Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

Main Page This family-friendly site celebrates Italian culture for the enjoyment of children and adults. Site-Overview



How people lived in Italy during Roman times, and today









Monty Python's 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' scene from the movie Life of Brian below

Roman Society

Average Free Citizen

Poverty and Slavery

Wealthy Romans

Today in Italy

City Living

Countryside Living

Modern "Slavery"

Costs of Modern Life



Books About Ancient Roman Life

Roman Reproductions


Some great external links below

Video of Ancient City of Rome below

This is a model of a Roman era apartment block ('insula').  Click on the image to read what it was like to live in one.  



The ground floor ruins of Roman era apartment blocks ('insulae').  You'll note that the distance between them, forming the street, was very narrow.  Most streets in Ancient Rome were just alleyways.  There were only a few avenues (via - viae) that could allow for two lanes of wagon traffic.  There were many streets that allow one wagon, but most streets were for pedestrians only.  At a certain point, there was a law that carts and wagons could use the streets only after nightfall, so there was less street traffic during the day.

To learn more on your own, try the History For Kids site, and the Daily Life in Ancient Rome site.




This is a reproduction of what the front of a typical two-story 'domus' would have looked like.  Some had shops in the front.  The entrance is in the middle looking into the Atrium.  If a family gained in wealth, they would often add another storey to the house.




Click on the image of the Atrium (entry room with shallow pool to collect rain water) of a Roman 'domus' to visit a wonderful clickable Roman home to learn more about the 'domus'.




Wealthy citizens could decorate their bedrooms ('cubiculae' from which we get the word cubicle, which was the usual size of a Roman bedroom) elaborately as in the image above, but normally the bedroom was small and decorated with painted walls and simple furniture.  Guests were treated to the fancier public rooms.  To read more, click on the image above.




This is a reproduction of a Roman-era kitchen in a 'domus'.  It was generally a room only frequented by the slaves, so it was small, dark and poorly ventilated.  There would have been an oven and the oven embers would be set under the burners to make a stove top cooker.  




A countryside villa outside Pompeii is a museum with a detailed website.    Visit my Pompeii Page.




This is a mural found in Pompeii of a countryside villa, looking from the garden to the colonnade, as in the restored villa garden, one image up.  Visit my Pompeii Page.




This image is of the entranceway to a villa in Pompeii.  Click on the image to go to a clickable map of the site, that allows you to view images of site without having to go to Pompeii.  And visit my Pompeii Page.




Wall painting from a 'Palazzo'.




Floor mosaic from a 'Palazzo'.




This beautiful wall painting is from a home in Pompeii.  To view two pages of Pompeii images, click on the image above.  


























Modern day Italian 'Palazzi', now divided into condominiums and apartments.  




Modern Italian life with apartment blocks, ground floor shops, no garages and lots of cars.




This is a countryside villa from the 1500's, built in the Roman style and to a Roman plan, restored as a tourist rental property.




This is an aerial view of the same property showing part of the estate surrounding it, and the courtyard within.




Today, Italy is famous for designing and manufacturing sleek, efficient, modern kitchens, a far cry from Roman times. 

The one above is by Scavolini, the top selling kitchen maker in Italy.  Two other Italian kitchen designers are Torchetti, Novalinea




Monty Python's famous 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' scene from the film Life of Brian, about a man mistaken for the Messiah throughout his sad life.



Visit my Marcus Aurelius's Meditations page

Visit my Ancient Roman History page

Mysteries set in Ancient Rome page














A site visitor, Theresa Caruso, has written an article about the history of the Roman Colosseum for the holiday accommodation site

Open, from my site, the PDF of a classic textbook about Ancient Rome and save it to your PC. Or right-click on the link and Save Link As to your PC without opening the book.

Or for an online, concise history of Ancient Rome, visit this educational site.

This digital map of the ancient city of Rome will help keep your characters whereabouts clear.

To see how the characters would have travelled around the Roman empire, check out this ancient Roman route-planner.


A beautiful video tour of ancient Rome, which brings the place alive.  It is made by the Rome Reborn Project.


