Ancient History & Civilisation



THE ELITE OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE – emperors, senators, equestrians, and the local elite of magistrates, town councilors, and priests – produced almost all the literature and extraordinary material culture which is commonly spoken of as ‘Roman.’ As a result, treatment of ‘Roman’ normally means applying the mind world and culture of the elite to a description of the entire Roman population, as when people write and speak of ‘Roman civilization’ or ‘Roman attitudes toward women.’ Here I move away from that habit and focus rather on the ordinary men, people below and generally invisible to those high in the social pyramid. By ‘ordinary men’ I mean every free person below the elite and above the poor day-laborer or peasant. Their outlook, seen through their own eyes, reveals a rich mosaic of attitudes and actions as they live their lives outside the blinkered view of the empire’s aristocracies. Although their mind world is the same as the elite’s in some basic ways – they were both part of the same overarching culture, after all – outlooks and attitudes in general differ significantly.

The imperial elite stood at the top of the Roman socioeconomic pyramid. To qualify, a person had to be worth over 400,000 sesterces (equestrian) or over 1 million sesterces (senatorial). Among the approximately 50–60 million people in the Roman Empire, there were perhaps 5000 adult men possessing such extreme wealth. Beneath (but mostly far beneath) these were the elite of the local towns of the empire. An average of 100 or 125 adult males in each of the 250 or 300 towns of the empire that rose above the level of village would produce another 30,000 to 35,000 very wealthy persons. Because of the steep socioeconomic gradation of the Roman world, these elite together probably held 80 percent or more of the total wealth. The Romans themselves recognized this break in socioeconomic situation between elite and nonelite by calling the super-wealthy honestiores (‘more honorable ones’) and all the rest of the free persons humiliores (‘lesser beings’). This ‘all the rest’ was 99.5 percent of the population.

Below these super-wealthy were a fair number of persons who had many fewer resources in comparison to the very rich, but resources sufficient, at the lower end, to be fairly certain of their daily bread and, on the upper end, to enjoy a lifestyle that allowed enough leisure to pursue some social, political, and cultural interests. These were the more modest landowners, the merchants and artisans, successful soldiers, and those financed by these groups and by the elites (professional teachers, doctors, architects, and so on). These men and their families numbered perhaps 25 percent of the total population. Besides a certain stability in resources, another commonality unites these ordinary people. They all value labor whether they are merchants or artisans or wealthy peasants; they share that important socioeconomic fact, which binds together their outlooks even though the actual wealth-level and occupation of individuals varies greatly. It is these people I am concerned with here. The challenge is to capture their mind world.

Social attitudes

Marks of hierarchy and place were everywhere. For example, the 10,000-denarii donation of Manius Megonius Leo, a citizen of the Italian town of Petelia (modern Strongoli), for a foundation was to be invested and the income distributed hierarchically: 450+ denarii income per year was spent on the anniversary of his birth. Three hundred denarii funded a banquet, but only for the local elite, the decurions; after costs of the banquet, anything left of the 300 was distributed in cash to the decurions present. In addition, 150 denarii were designated for a banquet for the Augustales, the elite priestly group of wealthy freedmen, with the remainder after costs divided among the Augustales present. Finally, each male citizen and his wife were given a single denarius, equivalent to a working man’s good daily wage; no banquet was provided (ILS 6468). This sort of graded gifting made the social hierarchy very visible, much as the graded seating in the amphitheaters did. Living in an unremittingly stratified world, the middling sort absorbed one of the basic attitudes of such a life: deal with equals as equals, take advantage of those below you when possible, defer to those above you always. An individual’s mental state focused his abilities on avoiding infliction of injury on himself, either physical or mental, and on inflicting injury on others – in Roman terms, defending his honor and standing by lessening the honor and standing of others, while at the same time protecting his own from diminution at the hands of those thought inferior. Subordination to a lesser being, or assimilation to a group below his station (e.g. slaves), in the mind or action of a superior, was a horrible thing. The mind world was simpler with regard to those obviously superior (elite) and obviously inferior (slaves) than with the common man’s peers. In the latter group there were huge differences of status and power, but no clear markers of ‘legitimate’ subordination or superiority. It was in this world that slights to honor, hostilities, and rivalries worked themselves out in the liveliest manner.

Hierarchical thinking places specific expectations and stereotypes in the minds of each group. The ordinary men were no exception. Scholars identify five of the most common prejudices: against freedmen, against the poor, against slaves, against merchants, and against work. It is worth examining each through the eyes of ordinary people.

Free birth was the default preferred condition; it had no legal liabilities and had none of the constraints imposed by slavery and manumitted status. The vast majority of the free population at any given time would be freeborn, as the legal status of the manumitted disappeared with the manumitted generation. It is clear that the elite held strong prejudices against freedmen who pretended to usurp their social or economic capital. While it is generally assumed that the elite prejudice against freedmen would have been held in all segments of freeborn society, there is little evidence for this; a full discussion appears in the chapter on freedmen. Certainly, however, the prejudice against the poor was real. The graffito on a wall in Pompeii says it all:

I hate poor people. If anyone wants something for nothing he is a fool. He should pay for it. (CIL 4.9839b)

Likewise, the Epistle of James in the New Testament indicates clearly this prejudice, although the author’s purpose is to argue against it within the context of the Christian community:

My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1–4)

A great prejudice also existed between the ordinary man and the enslaved population. Here we can turn to Paul. In his addresses to groups of Christians, he constantly emphasizes by negation the fundamental distinction between free and slave in society; his repetitiousness is evidence that old prejudices died hard – his addressees clearly struggled with his advice to treat their slaves with less prejudice, and often failed. Another illustration of the chasm between free and slave comes from The Golden Ass: Lucius’ transformation into an ass and back again can easily be read as an allegorical journey from freedom to slavery to freedom; all of his adventures show that the condition of being a slave is bad, that slaves are subhuman.

Another prejudice must be disposed of: ill feeling against merchants. The general view of the elite was that merchants were lying thieves. Did ordinary people share this view? Paul’s letter to the Philippians uses language that is extensively mercantile – verbs of accounting and exchange are common, and they are used to convey Paul’s ideas about the Christian community. Not only does this indicate Paul’s own background as a man of commerce, but also that the audience was operating in this exchange and business environment, and felt positive about it. Lydia the purple merchant was active in the same milieu; again, there is no negative connotation. Businessmen themselves took great pride in their accomplishments, as did this long-distance merchant:

If it is no trouble, passerby, hold up and read this [epitaph]. I often coursed over the great sea with swift-sailed craft and reached many lands. This is the end which once upon a time the Fates spun for me at my birth. Here I have laid down all my cares and labors. Here I do not fear the stars, nor the clouds, nor the savage sea, nor do I fear that expenses will outrun my profits. (CIL 9.60, Brindisi, Italy)

And beside the long-distance traders there were local, short-range businessmen who dealt either in locally produced goods on a small scale, or bought wholesale and resold at the local level. Epigraphy attests to these merchants seeing themselves as the mirror image of the cheating, dishonest dealers of elite lore. Lucius Nerusius Mithres, a merchant from a small town, noted:

I sold goods which the people could use, my honesty was always praised everywhere, life was good … I always paid my taxes, I was straightforward in everything, as fair as I was able to everyone I dealt with. I helped as much as I could those seeking my aid. Among my friends I was highly thought of … (CIL 9.4796, Vescovio, Italy)

Praecilius, an argentarius in Cirta, and so a member of the highly suspect banker class of merchant, notes that he always had the trust of his customers and was always truthful and good:

Here I am silent, describing my life in verse. I enjoyed a bright reputation, and the height of prosperity. Praecilius by name, a native of Cirta, I was a skillful banker. My honesty was wonderful, and I always adhered to truth; I was courteous to all men, and whose distress did I not succor? I was always gay, and hospitable to my dear friends; a great change came over my life after the death of the virtuous Valeria. As long as I could, I enjoyed the sweets of holy matrimony; I celebrated a hundred happy birthdays in virtue and happiness; but the last day has arrived, as the spirit leaves my exhausted limbs. Alive I earned the titles which you read, as Fortune willed it. She never deserted me. Follow me in like manner; here I await you! Come. (CIL 8.7156, Constantine, Algeria/Malahide)

Naturally, merchants saw no problem in seeking gain, and thanked the gods for it:

Dedicated three days before the first of June in the consulship of Dexter (for the second time) and Fuscus. Sacred to Mercury, Mighty Profit Giver and Profit Preserver. Gaius Gemellius Valerianus, son of Gaius, of the Oufentina district, Member of the Four Man Board with Police Authority, Judicial Prefect, with Cilonia Secunda his wife and Valeria and Valeriana Secunda, his children. He set this up in fulfillment of a vow and dedicated it in a spot authorized by the municipal authorities. (CIL 5.6596 = ILS 3199, Fontanetto da Po, Italy)

Thus, merchants had a good opinion of themselves. Of course it is easy to suppose that relations in specific instances could become strained, but the evidence from Artemidorus and elsewhere is consonant with the positive impression Paul’s experiences give of ordinary men associating normally with such fellows. Likewise, businessmen in Apuleius’ Golden Ass and in Petronius’ Satyricon are treated as normal people; they are not stigmatized.

In a similar vein, there is no indication among ordinary folk of the disdain for craftsmen felt by elites such as Cicero, who states that ‘All craftsmen are engaged in base trades’ (On Duties 1.42.15). Rather, the father of the literary Lucian is exemplary of how middling men looked at trades. Lucian’s father wanted his son educated to a certain degree, but his long-range goal was to apprentice him to one of his wife’s brothers so he could learn a trade. Lucian rebelled against this, but that fact does not take away from the reality that his father believed a career as an artisan would be good for everyone. There was no shame felt by Lucian’s family about the artisan life and in fact even Lucian was tempted until, in a further dream, Education convinced him that the elite view of the trades – that they are vulgar – was correct, and persuaded him to pursue a career through learning and rhetoric.

A further note of pride tempered with sadness comes from the epitaph of Vireius Vitalis Maximus. He had adopted Vireius Vitalis, ‘a lad of incomparable promise in the craftsman’s calling,’ had raised him up in the profession, and hoped that the boy would carry on his trade, supporting him in his old age. In both Artemidorus’ Interpretation of Dreams and the Carmen Astrologicum, various artisanal activities are mentioned, as well as business situations; there is no hint that people so engaged were looked down upon.

