Life in Ancient Rome: Markets, Possessions, Household Items, Furniture and Toilets

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Pompeii fresco

In much of the ancient Roman Empire people tended to wake up at dawn and go to the fields and do whatever work or chores they had to do first thing in the morning. The forum was the main square or market place of a Roman city. It was the center of Roman social life and the place where business affairs and judicial proceedings were carried out. Here, orators stood on podiums pontificating about the issues of the days, priests offered sacrifices before the gods, chariot-borne emperors rode past worshipping crowds, and people milled about shopping, gossiping and simply hanging out.

It is believed that rural people in Roman era tended to wake up at dawn and go to the fields and do whatever work or chores they had to do first thing in the morning. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The way in which a Roman spent his day depended, of course, upon his position and business, and varied greatly with individuals and with the particular day. The ordinary routine of a man of the higher class, the man of whom we read most frequently in Roman literature, was something like this. He rose at a very early hour—he began his day before sunrise, because it ended so early. After a simple breakfast he devoted such time at home as was necessary to his private business, looking over accounts, consulting with his managers, giving directions, etc. Cicero and Pliny the Elder found these early hours the best for their literary work. Horace tells of lawyers giving free advice at three in the morning. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“After his private business was dispatched, the man took his place in the atrium for the salutatio, when his clients came to pay their respects, perhaps to ask for the help or advice that he was bound to furnish them. All this business of the early morning might have to be dispensed with, however, if the man was asked to a wedding, or to be present at the naming of a child, or to witness the coming of age of the son of a friend, for all these semi-public functions took place in the early morning. But after them or after the levee the man went to the Forum, attended by his clients and carried in his litter with his nomenclator at his elbow. The business of the courts and of the senate began about the third hour, and might continue until the ninth or tenth; that of the senate was bound to stop at sunset. Except on extraordinary occasions all business was pretty sure to be over before eleven o’clock, and at this time the lunch was taken. |+|

“Then came the midday siesta (meridiatio), so general that the streets were as deserted as at midnight; one of the Roman writers fixes upon this as the proper time for a ghost story. Of course there were no sessions of the courts or meetings of the senate on the public holidays; on such days the hours generally given to business might be spent at the theater or the circus or other games. As a matter of fact some Romans of the better class rather avoided these shows, unless they were officially connected with them, and many of them devoted the holidays to visiting their country estates.

Pompeii tools

"After the siesta, which lasted for an hour or more, the Roman was ready for his regular athletic exercise and bath, either in the Campus, and the Tiber or in one of the public bathing establishments. The bath proper was followed by the lounge, or perhaps by a promenade in the court, which gave a chance for a chat with a friend, or an opportunity to hear the latest news, to consult business associates, in short to talk over any of the things that men now discuss at their clubs. After this came the great event of the day, the dinner, at one’s own house or at that of a friend, followed immediately by retirement for the night. Even on the days spent in the country this program would not be materially changed, and the Roman took with him into the provinces, so far as possible, the customs of his home life. |+|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Books; “The Fires of Vesuvius, Pompeii Lost and Found” by Mary Beard (Belknap Press/ Harvard University, 2009); “ Daily Life in Ancient Rome” by Florence Dupont; “ Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and Its People” by Alen K. Bowman and J. David Thomas (British Museum Press, 1994).

Communications and Mail in the Roman Empire

There was no postal service or mail delivery in ancient times. A person who wrote a letter had to track someone down who was heading to the same destination as the letter and that someone had to be persuaded and given incentive or money to deliver it.

One letter received in the A.D. 2nd century read: "I was delighted to get your letter, which was given to me by the sword maker; the one you say you sent with Platon's son, I haven't got." Another read; "I sent you two other letters, one by Nedymos and one by Kronios, the armed guard. I've received the one you sent with an Arab."

One daughter in Egypt wrote her mother: "I found no way I could get to you, since the camel-drivers didn't want to go to Oxyrhynchus. Not only that, I also went up to Antinoe to take a boat, but didn't find any. So now I've thought it best to forward the baggage to Antonoe and wait there til I can find a boat and sail. Please give the bearers of this letter 2 talents and 300 pay for transportation...If you you don't have it at hand borrow it...and pay them, since they can't wait around even an hour."