Homeschooler Heather Ventura's Ancient Rome Links


Roman Society

Roman society consisted of the few very rich persons, and a vast poor population, and the still vaster slave population that is estimated to have been almost equal to the free population, and at times even more.  So it is fair to say that during Roman times, the average person in Rome was poor. 

The society was famously sadistic.  It was an institutionalized sadism, or a sadism that society embraced as "normal", and actually encouraged.  Slavery, torture, horrific capital punishment, and mutilations were seen not just as punishment, but encouraged as entertainment.  Blood sports bred the sadistic perversion in most members of society.  It was only when Christianity grew in followers, that Roman society grew less sadistic. 


Average Free Citizen

The average free citizen lived in an apartment in an apartment block of up to five stories high (insula).  Any higher, and the stone and mortar would collapse from the weight of the structure.  Workshops and the homes of the artisans and their slaves occupied the ground floor level.  

Early versions of these buildings were made of wood.  And to the brick and mortar buildings, often wooden extensions were added on to the tops to provide more living space. But they were prone to fire and collapse, so they were discouraged by the local authorities.

Apartments would often consist of only one room inhabited by an entire family.  The floors and walls were normally unfinished and undecorated.  Generally the conditions were unsanitary, noisy, smelly an unsafe.  A curtain would cover the doorway.  Sometimes a guardian would monitor the hallway during the day to stop theft.

There was no running water or indoor plumbing in these apartment blocks, except on the ground floor, which was too expensive for the poor to own or rent.  Water had to be carried up in buckets.  And usually a pot on the floor was used as a toilet, and then the contents dumped from the open window, that had no glass and usually only shutters or a curtain.  Most people used the public lavatories and baths.

They did not have access to kitchens, and cooking in the apartments was frowned upon because of the fire risk, and smoke that would fill the building.  So they lived on prepared food bought from tavernae (pubs), or something like today's trattorie in Italy where many prepared items could be ordered, wrapped up and taken home, or eaten in the street.


Poverty and Slavery

To keep the many poor of ancient Rome happy, the authorities of the Republic tried to provide the famous 'bread and circuses', or food and entertainment.  So in the capital, at least, monthly giveaways of bread or grain were common, but only for freemen.  But normally, grain was purchased and brought to a baker who then ground it and baked the bread for the customer. 

Later during the Empire, more food assistance programs were instituted to fend off starvation, which was a real problem as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.  The food giveaways (annona) were regulated by issuing tokens (tesserae) for grain or bread, oil, other foods, and occasionally meat.  A school free lunch program (alimenta) was also instituted.  

Slaves lived wherever their master said and in whatever conditions the master deemed appropriate, which was usually horrible.  The fantasy of most slaves being well treated members of the family is just that, a fantasy.  In a society that disposed of unwanted babies by dumping them with the trash, charity towards slaves was not the norm.

Slaves could buy their freedom by saving up their money that they earned working jobs outside of the master's house.  A master could free a slave.  Some did so in their wills, but family members had incentive to fight those wills, as the slaves were deemed assets and of value.  Once freed, a slave could marry and receive food allowances from the state.

One interesting note on Roman living is the fact that few streets were named and addresses were not numbered.  In small towns this was little problem as one could just ask for directions from a passerby.  But just as in Japan today, to find a specific home in a Roman Italian city, you had to get a map drawn by someone that included detailed descriptions of local landmarks including notable buildings, shops, or even trees and shrubs.  


Wealthy Romans

Wealthy Romans lived in homes (domus), or villas, or palaces.  

The domus was an urban, one or two-story brick home built around an open courtyard that contained a fountain that was fed by rain water collected on the tiled roof.  The homes often had running water and indoor plumbing, and were finished with murals and mosaic floors.  The least visible rooms were the least decorated.  For example, the slaves quarters were plain.

Villas were in the countryside on the farms.  They consisted of a part for the land owner that resembled the domus, and a part for the farm workers that was less elaborate, and storage buildings for crops and animals.  

