tombstone of a little girl

who lived just two years, ten months and  days.

She's waving goodbye.

Most tombstones today record just the bare essentials.

But the Romans often told us a lot more about themselves.

They're asking anyone and everyone to read about their ordinary

and extraordinary lives from beyond the grave.

And what they give us aren't just the success stories,

but a unique vision of life at the bottom of the social heap too.

This guy certainly wants us to know about his troubles in life.

His name is Ankarenus Nothus.

He lived for  years

and he's the ex-slave of a woman, which is what that symbol means.

This is what he has to say about his life and what it's like being dead.

It happens to everybody, he says. My bones are now resting sweetly.


And I'm no longer worried that I might die of starvation.


And I don't any longer have those awful aching feet

and I'm not contracted to my rent payments.


That's a quite technical phrase,

but it really means - I'm no longer in hock to the rent collector.

In fact, I'm enjoying board and lodging. "Hospitio.


For free. For eternity.


The stone was put up by his wife and by his daughter

to her father, who she calls "indulgentissimus",

who's very indulgent.

He spoiled her something rotten.

There are three things that stand out.

How am I going to get my next meal?

What shall I do if I'm ill, and how shall I pay the rent?

And we know that the figure of the rent collector-cum-bailiff -

called extractor in Latin -

was one that terrified the Roman poor.

Ankarenus Nothus might have been a bit of a joker

and his family might have been trying to tug on our heartstrings,

but the important point is that these few lines sum up the plight.

The grim realities of life for so many ordinary Romans.

So, where might someone like Ankarenus Nothus have lived with his family?

It's pretty clear he didn't live in the marble villas

we think of when we think Ancient Rome.

One of the best places to get a glimpse of his world

actually still survives in the centre of town,

hidden in the shadow of the Vittorio Emanuele monument.

One of Rome's most famous modern landmarks.

This humble brick building doesn't look like much from the outside.

Most visitors walk past it without even giving it a glance.

But once you know what it is, a very different Rome opens up

before your eyes.

This building was converted into a Christian church.

But originally, it was an ancient Roman high-rise apartment block.

The city was full of them. They were called, in Latin, insulae.

That means islands.

So, think away the churchy bits, and Ancient Rome lies underneath.

Right down there, you can still see the ancient street level, and facing

onto the street, there are a series of shops with wide entrances.

And above them, little mezzanine flats.

So these guys were literally living above the shop.

But up here, there were six, perhaps seven more floors.

More than survive today. But to get the real authentic Roman impression,

you have to remember that just a few feet that way,

there was another block like this.

So this wasn't so much a nice open road down there,

it was a narrow alley.

It must have felt like a canyon between two vast buildings.

The flats are usually locked up,

but I've got permission to have a look around with my colleague

Ed Bisphum, who's been here many times before.

So we are at what's the first floor. This is the first floor proper, yeah.

And this, then, is the window. This is the window.

So we are really burgling. We are breaking and entering here.

Right, OK.


The windows have since been blocked, but on the first floor,

there was once a spacious apartment where a reasonably

well off family might have lived with their children and slaves.

You wouldn't be pushed for space in here as a single family.

You've got probably four nicely barrel-vaulted rooms here.

But further up the building, light, space

and fresh air was in much shorter supply.

Up here, off each dark corridor, are four or five rooms just a few

metres square.

We don't know for sure how many people lived here,

but to get a million people into a city the size of Rome,

you had to pile them high and squash them in.

My guess is that these weren't single occupancy.

This looks a bit spacious, but that's because

the dividing walls have gone, so you've got to imagine a wall here...

Going right the way up to the vault,

with maybe a little light window in it.

The thing that always kind of shocks me

is the sense that we might have had six people "living" in here.

This is one step up...

One or two steps up, actually, from the real bottom of Roman society, isn't it?

Yeah, compared to sleeping in a tomb or under an aqueduct arch,

this is quite bijou. SHE LAUGHS

Here's another bijou apartment. This is really small.

We've got to get, well,

let's say we might have four or six people in here.

You know, one question is, how do they fit?

And I'm now going to see what it would be like.

How much space does one person take up trying to get to sleep on the floor?


Not much space left. No, no.