There were no addresses and only the main streets had names. People dropping off letters had to be given careful instructions on where to deliver it. One set of instruction read, "From Moon gate walks as if toward the granaries...and at the first street in back of the baths turn left...Then go west. Then go to the steps and up the other steps and turn right. After the temple precinct there is a seven story house with a basket-weaving establishment. Inquire there from the concierge...Then give a shout."

The only postal system was for government couriers, who were often slaves. The words diplomacy and diploma come from the Greek word “diploma”, which means "doubled" or "folded." This was a reference to how special messages were folded and sealed to be kept secret. The Romans placed important documents on a bronze diptych and were folded shut and sealed. Bronze seals with names of homeowners and administrators have been found.

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scenes from the Forum market

Roman Forum

The Roman Forum (between the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill) is a huge jumble of weathered arches, fallen columns, broken pedestals, stone blocks and buildings still in the process of being restored. Set up like a big park, it is a good place to stroll around admire Roman architecture and watch cats fight.

Situated in a long green valley that was originally a swamp, it was used by the predecessors of the Etruscans to bury their dead. The Etruscans and Greeks set up a market there. The early Romans established a village where Romulus held a meeting on 753 B.C. that led to the rape of the Sabine women. In Imperial Rome, , the Forum was sort of like New York's Park Avenue and Washington D.C.'s Mall all rolled into one. It was the political and economic center of Rome and the main gathering place for Rome's people.

People came here to chat and gossip with their friends; to listen to orators and politicians, who stood on podiums pontificating about the issues of the day; to worship and make sacrifices to their pagan Gods; and to shop for foodstuffs and items brought in from as far as Africa and Persia. Emperors and noblemen built their palaces on the hills surrounding the Forum.

For 500 years, until the middle of the 5th century when Rome was sacked, every emperor raised new monuments in the Forum. After Rome was claimed by Barbarian tribes, the Forum was abandoned and ignored. When archeologists began excavating it in the 19th century it was covered by 20 feet of soil and cattle grazed on the grass above it.

The Forum today is divided into the Civic Forum (Capitoline Hill side of the Forum), Market Quare, the Lower Forum, the Upper Forum (Colosseum-side entrance of the Forum), the Velia and Palantine Hill. As is true with the Colosseum, most of the buildings are the brick superstructures of the originals, whose marble facades were dismantled and carted away and used to make other building in Rome such as St. Peter's Basilica. Some of the pieces of stone have numbers on them to identify their position. The Temple of Mars Ultor (mars the Avenger) is dedicated to the god of war for avenging Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Lamps in Ancient Rome

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Roman oil lamp
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Roman lamp (lucerna) was essentially simple enough, merely a vessel that would hold olive oil or melted grease with threads twisted loosely together for a wick or wicks, drawn out through one or more holes in the cover or top. Usually there was a special hole through which the lamp was filled. The light thus furnished must have been very uncertain and dim. There was no glass to keep the flame steady; there was never a chimney or central draft. As works of art, however, lamps were often exceedingly beautiful. Even those of the cheapest material were frequently of graceful form and proportions, while to those of costly material the skill of the artist in many cases must have given a value far above that of the rare stones or precious metals of which they were made. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Some of these lamps were intended to be carried in the hand, as shown by the handles, others to be suspended from the ceiling by chains. Others were kept on tables expressly made for them, as the monopodia commonly used in the bedrooms, or the tripod. For lighting the public rooms there were, besides these, tall stands, like those of our “floor lamps”. On some of these, several lamps were placed or hung at a time. Some stands were adjustable in height. The name of the lamp-stands (candelabra) shows that they were originally intended to hold wax or tallow candles (candelae), and the fact that these candles were supplanted in the houses of the rich by the smoking and ill-smelling lamp is good proof that the Romans were not skilled in the art of candle-making. Finally, it may be noticed that a supply of torches (faces) of dry, inflammable wood, often soaked in oil or smeared with pitch, was kept near the outer door for use upon the streets, because the streets were not lighted at night.” |+|

The earliest description of candles comes from A.D. first century Rome. They were made from tallow, a colorless and tasteless solid derived from animal fat, and were regarded as inferior substitutes for oil lamps. Early candles were edible and people sometimes ate them when they were desperately hungry.In Pompeii the rooms were lighted either by candles (candelae) made of tallow or wax; or by oil lamps (lucernae) made of terra cotta, or of bronze, worked sometimes into exquisite designs.

