Private Life in Ancient Rome
THE profound sentiment of nationality cherished by a Roman of the best period was but the natural outgrowth and necessary complement of an equally intense and overruling sentiment of consanguinity. For him the family bond was essentially a sacred one, and the worship of the Lares, or guardian spirits of the home (often conceived as the souls of departed kindred), and of the Penates, or great gods in their relation to private and family affairs, was the most vital and heartfelt part of his religion. The family was regarded as both the germ and image of the state. To furnish the state with citizens was a man’s first duty ; to be the last of one’s line was a calamity and a curse. “Not for your own behoof alone, but for your country’s, were your children reared! ” thundered Cicero against Verres, and, himself the parent of one son and one daughter only, he envied, and landed as a public benefactor, a certain general of the Metellus family whom twenty-seven persons, including sons and daughters in law, had the right to call “ father.”
Domestic life in the early days of the Roman commonwealth, and rural domestic life down to a comparatively late period, was plain, and stern, and pure ; offering singular resemblances, in its spirit and some of its aspects, to the life upon their lonely farms of the first Puritan settlers of New England. The phrase “ a paternal government ” has come in our day — or rather it came in the day before ours — to bear a somewhat satiric significance. In republican Rome it was the curt description of a simple fact, equally true upon its public and its private side. The rulers of the nation were its patres conscripti. The father of the family was its sovereign in his own right; wife, children, and slaves were alike his subjects.
The legal power of the husband over the wife was expressed by the term manus. The bride of those primitive times was merely transferred from her father’s rule to that of her husband. She ranked thenceforth as a daughter of her husband’s house ; she came in manum ejus, — into his hand. Her property became his. He might not sell her, and so long as she remained faithful he might not slay her, but these were the only limits to his power.
The authority of the father over his children was even more absolute, for it included, far down into historic times, the legal right to sell, to repudiate, or, in the case of deformed infants or superfluous daughters, to destroy his offspring at birth. When the father lifted the new-born infant in his arms, it was a sign that he acknowledged and would rear and provide for it. The power of the father over his sons and their children ceased only when he died or lost his rights of Roman citizenship, a forfeiture which the Italians still express by the stern phrase morte civile, or civic death ; the father’s power over his daughters ended when they married with manus or took vestal vows.
A justum matrimonium, or true marriage, could be made only between Roman citizens (for the woman also reckoned as civis Romana) of the legal age, not too nearly related, and with the full approbation of the fathers who might hold patria potestas over the bridal pair. The marriageable age, fixed by law at fourteen for the husband and twelve for the wife, was practically later, for the boy was never married until he had received the gown of manhood, the girl rarely before fifteen or sixteen. The forbidden degrees of relationship originally included all within the sixth, which was carrying the limit yet further back than those tables of the law which adorn the walls of old English parish churches, and whose prohibitions begin with the statement that a man may not marry his grandmother. These degrees of relationship included all for which the Latin language had names, and all which had the jus osculi ; that is, within which it was allowable for man and woman to kiss.
Such rigid restrictions were especially needful in those early times, when it was so customary for a man to marry in his own gens, or clan, that he who did not do so was said enubere, to marry out; as a Quaker may marry out of meeting. As time went on, however, the rules relating to the marriage of kindred were much relaxed, and we gather from Livy that ever after the time of the second Pnnic war, 201 B. C., relatives of the fourth degree, that is to say consobrini, or cousins-german, might marry.
The union formed under these conditions was of two kinds : the bride either came into her husband’s manus, or she did not. In the first instance she passed completely out of her father’s rule, surrendered her patrimony, and became one of her husband’s heirs. In the second she remained a member of her father’s family, and retained both the right of inheritance in his estate and the control of her own property. In the former case, according to Cicero, she became materfamilias, in the latter she was merely uxor.
Marriage with manus was itself of three kinds. The most solemn and stately, and by far the most aristocratic, was the confarreatio, which may be compared remotely, for splendor of ceremonial, to a wedding with pontifical high mass in a cathedral or collegiate church. Beside the private offerings and taking of auspices, which were seldom omitted in any sort of legal marriage, this included a public ceremony conducted by the Pontifex Maximus and the Flamen Dialis in the presence of at least ten witnesses; and it took its name from the farreum libum, or cake of spelt flour, carried before the newly married pair on their return from the wedding ceremony, and subsequently broken and eaten between them. There remained marriage by usus, in virtue of which the wife came into her husband’s manus, by the mutual consent of both parties, after they had lived together for a year without interruption of more than three successive days ; and the marriage by coemptio, which, though usually accompanied by domestic religious rites, — as a modern wedding may be blessed by a clergyman in a private house, — must still be looked upon in the light of a civil contract. In this case the father went through a form of emancipating his daughter in favor of her future husband, after which the girl made declaration that she entered into the union of her own free will.