And who are the guys and the women who are living in these?

What are they doing? The guys are probably working on constructions.

When you think of a big thing like the baths of Caracalla.

The baths of Diocletian.

We're talking , to , people on a four-year building job,

and then there's porterage.

Humping goods from the barges to the warehouse... Yeah, sacks of grain, yeah.

Day labour. You get it when you can.

You've been working all day, humping stuff about. You get back here.

You're soaked in sweat. You stink. You don't have any spare clothes.

There's no running water. You can't have a bath.

There's three other smelly guys sleeping on the floor too.

Or there's your, your partner. Your female partner, and two kids.

Yes. I mean...

One thing is to think about these as sort of male dorm accommodation,

which I think a lot of them must be, but for some of them...

You know, there are women having babies here. Yes. You know? And actually...

where I'm sitting, some woman probably gave birth.

That's what's scary. Yeah.

And that wasn't even the top of the block.

There were even more storeys above this one.

A basic rule was, the further you went up, the worse it got.

There were no luxury penthouses here.

This was social climbing backwards.

In their time, these tenements must have been the tallest

residential buildings on the planet.

But they were built poorly, cheaply and fast

and only a handful have survived to any height, so the fact is,

we no longer think of Ancient Rome like this.

But that is how we should see it.

Not just a city of marble, but a city of tower blocks,

and the ordinary people who lived in them.

Perhaps the best place to get a snapshot of the kind

of community you might have found in a Roman high-rise

is now hidden at the bottom of a garden in a Roman suburb.

In this extraordinary communal tomb lie the remains of every

walk of Roman life.

There's hundreds and hundreds of them here.

And greeting you when you come in is a little face, and it's a touching

story because it's Valeria Italis, who was the sweetheart of Hilarus.

I bet he made sure that he got his sweetheart into prime position.

This is a...just fantastic kind of career directory

of the ordinary Roman people.

This was probably quite a bruiser.

It's Sinnio, the bodyguard.

And, in the corner here...

..we've got the barber. Marcus Valerius, the barber.


Ah... Hygia, the midwife.

And up there - and I am not going to risk a Roman ascent up there -

we have got a nice accountant.

All of Roman life is here.

But this isn't just a Roman job directory, it is a wonderful glimpse

into how the Romans lived, stacked up in death, not just in life.

Trying to understand ancient Rome is always a bit of a post-mortem.

I mean, they're dead, the Romans are dead.

But they can still speak to us.

Not just the rich and powerful, not just the great writers,

but the ordinary people, like those in this tomb.

They send us these little tweet-size messages telling us

who they were, what they did, and saying, "Remember me!"

It is one of my very favourite places in the city of Rome

because it gets us close to real people with real jobs, and real names.

Sinnio, the bodyguard. Hygia, the midwife.

We find them here in death, just like they did in life.

This is a kind of burial high-rise.

And also, I can't help thinking, somewhere behind this,

there might have been a landlord asking the dead for their rent.

Today, modern Rome isn't a world apart from the ancient one.

And seen from the air, it's still a city of rented apartment blocks in a grid of little islands.

But apart from that modern model, how else can

we get closer to the way the ancient city was actually laid out?

At the Museum of Roman Civilisation, packed up in boxes,

is a tantalising clue.

It's sadly not usually on display, but what's inside

are the remains of a precious Roman map, carved in stone -

a kind of marble A-Z that once showed

a complete ground plan of the city.

Over the last few hundred years,

about , fragments have been discovered - only ten percent of it.

But luckily, a few bits do still fit together.

It's not hard on any jigsaw puzzle to recognise the Colosseum.

And here, you can see circular lines of the seating of the Colosseum.

And above it is written what looks like,

although we've only got the very end of the word,

"amphitheatrum" the amphitheatre.

And that was what people called the Colosseum in the Roman world,

they didn't call it "Colosseum".

What strikes me as I look at it here, actually,

is how big this thing was.

The calculation is that it's at the scale of .

That fills a whole whacking wall with an image of the city of Rome.

But even more intriguing than those pieces of the grand Rome

are the fragments of the map which show in extraordinary detail

the streets, houses and apartment blocks where ordinary Romans

lived and worked.

