Violence, rebellion and sexual exploitation: the darker side of Ancient Rome

The Roman elite may have prided themselves on their dignity and honour, but - as Harry Sidebottom reveals - the ancient city of Rome was a hotbed of class hatred, racial animosity, religious intolerance and sexual exploitation

A group of men wearing togas assault Julius Caesar in this painting depicting his assassination.

An ordered procession of senators, toga-clad and stately, is a powerful and enduring image of Ancient Rome. It tells us much about how the Romans saw themselves: as civilised and virtuous citizens. Above all it embodies dignitas – a peculiar Roman concept which has no direct English translation, but was used to refer to a state of being determined by an individual’s dignity, merit, honour, self-control and public respect. To justify crossing the Rubicon river and marching on Rome, Julius Caesar famously said that dignitas meant more to him than life itself.

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Given the calm ideology of dignitas, you might imagine that Ancient Rome was a tolerant and pleasant place to live. The truth, however, couldn’t be any further from it: Rome was a city riven by intolerance and violence, a breeding ground for class hatred, racial animosity, religious intolerance and sexual exploitation. So while the Romans may have thought of themselves as civilised, many aspects of their society would be unacceptable in the modern world today.

Class divides

Only a Roman could have dignitas, but it was usually seen as the exclusive possession of the wealthy and educated elite. The plebeians of Rome – the sordid or vulgar plebs, as the lower classes were called by those above them in the social pyramid – could not possess the quality.

A black and white illustration showing a bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman orator and statesman.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator, philosopher and statesman. Cicero “flattered” the Roman public to their faces, but described them as an “invidious multitude” in a work of philosophy aimed at the Roman elite. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In a sense this is no surprise. In the eyes of their self-styled betters, the urban plebs in the city were not even considered Roman at all. Consider Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of Rome’s greatest orators, for example: he flattered the true-born members of the public to their faces – describing them as “masters of the world” or “inheritors of antique Roman virtues”. But in a work of philosophy aimed at other members of the elite, he employed the language of disparaging snobbery, referring to the plebs as an “invidious multitude”.

The more aristocratic orator Scipio Aemilianus upbraided the plebs even more directly. They were “foreigners”, he told them, and Italy was no more than their stepmother.

Racial animosity

Rome was a city of immigrants. By the reign of Augustus (31 BC–AD 14) the city had an estimated one million inhabitants. The exponential increase in population had in part been caused by the ‘Agrarian Crisis` of the previous two centuries, as the growth of the great landed estates owned by the rich drove Italian peasants away from rural areas and forced them to seek a new life in the metropolis. The influx continued through the first three centuries AD, as economic migrants flocked to Rome from across the empire. The Roman poet and satirist Juvenal expressed the contempt of the wider elite when he notoriously denigrated arrivals from Syria as “the shit from the river Orontes flowing into the Tiber”. Many of these incomers lived crammed into insalubrious tenement blocks, while the less fortunate took up residence under bridges, or set up refugee camps in the park land of the northern Campus Martius, a publicly owned area of Ancient Rome.

Other migrants arrived in Rome through no choice of their own. At any point, a significant percentage of the population of the city was made up of ex-slaves whose origins could have been from anywhere within the empire, or beyond its frontiers. The elite – seemingly forgetting that Romulus (one of the mythical founders of Rome) had welcomed slaves into his original settlement on the Palatine Hill – could therefore despise the plebs as ‘foreigners’ of servile ancestry.

Violence

In the eyes of the elite, the urban plebs were little better than barbarians. They were often perceived as being irrational and violent. Writing in his third Satire, Juvenal pictured an encounter with a drunken plebeian bully as being a particularly unpleasant experience. “Where have you sprung from?” the plebeian was imagined to have said. “What a stench of beans and sour wine! I know your sort, you have been with some cobbler friend, eating a boiled sheep`s head and spring onions. What? Nothing to say? Speak up, or I will kick your teeth in!”

Ironically enough, the elite were no strangers to inflicting physical violence – although, of course, they had to maintain their dignitas at all cost. The father of the imperial physician Galen once advised his friends not to punch their servants in the mouth – not because it might cause pain or humiliation to the servant, but because of the risk posed to the owner. You might cut your knuckles on the servant’s teeth, he warned, or (far worse) you might give way to irrational anger and lose self-control. What a good owner should do is send for a stick that could be used to thrash the offending servant in a calm and controlled manner. Even while dishing out a beating, the elite must retain their dignity.

