The dangerous streets of ancient Rome

Join Mary Beard on a tour of the imperial capital after sunset, when armed muggers, drunken toffs and flying chamber pots hold sway.

This article was first published in the April 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

Ancient Rome after dark was a dangerous place. Most of us can easily imagine the bright shining marble spaces of the imperial city on a sunny day – that’s usually what movies and novels show us, not to mention the history books. But what happened when night fell? More to the point, what happened for the vast majority of the population of Rome, who lived in the over-crowded high-rise garrets, not in the spacious mansions of the rich?

Remember that, by the first century BC, the time of Julius Caesar, ancient Rome was a city of a million inhabitants – rich and poor, slaves and ex-slaves, free and foreign. It was the world’s first multicultural metropolis, complete with slums, multiple-occupancy tenements and sink estates – all of which we tend to forget when we concentrate on its great colonnades and plazas. So what was backstreet Rome – the real city – like after the lights went out? Can we possibly recapture it?

The best place to start is the satire of that grumpy old Roman man, Juvenal, who conjured up a nasty picture of daily life in Rome around AD 100. The inspiration behind every satirist from Dr Johnson to Stephen Fry, Juvenal reminds us of the dangers of walking around the streets after dark: the waste (that is, chamber pot plus contents) that might come down on your head from the upper floors; not to mention the toffs (the blokes in scarlet cloaks, with their whole retinue of hangers on) who might bump into you on your way through town, and rudely push you out of the way:

“And now think of the different and diverse perils of the night. See what a height it is to that towering roof from which a pot comes crack upon my head every time that some broken or leaky vessel is pitched out of the window! See with what a smash it strikes and dints the pavement! There’s death in every open window as you pass along at night; you may well be deemed a fool, improvident of sudden accident, if you go out to dinner without having made your will… Yet however reckless the fellow may be, however hot with wine and young blood, he gives a wide berth to one whose scarlet cloak and long retinue of attendants, with torches and brass lamps in their hands, bid him keep his distance. But to me, who am wont to be escorted home by the moon, or by the scant light of a candle he pays no respect.” (Juvenal /Satire/ 3)

Juvenal himself was actually pretty rich. All Roman poets were relatively well heeled (the leisure you needed for writing poetry required money, even if you pretended to be poor). His self-presentation as a ‘man of the people’ was a bit of a journalistic facade. But how accurate was his nightmare vision of Rome at night? Was it really a place where chamber pots crashed on your head, the rich and powerful stamped all over you, and where (as Juvenal observes elsewhere) you risked being mugged and robbed by any group of thugs that came along?

Probably yes.

Outside the splendid civic centre, Rome was a place of narrow alleyways, a labyrinth of lanes and passageways. There was no street lighting, nowhere to throw your excrement and no police force. After dark, ancient Rome must have been a threatening place. Most rich people, I’m sure, didn’t go out – at least, not without their private security team of slaves or their “long retinue of attendants” – and the only public protection you could hope for was the paramilitary force of the night watch, the vigiles.

Exactly what these watchmen did, and how effective they were, is a moot point. They were split into battalions across the city and their main job was to look out for fires breaking out (a frequent occurrence in the jerry-built tenement blocks, with open braziers burning on the top floors). But they had little equipment to deal with a major outbreak, beyond a small supply of vinegar and a few blankets to douse the flames, and poles to pull down neighbouring buildings to make a fire break.


Part of the Palatine Hill, one of the most ancient areas of the city. (Bridgeman Art Library)

 

While Rome burned

Sometimes these men were heroes. In fact, a touching memorial survives to a soldier, acting as a night watchman at Ostia, Rome’s port. He had tried to rescue people stranded in a fire, had died in the process and was given a burial at public expense. But they weren’t always so altruistic. In the great fire of Rome in AD 64 one story was that the vigiles actually joined in the looting of the city while it burned. The firemen had inside knowledge of where to go and where the rich pickings were.

Certainly the vigiles were not a police force, and had little authority when petty crimes at night escalated into something much bigger. They might well give a young offender a clip round the ear. But did they do more than that? There wasn’t much they could do, and mostly they weren’t around anyway.

If you were a crime victim, it was a matter of self-help – as one particularly tricky case discussed in an ancient handbook on Roman law proves. The case concerns a shop-keeper who kept his business open at night and left a lamp on the counter, which faced onto the street. A man came down the street and pinched the lamp, and the man in the shop went after him, and a brawl ensued. The thief was carrying a weapon – a piece of rope with a lump of metal at the end – and he coshed the shop-keeper, who retaliated and knocked out the eye of the thief.