Thus the ordinary man’s world was open to craftsmen and merchants without prejudice. Many epitaphs mention the profession or work of the deceased. Work is part of the self-identity of the dedicatee, for almost all epitaphs (98 percent) are made either by the deceased himself or by family – almost none are made by fellows in the profession or work, or by patrons. The elite, of course, do not mention work, as for them it is not something to be proud of; however, all others – free, freed, and slave – do mention it prominently. Here is clear evidence that one of the marks of the ordinary man’s mind world (and of all below the elite, for that matter) is the value of work. This is one of the most striking differences between the elite and the common man’s perspective. Indeed, the elite prejudice that looks down on labor and business helps to explain ordinary man’s invisibility. We must firmly lay aside any idea that work was not valued in the Roman world; the elite’s devaluation of labor does not extend to the vast majority of Roman-Greek society.

Although the hierarchical nature of society required that prejudices be important, the moral world of ordinary men was much more complex than a collection of stereotypes. It is worthwhile constructing a picture of that world, although, naturally, any single moral outlook was not necessarily reflected in the daily life of an individual. I can summarize briefly the main points of a man’s moral world.

Marriage is a good thing; monogamy is the norm. Loyalty in marriage is important. Wives are to be faithful, available and alluring; husbands chaste. Men reject the philosophic view that sex is a distraction done for procreation and without enjoyment. Chastity is valued, but does not extend to the point that male homosexual relationships and occasional male infidelity are unacceptable. Visiting prostitutes is a neutral activity, as is discussed elsewhere. Divorce is possible and acceptable. Lying, cheating, and stealing are in principle bad. Honesty in dealings within kinship groups and with socioeconomic equals or superiors is expected; however, business with others exists in an ambiguous state which allows ‘sharp dealing’ and deceit for personal gain. Fair and just treatment of all is good, although ‘fair’ is based on a distributive concept of justice. Acquisitiveness is a positive virtue; excessive acquisitiveness, i.e. avarice, and taking possessions that are not rightfully yours, is bad. For the more philosophically inclined, self-sufficiency is a moral commonplace.


1. A happy marriage. Conjugal couple cuddling in bed, their faithful dog at their feet.

Self-confidence is a positive virtue, while arrogance and boasting, i.e. self-confidence outstripping appropriate expression according to socioeconomic status, is a bad thing; humility is a commonplace (the opposite of excessive pride). A strong sense of self-worth is good. A person has the obligation to protect his standing (honor); almost any action is justified by this. But at the same time there is a sentiment for self-restraint, which is a common topos in popular philosophy. Drunkenness, for example, is frowned upon. Murder is bad. Minding one’s own business is yet another common topos; gossip and being a busybody are bad. Taking care of those in need within your family, e.g. widows, is good. Looking to the welfare of those more distant from you is not good. Beyond immediate family, friends are highly valued. Indeed, friendship is another constant topos of popular philosophy and culture.

Seeking control in an uncertain world

While this range of moral vision seems unexceptional and served to guide a man through normal life experiences, when any uncertainty disrupted the smooth flow of life – and it must have done so almost constantly – men turned to the supernatural: superstition, magic, and religion. The ordinary person found many willing to allay his concerns. The priests in the temples, the purveyors of charms and potions on the streets and in small kiosks, the professional magicians ready to supply incantations for any need, the dream interpreters eager for the opportunity to reveal all based on one’s latest somnolent imaginings, the booksellers with tomes of useful information: all were at the ready in even the smallest town.

Superstition in general guided life. Amulets have been found in great number; bracelets, necklaces, and rings were all thought to be effective charms against the unknown. Charms were commonly used against all manner of ills. Pliny the Elder writes:

Certainly spells exist against hail, against a wide range of diseases, and to treat burns – some even of proven effectiveness … and arrows pulled from a body, provided they have not touched the ground, are powerful aphrodisiacs if placed under a lover’s bed. (Natural History 28.6.34)

Marcellus Empiricus gives an example of a charm against disease:

To be recited sober, touching the relevant part of the body with three fingers: thumb, middle finger, and ring finger; the other two are stretched out. ‘Go away, no matter whether you originated today or earlier: this disease, this illness, this pain, this swelling, this redness, this goiter, these tonsils, this abscess, this tumor, these glands and the little glands I call forth, I lead forth, I speak forth, through this spell, from these limbs and bones.’ (On Medicaments 15.11/Luck)

Spells came in handy too if you had a wager on a chariot race and wanted to insure your victory, as this lead tablet from Africa shows:

I conjure you, daemon, whoever you may be, to torture and kill, from this hour, this day, this moment, the horses of the Green and the White teams; kill and smash the charioteers Clarus, Felix, Primulus, Romanus; do not leave a breath in them. I conjure you by him who has delivered you, at the time, the god of the sea and the air: Io, Iasdao … aeia./Luck

Or if you sought revenge:

Lady Demeter, I appeal to you as one who has suffered wrongs. Hear me, goddess, and render justice, so that you bring the most terrible and painful things on those who think such things about us and who rejoice together against us and bring suffering on me and my wife, Epiktesis, and despise us. Oh Queen, lend an ear to those of us who suffer and punish those who look happily on such as us. (Amorgos, Greece/Gager, no. 75)

Or punishment for a personal wrong:

Whoever stole the property of Varenus, whether woman or man, let him pay with his own blood. From the money which he will pay back, one half is donated to Mercury and Virtus. (Kevendon, Essex/Gager, no. 97)

Or even to steal another man’s wife:

Let burning heat consume the sexual parts of Allous, her vulvas, her members, until she leaves the household of Apollonios. Lay Allous low with fever, with sickness unceasing, starvation – Allous – and madness! Remove Allous from Apollonios her husband; give Allous insolence, hatred, obnoxiousness, until she departs the household of Apollonios. Now. Quickly. (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt/Gager, no. 35)

And, of course, love was a constant motivation for magical incantations:

Let Matrona, to whom Tagene gave birth, whose ‘stuff’ you have, including hairs of her head, love Theodoros, to whom Techosis gave birth … Do not ignore me, whoever you are, but awaken yourself for me and go off to Matrona, so that she may freely give me everything that is hers … so that Matrona love Theodoros for all the time of her life. I invoke you in the name of Abrasax. (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt/Gager, no. 29)

Amateur incantations were common for everyday occurrences. Some amulets were inscribed with the magical word Abraxus, which has been passed down to the present day as ‘abracadabra’; in Christian times, ritual formulae could also be turned to magical purposes, for example the intonation of hoc est corpus (‘this is the body’); this gives the modern term ‘hocus pocus.’ But for serious matters, professionals male and female were at hand to offer aid. Of course witches such as Circe in the Odyssey and Medea in Euripides had a long literary pedigree, but their real-life counterparts were thick on the ground. Egypt was the land and source of magicians par excellence. Magical papyri represent the textbooks for training, with the critical piece of information left out so that the professionals couldn’t be entirely supplanted by a self-taught person. Kits for magical performance survive from antiquity, including one that seems to be a sort of roulette wheel used for divining the future. A professional could also come equipped with drugs such as incense to create an atmosphere, as well as with tools such as wands to ‘direct’ the magical power wielded.

Jesus of Nazareth had many of the attributes of a magician – the ability to cure illness and to control nature, for example. When the devil tries to tempt him to use this power for personal gain and influence, Jesus refuses, but other magicians had no such scruples. In Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass, Pamphile uses her magic for her own purposes; other magicians were more commercial, however. Paul was seized and hauled before the local authorities because his ‘cure’ of a slave soothsayer deprived her owners of income (Acts 16:16–19). Another magician competed with Paul for the attention of Sergius Paulus, the proconsul in Cyprus, and lost (Acts 13:6–12). Simon Magus (‘the magician’) was one such person who made a living purveying magic:

But there was a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the nation of Samaria saying that he himself was somebody great. They all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is that power of God which is called Great.’ And they gave heed to him, because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. [Simon, impressed with the magical power of the apostle Philip, is baptized.] … Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! … I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.’ (Acts 8:9–24)

Simon, a good magician who could see when he was out-magicianed, was terrified and asked Peter, his recognized superior magician, ‘that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.’

Another episode in Acts involving Paul further illustrates the situation. Paul went to Ephesus and immediately became an attraction as his powers to perform miracles, i.e. to have magical powers, became apparent to the populace. Articles such as a handkerchief and clothing that had merely touched him cured disease and drove out evil spirits. Other Jewish would-be miracle workers attempted to duplicate his success by invoking the name of Jesus, as Paul did. Seven sons of a Jewish head priest tried this. But an evil spirit they were exorcizing said to them, ‘I acknowledge Jesus, and Paul who preaches him, but who are YOU?’ And the possessed man bloodily thrashed the sons on the spot. This clear proof of the power of Jesus’ name brought many converts (Acts 19:11–20), because the efficacy of a sorcerer was judged by his success rate. Paul was successful, and many ordinary men were convinced of his supernatural power; the ‘Seven sons of Sceva’ were not successful, and so were discredited. Many other magicians recognized Paul’s power and even burned their valuable magical guidebooks since he had proved his power greater. All these episodes in Acts serve to show how pervasive the belief in the power of the supernatural was, and in the numerous people around who claimed to be purveyors of that power.

Religion provided another avenue for addressing concerns. A broad range of religious activity was on offer. There were the reflexive actions, the traditional, hardly conscious daily rites like pouring some drops of offering to the household gods before a meal. There was festival religiosity when, in the midst of this or that god’s holy day, banqueting or entertainments or just raucous behavior were in order, part and parcel of the worship of the deity or deities in question. This type of religiosity was centered on the major local or civic divinities. On festival days the local gods were feted, as were the people; more elaborate sacrifices were offered, and entertainments were often sponsored in honor of the god or goddess. It was a time to affirm the community.

Then there was utilitarian religiosity, the use of a priest or prophet or diviner to help solve an immediate problem. In fact, people who claimed to be able to foretell the future were always available in a town. The elite Cicero notes that ‘wherever you go, it follows you, whether you listen to a prophet or an omen, whether you sacrifice a victim or catch sight of a bird of warning, whether you interview an oriental soothsayer or an Italian diviner, whether you see lightning or hear thunder’ (On Divination 1.48). These diviners were available because there was a deep need to make sense of the world and to somehow reconcile the incongruence of the personal world and the external world’s assaults upon it. And everyone agreed that the future was established and therefore knowable, that prophecy and augury and other means of reaching out to that future were real and efficacious. Dream interpretation was a favorite recourse, with professionals such as Artemidorus ready both to offer their services and to write a book about interpretations. Men like Dorotheus wrote books about astrology. And self-help tools like Ouija boards were readily available, an inexpensive way to discern the future.