Lighting in Antiquity

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The earliest lamps were made from sea shells. These were observed in Mesopotamia. Lamps made from man-made materials such as earthenware and alabaster appeared between 3500 and 2500 B.C. in Sumer, Egypt and the Indus Valley. Metal lamps were rare. As technology advanced a groove for the wick was added, the bottom of the lamp was titled to concentrate the oil and the place where the flame burned was moved away from the handle. Mostly animal fats and vegetable and fish oils were burned. In Sumer, seepage from petroleum deposits was used. The wicks were made from twisted natural fibers.

Houses were lit with oil lamps, and cooking was done with coals placed in a metal brazier. Fires were always a hazard and it was not unusual for entire towns to burn down after someone carelessly knocked over an oil lamp. Greeks and Romans used oil lamps made of bronze, with wicks of oakum or linen. They were fueled by edible animal fats and vegetables oils which could be consumed in times of food shortages. The Romans were perhaps the first people to use oil as a combustible material; they burned petroleum in their lamps instead of olive oil.

In ancient times, olive oil was used in everything from oil lamps, to religious anointments, to cooking and preparing condiments and medicines. It was in great demand and traveled well and people like the Philistines grew rich trading it.

Ancient Roman Possessions

A typical Roman bedroom contained a chamber pot, chair and a wooden bed, often made of oak, maple or cedar. Mattresses were stuffed with either straw reeds, wools, feathers or swansdown, depending on what the owner could afford. Pliny described several kinds of mattresses. Noblemen and women used sheets made from silk or linen.

The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used towel-like napkins and finger bowls of water scented with things like rose petals, herbs and rosemary. In the 7th century B.C., Roman nobility were given doggie bags at banquets which they were expected to use to carry delicacies home. Ubiquitous terra cotta jugs were the primary means of storing transportable goods. The jugs held olive il, wine, syrups, fish sauces and other things. Cookware consisted of plates, jugs and flatware made of ceramics, bronze, silver, gold and electrum.

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Food crockery display
Romans initially used umbrellas for protection against the sun. Later they oiled them to make them water proof. There are accounts of people opening umbrellas when it rained at outdoor theater performances. Men regarded umbrellas as effeminate and they were used primarily by women. The Greeks had schools for mirror making, where students were taught the finer points of sand polishing. Romans preferred mirrors made from silver because they revealed the true colors of facial make up.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The place of our clock was taken in the peristylium or garden by the sundial (solarium), such as is often seen nowadays in our parks and gardens; this measured the hours of the day by the shadow of a stick or pin. It was introduced into Rome from Greece in 268 B.C. About a century later the water-clock (clepsydra) was also borrowed from the Greeks. This was more useful because it marked the hours of the night as well as of the day and could be used in the house. It consisted essentially of a vessel filled at a regular time with water, which was allowed to escape from it at a fixed rate, the changing level marking the hours on a scale. As the length of the Roman hours varied with the season of the year and the flow of the water with the temperature, the apparatus was far from accurate. Shakespeare’s reference in Julius Caesar (II, i, 192) to the striking of the clock is an anachronism.” [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) ]

See Technology and Science

Kitchen and Dining Implements

In Greco-Roman times the rich ate and drank from gold plates, silver cups and glass bottles while commoners ate and drank from clay plates, hollowed ram's horns and hardwood jugs. Upper class Greeks used spoons of bronze and silver while poorer people used ones carved from wood. To clean themselves at mealtime the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used towel-like napkins and finger bowls of water scented with thing like rose petals, herbs and rosemary.

