Peeps at Ancient Rome - Jamse Baikie

The Town House and the City

The town house of our friend Publius Synistor is a much more elaborate affair than the little country villa at Pompeii. Of course it is by no means a great mansion, like some of the houses in the neighbourhood. Cicero's house on the Palatine cost him 30,000, and Cicero was not a grandee, but only a successful advocate. There are some houses not far away which have cost sums from 100,000 up to half a million. All the same, though Publius is a prudent man who makes no pretense of splendour, he has a good average specimen of a comfortable gentleman's house, and we shall get quite a fair idea of the Roman home when he shows us through it.

[Note: The house described is really that known as the House of Pansa at Pompeii. It may be taken as fairly representative of the dwelling of a moderately well-to-do Roman.]

The building covers a whole street-block, or "island," as the Romans call it; but that does not mean that Publius himself occupies the whole. The average Roman does not mind so much about the outside of his house, so long as the inside pleases him, and Publius has planned his house so that the frontage and the two sides are divided into little shops, which are let to various tenants, and bring him in a good round sum every year. We knock at a door between two of these shops, and after we have waited a moment in the narrow vestibule till the porter has taken a glance at us through his spy-hole in one of the door-posts, the leaves of the door slide back in their groove and we enter the inner hall, stepping across a threshold inscribed with the word "Salve!" (Welcome) in mosaic.

This inner hall leads us to what in old Republican days was the chief room of every Roman house. We have a greater variety of rooms now, but the "atrium," as it is called, still keeps a kind of official position in the house. It is a large oblong room, lit only from the centre of the roof, where there is a square opening, which admits light, fresh air, and all the rain that is going. Beneath this roof-window lies an open tank bordered with coloured marbles, into which the rain from the house roof pours through terra-cotta spouts—a picturesque and cool arrangement, but decidedly damp and unwholesome, especially in rainy weather. The floor is laid with mosaic pavement, and the walls are painted with a crimson dado, and with frescoes of landscape and legend. Near the tank stand the images of the household gods, and a little altar, consecrated to them, which is supposed to typify the hospitable hearth of the house. Round the atrium are grouped six bedrooms, small and stuffy, like most Roman sleeping-rooms.

Arch of Titus


At the far end of the atrium heavy curtains are hung from a row of four pillars. Drawing the central curtain aside, we enter a small room, gorgeously decorated with paintings and floored with beautiful mosaic. It is the room where all the family records are kept, and its sumptuousness shows the importance which a Roman household attached to its history. On the left side of this sacred chamber is the little library of the master of the house, with a cabinet of antique gems and coins in which he takes great pride; on the right, beyond a lobby, lies a small breakfast-room.

The lobby leads us out into a beautiful open court. Round the four sides of it runs a broad shady veranda, up whose pillars climbing plants twine their tendrils; and several other bedrooms open on this gallery. In the centre of the court, and embowered in flowering shrubs, lies the basin of a fountain which sends its jet of clear water from the Sabine hills high into the sunlight. One or two graceful statues rise among the greenery around the fountain, and altogether, the shade, the coolness, and the pleasant tinkling of the falling waters make this one of the most attractive parts of the house, especially on a day of blazing sunshine.

The large dining-room, with its horseshoe table, opens off this court to the right; while on the other side of the court, behind the bedrooms, lie the kitchen and the other workrooms of the house. Last of all, we pass between the pillars at the back of the court into the garden, which is laid out in formal beds, gay with colour, and backed by a handsome colonnade, in the centre of which stands a kind of summer lounge, where meals are often brought when the fine weather tempts one to live out of doors.

Such is the house where we shall live for a while in Rome, and you may take it as a fair specimen of the home of a good, well-to-do Roman citizen of the upper middle-class. On the whole, while it has a good deal of dignity, the luxurious folks of later ages might object that it inclined to be chilly and draughty, and altogether lacking in the coziness that really makes a house home; but the Roman citizen has never been accustomed to anything else, and finds no fault with arrangements that would make moderns shudder. What would a lady think to be told that, in the midst of all her splendid frescoes and mosaics, poor Maxima has not even a scrap of looking-glass to dress her back hair by! The polished silver thing that she calls a mirror is exquisitely embossed and chased, it is true, but for any toilet purpose it is a mere scorn and derision.

You must not think, however, that all these lords of the earth, the free Roman citizens, are housed as well as the good Publius. There are something like 45,000 tenement blocks in Rome—huge four and five story abominations, the upper stories often built of wood, and therefore continually in danger of catching fire. Away down on the low flats by the Tiber, damp and fever-haunted, or in the Suburra just below our feet, street after street, narrow, winding, filthy, consists of nothing but these hateful warrens, in which thousands of human beings are crowded together under conditions that make health impossible and cleanliness and decency mere fantastic dreams. There is a very seamy side to the grandeur of Imperial Rome, as a five minutes' stroll through the Suburra will quickly show you. Perhaps in that respect Rome is no worse than other great cities. Thebes and Babylon no doubt could match her; and if ever, in far-off misty Britain, there should rise (impossible fancy as it seems) a city as great as Rome, there will be the same mixture there of splendour and squalor, velvet and rags, marble and mud.

