How to succeed in Ancient Rome

From becoming a master charioteer to keeping the gods on your side, making a success of yourself in Ancient Rome was no mean feat. In his new self-help book, Release Your Inner Roman, written from the perspective of a fictional Roman nobleman named Marcus Sidonius Falx, Dr Jerry Toner sets out the characteristics that have made the Romans the most successful people in history. 

Here, writing for History Extra, Marcus Sidonius Falx shares his top tips for climbing the social ladder…

Mosaic depicting the poet Virgil sitting between the muses Clio and Melpomene.
Mosaic depicting the poet Virgil sitting between the muses Clio and Melpomene. (Getty Images)

 

I. Learn a trade

If you are poor you will have to work hard to improve your financial position. But it is vital for you to understand which trades are suitable for a gentleman and which ones are unacceptably vulgar. 

One highly undesirable job is that of tax gatherer. These people not only have to deal with the common herd but prey on them too. Another vulgar livelihood is hiring yourself out for paid employment, especially when it only involves mere manual labour. The wage these people receive is simply a symbol of their virtual slavery. We must also consider those involved in the retail trade as plebs. They buy from wholesalers then sell the goods immediately to members of the public for a profit, meaning the only way to make money is to misrepresent the true value of what’s on sale. Next come those engaged in skilled labour – there is nothing gentlemanly about a workshop. 

However, the least respectable trades of all are those that cater for the physical and sensual pleasures of others – fishermen, fishmongers, butchers, cooks and chicken sellers. You can add to these perfumers, dancers and all celebrities.

 

A second-century bas-relief depicting a fruit seller. (Getty Images)
 

II. Invest in property

Owning land is the best form of wealth. Buy ponds, hot springs and other areas that are heavily used by clothes washers, all of which generate large profits. Or invest in urban property. The best way to do this is to wait for one of the fires that frequently break out in Rome. You should then rush to the scene and make extremely low offers to the owners of houses in the vicinity, who will often accept out of fear that the fire will spread and leave them penniless. 

Sadly this works both ways – fire means that urban property is not always a safe investment. City properties generate a very good income but the risks are also great. Two of my own shops have recently fallen down and the rest may be about to do likewise. Even the mice have moved out. Obviously this doesn't bother a man of my great wealth, but there are many others who are constantly thrown into a panic about the state of their urban properties. 

 

III. Be a lender

Lending money is always profitable. The usual rate for loans secured against Italian land is six per cent and for unsecured loans is 12 per cent, or one per cent per month. However, lenders have a heavy burden of worry. If you lend money to a trader you will spend anxious nights worrying about every wind that gets up or distant clap of thunder, fearing that it signifies the loss of his ships at sea. 

If one of your debtors does default, you must handle him severely. As you are entitled to do by law, you should sell all of his possessions, even down to the very clothes he is wearing. If this still fails to raise the necessary capital to cover his debts, you should sell his children into slavery. Healthy infants and children fetch a decent price and the sale will also act as a warning to others who are in your debt not to consider defaulting on their obligations. 

Food shortages also offer considerable opportunities to make money. In such periods, the price of grain rises substantially and it is possible to make short-term unsecured loans for rates of up to 5 per cent per annum.

 

IV. Become a charioteer

If you are poor and want to make it big, consider becoming a charioteer. They can earn extraordinary amounts of money. The prize money for Rome’s best races ranges from 15 to 60 thousand sesterces [Roman currency]. One of my old lawyer friends complains that a charioteer can earn a hundred times what he can. 

The most successful driver I have come across was a man named Diocles, who came from Lusitania in Iberia. He raced for 24 years during the reigns of the divine emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, before retiring at the age of 42. Diocles won 1,462 races out of a total of 4,257 runs. His career earnings came to an astonishing 35,863,120 sesterces, which made him one of the wealthiest men in Rome. 

But be under no illusions: charioteers earn their money. Controlling a four-horse chariot is not easy. The reins of two horses are bound round your body and you must use your weight to pull them into position. If you crash, you will be dragged down by these reins and trampled, unless you can manage to cut yourself free. 

