As we delve into the annals of history, exploring the quality of life in ancient civilizations, a compelling question often arises: how did the everyday existence of the Romans compare to our modern living standards? This intriguing inquiry sheds light on life’s complexities in the Roman Empire and offers a unique perspective on our contemporary experiences.
By examining the varied lifestyles of different social strata within this ancient civilization, from the bustling streets of Rome to the far-flung provinces, we gain insights into the economic, social, and cultural dynamics that shaped their world and, in turn, reflect on our own.
The Economic Challenges of the Roman Empire
The 3rd century AD was not kind to Rome. The empire grappled with massive barbarian invasions and growing internal instability. But a more insidious threat lurked in the shadows – rampant inflation. This economic malaise had festered for nearly a century, and by the reign of Emperor Diocletian, it had reached a critical point. Payments were a mix of cash and kind, a testament to the dire state of the economy.
“Cash and kind” refers to a form of payment that includes both monetary (cash) and non-monetary (kind) components, such as goods or services. This method combines actual money with tangible items or services as part of the total compensation or transaction.
Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices: An Attempt to Curb Inflation
Diocletian and his colleagues enacted a sweeping piece of economic legislation known as the Edict on Maximum Prices in response to this crisis. This ambitious Edict aimed to impose price caps on hundreds of goods and services, a desperate bid to halt the spiraling inflation and supposed rampant profiteering.
While this may seem a simplistic and inefficient solution to our 21st-century minds, it underscores the perennial challenge of controlling and predicting inflation. Despite its grand intentions, the mandate was a logistical nightmare, difficult to enforce across the vast empire, and ultimately failed to achieve its goals.
The failure of price controls in the Roman Empire, exemplified by Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices, can be attributed to the disruption of supply and demand principles. By setting prices below the market equilibrium, these controls led to shortages, as the demand for goods at artificially low prices exceeded their supply.
Producers, facing reduced profit margins, often compromise on the quality of goods, exacerbating the market imbalance. Additionally, the vast and diverse nature of the empire posed significant challenges in enforcing these controls, leading to widespread non-compliance and the emergence of black markets. Consequently, rather than stabilizing the economy, such measures often intensified the existing economic issues.
Theodorus the Tenant Farmer: A Glimpse into Agrarian Life
To understand the quality of life in Rome, let us first consider Theodorus, a tenant farmer from Thera, Santorini. Theodorus, 30, lived with his wife Euporia, 20, and their 2-year-old daughter Eudoxia. As a tenant farmer, Theodorus worked land that wasn’t his; in return, he received a stable salary and had his taxes covered by his landowner.
The Roman Census records show that he worked with 8.5 hectares of arable land, 2 hectares of vineyards, and 18 olive trees. As per the Edict, his salary was 25 denarii per day, with a food ration. Twenty-five denarii might be somewhat equivalent to $82 in today’s US dollars in terms of economic impact or purchasing power.
However, it’s important to note that this is a highly speculative and generalized conversion, as it doesn’t account for the numerous variables that affect economic value and purchasing power across different historical and societal contexts.
Daily Expenses and Diet of a Roman Family
Theodorus’ life offers a window into a Roman family’s daily expenses and diet. His weekly earnings of 150 denarii (USD 492) covered all his family’s needs. The staple of their diet was bread, their primary source of protein and their most significant expense.
They needed about 7 kilograms of bread a week, buying 4.4 kilograms of wheat at eight denarii per kilogram, totaling 35.5. Olive oil, another dietary staple, costs them about 4.8 denarii weekly for 200 ml.
Their diet was supplemented with beans, peas, and various vegetables and fruits like cabbage, lettuce, beets, onions, leeks, apples, and peaches. Theodorus also had to budget for occasional luxuries like meat and fish, which were reserved for special occasions due to their high cost.
