Chapter 7

Making the Roman Machine Work

In This Chapter

● Rome’s ports and trade routes

● Roman water works: aqueducts, reservoirs, and sewers

● How the Romans stayed healthy

Trade and industry is essential for any city to work, because by definition the inhabitants rarely produce basics like food. So the city earns its existence by supplying goods and services the rest of the population needs.

Rome was rather different. Not only was it was the biggest city in the ancient world - with a population of more than 1 million, it was twice the size of its nearest competitors, Carthage and Alexandria, and 50 to 100 times bigger than almost all the other cities across the Roman Empire - but as the capital of a vast Empire, Rome simply took whatever resources it wanted or needed from the various regions under its control, whether that was grain from Egypt, marble from Greece, or lead from Britain. But that still meant having all the mechanisms of shipping and ports, merchants, and money, to supply not only Rome, but also the rest of the Empire and the far-flung Roman army as well.

This chapter explains how the Romans used trade routes and technology to keep the vast machinery of their Empire working. It also examines how the Romans managed urban water supplies, using their unparalleled command of hydraulics and plumbing. The water might have helped hygiene, but the Romans were endlessly preoccupied with staying fit and healthy enough to go about their daily business.

Trade Around the Empire

Aelius Aristides (AD117-181) was a Greek orator whose life spanned much of the Empire’s greatest days (detailed in Chapter 17). Aristides loved Rome and wrote a eulogy singing the city’s praises. He included this observation:

‘Large continents lie around the Mediterranean Sea and never-ending supplies of goods flow from them to you [the Roman people]. Everything from every land and every sea is shipped to you . . . so that if anyone wanted to see all these things he would either have to travel the world or live in Rome.’

Rome managed this great influx of goods from around the Empire through its ports. This section gives you the details.

Ostia: The port of Rome

Ostia sums up Rome’s commerce. Rome sits inland on the river Tiber, which is too narrow and windy to cope with all the ships and docking facilities Rome needed. From Ostia, ships could be towed upriver to Rome.

Ostia is on the coast, and by the middle of the fourth century BC, it was acting as Rome’s port. In 267 BC, Ostia had its own quaestor (see Chapter 3 for details of magistracies). In 217 BC, supplies for the Roman army fighting Hannibal in Spain were shipped from Ostia. Ostia was important enough for Marius to capture the city in 87 BC, and in 67 BC, Pompey used it as his base for the fleet sent out to destroy the Cilician pirates. (You can find out about Marius and Pompey in Chapter 14.)

Ostia’s Piazza of Corporations, built early in Augustus’s reign (27 BC-AD 14), includes more than 70 offices that were operated by trading companies. Outside each one was a mosaic floor which tells us where the merchants came from and what they traded in, including one from the city of Sabratha (Sabart) in Libya trading in wild animals and ivory, a grain trader from Calares (Cagliari) in Spain, and Algerian traders in dates and fish.

Thanks to a freak of history, Ostia survives as a well-preserved ruin. The river Tiber silted up, leaving the port high and dry, so it was abandoned. Ostia has been excavated, and visitors can now wander round the streets of the city with its houses, shops, apartment blocks, temples, and warehouses.

International trade

Of course, Ostia wasn’t the only port. All round the Roman world ports and towns developed because of the constant movement of goods. Part of being in the Roman Empire meant wanting to share in the Roman way of life, and that meant trade, whether you were in the East or the remotest corners of the north-western provinces. East Palmyra, until it was destroyed by Aurelian (AD 270-275; see Chapter 19) for getting above its station, grew into one of the wealthiest cities of antiquity on the great trade route to the Far East.

The many voyages of the Erythraean Sea

Some time in the first century AD, a merchant or seafarer who worked the trade routes between ports like Berenice on Roman Egypt's Red Sea coast to the Gulf of Arabia and India wrote down in Greek what he knew about the various ports, commodities, and routes that were available on a six-month voyage that depended on exploiting seasonal winds. It's a useful indication of the kind of knowledge traders all over the Roman Empire must have used. His account is called the Periplus Mari Erythrae ('The Many Voyages of the Erythraean Sea'). This is a little of what he says:

'Malao, distant a sail of about eight hundred stadia [about 100 miles]. The anchorage is an open roadstead, sheltered by a spit running out from the east . . . There are imported into this place the things already mentioned, and many tunics, cloaks from Arsinoe, dressed and dyed; drinking cups, sheets of soft copper in small quantity, iron, and gold and silver coin, not much. There are exported from these places myrrh, a little frankincense . . . the harder cinnamon, duaca, Indian copal and macir, which are imported into Arabia; and slaves, but rarely.'