Galen of Pergamon addresses a crowd of people while stood next to the skeleton of a small mammal
An engraving depicting the Roman physician Galen during an anatomy demonstration in Rome, Italy, c162 AD. Galen’s father once advised his friends not to punch their servants in the mouth – to avoid hurting their own knuckles. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

The loathing which the elite felt for the plebeians was returned. When the emperor Maximinus Thrax persecuted the elite for their wealth (he required their money to pay for a war in the north) the plebeians had little sympathy. The contemporary historian Herodian described the reaction as follows: “Disasters that occur to those who are apparently fortunate and rich do not concern the common people and sometimes even cause pleasure to certain worthless, malicious individuals, because they envy the powerful and prosperous.”

Rebellion

As an individual, a plebeian could indulge in little resistance to the elite beyond gossip, or listening to the utopian rantings of a Cynic (a philosopher who rejected the traditional social norms by, among other things, castigating the wealthy in public). As a mob, however, the plebeians could make their voices heard. Food shortages were one of the most common reasons for rioting. In provincial towns, rioters would target the governor or local elite with their attacks (which usually took the form of arson or stoning).

In the city of Rome, angry mobs would be tackled head-on by the Praetorian Guard, the bodyguard of the emperors, and other military units. In AD 238, the Year of the Six Emperors, much of Rome was burned down during fighting between the plebs and the soldiers. Herodian, working as a civil servant, tells us that both sides took advantage of the chaos to turn on the elite: “The entire possessions of some rich men were looted by criminals and the lower class, who mixed with the soldiers in order to accomplish just this.”

Sexual exploitation

The perceived servile origins of the plebs contributed to their sexual degradation by those above them. For elite men, whose households were stocked with slaves of both sexes, the boundaries of coercion and rape were blurred. “Every master has full authority to use his slave as he might wish,” said the philosopher Musonius Rufus.

In the sexuality of the Roman elite man, it mattered little if one preferred to have sex with men or women. The pleasure to be derived from each was debated in literature, and presumably in conversation. Some men tended to stick to one or the other, but many enjoyed both. ‘Homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ were not categories by which contemporaries defined themselves.

An ancient Roman painting showing a man and woman during the act of sex.
One of the many paintings discovered in the house of a wealthy resident of Pompeii, preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. While the gender of the partner during sex did not matter to the Roman elite, the question of who was ‘active’ or ‘passive’ during the act was “vitally important”, says Harry Sidebottom. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

While the gender of the partner did not matter, the question of who was ‘active’ or ‘passive’ during the act was vitally important. The former was acceptable for a man, and was considered ‘manly’, no matter the gender of the partner. The latter, on the other hand, was ‘effeminate’: it ‘unmanned’ a man, and left his reputation tainted for life.

Because plebeian men who had previously been slaves had been available for sexual exploitation by their owners, they were already considered ‘degraded’ and it was therefore ‘natural’ for them to be ‘passive’ during sex. As the Roman rhetorician Seneca the Elder put it: “shameful sexual behaviour” – which for men means being the passive recipient of sexual activity – was “criminal in a freeborn person, a necessity in a slave, and a duty in an ex-slave”.

It was socially unacceptable for an elite male to have active sex with another man of his own class, or with their womenfolk (except, of course, his own wife). The plebs, however, were not protected by any such social restraints, and poverty induced many of them – both male and female – to work as prostitutes.

Religious intolerance

In the eyes of the elite, the urban plebs of Rome worshipped strange gods, and were prey to numberless outlandish superstitions. If they stubbed a toe or slipped, heard the caw of a crow or the squeak of a mouse, saw a roof tile fall, or met a monkey or a eunuch [a male who has been castrated], it was considered bad luck. In the marketplace, they consulted illiterate dream diviners, astrologers, and, among other charlatans, those who – intriguingly – foretold the future by using an unknown method involving cheese.

It has been suggested that some Egyptians moved into the Subura, a notorious area in the city of Rome, to be close to the temple of the goddess Isis on the Campus Martius. Shaven-headed and bare chested, the priests of Isis stood out. At times they wore the dog-faced mask of Anubis, the Ancient Egyptian god of the dead. Juvenal cast a jaundiced eye on the ‘otherness’ of the Egyptians, including their tendency to violence and odd dietary prohibitions: they avoided onions, leeks, as well as lamb and mutton.

Most degraded of all were the Christians, who were considered ‘atheists’ as they denied the existence of all divinities except their own crucified god (called either Chrestus or Christ). The Christians often gathered for secret ceremonies in the dark, and this encouraged lurid speculation about their activities. Rumour had it that they met in a room with a dog tied to a lampstand; when a piece of meat was thrown in to the room, the dog would pull over the lamp and plunge the room into darkness – thereby allowing the Christians to indulge in indiscriminate and supposedly incestuous couplings. In reality, as an illegal cult, the Christians were likely meeting before dawn or after dusk to avoid the eyes of their pagan neighbours who might denounce them to the authorities.

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Harry Sidebottom is a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Oxford. His latest book The Last Hour is out now, published by Zaffre.