About Ancient Rome

This part of the Roman Conspiracy site tells a little about the history of Rome and ordinary Roman life, the world that Aulus lives in and observes from his own point of view in the book. You can find out a lot more about Rome by browsing the web; one good place to start is the wikipedia entry on Rome.

The Importance of Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome is particularly interesting for us because so much of the modern world has its origins in what the Romans did and who the Romans were. You might almost say that we are the Romans -- 2000 years later. Our idea of law, for example, is almost unchanged since Roman times: trial by jury, personal property, citizens' rights -- all this comes to us directly from Rome.

The Romans, of course, did not invent civilization. In the West, civilization was born in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, and spread to Greece quite late (about 700 BC) and to Rome later still (about 500 BC). But even if Rome did not invent civilization, it is nevertheless through Rome that civilization reached most of Europe.

What is civilization, though? Well, it's a Roman (Latin) word meaning "the things that define a city." Maybe that's running water, sewers, and paved roads -- all things that the Romans specialized in. Maybe it's public games and shows -- an important part of every Roman city from Britain to Libya. But most importantly it's a sense of participation in a larger project, a sense of social purpose that unites all sorts of different people. The Romans called that larger project the res publica -- what we translate as "Republic" but which literally means "the shared thing."

The Origins of Rome

According to legend, Rome was founded in 753 BC by two twins, Romulus and Remus. Their father was the god Mars, who was originally a harvest god but who came to be seen as the god of war. Abandoned as infants, Romulus and Remus were raised by a female wolf in the wilderness. After the founding of Rome, the brothers fell out and Remus was killed; Romulus became the first King of Rome. All this is very much legendary; probably Rome grew as local villages realised it was safer to live together than to live apart: the world was a very dangerous place in 753 BC. Roman historians agree that the first settlement was on the Capitol Hill, where the major temples were located as the city grew.

The Birth of the Republic

In the beginning, Rome was ruled by kings. They are mostly legendary figures: King Numa, for example, was believed to have established almost all the rules of Roman religion single-handed; but probably a lot of traditions got associated with his name. Eventually, the kingship passed into the hands of the Tarquins, who were (like Aulus) Etruscan.

The Etruscans lived in the region of Italy northwest of Rome called Etruria (the name has now been changed to "Tuscany"). They are very mysterious to us today, mostly because they spoke a very strange language, one which was not related to the other languages of Italy. By 509 BC, they were a powerful mini-Empire; Rome was still a small and obscure city.

King Tarquin ("Tarquin the Proud") was, unfortunately for the Etruscans, a rather despicable person who outraged his Roman subjects. After many offenses, he was finally driven out by Marcus Brutus, who became the prototype of the selfless Roman citizen. Instead of appointing Brutus as their new King, however, the Romans instituted a Republic.

In this system, there was no King (except for certain religious ceremonies) and power lay mostly in the hands of the Senate. (The word "Senate" means "Council of Elders.") Various offices of state were brought in, including the Judges (praetores), Superintendants (quaestores), and Templekeepers (aediles); they also introduced assemblies (comitia), in which the citizens voted according to tribe. When the power of the nobles in the Senate grew too great, a further office was added, that of Tribune of the People: these Tribunes had an absolute veto over every public act. By Aulus' day, all this would have been ancient history, though Roman politics continued to concern not only who would fill which office, but what the scope of the various offices and legal bodies should be.

Life in Rome

Life in Rome must have changed a good deal between the founding of the Republic and Aulus' lifetime; but cultural change was much slower in the ancient world than it is today. Young people would of course be frustrated with their parents' old-fashionedness, but the real differences between generations would not be as great as today. Nowadays, for instance, it is not that common to meet someone over the age of 60 who is fully able to use the Internet; but there would be nothing comparable to the Internet in ancient life, in terms of technological change. Aulus doubtless threw the javelin just like his great-great-great-grandfather would have done, and his family's farm would hardly have changed for hundreds of years. The biggest difference, generationally, is that Aulus' region, Etruria, had recently begun to use the Latin language in everyday life, where before they had spoken Etruscan.

As we see in the book, Aulus does notice a big difference between life in a small town like Faesulae and life in the large city of Rome. In 63 BC, when The Roman Conspiracy takes place, Rome might have had a population of about 200 000 (it would later reach 1 000 000 in the 2nd century AD); whereas it is unlikely that a town like Faesulae would have had more than 10 000 people living in it -- and Faesulae was the biggest town for miles around.

What differences would we notice if we were transported to the Rome of 63 BC? The first thing we would see would doubtless be the widespread poverty. It was a world in which most people depended on subsistence farming for the food they ate. If they lived on a farm, they would not be likely to produce too much more than they would consume; and there was always the terrifying possibility that there would be a drought and the crops would fail, leaving people to starve. If they lived in the city, they would eat imported food from the country and from overseas, but once again this left open the possibility of interrupted deliveries or bad harvests, and subsequent starvation. By contrast, in the modern world it is only in the poorest countries that large parts of the population face starvation every year.

We would find the buildings were not very tall. One or two stories was usual; three was quite big indeed; four was remarkable and noteworthy. The Romans had no steel or metal supports for their buildings, and their concrete was not as reliable as ours. On the other hand, important streets were paved, and the main roads in Italy were extremely well-built -- they are still in use today, 2000 years later. Rome had running water, brought in by huge aqueducts from sources miles and miles away; but people in the smaller towns would have carried their water home from a village well.

