Records of Roman Life: Letters, Books, and Office Records

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE ROMAN EMPIRE: FROM AUGUSTUS TO THE FALL OF ROME

By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

When we read the many written records of ancient Rome that are available, such as letters, books, and official documents, we realize both the similarities and stark differences from the Roman way of life. How did the Romans live? Do we emulate them in all aspects of life?

A stone with writing in Latin.
Writings from the Roman period reveal a lot of information about the people of the time. (Image: nikuz/Shutterstock)

A Letter of Recommendation

A letter of recommendation is nothing new, and here is an example written in the 2nd century AD by a Roman for a friend seeking a government appointment:

Greetings—I ask that you confer the military tribuneship on a friend of mine … His name is Cornelius Minicianus, and he is the shining light of our region, both in nobility and in character. He comes from a splendid family and is loaded with money, but loves hard work as much as poor people usually do. He is a very honest judge, a very bold lawyer, and a very faithful friend. You will realize that I have done you a favor when you examine him closer and see that he is a man equal to any job and any distinction. But I won’t say anything more to glorify such a very modest man.

In this case, we are dealing with an upper-class writer, as revealed by the rather condescending comment about poor people and hard work. Still, the style, with its rather overdone praise, will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has had to sort through stacks of recommendation letters.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Medical Advice from Ancient Rome

One way in which the modern world is thankfully very different from ancient Rome is in the field of medicine. Here are a few excerpts from a Roman medical textbook of the 1st century AD:

The 'Galen' group of physicians in an image from the Vienna Dioscurides.
Physicians in Rome generally advocated natural medicine, using animal or plant products. (Image: Austrian National Library/Public domain)

The most effective protection against snakes is the spit of a fasting person. Actual daily experience confirms other effective uses of it such as to prevent epilepsy and infection, and to repel witchcraft. Recurrent fevers are to be cured by wearing the salted right eye of a wolf on your body. For broken bones, a quick remedy is the ashes of a jawbone of a boar or swine, likewise boiled lard tied around the broken bone heals it very quickly. Depression is cured by drinking calf’s dung boiled in wine. Sleepiness can be cured by applying to the nostrils the calluses from an ass’s legs soaked in vinegar.

Roman medical advice wasn’t all so dubious, however. Here’s another line from the same book that sounds quite modern: “Good health can be maintained by a balanced diet, exercise, and sufficient sleep.”

Learn more about the dawn of the Roman Empire.

A Receipt for a Slave

An even more profound difference from modern sensibilities is revealed in the following sales receipt:

Dasius, a Breucian, purchased and received by legal transfer for the sum of 600 denarii from Bellicus, son of Alexander, the following property: one boy of Greek origin, named Apalaustus, or whatever other name he might have. It is guaranteed that this boy has been handed over in good health, that he is not guilty of theft or other crime, that he is not a vagrant, a runaway, or an epileptic. If anyone prevents the buyer who has lawfully purchased this property from lawfully using, enjoying, having, and possessing it, then he must pay to Dasius in legitimate coinage double the purchase amount. Done in the camp of Legion XIII Gemina on May 16 in the consulship of Rufinus and Quadratus.

The callousness of this sales receipt, in which a human child is sold as an object accompanied with reassurances that this piece of property is in good condition, smacks us in the face with the brutality and reality of slavery in the Roman world.

Such texts fill out our picture of ancient life for groups such as slaves who do not get a voice in upper-class literary sources.

Learn more about Roman art and architecture.

Preparing for a Festival

Pompeiian mosaic showing a performer with an aulos and phorbeiá.
Romans sometimes organized private festivals, with flute players and other entertainers. (Image: WolfgangRieger/Public domain)

Similarly, we can learn about things like the religious practices of women from texts such as the following letter. It was written on behalf of a group of women preparing for an all-female religious festival.

Greetings. Send us at your earliest opportunity the flutist Petoun with the Phrygian flutes, plus the other flutes. If it is necessary to pay him, do so, and we will reimburse you. Also, send us the eunuch Zenobius with a drum, cymbals, and castanets. The women need them for their festival. Be sure he is wearing his most elegant clothing. Get the special goat from Aristion and send it to us. Send us also as many cheeses as you can, a new jug, and vegetables of all kinds, and fish if you have it.

Given the supplies that they are laying in, this promises to be a lively festival, although, one wonders what made the goat so special.

Learn more about the ordinary Roman speaks: graffiti.

A Common Roman’s Life

For a peek at the life of a common man, we can read this census declaration dating from 91 AD:

I, Horus, son of Haryotes, make my declaration to the census officer for the village of Bacchias, in the ninth year of the Emperor Caesar Domitian Augustus Germanicus. I own, and live in one-quarter of a house, and I register the following persons of the household: Myself, Horus. Peteuris, my son. Herieus, the daughter of Menches, 30 years old without identifying marks. Tapeine, daughter of Apkois, my wife, about 25 years old. Hathyr, my brother born of the same mother and father, who owns one-quarter of the same house. Horio, also my full brother, 7 years old. I swear that this is true and I have made no false statement. Written for him by Aphrodisius, the village secretary, since he is illiterate.

From this simple statement, we can reconstruct Horus’s household. His extended family seems to include not only himself, his wife, and son, but his wife’s daughter from a previous relationship, and another unrelated woman. He also shares the house with two brothers, and collectively, they only own one-half of the structure.

These records tell us a lot about the Roman life, of both the commoners and the upper-class. Some of their way of life has found its way in our modern lives, and some, thankfully, has gone with them.

Common Questions about Records of Roman Life

Q. What do written records tell us about jobs in Rome?

Written records tell us that Romans wrote recommendation letters for friends, much like today. Some recommendation letters indicate that these were mostly upper-class people.

Q. What kind of records do we have about the slavery which was common in Rome?

Some records are sales receipts which deal with the sale and purchase of slaves. They tell us about the brutality and reality of slavery in the Roman world.

Q. Are common Romans represented in written records?

Even common Romans are represented in some written records. Documents such as census records tell us about the lives of, and the conditions in which, many common Romans lived.

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