SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 6. Social history

Having covered the rule of the pivotal figure in Roman history, the emperor Augustus, in chapter 9, and the rule of the 14 emperors who followed him in chapter 10, Beard has finished with her chronological account of the Roman empire and moves on to consider the social history of the period. Here are some highlights:

The Roman emperor had more wealth than anyone in human history, derived from huge landholdings right around the Mediterranean, including not only vast farms, but mines and ports and harbours which paid taxes and customs duties (p.435).

Property qualifications for office: to be eligible for the Senate one had to have a fortune of at least 1 million sestercii. To be a local councillor one needed a house with at least 1,500 roof tiles (p.436). The purpose of the well-organised censuses held in Rome was not to provide data for the provision of all kinds of social services, as in the modern world, but at least in part to assess the wealth of the property-owning classes in order to clarify who was, and was not, eligible to serve in various offices of local and central government.

Of Rome’s seven hills, the Palatine Hill had for some time been associated with the houses of the rich. During the imperial period it was steadily taken over by the emperors with their plans for grandiose palaces Lower down the scale, and in the provinces, the very rich vied to build themselves into history by commissioning extravagant buildings and entire developments in cities around the Mediterranean (p.436).

That said, Rome was not the city of grand boulevards lined with elegant buildings of the modern imagination. It was a warren of dirty alleys, occasionally opening onto squares, chief among them the Forum. There was no organised rubbish collection so the streets were full of rubbish and human waste. As a result disease was rife, even in the famous public baths. In 160 AD the entire empire was swept by an epidemic, possibly a form of smallpox, which caused a large death toll (p.439).

At its height the Roman Empire probably had a population of between 50 and 60 million. The rich, who lived in fine houses, took part in political and cultural life, and among whom all the writers we know about can be counted, numbered maybe 300,000 i.e. less than 1% (p.440).

The majority of the population were peasant farmers, smallholders struggling to make a living off the land for them and their families (p.442). In cities and towns we know there were large numbers of homeless or squatters, living wherever they could find a nook. Many Roman towns and cities must have looked like modern Third World shanty towns (p.444). One of the many paintings preserved in Pompeii shows a homeless man with a dog begging from a rich lady. Could be the West End of London, any day during my lifetime (p.444).

The Cura Annonae was the term used to describe the import and distribution of grain to the residents of  Rome. Inaugurated under the Republic, the number receiving the dole swelled to an unmanageable 300,000 before being set at 200,000 by Augustus (p.445). This combined with the spectacular public gladiator fights and other displays put on by the emperors lie behind the satirist Juvenal’s comment that the Roman population was only kept in line, obedient and compliant, by the provision of panem et circenses meaning ‘bread and circuses’ (p.440).

The seating capacity of even the enormous Colosseum was only 50,000, at the huge Circus Maximus it was a whopping 250,000 – for the population of Rome which, at its peak, reached about one million (p.462).

The well preserved ruins of Pompeii are a goldmine of social history. Among many other findings they demonstrate a surprisingly large number of bars and cooked food outlets, and that gambling at a wide variety of games was endemic (p.459).

Rome had no police force at all – if someone did you wrong, you had to apply to a law court for justice, take matters into your own hands, or the hands of friends and family, or let it go. In reality, the sophisticated world of Roman law and law courts and sophisticated lawyers, was the preserve of the rich (p.465). Another way of getting your own back was asking the gods for revenge. We know this because so many votive offerings have survived in which individuals call down curses on people who have wronged them. Or you could ask any number of fortune tellers and seers and so on to do the same (p.465).

There was only a small, basic fire service which helps explain why the Great Fire of Rome during Nero’s reign, in 64 AD, was so ruinous (p.463).

Summary

As with her discussion of the issues and problems surrounding the figure of the Roman emperor, so again in this chapter, once Beard is liberated from the constraints of chronology i.e. from history as a sequence of dates and events, once she is free to explore themes and ideas, then she is an entertaining and instructive guide.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

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