And what they show is that Rome had not been laid out by city planners.

It had grown chaotically over time.


So what we've got here is a really mixed area.

We've got the rich houses, the rather large ones, quite posh

with little portico gardens at the back.

Even these large houses have got shops or workshops opening

directly onto the street in front.

And opposite those houses is what looks to me like

a kind of medium-rank high-rise building.

Over here is what looks, for all the world, like a warehouse.

This is a bit more of a mystery. It's got columns round about.

And these rather strange U-shaped things in the middle.

The current idea is that these are hedges,

so this is some sort of garden,

possibly private, possibly public, possibly religious, who knows.

What this reminds me

is that Rome is not zoned in the way that many modern cities are.

Rome was a place where the rich lived next to

the shops and to the workshops and to the bar,

and to the not-so-rich, and to the warehouse, and to the public garden.

The other thing is that the streets themselves are pretty narrow.

And this one, on the plan, looks like a main highway.

And in a way, it is. But if you look at its width,

it's only as wide as these little shops are deep.

And if you go round here, there is a tiny little passageway

that certainly, you wouldn't want to walk down late at night.

Rome is not like Paris. It isn't full of boulevards.

Rome was a rabbit warren.

It is frustrating in a way that so little of the map has survived,

but there are other ways to get a feel for the ancient streetscape,

like coming to a mediaeval street in the modern city.

Ancient Rome's roads were so narrow and its roofs

so perilously high that they were full of dangers,

like falling chamber pots.

And Roman writers jokingly recommended that

no Roman go out without writing a will.

We even know of one -year-old tourist, Papirius Proculus,

who was brained by a flying roof tile.

There are all kinds of things here that remind me of the Roman streetscape.

This little shop opening directly onto the street.

The lock-ups, how narrow it all is.

There is actually a story told by one Roman writer about how he could

shake hands with the guy living in the apartment across the road.

You couldn't quite do that here, unless you had really long arms,

but it's not far off.

I also wonder about the kind of street community you had here.

The funny thing about the story of the two guys who could shake hands is that they never did.

In fact, the writer says he never saw the guy on the other side of the street,

he never even heard him.

Which makes me think that amongst all this face-to-face proximity,

amongst the on-top-of-each-other living,

for some people, it must have been a pretty anonymous kind of city.

That Roman writer was a poet called Juvenal,

a satirist who lived in Rome around  AD.

So how might HIS domestic arrangements compare with ours today?

To help me find out, a very gracious Italian lady

living on the same street has let me poke around her apartment.

Buongiorno! Come va? Bene. Sono Mary...

'Looking at the modern setup can help us see

'what's distinctively different about the ancient one.'

It may seem a bit odd just barging into someone's house like this,

but I've got a simple point to make.

On the outside,

a place like this looks much like an ancient Roman apartment block.

But come inside and it reminds you of the differences.

Now, that's not just the washing machine, the microwave.

We know the Romans didn't have those.

But all the things that we take for granted as absolutely basic services here -

running water, a lavatory, heating.

Actually, some natural light.

Many of the people living on the upper floors of a Roman high-rise wouldn't even have those.

Now, the consequence of that is absolutely obvious.

You simply had to go out to get almost everything that we

take for granted as having at home.

You went out to eat, to wash, to get water,

and if you didn't throw it out of the window, to go to the lavatory.

Grazie. Grazie tante.

It's a way of life that has largely disappeared from modern cities in the West.

But in ancient Rome, life was lived outdoors.

Rooms in a high-rise were used mostly just for sleeping.

Your basic facilities were spread out over the city.

As one amazing archaeological site not far from Rome makes clear

for ordinary Romans,

what we now do in private could be a far more public affair.

I just love this place.

If you want to understand a culture, look to its lavatories.

It's not a bad motto.

And this is a Roman communal toilet.

According to one ancient guidebook that survives,

there are  public latrines in downtown Rome.

But of course, we don't know how many seats each had.

It's not exactly clear how this worked. What about this channel?

Did it have running water in it,

or was it just to catch the drips and the bad aims?

And what about this hole? Was that for men to pee through?

Or was that where you put the sponge to wipe your bottom? Perhaps both.

And do we think it was unisex? Who knows?