Confarreatio was the oldest as well as the most dignified and imposing of the Roman marriage rites. It was long the exclusive privilege of the patricians, and none but the descendants of such a marriage could ever becomeflamines majores (priests of Jove, Mars, or Quirinus) or vestal virgins. Naturally, therefore, this was the favorite form in the highest social circles ; while marriage by usus, as the simplest and least costly, would prevail, roughly speaking, among the lower orders, and marriage by coemptio was the one commonly practiced by the intermediate classes. But it is plain that,, with the progress of what are now called advanced ideas, the solemn and ceremonious marriage by confarreatio went more and more out of fashion, so that Tacitus says that in the time of Tiberius it had become a matter of some difficulty to find men qualified by their birth to fill the vacancies occasioned by death in the great priestly offices.
There were many restrictions as to the days of the year when weddings might take place. The entire month of May was regarded as unlucky, and the first half of June; nor could marriages be celebrated from the 13th to the 21st of February, the dies parentales, when there were memorial services for dec-eased kindred and offerings to their manes ; nor on the three days of the year when the underworld was supposed to stand open, — August 24, October 5, and November 8 ; nor on the kalends, nones, or ides of any month. Religious holidays in general were considered inappropriate for the marriage of young girls, though widows often chose them.
On the night before her bridal, the maiden laid aside her toga prætexta, a simple robe, trimmed with purple, and made up apparently width-wise of the cloth ; her mother dressed her for the first time in a long white garment with vertical seams, called a regilla, and confined her flowing hair in a scarlet net. The true wedding gown, which she would assume on the morrow, was also a flowing white robe, gathered at the waist by a woolen girdle, which was tied in a nodus herculeus, supposed to be a charm against the evil eye. The wedding veil was fine in texture and of a brilliant flame-color. It was very ample, thrown first over the head from behind, and then drawn in graceful folds about the entire person. The girl’s hair was also dressed in a peculiar manner for the ceremony. The bridegroom himself must divide it into six tresses with the point of a curved spear, the hasta cælibaris. Ribbons or fillets were bound between these strands, which appear afterwards to have been braided and confined to the head. Above the braids and under her veil the bride wore a garland of natural flowers, gathered by her own hand ; and the bridegroom also, at least in later times, always wore a chaplet.
The wedding ceremonies proper began in the stillness of the early dawn with the taking of auspices; and this was usually done by a professional diviner. who was not a minister of the state religion. A victim was then slain for the wedding sacrifice (commonly a sheep), and the skin was spread over two stools or chairs, upon which the bridal pair sat during a portion of the religious rites to follow. The guests now assembled ; the marriage contract was accepted in the presence of ten witnesses, and the bride signified her willingness to come into the manus of the bridegroom, and, at least theoretically, to assume his name, by repeating the ancient formula, “ Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia.” The wedding party then adjourned to some temple or public altar, where an offering (in early times always a bloodless one of spelt cakes and fruit) was made to Jove ; and the Flamen Dialis offered prayers to Juno and to Tellus and other gods of the soil. During the offering the bridal pair sat side by side ; during the prayers they moved slowly around the altar, attended by an acolyte bearing a basket which contained what were called the utensilia of the bride, probably her spinning implements and certain marriage gifts.
A great feast at her father’s house followed, and lasted until nightfall. Then came the deductio, or leading home of the bride. She was removed with a feint (sometimes, perhaps, it needed the reality) of force from her mother’s embrace, and led to her place in the nuptial procession, which was followed, first, by the invited guests, and afterwards, in most cases, by crowds of the common people. Torch - bearers and flute - players preceded the bride, and the whole company joined in singing Fescennina, primitive and rather coarse epithalamia, which took their name from the immemorially ancient Etruscan town where they originated. The gamins of the streets flocked about the bridegroom, calling for largess of nuts, as a sign that he himself had put away childish things, while the bride was escorted by three youths, who must be the sons of living parents, two of whom carried torches, and the third the rock and spindle of the bride. The wedding torch was not, as other torches, of pine or fir, but of the wood of the whitethorn, which was sacred to Ceres, and a talisman against all kinds of harm. There was a conflict for the possession of it among the guests after the ceremony was over.
Arrived at the entrance of her new home, the bride anointed its doorposts with oil and wound them with woolen bands. She was then lifted over the threshold, — a reminiscence, perhaps, of the rape of the Sabine women, — and received from her husband in the atrium, or chief living-room of the dwelling, the symbolic gifts of fire and water. According to some authorities, the two then knelt together and lighted their first hearth fire from the whitethorn torch. It is certain that the bride said a prayer for married happiness before the symbolic bridal couch, which stood in the atrium, opposite the entrance door. A supper, called repotia, was given by the young people to their relatives on the day after the wedding, on which occasion the bride made her first offering as a matron to the household gods.