And of India: 'On [the Ganges' bank is a market-town which has the same name as the river, Ganges. Through this place are brought malabathrum and Gangetic spikenard and pearls, and muslins of the finest sorts, which are called Gangetic. It is said that there are gold mines near these places, and there is a gold coin which is called caltis. And just opposite this river there is an island in the ocean, the last part of the inhabited world toward the cast, under the rising sun itself; it is called Chryse; and it has the best tortoiseshell of all the places on the Erythraean Sea.'


London today is one of the world’s greatest cities and an international financial centre. Until the Romans arrived in Britain, there was nothing on the site. But the Romans spotted this was the ideal place to bridge the river Thames. So they did. As the river is tidal, ships could come up easily. Within a few years of the Roman invasion, a trading settlement had sprung up all on its own - the very way the Roman world functioned made trading centres essential. By the 70s AD, 30 years after the invasion and despite being destroyed in the Boudican rebellion of AD 60-61 (see Chapter 16), London had a heaving port with wharves and warehouses. Goods were shipped in from all over the Roman Empire into what had become the capital of the new province. Although London shrank after Roman times, it started growing again in the Middle Ages and hasn’t stopped since, though it’s no longer a port.

Of course, London wasn’t the only big port in the Western Roman Empire. Others included Massilia (Marseilles) and Burdigala (Bordeaux) in Gaul, and Gades (Cadiz) in Spain, but only London came from nothing to be a Roman port and then evolve into what it is today.

A universal commodity

Samianware was the name given to a red-slip pottery tableware. Originally made in Arrezzo in Italy, by the mid-first century AD, factories in Gaul had taken over the industry. They made redwares, including plain dishes and cups as well as bowls decorated with figured scenes of gods, gladiators, plants, and animal chases, in unbelievably colossal numbers in vast factory potteries. Shiploads of the finished vessels were sent out from Gaul down rivers to the coast, where traders bought consignments and despatched them across the Western Roman Empire. Places as far apart as northern Britain, the Rhine in Germany, Spain, and North Africa, all bought and used the same pottery from the first to second centuries AD. When the samian industries collapsed in the third century, new ones stepped in like the redware factories of North Africa, which copied samian forms and supplied a huge market across the Empire. Redware is a mark not just of how extensive Roman trade could be, but also how universal Roman culture had become. It's rather like today when places all over the world use televisions made by the same Japanese companies.

Trading posts beyond the Empire

Roman traders also went beyond the Empire’s borders and set up trading posts in faraway places such as Muziris (possibly modern Kerala) in India. They made money, but it was also part of drawing in other places to a Roman way of thinking. Some of these places ended up being conquered and made into Roman provinces, and by then the local population had got used to the idea of wine from Italy, fish sauce from Spain, and fine pottery from Gaul and Italy. Roman traders and local suppliers also gathered around Roman forts and set up straggling informal settlements (called canabae, ‘hutments’) to help soldiers spend their money. Because forts usually ended up being a road junction, too, once a fort was given up (if it ever was), then these places often stayed and grew into a major settlement in their own right.

The merchants and guild system

Many merchants in Ostia and other ports were equestrians or freedmen, and they could often have personal trading interests in several different provinces - just like modern businesspeople who work in New York and London, or Paris and Munich. Marcus Aurelius Lunaris was a freedman who held office in the colonies of Lincoln and York in Britain. But he went on a business trip to Bordeaux in Gaul and set up an altar to commemorate arriving safely, which is how we know about him.

Rome's rubbish tip: Monte Testaccio

The most astonishing place in Rome isn't a ruined temple or amphitheatre, but Monte Testaccio. It's made out of nothing but millions of fragments of olive oil amphorae which came to Rome in the first three centuries AD from Spain and were dumped once their contents had been used. It's 35 metres (38 yards) high and 850 metres (930 yards) around the base. One estimate is that 53 million amphorae went into the hill and that these had brought 10.6 billion pints (6 billion litres) of olive oil to Rome.