But the point's a simple one - this is how we have to imagine the ancient city.

Everyone shitting together.

Tunics up, togas up, trousers down, chatting as they went.

And it wasn't just going to the lav that was a social activity.

Often, there was no sanitation on the upper floors of a high-rise,

so most Romans went to the public baths to wash

and let it all hang out.

We don't often you get to hear what

the baths meant to ordinary people.

But this tombstone

of an ordinary guy

interestingly lists baths,

and associated activities,

as one of THE great pleasures of life.

And he says, Here I am, I'm in this tomb...

"Primus notissimus..."

..known to the world as Primus, or famous Primus.

Then he goes on to say,

I lived on Lucrine oysters...

It's the very best you could get.

..and I often drank Falernian wine.

That's like saying, "I often drank the really best claret."

He has a nice summing up.


"vina, venus..."

Baths, wine and sex.

" cum senuere per annos."

They grew old with me, I enjoyed them - I suppose -

till I was old.

We find that combination -

baths, wine and sex - elsewhere.

There's another nice tombstone of a man called

Tiberius Claudius Secundus

and he appeals to the same threesome,

but in a slightly more worldly-wise way.

"Baths, wine and sex," he said,

"ruin your body!"


But they're what makes life really worth living!

When you look at Rome's baths,

it's not hard to see why ordinary Romans were so keen on them.

Built by various emperors,

the most famous were the size of small towns

and their ruins still loom large in the Roman cityscape.

By far the best preserved is actually one of the smaller sort

in the town of Herculaneum, not far from Pompeii.

It's an extraordinary place,

the only one where you can walk through Roman baths,

pretty much as they were.


More Turkish baths than local swimming pool, they were centres

of social life, where locals didn't just get a place to sweat and steam,

they also got stalls for food and drink

and booths for a massage, a shave,

or maybe even sex on the side.

Although it's hard to visualise today,

there are vivid descriptions of the baths as rough, noisy places,

full of grunting gym-goers, men getting their armpits plucked

and loitering thieves, where you were as likely

to get your coat nicked as catch the clap.

The baths weren't just about hygiene -

they were about pleasure and about community.

Even the rich,

who had their own private baths at home,

even the Emperor,

might occasionally put in a celebrity appearance

at the people's baths.

In some ways,

they were a great social leveller.

Imagine - everybody's here in the nude.

It's then that the poor man,

aged , with a great body,

can turn the tables on that

-year-old Roman plutocrat,

with a paunch and a hernia!

But in other ways,

they tended to reinforce the social hierarchy.

The poor came along with no-one to carry their stuff

or rub them down.

The rich came with a whole retinue of staff,

elbowing the man's way through to the pool,

pushing the poor aside.

In fact, there's a lovely anecdote of the Emperor Hadrian,

who goes to the public baths one day

and sees a man rubbing himself down against the wall.

Hadrian says, "What's that guy doing?"

And someone replies, "Oh, he's rubbing himself down on the wall

"because he doesn't have a slave to do it for him."

So the generous Emperor gives him a slave.

The next time Hadrian shows up at the baths,

there's  or so men rubbing themselves down against the wall,

all hoping for a little piece of imperial generosity.

But Hadrian's a canny old bird

and he says,

"Tell them to rub each other down!"

However exotic this world might now seem,

for me, spaces like the public baths and toilets

tell us a lot about how

Roman communal living created those voices

that feel so familiar today.

Sure, some of them have got serious messages, but they're also

wonderfully sardonic,

irreverent, and so recognisably urban.

There's a marvellous guy from Tivoli, Flavius Agricola,

and he's got some great advice on his tombstone.

"Put on your party hats, my friend,

"drink down that wine,

"and don't say no to sex with pretty girls,

"because you won't get a chance when you're dead."

That's what urban living,

cheek-by-jowl, bottom-by-bottom, is all about.

It makes you live faster,

talk faster and think a bit differently.


One of the big best places to glimpse the humour

and saltiness of this world

is the ancient Roman bar.

Much like any modern Italian city,

Rome was awash with hundreds of taverns and eating places,

ranging from seedy dens and strip joints to something

much more like the modern winebar or gastropub.