Palaces were built in the cities by the richest citizens, usually on the hillsides around the towns, so they could enjoy breezes, less noise, and more space.  They were richly finished with murals on the walls and mosaics on the floors.  They were furnished with items from all over Rome's empire.  


Today in Italy

To a large degree, these Roman living divisions still exist today in Italy, however the standards for the average citizen have risen.  The combination of capitalism and democracy (the European social-democracy variety) has created a large middle class, reduced extreme poverty, and allowed a very rich class to remain.


City Living

The limited space in Italy has ensured that the space-saving Roman apartment buildings have remained, if only converted into sturdier and cleaner buildings with glass windows to block out the still concussive noise from the busy streets and shops below.

The five story apartment blocks remain, but none are from Roman times.  Some apartments are rented, but because of strict rent control laws, most apartments are either sold as condominiums, rented to foreigners at unregulated rents, or left vacant.  In densely populated, and highly urbanized Italy, the apartment is home for most Italians.

Palazzi, or palaces are still what the grander houses in the cities are called.  Very few today are lived in by one family.  Normally they are divided up into apartments and either rented out, or sold as condominiums.  Those not divided up are often converted to museums, or owned by schools, restaurateurs, corporations, or by the town hall and used for special events.

In the city centers and in the various neighborhoods, shops occupy the ground floor spaces.  Garages are rare, and parking is scarce.  Bakeries are the only shops allowed open on Sundays, but no one brings in grain to be ground anymore.  Actually, bakeries sell yeast and flour, of various refinement and mixtures, to those few who bake at home.  

When Italians speak of home, they call it casa.  For English speakers this lacks the distinction between house and home, a distinction that I've found few Italians comprehend.  This may be because, for most Italians, their house is their home.  Most people spend their childhoods in one house, and only leave it when they marry.  


Countryside Living

Villas (ville) are what some may have in the countryside, inherited from family or purchased as a weekend retreat from the city.  Today, normally, the land changes hand separately from the building, so you can purchase or rent a renovated villa, but have limited access to the land.

Those who live in the countryside (less than 10% of the population in the highly urbanized Italy), more often than not, live in very primitive conditions in old villas.  Many of these villas lack conveniences like baths, heating and telephone connections.  

Modernizing an old villa, which seems to be a fantasy of many foreigners, can be expensive and time-consuming, as well as frustrating because of the many permits and contractors you have to contend with.  Also, many of these buildings have structural damage and damp problems that are difficult to repair.  


Modern "Slavery"

Is is interesting to note a sharp rise in foreign women hired as domestic workers in Italy.  The lack of prospects for these women in their own countries, and their isolation in Italian society, often undocumented, puts them in the category of 'modern domestic slaves'.  Cases of abuse of these women have shocked Italian society into trying to deal with this new, heart-breaking phenomenon. 

Many other illegal immigrants to Italy work as 'slaves' for organized crime syndicates selling contraband goods on the street, making contraband goods in secret factories, and prostituting themselves.  It seems each time one crime group is stopped, several more are discovered, staffed by the poverty-stricken from the former Soviet block, and from north and central Africa.  

While there is no legal slavery in Italy anymore, human nature ensures that cheap labor will always be exploited, and the worst in human nature will emerge when there is buck to be made from other people's vices.  It brings to mind the graffiti on a wall in Pompeii advertising the services of a foreign prostitute, giving directions to the brothel, and the words of a satisfied customer.  Sadly, some things never change.


Costs of Modern Life

The prices of staple goods are closely monitored in modern Italy, and some are still run as monopolies of the state, or have some state involvement.  Oddly, the two most famous ones are tobacco and salt.  'MS' is one of the best selling brands of cigarettes in Italy, and the 'MS' stands for 'Monopolio Statale' or 'State Monopoly'.  And if you want to buy salt in Italy, you have to get it at the state-licensed tobacconist.  

Since the introduction of the Euro, replacing the Lira, consumer groups have complained loudly about the quick rise in the cost of staple goods, which seem to include a cup of coffee at the local bar.  When prices were converted from Lire to Euro, many shops rounded the figure upward to get a bit extra.  