Items found in ancient Greek and Roman kitchens included vessels for storing olive oil; bowls for mixing wine and water; bronze strainers for removing grape skins and seeds; and small bowls for salt and snacks. There were also ladles and large bowls for eating and serving food; mortars and pestles for grinding up food; and saucepans, baking pans and frying pans, all made out of bronze, for cooking food. Women and slaves both did the cooking. Women normally didn't fetch water, but when they did they sometimes carried the vessels sideways on their head to the well and upright on the way home. [Source: “Greek and Roman Life” by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum]

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Pompeii spoons
Glass vessels found in Pompeii included bowls, saucepan-like vessels perhaps used to serve dinner and bottles and small jar probably used as storage vessels. Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “Glass vessels were relatively rare in antiquity, becoming more readily available with the development of glass blowing towards the end of the first century B.C. From that time, the increased speed of production greatly increased the number of glass vessels in circulation. A large number of glass vessels have been found at Pompeii, probably manufactured locally. Glass would have been popular because it was cheap, resistant to heat and did not contaminate its contents with bad tastes or smells. Its smooth, impermeable surface meant it could be cleaned easily, allowing it to be re-used (which was not always possible with unglazed ceramic vessels).” [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

In 2010, Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov announced that he had found an ancient Roman cooking stove in the ancient Thracian city of Perperikon in modern Greece. cut right into the stones of the rock city in the A.D. 3rd-4th century. According to “The stove consists of a lower part, a hearth, whose ceiling has two holes that let through some fire; the ceramic cooking vessels would be placed on top of the holes. The stove was found while archaeologists were excavating 100 meters of the fortress wall of Perperikon. The stronghold protected what is believed to have been a palace-sanctuary harboring the ancient temple of Dionysus. Other artifacts found at the site included a lamp with the image of a naked dancer, bronze and silver ornaments, lead seals used by of local rulers. [Source:, May 2010]

Romans Used Non-stick Cookware 2,000 Years Ago

in 2016, archaeologist said that had found evidence that the Romans used non-stick pans — fragments of pots with a thick, red, slippery coating — to cook meaty stews some 2,000 years ago at a Roman pottery dump near Naples. It was first the first hard evidence of non-stick suggested in a first-century cookbook entitled De Re Coquinaria. Discovery News reported that the fragments of cookware, known as Cumanae testae or Cumanae patellae – meaning pans from the city of Cumae – were found 19 kilometers west of Naples and were dated between 27 B.C. and A.D. 37. [Source: Sarah Griffiths,, May 18, 2016 +++]

De Re Coquinaria said the easy-care cookware was particularly good for making chicken stews and was likely exported across the Mediterranean to North Africa, France and Britain. Professor of Greek and Roman art, Giuseppe Pucci hypothesized that Cumanae testae evolved into what’s known as Pompeian Red Ware – pottery with a thick red-slip coating on the inside. Analysis has shown the composition of the pottery is different to ‘Red Ware’ found in Pompeii, which had a lesser quality shiny, or non-stick coating. Modern-day, non-stick pots and pans use substanced called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), of which Teflon is one kind. Generally the more layers of PTFE sprayed or rolled on, the higher the quality of non-stick coating. +++

Cumae was one of the first Greek colonies in Italy, founded in the eight century B.C., with Roman soldiers conquering the city in 228 B.C. In Roman mythology, there is an entrance to the underworld located at Avernus, a crater lake near Cumae, and was the route Aeneas used to descend to the Underworld. The Romans were not the first to use non-stick technology. Researchers from Dartmouth college found that Mycenaean Greeks used non-stick pans to make bread more than 3,000 years ago. Mycenaean ceramic griddles had one smooth side and one side covered with tiny holes. The bread was likely placed on the side with the holes, since the dough tended to stick when cooked on the smooth side of the pan. These holes seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology, ensuring that oil spread evenly over the griddle. +++