Today, these places are nice lifestyle extras,

but if you were living at the top of an ancient high-rise, the streets

were your living room, the baths your bathroom

and this was your kitchen.

So, who do you meet in a Roman bar?

Well, the poet Juvenal

conjures up a really disreputable crew who, he says,

hang out in Roman bars - thieves and cutthroats,

runaways, even the local coffin-maker,

because in Rome, it's the poor who are eating out,

the rich are dining at home.

We mustn't forget the landlord and landlady.

We get a little glimpse of them in an amazing tombstone

found just outside Rome,

put up to a pair of innkeepers, man and wife.

He's called Lucius Calidius Eroticus

and she's Fanniae Voluptas.

Now, these have just got to be trade names,

because Calidius Eroticus

means Mr Hot Sex

and Fanniae Voluptas... well, she's Madame Gorgeous,

so it's the bar of Hot Sex and Mrs Gorgeous!

Don't get the wrong idea about Fanniae, though,

because it doesn't mean that in Latin!

Quite a few ancient bars have actually survived,

but one in particular, in Pompeii,

captures the flavour of ancient bar life on its walls.

Here, at eye level, in its back saloon,

are wonderfully vivid images

of Romans eating and drinking, gambling and being served wine.

And here, one that's been sadly hacked away,

probably by some Victorian moralist,

because what it showed,

as we can tell from an early th-century picture of it,

is a couple of people - a bloke and woman -

having sex,

with wine glasses in their hand,

simultaneously, and balanced on a tightrope.

All that's left of it is the bloke's feet!

Whether life in the average Roman pub

was quite as raunchy as these pictures suggest, I don't know,

but there are plenty of graffiti round Pompeii, saying words

to the effect of, "I screwed the barmaid,"

so it doesn't take much to guess

what happened after closing time.

And certainly, the Roman rich

were paranoid about pub culture.

It's here they thought that the people got above themselves,

planned riots, got awkward,

got very drunk, and they were hugely disdainful

of the kind of vulgarity of it all.

Of course, the rich have always said that kind of thing.

They gambled themselves silly,

but take a couple of poor travellers and give them a game of dice

and the rich are prophesying instant moral decline.

The best example of a bar that isn't bothered by any of this moralising

is in ancient Ostia, a harbour town not far from Rome.

Inside are a set of paintings that take us right into the world

of Roman anti-establishment bar humour.

The art historian John Clarke has come to explore it with me.

Come in here

and you see these men...

We've only got the tops of them

because later on, they got cut off and lost.

But they are sitting on a common latrine.

Here, the artist has given them speech lines

above each of their heads.

We have "mulione sedes" -

you're sitting on a mule driver.

A mule driver was a common saying for being constipated,

because mule drivers were very stubborn.

So this is a very stubborn evacuation procedure.

So this guy has got constipation. Right. That one is quite wonderful.

It's my favourite, actually.

"Amice fugit te proverbium - bene caca et irrima medicos?"

That's a bad word.

It would be something like this.

Buddy, don't you know the saying -

"shit well and bugger the doctors"?

In other words, you don't need them.

Higher up on the wall are images

of the great thinkers of ancient Greece -

the Seven Sages - only three of which are left.

Thales from Miletus.

Solon from Athens.

Chilon from Sparta.

Much loved by Roman teachers,

they were known for their high-minded catchphrases

on how best to live,

yet here, even they are literally talking crap.

Here's the best of all, really...

"Vissire tacite Chilon docuit subdolus."

Clever Chilon taught people how to fart without making noise.

Silent farting was a speciality, apparently!

Chilon's the one who did say, you shouldn't...

His canonical saying is - you shouldn't desire the impossible.

Maybe it's possible to learn how to be a silent farter. Who knows!

We shouldn't get the impression from a place like this

that the only thing the ordinary Romans joked about

was their bowels and their constipation.

In fact, an amazing collection of Roman popular jokes still survives.

Almost  of them. The Roman joke book.

And that shows Romans joking about almost everything.

One of my favourites goes like this...

A man is walking along the street, he meets a friend and says,

"Oh, are you alive? I heard you were dead."

He replies, "Look, you can see I'm alive."

"Oh," said the other.