 

Charioteers in starting position, depicted in a third century mosaic. (Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

 

V. Marry well

When it comes to selecting a woman, think hard about the possible candidates. Wealth, high birth and beauty play no part in a happy marriage. They do nothing to generate interest or sympathetic thought in a wife towards her husband – indeed, the very opposite could be said to be true. Nor do they help when it comes to producing children. You should check to see that her family has a good track record in producing healthy, male heirs. 

When it comes to a girl's physique, all that matters is that she is healthy, looks normal and has a capacity for hard work. If she has a strong body she will be better suited to physical labour and child-bearing. As for her character, you should look for a girl who exhibits self-control and virtue. Of course, these are also qualities that you should look to display yourself in your own conduct. 

 

VI. Host elegant dinner parties

 

Holding dinner parties is a fundamental part of being a successful Roman. There are, however, many pitfalls that await a social parvenu if he is not to appear crude and inelegant. 

Firstly, make sure the seating plan reflects the status of the diners. Those of the highest rank should be next to you, with those of the lowest status reclining the furthest away. If you are entertaining a large number of guests, you will want to have the finest dishes served to the top table. Yet be careful not to do this too obviously in case you should appear mean. Worse still is if you apportion the wine in decanters, with the finest Falernian wine [wine originating from a district of Campania, Italy] put in large quantities at the top table while only small quantities of wine vinegar are placed before everyone else. Too little wine is bound to breed resentment. Remember, manners make the Roman. 

During dinner be sure to entertain the others guests with examples of your wit and charm. Wealth makes a man feel very pleased with himself and you should be careful not to lecture. A restrained elegance should be your aim. I had one guest recently who stuffed himself during the entire meal. Then, the moment the dinner had ended, he swept up all the leftovers into his napkin: teats from a sow's udder, pork ribs, a pigeon dripping with sauce (and even a meadow bird carved for two and a whole pike!) were all crammed into a greasy napkin for his slave to carry home. It was most embarrassing, and the only thing the rest of the guests could do was recline at the table and pretend we hadn't noticed.

 

A Pompeii fresco portraying a feast scene. (Getty Images)
 

VII. Pay for gladiator shows

If you make it big, host some games. The people love nothing more, and you will win great popularity as a result. What shouts go up as each fighter thrusts and parries the other's blows. What cries and groans go with the inevitable wounds. Best of all is when a fallen gladiator raises his finger and asks for mercy – you can hear a pin drop. Then everyone erupts into a flurry of cheering or booing, shaking their togas and indicating whether your thumb should be turned up or down. 

You must milk the moment. All eyes are on you. You should wait to see what the crowd wants, then keep them in suspense a little longer. Finally, make your decision with a dramatic gesture, clearly visible to all. Mercy means the gladiator lives to fight another day. But if he has failed to win over the crowd then he must meet his fate like a man. Throwing his head back to expose his neck, he must receive the downward thrust of his opponent's sword with all his body. He is at your mercy.  

 

Gladiators depicted in a stone carving. (Getty Images)

 

VIII. Keep the gods on your side

Being successful in Rome takes moral courage, but ultimately this counts for nothing if you do not also have the support of the gods. And how do you win over the gods? What can you, a weak human being, do to make them deign to notice your call for help and bother to respond to it? Quite simply: if you give the gods something, they will give you something in return. 

This is a message that you must reinforce continually through your actions. Make sacrifices and offer the gods a variety of offerings – whether prayers, vows or animals – in the belief that this will please them and encourage them to intervene on your behalf. Yet, it does no good to offer sacrifices or consult the gods without using the correct ceremonies and the right words for the particular occasion. Some words are appropriate for seeking favourable omens, others for getting help or warding off misfortune. 

There are as many rituals as there are activities and more gods than you can imagine. Even the entrances to houses have three gods assigned to them: the doors belong to Forculus, the hinges to Cardea and the threshold to Limentinus. To be sure, the gods will not always listen to you or be influenced by your gifts. But if you maintain a consistent pattern of appropriate piety they will, in the long run, grant you their favour in return. This mutually beneficial relationship between the weak and the powerful is the driving force, not only of life on earth, but the very universe itself.

Release Your Inner Roman is written by Dr Jerry Toner, a fellow in classics at Churchill College, Cambridge, and published by Profile. Toner's previous books include How to Manage Your Slaves and The Ancient World. His next book, Emperors and Crooks, will be published by Profile in 2018.

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