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The Slums of Ancient Rome: Words and Things

By Cyril Courrier (Aix-Marseille Université) and Jean-Pierre Guilhembet (Université Paris-Diderot-Université de Paris).


The image of the city of Rome in ancient sources is ambiguous. Augustus boasted about having turned it into a model of urbanity, but other descriptions remain very negative: a city where poverty reigned, and a population of miserable marginalized and poor people lived. For Horace, Rome seemed to be entirely made up of brothels and bars. According to Catullus, the salax taberna, one of the main characteristics of "underground Rome", was a world of debauchery that, even being close to the temple of Castor and Pollux, barely concealed activities of prostitution. More often, Rome is described as a world of lustra, of bad places. How to explain such a grim picture? Are we talking about an effectively lived reality or, above all, of literary stereotypes or social prejudices, forms of stigmatization and aristocratic contempt on the part of authors who belonged to the highest strata of society?


There is a doubtless point, though. Rome was a very densely populated city: 400,000 inhabitants at the end of the 2nd century BCE; 600 or 700,000 in the middle of the 1st century BCE; probably a million under Augustus. Of course, such a concentration, unique among pre-industrial cities, should not be overlooked. The ancients insist on the atmosphere and turmoil of the Vrbs, especially the poet Martial, a native of Hispania. And that's not all: the confusion of streets, the stench, lack of sanitation, crime and violence are, in the texts, the corollary of this overpopulation and the widespread poverty of a plebs usually described as uprooted and confined in temporary housing or, for the lucky ones, in collective residences, with no maintenance whatsoever, but very high rent cost.


Indeed, the masses were supposed to live in buildings that sources call sometimes, but far more rarely than modern studies suggest, insulae. Two main and recurrent risks seem to have marked their existence: the collapses, accelerated by the Tiber floods, which weakened its foundations, and the fires. The small space between two buildings, the massive use of wood, heating with stoves, and lighting with oil lamps also favoured the recurrence and extent of fires. These textual data are so bleak and almost apocalyptic that modern historians have been able to speak of a "dystopian" picture, the opposite of an utopia. But what is the historically accurate part here? Should we take everything that is denounced by Plautus, Petronius, Seneca, Martial, Juvenal or others literally?


Reconstruction of a high quality collective building, reproduced with the kind permission of the Université de Caen Passe-Normandie, Plan de Rome (France).

Some works, relying on both compilation and combination of quotes, build on this very gloomy image and derive demographic consequences from it. Other historians, such as E. Lo Cascio, emphasize, on the contrary, that these elements are due in large part to the cliché inherent in the literary genres of comedies or satires in the form of an upside-down world. All this rhetoric aims to celebrate a healthy life in the countryside, given the difficulty and immorality of urban life, and exacerbates aristocratic, contemptuous and stereotyped representations of the people and their dangers.


Does archaeology shed more light on the realities of housing? Contrary to what one might think, it’s not very helpful. The continuous occupation of the site of Rome only allowed the excavation of a few buildings. On the scale of a city of one million inhabitants, the sample is not very representative, but it can be supplemented by the buildings of Ostia, the port city of Rome, whose site, progressively abandoned at the end of antiquity, was never reoccupied. Most are in a remarkable state of preservation and hardly confirm the apocalyptic view of literary sources. The generalization of opus caementicium as a binding element between bricks enabled the construction of solid buildings with stone pillars. Although these buildings generally lacked the expected urban facilities (latrines systematically connected to public sewers, real kitchens), they integrated different aspects of residents' lives: a collective source connected to the water supply network in a central courtyard or on an adjacent street met the neighbourhood’s water needs; the shops around the courtyard offered a variety of local services; baths, associations and small sanctuaries favoured neighbourly relations.


Reconstruction of a street in the ancient city of Rome, with its fountain and its shops on the ground level of the buildings; reproduced with the kind permission of the Université de Caen Passe-Normandie, Plan de Rome (France).

The archaeological data available are, therefore, far from the pessimistic view of most texts. They indeed confirm the description of Vitruvius, an architect from the beginning of Augustus' time: “Given the importance of the city and the extreme density of the population (...) it was necessary (...) to resort to buildings at height. These buildings are built with stone pillars, brick-lined masonry, walls with rubble core (...). Thus, they offer an extremely useful distribution in dwellings [thanks to which] the Roman people find, without difficulty, excellent housing” (On architecture 2.8.17).


It remains to be seen which part and how many inhabitants were housed this way: several recent studies have recalled the exceptional character of the Roman megacity in which a part of the population (the plebs frumentaria), protected by the authorities, lived in favoured conditions. The monthly free distribution of public wheat allowed beneficiaries to access a varied diet, thanks to the purchasing power thus preserved; the public power guaranteed abundant quality water, intervened in the maintenance of the streets and in the disposal of waste... But this plebs frumentaria reached 320,000 adult men in the first century BCE and 150,000 at least under the Empire, to whom we should add the other members of their family. If we admit a possible approximation between the insulae now preserved and the existence of a body of privileged citizens, we can deduce that the capital of the Empire was not invaded by precarious constructions and forms of temporary housing. Does this mean that Rome was a city without slums?


If the insulae do not correspond to the precarious habitat, it is necessary to think about premises and a more diversified vocabulary to locate the dwellings of the marginals. In the necropolis areas on the outskirts of the city, monuments, chapels and funerary sites, undoubtedly housed a part of the population in case of disaster or in a structural manner but is it necessary to overestimate it? The same can be said for the banks of the Tiber from bridges, aqueduct structures, ramps or stairs of buildings or warehouses. Could the growth of public porticoes and monuments allow the poorest population to set up makeshift shelters? There is no conclusive evidence that allows us to identify invasions of these spaces by precarious housing. But as these dwellings left almost no material traces, modest dwellings can be deduced above all from the openly derogatory vocabulary of literary sources. There were also accommodations that, under various names, allowed one to live in Rome at reasonable prices, with a daily rent paid. But here again, one must be careful with the literature, which, in most cases, presents these lodges in a cruel way. When an aristocrat travelled, he stayed only at his estate or at a friend's house. After all, all forms of hosting had a bad reputation!


The same nuances can also be applied to neighbourhoods. Subura has become, in ancient literature, synonymous with a dangerous place, a depraved neighbourhood, but the reality is far more complex: the neighbourhood has always housed aristocratic residences! Without denying certain inconveniences, we are dealing here, as elsewhere, with a stigmatized neighbourhood, not a favela. Furthermore, Velabrum, the Circus Maximus area and Trastevere, all of which are heavily populated districts, did not enjoy a good reputation. Flood zones, which are certainly less expensive, should accommodate low-income populations. But, apart from the sophisticated and imperial Palatine, there was no exacerbated urban zoning.


Finally, we must not forget that, in the long history of Rome, urban geography was always changing: neighbourhoods disappeared with the construction of imperial forums; popular areas on the immediate periphery of the centre, such as parts of the Aventine, welcomed aristocrats when the Palatine was occupied by the prince and his relatives; domus, true urban palaces, could replace insulae (and vice versa). Rome was not made in a day, neither was its slums, and its living conditions, once the caricatures and satire are unveiled, were undoubtedly no more dramatic (or even less) than in many ancient or modern metropolises.


Tags: #slums #insulae #habitation #AncientRome

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