How Similar Was Life in Ancient Rome to Modern Cities? | History Hit

How Similar Was Life in Ancient Rome to Modern Cities?

Tom Brown

06 Feb 2023
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Ancient Rome is popularly associated with military prowess, pioneering political institutions and feats of engineering. The relics of the era that survive today are typically grand structures and artworks which are hailed as evidence of Roman civilisation’s perceived greatness.

But there is a flaw in this evaluation: it does not tell us much about what life was like for an ordinary Roman. While there are many areas of Roman life that are drastically different from our own, you may be surprised by how similar some aspects are to our own modern day-to-day lives.

High rise flats and apartments

Very few ruins remain of what we would now call flats or apartment blocks, but to our ancient Roman counterparts, these buildings would have been known as insula, the Latin word for ‘island’. These were impressive buildings for their time: they were built in timber, mud brick and later, Roman concrete.

However, they were highly flammable and prone to collapse, which would lead to height restrictions being imposed on them by successive emperors to ensure their structural integrity.

Insulae were seen across the Roman Empire and were rented homes for citizens of varying wealth and were designed to house as many people as possible. One of the tallest was found in Rome itself: known as the Insula Felicles, it is believed to have been at least 9 stories tall. The only surviving insula in Rome is the 5-storey Insula dell’Ara Coeli dating from the 2nd century (but it is believed it may have been even taller during its time).

The insula Aracoeli

Image Credit: Lalupa / CC

The ground floor of these were often shops or perhaps other businesses with a first-floor apartment above them. These first-floor apartments would often be for the more wealthy (but not the upper classes) who would live in a large spacious home with their family and slaves.

The first or perhaps second floor apartments would often have full amenities, including running water and sanitation. Almost the opposite to modern life, the higher up you went, the cheaper the apartments were as conditions got gradually worse. The higher levels did not have access to the likes of running water, would have fewer or no windows, and would often no longer be single occupancy but perhaps spaces shared between multiple families or groups.

These insulae would often be the main form of homes for people of ancient Rome and would have narrow streets between them. On street level, this meant citizens were surrounded by tall buildings and dark alleys that were dangerous places not just due to crime, but also falling tiles or human waste.

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Pubs and bars

In ancient Rome, popina were essentially bars which could range from a seedy dive bar to a more fancy wine bar. They were frequented by the lower tiers of Roman society such as the poor, the slaves or foreigners in Rome to socialise and perhaps take part in more lewd activities such as gambling or meeting a prostitute.

To the higher classes, they were seen as degenerate spots and hubs of crime and societal discontent. While the rich would be able to dine and wine at home, the poor headed to the popina to engage in such revelry: this was often reflected in the artwork seen on the walls of these establishments, showing both Roman bar humour and also anti-establishment sentiments.

Left, wall painting from a bar in Pompeii showing a barmaid serving drinks. Right, electoral graffiti.

Image Credit: Paula Lock, University of Kent / CC

Many would have a fairly limited food menu including olives, breads and stews and a range of wines varying in both quality and cost (as seen above). But, to many citizens, this would have simply been a place to eat, drink and hang out with friends – a scene not dissimilar to modern bars and pubs in cities around the world.

Fast food

While the popina may have catered for bar snacks and sit-down meals, ancient Romans visited the thermopolium for hot food on the go. A thermopolium was the equivalent of a Roman fast food joint and was an essential part of city life in Roman times just as it is today.

They shared a lot in common with the popina: both places were mainly frequented by poorer citizens (such as those who lived in the insulae) who did not have their own kitchens. This meant they were often looked down upon by the upper classes of Roman society due to their association with the poor and more unwanted elements of Rome.

They had a design reminiscent of modern fast-food spots, with a shop front with a counter that sat along the street front, serving hot food to passing customers with their options and other wares displayed behind the shopkeeper. They offered quick and easy meals to the people on the streets of Rome who would often have to work hard, long hours to make ends meet as well as those who were simply unable to make their own food in their cramped (or nonexistent) accommodation.

One of the most famous examples of which is the Thermopolium of Asellina. It is the most intact thermopolium and gives a fascinating insight into Roman life complete with intact jugs and dishes found on the counters, and an incredible piece of wall art. It is also a rare example of a more complex thermopolium, with both a street-facing counter as well as an upstairs seating area.

Image Credit: Carole Raddato / CC

Want to find out more about what life was like for everyday Romans? Check out the series Meet The Romans with Mary Beard available on Odyssey – Ancient History Documentaries here:

Tom Brown