In his world, the ordinary man rarely dwelled on the intricacies of religious thought. Everyone agreed that there were supernatural powers in the world. Since the divine agencies were in control, all agreed that these powers could be accessed by prayer and sacrifice and incantation and magic. If an agreement could be made and carried out, a reciprocal action in favor of the worshipper could be expected. What one did and what brought results were what mattered. Carrying out the correct action in the correct way was the key to securing divine aid; there was no creed or moral code to adhere to in order to gain the god’s favor. For this reason there were no arguments about dogma in the bars and streets; the proof of a divinity’s power lay in his or her ability to produce results in real time. It is illustrative of this that the many confrontations with magic in the New Testament literature all revolve around whose magic is most efficacious, never about the philosophy or theology of the practitioner.

Major disruptions occurred not over theology, but when the power of a favored divinity was questioned or insulted. This is well illustrated by another of Paul’s experiences in Ephesus. The temple of Artemis was known widely and was a popular votive destination. A silversmith named Demetrius and his fellow workers made a good deal of money creating and selling silver images of the goddess. This craftsman took action to protect his trade: he incited his fellows by pointing out that Paul was convincing many to turn from polytheism; the danger, he said, was not only that Artemis herself was being discredited, but also that their trade in votives would dry up. With a shout of ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,’ the gang radicalized the city against Paul. A mob laid hold of him, dragged him to the theater, and tried to have him punished (Acts 19:23–34). The accusation was that Paul had blasphemed against the goddess. ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ was not a theological issue for them; it was a simple affirmation by the people that their goddess not only existed, but was powerful. Anyone threatening that reality was an enemy. Although among the elite the idea of a relationship between moral behavior and the favor of the gods gained some ground through, for example, Stoic thought, there is little indication that such thinking penetrated to those who remained tied to their basically satisfying and satisfactory religious beliefs. These were based upon efficacious supernatural powers who could, with the proper approach, be enlisted in solving the practical problems of the day such as illness, frustration in love, and vengeance against one’s enemies and rivals. To attack the existence of, as here, a goddess, undercut a central tool ordinary people used to address their everyday problems.

In all these attempts to access the power of the supernatural in order to deal with the uncertainties in their lives, men were not terribly concerned when their efforts did not work. The prevailing attitude was that if an incantation or a religious offering did not do the trick, then something had gone wrong with the process, not with the basic functioning of the magico-religious world – the wrong spell-prayer had been cast, or it has been cast carelessly, or had used the wrong accoutrements. There is no indication of a lessening of reliance on religion and magic throughout our period or, indeed, in all of antiquity.


As ordinary men ordered their lives through popular morality and bringing the supernatural to bear, their personal concerns could throw life into turmoil at any moment. Ordinary men lived in a world full of actual and potential changes in fortune. These might be for good or for evil; the natural reaction to living in a world full of uncontrollable physical and social threats to survival, not to say to happiness, was worry and (if possible) action. Given the differentials in power, the heavily hierarchized social structure, and the vagaries of weather, disease, and natural disaster, people turned to supra-rational means to predict and so deal with the future. Although mentions of elites are fairly common since they, too, utilized dream interpreters and astrologers to help deal with their life issues, both the Carmen Astrologicum and Artemidorus’ Interpretation of Dreams clearly reflect the mind of ordinary men and women.

Because of their usefulness as resources for dealing with life’s issues, these handbooks offer a valuable insight into what was worrying men in their daily lives. The overarching theme (not surprisingly) of both the Carmen and Artemidorus’ treatment of dreams is changes in fortune. The advice, interpretations, and prognostications reveal core issues for success or failure in life, encompassing such concerns as death, disease, financial challenges, marriage and family, and risks of journeys. They also focus on the violence of everyday life, stressful interpersonal interactions, and dealings with the law. The emphasis is on down-to-earth problems; there is a significant lack of concern for what might be called ‘large’ calamities. There is only one reference in Artemidorus to ‘approach of enemies, barren land, and famine’ (Dreams 2.9). While history focuses on wars and rumors of wars, disasters, and political maneuverings of the elite, ordinary men had little or no thought for such things. They were preoccupied rather with their immediate situations.

Magical papyri also offer a window. Death, while the commonest topic in Artemidorus’ dream interpretations book, does not receive much mention in these; magic apparently cannot ward off the Grim Reaper except indirectly, by curing disease. Likewise family relations, a topic that figures largely in Artemidorus, is largely missing from the incantations of the papyri, although it does occasionally appear. Otherwise, the topics of the Carmen and Artemidorus’ interpretations frequently track the same concerns shown in the magical papyri: disease and financial success, success in disputes at law, and standing in the eyes of others. Together, the three sources leave a very clear impression of the day-today concerns of ordinary people.

Although bad things happening to people far outnumber good things, good fortune is mentioned at times. The Carmen speaks of a good fate as ‘wealth and praise’ for men, ‘wealthy, rich, powerful in business affairs, great in prosperity, seizing eminence and fortune and increasing them’ and ‘fortune, eminence, commendation, praise, and a good livelihood.’ Although these might seem to fit the high end of ordinary ‘good fortune’ more than the experience of most, mutatis mutandis we can suppose that for ordinary persons as well, sufficient wealth, success in business, and good standing among his neighbors, friends, and associates would constitute ‘good fortune.’ Elsewhere the Carmen also mentions a beautiful and faithful wife, good friends, and victory over one’s enemies as good fortune for men, and good health and a fine reputation as good fortune for women. These are the things that everyone would hope to come to pass in his life, but prediction literature dwelled much, much more on the possibilities of these not happening in one aspect or another. This is quite natural, for people who seek advice are mostly worried people; as Artemidorus says, ‘People with no cares have no need of a seer’ (Dreams 3.20).

Death is the single commonest concern. In the Carmen there is a long list of possible deaths, almost all bad; it is mentioned in other contexts repeatedly. In Artemidorus, death, grief, and mourning are the most cited events by far. This could be one’s own death, or the death of a person close to you, family member or friend. The pervasive presence of death is striking in its dominance of worries. The ‘normality’ of death as we might view it statistically – very many children dead by age ten; half the population dead by twenty; a life expectancy of under fifty – clearly was of no consolation to people. Rather, the reality held them, and they worried about it constantly. Like all the concerns I will discuss, we should not think that ordinary men moped about in perpetual fear of the angel of death, but since death was so real, so unpredictable, and so disruptive to the living, it is no surprise that they thought about it a lot.

Disease was also constantly on men’s minds. Despite or because of the state of herbal and medical remedies in their world, disease that could easily debilitate or kill was an ever-present threat to well-being. As with references to death, Artemidorus is full of examples of illness; and, of course, death and disease are often joined:

The inability to leave or discover a way out of one’s own abode or home in which he dreams himself to be indicates obstacles causing delay for those having in mind to be away from home, hindrances for those planning to accomplish something, serious disease for one who is sick, and death to one with a lingering disease. (Dreams 2.2)

In the Carmen, disease is frequently present as a fate as well. For example:

If Saturn is in quartile of Mars while Saturn is in the tenth sign, he will have little medical treatment, he will be weak in his body, unceasing in diseases because of fevers, he will be shaking … (Carmen 2.15)


If Saturn and Mars are in the same sign and the Moon is between them, then this native will be a leper, and scabies and itching will seize him. (Carmen 4.1)

By definition an ordinary man had enough to live on, but his concern was whether more resources would come his way, enhancing his life, or fewer, endangering his ability to manage. And, of course, the range of financial situations was great. Artemidorus mentions all sorts, from the laborer, sailor, artisan, and service provider (e.g. innkeeper) to what would seem to be long-distance merchants and wholesalers. Whatever their financial position, however, major worries preoccupied them.

Financial success heads the list. Artemidorus can say ‘a great treasure indicates distress and anxieties’ (Dreams 2.59) and ‘a rich man must spend his money lavishly, and be the object of plots and envy’ (Dreams 4.17), but this perhaps only reflects either a little bit of popular philosophizing, or the myth of the unhappy rich, ever popular among ordinary men of all ages. By far the most references in Artemidorus are concerned with increased financial success. That success was often precarious. Men had scant opportunity to make a great leap in economic condition. But hard-working persons could be successful, although just how many managed this is impossible to know. Artemidorus tells the tale of the child of a farmer who became a shipmaster and, indeed, ‘was extremely successful’ (Dreams 5.74). A similar story is told by the peasant of Maktar (Tunisia) who rose from poverty to local office:

I was born into a poor family. My father had no possessions or house of his own. Since the day of my birth, I have always worked my land; neither my land nor I have ever rested. When the harvest season of the year came around and grain was ripe, I was the first to cut my stalks. When the gangs of harvesters who hire themselves out around Cirta, the capital of the Numidians, or in the fertile plain of Jupiter, appeared in the country, then I was the first to reap my field. Then, leaving my country, I harvested for other men for twelve years under a burning sun. For eleven years, I commanded a gang of harvesters and harvested grain in the fields of the Numidians. By my work, having made do with little, I at last became the owner of a house and a rural estate. Today I don’t lack for anything. I have even risen to honors: I have been enrolled among the magistrates of my city, and my colleagues have elected me, me who began life as a poor peasant, Censor. I have seen my children and grandchildren come into the world and grow up around me. I have lived blamelessly, deservedly honored by all. (CIL 8.11824 = ILS 7457)

Although this man’s success is spectacular, it was by no means unique. Artemidorus gives an interpretation of a dream that one has a large head:

To dream that you have a large head is a good thing for a rich man who has not yet held high office, as well as for a poor man, an athlete, a moneylender, a banker, and the collector of monetary subscriptions. For a rich man, it portends a leadership role in which there is need of a crown for him, or a priestly fillet, or a diadem. For the others, it means successful business and additional monetary gain. So the increase in the size of the head points to these things. (Dreams 1.71)

Success came to some, but worries came to all. First, there is debt. Debt is a focus of the Carmen and there are many references in Artemidorus to debt and debtors; this indicates widespread use of loans. For example, usurers who hold a mortgage on a man’s ship appear in dreams given in Artemidorus, as does an artisan who because of debt has to leave his workshop and city. Land was used as collateral for loans to pay taxes or raise capital, and men worried that default would mean its loss. The specter of failed business ventures is a fairly common dream motif; one example involves a perfume maker who ‘lost his store’; this is said matter-of-factly by Artemidorus. Then there is unemployment, another common economic evil mentioned repeatedly; this does not seem to involve day-laborers, who might be expected to be unemployed much of the time, but rather tradesmen and artisans, whose work might be supposed, in normal situations, to be steadier. We know from other preindustrial societies that underemployment is endemic; these fears of unemployment mean that there were many men out of work or with tenuous or part-time work among ordinary Romans, and they feared the prospect. Although one might be a fine artisan or even a shipowner, this was no guarantee that work would be available. So the potential for unemployment was constantly on men’s minds.