Sobering isn't it? The Romans were like us because they had an international marketplace, and they were also like us because they created vast non-biodegradable rubbish dumps!

Merchants at Ostia formed themselves into guilds (collegia), and other such organisations turn up all over the Empire. These guilds stuck together, helped their members out, and made sacrifices to a favoured god. In some ways they were like modern Masonic lodges. Merchants themselves were known as negotiatores from which, of course, comes our word ‘negotiate’, as in ‘negotiating’ a deal. They were handy for the government, too. When life became more and more controlled under the Dominate (refer to Chapter 20), the government forced guilds to cap their prices and prohibited men from leaving their jobs.

Goodies from Around the world

We can find out about what the Romans traded in from their writings and some of what archaeologists find. But foodstuffs have almost always rotted away.

The next best thing is the containers used to transport it, and the commonest of all are the amphorae (see Figure 7-1). An amphora is a pottery packing case, usually cylindrical or circular in shape, with a conical base and a long neck with two handles. The base made it easy to move around by the handles and made it easier to stack. All across the Roman world amphorae bear witness to the reach of Roman traders, whether in a remote desert oasis site in Egypt or as part of a cargo of a wrecked ship found at the bottom of the sea.

Amphorae were manufactured in their millions to carry around fish sauce, grain, dates, olives, wine - you name it. Sometimes factories stamped the amphorae, or the shippers painted on what the contents were. One from Antipolis (modern Antibes on the Cote D’Azur in the south of France) but found in London where it had been shipped to reads:

Liquam(en) Antipol(itanum) exc(ellens) L(uci) Tett(i)i Africani

Translation? ‘Lucius Tettius Africanus’s excellent fish sauce from Antipolis.’

Figure 7-1: Amphorae: The standard pottery packing vessels used by Roman traders

Of course, the Romans traded in more than food and drink. There were plenty of other things: textiles, glass, ceramics, spices, metals like iron, copper, tin, gold and silver, exotic stone to decorate their houses and public buildings. You name it, the Romans wanted it, and what the Romans wanted they generally got.

Food, glorious food: The grain supply

At its climax, Rome had a population of 1 million people, making it the largest city in the ancient world. Feeding all those people was a mammoth task, but Rome had the power and facilities to cope. Amongst the most important were grain ships from Egypt, North Africa, and Sicily, but alongside them came in ships with olive oil from Spain, wine from numerous places in Italy and around the Mediterranean, and also luxuries like Indian spices and Baltic amber.

Roman political leaders discovered the value of buying food for free handouts. Gaius Gracchus introduced a law that guaranteed cheap grain at a fixed price. The crooked Publius Clodius Pulcher (see Chapter 14 for his other exploits) made grain free when he was Tribune in 58 BC.

By Augustus’s time (27 BC-AD 14), 200,000 people in Rome were entitled to free grain (about 20 per cent of the city’s population), and providing the grain was now the emperor’s personal responsibility. Dozens of officials were involved in the grain handouts, and the emperor knew that if the grain supply was disrupted, he’d have riots on his hands.

The grain dole was known as the annona, managed by an equestrian praefectus whose job was one of the most important in Rome (see Chapter 3). It also came to mean the grain tax. Soldiers used to take what they needed from populations, or make compulsory purchases, and had wages deducted to pay for it. But by Septimius Severus’s time (AD 193-211), buying military loyalty included giving the troops free food so the annona militaris was created as a new tax on the whole Empire.

Mining for metals

As the Romans expanded their Empire, the resources they were keenest on getting hold of were mineral resources. The Empire had vast needs for metals:

● Silver and gold were the basis of Roman coinage, because they funded the army and the imperial bureaucrats. But they were also used for luxury goods owned by the rich and the emperors, from huge collections of plates to jewellery.

● Iron was vital for weapons and tools.

● Copper, zinc, and tin were alloyed to make bronze and brass, used in countless everyday objects like taps, brooches, furniture fittings, armour buckles, horse harnesses, small-change coinage, and cheap jewellery.

● Lead was the Roman Empire’s plastic, being used for pipes, waterproofing roofs, and lining water tanks. It was also alloyed with tin to make pewter, a cheap substitute for silver plate, and with copper and tin to make another form of bronze. Some lead deposits produce silver as well, making them doubly attractive.

