When the great historian Jérôme Carcopino, cousin of novelist Francis Carco, published “Daily life in Rome at the height of the empire” (2nd and 3rd century AD) in 1939, he was undoubtedly far from being doubt that he himself will be illustrated in a short time, that on the occasion of one of these spasms of the saga of France of which our country has the secret, in a slice of history a little… gratinée ( French humour).
Admittedly, the style of the book is a little outdated (it is sometimes criticized for this), but it remains an exceptional book, filled with fabulous details on the daily life of the Romans; and there are so many fascinating details that we can only relate a tiny part in this article.
Normalien (former student at Ecole Normale Supérieure), received first in the aggregation of history and geography in 1904, Jérôme Carcopino became secretary of Raymond Poincaré, then professor at the Sorbonne and director of the École de Rome.
In 1941, out of naivety say some, and supposedly to serve France, he became Secretary of State for National Education in the Pétain-Darlan government and his cabinet participated in the establishment of the statute of the Jews which established a numerus clausus in the university. He resigned from his post in April 1942 when Laval returned to power.
At the Liberation, he was brought before the High Court, imprisoned in Fresnes prison where – it is said – he shared a cell with Sacha Guitry, but in 1947 was dismissed. Then he was covered with honors, became a member of the Pontifical Academy of Roman Archeology, doctor honoris causa of the University of Oxford, member of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Letters, and in 1955 he was even elected at the French Academy. A trivial French story in short …
But in the same way that one can (less and less however) be moved by The Journey to the End of the Night without being accused of anti-Semitism, and enjoy Polanski’s films without being accused of being a rapist of young girls. , we must recognize Jerome Carcopino to be a very great historian of Rome and read it today with pleasure.
We wake up
Since the Julian reformation of 46 BC, the year was divided into twelve months, but there were also the kalendes (1st of each month), the nones (5 or 7 of each month) and the ides (13 or 15 of each month). The only change we know today is that the “day of the sun”, Dominica, Sunday, has become “the day of the Lord”.
The seven days of the week were divided into 24 hours, and the starting point of each day was not fixed at sunrise, as with the Babylonians, or at sunset as with the Greeks, but in the middle of the day. night, which has become midnight. To measure time, the Romans used the sundial, but also the water clock, the horologium ex aqua, which consisted of a transparent vase, the clepsydra, on which marks allowed to read the time according to the flow, regular flow of water. Some ex aqua horologium even emitted a whistling sound at each time change. But let’s face it, the precision of these instruments left something to be desired, and “it was easier to reconcile the philosophers among themselves than to tune the clocks between them”, “horam non possum tibi dicere; facilius inter philosophos quam inter horolgia convenit ”. The schedules in Rome were therefore quite elastic…
One thing is certain, however, the Romans woke up at dawn to the deafening sound of the hammers of boilermakers and the bawling of students in schools. The noise from the streets was so deafening that the rich Romans took refuge at the other end of their homes, beyond thick walls and deep gardens, but they were not spared either; at dawn, alas, teams of slaves armed with buckets, tea towels (mappae), ladders, poles (perticae), sponges (spongia), feather dusters, brooms (scopae), invaded the house to clean it. No way to sleep !!
Pliny the younger, in his villa, had taken the precaution of building a corridor to isolate him from this din. But in a nutshell, whether they wanted it or not, the Romans were early risers and getting up at eight was like sleeping late in their minds.
We dress up
The Romans went barefoot as soon as they took off their sandals. In the morning, they wore solae, sandals tied with cords on the instep, crepidae, leather espadrilles, calcei, leather shoes with interlocking straps, caligae, fully closed ankle boots, and sometimes used calf bands; but the Romans never used socks or shoes like us.
The Roman, when going to bed, had only half undressed: he only took off his coat. Day and night, he wore his gaculum, or licium, a simple loincloth tied around the waist, sometimes the only garment from below, over which his toga was rolled up (what the old conservatives did in the time of Caesar or Augustus. to clearly mark their fidelity to uses).
But you could also wear a tunica, a kind of linen or wool shirt that you put on over your head and tightened around your body with a belt. Arranging it so that it fell well was quite an art, for men as for women (the tunics of women, tunica talaris, fell on their heels), for the civilians as for the soldiers (the tunica of the soldiers was more short, and that of the senators was bordered by a strip of purple, the laticlave). Often, two tunics were put on top of each other, the tunica exterior over the subuvula, and Emperor Augustus even used to wear three!
But the garment par excellence was the white woolen robe 2.7 meters in diameter, toga, from the verb tegere (to cover). The toga was the garment of the masters of the world, majestic but complicated to wear; Cincinnatus was asking his wife Racilia to help him wrap himself up. Maintaining balance while walking or giving a speech was a real achievement.
The emperor Claudius wanted to make the toga obligatory in the court, Domitian in the theater, Commodus in the amphitheater, but they did not succeed because its weight was an intolerable burden and to maintain its immaculate whiteness required frequent launderings and to buy it. often news.
The women stayed at home most of their time, but the wealthy Roman women would go to visit friends or go to a show.
As for the men, they left their homes very quickly in order to meet the visiting obligation. Each Roman was always bound to be more powerful than himself, which obliged him to respect, that is to say the duty of obseqium; and therefore each Roman had to visit his “patron“, who was bound to receive him. The “boss” was also required to invite his “customers” to his table from time to time, to help them when needed, to give them gifts.