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Roman glass from Pompeii

Furniture in Ancient Rome

The wealthy owned lavishly decorated and inlaid furniture. Some dining rooms had special couches which sat three people and had special arm rests to support and hold plates. A typical bedroom in 600 B.C. contained a bed made of wicker or wood, a coffer for valuables and a simple chair. Clay jars as tall as 1½ meters were used for storing grain, oil and wine. Pine tar was valuable stuff. It was used for everything from caulking wooden ships to a flavoring for wine.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Furniture is, of course, the most temporary of domestic decoration, easily moved and often replaced. Certain rooms required specific pieces. For example, the atrium of a Roman house was often sparsely furnished, holding chests or arcae of family treasures and documents, as well as a few pieces of furniture such as small tables and candelabra. In the dining room, Romans were accustomed to recline as they dined and so rested on couches while they ate and were served and entertained by slaves. Often fine tableware, such as the silver tableware from the Tivoli hoard in the Museum's collection, was displayed in cabinets around the dining room. [Source: Ian Lockey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2009, \^/]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: Our knowledge of Roman furniture is largely indirect, because only such articles have come down to us as were made of stone or metal. Fortunately the secondary sources are abundant and good. Many articles are incidentally described in works of literature, many are shown in the wall paintings mentioned above, and some have been restored from casts taken in the hardened ashes of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In general we may say that the Romans had very few articles of furniture in their houses, and that they cared less for comfort, not to say luxurious ease, than they did for costly materials, fine workmanship, and artistic forms. The mansions on the Palatine were enriched with all the spoils of Greece and Asia, but it may be doubted whether there were many comfortable beds within the walls of Rome. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

Many of the most common and useful articles of modern furniture were entirely unknown to the Romans. No mirrors hung on their walls. They had no desks or writing tables, no dressers or chiffoniers, no glass-doored cabinets for the display of bric-a-brac, tableware, or books, no mantels, no hat-racks even. The principal articles found in even the best houses were couches or beds, chairs, tables and lamps. If to these we add chests or wooden cabinets with doors, an occasional brazier, and still rarer, a water-clock, we shall have everything that can be called furniture, except tableware and kitchen utensils. Still it must not be thought that their rooms presented a desolate or dreary appearance. When one considers the decorations, the stately pomp of the atrium, and the rare beauty of the peristylium, it is evident that a very few articles of real artistic excellence were more in keeping with the Roman house than would have been the litter and jumble that we sometimes have in our rooms.” |+|

recreated room of a Roman villa in Zaragoza, Spain

Chairs and Tables in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Chairs. The primitive form of seat (sedile) among the Romans, as elsewhere, was the stool or bench with four perpendicular legs and no back. The remarkable fact is that it did not give place to something better as soon as means permitted. The stool (sella) was the ordinary seat for one person, used by men and women resting or working, and by children and slaves at their meals as well. The bench (subsellium) differed from the stool only in accommodating more than one person. It was used by senators in the curia, by jurors in the courts, and by boys in the school, as well as in private houses. A special form of the sella was the famous curule chair (sella curulis), having curved legs of ivory. The curule chair folded up like our camp-stools for convenience of carriage and had straps across the top to support the cushion which formed the seat. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The first improvement upon the sella was the solium, a stiff, straight, high-backed chair with solid arms; it looked as if cut from a single block of wood, and was so high that a footstool was as necessary with it as with a bed. Poets represented gods and kings as seated in such a chair, and it was kept in the atrium for the use of the patron when he received his clients . Lastly, we find the cathedra, a chair without arms, but with a curved back sometimes fixed at an easy angle (cathedra supina), the only approximation to a comfortable seat that the Romans knew. It was at first used by women only as it was regarded too luxurious for men, but finally came into general use. Its employment by teachers in the Schools of Rhetoric gave rise to the expression ex cathedra, applied to authoritative utterances of every kind, and its use by bishops explains our word “cathedral.” Neither the solium nor the cathedra was upholstered, but cushions and coverings were used with them both as with the lecti, and they afforded like opportunities for skillful workmanship and lavish decoration. |+|