The union thus formed and sanctioned by the divine blessing was at first, and indeed for a long while, regarded as indissoluble. It assured to the Roman matron a very noble position. She was subordinate to her husband in their relations with the world, but her sway within the home was undisputed. Her spouse, no less than her children and servants, addressed her with deference as domina, or lady. No servile work was expected of her, but, so far from being confined to one quarter of the dwelling, like the Greek woman, she moved freely through it, overseeing all its activities and arrangements, the preparation of meals, the spinning of her maidens, the lessons of her children. She received her husband’s guests and sat with them at table, while the children, and sometimes even favorite slaves who had been born and reared in the house, were served at a sort of side table in the same room. It was not thought seemly for a matron to go out without her husband’s knowledge or unattended ; but, upon these conditions, she was free to walk abroad, place was deferentially made for her in the public ways, and the stola matronalis, or peculiar outside garment which she wore, was supposed to be a protection from all discourtesy. She attended public games and theatrical representations ; her testimony was received in the courts ; she might even plead for an accused relative. If she came of a very noble race, she was entitled to a funeral sermon, or public oration of eulogy after her death.
Such was the ideal wifehood of the good old Roman times, and there is a sense in which it may be said always to have remained the ideal. Everybody knows that the mother of the Gracchi and the wife of Marcus Brutus were ladies of austere fashion and immaculate mind. Nay, late in the fourth century, even, we find St. Jerome endeavoring to shame some of the more lawless lambs of his flock by examples of personal rectitude and dignity in the first pagan families. But long ere that time the standard of manners had fatally deteriorated. The enormous increase of wealth, and the habits of Eastern luxury which came in with the Macedonian and other wars of foreign conquest, were prolific sources of corruption, while the study of Greek philosophy, which was affected by clever women equally with their lords, promoted the growth of new ideas, which rendered the “ daily round and common task ” of the older time particularly irksome. Marriage with manus and religious rites went more and move out of fashion except for the priestly caste ; marriage upon any terms was avoided by very many. Divorce, on the other hand, became of daily occurrence, and could be had on the most frivolous pretexts, as the lives of the Romans whom we know most intimately, Cæsar, Pompey, and their great contemporaries, only too plainly show.
Strenuous efforts were made by Augustus to restore the old standards of domestic morality, and in certain matters of personal indulgence he himself, after he was firmly seated on the imperial throne, set an honorable example of simplicity of life. He even established penalties for celibacy, and offered rewards and immunities to the fathers of three or more children ; and we all know how eloquently he was seconded by the most illustrious of the writers whom he patronized, the great idealists, — that is to say, the most elevated and disinterested minds of his time. To describe as merely sycophantic or official the affection of Horace and of Virgil for the kind old rustic fashions and the austerity of the early Roman ideal is a great mistake. It was an ingrain sentiment with both, — impassioned, impracticable, almost enervating in its intensity. It was a pathetic anachronism, representing the forlorn hope of the passive yet clairvoyant patriot who felt himself no longer free, the last refuge of his obstinate civic pride, his vain appeal to an impossible panacea for ills which were in truth incurable.
But let us return to our old-fashioned bridal pair, and inquire something about the aspect and plan of the dwelling in which their new life was to begin.
The ordinary Roman house had remained somewhat of a mystery, even to the most erudite, until the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii, in the middle of the eighteenth century, suddenly threw a flood of light upon its construction and arrangements. The silent testimony of those partially ruined and long-buried homes was all the more valuable because, in Pompeii especially, they represented the average middleclass dwellings of a provincial town: commodious and even elegant as compared with the farmhouses and cottages of the rural poor ; cramped and insignificant beside the costly city mansions, and the yet more extravagant and extensive mountain and seaside villas of wealthy nobles.
The one essential feature of all these houses, the central point and distinctive mark of the Roman dwelling in all its developments, that which distinguishes it from the houses of Greece and the farther East on the one hand, and allies it with the homes of our own race on the other, was the atrium, long the common living-room of the entire family. The earliest Roman houses may indeed be said to have been all atrium. Here within the same four walls were to be found the family hearth and altar, the family portraits in wax, and the marriage bed ; here the meals were cooked and served, the men lounged after labor, and the women spun ; the very name, atrium, is probably derived from the black color imparted to the room and its contents generally by the circling smoke of the hearth fire, which had to find its way out by the doorway or the perforated roof, since it is certain that, down to comparatively modern times, chimney-flues were unknown.
The houses thus occupied were small and detached, even in the more considerable towns. They were built of wood, or, later, of brick, mostly square in shape, and roofed with wood or thatch carried up in the form of a four-sided pyramid. A yet meaner sort, circular in shape with conical roof, and built of wattled reeds, is still represented by the miserable shelter-huts of the shepherds on the Roman Campagna. Some such humble dwelling was conceived by Virgil as that of Evander on the Palatine hill, in the beautiful passage where he tells how the pauper king was awakened by the light of early morning streaming through the door of his cot, and the singing of birds upon its low roof-tree. Such, too, was the so-called casa Romulea, so long preserved as a kind of sanctuary. But, however primitive and promiscuous the life led in these plain dwellings may appear, it was not necessarily vulgar nor lacking in a certain dignity, as those will readily understand who have entered the common room of a podere upon the Tuscan hills, or a hospitable farmhouse kitchen in Old or New England.
