Romans: Daily Life

The daily experiences of most people in Britain were eventually touched by its incorporation into the Roman Empire. For the majority of the population, however, who lived in the countryside, life continued to centre upon the enclosed world of the homestead and the grind of agricultural labour.

The excavated remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Chester

The excavated remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Chester

URBAN LIVING

The single biggest change from pre-Roman times was the development of towns. Almost every family in the province was in some way involved in civic life – even if it was only through occasional visits to a town to pay taxes.

The growth of towns opened up new markets for goods and produce from the country, which could be sold in the forum and basilica complex that lay at the centre of every town. Here people could watch the progress of court cases conducted on behalf of leading citizens according to an entirely new legal system. They could also hear proclamations read, and follow the discussions of the town council.

A morning’s work might be followed by a visit to the public baths (the remains of those at Wroxeter, Shropshire, are particularly outstanding). In these great buildings a wide range of people engaged in that essentially Roman habit of mixing exercise, gossip and steam bathing.

Smaller private bathing establishments were provided at official guesthouses, mansiones, such as the one seen at Wall, Staffordshire, and at country villas such as Lullingstone, Kent.

Oil lamp

A 2nd-century oil lamp discovered at Richborough Roman Fort, Kent. Excavations have revealed a series of shops in this Roman town, one of which appears to have sold lamps like this one.

GARRISON LIFE

The soldiers in the legionary bases and the remote frontier forts of the north enjoyed a private life outside military routine. Although (before AD 200) soldiers’ marriages were not legally recognised, many did get married, either to native women or to the daughters of their fellow soldiers or civilians stationed at their fort.

The shops and taverns of the fort’s civilian settlement (the vicus) offered limitless opportunities for recreation and a dizzying cocktail of Roman and more local tastes. Locally brewed beer rather than wine was the soldiers’ tipple, according to the Vindolanda tablets.

Soldiers also had their own bathhouses. At Chesters, on Hadrian’s Wall, the changing room would have been big enough for athletic games.

A corn measure used for soldiers' rations

This bronze ‘modius’ (grain measure), now on display at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, may have been used to measure out weekly rations of corn for soldiers.

GAMES AND SHOWS

The amphitheatres designed for other preoccupations of the Roman Empire – games, gladiatorial contests and wild animal shows – are still visible at towns such as Cirencester (Gloucestershire), Chester, and Silchester (Hampshire), and at military sites such as Richborough, Kent. We understand very little about how they were used, although depictions of gladiators have been found in both military and civil contexts. It has been estimated that the Silchester amphitheatre had seats for over 4,500 townspeople.

Gaming board with counters and dice

A gaming board found at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, complete with pottery counters and dice containers. Gambling was an immensely popular pastime, satirised by the Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote: ‘Men come not now with purses to the hazard of the gaming table, but with a treasure chest beside them.’

RECREATION

After a busy day in the town, the less well-off returned to their shops and houses or villages in the countryside. The aristocrats of the town council might retire to town houses or to their country villas – in both cases buildings made up of rectangular rooms in the Roman fashion – to enjoy the benefits of underfloor hypocaust heating, or to dine with friends in a formal dining room ( triclinium).

Life was similar for the commanders of military units: the commandant’s house (the praetorium) of every fort was modelled on a Mediterranean town house. Both villa dwellers and military commanders enjoyed hunting, an activity depicted on domestic items such as pottery, mosaics and an intaglio found near Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall.

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