“Tables. The table (mensa) was the most important article of furniture in the Roman house, whether we consider its manifold uses, or the prices often paid for certain kinds. Tables varied in form and construction as much as our own, many of which are copied directly from Roman models. All sorts of materials were used for their supports and tops: stone wood, solid or veneered, the precious metals, probably in thin plates only. The most costly, so far as we know, were the round tables made from cross sections of the citrus tree. The wood was beautifully marked and single pieces could be had from three to four feet in diameter. Cicero paid $20,000 for such a table, Asinius Pollio $44,000 for another, King Juba $52,000 for a third; the family of the Cethegi possessed one valued at $60,000. Special names were given to tables of certain forms. The monopodium was a table or stand with but one support, used especially to hold a lamp or toilet articles. The abacus was a table with a rectangular top having a raised rim; it was used for plates and dishes, in the place of the modern sideboard. The delphica (sc. mensa) had three legs. Tables were frequently made with adjustable legs, so that the height might be altered. On the other hand the permanent tables in the triclinia were often of solid masonry or concrete built up from the floor; they had tops of polished stone or mosaic. The table gave a better opportunity than even the couch or chair for artistic workmanship, especially in the matter of carving and inlaying the legs and top.” |+|

recreated room of a Roman villa in Borg, Germany

Chests, Cabinets and Couches in Ancient Rome

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Every house was supplied with chests (arcae) of various sizes for the purpose of storing clothes and other articles not always in use, and for the safe keeping of papers, money, and jewelry. The material was usually wood; the arcae were often bound with iron and ornamented with hinges and locks of bronze. The smaller arcae, used for jewel cases, were often made of silver or even of gold. Of most importance, perhaps, was the strong box, kept in the tablium, in which the pater familias stored his ready money. It was made as strong as possible so that it could not easily be opened by force, and was so large and heavy that it could not be carried away entire. As an additional precaution it was sometimes chained to the floor. Often, too, it was richly carved and mounted. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The cabinets (armaria) were designed for similar purposes and made of similar materials. They were often divided into compartments and were always supplied with hinges and locks. Two of the most important uses of these cabinets have been mentioned already: in the library they preserved books against mice and men, and in the alae they held the imagines, or death masks of wax. It must be noticed that the armaria lacked the convenient glass doors of the cabinets or cases that we use for books and similar things, but they were as well adapted to decorative purposes as the other articles of furniture that have been mentioned. |+|

“The Couches. The couch (lectus, lectulus) was found everywhere in the Roman house, as a sofa by day, a bed by night. In its simplest form it consisted of a frame of wood with straps across the top on which was laid a mattress. At one end there was an arm, as in the case of our sofas; sometimes there was an arm at each end, and a back besides. The back seems to have been a Roman addition to the ordinary form of the ancient couch. The couch was always provided with pillows and rugs or coverlets. The mattress was originally stuffed with straw, but this gave place to wool and even feathers. In some of the bedrooms of Pompeii the frame seems to have been lacking; in such cases the mattress was laid on a support built up from the floor. The couches used for beds seem to have been larger than those used as sofas, and they were so high that stools or even steps were necessary accompaniments. As a sofa the lectus was used in the library for reading and writing; the student supported himself on his left arm and held the book or writing with the right hand. In the dining-room it had a permanent place, as will be described later. Its honorary position in the great hall has already been mentioned. It will be seen that the lectus could be made highly ornamental. The legs and arms were carved or made of costly woods, or inlaid or plated with tortoise-shell, ivory, or the precious metals. We read even of frames of solid silver. The coverings were often made of the finest fabrics, dyed in the most brilliant colors, and worked with figures of gold.” |+|

Studying Pompeii’s Garbage

Researchers at Pompeii have done a systematic survey of street trash, buckets and even storage containers to gain an understanding of the relationship between Romans and their possessions. “We’re actually starting to see evidence of people’s choices and how they dealt with their objects,” Caroline Cheung, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, involved in the project, told USA Today. “We get a sense of how people were using them, how they were storing them, whether they were throwing them away or keeping them.” [Source: Traci Watson, USA Today, January 20, 2017 ]

Traci Watson of USA Today wrote: “The humble objects left behind show that people didn’t necessarily go easy on their possessions, even though the articles of everyday life were often purchased rather than homemade. “Take the objects discovered at a farmhouse near Pompeii, where the cooking range was so heaped with ashes that it’s clear “they just basically didn’t take out the garbage,” says Theodore Peña of the University of California, Berkeley. “Like frat boys.” Peña leads the project, which is taking a close look at artifacts found during previous excavations.