"The man who told me you were dead, is much more reliable than you are."

Silly joke, perhaps a slightly nasty joke, but for me,

it opens up one of the big problems of big-city living.

In a world without ID cards or passports,

who are you?

How do you know who you are?

How do you prove who you are?

That's a problem.

What jokes like these do

is take us into the minds of ordinary Romans,

but they also give us a different view

on how to picture the ancient city streets.

They really weren't filled with all the big guys, the toffs,

the togas, the politicians, they were flooded by its ordinary people.

This was the people's city.

You wouldn't have come across

many of the rich and powerful in the streets and squares of ancient Rome.

They'd much more likely have been hurried along in a sedan chair

carried by slaves, curtains drawn, a bit like a modern celeb

in a modern, chauffeur-driven blacked-out limo.

These kind of places were the people's places

for doing business, for grabbing a bite to eat, for fighting,

for flirting, for just hanging out.

And it could all get pretty packed,

as one tragic tombstone makes horribly clear.

It's put up to a woman called Ummidia

and to Ummidius Primigenius, a boy of  years old.

It's put up by Ummidius Anoptes, probably her partner.

He explains, "una dies" - one day, carried them both off.

They met the final day of their destiny together.

How did they die?

"Compressi examine turbae."

They were crushed by the swarm of a crowd.

Now, we don't know what was going on in Rome that day,

but it sure gives you a very clear idea

of just how crowded the city could get.

If this gives us a clue

on how to re-people the streets of ancient Rome,

what happens when you look at its most famous public space

through this lens?

That space is known as The Forum.

It's now a picturesque but sad wreck of what it once was,

and honestly, it's hard for almost anyone to make head or tail of.

This was once the location of some of the city's main law courts,

political meeting places and grandest temples.

Let's forget for a bit the forum of the great speech makers,

the politicians, the celebrity lawyers,

the friends, Romans, countrymen types.

Of course, all of that stuff happened here,

but my Forum isn't the Forum of those bigwigs in their white togas.

My Forum is the Forum of the poor people, the middling people,

the ordinary people in their tunics, even in their trousers.

In fact, one Roman comic writer

has left us a guide to the types of the Forum.

A satirical guide to who you might find where.

I'm off to follow him.

This writer was a man called Plautus,

the author of boy-meets-girl farces.

What he gives us isn't the official guide

to the Forum as the big guys might want us to see it,

but a down and dirty rough guide.

This doesn't look great now, but it used to be a big public hall.

What does Plautus say?

He says,

this is where you find the bargain hunters

and the clapped-out prostitutes.

Elsewhere, Plautus talks about the wideboys,

the sort you might have found playing for profit

at one of the gaming boards you can still see

scratched all over the steps of one of the main law courts.

This is the board and it's got loads of dips in it.

Actually, someone has spent a long time making those great pockets.

It's always hard to reconstruct the rules of these games.

It's like having a Monopoly board

and a house and a get-out-of-jail-free card

and trying to reconstruct what you're supposed to do.

I'm going to give this game a try.

First off, the marbles.

Losing my marbles.

Perhaps what you did was tiddlywinks. That's a possibility.

Oh, look at that.

My conclusion from this academic experiment,

is that this is a tiddlywink board.

What about the Forum's temples of the Roman gods?

What does Plautus have to say about those?

This is one place where all those different levels of life

in the Forum come very nicely together.

It's the temple of the God Castor.

Those three columns are one of the most iconic images

of the whole forum.

But round the corner, we find a really different kind of temple.

Underneath, built into the temple itself,

is a row of little shops.

You walk a bit further on and you look to the back of the temple,

go back to Plautus, what does he say?

Rent boys.

And we don't just have to rely on a comic writer for evidence

of ordinary life in the Forum.

Modern archaeology has succeeded in backing him up.

When a group of Scandinavian archaeologists excavated

one of the temple's shops,

they unearthed some extraordinary ordinary objects,

including evidence of what looks like a Roman dentists.

Siri, tell me about these teeth.

They are one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries

ever made. There's  of them.

Where exactly were they found?

They were found in the drain of one of the shops

in the podium of the Temple of Castor and Pollux

and they were probably meant to be flushed down into the Cloaca Maxima,

which runs by the side of the temple, but for some reason, they got stuck.

