This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Daily Life in Ancient Greece and Rome

Magnificence and Squalor

The entire State of Athens at the height of its glory in the 5th century BC probably had a population of rather less than 300,000, considerably less than that of any large European or American city today. Rome, on the other hand, at the beginning of our era already had about a million in and around the city with another thirteen millions, or so, in the rest of Italy. At least four millions were slaves.

Command over the wealth of the known world enabled rich Romans to live in town and country houses of an elegance in design, in their layout of courtyards and gardens, in the lavishness of their materials, construction and decoration that no Athenian could match; nor indeed were they equalled or surpassed again until modern times.

The poor lived in a squalor that they had probably always known, but they fared worse in Athens than in Rome. There, from late Republican times, had sprung up huge barrack like apartment-houses, covering like an island whole city blocks and consequently known as insulae. By the 4th century AD, there were over 44,000 of these insulae against less than 2,000 private houses. Some of the apartment houses of Rome contained elegant homes of a rich middle-class, but the majority housed ordinary folk on very small incomes. The Athenians at their most flourishing period, seven or eight hundred years earlier, had nothing on this scale. ‘Most of the houses were mean, only a few good’, said a Greek about Athens of that time. Another Greek, Strabo, who had seen Augustan Rome, later contrasted Greek priorities of ‘beauty, fortification and harbours’ with Roman care for ‘water-supply, sewers and street-paving’.


(Picture: Roman insulae)

The living quarters of Athens, compared with those of Rome, were such as would disgrace any small, dirty, slum-town. The alleys between small flat-topped hovels were filthy with house refuse and excrement rarely carted away. A by no means common sight down to the 4th and 3rd centuries BC would be the tiny naked bodies of unwanted new-born babies, mostly girls, left at the crossroads for the slave traders, or famished dogs. Down such alleys, muddy in wet weather, deep in dust in summer heat, swarming with flies and vermin, an unbelievably foul hazard to health and decency, the Athenians were content to trudge barefoot, or in sandals.

At night, as in Rome, the inhabitants, if they were out at all, groped their way by the flickering light of their resinous torch or small lantern, for there were no street lamps and any windows from which house lamps might cast their shafts of light were shuttered. Rich folk always had their slaves to escort them and in Rome, especially in imperial times, they were borne along by six or eight slaves in luxurious litters, which in former times had been reserved for women. Such was the press of traffic in Rome’s streets that they were early paved and drained with underground sewers to carry into the Tiber filth and refuse that in Athens filled the streets. Moreover, continual rebuilding made life in Imperial Rome very much more convenient than it had ever been in Athens.

The furniture and equipment of a Greek house can to some extent be visualized from vase paintings while those of the Romans are much better known from actual remains found in the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. By our standards both Greek and Roman houses were sparsely furnished, rather on the lines of the traditional Japanese interiors.


(Picture: bedrooms opened off the central courtyard of the atrium)

A small altar stood in the entrance court of a Greek house on which pious heads of the household performed ritual sacrifices on sacred occasions and from which they sprinkled visitors with the ceremonial water of purification. There would be little to see in the small rooms around the central courtyard apart from the couches and a few small tripod tables in the dining room and a bed or two in other rooms. The poor slept on palliasses, or on a few piled up skins or old bits of cloth, all often verminous and dirty. Chairs with backs and arm rests were less common than simple stools. Beyond a wooden chest to hold the household woollens and linen there would be some earthenware vases, jars, basins and cups in niches hung along the wall, or ranged along the floor.


(Picture; furniture was sparse. A couch or bed was the main item in most houses, used for sleeping and reclining during meals)

Good clay was abundant, while metal was scarce and difficult to work, because the Greeks and Romans did not know how to increase the temperature of a fire by a blast furnace and they had no coal. So poor Greeks not only had pots and pans, but braziers, small portable ovens and cooking ladles, all of earthenware. They soon got dirty of course and there was no soap or good detergent with which to clean them, but they were cheap and, except for the very poor, expendable. By the 3rd century BC, richer Greeks were using bronze for wine ladles and some other utensils.


(picture: An ingenious Roman heater also used to heat water)

The Romans, with their greater resources, did better although they also used earthenware fairly generally in earlier times and poor Romans were always dependent on it. What has been unearthed at Pompeii and elsewhere indicates that iron, steel, copper and bronze had become much more common by the 1st century AD. Wealthy Romans of imperial times far outstripped the Greeks, not so much in the number of their belongings as in their superior quality and workmanship. Costly materials were used for furnishing such as cedar, silks, ivory, tortoise-shell, gold, porcelain from the East; and there was a great luxury in silver-ware, among which choice antique pieces, made by a Greek master-craftsman of olden times, would be given pride of place.

Roman rooms moreover were larger, more lofty and lavishly decorated with wail-paintings, floor mosaics, rich tapestries and carpets as wall hangings when the walls were not adorned with paintings. They varied from simple colouring, sometimes in imitation of the marble facings of the very rich houses up to architectural designs and later to scenes of dramatic quality. Even the slick commercial artwork of ornamental borders or of little cupids engaged on human tasks have a freshness and charm that few modern wall-papers can rival. The Greeks began this use of wallspace for decorative purposes and rich Athenians such as Alcibiades were already commissioning paintings before the end of the 5th century BC, but no Greek equivalent of Pompeii or Herculaneum has been discovered and all Greek painting has perished.

(Picture: a Roman wall-painting from Pompeii)

Floors are more durable and we are better able to trace the development of those decorated pavements with which wealthier Greeks first covered the bare dirt floors of their ancestors. The use of varied coloured small marble stones set in patterns developed into a geometric and pictorial art of no mean quality. The Romans carried the practice to much greater lengths. The rest Roman summers and the dirty and downright disgusting tablemanners of many Romans made a stone floor necessary and carpets impossible as floor-coverings. So skilled slaves and freedmen were set to work to devise patterns and pictures in multi-coloured stone that remain today wherever imperial Romans trod, to astonish visitors to museums and the sites of Roman villas.

Roman furniture shows very little marked difference in design and style from what record we have of that of the Greeks. There was more of it in the larger Roman homes; it was perhaps more solidly built and certainly often of rarer materials and workmanship. Yet the choicest pieces created by the famous craftsmen of Greece became collectors’ treasures for which high prices were paid. Tables of rare cedarwood, antique lamps of splendid design, gilt couches, rare cups and so forth could cost a fortune in Rome of the early imperial period, yet the houses of rich Greeks and Romans would have seemed almost bare in comparison with middle-class homes of today.

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  1. James Diegel

    Nice on sandwichbill!! Great simplification & general overview of a time often romanticized with little thought paid to the masses. Nice balance in this post covering the broader spectrum of life for not only the higher classes, but the populace as a whole 😉

  2. AD

    Great piece of history you’re sharing with us. I come from a country who was a result of the Roman empire’s expansion+ my religion is Greek Orthodox. Interesting combination, right? Because f that, I studied a lot of Greek and Roman history in school.

  3. CryptosDecrypted

    Nice to have the veil on the day to day life of ancient Greeks and Romans lifted just a little bit. So much history focuses on ‘the grand narrative’ but a little context goes a long way. That I’ll read the rest of the series is a given. Cheers @sandwichbill.

    Aside – It must have infuriated the Romans that they exceeded the Greeks in all things material but very rarely so in the arts.