Such having been the typical dwelling even of distinguished folk in the “ good old days ” of Rome, it is curious and instructive to see what the average town house had become in the latter days of the republic.
To begin, as is fitting, with the entrance door : this did not open directly from the street, but at the end of a passage paved with tiles, and flanked by rooms which were usually let out as shops. The door was of wood with pillars on either side; it had regularly two leaves, and was secured, when closed, by bolts at the top and bottom. This door led sometimes into a short continuation of the passage, divided by a curtain from the atrium, and sometimes directly into the latter, now often called the cavædium, or hollow part of the dwelling, and still constituting its main apartment. This developed atrium was oblong in shape, and the centre of the floor was occupied by a marble cistern, with pipes under the floor for carrying off the water. Above this, in the vast majority of cases, there was no roof. The tiled covering of the surrounding space was supported by strong cross - beams, and sloped inwards upon its four sides, for convenience of conducting the rainwater into the cistern below, and there were always arrangements, as in the theatres, for drawing an awning across the open space, by way of protection from the sun. The atrium was still the place where guests were received, where certain rites of domestic worship were celebrated, where the dead lay in state. But the cooking was now done in a kitchen at the back of the establishment, and the hearthstone, where sacrifices to the household gods had been made in primitive times, was represented by a marble altar, set somewhere against the rear wall of the apartment.
On either side of the atrium, about two thirds its length, ran a row of small square rooms, — the sitting, sleeping, and guest rooms of the family. These opened into the hall either by doors or by portiéres. and from one of them ascended the steep and narrow stairs which led to the upper story. Beyond this range of diminutive rooms the atrium broadened into two alcoves, in the comparative seclusion of which, in their mural niches or shrines, were arranged the portrait busts of the ancestors of the family. They were so ordered, in cases of long descent, as to present the semblance of a family tree, while bronze tablets, recording the names and deeds of the persons commemorated, were set in the wall beneath their respective shrines.
Between these two alcoves, directly opposite the entrance door, was the opening into the tablinum, which was usually divided from the atrium by curtains only. In old-fashioned country houses of the better sort the tablinum had been represented by a sort of open porch or veranda : often a simple pergula roofed by a trellis for vines, which ran all along the back of the modest dwelling, and led to the garden or orchards behind it. Under the roof of this porch the rustic " squire " (to whom, as always happens, it naturally fell to enact the magistrate’s part) heard complaints, and decided differences between his tenants and humble neighbors, and the tabulæ, or records of his decisions, were deposited there. Later, when the dwelling had developed considerably, and the simple back porch had become only one side of a quadrangular colonnade surrounding an open court, the tabulæ were removed to the interior of the dwelling, and the room where they were kept took its name from them. In this, and the corresponding room of a town house, other family archives came to be deposited, and here were put upon record those curious contracts for mutual hospitality of which mention will be made farther on. Here, too, stood the strong-box of the master of the mansion, and the tablinum was in some sort his study or den. It could be shut off from all the rest of the house. — from the atrium by the heavy curtain or curtains already mentioned, from the open court at the back by folding doors ; and it was flanked by two narrow passages, with doorways at each end, through which the family and servants could pass and repass between the atrium and the rear portion of the house. But if the curtains in front of the tablinum were withdrawn, and the doors at the back thrown open, he who entered from the front had an uninterrupted and what must have been, on a bright day, a very charming view across the atrium, filled with the diffused and softly colored light, which filtered through the velum overhead straight down the vista of the tablinum to the fountain, flowers, and shrubbery which occupied the centre of the great pillared court, or peristyle, beyond.
The peristyle had now become quite as important a member of the dwelling as the atrium. Whoever has seen the garden court of an Italian villa or palace, or a green convent or college cloister, and has also seen Pompeii, will have no difficulty in picturing to himself the general aspect of the peristyle. The ambulatory, or surrounding promenade, was much narrower than the covered portion of the atrium ; the open space, of course, proportionally larger. From the peristyle, and usually on its right, opened the triclinium, or principal dining-room of the establishment, the neighboring kitchen, and the chapel, where the images of the gods were set up, and sacrifices and other ceremonies of private worship were actually performed. The altar in the atrium seems rather to have been a reminiscence of the hearth and an ornamental symbol of devotion than intended for frequent use. Under the colonnade, on its opposite or left-hand side, opened storerooms of various kinds, and a second stair, which probably led to the sleeping-rooms of the servants. At the back of the peristyle there was usually an open garden.
