How Romans lived, worked, played, and died is a fascination that has led to many books, films, and of course, scholarly work. Aldrete’s contribution adds to the growing genre of examinations of various aspects of daily life in the Roman Republic and Empire. Written primarily for an undergraduate student audience, the book is accessible—and applicable—to many undergraduate-level academic courses and topics, including history, art and architecture, religion, and/or archaeology.
The book is divided into chapters that touch on broad themes, all of which are supported by various contemporary texts. The author begins with a short survey of the history of Rome, followed by chapters on infrastructure, government, people, living and dying, dangers, pleasures, entertainment, religion, the emperors, and the economy. The main thrust of the chapters is to show how each of these subjects adds to our knowledge of the city of Rome as capital, though each individual chapter also mentions other Roman cities if the evidence warrants inclusion. Two final chapters highlight the cities of Ostia and Pompeii and offer a comparison to the capital city of Rome.
The author’s desire in this book is to demonstrate that Rome was essentially an urban one that centered on architecture and physical structures. Aldrete emphasizes the uniformity of the Roman urban environment and how the capital—Rome itself—established the ideal for all urban centers, but acknowledges important differences among Roman cities. While paying particular attention to the built wonders of the Roman cities—aqueducts, amphitheatres, roads, and temples—the author also points out the human toil on the regular inhabitants of the Roman urban environment, and furthermore the problems that haunted the Roman city, including poverty, crime, overcrowding, and disease. The engineering marvel of Rome is well-balanced with descriptions of the everyday experience of living “cheek to jowl” in cramped living quarters often abutting the major monuments.
After a short explanation of how Rome came to be a political power and a brief explanation of the topography of Rome, the author moves on to the infrastructure of Roman cities. Aldrete provides an interesting discussion of construction methods of aqueducts, sewers, roads, and bridges. The next topic is Roman government, in which the author also offers a context for the Roman Forum’s buildings and functions. The book moves to people, the family, women, marriage, children, and education. He is careful to explain the variety within these groups, focusing not only on patrician classes, but also on the poorer groups, including plebeians, slaves and freedmen; these last two groups are given their own discussion in the chapter. To further explain the differences in these groups, the author’s next chapter examines living and dying in Rome, beginning with a description of the private domus versus communal insulae. Health and medicine gives way to funerary practices of the wealthy and less fortunate through an examination of funerary markers, inscriptions, and wills.
It is in the seventh chapter of the book that the author gives full expression to the the dangers that lurked in the Roman urban environment. This chapter offers the reader a startlingly look at the difficulties one could encounter in cramped cities. Fires, floods, sanitation (or the lack thereof), disease, and crime are all covered in this chapter. The next two chapters balance the pitfalls of the Roman urban environment by focusing on the pleasures to be found in these cities. In the eighth chapter, gardens, baths, banquets, sexuality, and entertainment are highlighted. Description of gladiatorial combat is also featured, along with a description of famous venues such as the Flavian amphitheatre and the Circus Maximus. Other spectacles are introduced in this chapter, and once again, the author offers a good overview, which is supported with illustrations and texts. The next chapter considers religion in Rome. A few famous temples are briefly mentioned, including the Temple of Vesta and the Pantheon, and other religions in Rome are also noted, including Mithraism and Christianity. Chapter eleven offers an examination of the emperors and their additions to the urban landscape, mostly in Rome itself. After a chapter on the Roman economy, Aldrete examines Ostia and Pompeii in “Ostia: An Industrial Port City” and “Pompeii: A Time Capsule of Roman Daily Life”.
In a brief concluding chapter, Aldrete compares these three cities and their respective visions of the Roman urban environment. Here the author reiterates his focus of the book—to highlight the marvels of Rome as an essentially urban civilization, while not losing sight of the living and dying that went on inside its walls. As the author states, “Roman architectural wonders should not be admired without considering their cost, and the glories of Roman civilization have to be balanced against the experiences of the many who did not share in them, or who suffered to provide them” (237).
The book is also enhanced by the inclusion of five appendices that examine Roman names, the calendar and timekeeping, clothing, construction techniques, and a history of the city of Rome from antiquity to the present. The maps that are included throughout the text and chapters are helpful, but in some cases are difficult to read and could be clearer. Numerous illustrations, reproduced in black and white, add further contextual insight into the given topics. However, these images are not explained, but are merely added to visually demonstrate a given topic. For example, in the chapter on “Pleasures of Life in Ancient Rome,” figure 8.2 offers a reproduction of a wall painting from Pompeii. However, there is no explanation of the image per se, and the author does not give any specific information on the original location of the image in Pompeii. While the images themselves are not the focus of the discussion and this book is admittedly not an art history text (nor does it claim to be), readers with questions about these images will need to do further research to find their contexts and dates.
Although occasionally repetitive in sections—one often notes that a reference had been made in an earlier chapter—the book is structured in such a way that different chapters could be assigned to undergraduate students for an overview of any given topic. The repetitions are more overt when reading the book from cover to cover, but assignments from specific chapters that could be aligned with undergraduate class lecture topics would likely alleviate this mild weakness. In summation, this book offers a thorough and interesting glimpse into life in ancient Rome.