Discover what life was like in Roman times.
What Were Roman Houses Like?
There was a big difference between the homes of rich and poor Romans.
Most people in Roman Britain lived in the countryside. Poorer people continued to live in the same type of house built before the Romans came. These were round houses made of wood and thatch. They had one room in which the whole family cooked, ate and slept.
Many wealthy people in the countryside built villas. These were large stone houses, usually attached to farms and included luxuries such as under floor heating and running water. Villas came in a wide range of shapes and sizes. As well as a house for the family, villas included granaries (for storing grain), workshops and living areas for the farm workers.
Example of a Roman villa
The heating system was called a hypocaust. Hot air from a furnace would circulate under the floor which was supported by pillars of bricks. The water at public bath houses was heated this way and some larger villas had their own private ones.
The inside of villas were often beautifully decorated with wall paintings and mosaic floors (pictures made out of small pieces of tile).
Example of a mosaic
Houses in the towns were close together and were normally in the form of a ‘strip’ with the narrow end fronting the street. Many town houses were attached to shops or workshops. As houses were built close together, there was little room for expansion so some had two floors.
Richer people in the towns lived in larger detached houses or domus. Large villas and town houses had proper kitchens but many people in the towns did not have cooking facilities. They bought hot food from taverns and snack bars. Most houses in towns also did not have toilets so people used public toilets. Sewers took away the waste.
Did Roman Children go to School?
Many children from poor families did not learn to read and write. Children from wealthier families might be taught at home by a tutor or boys (not girls) might go to a private school. They usually learned how to read and write Latin and Greek, maths, history and public speaking.
Roman schools were small (around 12 pupils or less) and were not free. The children learnt by repeating the lesson until they knew it. Girls didn’t go to school. They were taught at home and their education included spinning, weaving and how to run a household.
Children were taught to write on wax tablets with a pointed stick called a stylus. The wax in the tablet could be smoothed out or melted and so used again and again. Wax tablets were also used in everyday life for short notes and lists.
The Romans used a type of paper called papyrus made from reeds. It was expensive and only used for books and important documents. Ink was a mixture of glue, soot and water.
Papyrus and an inkwell
Lots of different languages were spoken across the Roman Empire but Latin was the official language of the Romans. Although Latin is no longer a main language of a country, many people can still read and speak it today and it is taught at some schools. Our alphabet is based on the Latin one and many of our words come from Latin such as ‘junior’ and ‘doctor’.
Roman numbers or numerals looked very different to ours. They were a series of letters (M D C L X V I) put together to make different numbers. Large numbers got very complicated, for example 1,778 would be MDCCLXXVIII. Roman numerals are still used today, usually on clocks like this one on Chesterfield Parish Church.
'Crooked Spire' clock with Roman numerals
Children learnt to do sums using an abacus like this one. Abacuses were also used for doing calculations in everyday life and were very useful for people like engineers and shop keepers.
What did the Romans Wear?
Although very little Roman clothing survives, we know quite a lot about what they wore. Statues, mosaics, paintings and written descriptions give a good picture of Roman clothes and hairstyles.
Most people (men, women and children) wore a tunic. Respectable married women usually wore a long dress called a stola over their tunic. When they went out they also wore a shawl called a palla and used it to cover their head.
Togas, a semi-circular cloth draped in a particular way, worn over the tunic, were only worn by men and boys who were Roman citizens. A toga was only worn on formal occasions. It was a big piece of cloth and so very expensive. There were different types of toga. The toga praetexta was white with a purple stripe and was worn by important magistrates. Most men wore a plain white toga (toga virilis).
The toga was semi-circular – its width was three times the height of the person. One end was draped over the left arm and the other end brought under the right arm and placed over the left shoulder.
How to put on a toga
Most clothing was made out of wool or linen. Wealthy people though could afford materials like silk.
Many types of jewellery were worn. Brooches (fibulae) were most common as they were used for fastening clothes but earrings, finger rings, bracelets and necklaces were also worn. Only the rich had gold jewellery. Most people had jewellery made from cheaper materials like amber (a type of resin).
The children of Roman citizens were given a bulla (good luck charm) which they wore around their necks. Girls stopped wearing their bullas when they got married. Boys wore them until they officially became adults at the age of 16.
People did wear underwear in Roman times. Men wore a loincloth or underpants while women wore briefs. Women sometimes wore a band of cloth wrapped around their bust. In colder weather socks were also worn.
Clothing fashions didn’t change very much during the Roman period but hairstyles of wealthy women changed a lot. Sometimes hairstyles could be quite complicated with lots of curls piled high on the top of the head. Hair dyeing and wigs were also popular among the rich.
What did the Romans do for Fun?
Compared to us, the Romans had little leisure time but they enjoyed lots of different pastimes including plays, chariot races and music. Public games were held in amphitheatres, and plays or military displays but mostly gladiator fights. The arena was in the middle with raised seats for the spectators around the outside. This shows the remains of one at Caerleon in Wales.
Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon
Most gladiators were slaves or criminals and were trained to fight, often to the death. Usually they fought each other but sometimes they faced wild animals. There were different types of gladiator, each using different weapons, for example a retiarius had a net and trident.
The Romans had many different board games using counters. Unfortunately we don’t know much about the rules. People also enjoyed playing with dice and a game using knuckle bones. They would often bet on the result.
Also, a trip to the public baths was not just to get clean. It was a chance to relax, meet friends and take part in sports such as wrestling and weightlifting. People might exercise first in the palaestra and then move between pools at different temperatures (hot, warm and cold). The hot bath or calidarium built up a sweat then the skin was rubbed with olive oil and scraped to get rid of the dirt.
The Romans enjoyed going to the theatre and copied a lot of plays from the Ancient Greeks. The main types of play were comedies (happy or funny plays) and tragedies (sad or serious plays) but they also introduced the mime and pantomime. These were plays with no words – the actors used dance, music, and hand gestures to tell the story.
Chariot racing was a very popular. Chariots were two wheeled carts driven by a man and pulled by horses. The races were exciting but very dangerous. Crashes often happened causing serious injury and death
What Religion did the Romans have?
The Romans believed in many gods. They thought that these gods watched over them and controlled different parts of their everyday life. For example Jupiter, the chief god, was the god of the sky and controlled the weather while Juno, his wife, looked after women.
People prayed to the gods and left gifts at their temples and shrines so that the gods would be pleased and look after them.
The Romans tried hard not to offend any god and often borrowed new gods from the countries that they invaded. For example Sulis was a Celtic goddess from Britain and became linked with the Roman goddess Minerva (Aquae Sulis is the Roman name for the city of Bath). This temple at Carrawburgh, near Hadrian’s Wall was dedicated to Mithras, a god from Iran.
Temple of Mithras
Worship of the gods was part of everyday life. Each household had its own protective spirits and a shrine to them in the house at which prayers and offerings were made.
Many of the main Roman gods were first worshipped in Ancient Greece. The Romans simply changed their names. For example Minerva, the goddess of wisdom was the Greek goddess, Athena (pictured below) and Neptune, god of the sea, was the Greek Poseidon.
The Romans held many different festivals during the year. Festivals were special days on which people celebrated particular gods. Specific rituals took place such as prayers and sacrifices and during public festivals no work was done. The Saturnalia was a winter festival held in December to honour Saturn, the god of seed and sowing. Many customs are now part of our Christmas celebrations such as merrymaking, candles and presents.
The Romans believed in life after death. A person’s spirit went to the Underworld, ruled over by the god, Pluto. To get there, the dead person needed to cross the river Styx. A coin was buried with the body to pay the ferryman, Charon
The Romans tolerated most religions but Christianity, where people worshipped one god exclusively, was not popular at first. Christians were persecuted, particularly in difficult times when it was thought that the Roman gods were offended. Many were put to death. The religion spread, however, and was officially supported by the Emperor Constantine in 313AD. By 400AD, it was the main religion of the Roman Empire.
What was the Roman Army Like?
The Roman army was large, powerful and well organised. The army defended all the different parts of the Empire and conquered new lands, for example Britain in 43AD.
The soldiers did not spend all their time fighting, though. They also built roads, bridges, forts and generally kept the peace.
The Roman army was organised into groups. The largest group was the legion made up of 4,000 to 6,000 men called legionaries. These were full time soldiers who fought on foot. Each legion was split into ten cohorts and then further divided into smaller groups called centuria. Each century had around 80 soldiers in it.
When moving about the soldiers would build temporary camps of tents that could be set up quickly but more permanent bases or forts were also built. Forts were protected with high walls, usually stone, and most included storerooms, a hospital and workshops. Some even had bath houses and toilets with running water.
As the Roman Empire got bigger, the army had the problem of holding all its frontiers. Frontiers were borders between the Roman territory and other lands. Hadrian’s Wall was built to defend the northern border of the Roman Empire in Britain.
All Roman soldiers were men and were at least 20 years old. They also weren’t supposed to get married. Only Roman citizens could be legionaries but non-citizens could join the army as auxiliary soldiers. If an auxiliary soldier served for 20 years, he might be awarded Roman citizenship, giving important rights.
Roman soldiers built excellent roads to enable the army and supplies to get quickly from place to place. A legionary on the march needed to carry all his armour, weapons, food and equipment with him. This could weigh up to 30kg (about the weight of an 8-10 year old child) and included pots and pans for cooking and tools for setting up camp.
Foot soldiers were usually armed with a dagger (pugio), short sword (gladius) and a spear (pilum). Their shield (scutum) provided good protection and soldiers were well trained to work together. Overlapping shields held above their heads and across their front formed a tortoise (testudo) allowing them to advance on the enemy without getting hit.
Meet a Roman Soldier