Such being the typical arrangement of the developed Roman dwelling, there was room, as in our modern houses, for great variations of detail, and it is easy to understand the sort of changes which would be introduced with the importation of Eastern fashions, and the consequent enormous growth of private luxury. The shallow, sunken porch formed by the projection of the shops on either side had now expanded into a spacious vestibulum, with marble floor and pillars, richly adorned with statues and portrait busts, prizes of prowess and trophies of arms. Even the state chariot, which had borne the master of the house on occasions of public triumph, sometimes found a place therein; and it was here that the countless throng of friends, clients, protégés, and other dependents who hung upon the footsteps of a distinguished citizen of later days waited, sometimes from before daylight, to give salutatio, or morning greeting, to the great man when he came out. The plain doorposts were now sheathed with rich coverings, or adorned with intricate and costly inlaid work. There were no shops, of course, attached to houses of such grandeur, but the rooms on either side of the entrance became, the one an ostiarium, or porter’s lodge, while the other was often used by the master of the mansion as a kind of office, where he received and examined the accounts presented by the stewards of his various rural properties, and took the money for his valuable crops. The town palace of an Italian nobleman has, to this day, a similar room upon its ground floor, used for almost precisely the same purposes.
The stately dwelling we are now considering had an indefinitely increased number of living, withdrawing, and guest rooms opening off the cavædium and peristyle. There were bedrooms for rest both by day and by night, and diningrooms of various sizes and with different exposures for summer and winter. There were often — we find instances even in provincial Pompeii — two peristyles, in which case the anterior usually gave access to a library and a picture gallery. Advancing to the posterior peristyle, we find the mass of the domestic slaves lodged in tiny cells opening off it, rather than upon the upper floor, where the regular sleeping-rooms of the family seem usually to have been. There might be extensive and beautiful grounds at the rear of such a mansion, laid out in the perennial Italian taste, embellished with trellises, fountains, and statues, and often overshadowed by magnificent trees, like the six ancient and enormous lotus-trees in the town gardens of the orator Crassus, upon the Palatine, which were valued at about twenty thousand dollars apiece, and which lived and flourished until they were consumed by Nero’s fire.
In Rome and the larger towns, however, as in the modern cities of the continent of Europe, the detached dwellings came to be far outnumbered by the insulæ, or blocks of buildings, which were often several stories high, with shops upon the street level, and lodgings of various grades behind and above. The crowded tenements of the very poor were to be found in the meaner of these insulæ, while there were others, in the more expensive quarters, where young men of fashion, like Cicero’s friend Cælius, had commodious apartments, which probably corresponded very fairly with the bachelor quarters occupied by men of the same class to-day.
In trying to represent to ourselves more exactly the interior of a completely appointed Roman house, we have first to remember the rich aspect of its marble-wainscoted and frescoed walls, the broad panels of pure deep color, usually yellow or red, with graceful central figures surrounded by brilliant and delicate arabesques, such as glow with unfading splendor on the walls of the house of Germanicus, upon the Palatine, and were almost universal in Pompeii, even in houses of modest pretensions. There were color also and grace of design in the various kinds of mosaic floors, of which so many specimens are still to be seen; and though the furnishing of the rooms may seem simple and even scanty to our jumbled modern ideas, the separate pieces were generally so excellent in design and so beautiful in workmanship that they well deserved to be set wide apart, and relieved each one against an artistic background.
The articles of furniture in common use may be comprised under a very few heads: beds or couches, seats of various kinds, tables, chests, and cabinets; lamps, both standing and depending. Couches included the low lecti tricliniares, covered with tapestry and heaped with cushions, on which both men and women reclined at meals ; the lectuli or lecti lucubratorii, which had commonly two arms and no back, and were used chiefly for reading or writing at night, when the student reclined his back against one of the arms, and supported his manuscript or tablet upon one uplifted knee; and the lecti cubiculares, true beds of rest, for slumber by night or siesta by day. The frames of these various couches were, as a rule, made of wood, often carved or inlaid with ivory or brass, and supported upon ivory feet. They were strung with girths or bands, on which were laid a mattress and a bolster, and vestes stragulæ, or coverings, of more or less magnificence. Beds for slumber, though tolerably broad, were open, for the most part, upon one side only, being provided with a tall back and arms like an old-fashioned sofa ; and they stood higher upon their carved or elaborately turned legs than even the four-posters of our own ancestors, insomuch that they could be scaled only by help of a footstool, or even a step ladder. Bedsteads of bronze, and even of the precious metals, were used in later times ; and seats and chairs were made of all these different materials, and often decorated with great luxury, while in form they ranged from the simple subsellium, or four-legged stool, to the cathedra, or deep, commodious armchair, like that in which the elder Agrippina may be seen sitting with so much grace and dignity, in the museum of the Capitol at Rome, or Livia, the exquisitely beautiful, in the seclusion of the Torlonia gallery.