Anyhow, there is no question of Rome's splendour wherever she makes up her mind to be splendid. You will get an instance of that as we take a morning stroll through the city. We saunter down from the Esquiline towards the outer wall by the Via Labicana, and here, almost at the very start of our walk, is a building that strikes one with admiration. A noble front, encrusted with costly marbles, spacious halls and waiting-rooms, floored with mosaic, surrounded with statues of emperors and heroes, walls covered with brilliant frescoes, and at the side a small but gorgeous temple of Jupiter—what can it be? It is the headquarters of Battalion No. II. of the City Police and Fire Brigade! Rome has seven battalions of these magnificently lodged gentry, each with its own fine establishment; and if you think this fine, you should see Main Headquarters, where the 1st Battalion and the Central Administration are housed!

Talking of the police and fire brigade reminds one of the work they have to do. They may be handsomely lodged, but in Rome, as elsewhere, and perhaps even more in Rome than elsewhere, a policeman's lot is not a happy one." To tell you the truth, the force is not popular in the Eternal City. The Prefect of Police may be a very mighty man, and, indeed, he usually advances from his post to be Governor of Egypt, and then Prefect of the Praetorium, which is the highest honour open to a Roman knight; but that does not hinder the unwashed multitude from jeering at him and his watchmen, and calling "Tar-bucket!" after them as they go down the street. The reason for this vulgar nickname is that each fireman, when called out on duty, carries, along with his pick and axe, a water-bucket woven of wicker-work, and made water-tight by being smeared with tar.

As firemen, the "tar-buckets" have never any lack of work. Rome is continually burning, in some quarter or another. It is only a matter of six years since the great fire of Nero's day swept away two-thirds of the whole city, and there are huge blackened spaces still to show where the fire was worst. But every now and then there is a big blaze somewhere in the town, and smaller fires occur almost every day. Sometimes they occur so conveniently for their owners that unkind neighbours smile behind their hands when the burnt-out householder talks about his losses. There are no insurance companies, but if you go about the thing neatly, and have made yourself useful in your neighbourhood, your friends will subscribe enough to give you a better house than the one you have lost. Look at this smart new house, for instance. It belongs to a rather shady gentleman named Tongilianus, and it cost him, or rather the friends out of whom he squeezed the money, 10,000 sesterces. The house that he used to live in, before the ever-to-be-lamented fire which obliged him to build this new one, cost 200! Misfortune, you see, is sometimes a blessing in disguise.

But besides their duties as firemen, the police have a big, and indeed an almost hopeless task, as guardians of the public safety. Rome is a huge city; it has the usual proportion of rascals in its vast population; perhaps it has even more than the usual proportion, being, as it is, the centre of the whole world. And there is one circumstance that makes it very difficult to preserve order, and to keep the streets safe. Perhaps someday in the far-off future a great genius will arise who will invent some method of lighting the streets at night, but at present there is no sign of him. Rome has not so much as one solitary public lamp in all her miles of crowded streets. Imagine a city of, shall we say, a million and a half of people, ranging from the greatest wealth to the most desperate poverty, without one spark of light to guide the wayfarer! He may carry his own light, of course—a smoking, dripping torch, or a miserable apology for a lantern, with a bronze frame and horn sides, but such makeshifts only make darkness visible.

The result is that, whenever the evening shadows begin to fall, all shops are shut and bolted, and the dark and gloomy streets present a very suspicious and sinister appearance. If you go abroad much after sunset, you go at your own risk, and you had better go well armed and with a guard of your own slaves; for cut-throats and pickpockets abound. Many a man who set out in the dark, merely to go from one street to another, has made a much longer journey than that, and has been fished out of the Tiber half-way to Ostia next morning. Nor is this the only danger. A couple of slaves and a torch may protect you against the thieves, but if you happen to meet a gang of young bloods of the upper class coming home from a supper-party where the wine has got above the wit, you had better take to your heels, for it is not a couple of slaves who will protect you! Only the other night one of Publius's neighbours, a most respectable man, was set upon by a party of these drunken rowdies, youths of consular and knightly families, and was insulted, beaten, stripped, and left lying senseless on the ground, so that he was nearly frozen to death when the police found him in the morning. Of course the "vigiles" do their best, but the task is quite beyond them, and nothing but light, and plenty of it, will ever make the streets of Rome safe.