“In a storeroom of the kitchen, shelves held gear that “had the hell beaten out of it,” Peña says. There was a bronze bucket full of dents, perhaps where it had banged into the side of the well just outside the farmhouse. There were pots with bits of the rims broken off and a casserole so badly cracked that it was close to falling apart, but people had kept them to use again. At a complex near Pompeii that seems to have been a wine-bottling facility, there were more than 1,000 amphorae, ceramic vessels that were the shipping containers of their day. Many were patched and waiting to be refilled, presumably with wine, Peña says.

“When the researchers delved into street rubbish, they expected to find lots of broken glass, used for perfume bottles and other common items. Instead they found almost none, a sign that even shards of glass were being collected and made into something else. “It’s too early to say whether the people of Pompeii were thrifty adherents of recycling. But the indications so far are that “ceramics and other types of objects were being reused, repurposed or at least repaired,” Cheung says, in contrast to today’s “throwaway society. … If I break a cheap mug, I probably throw it away. I don’t even think about repairing it.”“

Water Supplies and Sewers in Ancient Rome

aqueduct pipe

Some houses had water piped in but most homeowners had to have their water fetched and carried, one of the main duties of household slaves. Residents generally had to go out to public latrines to use the toilet. According to Listverse: The Romans “had two main supplies of water – high quality water for drinking and lower quality water for bathing. In 600 BC, the King of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus, decided to have a sewer system built under the city. It was created mainly by semi-forced laborers. The system, which outflowed into the Tiber river, was so effective that it remains in use today (though it is now connected to the modern sewerage system). It continues to be the main sewer for the famous amphitheater. It was so successful in fact, that it was imitated throughout the Roman Empire.” [Source: Listverse, October 16, 2009 ]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “All the important towns of Italy and many cities throughout the Roman world had abundant supplies of water brought by aqueducts from hills, sometimes at a considerable distance. The aqueducts of the Romans were among their most stupendous and most successful works of engineering. The first great aqueduct (aqua) at Rome was built in 312 B.C. by the famous censor Appius Claudius. Three more were built during the Republic and at least seven under the Empire, so that ancient Rome was at last supplied by eleven or more aqueducts. Modern Rome is well supplied by four, which are the sources and occasionally the channels of as many of the ancient ones. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Mains were laid down the middle of the streets, and from these the water was piped into the houses. There was often a tank in the upper part of the house from which the water was distributed as needed. It was not usually carried into many of the rooms, but there was always a fountain in the peristylium and its garden, and a jet in the bathhouse and in the closet. The bathhouse had a separate heating apparatus of its own, which kept the room or rooms at the desired temperature and furnished hot water as required. The poor must have carried the water for household use from the public fountains in the streets. |+|

“The necessity for drains and sewers was recognized in very early times, the oldest at Rome dating traditionally from the time of the kings. Some of the ancient drains, among them the famous Cloaca Maxima, were in use until recent years. |+|

Toilets in Ancient Rome

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Toilet in Ephesus Turkey
The Romans had flushing toilets. It is well known Romans used underground flowing water to wash away waste but they also had indoor plumbing and fairly advanced toilets. The homes of some rich people had plumbing that brought in hot and cold water and toilets that flushed away waste. Most people however used chamber pots and bedpans or the local neighborhood latrine. [Source: Andrew Handley, Listverse, February 8, 2013 ]

The ancient Romans had pipe heat and employed sanitary technology. Stone receptacles were used for toilets. Romans had heated toilets in their public baths. The ancient Romans and Egyptians had indoor lavatories. There are still the remains of the flushing lavatories that the Roman soldiers used at Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall in Britain. Toilets in Pompeii were called Vespasians after the Roman emperor who charged a toilet tax. During Roman times sewers were developed but few people had access to them. The majority of the people urinated and defecated in clay pots.