This presented Roman lawyers with a tricky question: was the shopkeeper liable for the injury? In a debate that echoes some of our own dilemmas about how far a property owner should go in defending himself against a burglar, they decided that, as the thief had been armed with a nasty piece of metal and had struck the first blow, he had to take responsibility for the loss of his eye.

But, wherever the buck stopped (and not many cases like this would ever have come to court, except in the imagination of some academic Roman lawyers), the incident is a good example for us of what could happen to you on the streets of Rome after dark, where petty crime could soon turn into a brawl that left someone half-blind.

And it wasn’t just in Rome itself. One case, from a town on the west coast of modern Turkey, at the turn of the first centuries BC and AD, came to the attention of the emperor Augustus himself. There had been a series of night-time scuffles between some wealthy householders and a gang that was attacking their house (whether they were some young thugs who deserved the ancient equivalent of an ASBO, or a group of political rivals trying to unsettle their enemies, we have no clue). Finally, one of the slaves inside the house, who was presumably trying to empty a pile of excrement from a chamber pot onto the head of a marauder, actually let the pot fall – and the result was that the marauder was mortally injured.

The case, and question of where guilt for the death lay, was obviously so tricky that it went all the way up to the emperor himself, who decided (presumably on ‘self-defence’ grounds) to exonerate the householders under attack. And it was presumably those householders who had the emperor’s judgment inscribed on stone and put on display back home. But, for all the slightly puzzling details of the case, it’s another nice illustration that the streets of the Roman world could be dangerous after dark; and that Juvenal might not have been wrong about those falling chamber pots.

But night-time Rome wasn’t just dangerous. There was also fun to be had in the clubs, taverns and bars late at night. You might live in a cramped flat in a high-rise block, but, for men at least, there were places to go to drink, to gamble and (let’s be honest) to flirt with the barmaids.


The remains of a tavern in the Roman port town of Ostia. (Copyright Alamy)

The Roman elite were pretty sniffy about these places. Gambling was a favourite activity right through Roman society. The emperor Claudius was even said to have written a handbook on the subject. But, of course, this didn’t prevent the upper classes decrying the bad habits of the poor, and their addiction to games of chance. One snobbish Roman writer even complained about the nasty snorting noises that you would hear late at night in a Roman bar – the noises that came from a combination of snotty noses and intense concentration on the board game in question.

Happily, though, we do have a few glimpses into the fun of the Roman bar from the point of view of the ordinary users themselves. That is, we can still see some of the paintings that decorated the walls of the ordinary, slightly seedy bars of Pompeii – showing typical scenes of bar life. These focus on the pleasures of drink (we see groups of men sitting around bar tables, ordering another round from the waitress), we see flirtation (and more) going on between customers and barmaids, and we see a good deal of board gaming.

Interestingly, even from this bottom-up perspective, there is a hint of violence. In the paintings from one Pompeian bar (now in the Archaeological Museum at Naples), the final scene in a series shows a couple of gamblers having a row over the game, and the landlord being reduced to threatening to throw his customers out. In a speech bubble coming out of the landlord’s mouth, he is saying (as landlords always have) “Look, if you want a fight, guys, get outside”.

So where were the rich when this edgy night life was going on in the streets? Well most of them were comfortably tucked up in their beds, in their plush houses, guarded by slaves and guard dogs. Those mosaics in the forecourts of the houses of Pompeii, showing fierce canines and branded Cave Canem (‘Beware of the Dog’), are probably a good guide to what you would have found greeting you if you had tried to get into one of these places.

Inside the doors, peace reigned (unless the place was being attacked of course!), and the rough life of the streets was barely audible. But there is an irony here. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that some of the Roman rich, who ought to have been tucked up in bed in their mansions, thought that the life of the street was extremely exciting in comparison. And – never mind all those snobbish sneers about the snorting of the bar gamblers – that’s exactly where they wanted to be.


A man refills his cup from a wine cask in this first-century AD Roman relief. (akg-images)

Rome’s mean streets were where you could apparently find the Emperor Nero on his evenings off. After dark, so his biographer Suetonius tells us, he would disguise himself with a cap and wig, visit the city bars and roam around the streets, running riot with his mates. When he met men making their way home after dinner, he’d beat them up; he’d even break into closed shops, steal some of the stock and sell it in the palace. He would get into brawls – and apparently often ran the risk of having an eye put out (like the thief with the lamp), or even of ending up dead.

So while many of the city’s richest residents would have avoided the streets of Rome after dark at all costs – or only ventured onto them accompanied by their security guard – others would not just be pushing innocent pedestrians out of the way, they’d be prowling around, giving a very good pretence of being muggers. And, if Suetonius is to be believed, the last person you’d want to bump into late at night in downtown Rome would be the Emperor Nero.  
 

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