New provinces were scoured for mineral resources. Often, thanks to information from traders, the Romans knew perfectly well what was available. Both Spain and Dacia’s conquests were quickly followed up by organised mining. Spain was especially attractive. Gold, silver, iron, and copper were all said to be easier to get from Spain than anywhere else. Some Spanish copper mines produced 25 per cent pure copper from every load of ore dug out; in silver mines, around 26 kilograms (57 pounds) of bullion could be dug out every three days. Britain was invaded in the year AD 43. Within six years the latest lead ingots were being shipped out of the new province. Some were used for plumbing at Pompeii, and according to Pliny the Elder, British lead was so easy to mine, a law had been passed limiting production to stop the price collapsing.

Mining was mostly done by slaves, and needless to say there wasn’t the slightest concern for health and safety. With so much money to be made, new slaves could be bought as required. Under the Republic, mines were operated

by government contractors, but under the emperors, equestrian procurators operated the mining settlements which were about as close to towns in the days of the Old Wild West as you can get (look at those old mining settlements in South Dakota called Silver City and Lead - it’s the same story). Rough and tough, they were vicious places where the equestrian procurator was judge, sheriff, town mayor, banker, and chief employer all rolled into one. Private companies could still get a slice of the action, but they had to hand over a portion of what they mined.

Money, Money, Money

The Roman trading world depended on cash (getting metals to make money was a main reason for mining; refer to the preceding section). Roman coins survive in abundance today, a mark of how they were an everyday part of commerce.

Today the money we use is token. US dollar bills and 25-cent pieces, British £1 coins, and European Euro notes and coins aren’t worth their face value in terms of the paper or metal they’re made from. We accept their face value because we have to by law and because we’ve got used to the idea.

Roman coinage, and indeed almost any coinage until early modern times, was based on the idea of intrinsic value. That means the coin had to be made of metal equal to its value. To look at it another way, a coin was exchangeable at the value of the metal in it. The most important metals for ancient coinage were silver and gold, but brass and copper were used for small change.

Coinage developed in Asia Minor in the first millennium BC because it was such a handy way to store wealth. The Romans first started off using huge lumps of bronze, but by Augustus’s time the system had been built round a small silver coin called a denarius. These are the main coin types in use until the beginning of the fourth century and the metal they were made of, starting with the lowest value (refer to Figure 7-2):

Quadrans (bronze) = 1/2 a semis

Semis (bronze) = 1/2 an as

As (bronze) = 1/2 a dupondius

Dupondius (brass) = 1/2 a sestertius

Sestertius (brass) = 1/4 of a denarius

Denarius (silver) = 1/25 of an aureus

Aureus (gold)

Figure 7-2: Roman coins. Top row (left to right): gold aureus, silver dinarius, bronze quadrans. Middle row (l-r): brass sesterius, brass dupondius, bronze as. Bottom row (for scale): British 10-pence piece, US quarter dollar

The important thing about the coinage system is that the coins were generally good throughout the Roman Empire. Most of it was minted at Rome and Lugdunum (Lyons) in Gaul. Egypt had its own special Roman coinage, and cities in the East were able to issue their own local bronze small change. But by and large, Roman currency was universal, and from Diocletian’s reign, (284-305) mints across the Roman world produced identical issues.

Propaganda coins

In a world with no mass media, coins were a great way to publicise the emperor, his achievements, and his family. Within weeks or even just days of a new emperor taking power, coins carrying his portrait were sent out into circulation so that everyone would know who he was. Unlike today’s coins, each denomination was issued in lots of versions with different reverses, depicting anything from an impressive sounding imperial virtue like libertas (‘liberty’) to pictures of great new public buildings, or commemorations of victories. Other coins might have his wife’s, son’s, or even mother’s portrait on the obverse instead of the emperor’s own. Augustus started the trend of putting his intended successor on coins to get the public used to the idea of who was coming next.

Comparative values

It’s practically impossible to work out a comparison of values, but at the end of the first century AD, a legionary soldier earned a basic salary of 300 denarii a year. Half went on equipment and keep, and the rest was his. What little we know of prices suggests that ordinary labouring Romans had to work a great deal harder to buy basics than we do. A farm labourer, for example, needed to work a whole day to buy a pint (0.6 litres) of olive oil, while a pair of good quality boots could cost the equivalent of four days’ work or more.