Ancient Greek and Roman chamber pots were taken to disposal areas which, according to Greek scholar Ian Jenkins, "was often no further than an open window." Roman public baths had a pubic sanitation system with water piped in and piped out. [Source: “Greek and Roman Life” by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum]

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “Rome has been praised for its advances in plumbing. Their cities had public toilets and full sewage systems, something that later societies wouldn’t share for centuries. That might sound like a tragic loss of an advanced technology, but as it turns out, there was a pretty good reason nobody else used Roman plumbing. “The public toilets were disgusting. Archaeologists believe they were rarely, if ever, cleaned because they have been found to be filled with parasites. In fact, Romans going to the bathroom would carry special combs designed to shave out lice. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

The Emperor Vespasian (A.D. 9-79) was famous for his toilet tax. In “Life of Vespasian” Suetonius wrote: “When Titus found fault with him for contriving a tax upon public toilets, he held a piece of money from the first payment to his son's nose, asking whether its odor was offensive to him. When Titus said "No," he replied, "Yet it comes from urine." On the report of a deputation that a colossal statue of great cost had been voted him at public expense, he demanded to have it set up at once, and holding out his open hand, said that the base was ready. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum: Vespasian” (“Life of Vespasian”), written c. A.D. 110, translated by J. C. Rolfe, Suetonius, 2 Vols., The Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, and New York: The MacMillan Co., 1914), II.281-321]

Exploding Toilets, Parasites and a Shared Wet Sponge

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Pompeii toilet
In Roman times, people generally didn't use soap, they cleaned themselves with olive oil and a scraping tool. A wet sponge placed on a stick was used instead of toilet paper. A typical public toilet, which was shared with dozens of other people, had a single sponge on a stick shared by all comers but usually not cleaned.

Mark Oliver wrote for Listverse: “When you entered a Roman toilet, there was a very real risk you would die. “The first problem was that creatures living in the sewage system would crawl up and bite people while they did their business. Worse than that, though, was the methane buildup—which sometimes got so bad that it would ignite and explode underneath you. [Source: Mark Oliver, Listverse, August 23, 2016]

“Toilets were so dangerous that people resorted to magic to try to stay alive. Magical spells meant to keep demons at bay have been found on the walls of bathrooms. Some, though, came pre-equipped with statues of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, guarding them. People would pray to Fortuna before stepping inside.”

Duncan Kennedy BBC, Archaeologists excavating Herculaneum near Pompeii “have been discovering how Romans lived 2,000 years ago, by studying what they left behind in their sewers. A team of experts has been sifting through hundreds of sacks of human excrement. They found a variety of details about their diet and their illnesses. In a tunnel 86 meters long, they unearthed what is believed to be the largest deposit of human excrement ever found in the Roman world. Seven hundred and fifty sacks of it to be exact, containing a wealth of information. [Source: Duncan Kennedy, BBC, July 1, 2011]

“The scientists have been able to study what foods people ate and what jobs they did, by matching the material to the buildings above, like shops and homes. This unprecedented insight into the diet and health of ancient Romans showed that they ate a lot of vegetables. One sample also contained a high white blood cell count, indicating, say researchers, the presence of a bacterial infection. The sewer also offered up items of pottery, a lamp, 60 coins, necklace beads and even a gold ring with a decorative gemstone.”

Pecunia non Olet (Roman Urine Tax)

bathtub from Herculaneum

In the first century A.D., Emperor Vespasian enacted what came to be known as the urine tax. At the time, urine was considered a useful commodity. It was commonly was used for laundry because the ammonia in the urine served as a clothes. Urine was also used in medicines. Urine was collected from public bathhouses and taxed. [Source: Andrew Handley, Listverse, February 8, 2013 ]

According to Listverse: “Pecunia non olet means “money does not smell”. This phrase was coined as a result of the urine tax levied by the Roman emperors Nero and Vespasian in the 1st century upon the collection of urine. The lower classes of Roman society urinated into pots which were emptied into cesspools. The liquid was then collected from public latrines, where it served as the valuable raw material for a number of chemical processes: it was used in tanning, and also by launderers as a source of ammonia to clean and whiten woollen togas. [Source: Listverse, October 16, 2009 ]

“There are even isolated reports of it being used as a teeth whitener (supposedly originating in what is now Spain). When Vespasian’s son, Titus, complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father showed him a gold coin and uttered the famous quote. This phrase is still used today to show that the value of money is not tainted by its origins. Vespasian’s name still attaches to public urinals in France (vespasiennes), Italy (vespasiani), and Romania (vespasiene).”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, the BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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