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Spec Tech: When In Ancient Rome…

March 17, 2011

From the sweeping backdrops of sword and sorcery, to the alien societies of planet-hopping space traders, fantasy and science fiction writers often draw from history and archaeology to inspire their worlds. You don’t have to be a history buff to create a detailed and believable setting for your stories. But using history as a source or a conceptual map can help writers bring to their settings an authenticity that is hard to create from an otherwise blank slate.

By ‘authenticity’, I’m not talking about simply mimicking a particular time or place.  Instead, I’m referring to that sense of ‘internal logic’ that is so essential to building a consistent and credible setting.  Thinking about historical examples may help you iron out the practical, everyday and even mundane elements in your speculative world, so that you can avoid inconsistencies or flaws that could impact your characters or plot.

In the hopes of providing you with some inspiration for developing your speculative settings, I’ll be posting a short series on everyday urban life in pre-industrial societies. We’ll go on a whirlwind historical tour, stopping along the way to check out some of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of several cities. I’ll be upfront from the start about the liberties I’m taking with this series. I won’t necessarily tell you the exact year we’re visiting, or discuss specific events or individuals.  This is because I’m aiming to give you a snapshot into everyday life in each setting, not a history lesson per se (1).

To kick things off, we’ll swing by ancient Rome.

More than 1,500 years since its decline, the Roman Empire still looms large in popular culture.  We’ve seen gladiators win Academy Awards and centurions flop at the box office. Switch on the TV news and you’ll hear political commentators draw comparisons between the Roman Empire and the present-day United States. Ever noticed the number of ‘Rome’ quips we use in our everyday vernacular? This post wasn’t built in a day, you know. I finished it in the end because all roads lead to Rome.  And when in Rome, you should do as the Romans do.

But what did the ancient Romans do in their everyday life? Strap on your sandals and we’ll go take a peek.

Sandals.  They’re important.  Why?  Can’t you smell that? Look down at the Roman street we’re standing on.  See that ooze covering the flagstones? You really don’t want to get too much of that on you. It’s sewage, mostly.  Sure, there’s some litter from passers by and a pile of rubbish dumped from the shop on the corner, but mostly it’s human and animal excrement.  That may seem strange for a city like Rome, known across the ancient world and long after for its advanced infrastructure and monumental architecture (Colosseum, anyone?).  Rome did have a basic sewer system running under many parts of the city in ancient times.  However, these drains were designed to carry away floodwater should there be a particularly large inundation from the Tiber or surrounding swampland. They weren’t effective designs for urban sanitation.

Look to those larger houses on the next street.  They’ve probably got indoor latrines.  But the more modest dwellings around here no doubt use chamber pots.  It’s a little late in the day for us to catch slaves or housewives throwing the pot contents into the street.  The Senate recently passed a regulation to try to stop people from hefting the night slops out the window, but it’s not really policed.  And don’t look now, but there’s a man relieving himself at the mouth of the alley behind you.  Take good care of your sandals. As you can tell by the amount of people walking around in only a rope-belted, homespun wool tunic and nothing else, we’re lucky to have them.

Step aside for a second. That boy hurrying through the crowd is probably delivering a message for his employer and he’ll be beaten if he’s late.  There’s no formal mail delivery service here in the city so everyone who is in the position to be exchanging messages sends a retainer.  Even to get a message from one side of the city to the other can take a long time, given the press of the throng. The other way word gets around is via the local herald, or through graffiti.  Most of it is ‘Lucius loves Flavia’ type stuff but that Latin scrawl on the villa wall over there is trying to get citizens to cast their vote for a minor aristocrat in the Senate election.  Merchants and nobles will often hire professional graffiti ‘artists’ to spread propaganda like that.

Let’s make our way toward the docks. Watch your step up ahead, there’s a body lying in the street.  Nobody is concerned because it’s probably just a beggar or some other poor person whose family couldn’t afford to pay for a burial.  Destitute Romans will sometimes be able to organize to have their loved one’s body at least thrown in one of the open pits outside the city, but with so many of them it doesn’t always happen. Don’t worry, that carcass won’t be there for too long though, the feral dogs will take their share soon and the maggots will finish off what the rats don’t get. It’s not considered a health issue because the medical profession hasn’t made the connection between bacteria, viruses, parasites and human illness yet.

Hear that cheering? We must be getting close to the water.  The grain fleet returned from Egypt and docked at Ostia a couple of days ago and the cargo barges are coming up the river.  The fleet will only attempt the Mediterranean crossing during the 3-4 most clement months of the year, so you can imagine how important each shipment is for Rome’s food stores.  Grain is the staple food of everyone in the city who isn’t aristocracy. It’s either eaten as a gruel or ground and baked for bread.  Everything you hear about suckling pig, fat bunches of grapes and seafood platters is all the realm of the rich.  The elite class loves their eels, too.  Trendy aristocrats build heated ponds in their villa atriums, competing with each other over who can serve up the longest, fattest specimen.

All this talk of food has made me hungry. Let’s grab a quick snack at this garum street stall.  Garum is a local favorite in Rome.  It’s the brown paste in that barrel behind the counter.  Being a river city not far from the ocean, there’s a thriving fish market here. Garum’s made from all the off cuts that the rich people don’t buy – gizzards, heads, fins, bones – it’s all thrown in a barrel of olive oil with some herbs and garlic and left out in the sun for a week or so to ferment.  We’ll get our serve spread on a chunk of bread.  Here, have some watered wine to wash it down.  No, there’s no beer on the menu.  And don’t even ask for any, or they’ll think you’re a northern barbarian from Gaul or some other forsaken outer province.

I’m guessing that after all this you’ll want to get cleaned up. I’ll drop you at the baths on the way back to the centre of town.  It’s ok, the main baths hold up to 10,000 people so you won’t have to book.  They have their own aqueduct bringing fresh water direct from springs outside the city, so it’s pretty clean, too. There’s no soap, though, so give the attendant a coin and you can get massaged with olive oil and scraped down with a strigil (2) before you bathe.

Just don’t get too relaxed because you won’t get much sleep tonight.  With the arrival of the grain, there will be partying in the streets. Plus the law only lets traders bring pack animals into the city at night, so all the deliveries tend to happen then. Even if you can find some quiet away from the full-bellied revelers, you’ll still have to put up with the braying of mules and the shouted curses of the teamsters…

…so when in ancient Rome, you may as well do as the ancient Romans do – thank Ceres for the grain, Neptune for the calm seas and Bacchus for the wine.  Bottoms up!

Footnotes:

  1. Also, we shouldn’t forget that history itself is a work in progress. Debate continues about historical topics that have been taught in universities for centuries.
  2. A curved, blunt metal instrument with a handle, used to scrape away dirt from the skin, much the same as a currycomb is used on horses!
  3. Here are just a few good sources to start with if you’re interested in learning more about life in ancient Rome:

Aldrete, Gregory S., (2004) Daily Life in the Roman City, Westport: Greenwood Press.

Casson, Lionel, (1998) Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dupont, Florence (trans by Christopher Woodell) (1994) Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, Oxford: Blackwell.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Redscribe permalink
    March 17, 2011 5:59 pm

    Excellent – I adored the level of sensory detail. It’ll come in extraordinarily handy when I’m building cities. I especially appreciated the inclusion of sounds – of course a city would be noisy at night.

    Looking forward to the next one!

  2. Mishell Baker permalink*
    March 17, 2011 6:30 pm

    This kind of thing is right up my alley, too. So glad you decided to join the blog, Peta!

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