Skip to Main Content

Ancient Rome: Everyday Life

File:Plate111 from Wincklemann Monumenti antichi inediti 1767 Marriage of  Peleus and Thetis from Roman sarcophagus in Villa Albani ca 350 AD cropped  resized white-balanced.png - Wikimedia CommonsSource: Wikimedia Commons

When we think of Ancient Rome we often think of gladiators and emperors, but what was daily life like for most of the Roman people? Read through the resources below to learn more about how the Ancient Romans lived, including work, food, family and dress.

Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale

Room M of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, functioned as a bedroom.

The rear wall shows rocky terrain with balustrades and an arbor above, a small cave or grotto sheltering a fountain, and a small figure of Hekate below. In the center of the wall, between two columns, a parapet embellished with a yellow monochrome landscape supports a glass bowl filled with fruit.

The side walls of the room are symmetrical. Each wall is subdivided into four sections by a pilaster that defines the area of the couch and by two ornate columns. The paintings depict enclosed courtyards in which we glimpse the tops of statuary, rotundas, and pylons as well as vegetation. These precincts alternate with townscapes combining colonnaded buildings and projecting terraces.

Tableware from the Tivoli Hoard

This group of silver tableware forms part of a hoard, said to be from Tivoli, near Rome. Tivoli was a popular site for luxury villas in the Late Republic, and was to Rome what Boscoreale and Boscotrecase in the Campanian countryside were to Naples. The Tivoli hoard, comprising thirty pieces in all, includes two decorated skyphoi (wine cups), a ladle, a trulla (spouted pitcher), and several spoons, all of which would have been used at dining and drinking parties. Inscriptions on the pair of drinking cups and the ladle give the weight of each piece and the owner's name: "Sattia, daughter of Lucius." The hoard was probably buried as a result of the civil wars and political unrest in Rome during the last decades of the Republic. The elegant soup spoons in this group give a clue to the diverse courses favored in Roman cuisine; the ample bowl of the ladle, like that of the cups, shows an appreciation of wine. We learn details of Roman cuisine through the cookbook of Apicius and the writings of Petronius, Juvenal, and Martial. The dietary preferences of the Romans were remarkably close to the tastes of modern-day Italians. The gustatio, or first course, consisted of shellfish, eggs, or salad. The cena, or main course, featured a succession of roasted meats. The meal ended with sweetmeats and fruits.

Wall painting from Room H of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale

This painting of a seated woman playing a kithara is from Room H, either a dining room (triclinium) or a room for social gatherings (oecus), in the villa at Boscoreale. Each of the paintings that originally adorned this room derives from the Greek tradition of megalographia, or large-scale painting, about which so much was written in antiquity; Apollinaris of Sidonius, Petronius in the Satyricon, and Vitruvius all shed light on the use of megalographia in Roman villas.

In this fresco, the kithara player is depicted as a plump young woman clothed in a purple chiton and white himation. She is adorned with a bracelet, earrings, and headband with a central medallion, all of gold. A small figure of Atlas supports the arm of her elaborately carved chair that originally was lacquered a deep lustrous red. The instrument she plays is not a simple lyre, but a gilded kithara, a large concert instrument played by Apollo and professional musicians. Behind the seated woman stands a small girl wearing a sleeveless purple chiton. She, too, is adorned with a gold headband, bracelet, and loop earrings. Like portrait figures, the woman and the girl gaze directly at the spectator.

Most recently it has been suggested that the pair may represent a Macedonian queen, or princess, and her daughter or younger sister. The gilded kithara and richly adorned, thronelike chair, as well as the carefully rendered gold jewelry and headbands, give the impression of royal personage. Whatever the exact subject, this painting and others in the villa were admired as excellent copies of Hellenistic art that emphasized the erudition and worldliness of the villa's owner.

Mosaic floor panel

The rectangular panel represents the entire decorated area of a floor and was found together with another mosaic (now in the Baltimore Museum of Art) in an olive grove at Daphne-Harbiye in 1937. In Roman times, Daphne was a popular holiday resort, used by the wealthy citizens and residents of Antioch as a place of rest and refuge from the heat and noise of the city. American excavations at Daphne in the late 1930s uncovered the remains of several well-appointed houses and villas, including the one that contained this mosaic. At its center is a panel (emblema) with the bust of a woman, decked out with a wreath of flowers around her head and a floral garland over her left shoulder. Traditionally identified as Spring, the figure is probably the representation of a more generic personification of abundance and good living, well suited to the luxurious atmosphere created at Daphne by its rich patrons.