The Romans weren’t very sophisticated in their understanding of how money works. So when an Emperor like Septimius Severus (193-211) needed more silver coins to pay his troops but didn’t have the bullion, he just added copper to make the silver go further. As the Empire hadn’t been expanding since Trajan’s time a century before, there were no new supplies of silver from conquered territory.

Insider info, Roman style

Around the year 300, a Roman official called Dionysius in Egypt got wind that the coinage was about to be devalued by Diocletian. Before the news got out, he wrote to one of his staff on the family estate to spend all the money on goods:

Dionysius to Apio, Hail.

The divine fortune of our rulers has ordered that coinage struck in Italy shall be reduced to half the value of a nummus. Hurry and spend all the Italian cash you can and buy any goods for me at the price you find being charged.

I'll point out from the start that if you play any tricks I'll certainly catch you out. I pray that you live long in good health, brother.

Nothing like insider information is there? Of course, the poor mugs who took the money for goods were going to wake up the next day and find it was worth a fraction of that they thought it was.

Weights and measures

Roman money generally worked because it was based on a system of weights and metal purity. This idea affected all other forms of measurement in the Roman world which were fairly consistent and enforced by law overseen by aediles (see Chapter 3 for their role). Here are some of them:

● Distance was the Roman mile, which equalled 1,536 metres or 1,680 yards, about 0.95 of a modern mile, and based on 1,000 paces of 5 Roman feet (1.48 metres each). The Romans also used the stadium, equal to about 1/3 mile. Subdivisions into Roman feet (pes = 296 millimetres or 11.65 inches) helped the accurate design and laying out of buildings, towns, and forts.

● Weights were based on the Roman pound (libra), equal to 327.5 grams (11.6 ounces), and the Roman ounce (uncia), equal to 27.3 grams (0.96 ounces).

● Dry measures (for example, for grain) were based on the modius, equal to 8.67 litres or 15.2 pints.

● Liquid measures (for example, wine) were based on the sextarius, equal to 0.54 litres or 0.95 pint, and the congius, equal to 3.25 litres or 5.72 pints.

The average Roman soldier and the average Roman in the street soon spotted the difference and promptly hoarded the older, purer coin. Traders put their prices up to compensate for being paid in inferior coins and a vicious circle of debased coin and price rises followed. With one more soldier emperor after another trying to buy popularity, silver got rarer. By the 270s, the ‘silver’ coinage was no more than bronze with a silver wash.

With inflation out of control, Diocletian (AD 284-305) brought in all sorts of measure to try and control the problem (see Chapter 20), including introducing new denominations like the bronze nummus. Constantine (307-337) stabilised gold, using a new coin called the solidus, but silver virtually disappeared, and we know little about the bronze coins of the fourth century. Government came to depend on taxing in kind.

Turning on the Taps

Apart from roads, the other thing the Romans are famous for is their legendary ability to manage public water supplies. You might think being close to a river like the Tiber would solve all those problems. It doesn’t. Rivers are mainly useful for transport and waste. Carrying and lifting water in quantity is incredibly difficult and labour-intensive.

Getting water into a city or a fort was all about gravity: finding a water source at a higher level than where it was needed and leading it there at a gentle gradient. The best thing to do is find a source at a higher level and run it in.

Getting water into cities: Aqueducts

Appius Claudius, who built the Appian Way (Via Appia) in 312 BC (see Chapter 6), also built Rome’s first certain aqueduct, though one of the early kings (Ancus Martius, 642-617 BC) was supposed to have built one, too. Appius tapped a spring 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Rome and ran it through an underground tunnel most of the way. Only as it approached Rome was it run in a channel held above ground on masonry arches - which is probably what most people think of as an aqueduct.

Aqueduct just means ‘water channel’ and that includes buried tunnels, open surface channels, and channels suspended on vast masonry arches snaking across the countryside.