If they did not have enough to eat, the “boss” would give his obligees food which they took in a basket, the sportule; sometimes, instead of food, he gave them money.
In Trajan’s time, this amount of money had even been de facto priced: a “sporting” rate of six sesterces per day (or a few euros). For many unemployed Romans, this meager sum was all they had to live on. Those who worked were also entitled to it and so as not to waste time at work, they ran to get their “sportule” before dawn; one more reason to get up early !!
The power of a Roman was measured by the number of his obligees, so the “boss” was there in the morning to receive his clients, sometimes very numerous. Since customers were required to present themselves in gowns, the “boss” occasionally gave them one, plus New Year gifts . Speaking to the patron, the clients, received according to a protocol order of precedence (praetors before tribunes, knights before ordinary citizens, etc.) were to call him “Dominus“, that is to say Lord. In short, only the Emperor had no one above him, and Rome, in the early hours of the day, rustled with the busy comings and goings of these protocol visits.
At the circus games
There were three circuses: the Flaminius circus, built in 221 BC, the Gaius circus, built by Caligula in the Vatican and whose obelisk now adorns St. Peter’s Square, and the largest of all, the Circus Maximus, 600 meters long and 200 meters wide was a real monster!
Pompey, in 55 BC, had a ramp built to accommodate 20 elephants, but to everyone’s dismay, the ramp gave way under the weight of the pachyderms; it was panic.
To prevent the recurrence of such events, Caesar, in 46 BC, built around the arena a ditch filled with water, the Euripus.
Augustus embellished the circus by installing the obelisk of Ramses II in its center, brought back from Egypt and which now stands in the center of the People’s Square, and had a ceremonial box fitted out for him and his guests, the Pulvinar.
Trajan will further expand the circus by increasing the number of seats by 5,000.
Pliny the Younger estimates the number of places at no less than 225,000.
The most beautiful spectacle was the chariot race: seven laps of the track, or 2,840 meters. The number of daily races increased with the ever increasing success of this spectacle: 12 races per day under Augustus, 34 under Caligula, 100 under the Flavians.
The Romans loved chariot races, mainly because they were embellished with all manner of acrobatics: sometimes jockeys led two horses at a time and passed from one to the other (the “desultores“).
Sometimes there were mock combat, sometimes the jockeys were lying down or kneeling on the galloping horses, sometimes the jockey picked up a cloth on the ground without dismounting from the galloping horse, sometimes he leapt over a chariot drawn by four horses. The imagination was limitless, innovations rained down, Romans raved about them and flocked to the games from dawn to sunset.
In Trajan’s time, there were three meals a day: the jentaculum, the prandium, and the cena, or dinner. Most of the Romans suppressed one of the first two. For example, the soldiers were content with the prandium; anyway, the first two meals were light, bread and cheese, cold meals taken on the go. No, the big deal was the cena.
Aside from Nero, who sat at the table at noon (and sometimes stayed there until midnight), the Romans sat at the table after bathing, at eight in winter and at nine in summer.
Juvénal tells us that the revelers stayed at the table until dawn, when the generals, on the battlefields, broke camp.
The cena was held in the triclinium, a room that was double its width, and which took its name from the three-seater beds where the participants slept. Eating seated was a huge lack of taste, and Cato of Utica, to show his mourning, vowed to eat seated until the tyranny of Julius Caesar was overcome.
In the center of the room was a square table surrounded by beds, the triclinas, except on one side to allow the service, and the place of honor (locus consularis) was to the right on the bed which had no screws -to-be. The ushers (nomenclator) announced the guests and designated their places. So many servants (ministratores) brought dishes and cups, but the Romans, if they had knives and spoons, ate with their fingers, which necessitated frequent ablutions in ewers presented by slaves.
Let’s take a look at the menu: an appetizer of three starters, or gustatio, then two roasts and a dessert. First entry: wooden hen on a bed of straw. Second entry: on a disc representing the twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve plates each filled with a dish corresponding to its sign, such as lobsters for Capricorn, quarters of beef for Taurus or vulva of young sows for Virgo. Third entry: a hare surrounded by hens and sow teats.
Then come the roasts, a sow surrounded by wild boar in a crust and stuffed with thrushes, an enormous pig from which flows a flood of sausages and blood sausages, and finally boiled veal cut into pieces and served at the tip of the sword by a servant disguised as Ajax.
Finally, desserts: pastries, fruits and grapes of all kinds.
All washed down with honeyed wine, Vatican wine and Marseille wine.
At the end of the cena, you were entitled to the commissario, where you had to empty your cup at once on order and following the instructions of the chairman of the meeting. We ended up a little tipsy …
In conclusion, let’s take a look at Carcopino’s magnificent book before the new censors, for reasons of collaboration, forbid us …
(*) «La vie quotidienne à Rome à l’apogée de l’empire»,
Librairie Hachette 1939
Numerous reprintings since.
All previous articles by Jacques Trauman : Deep inside radioscopy of The Roman Empire
1 – Déploiement stratégique. Offensive-défensive et diplomatie
2 – Un fabuleux voyage chez les Romains avec un sesterce en poche
3 – Quand notre monde est devenu chrétien
4- La vie quotidienne à Rome
Next texts to come:
5 – Andrinople, le jour des barbares. 9 août 378 ( mise en ligne 27 août)
6 – L’héritage de Rome (semaine suivante)
Illustration de l’entête: Fresque de Pompéï. Initiation aux mystères d’Éleusis.