Roman Mindset, Society, and Economy

From the Lecture Series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The Roman mindset involved a high dose of cruelty, but the Romans justified it with different excuses. Although Romans were never fond of the Greek lifestyle, Greek people, language, and art were inseparable from the Roman mindset. Further, privacy did not matter much as a necessity. What led to this mindset?

a pile of ancient copper roman coins, close-up shot, selective focus
The Roman mindset included a range of beliefs, from somehow racist biases towards Greeks to insignificance of privacy. (Image: Glevalex/Shutterstock)

Romans took cruelty to a new level, but they did not invent it. Indeed, The Colosseum was the premier venue for 50,000 people to observe cruelty first-hand. However, considering the popularity of violent movies and games, we can conclude that they were not the only ones who liked to watch violence.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Roman Interest in Violence

The Roman sculpture of Menelaus.
Gladiators were usually not people that Romans counted as real people, and they were even sacrifices for Roman gods. (Image: Sahara Prince/Shutterstock)

Cruelty did have a high place in the Roman mindset, but it was not a value. Thus, they justified their penchant for blood with that, for example, people killed in the Colosseum and other amphitheaters in the Empire were not real people. They were mainly prisoners of war, slaves turned gladiators, condemned criminals, and Christians, none of which met the Roman definitions of “real” humans.

The sociologist and historian Keith Hopkins suggested that the Roman religion also had ritual killings. In other words, gladiatorial fights were a form of sacrifice to the gods. Still it was not all religious, and their lust for chopping people’s heads and hands off and ripping their tongues out was partly to keep everything under control.

Learn more about being a Roman soldier.

Romans and Greeks

Another important aspect of the Roman mindset was their relationship with the Greeks. Romans did not trust the Greeks that much, but their life was full of Greek influences. High-rank Romans had Greek slaves, tutors, and works of art knew Greek literature and could even speak and read Greek.

Greek sculptures were so valuable to have that if the Romans could not buy an original piece, they would have gone for the copies on the market. However, Greek sculptures were not the only thing that Romans wanted to buy and have.

They bought as much as they could and imported from everywhere possible, especially throughout the Empire. Goods were transported in amphorae, sacks, glass bottles, wooden crates, and barrels from other countries under Roman rule.

Privacy in the Roman Mindset

In the Roman world privacy was not as important a matter as today. Perhaps, because it could not exist as it does now. Firstly, Romans had slaves who were in the house all the time and knew of all their private matters.

The slaves could hear the Roman owners quarreling with their spouses, complaining about the neighbors, talking negatively about the emperor, and so on. This might look very uncomfortable to the modern people, but it did not occupy a Roman’s mind really. Privacy was not so common in a slave society of the ancient world.

The insignificance of privacy is also evident in public toilets. Roman latrines did not have party walls, and everyone had to sit in open space. Of course, the clothing back then was loose and covered much more of the body in a sitting position. There is no evidence to show if men and women had separate facilities or not.

In Herculaneum, however, there is a latrine close to the men’s bathhouse, but none adjacent to the women’s, which may mean that women sometimes had to share the same facilities as men.

Learn more about being a Roman woman.

Physical Conditions of Life in Rome

Many Romans had to live in unsanitary, uncomfortable, overcrowded, and hazardous conditions. There was an extreme gap between the rich and the poor, which made the streets full of beggars, thieves, and prostitutes. On the streets, the smell of human urine and excrement was so nauseating that the wealthy held up roses to their noses.

Ancient coins of the Roman Empire.
There was a significant economic gap in the Roman society, and many people lived in unhealthy conditions and suffered malnutrition. (Image: Bukhta Yurii/Shutterstock)

There was very heavy traffic, and wheeled vehicles were allowed to move around only at night. In such a dense society, plagues and other diseases happened annually. Of course, another reason for it could be the common malnutrition.

At the same time, Rome offered unparalleled opportunities for advancement for those who were hardworking, enterprising, and ambitious, regardless of their social or economic status. Romans cared so much about leisure and relaxation that a wide variety of diversions and distractions were offered at virtually no cost.

Alongside all the cruelty and slavery, Roman slaves were allowed not only to gain their liberty, but also to have parallel conditions for advancement and becoming a Roman citizen.

Learn more about being a poor Roman

Common Questions about Roman Mindset

Q: Was cruelty a Roman value?

Although the Roman mindset was not always in line with the modern world’s, they did not value cruelty as a virtue. They just viewed it as a normal part of life and created facilities for indulging in bloodiness on a scale that had never remotely been equaled before.

Q: Did Romans value massacres?

The public killings in Rome were not out of cruelty or bloodthirst. They were probably a religious rite, as religion was always one of the Roman virtues and part of the Roman mindset.

Q: Was materialism a Roman virtue?

Materialism was not a Roman virtue but was very common and familiar in the Roman mindset. Romans imported goods from wherever they could and tried to furnish their houses with as much stuff as possible, especially in the wealthier social class.

Q: Was privacy important in ancient Rome?

Romans were used to having slaves which already takes away privacy. The slaves knew everything about the house they worked in and the people living in it. Even the “public toilets” had no wall, and privacy was not as important in that society. Privacy did not have a high place in the Roman mindset back then.

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