Once the water reached the city, it poured into a dividing tank (castellum divisiorum). Silt and rubbish sank to the bottom. The tank relieved the pressure that built up from water running down a slope for miles and didn’t overflow because the water ran straight out into separate pipes that fed:

● Public facilities like the amphitheatre and public baths

● Street fountains

● The houses of the rich

Because even then the pressure would have blown taps off, the water was run up into street corner cisterns suspended on towers which fed the users. These didn’t overflow because the water ran off to where it was needed the whole time. It’s called a constant off-take system. By Domitian’s reign (81-96), there were about 1,350 public fountains in Rome alone.

As Rome’s population grew, more aqueducts were built, bringing so much water they were, according to Strabo, like rivers. These are some of them:

Aqua Marcia: Built 144-140 BC by Quintus Marcius Rex. It ran for 48 kilometres (30 miles) underground and 9.7 kilometres (6 miles) on masonry arches.

Aqua Vergine: 21 kilometres (13 miles) long, it was built 19 BC by Agrippa to supply the Baths of Agrippa.

Aqua Claudia: Built by Claudius in 52 AD to supply the imperial palaces. It was still running in the fifth century when the barbarian invaders finally wrecked it.

Pompeii's water worries

Just because the Romans had aqueducts doesn't mean the system worked the whole time. Pompeii, like other cities in the Bay of Naples, was supplied by water from the Aqua Augusta, built under Augustus (27 BC-AD 14). A network of underground tunnels and over-ground masonry arcades carried the water to all the cities in the area. Pompeii's arrived in a reservoir (castellum)at the highest point of town. Like all Roman public water supplies, the reservoir had three separate supplies: public baths and other public buildings, the houses of the rich, and public street fountains. A network of lead pipes fanned out to supply demand, with a system of street-corner tanks on towers by the street-corner public fountains.

The system worked until AD 62 when an earthquake badly damaged the city, including the reservoir and the pipes. When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 Pompeii's water service was still being fixed. Rich householders had had to give up on gushing garden pools and bubbling fountains and install tanks to collect rainwater and use wells instead. No-one knows if the street-corner fountains were working again. Today the ruins of the city preserve the best example of a Roman civic water system, even if it wasn't operational when the city was buried by pumice.

We know a lot about Rome’s aqueducts because Sextus Julius Frontinus (c. AD 35-103) was put in charge of them in 97. He wrote a report on them that survives today. Amongst other things, he was worried at how people were illegally siphoning off aqueduct water into their own homes and letting trees roots damage the aqueduct structures. But he also said that the building and maintenance of the aqueducts gave ‘the best testimony to the greatness of the Roman Empire (magnitudinis Romani imperii)’.

Wells and reservoirs

Aqueducts weren’t the only solution to providing water. Sometimes chains of buckets linked together were lowered into shafts dug down to subterranean water supplies. Driven by slaves or animals, this was one way of getting water to a small baths or maybe a factory, but it would have been hopeless for anything more.

Out in more arid places, the Romans collected any rainwater they could and used underground tunnels to supply reservoirs. There’s a large masonry reservoir at the city of Thuburbo Majus in modern Tunisia. A similar system in Syria at the city of Androna (Al Anderin) that included underground irrigation channels was still functioning in the 1960s until modern water systems disrupted the water table. Using all this experience in handling water, in the sixth century AD, the Byzantines built a vast subterranean reservoir (140 x 70 metres) under Constantinople’s Hippodrome. Supported by 336 columns, it’s still there, and you can visit it.


Bathing was fundamental to Roman life in the days of the Empire. Vast public bathing facilities were built in Rome (such as the Baths of Titus, of Trajan, of Caracalla, and of Diocletian), in every city in the Roman Empire (Pompeii had at least three public baths), and in most small settlements. Rich people could afford to install private baths in their houses and country villas.

Bathing was a daily (usually afternoon) ritual for most people and involved a series of baths, one after the other. Although bathing was mixed in some periods, for much of Roman history, baths were segregated between men and women. The bather arrived at the baths and went through a series of rooms, and as you can see, the whole set-up was rather like a modern fitness centre or sports and social club:

● Apodyterium: The changing room.

● Tepidarium: A warm room, perhaps with a warm plunge bath, where the body started sweating.

● Caldarium: A hot room like a Turkish bath, where bathers sat around in clouds of steam, sweating out dirt as their pores opened in the heat. Slaves used a strigil to scrape the skin, and oils and perfumes could be rubbed into the skin.

● Frigidarium: The cold bath where bathers could swim in cool water, close the pores, and relax.

