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The dangerous streets of ancient Rome

The dangerous streets of ancient Rome

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.