Under the general head of tables were included the abacus, or sideboard, in shape somewhat like a console-table ; the mensa delphica, or three-legged table; and the monopodium, supported on a single standard in the centre. Tables of this last shape were often small, extremely precious in material and elegant in design ; and one such formed part of the furniture of every decent bedroom, and bore, from the time when candles, whether of tallow or wax, went somewhat out of fashion, one of the boatshaped oil lamps of pottery or bronze, with gracefully turned handle at one end, and at the other an opening for the wick, which abound in Pompeii and in existing tombs. A candelabrum was a tall, slender stand of wood or metal, usually provided with three claw-feet, which rested upon the floor. In shape and size it corresponded with the pianolamp of the present day, which indeed is often copied closely from it. The candelabrum carried atop either a small tray for supporting such a lamp as has been already described, or a spike for a large wax candle, like an altar candlestick. A shorter kind of candelabrum, sometimes very elaborately wrought, stood upon a chest or sideboard, and had two or more branches from which small hanging lamps were suspended.
The chest and the cabinet offered, as they have always done, a favorable field for the most exquisite and costly decoration, and these massive articles doubtless possessed, in a handsome Roman house, the importance which they still retain in grand Italian interiors.
The tableware of the affluent had become, in the last days of the republic, extraordinarily luxurious, comprising articles of great beauty of design in all the precious metals, in crystal, and in that rare and costly species of alabaster which the ancients called murrha. To judge by the revelations of Pompeii, indeed, not merely every article of furniture, but almost every household implement in daily use at the time of the great catastrophe, had an artistic significance due to the beauty of its form over and above its practical value. But the taste for these articles was to some extent exotic. Their shapes were borrowed from the booty taken in foreign conquest, or else they were the handiwork of Greek captives, or of artisans who had learned their methods from these.
Passing now from the aspect of the house to the occupations of its inmates, we find that, in primitive Roman times, the days had been divided in the simplest manner, so as to meet the needs and facilitate the labors of the tiller of the soil. The husbandman rose at sunrise, sacrificed before his morning meal, went to the field and worked until noontide. when he ate again and slept awhile. He then arose refreshed for another period of labor in the cool of the afternoon, which lasted until sunset and supper time. Relief to the monotony of this daily round came in the shape of numerous holidays, both public and private. To the former class belonged the general celebrations bearing more or less of a religious character, like the Compitalia in January, the Matronalia in March, the Vinalia Rustiea in August, the Saturnalia in December ; to the latter, all the birthday, betrothal, wedding, housewarming, and New Year’s gatherings, with their appropriate suppers and sacrifices and exchange of gifts and congratulations, as well as the reception given when a youth assumed the garb of manhood, and the solemn banquets in commemoration of the dead.
But with the rise of great towns, the growth of commerce and manufactures, the introduction of new industries and of new diversions also, and the everincreasing complexity and expense of existence generally, the old bucolic arrangement of the day passed wholly out of date, especially among the so-called privileged classes ; insomuch that in the time of Nero we find a would-be philosopher like Seneca complaining that, whereas human occupations used to be regulated by natural laws, the object now appeared to be to make one’s habits as artificial as possible. “ Daybreak,” be says, “ is bedtime ; as evening approaches, we begin to show signs of activity ; toward morning we dine. Come what may, we must not do as the common people do. (Non oportet id facere quod populus.)”
Up to the time when the first sun-dial appeared in Rome — 263 B. C. — there was no division of the day into hours ; and even after this the Romans continued to make a distinction between the natural and the civil day. The former was reckoned from midnight to midnight. — twenty-four hours ; the latter from sunrise to sunset.—twelve hours. Practically, the period of daylight still fell into the four natural divisions, established by the necessities of rural life, of morning, forenoon, afternoon, and evening, while the four military watches measured the night. But in the course of the ensuing century sun-dials and hour-glasses, both for sand and water, came into general use, and some sort of horologium — a name which comprised both these varieties — was to be found not merely upon all public squares and buildings, but in private houses.
The lament of Seneca to the contrary notwithstanding, the Romans were, for the most part, early risers. Only the idle and the very luxurious, or those who had to sleep off the debauch of the previous night, were wont to be in bed even until broad day. Artisans and shopkeepers went to their work by candlelight; men of letters, like Cicero, Horace, the elder Pliny, preferred to all others the hours before sunrise for reading and writing. The schools began at a very early hour; so did theatrical representations and all the innumerable family festivals, and, in Christian times, the daily morning service in the churches. The courts of justice sat from the third hour; that is to say, about nine A. M. The sessions of the Senate also began early, and continued until sunset.
In primitive times, the master of the house expected to receive good-morrow from his children and servants at daybreak, after which he offered the morning sacrifice, and then assigned to his various people their duties for the day. A reminiscence of this custom appears always to have survived in certain of the old families, and it was adopted in the strictly ordered household of the Antonine Cæsars. Out of it grew the ceremonious salutatio of late republican and imperial times. — the self-interested compliments of the morning offered to an influential citizen by the clients and other lesser folk who thronged his hall and competed for his favor; and the earlier the salutatio could he made the better. We read, therefore, of the Roman streets being alive before light in the winter mornings with the hurrying figures of carefully attired clients, who elbowed one another in the stately vestibule of their patron until the doors were flung open into the atrium where he stood to receive them. They then defiled before him, each making his bow and uttering his Ave domine, to which the magnate responded by a hand-shake and a word of courtesy, sometimes by a kiss. He made a point of addressing each man by name, and if he hesitated for an instant he was prompted by the nomenclator at his ear, — a slave whose business it was to know the proper appellation of every person present.