The government has repeatedly produced reports that show a rise in inflation of between 2-3 percent.  Consumer groups have just as often produced reports showing a rise of up to 10-20 percent.  The truth is somewhere in between, but the reason is not solely the rounding up of prices in Euro.  

The government has been much more successful in collecting taxes from small to medium-sized businesses in the past few years.  When their taxes go up, so do their prices to the consumer in an effort to compensate for their lost 'income'.  

While the system of government and economics has altered since Roman times, it is the industriousness of small to medium-sized Italian businesses, often run by families, that are the basis of the Italian economy.  So any change in their tax base, means ripples through the Italian economy.

This reason has not been talked about as much in the media, probably because the high rate of tax evasion is something the Italian government does not like to advertise.  



The subject of bread is still a contentious issue in Italy.  It is a daily purchase for most families, and can come to over 100 dollars/euro per month.  

Pre-sliced bread in plastic sacks, as can be found in northern Europe and in English-speaking countries, is a novelty in Italy and is sold as 'a bread that you don't have to buy every day because it can stay good up to a week'.  If you've ever eaten Italian bread fresh from the baker's oven, you will recognize 'good' as a relative term.

There is also a shortage of professional bakers in Italy, and the association has lobbied the government to allow immigration from north Africa from their very talented bakers to come directly into Italy as apprentices in Italian bakeries.  It seems local Italians don't like the early hours, hard work, and having to work on Sundays.

Recently, with the sudden and quick rise in wheat prices, some Italians have been returning to home bread baking, to save money on their daily staple.  Grandmothers are proudly turning out loaves for the family, at less than half the price charged in bakeries.

I recall an elderly Italian woman telling me about the communal bread oven in her village during WWII.  All the women would prepare their dough in the evening and let it rise overnight.  In the morning, the appointed person would stoke the communal bread oven, and put in and remove the women's loaves.  Something like a competition happened each morning to see which woman consistently had the best risen and shaped loaves.

It will be interesting to see if self-baking competitiveness returns to Italy!



So as you can see, the changes from Roman times are more in terms of degrees than in revolutionary changes.  The system of government would be the biggest difference, but oddly, the length in office of many Italian governments is not much longer than the lives in office of many of Rome's Caesars.


Books About Ancient Roman Life


If you'd like to read more about life in Ancient Rome, you can use this search tool to see what's available, what people say about the books, and what they cost.

Amazon Logo

If you'd like to learn the history in a fun way, there are many popular mystery / thriller series set in Ancient Rome.  I feature some on this page:  Mysteries Set In Ancient Rome.

   Here are some books and a DVD from the History Channel at about life in Ancient Rome.  Two are for children.



Roman Reproductions

The most complete company for Roman reproductions, of museum quality coins, jewelry, etc., is Westair.  Visit their website and have fun visiting the ancient past.


August Living brings Italy's ancient past to life with it's pewter collection.  All made in Italy, with classic patterns from antiquity, the stunning collection transports you to another time and place.  They have tableware and home decor items.  Here are just a few...


Wine Decanter


Serving Tray


Wine Decanter


The Gruppo Soratte site, run by a site visitor, offers a selection of handmade Italian products.  Their newest line is of replicas of ancient Roman pottery and statuary.



Great External Links

See artists' renderings of ancient Rome at the University of Minnesota's Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies' wonderful site.

Portal Home >

Italy Map>

Rome Start >

Imperial Rome >

Imperial Fora


The site has a broad summary of ancient Roman life and culture.  This link is to the list of topics page.

Ancient Rome Index


Currency in Ancient Roman times would seem very familiar to us today, since our coinage is based on the Roman examples.  Here are two links to articles about Roman coins.

Roman Provincial Coinage

Art Institute Chicago's Roman Coin Page


Open my PDF of a classic history of Ancient Rome textbook and save it to your PC

Or for an online, concise history of Ancient Rome, visit this educational site.

Rome Reborn 

Rome Reborn 2.2: A Tour of Ancient Rome in 320 CE from Bernard Frischer on Vimeo.