And in business there was always the possibility of a falling-out with business partners and associates. The Carmen focuses on these worries, as well as on concerns about dealing with local officials, especially the market supervisors who had the power to harass a businessman. Artemidorus notes:

And even if a man conducts his business well and goes so far as to take on unprofitable expenditures, he is still always censured by the market supervisor. For it is impossible to be a supervisor without constantly doing this. (Dreams 2.30)

Petty harassments were a fact of life and could go beyond this to outright corruption, as in the Satyricon 15 episode in which local officials attempt to seize stolen property, scare off its owners with the threat of prosecution, then sell the articles for their own profit.

The only thing that takes up more space in the Carmen than business and travel is family matters of various sorts. Men had intense concerns about marriage and about children and relatives. Dorotheus goes into great elaboration about what the charts have to say on prospects and the future of marriages. What kind of a husband will he be? What kind of a wife? What status differences will be involved? That is, will the man marry ‘low,’ for example to a slave or a prostitute, or will he marry well? Will a relative be married? Will the person charted marry multiple times? What is little mentioned is romantic love. On the contrary, when women are involved, strong emphasis is put on sexual control. In the magical papyri an overwhelming number of charms and incantations deal with securing the (apparently unwilling) sexual subservience of a woman to a man. In only one case is it explicitly a husband-and-wife issue; the impression in all others is that either an undefined relationship exists, or an adulterous one. Thus sexual drive was very much on the minds of ordinary men. Given the fact that in the magical papyri there are so many charms, incantations designed to compel a woman’s affections, it is somewhat surprising that sexual attraction does not seem to be on the worry list for men seeking astrological and dream-interpretation advice. Success in love (whatever that might mean in a variety of contexts) is missing from the Carmen. In Artemidorus, some dreams do interpret a man or a woman’s love life – ‘If a young man or woman is wounded in the breast by someone s/he knows, it indicates love’ (Dreams 1.41) – but this is quite rare. There is reference to wifely love, to mistresses, to whores and debauchery, but there is no preoccupation with what we would think of as the emotion of love per se. It seems that thinking about ‘romantic love’ is a luxury men cannot afford – their concerns are much more concrete. If ‘love’ is a part of a man’s life, so be it – but it is not a concern of the first order. He is much more concerned with the realia of ‘love,’ for example if he will get access to a woman he loves, or, on a more personal level, if he will be impotent (‘joy will not come to him in the acts of Aphrodite’) or ‘oversexed’: excess in sexual intercourse is predicted for both men and women in the case of one natal horoscope.

The possibility of a happy marriage is there, but overshadowed by many fates of poor outcome, and there is much worry about quarrelsome marriage, emphasized by the frequency with which epitaphs of happily married couples state that they ‘lived without quarrels,’ perhaps sometimes protesting overmuch and at the very least validating that lack of quarrelsomeness was something to be sought in a marriage. Good and bad outcomes to marriage have a whole section of Artemidorus’ book to themselves. The necessities of a good marriage are ‘agreement and love,’ but it is entirely possible that one partner will dominate the other like his or her master a slave; only occasionally is a purely good outcome mentioned, as for example in Artemidorus when he gives wifely excellences as attractiveness, faithfulness, being a good housekeeper, and showing obedience to her husband (Dreams 2.32).


2. Domination of women. A clay figure pierced with needles. The accompanying spell, written on a lead tablet, shows the magical intent of a man to control a woman sexually.

Misfortunes for the wife and children weigh significantly upon the mind. Within marriage two concerns are uppermost. First of all, will the marriage be stable or unstable? There seems to be a good deal of worry over both female and male debauchery and sexual misconduct, especially in the Carmen, but also in Artemidorus, where licentious wives are mentioned a number of times. A focus on the extramarital relations of both partners comes into many horoscopes. There is explicit and frequent concern that the husband will be a philanderer (this was clearly not accepted as a ‘given’). A good wife should be faithful, but the concern for loose, debauched woman is preeminent. Artemidorus notes that the husband ‘exercises control and authority over [his wife’s] body’; ‘controls and governs’ his wife. So when she goes astray, this is a direct catastrophe for the husband’s reputation and standing. The horoscopes and dream interpretations paint a picture resembling the disloyal, sexually loose women mentioned so frequently and in such detail in Apuleius’ novel. Whatever the reality, the ordinary man evidently worried a lot about the faithfulness of his wife (and she about her husband’s).

There is also worry about sexual relations in marriage or, rather, women’s actions as a sexual partner. If a woman is ‘desirous of intercourse’ then this ‘indicates debauchery and wickedness’ according to the Carmen. It follows that a good woman does not ‘perform the act of Aphrodite in an unnatural way.’ Oral sex on one’s wife is not acceptable, nor is fellatio by the wife. Presumably the worry here is that sex with a wife should not be confused with a casual sexual encounter with a slave or prostitute. Another bad marriage outcome to worry about is that the woman is a lesbian. Artemidorus is more generous in his thinking than the Carmen. Although the wife should be submissive – thus ‘the one having sex according to Aphrodite’s norms completely controls the body of his compliant and willing sexual partner’ (Dreams 1.79) – she is entitled to enjoy the act too: ‘To have intercourse with one’s willing and submissive wife – one not reluctant regarding sex – this is a good thing for both.’ (It is, however, entirely possible that the wife only yield ‘with some resistance’ – and this is not interpreted as good (1.78)). In intercourse with one’s wife, the face-to-face position is called ‘natural’ (1.79); other positions include from the rear and while standing (‘men use this position only when they have neither bed nor mattress’); while the woman is kneeling or while prostrate; and with the woman on top. All positions except the ‘natural’ one are ‘taught in their wantonness, licentiousness, and drunken follies …’ The woman’s perspective is not considered important, although as noted above, Artemidorus does admit that she might enjoy the act. The desire, therefore, is for a marriage in which both partners are faithful, and the wife remains demure and passive – does not ‘play the whore’ – in their sexual life together.

Another worry was about marriages ending badly – even in murder, as in a wife poisoning her husband. More mundane bad endings are frequently mentioned, either divorce or desertion. There are many astrological scenarios concerning a woman leaving her husband’s house; this would seem to mean that it was a common fear. Likewise, Artemidorus frequently mentions divorce, indicating that it was a common occurrence. Presumably this worry was linked to the dowry, which the woman would take away with her; a dowry is assumed as normal.

The sum of a successful marriage seems to be children. There is much worry about sterility, the number of children, and whether they will be ‘good children,’ as expressed in many charts cast. There is a preference for males (‘male children [seen in a dream] are good; female are good for nothing’ (Dreams 4.10)), but there is never reference to infanticide, abortion, or contraception. Indeed, one of the great miseries and misfortunes of life is to have few children or to be childless.

Those children are under the complete control of their fathers. The relationship can be good or bad, but the expectation is that it will be good, with the parents providing what is necessary for upbringing, and for an inheritance for the children. Intergenerational relations are often stressed as parents worry about children wasting parental property and resources and in general not turning out well. There is concern for the number of children, and that they get along well; there is a particular concern that brothers get along. Here again quarreling raises its ugly head, as children are apt to get into disputes with one another, with an outcome unfortunate for the family. Beyond the nuclear family, which seems to be the assumed unit in all the evidence, and into the extended family, quarreling is again mentioned. It does seem as if a lot of arguing went on in an ordinary man’s family.

I have noted the role of sex in marriage, but it is also necessary to look more generally at ordinary men’s sexual activity. The sexual life of a male included sex with a wife for procreation; however, its other aspects are harder to gauge. The elite sources, especially Ovid, Martial, and Juvenal but also historians, rhetoricians, and literary figures of almost all sorts, contain material relating to male sexual activity. Even if complicated in the details, the overriding elite male ethos valuing domination and being ashamed of subjection meant that all sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual, was evaluated as specific circumstances of control and submission. So a particular sexual act was acceptable or not depending not so much on the physiology of the act itself, but on who was involved and the part played by an individual in it. People considered the actors (male? female?), their status (slave? free?), their matrimonial status (unmarried? married?), the economic circumstances (paid? gratis?), the biological intent (for procreation?), and most importantly the dominant/submissive element just noted. A given sexual act was judged according to where it was positioned on the matrix of these considerations, which created the ‘rules of the game’; obviously, the situation was very complicated.

Within the basic model of sex and marriage, a wide range of other sexual activity was open, provided the rules of the game were adhered to. Most specifically, we do not find a ‘type’ of person or ‘identity’ that can be called ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual.’ In fact, there is no Latin word for ‘homosexual’ – or for ‘heterosexual’ for that matter. It is essential rather to think in terms of specific acts and situations within an elite culture that never questions the centrality of male domination as the pattern of behavior and self-identity for the male.

The question is, can this fluid ethos apply to ordinary men? These men also conceptualized sexual acts as domination or submission. Sling projectiles give a wonderfully vivid proof of the equation of sexual violence and masculinity. Soldiers readying these lead, acorn-shaped objects for hurling inscribed them with a message for the enemy. Some just had thoughts like ‘Take that!’ But many others use colorful sexual language to make the message of domination clear. This glans (the Latin word for ‘penis’ is the same as for ‘sling projectile’) from the war against Octavian, later Augustus, bears witness: ‘I seek Octavian’s ass’ (CIL 11.6721.7) is one of the daintier thoughts; all related to sexual penetration as emblematic of domination. This view of masculine domination as sexual metaphor comes straight from ordinary men.