Couch and footstool with bone carvings and glass inlays

These pieces of furniture have been reassembled from fragments, some of which may come from the imperial villa of Lucius Verus (co-emperor, A.D. 161–169), on the Via Cassia outside Rome. It is not certain that the square glass panels are original to the bed frame and stool, but the carved bone inlays are paralleled on other Roman couches. On the couch legs are friezes of huntsmen, horses, and hounds flanking Ganymede, the handsome Trojan youth who was abducted by Zeus in the guise of an eagle to serve as his wine steward; on the footstool are scenes of winged cupids and leopards; and on the sides of the bed frame, the striking lion protomes have eyes inlaid with glass.


fibula is a brooch or pin for fastening garments, typically at the right shoulder.

Gold pin with obsidian finial ca. 1st century A.D.

Gold pin with an obsidian finial in the shape of an animal's head.

Silver skyphos (drinking cup)

On the underside of the foot, an inscription giving cup's weight and the name of owner, Sattia.

Marble head of an elderly woman

This portrait of an elderly Roman matron conveys an air of gravitas and dignity that befits the social standing of the subject. Like most portraits of Roman women, this one can be dated closely by the hairstyle, which combines a braided bun worn high on the head and the so-called nodus, a flat braid pulled back over the top of the head.
In antiquity, all marble sculpture was painted. Here, the indication of eyelashes can still be seen on the upper lid of the right eye, and traces of pigment remain on the same eye and on the hair.

Silver spouted pitcher

This shape may represent the kind of wine ladle that the Roman encyclopaedist Varro called a trulla.

Marble statue of a togatus (man wearing a toga)

This man wears a tunic and over it a toga, the most characteristic Roman dress. The toga, a length of woolen cloth with rounded edges, had been the traditional garment of the Romans for centuries, but by the late first century B.C., it was declining in popularity. As part of his effort to revive ancient values and customs, the emperor Augustus made the toga a sort of unofficial state dress that all citizens were required to wear in the forum. A cylindrical leather box for scrolls, represented at the feet of this figure, identify him as a man engaged in public business. A portrait head and arms were carved separately and added.

Bronze scalpel/dissector

The instrument is a typical example of a Graeco-Roman surgeon's scalpel. One end serves as a leaf-shaped dissector, while the other forms a rectangular handles with a central wedge-shaped slot that originally held the iron or steel scalpel blade.

Bronze plaque

The inscription names a senior Vestal Virgin, Flavia Publicia, and may be a grant of exemption to a horse or bull from use in harness for pulling a cart or plough.

Inscribed marble plaque

The Greek inscription, although fragmentary, is sufficient to provide enough of the sense and the poetic tone of the epitaph. It records the burial place of a certain Bacchi(o)s who had enjoyed a successful career as either a butcher or a chef.

Pair of silver strigils (scrapers) on a carrying ring

Strigils are normally associated with men, who used them in the gymnasium and the baths. Most surviving examples are made of bronze and it is unusual to have a set preserved with their carrying ring.


Roman gold amulet comprising a rectangular sheet (lamella) cut from gold foil, with sixteen lines of incised text along the short axis. 12 magical characters on lines 1-3 are followed by the main text on lines 3 - 16 in Greek cursive writing. The text is apparently a charm to ensure safe childbirth for Fabia, daughter of Terentia.


Gold brooch made from a gold aureus in the name of Lucilla, wife of Lucius Verus; obverse: bust of Lucilla to right, inscribed; reverse: Piety standing beside an altar, holding a casket, inscribed; waved openwork round setting.

Marble relief showing transport amphorae

The relief appears to show a merchant receiving a delivery from a porter at right, who is carrying a jar over his shoulder. Other amphorae, with their mouths clearly sealed, are stacked in the corner at left.

Bronze steelyard

A steelyard is used to weigh things such as food or money. According to one source, the steelyard was invented by Archimedes, the great Syracusan inventor, in the 3rd century B.C. No examples of that early a date are attested but, since they changed little in form and appearance and continued in use until medieval times, it is often difficult to give a precise date to a specific steelyard.