And they've all been actually extracted, haven't they?

Their roots are pretty much whole.

No anaesthetic, apart from a quick glass of wine.

They must have screamed during these operations.

This is just somebody's agony. Yes.

'And I didn't just find rotten Roman teeth.'

It was something like a beauty parlour, I think.

We have these fine glasses for oils

and creams,

and this is a drinking cup.

They could also gamble.

See these dice?

Yeah, these are very nice dice.

Perhaps you were playing dice while you were waiting.

Instead of reading magazines, you were playing dice. Yes, yes, indeed.

And this looks like a tongue depressor.

Open wide! Yes!

Putting all this stuff together,

it's a really wonderful glimpse of the other side of the Forum.

This says the people's place as much as it is the rich people's place.

Yes. And this is the kind of stuff that the people are doing there.

They're playing dice and having their appalling teeth removed. Yes.


The Roman Forum is a great example

of how our traditional images of Rome are so skewed.

Sure, Rome was a society where the rich dominated the poor,

but it was also an incredibly mixed place,

where even its most sacred spaces were shared.

But just occasionally,

we can see some aggressive attempts to divide the toffs from the poor.

Most people come here to look at this vast temple

put up by the Emperor Augustus.

Nobody pays much attention though to that massive wall behind it,

and in a way, that wall can tell us

more about life in ancient Rome than the marble can.

On the other side of it was an area known as the Subura.

Not exactly slums, but mention Subura to your average Roman

and they'd think crime, prostitution,

something pretty seedy.

This wall's an ideological barrier.

It's saying to anyone who lived in the Subura,

"This is posh territory, keep out!"

There's another story too.

The Subura was full of rickety, wooden, jerry-built,

high-rise blocks, constantly falling down.

It was a real fire trap.

Actually, this wall is a vast firewall.

'Unsurprisingly, the buildings of the Subura have largely disappeared

'but some of the voices from the tenements,

'from that dangerous side of the city, have survived.

'One was found in the foundations of a modern office block in

'a rather grey part of suburban Rome.'

This is the tombstone of a little girl called Doris.

She was "Infelicissima", terribly unlucky.

Why was she unlucky?

Because she died in a fire, a sudden fire of incredible violence.

She had only just had her seventh birthday.

She was seven years and  days.

This was put up to her by one of her friends or family,

a woman called Licinia Hedone.

She ends rather touchingly,

"May your bones rest quietly

"and may the earth lie lightly on you."

Doris can't have been the only kid to die this way.

Fires were so common that large parts of the city

burned to the ground on numerous occasions.

But the point is, it wasn't just easy to start a fire,

it was very hard to put one out once it had started.

And there was no efficient, effective public Fire Brigade

in the terms that we know.

There was, it's true, a kind of paramilitary organisation

of watchmen, "vigiles", who did keep an eye open

for fires starting, but they hadn't got much effective equipment

to deal with them if they did.

A few poles to pull building downs to make a fire break,

some pails of water and vinegar

and some blankets to try and stifle the flames.

Some of them were probably pretty brave, but others were corrupt

and on the make.

One story is that in the Great Fire of Rome,

under the Emperor Nero,

the watch, instead of trying to put the flames out,

they joined in looting the buildings that were already ablaze.

I wonder if anyone came to try and rescue Doris?

And that's the big difference with our modern cities.

When you look around them,

it's easy to see all the things we take for granted,

everything from litter bins

to friendly or unfriendly cops on the corner.

But in ancient Rome, there were none of these services.

There was hardly a fire brigade, there was no police force,

no prisons, and the only real security forces

were in the pay of the rich.

To flesh out the picture, I went out to meet Corey Brennan,

from the American Academy in Rome.

The issue for me is why they didn't provide services.

Did the poor want the services?

Oh, I'm sure they did.

Because when that guy, Egnatius Rufus,

in the reign of the Emperor Augustus,

starts his own fire brigade, the Emperor Augustus,

instead of saying, "Well done, Egnatius, congratulations,

"thank you very much for helping the people of Rome,"

he basically had him executed. Yes, precisely.