The magical papyri confirm this picture of aggressive male sexuality. Many of the charms and incantations are designed to subject women to men, sometimes in the grossest terms:

Let the myrrh smoke on coals and recite the spell. ‘You are Zmyrna [i.e. myrrh], the bitter and effective one … Everyone calls you Zmyrna, but I call you Eater and Burner of the Heart … I am sending you to X, daughter of Y, to serve me against her and bring her to me. If she is sitting, she may not sit; if she is talking to someone, she may not talk; if she is approaching someone, she may not approach; … if she is eating, she may not eat; if she is kissing someone, she may not kiss … She may think only of me, desire me only, love me only, and fulfill my every wish … Enter her through her soul and remain in her heart and burn her entrails, her breast, her liver, her breath, her bones, her marrow, until she comes to me to love me and fulfill my every wish. I urge you, Zmyrna … to make sure that you carry out my orders. Just as I am burning you and you are potent, just so you must burn her brain, the woman I love, burn it completely and rip out her entrails and shed her blood, drop by drop, until she comes to me.’ (PGM 1:121–4/Luck)

The violent imagery fits the aggressive, dominant male. And the action in the plays of Plautus, Apuleius’ Golden Ass, and Petronius’ Satyricon all features males who are concerned about domination. These works also picture a world in which homosexual acts occur together with heterosexual, and in which the elite matrix of acceptable behavior seems to apply.

Set alongside this clear concept of domination as the litmus test of masculinity and the resulting openness to acts of sexual domination, whether over males or females, is an equally clear concept that the collection of acts we might call nonstraightforward male-on-female intercourse is, as a group, considered unacceptable, not to say perverse or even deviant. Artemidorus is very specific about the view of sex that informs his dream interpretations; I assume that unless that view was widespread among ordinary people, this would not have been the case. As previously noted, his view is that there is one ‘natural’ sexual position:

Basic Nature teaches men that the ‘body-to-body’ sexual position is the only natural one; all the other positions men are taught in their wantonness, licentiousness, and drunken follies. [After noting that animals all have their own ‘natural’ sexual habits, he continues.] And so it is appropriate that men hold the proper sexual position to be the ‘face-to-face’ one; the others are invented as suitable to lewdness and drunken excess. (Dreams 1.79)

So Artemidorus states that ‘If the sun disappears this is a bad sign for all except for those endeavoring to escape notice and performing abominable acts (Dreams 1.36). But what exactly might those be? In his long series of interpretations based on dreams he mentions just about every possible sexual encounter and activity. He lists three general types: (1) intercourse that is natural, legal, and customary. This includes sex with one’s wife, with prostitutes, with ‘unknown women,’ with one’s own slaves, male or female, or with a female who is familiar and ‘on intimate terms’; (2) intercourse that is illegal: intercourse with a young (five- to ten-year-old) boy or girl; with one’s own son or daughter or sibling; with one’s mother; with a ‘friend’ (presumably, a free grown-up person); and (3) intercourse that is ‘unnatural.’ Here he includes pretty odd things, such as ‘having sexual intercourse with himself,’ ‘kissing his own penis,’ necrophilia, and bestiality – but not, importantly, homosexual acts.

Artemidorus is ambivalent about a clear dominant/submissive model. On the one hand, he confirms the supposition that to be possessed in a sexual act is bad; the only exception is a dream of possession by a rich man, for you will then ‘receive’ riches(Dreams1.78). On the other, even in dominating positions some acts are reprehensible, such as having fellatio performed by a wife or mistress, or a friend, or a relative, or a child. While Artemidorus also condemns the person performing the act, the passive partner, it is noteworthy that in either position a dream bodes ill.

Artemidorus, then, nuances the elite categorization of sexual acts. Moreover, to him, there is a norm: face-to-face sex between a male and a female. Other acts are mentioned, specifically fellatio and various sexual positions. The former seems at least with wives and free persons to be reprehensible, and he implicitly criticizes the ‘non-normal’ sexual positions. One comes away with the distinct sense that he is fully aware of the sexual habits of his contemporaries, but has a clear idea of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ about them. In his work there is an affirmation of marital sex, but unlike the elite viewpoint there also seems to be a rejection of homosexual activity, whether male or female.

The Carmen adds to our knowledge of how the ordinary man viewed homosexual acts. In the chapter ‘Knowledge of Sodomy,’ which completes his larger section on marriage, Dorotheus clearly has in mind not just individual acts, but people who habitually prefer same-sex acts to heterosexual ones. In one astrological casting the person ‘will not love women, but his pleasure will be in boys’; in another ‘he will be covetous of males.’ There is analogous casting: ‘it indicates she will be desirous of women,’ just as for a male ‘he will be desirous of males.’ In a third instance: ‘if a woman then she will be a Lesbian … if a male, then they will not do to women as they ought to do’ (Carmen 2.7). So the Carmen adds to our understanding by making it clear that some men (and some women) acted out a long-term preference, not just more or less isolated homosexual acts.

As a final window on sexuality, the attitude of Paul needs to be mentioned. In a tirade against polytheists, he writes:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (Romans 1:21–7)

He goes on to catalogue all their other horrible moral shortcomings, but what is important to note is that he paints polytheists as open to homosexual acts (to put it kindly). Now this no more means that all Romano-Greeks practiced homosexual acts than that they were all malicious, deceitful, arrogant, heartless, and so on – other epithets he piles upon them in this same passage. But it surely means that such acts were an accepted part of polytheist culture. The fact that Paul makes a point of being opposed to these acts indicates that his hearers were as well, or, at least, were able to be persuaded that they should be. Such an argument does not come out of the blue; Paul’s correspondents and hearers either were or could easily be made to be disposed against homosexual acts. Given the evidence of Artemidorus and the Carmen, I would argue that for a wide swath of ordinary men such a disposition would come naturally because such acts and, therefore, their practitioners were looked down upon.

The picture of ordinary men’s outlook on sex is not, therefore, consistent. Evidently in the culture there were men who took a detached view of sexual acts, not connecting them to a greater social picture but only to individual situations, much as the elite did. The graffiti from Pompeii, scribbled by a self-selected group of aggressive males, fit this picture. But then there were also those who felt that restrained sex for procreation within marriage was the appropriate model, recognizing various degrees of deviation (perhaps excusing sex with slaves, for example) but not rejecting the core value. This aspect comes out much more strongly in the material I have just given. It is a complex picture, and should be accepted as such, but in general it seems that ordinary men were more committed to marriage, and more inclined to be critical of homosexual acts, than their elite leaders.

We would expect a concern for marriage and sex among ordinary men. On the other hand, journeys receive a rather unexpected emphasis in the astrological and dream literature. This emphasis tells us two things. First, we see that journeys were not out of the ordinary. We can think immediately of travel for pleasure, such as going to a festival near or far; for business; and as an enforced undertaking. In Apuleius we see all three types of movement, and especially the latter two are strongly witnessed in the prediction literature. Likewise in the New Testament material we see people moving about the empire whether on business or as part of religious activity. But travel was dangerous for any number of reasons, including bad weather, bandits and pirates, accidents, and dishonest officials. So it is only natural that men would worry about travel either in the future, or while actually engaged in it. Long-term emigration is also on their minds; we know from the many inscriptions noting a person as an alienus (a nonresident) that such movement was in practice fairly common. They also worry about loved ones who are abroad, for example a son, and whether they will return safely. And enforced travel added another dimension, for a person might be exiled – although this can hardly have been a worry for an ordinary man – or otherwise forced to leave his home to escape debt, or because he was a criminal transported as punishment, or because some natural disaster made a move imperative. The best outcome of travel was economic gain, but the risks in shipping, the primary source of long-distance profit, were immense, as was the investment (and so often debt) required to engage in it. Travel was therefore a major source of worry for men.

As if there wasn’t already enough to be concerned about, men had to pay attention to the authorities, to avoid a run-in if at all possible. The Carmen has a long passage on being cast into chains, and Artemi-dorus has many references to dreams that pertain to the fate of criminals and prisoners: becoming condemned, being put in bonds or in prison, anticipating torture and beatings, or execution (crucifixion, beheading). Those in authority generally liked to throw their weight around, and it was best not to get in the way. Likewise, as they controlled the legal system, it was best to prevent entanglement.

The law, crime, and violence of everyday life

According to the elite literature, Roman law was fundamental to the reality that was Roman culture. Scholars through the ages have repeated this, even as they have noted the differential treatment within the law of various segments of the population. But the ordinary person had other, hostile thoughts when the legal system came to mind. This simple statement by Paul indicates much:

Suppose one of you wants to bring a charge against another believer. Should you take it to the ungodly to be judged? Why not take it to God’s people? Don’t you know that God’s people will judge the world? And if you are going to judge the world, aren’t you able to judge small cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels? Then we should be able to judge the things of this life even more! (1 Corinthians 6:1–2)

Paul urges disputes be settled within the community; people should not take cases to public law courts. This advice indicates a fundamental mistrust of the civil courts to treat Paul’s people fairly. Although Paul’s situation might be seen to be unique because of the religious element, in fact there is much other evidence that ordinary men did not use and even avoided the legal system fairly systematically. This is hardly surprising: The Roman legal system was created by and managed in order to favor the elite. While it is clear that some cases of ordinary men were heard and acted upon – there are rescripts in the Digest that are addressed to humble folk – a builder (4.65.2), a flat-tenant (4.65.3) – the structural hindrances were significant.

But the official hindrances were just the tip of the iceberg. In a world where personal connections and wealth provided access to everything worth having, a person was at an increasing disadvantage if he was positioned lower on the socioeconomic scale. It was a parlous situation: Legal action was expensive and all the things that could make legal action work – the help of the powerful (clientela), the aid of equals (amicitia), the expectation of reciprocal help (officium) – were as likely to work against a person as to work in his favor. The Epistle of James (2:6) takes note of this reality: ‘Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?’ Surely the mental habit that created official hindrances operated well beyond those strictures and produced a situation in which, in effect, a person of lower status had great difficulty bringing a case against one of higher status, and virtually no chance of winning such a case once put unless, through the patronage of a powerful person, the case had become de facto one between social equals. Apuleius has a scathing indictment of the whole legal system as he mocks ‘justice’:

You dregs of humanity – or should I say courtroom beasts – or better still, togate vultures – why do you wonder if nowadays all judges hand down their decisions for a price … (The Golden Ass 10.33)

Petronius also plays upon the obvious injustice of the legal system in an episode. His two leading characters, Encolpius and Ascyltos, lost a cloak with gold coins sewed into the seams. They spied this very cloak on the shoulders of a poor market seller and discussed how to get it back. Encolpius was in favor of taking the current owner to court to claim the garment; Ascyltos, however, objected, ‘fearing the law.’