Before going through with this wearisome performance, the patron had probably taken his first breakfast in the privacy of his own chamber. The client would have to snatch his where he could, in passing from one house to another, — for many paid their daily court to more than one great man. — often doubtless in the cake-shops patronized by the schoolboys. This first meal of the day was invariably, as it still is in Latin countries, a very simple one. It consisted of bread with salt or dipped in wine, olives or dates, possibly honey and a bit of cheese. Hearty food, such as warm and cold meats, fish, vegetables, fresh fruit, and wine, was rarely taken much before midday. In early times, and always among the farming population, this midday meal was the principal one of the day, though a supper was served in the evening after work was done. The exigencies of city life caused the noon dinner to be replaced by a second breakfast, consisting, indeed, of much the same sort of viands, while the dinner became vastly more elaborate, and was deferred until toward evening.
Three meals a day was, perhaps, the rule among the well to do, yet physicians often counseled only two, except for the old and weak ; and many city folk, even the comparatively affluent, confined themselves to a prandium taken at about eleven in the morning, and a late cena. The natural Roman appears to have been, like the average Italian of to-day, an abstemious creature. Only the wanton and extravagant gourmands of the decadence dreamed of adding to the interminable courses and fantastic luxury of their cena a late supper, served often in the “ wee sma’ hours ayant the twal’.”
After the prandium the world retired for its meridiatio, or noontide slumber. This custom was well-nigh a universal one. It belonged both to city and to country life, and dated from the earliest historic period. Only the Senate and the courts took no recess at noon; and even there, we may believe, save in times of high excitement, business went on but drowsily. At about two P. M., the great public baths, those most characteristic institutions of ancient Rome, were opened. On some of them bells were hung which summoned the bathers. Vast in extent, intricate in structure, and enormously costly, these public baths tended, as time went on, to become more and more artistic and luxurious in their arrangements. Yet the price of admission, even to the most splendid of these establishments, was so trifling — about one cent for a man and two for a woman — that they were virtually open to all. There were usually separate departments for men and women, but there were porticoes and gardens adjoining all the great balneæ, where the two sexes might meet and gossip after the bath, as to-day in the casino of a watering-place, while to certain of the larger thermæ were attached libraries and fine-art galleries, halls for gymnastic exercise, and courts for playing ball.
The plain private dwelling of an earlier period had possessed merely a common wash-room, situated near the kitchen for convenience of introducing both hot and cold water, where the different members of the family took turns in performing their simple ablutions. But subsequently, after the bath had come to be regarded as the greatest of luxuries, it was customary to have a miniature bathing establishment attached to every private house, and especially to every country house having any pretensions to splendor. Traces of such are to be found all over Europe, wherever the Roman rule extended ; for Roman governors and other high officials made a point of carrying with them into their provincial exile the private habits of the capital.
An hour or two after the bath came the cena, or principal meal of the clay. Once it had been served in the atrium, and consisted, save upon state occasions, chiefly of bread or porridge and vegetables. The father, mother, and other adult members of the family sat at table, while children and servants occupied stools or benches at their feet and behind them. Long before the close of the republican period, however, the cena had developed into as dainty a meal as the means of the householder would permit. Special dining-rooms were found indispensable in a life of even moderate elegance, and the custom of reclining at table had become universal among the well to do. Columella lays it down as a rule that a farm bailiff should recline at his meals “upon high holidays only ; ” and Plutarch, in his life of the younger Cato, tells us that the latter — always a bit of a fanatic — insisted, by way of self-mortification, on sitting at table throughout the period of mourning which followed the battle of Pharsalia.
The ordinary dining-table was square, surrounded on three sides l>y the same number of one-armed couches, while the fourth side remained open for convenience of serving. Each of these three couches accommodated three persons, who reclined upon the left elbow, supported, the one by the arm of the couch, the other two by heaps of cushions, and always with the feet turned outward : while in the assignment of places a strict etiquette prevailed. The middle one (medius) was the couch of honor, and the most distinguished guest usually occupied the place farthest from the arm. This place was called the locus consularis, and was generally assigned to the most important public officer present, both for convenience in the matter of receiving and sending messages, and because it brought him next the host. The latter leaned upon the arm of the imus, or lowest conch, which also accommodated his wife and one of the elder children or a favorite freedman. The remaining couch — the summus — was assigned to guests of lesser importance.
Nine was the full number that could be properly served at such a table. A place might be vacant, but to crowd a couch with more than three people was considered the height of vulgarity. Large parties of guests were entertained in spacious dining-halls, or sometimes, in summer, in the pleasant airy loggie on the roofs of the houses, and at separate small tables.