It goes to show the competition amongst the ruling class,

amongst elites, because each one of them knew if they stepped forward

and effectively provided these types of social services,

that were really needed, that people really wanted,

the type of political cachet

that they could build just from that act

really would make it unbeatable,

so they really worked to cancel each other out, and the people who suffered

were, in fact, the Romans themselves.

But the lack of social services weren't the only problems

on the city streets.

They might have been filled with real life,

but real life, as in any modern city, could be hard to control.

Violence was an ever-present danger,

as one nastily familiar story tells us.

I am about to reveal

a nasty bit of Roman street crime,

a kind of Roman cold case.

It needs a bit of cleaning up first,

it's very dusty.

It's a tombstone

and it's put up by a lady called

Otacilia Narcisa,

to her darling husband.

"Coniugi dulcissimo."

His name...

was Julius Timotheus

and he lived, she said,

P-M - plus or minus  years.

That means Otacilia wasn't entirely certain

how old the husband was.

And he had "his blameless life

"snatched away from him

"a latronibus - by robbers."

Not just him -

he was with his

seven alumni.

That can mean foster kids, dependants,

sometimes even pupils.

They were all killed too.

That's what it really means.

This wasn't just a mugging,

this was mass murder.

If the streets were never completely safe by day, then by night,

we know they were lawless places.

The poet Juvenal writes graphically of having

to pick his way home in the dark, dodging the violent gangs

and drunken bullies on the prowl for fights.

Preserved under the foundations of a church in central Rome

is one place that helps us get close to this atmosphere.

Here are the mean streets of a real Roman neighbourhood.

We're a few hundred metres from the Colosseum

and this is a back alley.

This feels like a Roman street.

It's because it IS a Roman street!

What you've got to do,

if you try and reconstruct this,

you've got to think dirt. A lot of it. This is very clean.

You've got to think smell... A lot of it.

..but it's also...

it feels a bit scary.

It's a mugger's paradise, there's no doubt about it.

I mean, street crime's one thing but, you know,

apartment blocks directly on the street,

it's a burglar's, a cat burglar's paradise. Precisely.

When the Emperor Augustus really wanted people

to come to his games,

what he did was he distributed armed guards throughout the city,

because otherwise, people would be reluctant to leave their houses,

because it was known when there was a big game day, so to speak,

that's precisely... It's like New Year's Eve,

basically, that's the prime day to go robbing.

I mean, when there's a question of a serious breach of public order,

then the officials get interested.

So if the authorities had little interest in the day-to-day

welfare of their ordinary citizens,

what happened if you got murdered in streets like this?

How could your family pursue justice?

The Romans had the system of public courts

and the name is misleading because

what it was was courts that saw to

breaches of the social order.

So you get murder, but really, when there's a political...

Upper-class murder. Exactly.

They looked at conspiracy, setting fires.

In order to come in the purview of Roman law, you either have to go

after someone who's rich, well-connected and powerful,

or you have to be making a very big tear in the social fabric.

So if somebody murders my brother,

unless he's important, that's...

the only person who's going to do anything about it, really, is me.

Yes, the self-help.

Today, when we look at Rome's impressive marble monuments,

it's hard to imagine the dirty, dangerous, chaotic city

in which ordinary Romans lived their lives.

So little of it has survived above ground.

But if you know where to look,

it is still possible to get glimpses of their world -

the high-rise tenement blocks,

where tenants lived in fear of fires and the rent collector,

the grunts of gamblers and gym-goers in its bars and bathhouses,

and the hustle of life on its mean streets,

where there was no safety nets when things went wrong.

These streets must have been a tough place to live your life.

All the same, I can't help feeling that they had a spontaneity

and a fun about them that many of our streets have lost.

And just listen to those voices.

What they're saying is that despite all the dangers,

Rome was an exhilarating,

a life-affirming place to be.

And that's why it still speaks to us

after , years.

'Next week, I'll meet the Romans at home,

'where I'll discover some familiar objects of domestic family life...'

It's a really, really precious piece, because it's the only

cradle that survived from the Roman world.

'..and where I'll piece together a surprising view

'of Roman marriage, childhood,

'slavery and sex.'

This is a Roman menage-a-trois.

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

See all three parts here:

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3

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