Roman Forum


But we have spent enough time over the police and the rascals of Rome, and we turn city-wards again. We pass along the road between the Esquiline and Caelian hills, to where the builders are working on the site of the Flavian Amphitheatre, and then turn southwards between the Caelian and the Palatine and pass the Circus Maximus, the huge enclosure where the chariot-races take place. That house just overlooking the Circus was made part of the Imperial Palace by the Emperor Caligula, who was so fond of chariot-racing and jockeys that he wanted to live as near the race-course as possible. Now it has been turned into a school for the pages of the Court, and you can see some of the young aristocrats at their games. They seem very much like other schoolboys, after all. See, some of them have been scribbling on the walls: "Corinthus is leaving school!" "Marianus Afer is leaving school!" What became of Corinthus and Marianus Afer in the big world, I wonder? One young rascal has a taste for art, it seems. Here is his drawing—a donkey turning a mill; and what is this he has written underneath?" Work, little ass, as I have worked myself, and you shall have your reward." Boys will be boys, even though their school stands where a Roman Emperor dwelt, and bears the awe-inspiring name of the Paedagogium.

Now we turn to the right up the Vicus Tuscus towards the Forum Romanum, the centre of the city's life. As we pass along the street we meet a constant stream of wayfarers, while an equally constant stream flows in the same direction as that in which we are going. Here is a senator, looking down with supreme contempt on the plebeian crowd, as he passes in his litter, borne high on the shoulders of his slaves, towards the Forum. Behind him follows a perfect crowd of his retainers and hangers-on, who live on the pickings that he flings to them, and shout for him in public, and do all his dirty work in private.

Here comes another litter, more gorgeous still. In old times it would have been closed, for a Roman matron of the great days of the Republic kept herself very much to herself. It was her glory that she "stayed at home and spun wool," and when she was obliged to go abroad she went as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. But times are changed, and the Roman ladies go everywhere, have a voice in every question and a finger in every mischief, and pride themselves on drawing the gaze of every eye when they parade their splendours through the city. So Julia, or Sempronia, or whoever she may be, sits unabashed in her open litter, her arms and fingers glittering with gold and jewels, her very sandals flashing with precious stones, the picture of insolent pride. I wonder how many blows and tears that magnificent toilet of hers, and that miraculous piece of hair-dressing that crowns her head, cost her poor slaves this morning. For a proud Roman dame would never deign to exchange words with such cattle as her slaves; a sign with the finger is the utmost condescension by which she will reveal her will, and if she is misunderstood, the lash is the least reward for the poor waiting-woman's blunder.

Take care how you tread, for this street is absolutely the worst paved way in Rome. The contract for it was given to Verres, that rascal whom Cicero prosecuted for his cruelty and swindling in Sicily; and he cheated the city over it, as he always did. In fact, it is so bad that Verres himself never would walk over it, but always preferred to go round by another way. Look at that fellow going past swathed in a long white robe of the finest Egyptian linen. The shaven head, the thin bronzed features, and the furtive look tell you that he is a priest of Isis, the great Egyptian goddess whose worship has become so popular in Rome of late. The priests of Isis are men to be on your guard against, for all the superstition and wickedness of Rome have drawn to this strange Oriental faith, and if there is any mischief stirring in the city, it will be strange if you do not find a priest of Isis at the centre of it.

But now we have reached the Forum. Look around well, for nowhere in the world will you see so much splendour and wealth. On your right hand, as we pass into the corner of the Forum, stands the temple of Castor and Pollux, built on the very site of the spring where the great Twin Brethren watered their horses as they rode in with the news of the victory at Lake Regillus. Splendid as it is, however, it is completely dwarfed by the huge building on the left. This is the great Court-House, the Basilica Julia, begun by Julius Caesar and completed by Augustus. If you can squeeze in through the crowd (for a famous case is being heard), you will see the eighty judges seated on the bench, all the most famous lawyers of the Empire arrayed on either side beneath, for prosecution or defense, and the vast hall and galleries packed almost to suffocation with interested spectators.

Close beside you, as you stand between the Temple of the Twins and the Basilica, is the spot where one of the darkest tragedies of Roman history befell. Here, in early days, stood a line of butcher's stalls, and it was from one of these stalls that Virginius snatched the knife wherewith he struck his fair young daughter Virginia to the heart, when nothing else could save her from slavery and shame. On your left hand, enclosed by a marble balustrade, is another spot sacred in the ancient traditions of Rome. For it is written that in the days of old a great chasm opened in the midst of the Forum, and could by no means be filled up; and when the counsel of the gods was sought, answer was given that the chasm would never close until what was most precious in Rome was cast into it. Then some were for throwing one rich treasure, and some another, into the gulf, but all to no avail; when at last Marcus Curtius, a noble Roman youth, dressed himself in full armour, mounted his charger, and crying that the most precious thing in Rome was the life of its youth, spurred his steed across the Forum and leaped, horse and man, into the dark abyss. And forthwith the gulf closed, and great awe fell upon all who beheld, and the place is held sacred even unto this day.