Round tables, with couches fitted so as to form a semicircle, came into fashion in Cicero’s time ; luxurious objects for which men paid an absurd price. They were made of rare imported woods, preferably from a slab or section of the massive trunk of the so-called citrustree, — a species of African cypress, very beautifully mottled. — and the most admired were supported on a single pedestal of solid ivory. Cicero himself had one such table which cost him about thirty thousand dollars, and Seneca had some Scores of them.
The couches of this extravagant period often had silver feet, and were inlaid with the same precious metal, or with ivory and tortoise-shell. The custom of hanging the walls of the diningroom with richly embroidered stuffs had also been introduced from the East ; while flic most sumptuous of banqueting-rooms had a very peculiar arrangement of the ceiling. It had long been the fashion to construct the latter of cross-beams, the square sunken spaces between which were carved, gilded, or otherwise ornamented ; and these were now made in the form of sliding panels, which could be withdrawn for the purpose of scattering flowers or keepsakes for the guests upon the table.
The dining-room servants were under the supervision of a butler, and the finer the establishment the more numerous they were. It was their business to arrange the room for the feast; to set forth upon the sideboards the imposing array of silver, gold, glass, and jeweled vessels, both for eating and drinking, which would be required in the course of it; and accurately to place in the centre of the table its principal ornament, the massive salinum, or salt-cellar. This article, which even the comparatively poor contrived to have made of silver, possessed a certain sacred significance, inasmuch as every table was consecrated to the gods, and the salinum contained not merely salt for seasoning the viands, but a tray for the molæ salsaæ, sacrificial cakes, which were offered to the Lares, and then probably distributed and eaten by way of grace after meat. Horace has told us in a single word, with one of those light and sympathetic touches which are his alone, how the poor man’s one article of luxury in tableware was cherished as an heirloom : —
Splendet in mensa tenui salinum. ”
In the houses of the rich, the carving of meats was done at side tables ; and what we should call a handsome dinner was always served in three principal divisions, each of which might consist of several courses. The introductory part was called the gustatio. and its object was merely to whet the appetites of the diners for the richer food to follow. It consisted of eggs, pickled vegetables, and salads in great variety ; oysters, raw or cooked ; salted fish, mushrooms, artichokes, asparagus, or melons eaten with salt and pepper. Mulsum, a beverage compounded of honey and must, was frequently served with the appetizers. Then followed the main part of the meal, — the cena proper, — which also fell into three divisions. It consisted of fish, meats, and game, both native and foreign, seasoned in endless variety ; and with the fish there was usually served a costly sauce called garum, of which the flavor was highly prized. Some of the viands were eaten steaming hot; others had to be cooled with ice before they were deemed truly palatable. There was a pause after this portion of the meal was concluded, during which the molæ salsæ were offered to the Lares, and then the dessert was brought in. It consisted of pastry, confectionery, and fruit, both home-grown and imported, and it concluded the banquet; whence the expression ab ovo ad mala — from the egg to the apples — became proverbial for the whole of anything, from the beginning to the end.
Wine was taken in moderation with all the courses, rarely clear, sometimes iced, but oftener mixed with warm water. The business of regular drinking began only after the dessert had been removed. Those who affected Greek fashions were now perfumed and crowned with garlands, The wine was no longer mixed to taste in the separate cups of the guests, hut in a huge vase, whence it was served by the attendants in cyathi, or ladles. The cyathus was the unit of measure for a systematic drinker, who, though he often used a goblet of the capacity of several cyathi, always reckoned his feats by the number of the latter which he consumed.
The late supper of high-livers, which has been mentioned, was little more than a drinking-bout. It was enlivened, as was also the cena, by the performance of hired musicians, mimes, and dancers; but conversation, though it had a place, at least at the earlier meal, was never in Rome the fine art and the main entertainment which we find it among the Greeks.
The most classic in spirit of modern artists has enabled those who are familiar with his fascinating canvases to call up, by a mere effort of memory, the vision of a great Roman banquet. We can see the long hall, either offering a glimpse between marble columns of a rose-planted terrace and the wide glories of an Italian sunset; or filled with mellow lamplight, which is reflected from a thousand points upon the lacquered ceiling, and the clear crystal or curious jewelry of the tableware. We see the soft - stepping attendants clad in white, the deep-toned wall decoration, the rich covering of the couches, the many-hued silken robes of the reclining guests. In the case of the men, the flowing garment which replaced the classic toga of the forum was often changed with every course of the elaborate meal; the women, if any, wore graceful stolæ with gem-set shoulder-clasps and sleeve-buttons and full embroidered hems; and what a choice was theirs in the colors of these beautiful garments may be gathered from that quaint passage in Ovid where he shows his own excellent taste by entreating des belles amies not to affect the trying tints of Tyrian purple, but to choose rather “ pale sky-blue, rose-pink, a very faint amethyst, or sea-green ; otherwise, the deep tint of the Paphian myrtle, the soft gray of a crane’s plumage, the brown of acorns or of almond shells.”
Harriet Waters Preston.