‘Who knows us in this place? Who will believe what we say? Certainly it seems preferable to me to just buy the cloak, even though it is ours by right. It is better to get it back at a small cost rather than get involved in a lawsuit of very uncertain outcome. What good are laws, when money alone rules, and when a poor man can never prevail? A judgment at law is nothing more than a public sale, and the aristocrat who sits on the jury casts his vote according to who pays him.’ (Satyricon 13–14)

Artemidorus, in a similar vein, notes that seeing courts of law, judges, lawyers, and teachers of law in a dream ‘troubles, unhappiness, bothersome expenses, and that secret things will be revealed’(Dreams 2.29); and that a judge is someone who does whatever he wishes without being accountable to anyone (4.66). The Carmen is just as harsh. Negatives that could queer a decision include injustice by judge; bribes; force; and favoritism (Carmen 5.33). In such a corrupted environment, the ordinary man would have lacked both money and influence in sufficient quantity to go up against anyone of significant standing. Thus the legal system was always risky. So in the Carmen there is extensive consideration of the resolution of quarrels and, most especially, of the outcomes of legal proceedings. In these situations other avenues of dispute resolution were on the mind. The most popular was the mediation of a dispute within a family, or a peer group such as an association. Paul recommended this to his comrades in Corinth. The basic situation is clear, however: Ordinary men sought to avoid actions at law. In the vast majority of cases, they looked to the legal system only when there was a really important matter transcending local affairs, or when there was enough standing, connection, and resources to hope for success. Juris-consultus abesto (lawyer, be gone!), indeed.

Theft was a constant problem in a society with so much un- and under-employment, not to say out-and-out poverty. There was no regular police force patrolling the streets; and although in towns there was often a nightwatchman out after dark, and he could make arrests, this was not much of a deterrent. The Carmen has a number of references to things being stolen, and dedicates a chapter to ‘If you want to know the matter of a theft that has been committed or something that has been lost, whether he will possess it again or not.’ Under this heading, various castings indicate that:

These goods will be recovered quickly without pain or trouble … these goods of his which were lost will be found after a long time and with trouble and that the thieves will have moved the goods from the first place in which they put it when they stole it to another place … that it will be found after a time and trouble … that it will be more proper that this be found … that those goods which were stolen or lost will be found … that it will not be found … that the thing which was stolen or lost will disappear so that he will not possess it … that he will soon possess the thing which was lost or stolen … that he will not possess the thing which was stolen or lost and it will not be necessary for its owner to search for it since he would toil without accomplishing anything … that he will not possess the thing which was stolen or lost except with slowness and trouble or a quarrel and insult and fighting. (Carmen 5.35)

Artemidorus even has an interpretation directed at a criminal. If such a person dreams of stars falling from the heavens, ‘this would only be propitious to those plotting some great crime’ (Dreams 2.36). Other dreams indicate that someone will be defrauded, temples will be robbed, and thieves will attack a man on a journey; seeing a hawk or wolf in a dream means a bandit or robber.

Stolen goods were difficult to recover. There were no formal investigative police available, although officials did have the capacity to act if they wished. For example, when Lucius in The Golden Ass is accused of robbing his host and fleeing, the magistrates do follow this up, torturing Lucius’ slave and sending their attendants to Corinth to look for him. But most often a person had to seek the item and the thief himself. Enlisting the help of a god was one way. Another was to check the stars; the Carmen gives many castings that indicate where one should look for stolen or lost goods, such as:

… in the dung of sheep or the shelters of animals … in the forges of blacksmiths … in or near a sea or in a spring or a stream or a valley or a river or a canal or a place in which there is water … (Carmen 5.35)

Items of all kinds were stolen: fine, expensive cloth; clothing; jewels and perfume; implements of construction and farming; metalwork; ceramics; religious idols; books and business ledgers; as well as common, everyday ‘coarse and rough’ possessions. Stolen goods were easily fenced, with no questions asked. According to the details of the Carmen, both male and female slaves were frequently used, but wealthy, well-connected men also handled stolen goods.

Like the items themselves, thieves were many and various. They could be acquaintances from outside the house, total strangers, or someone familiar to the family, a thief who ‘has entered for conversation and there is friendship between him and the people of the house and their trust is in this man, but then he steals’ (Carmen 5.35). They could be young, middle aged, or old. Once again, slaves were a common possibility. Their approaches and methods were varied. They might be ‘thieves of opportunity’ – in a house for another reason, for example, then seeing something tempting, steal it; they might use trickery and guile; they might dig through a wall, or break a lock, or get copies of keys, or sneak in through a skylight.

If you search for the culprit, it helps to know what he looks like. Fortunately, if you did not get a look at him, the stars could provide a description, depending on the dominant planet in the charts:

Jupiter: white, fat, great in his eyes, the whites of his eyes will be smaller than what is necessary for it to be because of the measure of that eye; and their beards will be rounded and curly, their personality will be gentle and good; Saturn: repulsive in his face, black in his color, his gaze toward the ground, broken and small eyes, slim, twisted in his gaze, of pallid color, a lot of body hair and bushy eyebrows, a liar and sickly; Mars: red in color, reddish hair, sharp vision, fat cheeked, a gay fellow, a master of jokes; Venus: handsome, a full head of hair, fat, black eyes, pale skin, gentle and courteous; Mercury: slim, emaciated, pale, confused in thinking. (Carmen 5.35)

All of this information clearly indicates that theft was a serious concern. When you add theft by slave property running away, perhaps the most consistently valuable and certainly most moveable possession, there is almost as much treatment in the Carmen of this topic as there is for marriage and the family. And in literature, thieves and theft are everywhere. Allusions to them are sprinkled throughout the New Testament: Death comes ‘like a thief in the night’ (Thessalonians 5:2); ‘lay up treasures in heaven where moth and dust do not corrupt, nor thieves break in and steal’ (Matthew 6:20); ‘But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into’ (Luke 12:39); ‘the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy’ (John 10:10); ‘the day of the Lord will come like a thief’ (2 Peter 3:10). Then there are the frequent violent assaults on persons and property in Apuleius’ Golden Ass. And worries over theft became even greater because the authorities took ineffectual action at best. They were concerned with ‘keeping the peace’ and could form a posse to attack bandits, as happens in The Golden Ass, but unless a heinous crime was committed against the elite, or citizens took the initiative, inaction was the order of the day. In fact, both as individuals and as groups, men were left to their own devices in dealing with theft, as the Carmen clearly indicates by dwelling on what suspects might look like, where stolen goods might be found, who might be the thieves, and so on. This situation in turn meant that men took measures to guard their possessions and were constantly nervous about the possibility of theft.

Thieves once caught might be turned over to legal process, but they were also susceptible to mob violence, i.e. lynching. This is what happens in The Golden Ass when a posse from Hypata catches robbers and promptly kills them with swords or by hurling them over a cliff. If slaves were caught, they were tortured for evidence. Any persons convicted suffered punishments that to the modern mind are extremely cruel. But that was the point, to deter others by fear of ghastly punishments like severed hands, lashings, condemnation to the mines or gladiatorial farces, beheadings, hanging, death at the claws and jaws of wild beasts, and crucifixion. Such punishments were part and parcel of a larger aspect of the ordinary man’s world, its pervasively violent nature. Recent emphasis has been placed on our horror at the gladiatorial games and public spectacles which included reenactments of myths featuring the death of one of the participants. It is much more important to acknowledge that for the ordinary man violence was embedded in every aspect of his life to the point where it was, quite simply, normal. He might mistreat his (and sometimes another’s) slave by beatings, sexual assault, mental abuse; his children were entirely under his authority and could be physically punished at will. His wife likewise had little recourse against the violence of her husband. Outside the home, fights were a normal way to resolve personal differences as his honor-shame culture endorsed violent forms of self-assertion in the face of insult real or imagined. Although in general he was ‘unarmed’ in the sense that he, especially if poorer, often did not have offensive equipment like swords ready at hand, other items such as stones, sticks, hunting spears, implements, paving stones, and the like were weapons at his disposal, and he used them, and they could be used on him. The dreams given in Artemidorus make it clear that personal enemies could seek to do harm and one must always be on guard against betrayals:

[If you see in a dream] dogs that belong to another fawning, this indicates wicked men and women lying in wait to trick you. (Dreams 2.11)

Quarrels led to fighting even in, or perhaps especially in, committed communities such as early Christian groups:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. (James 4.1)

Attacks could be of various sorts, but they included physical assaults resulting in injuries or even death. And then, of course, there was always the danger of assault by bandits, especially on the road:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. (Luke 10.30)

Vigilante self-help was the rule. When robbers attack a citizen’s house in The Golden Ass, they are twice beaten off by those in the house and their neighbors. At other times citizens take the initiative and seize a suspect, turning him over to the authorities. If a dispute were taken before magistrates, official violence such as flogging could be sought, but self-help in interpersonal disputes was the first recourse for most people, with or without subsequent involvement by officials.