Turn now to your left and look towards the western end of the Forum, past the Lacus Curtius, as it is called, and the great pillars that adorn the square. Behind all, and closing the view to the west, towers the Capitoline hill, bearing on its southern spur a group of splendid buildings, the Temple of Concord, the Temple of our new Emperor Vespasian, the Portico of the Twelve Gods, the solid masonry of the Public Record Office, and, dominating and crowning everything, the superb Temple of Jupiter of the Capitol, the Father-God of Rome. There, on the northern spur of the hill, is the ancient citadel of Rome, and beside it the Temple of Juno Moneta, where the coinage is struck, and whence the word Mint shall be used henceforth as the name of all such places. On the gloomy rock face of this spur is the Tullianum, the horrible prison where offenders against the State languish out their lives, or die swift and violent deaths.

Beneath the Capitoline, and just behind the Forum, stands the beautiful Temple of Saturn. And here, right across the western end of the square, runs a marble balustrade and terrace, decorated along its face with the brazen beaks of captured galleys. This platform is the famous Rostra, from which the leaders of Rome address the gatherings of the people in time of stress and excitement. Many a time the Forum has rung with the winged words spoken by men like Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, or later by Cicero and his rival orator Hortensius, from this famous terrace. Nor has it been without its tragedies, as well as its triumphs of oratory. Here were exposed the severed heads of the victims in those mad welters of bloodshed that marked the successive supremacies of Marius and Sulla, and here the head and hands of Marcus Tullius Cicero, supreme of all speakers who have used the Latin tongue, were nailed, by order of his slayer, Mark Antony, to the balustrade that had echoed to his great orations. It suggests what Roman manhood and womanhood had fallen to in those days when one remembers that a soldier like Antony thus derided his fallen foe, and that Antony's wife Fulvia came forward to the Rostra, looked scornfully upon the dead face, and then, drawing a golden hairpin from her headdress, thrust it through the tongue that had once been so eloquent in the cause of Rome.

At the south end of the Rostra stands an inconspicuous stone, which yet has its own interest; for this is the Golden Milestone, and from it all the roads of the world are measured. The curious column at the other end of the terrace is an old and famous memorial. It is the Duilian Column, erected to commemorate the great victory won by our old friend Gaius Duilius (him who was always to be accompanied by flute-players) over the Carthaginian fleet at Mylae and these ugly monsters projecting from it are the rams of the Carthaginian galleys captured in that great victory.

Glance now along the north side of the Forum before we turn homewards again. Standing back a little from the open square is the Senate House. It has no very special interest, for it is comparatively new—at least, it is only 120 years old. The famous old building which had heard all the debates and witnessed all the triumphs and tragedies of 500 years, which had seen all heads bowed when the news of the dreadful slaughter of Cannae arrived, and had echoed to the shouts of joy that hailed the victory of Zama, was burned in 52 B.C. during a riot which rose over the funeral of that most abandoned scamp, Publius Clodius. Apart from its memories, the old building had not much to commend it. It was the chilliest place in Rome, for even in mid-winter there was no means of heating it, and the stately senators sat and shivered, with chattering teeth and red noses, no matter how warm the debate might wax. On one bitter January day in Cicero's time, the cold was so unbearable that the Speaker had to dismiss the Senate, and it is sad to have to tell that the vulgar crowd in the Forum, instead of sympathizing with the chilly legislators, laughed and jeered at their blue pinched faces and shaking hands. The new building is more comfortable than the old, but the glory has departed, though the comfort has increased. Nobody cares now what the Senate may say or do.

In front of the Senate House lies a slab of black marble, guarded by two lion-crowned piers, and fronted by an altar. The famous "Black Stone" of Rome is one of its most sacred relics, for here, as our fathers have told us, lie that which was mortal of Romulus, who founded the city, since that day when he himself was translated to heaven, and became one with the gods. East of the Senate House is the little Temple of Janus, the two-faced god, whose gates may never be shut save when Rome is at peace with all the world. Beyond it runs the Argiletum, the booksellers' street of Rome, where all the book-fanciers come to buy the costly rolls of parchment that make libraries the luxury of the few and wealthy. Another stately Court-House, the Basilica Aemilia, completes the circuit of the Forum.

Perhaps we have seen enough for one day. At all events, we have been at the heart of Rome, and we have seen more splendours crowded and heaped together than we are ever likely to see in any other spot of equal size in all the world. Besides, if we are to see the Triumph of Vespasian and Titus, which will take place in a few days, we need not weary ourselves out beforehand with sight-seeing. So we leave the Forum, with all its memories of glory and disaster, heroism and shame, and, passing along the Sacred Way, we stroll eastwards home to the house of Publius on the Esquiline.