Towns, Cities, and Political Life in Roman Society

TOWNS, CITIES, AND POLITICAL LIFE IN ROMAN SOCIETY

TOWNS, CITIES, AND POLITICAL LIFE IN ROMAN SOCIETY

To the ancient Romans, civilized life was essentially the life of the cities. The importance of the countryside was always recognized, but usually in terms of a larder to supply the towns and cities, or as an occasional refuge from the pressures of urban life. It was in the cities, with their concentration of busy humanity, resources, and amenities, that the good life was to be lived; so great was the drift of population from the productive countryside to the often idle life of the town that the trend was to cause serious economic problems in the later Empire. Special privileges were for centuries enjoyed by the citizens of the city of Rome, who were entitled to the material benefit of the early Empire’s success in the form of free allocations of food, requisitioned from subject provinces. Eventually, however, the special status of Rome was reduced.

Rome itself was the model for all cities. Under the Republican constitution, power was vested in two elected consuls (though their appointment was later to become a prerogative of the emperor). While they remained in the city, they had enormous civil power, all other magistrates except the plebeian tribunes being under their control. In practice, the consuls became increasingly preoccupied with the direction of interminable foreign wars. The internal affairs of Rome, including the provision of police and fire brigade, the supervision of markets, aqueducts, and drains, and the administration of the courts, were controlled by a complex hierarchy of magistrates, including praetors, quaestors, censors, and aediles. The most venerable body in the constitution of Rome was the Senate, an assembly of citizens that, though without the power to make new laws, was responsible for foreign affairs, the public revenue, and the administration of the state religion.

Roman towns were planned, usually around a central forum, or market place; the straight streets were laid out in a grid pattern of right angles, within which private and public buildings were mingled. Urban housing ran the full gamut from luxury to squalor, the town houses of the rich representing great comfort and, often, considerable artistic taste. The best-known, and best-preserved, examples are at Pompeii in the Bay of Naples, where the typical upper-class house consisted of many rooms, usually arranged around an atrium, a hall or court that was open to the sky. Internal walls were decorated with colourful frescos and mosaic pavements decorated the floors of important rooms. Some houses had private bath-suites attached to them; these and some other rooms were heated by the underfloor hypocaust system. Gardens tended to be formal, with beds and hedges geometrically arranged, and much use was made of statuary and other ornament (see History of Gardening).

Towns, Cities, and Political Life in Roman Society
Towns, Cities, and Political Life in Roman Society

Lower in society, housing was much meaner, but less is known of the dwellings of the poor than of the grand residences of the rich. Much of a Roman town was occupied by small shops and workshops, with the family living on the premises (often at the rear of the shop): these houses were simple, and probably possessed few amenities. Many Roman townspeople (and probably most of the poorest classes), however, lived in tenements in large blocks that were built and owned as investments by speculative landlords. Life in these apartments was often squalid and overcrowded; buildings were often unsafe, and fire a constant hazard.

The glories of the Roman towns were their public buildings, which were built with funds raised from taxation, or obtained through subscription or, often, erected as the gifts of particularly prominent or wealthy citizens. Often monumental in scale, many of these buildings survive in every part of the empire and are still impressive 2,000 years after being built. The Forum (market place) in Rome, surrounded by the Seven Hills, was the heart of the city, being the centre of government, religion, commerce, and civic life. Among the buildings and monuments that it contained were the Senate House and Comitium (where assemblies were held), statues, altars, arches, and other monuments, including Trajan’s Column. This nucleus was bordered by shops. Beyond stood other public buildings, among them the Colosseum, the Pantheon, public baths (the most notable of which are the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian), triumphal arches, and other monuments to Roman military prowess.

So important were the civic amenities of town life that newly founded towns in territories recently conquered were quickly supplied with temples, baths, theatres, and fora (market places) to encourage the rapid adoption of Roman life. A reasonably prosperous town would be embellished with statues, fountains, and memorials. Major important public buildings would include temples and shrines (dedicated to a variety of local cults as well as to the gods of the official Roman pantheon); aqueducts and bathhouses; a theatre and amphitheatre; and the official courtrooms and council chambers along the sides of the forum. Libraries, colleges, and schools were found in many towns: the emperor Augustus established a great university in Bibracte (in central Gaul) to overshadow a traditional native seat of learning and to act as a focus for the Romanization of this newly acquired region.

Not all Roman towns were of the same status. Rome was the centre of the world, towards which all Romans looked (though in time it was to become less important than Constantinople). Below this was a series of coloniae (colonies): these cities had in early times a special status, for all of their inhabitants were Roman citizens. During the period of the rapid expansion of the Roman world, coloniae were conceived as small copies of Rome itself. Other towns and cities were provincial or regional capitals, or simply part of the extensive network of market towns, or municipiae. All were governed by councils elected from the local population.