● Palaestra: The exercise area for running, jumping, and various sports.

Grooming and gossip

One of the best descriptions of what happened in a bath comes from Seneca, Nero's tutor (see Chapter 16 for information on Nero). Seneca lived so close to a bath, he had to put up with all the noise and complained about it in a letter to a friend:

'I hear the groans as the he-men pump iron and throw those heavy weights all over the place . . . If for instance there's a lazy chap who's satisfied with a straightforward massage I can hear the slap of a hand on his shoulder . . . If a ball player comes up and starts yelling out his score - then that's me finished. Pile on top of that the row of some cheeky so-and-so, a thief being caught, and one of those blokes who likes singing in the bath, as well as those who dive into the pool with giant splashes of water. That's as well as those with the loud voices. Think about the skinny plucker of arm-pit hair whose yells are so resonant that everyone notices him except when he's getting on with his work and making someone else yell for him. Now add on the medley of noise from drink sellers, sausage, pastry and hot-food vendors, each hawking his goods with his own individual cry.'

Roman toilets

The Romans were sociable toilet-users. Public toilets had one-piece seating platforms all round the wall with keyhole cut-outs. People marched in and sat down next to one another (no question of individual cubicles). Meanwhile, water poured into basins where users could wash their hands and soak sponges to wipe their bottoms. The water flowed out and into a channel, boosted with extra water which ran round under the seats to carry away the waste either into a sewer or into a soakaway.

Baths weren’t just a place to get clean. Baths were where business was conducted, contacts made, gossip exchanged, and dinner invitations offered. In short, they were one of the most important social centres in Roman life, and the fact that they were built all over the Empire is another reflection of the impact of Roman culture.

Bathing in huge, luxurious public facilities was something of a new fad. It seems the old Romans of the Republic were above such things. In Rome’s ancient days, the Romans scarcely washed at all and were proud of how they smelled of the dirt from ‘the army, of farm work, and manliness’.

Getting rid of water: Rome's sewers

Baths produced waste water, and so did public latrines, industry (like laundries and fullers), and private houses. The Romans used their skills with arches, concrete, stone, and brick to build networks of underground sewers that poured the waste into the river Tiber. The system went back at least as far as Tarquinius Superbus (535-509 BC) who built the Cloaca Maxima, the ‘Great Sewer’ (refer to Chapter 10 for his reign).

Some of the sewers in Rome were big enough for boats to sail up, which is what Agrippa did in 33 BC on a tour of inspection when he was aedile. There were so many of them, Rome was called a ‘city on stilts’. Other cities had sewers, too, but the quality ranged from open-air gutters to elaborate systems like Rome’s. But not all Romans benefited from sewers. Many cities relied on using the streets for open sewers. That’s why Pompeii’s streets have huge stepping stones, to help locals make sure they didn’t step in the . . . you can guess.

Keeping Well: Medicine

Naturally the Romans got sick and suffered accidents just like we do. They knew nothing about micro-organisms like bacteria and viruses, but their love of baths, clean water, and reliable sewers did mean some or parts of their cities were a lot more hygienic than their medieval equivalents. In fact, it’s broadly true to say that nowhere was as hygienic as Rome was until the Victorians started building proper sewage systems in London and other Western cities.

Incidentally, it’s often said that people before modern times lived shorter lives than we do. That’s only partly true. What it really means is that average lives were shorter. Actually, the Romans were just as capable of living into their eighties and beyond as we are; it’s just that fewer of them got a chance to do so and that brings the average down. Cato the Elder was 85 when he died. The emperor Gordian I (238) was in his eighties when he committed suicide. A soldier in the XX legion in Wales reached 100 years old, and there are plenty of other examples. For most people though, disease, violence, and accidents put pay to any plans for a ripe old age. None of those things stopped the average Roman from putting his or her faith in medicine.

Medical science in the Roman era

Medicine was almost totally dominated by the Greeks, so much so that if a doctor wasn’t a Greek, then he would have no credibility at all - a bit like how everyone expects acupuncturists today to be Chinese. Very few Romans practised medicine, and even if they did, it was best to publish in Greek. Greek doctors turn up all over the Roman Empire and included slaves, and freedmen. There was no formal training or system of qualifications, which meant that more or less any Greek could call himself a doctor and practise medicine.