Theodorus’ Financial Balancing Act: Sustaining a Family
Theodorus’ life was a constant financial balancing act. His weekly budget had to cover food, clothing, shoes, heating, rent, and saving for taxes. For instance, replacing a worn-out sandal could cost him 25 denarii, a significant expense.
Clothes and shoes were expensive, often leading to meticulous care and frequent repairs rather than new purchases. Theodorus’ financial management reflects the struggles of many in the lower classes of Roman society, constantly juggling limited resources to meet their family’s needs.
Aurelius Flavinus: The Life of a Roman Soldier
Contrast Theodorus’ life with that of Aurelius Flavinus, a 36-year-old soldier in the 11th Claudia legion. Born in Illyricum, Aurelius had risen to the rank of Optio after 14 years of service. His salary was 3,600 denarii a year, a modest 69 denarii a week.
However, military life came with benefits: a food pension of 600 denarii and two annual donatives of 5,000 denarii each from the Emperors. Additionally, being on a foreign expedition meant Aurelius and his comrades were quartered among civilians, saving them housing costs.
Military Benefits and Financial Management in the Roman Army
The military benefits extended to Aurelius significantly eased his financial burden. His salary, supplemented by food pensions and donatives, allowed him a comfortable lifestyle. However, not all of his salary was paid in cash; a portion came from extra rations, clothing, weapons, and armor. This meant Aurelius had to be adept at managing his finances, balancing his spending on personal pleasures and necessities.
Aurelius’ Lifestyle: Balancing Duties and Personal Expenses
Aurelius’ lifestyle reflected his status as a soldier. He participated in celebrations and feasts, spending money on special occasions for food and drink. For instance, a celebration meal could include chicken, beef, boar meat, oysters, sardines, wheat beer, and quality wine, a significant expense but manageable due to his military benefits.
Aurelius also had to budget for personal items like clothing and footwear, which were essential for maintaining his status and appearance as an Optio.
Tatianus the Aristocrat: Wealth and Responsibilities
At the other end of the spectrum was Tatianus, a local aristocrat and city council member from Tralles in Asia Minor. Owning 285 hectares of prime land and employing numerous people forced into labor and tenant farmers, Tatianus represented the Roman elite.
However, his wealth came with heavy responsibilities. He was expected to perform various civic duties, including tax collection, maintenance of public buildings, and providing for the poor and the military.
Managing Estates and Slaves: The Financial Burden of Aristocracy
Tatianus’ role as a landlord and enslaver was both prestigious and burdensome. Managing his estates required significant financial outlay, from paying taxes and salaries to maintaining his properties.
The death of a forced laborer or the need for additional labor during harvest season could lead to substantial unplanned expenses. Moreover, the cost of people forced into labor varied greatly, with skilled individuals commanding prices as high as 60,000 denarii.
Extravagance and Obligations: The Cost of Being a Roman Elite
Tatianus’ lifestyle was one of extravagance and obligation. As an aristocrat, he was expected to display his wealth and status through lavish feasts and expensive clothing.
For instance, a birthday celebration for his wife could involve many exotic dishes, fine wines, and luxurious gifts, costing thousands of denarii. Yet, these displays of wealth were balanced with his civic duties, which often required significant financial contributions.
Educational and Personal Expenses in Aristocratic Life
Education and culture played a significant role in Tatianus’ life. He invested in his children’s education, hiring tutors in Greek literature and rhetoric. Personal expenses also included the adornment of his villa, a symbol of his status and taste.
For instance, securing marble from Alexandria for columns in his villa was a financial transaction and a display of wealth and connection to the imperial supply chains. The cost of these columns, including transportation and installation, was significant yet essential for maintaining his social standing.
Tatianus’ lifestyle was a testament to the luxury the Roman elite could afford. His expenditures on education, personal luxuries, and civic duties painted a picture of a life far removed from the daily struggles of the lower classes.
His ability to indulge in extravagant feasts, own luxurious garments, and commission expensive art and architecture showcased the stark contrast in the quality of life between the Roman elite and the common populace.