On a larger scale, if people had a dispute with the authorities, or felt that, for example, the wealthy were withholding grain during a famine, the natural recourse was to riot, either in an attempt to intimidate or actually to kill alleged perpetrators or to destroy their property. In The Golden Ass there is an episode in which townsmen in a mob drag Lucius before the town magistrates and he only escapes when it turns out that he is the victim in a ‘festival of laughter.’ Paul was not so lucky on a number of occasions. In fact his case is a good example of how men acted when a social irritant appeared. In Ephesus Paul preached and taught in the synagogues, but, as we have seen, the silversmith artisans of the town thought their livelihood was being threatened, and they took action, seizing Paul and his companion and taking them to the theater where the people and magistrates were assembled. At this point the magistrate tried to quiet the crowd and move the process out of the hands of the mob, but in the end the mob had won: Paul left Ephesus immediately (Acts 19:35–41). And well he might, for at Philippi earlier he had had a similar experience with a mob, with a worse outcome. There he had cured a prophetic slave girl, much to the anger and economic loss of her owners. They seized Paul and his companion, Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities, who complied with the mob’s wishes:

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:22–4)

Anyone who seemed disruptive could be set upon, and a small number of locals could raise a mob, as in Ephesus with the silversmiths and at Philippi with a wealthy pair of brothers. A local ordinary man had less fear of this, although such things could happen, as when the father of a younger son accused the elder son of murder and tried to incite the crowd to forego a trial and stone the accused (The Golden Ass 10.6–12). Most often, though, the ordinary man was in the mob, for those set upon were most usually either outsiders or members of the elite. Apuleius gives us an example of vigilantes in his tale of the priests of the Syrian goddess. They had been traveling through towns performing their rites and offering prophecies for sale. In one town they stole a golden goblet from the temple of the Great Mother goddess. This discovered, the townsmen set out to retrieve their stolen goods:

And then suddenly a band of armed horsemen came up from behind us at a gallop. Only with difficulty did they rein in their steeds’ mad dash. The men seized the lead priest and his companions, too. Shouting that they were foully sacrilegious, they proceeded to beat them up with their fists. Then they tied them all up and again and again demanded in the strongest language that they produce the golden chalice, the evidence of their wicked theft … One of the men stretched his hand over my back and rummaged around in the very bosom of the goddess whom I carried until in the sight of all he brought forth the chalice … The villagers then escorted the priests back to town, immediately chained them, and threw them into the local lock-up. (The Golden Ass 9.9–10)

Men were also involved in riots over food shortages, a common occurrence, in demonstrations against local magistrates during theater, racing, and gladiatorial contests, among local factions over just about anything, and as part of inter-town rivalries, the most famous of the latter being the riot in ad 59 after a gladiatorial contest between citizens of the neighboring towns of Pompeii and Nuceria, which I discuss in more detail later. When a riot really got out of control, especially in a large city like Rome or Alexandria or Antioch, the troops were called out. The important point is that ordinary men were constantly ready to express their anger in violent ways in a wide range of circumstances. While it is misleading to think of mob violence or riots as a daily event in their lives, the possibility was always there, and there was no hesitancy to join in the action.

In general, magical papyri offer reinforcement that the concerns I have outlined are the focus of ordinary people. Thus from dream interpretations, astrological charts, prayers, and incantations we can summarize that the commons desired a good life full of health, with enough resources to live decently, friends, good reputation, and a supportive family life with children. In dealings beyond the family, these people sought standing in the community, protection from enemies, victory over rivals whether they be in business, the law courts, or in love, and glory or good repute in their social circle. Their greatest fears involved life-changing circumstances, most especially ill health, robbery, death, poverty, or even slavery.

Life in the community

Out in their world, ordinary men led active social lives. Religious ceremonies and celebrations were important. The overtly social context of the festival of Isis as described in Apuleius’ Golden Ass has townspeople in large numbers participating as individuals in the festival. Apuleius focuses on the sacred participants, but the intense activity of the general population at dawn before the main procession even begins, for example, and the ladening of Isis’ ship with baskets of offerings by those participants alongside the uninitiated, illustrates the community-wide nature of such a celebration, and the enthusiasm for the rites at the temple all show the wide level of participation; after an exhilarating day, people return to their homes (11.8–18).

Likewise, days with public entertainment were social foci. Crowds assembled even before a display. There were preliminary entertainments such as pantomimes, and street vendors and performers were everywhere. And the main event focused the community and created a social bond. While sometimes this event was something bloody like a gladiatorial contest, often it was a theatrical or circus-like performance. The Pyrrhic Dance, pantomime, and popular drama described by Apuleius as preliminaries to the execution to follow are good examples of such popular displays (The Golden Ass 10.29–34).

Executions themselves provided yet another opportunity for assembling in public. In the case of Apuleius’ account, this event is the coupling of an ass and a convicted woman, a comico-serious play on the normal punishment of being thrown to wild beasts. But any display would serve the same purpose of social integration. Typically, there would be a public feast the evening before the execution; a grand opportunity to gather, mingle, and get free food.

On the everyday level, associations played a very important role in social life outside the family. They typically had a common bond (household, profession, focus of interest), a geographical place of meeting, a religious purpose (at least nominally), obligations for burial of members, and a convivial aspect. The membership in associations was expansive. Household groups were common, and these might include not only freeborn members of the household but also slaves and freed slaves; women were also members. Associations based upon a religious focus could also be open to all – male, female, free, freed, and slaves. There were in addition professional associations whose focus was a production category – construction workers, for example. Finally, there were associations based only on geographical or ethnic commonality; these were open to free and freed, and sometimes to women.

Ordinary men as well as slaves and freedmen were the mainstay of associations. The elite had little or no need for such associations, except perhaps for participation in some religious ones. But although they did not participate as a rule in the regular meetings, associations often had wealthy patrons. These would be the local elite. Thus in addition to a ‘horizontal’ social function, associations also provided a ‘vertical’ means of adjusting to the severely hierarchical nature of society by linking these little groups to the power and influence only the elite held.

The social nature of associations could lead to trouble from the elite’s point of view. The Roman government was always suspicious of clubs; for example, clubs in Pompeii evidently became caught up in the ‘fandom’ of gladiatorial games and had to be banned in the aftermath of riots centered on the games (Tacitus, Annals 14.17). The emperor Trajan emphasized the position of authority, stating that associations always turned ‘political’: ‘Whatever title we give them, and whatever our object in giving it, men who are banded together for a common end will all the same become a political association before long’ (Pliny, Letters 10.34). There is much modern discussion of the categories of associations, ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate,’ what were ‘authorized’ and what were ‘disapproved’ by the State. Here it is important to emphasize that despite governmental suspicion and worse, the associations clearly continued widely and formed an important part of the social life of ordinary people.

Another valued social venue was the baths. Communal bathing – not swimming in a pool, but actual attempts to achieve cleanliness – is not a usual part of a modern’s life. For the Roman population in towns and cities it was a fundamental part of daily existence. The famous and luxurious baths of Rome and large provincial cities are well known; much smaller facilities proliferated both in those cities and in smaller towns across the empire. While the elite could and did frequent these public places, they also had private bathing facilities of their own, or belonging to their friends, and so an alternative existed. Not so for the ordinary man. In the public baths he could find a combination of fitness gym, massage parlor, spa experience, and social rendezvous. In The Golden Ass,one of the first things Lucius does after he settles in with his host at Hypata and has seen that his horse is taken care of is to go to the local baths. A number of episodes in Petronius’ Satyricon use the baths as a backdrop. Soldiers always had a bathing facility as part of their permanent camps; wealthy citizens bestowed baths on their fellow citizens in much-appreciated acts of generosity. As the forum was the focus and symbol of economic and legal life, the baths were the focus of communal social life. Here you found food and drink, friends and foes, political intrigue, neighborhood gossip, business tips, sex, and much, much else.

Tiberius Claudius Secundus lived 52 years … Wine, sex, and the baths ruin our bodies but wine, sex, and the baths make our life good! Merope, freedwoman of Caesar, set this up to her dear mate, for herself, and for their descendants. (CIL 6.15258, Rome)

There were worries to accompany the good times. Assignations might not be successful. Adultery might occur at your expense. Your clothes might be stolen while you bathed, leaving you seething and cursing the thief. In Rome, this was such a problem that the Prefect of the City Guard was put in charge of doing something about it. He had:

… authority to make an investigation of attendants at the baths who look after bathers’ clothing for a fee, if they act dishonestly in taking care of clothes. (Digest

You might worry about your women going to the baths, for bad things could happen, as this formal complaint from Egypt documents:

From Hippalos son of Archis, public farmer from the village of Euhemeria of the Themistos division. On the 6th Tybi, while my wife Aplounous and her mother Thermis were bathing, Eudaimonis daughter of Protarchos, and Etthytais daughter of Pees, and Deios son of Ammonios, and Heraklous attacked them, and gave my wife Aplounous and her mother in the village bath-house many blows all over her body so that she is laid up in bed, and in the fray she lost a gold earring weighing three quarters, a bracelet of unstamped metal weighing 16 drachmas, a bronze bowl worth 12 drachmas; and Thermis her mother lost a gold earring weighing two and a half quarters, and … (Rowlandson, no. 254)

But the fellowship of the baths was an indispensable, positive part of the social life of ordinary men.

As we picture this social venue, crowded as it was with men (women usually had separate hours), we unthinkingly set beside it the shiny marble of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome or the splendor of Cluny in Paris and imagine this as a sign of grand Roman civilization. There was an element of this, of course; who would not have been impressed with the grandest of these establishments? But this should not blind us to the reality that for the ordinary and elite alike the baths offered not only social interaction but a dangerous lack of hygiene shocking even to contemplate. We do not know how often the water was changed, but there is no indication that this happened frequently. There was no ‘prewash’; rather, the lathering with oil and then scraping off of the same as a cleansing action prior to bathing just meant that the removed material was swept by some bath maintenance person into the pool. Although latrines were sometimes available, apparently some folks just used the pool:

The most dangerous and dreaded thing of all would be to defecate in the temple of a god or in the marketplace or in a public street or bath. For this portends the wrath of the gods and great disgrace and severe loss. In addition often the person who dreams becomes the object of hatred, and his hidden things are revealed. (Dreams 2.26)

In short, whatever dirt, grime, bodily fluids, expulsions, and germs people brought with them to the baths, the water quickly shared with other bathers. Especially in the warm bathing room the bacterial count must have been astronomical. Although this entire combination surely spread contagious diseases, there is no indication that anyone realized any danger at all. In fact, a standard recommendation by doctors was to ‘take the baths,’ so diseased persons were actually encouraged (as we know now) to spread their afflictions to others, all the while acquiring new illness from the waters meant to cure them. Although on occasion even emperors shared the public baths with ordinary people, one at least probably stayed away. Marcus Aurelius caught the ugliness of the bathing process when he wrote:

What does bathing look like to you? Oil, nasty refuse, sludgy water, everything disgusting. (Meditations 8.24)

The scene at the baths was also loud and chaotic. Artemidorus notes that dreaming of singing in the baths is bad luck; dreaming of baths themselves some thought was bad luck too, because all the raucous noise indicated turmoil in life. The elite Seneca eloquently complains of this as he imagines trying to work in an apartment above a public bath:

Behold! On every side all kinds of uproar sound. I live above a public bathing establishment. Imagine now for yourself all the wide range of noises that are enough to make me sorry my ears can hear at all. One time I hear body-builders exercising, pumping their arms, holding heavy lead weights, sweating it out – or pretending to; I hear grunts and groans at the lift, whenever they stop holding their breath, I hear wheezes and sharp breathing. Then I have to endure some lazy fellow, happy with his cheap oil rub-down; I hear the noise of hands smacking his shoulders, the varying sounds as now the flat, now the cupped hand slaps away. Yet more – if the ball player adds to the bedlam by starting to count his score at the top of his lungs, it’s all over! Add to this the vulgar people shouting at each other, the thief caught in the act, and that fellow who just loves to hear his singing resonate through the bathhouse – along with other singers, too, who at least have decent voices. And still more! Those fellows who cannonball into the pool, hitting the water with an horrendously loud splash! Besides, just think about those slaves who pluck armpits going about advertising themselves with their continuous, squeaky, shrill shouts – they never stop, unless actually plucking an armpit – and making someone else scream instead. And amid all this are the mixed and confused shouts of the many vendors – the cake seller, the sausage hawker, the confectioner, and food purveyors, all pushing their wares with distinctive cries. [Meanwhile, outside the apartment, I mark] carriages rattling by, clangs from a neighboring workshop, a nearby saw-sharpening service at work, and to top it all off, a pipe and flute seller who can’t sing, so he just shouts everything out. (Letters 56.1, 2)

Trying to put this reality out of our heads, I return to the main point: the baths were social gathering places for ordinary men and, indeed, for their families as well. Children could and did frequent at least some baths with their parents. An epitaph from Rome tells a sad story:

Daphnus and Chryseis, freedpersons of Laco, set this gravestone up to their dear Fortunatus. He lived 8 years. He perished in the pool at the Baths of Mars. (CIL 6.16740)

And it is probably echoed in another, made, sadly, by the stone carver himself:

I, most unlucky father, carved this for my boy who, poor soul, perished in the pool. He lived 3 years and 6 months. (CIL 9.6318, Chieti, Italy)

Although this was not the norm by any means, women even sometimes bathed with the men. Pompeius Catussa set up a touching epitaph:

To the Gods of the Underworld and the everlasting memory of Blandinia Martiola, a most pure girl who lived 18 years, 9 months, and 5 days. Pompeius Catussa, a Sequanian citizen, a plasterer, set this monument up to an incomparable wife, most kind to me, who lived with me 5 years, 6 months and 18 days without any base reproach, and to himself while still alive. You who read this, go to the Baths of Apollo to bathe, a thing which I did with my wife. How I wish I could do it still! (CIL 13.1983 = ILS 8158, Lyon, France)

Leaving home or an association meeting or the baths, the ordinary man went out into the street expecting to enter a busy, noisy world. Much of his life was spent outside, as was the life of everyone else in society. He found what he needed, especially food, in the stalls or spread out on mats which were set up not only in the few open spaces, but along any street; these complemented the relatively few actual shops where goods were sold. Weaving in and out of the crowds, beggars accosted him, street musicians played or sang for handouts, teachers tried to keep the attention of their pupils amid the loud hum, street philosophers, soothsayers, magicians, and assorted accosters plied their trade.

And we often see how even in the midst of a very great turmoil and throng the individual is not hampered in carrying on his own occupation; but, on the contrary, the man who is playing the flute or teaching a pupil to play it devotes himself to that, often holding school in the very street, and the crowd does not distract him at all, or the din made by the passers-by; and the dancer likewise, or dancing master, is engrossed in his work, being utterly heedless of those who are fighting and selling and doing other things; and so also with the harper and the painter. But here is the most extreme case of all: The elementary teachers sit in the streets with their pupils and nothing hinders them in this great throng from teaching and learning. And I remember once seeing, while walking through the Hippodrome, many people on one spot and each doing something different: one playing the flute, another dancing, another doing a juggler’s trick, another reading a poem aloud, another singing, and another telling some story or myth; and yet not a single one of them prevented anyone else from attending to his own business and doing the work that he had in hand. (Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 20.9–10/Cohoon)

The society of the street was crucial. Even if one had a business, and certainly if, as was very widely the case, a person was underemployed and had lots of time on his hands on a regular basis, visits to the local tavern were a daily affair. One vignette must suffice. Wall paintings from the Tavern of the Seven Sages in Ostia illustrate the humor of the men in such places. The tavern was an unexceptional ‘local’; there were no pretensions to architectural or other grandeur. The Seven Sages were favorites of the elite; they were often illustrated with busts, quotations, and so on in house decoration. But the paintings in the tavern have the Seven Sages of antiquity uttering scatological advice; the humans who are painted relieving themselves mimic this in earthy pictorial language. Education was one of the marks of the elite, along with birth and wealth. Although education was accessible to the ordinary man – and the sayings of the Seven Sages had permeated to the level of popular philosophy – nevertheless, ridicule of ‘highfalutin’ education clearly struck a chord. On the vault of the tavern, expensive wines are illustrated. Obviously, ostentatious wealth is the target of the humor. Although ‘birth’ is not singled out for ridicule, it went hand in glove with the other two marks of the elite. I am reminded of the fable of the Battle of the Mice and the Weasels; illustrations of this fable were a favorite decoration of taverns, as Phaedrus tell us. In it, weasels and mice were constantly at war, with the weasels always winning. The mice decided that what they needed was an elite leadership, so they chose the strongest, wisest, bravest, and those of noblest blood to take over and train the mouse army. Once the new elite had done its best in reorganizing and training their army, the mice declared war on the weasels. The mouse generals bound their heads with straw to stand out from the common herd. Immediately as it began, the battle turned against the mice, who broke rank and fled en masse for the protection of their underground homes. Unfortunately, the large straw ‘plumes’ of the leaders kept those mice from disappearing into mouseholes – they were to a mouse caught and eaten by the weasels (Babrius 31, Phaedrus 4.6). This fable’s content, surely known to the viewers, mocked the arrogance, not to say stupidity and uselessness, of those of high birth.

Life in the bars and taverns was lively. There was food as well as drink, and women were often available. Dice games broke out there or on the street; conversations with neighbors and strangers about local events and politics and gossip entered the general hubbub. This personal interaction kept a man connected with his community and up to date (whether with good or bad information) on situations and events that might affect him.

The street also provided the venue for learning and making use of what was learned. With books being mostly an expensive luxury of the wealthy, literature of all levels was purveyed orally. Poets on corners and in parks recited to anyone who would listen. All of this provided men with opportunities for entertainment ranging from the crazy on the corner to discussion of serious politics, at least in the first centuries of the empire when many towns elected their magistrates. While the local elite controlled these offices and the local council made up of ex-magistrates, their actions affected ordinary people. Besides day-to-day interactions, these men and especially the aediles were responsible for public benefactions such as bread distribution, and putting on public entertainments such as gladiatorial shows and theatrical productions. So for both economic and social reasons, people were invested. However, just as in Rome itself the popular voting assemblies ceased to have real power during the empire, so, too, in towns the local assemblies lost out to an increasingly powerful entrenched ruling class.

Despite this long-term trend, in the moment many ordinary men were involved in political campaigning and voting. The many electoral graffiti from Pompeii vividly demonstrate the political life of men, both their seriousness and their sense of humor about it:

I ask that you make Gaius Julius Polybius Aedile. He supplies good bread! (CIL 4.429 = ILS 6412e)

(Vote for) Marcus Casellius Marcellus, a good Aedile who puts on terrific games. (CIL 4.999)

Proculus, make Sabinus Aedile and he will make you one too. (CIL 4.635 = ILS 6436)

Other notices show a bit of humor:

The pickpockets want Vatia as Aedile (CIL 4.576 = ILS 6418f)

I beg you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia Aedile. The late drinkers all ask it! Florus and Fructus wrote this. (CIL 4.581 = ILS 6418d)

The dice gamblers urge for Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus. (CIL 4.3485)

Economic groups supported candidates:

The united fruit mongers with Helvius Vestalis urge you to make Marcus Holconius Priscus duumvir with judiciary powers. (CIL 4.202 = ILS 6411a)

The millers ask you to vote for Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus for Aedile; the people who live nearby want this too! (CIL 4.7273)

As did religious groups:

All the worshippers of Isis urge you to vote for Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus for Aedile. (CIL 4.787 = ILS 6420b)

Geographically related persons banded together:

His neighbors urge you to vote for Marcus Lucretius Fronto as Aedile. (CIL 4.6625)

I urge you, O neighbors, to elect Lucius Statius Receptus Chief Magistrate with Judicial Powers, a man worthy of your votes. Aemilius Celer wrote this, your neighbor. Whoever hatefully destroys this, a pox on you! (CIL 4.3775 = ILS 6409)

The people living around the Forum ask that you vote for … (CIL 4.783)

Even women, although they could not vote, put in their word:

Elect Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus Aedile. Junia asks this. (CIL 4.1168)

It is hard to tell how many graffiti represent actual popular sentiment, because large numbers seem to be professionally written; since elections were yearly, graffiti needed to be put up regularly, and clearly there were hired electoral gangs set to work for each new campaign. But still it is fair to say that at the very least men were aware of the elections and talked about them in baths and bars; many probably participated both in the electioneering and in the actual voting, which itself was a festive occasion, with food and drink handed out. As time went on, this political activity probably waned, but although varying from place to place throughout the empire, it was an important thing for men to think about, especially since the elected officials could influence their daily lives. While political activity lasted, the street was an important venue for discussion and advertisement.


The ordinary lives of ordinary men in Rome and its empire were filled with family, business, socializing, and cares and concerns common to much of humanity. The poet Horace, son of a freedman father, captures this:

His name is Volteius Mena, an auctioneer, quite poor, free from scandal, hardworking when that’s called for, easy going when it’s not, knows both how to make money and how to spend it, taking pleasure in his inconsequential club-mates, his own humble home, and the games in the Campus Martius after concluding his business. (Letters 1.7.55–9)

In many ways, life for ordinary men was different in degree or kind from the lives of the elite. The two could not help interacting and they did, engaging in business and legal issues and voicing their concerns through violence if necessary. But their world and their attitudes reflected the reality of their own existence in close relationship to freed-men, slaves, and ordinary women. They forged their way, following their own moral compasses, fearing and hoping, and putting their trust in superstition, magic, and religion to help make sense of and control their challenging world.

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