Needless to say, the way was open to quacks who toured the Empire with patent remedies which they sold to local practitioners, like eye salves (see the later section ‘Medicine for the masses’). To the smarter Romans, this was all utter nonsense.

Pliny the Elder called medicine ‘the vacant words of intellectual Greeks’ and reminded his readers ‘not everything handed down by the Greeks deserves admiration’. Pliny pointed out that no two doctors ever produced the same diagnosis, cursing a profession that changed its claims daily (doesn’t that sound familiar?!). Pliny had plenty more to say, but in the end he blamed quackery on the gullibility of people who didn’t have a clue about how illness and medicine worked. No wonder so many put all their faith in healing cults, which were a big part of Roman religion (see Chapter 9).

Surgeons and doctors

Roman medicine wasn’t all about quacks. Pliny the Elder was just one of a number of serious Roman scientists who were interested in what really made the world tick. Cornelius Celsus, who lived in the time of Tiberius (AD 14-37) wrote an encyclopedia on just about everything. The only part which survives is his De Medicina (‘On Medicine’). Celsus discussed the various schools of Greek medical thought:

● The Empiricists who believed in the value of experience in curing people, rather than worrying about what caused diseases (they thought it was impossible to answer that, so a waste of time thinking about it).

● The Methodics who worked on a basis of treating diseases according to types.

● The Dogmatics who accepted, without question, explanations of disease handed down from ancient Greeks like Hippocrates.

Celsus showed that serious Roman doctors were very well aware of the value of a good diet and physical fitness. They knew about all sorts of diseases, which they could recognise from symptoms, and they had a good idea of a patient’s prognosis. A variety of treatments were known, from treating with drugs and herbs to letting blood, which, incidentally, shows just how far off the mark Roman doctors could be. This is what Celsus says about letting blood:

‘For a broken head, blood should be preferably let from the arm . . . blood is also at times diverted when, having burst out of one place, it is let out another.’

Despite the ideas these ancient doctors got right, they still got plenty wrong. Ironically, Pliny’s own Natural History is just as full of nonsense as some of the medical writings he criticised. And thanks to men like Celsus, doctors were still letting blood in the belief it was a good idea until the nineteenth century.

It’s a wonder the Roman population survived at all, quite apart from the risk of infection from being cut open by a doctor. No wonder the poet Martial said that he’d been fine before being examined by a doctor and his medical students, but had a fever afterwards.

Practical anatomy

Roman doctors were hampered by not knowing much about anatomy - how the body worked. It wasn’t for want of trying. Celsus recommended examining a wounded gladiator whose guts were hanging out because that was an ideal way of seeing how a body worked while it was still alive, instead of relying on dead bodies.

Celsus wasn’t a doctor, but Claudius Galenus (AD 129-199), a Greek from Pergamum, was. Galenus was as disgusted by the quacks as Pliny the Elder was and he ended up being chased out of Rome for being so public about his views. He wrote a book in Greek called On the Natural Faculties, combining his own knowledge with that of earlier doctors. He was mainly interested in clinical observation and deductive reasoning drawn from that. Unfortunately, Galenus’s work was also often incorrect - for example, he thought blood went to-and-fro - and proving Galenus wrong, as did the pioneer William Harvey (1578-1657) who discovered the circulation of blood, was all part of the dawn of modern science and realising the ancients weren’t perfect.

Medicine for the masses

The average Roman had little or no access to quality medical care of any sort. Of course, the Romans didn’t suffer from eating the over-refined, fatty foods packed with sugar that plague our society, and they were probably a great deal fitter than we are. But for most of them, a broken limb might be set badly if at all, and for all sorts of diseases and infection, there was no reliable cure at all, even if you could afford one. For these people the only options were folk cures, cheap patent remedies sold by quacks, and a trip to the nearest healing cult centre (see Chapter 9 for information about those).

Medicines were often made in small blocks or sticks. To identify them, the makers or ‘doctors’ pressed engraved stone stamps into them. Some of these stamps survive like one which announces: ‘Tiberius Claudius M(. . .)’s frankincense salve for every defect of the eyes. Use with egg.’ Another one boasts: ‘Gaius Junius Tertullus’s copper oxide salve for eye-lid granulations and scars.’

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