Comparing Quality of Life Across Roman Social Classes
The quality of life in the Roman Empire varied greatly across different social classes. Theodorus, the tenant farmer, represents the struggle of the lower class, constantly balancing meager earnings to sustain his family.
Aurelius, the soldier, enjoys a more comfortable life with the benefits of military service, allowing him some luxuries and a stable financial footing.
Tatianus, the aristocrat, lives in a world of luxury, far removed from the worries of daily sustenance yet burdened with civic responsibilities and the maintenance of his status.
The average Roman lived a short and hard life. Infant mortality was sky-high, sufficient food was not guaranteed, and the Roman Empire was often crime-ridden and dangerous. The risk of ending up enslaved was ever-present should your family fall on hard times. 
The average Roman enslaved person’s life was characterized by a lack of personal freedom and a high dependence on their master’s disposition and circumstances. Their quality of life varied significantly based on their role and owner’s status and temperament.
Enslaved people employed in domestic roles, such as household servants or tutors, often had better living conditions, receiving adequate food and shelter and sometimes even education. In contrast, those assigned to labor-intensive tasks in agriculture, mines, or public works faced harsher conditions, enduring strenuous physical labor with minimal rest or comfort.
Enslaved people were considered property and had limited rights, but the Roman system did allow for some avenues of upward mobility; for instance, an enslaved person could be freed by their master and become a freedman, gaining certain legal rights and the opportunity to integrate more fully into society.
However, the overall lifestyle of a Roman enslaved person was primarily defined by uncertainty and subjugation, with their well-being heavily reliant on their master’s whims.
This exploration reveals that while certain aspects of Roman life may seem desirable, mainly the luxuries of the elite, most of the population faced challenges not unlike those of many people today. The Romans dealt with economic instability, social inequality, and the constant struggle to balance income with expenses.
In some ways, they lived better than others today, especially considering certain classes’ relative wealth and stability. However, in many other ways, their lives were fraught with hardships that modern advancements have alleviated.
As we reflect on the lives of Theodorus, Aurelius, and Tatianus, it becomes evident that the question of whether the Romans lived better than us cannot be answered. It depends greatly on one’s perspective and the aspects of life one values most.
The Roman Empire, with all its complexity and diversity, offers a mirror to our society, reflecting both the timeless challenges of human existence and the unique conditions of life in ancient times.
- Economic Disparities: The Roman Empire was marked by significant economic disparities, with the affluent enjoying opulence and the less fortunate grappling with basic sustenance.
- Social Stratification: The stark contrast in living standards between classes such as tenant farmers, soldiers, and aristocrats highlights the pronounced social stratification of the era.
- Fiscal Challenges: Similar to contemporary times, Romans faced budgetary challenges, including budgeting for necessities, managing income, and dealing with inflation.
- Military Benefits: Roman soldiers, like Aurelius, experienced a relatively improved lifestyle, benefiting from military provisions and financial bonuses.
- Aristocratic Burdens: Wealth in Roman aristocracy came with its burdens, including civic duties and the pressure to maintain social status through extravagant spending.
- Cultural Investments: Education and cultural pursuits were highly valued, especially among the elite, reflecting a society emphasizing knowledge and refinement.
- Historical Perspective: The Roman Empire offers a historical lens through which to view and compare contemporary societal structures and quality of life.
In scrutinizing the quality of Roman life, we unearth a mosaic of experiences, each colored by its socio-economic hue. From the diligent toil of Theodorus to the strategic calculations of Aurelius and the lavish expenditures of Tatianus, each narrative weaves a distinct thread in the broader fabric of Roman society.
This exploration transcends mere historical curiosity, mirroring our present world and reflecting the perennial dance of prosperity, hardship, privilege, and responsibility. It asks us to ponder the worldly measures of well-being and the intangible values of culture, education, and civic engagement that perennially shape human societies.