By our standards, very little was mass-produced, and mechanical production was limited to the spinning wheel for wool, the forge for metal. A great deal of the work was done by slaves, unfortunate people from across the Mediterranean world and from the North who were condemned to a very dull life making things easier for the non-slaves. Mass plantation slavery, such as existed in the American South before the Civil War, was not yet very common except very near Rome and in Sicily, though it was on the rise; the slaves on these plantations were very badly treated. Many slaves, however, lived fairly ordinary lives, even saving up money to buy their freedom; or more often set free when their master died.

Young People in Rome

The life of a young person in Rome in many ways resembled the life of a young person today. Young people faced the problem of parental authority in that, legally, the head of a Roman household (the pater familias) had absolute control over all the family members. In reality, most parents were not ruthlessly strict, but it was often difficult for a young man or woman to start their own life.

In the upper classes, girls often got married very young by our standards -- as young as 12, though 14 or 15 was more normal -- though the first marriage was often just a formality, more about tying two families together politically than about feelings of love between the bride and groom. We can say "first marriage" because divorce was common, and people might have two or three marriages in their lifetime. For girls, marriage doubtless marked the transition from childhood to adulthood; for boys, the transition was a ceremony in which the young man formally put aside the striped toga of boyhood and started wearing the full toga of manhood. Of course, no official ceremony made anyone an adult on the inside; but there was nothing really corresponding to our idea of teenagehood.

School began at about 6 or 7, with young people (most often boys, but also girls) learning to read and write under the supervision of a teacher, as well as learning basic math. Like life in general before the invention of artificial light quite recently, the school day began before sunrise, with classes starting at dawn and going until the late afternoon, with an extended lunch break. Typically there was only one "classroom" in a school, with a single teacher; instead of writing on expensive paper (or rather papyrus, since paper had not been invented yet), students would use wax-covered tablets, writing with a sharp-pointed stick like a pencil to scrape the wax away and leave letters or symbols -- a bit like a primitive Palm Pilot; to erase, they turned the stick upside down and smoothed out the wax. Roman writers often complain about how brutal their teachers were. If the parents could not afford a teacher, the child was educated at home.

At about 12 or 13, the boys would move on to a grammaticus or literary teacher, who would teach them to read Latin poets and to learn the Greek language and the rules of grammar. (Aulus finds himself at this stage of education when The Roman Conspiracy begins.) The girls would at this stage either be getting married or be preparing for it, being taught by their mothers; but there were many well-educated women in Rome, who presumably learned on their own what the boys were learning with their grammatici.

At about 16 or 17, the boys, if they were planning on political or military careers (usually only available to members of the upper classes), would go on to study rhetoric (public speaking) either at a special rhetoric school or by following one of their family's friends around and observing what a real lawyer did. If a young man showed particular promise as a speaker, and his family had enough money, he might go to Athens or Rhodes to study Greek rhetoric under the world's best teachers: these two cities were the "university towns" of the ancient world.

Roman society was much more closed than ours. There was very little chance that a son or daughter of a slave would become an important person (though they sometimes did, especially under the Empire; the famous poet Horace was the son of an ex-slave); and generally it was more about "who you know" than "who you are." Cicero himself was much resented by the other leading people in Rome, because he was not part of the hereditary Roman aristocracy. On the other hand, someone like Julius Caesar was keen to advance the interests of people who might not have a prestigious social background -- provided that they in turn helped Caesar politically when they grew up.

The Importance of Politics in Rome

Politics in ancient Rome was much more part of people everyday lives in ancient Rome than it is today. Roman society was extremely hierarchical -- that is, very organised -- with everybody knowing their place and enjoying privileges and duties that came with that place. The relationship of a Protector and the man he protected — in Latin the patronus and the cliens — was all-important. One man would swear loyalty to another man in exchange for protection before the law and in political affairs; in return, the loyal man would assist his Protector in legal and political business that didn't necessarily relate to himself. It was a question of networks of power.

For example, if you were a baker and you wanted to start a bakery in a town you had just moved to, the first thing you would do would be to visit a powerful local Protector and pledge your loyalty to him; you would probably choose the person who looked after other bakers, or who was renting you the bakery. You might agree to supply him with cheap bread every fifth day, and to bake pastries for the party for his son's upcoming initiation into manhood. In exchange, the Protector would make sure you had no problem getting a permit to open your bakery, and defend you in court in case someone (perhaps a rival baker) accused you of selling mouldy bread. When an election came around, your Protector might have a friend who was running for public office, in which case he might ask you to go around writing election graffiti on the walls, or at least to put up a sign in your shop supporting the Protector's friend; in exchange, your Protector would try and get the price of bread increased, so you would make more money. By our standards, the whole relationship would be called "outrageous corruption," but the Romans had no such category: everything was completely corrupt, and so nothing was corrupt. It was only the wholesale bribing of voters that ever got condemned, and even so outright bribery was not uncommon.

So politics affected everyone. On the highest level, the system was quite similar, with less powerful politicians giving their support to more powerful politicians in exchange for favours and influence. Unfortunately, various factions in Roman life were constantly trying to undermine the whole system, usually so as to profit enormously from the resulting confusion. It is this high-level political problem that Aulus finds himself involved with in The Roman Conspiracy. It would ultimately prove fatal to the Roman Republic, as Julius Caesar emerged as the ultimate dictator; even though Caesar was assassinated and an attempt was made to reinstate the old system of balancing favours and influence, the Republic came to an end in 31 BC, only 32 years after this novel takes place, when the future Emperor Augustus took complete control of Rome.