Cost of Living (in Ancient Rome)

I recently received the map on the left from my fellow author Eric Klein (click to enlarge it — it’s beautiful). This is a classic configuration for a Roman-era house, at least for those who could afford it.

It’s quite similar to what I have in mind when I describe Felix’s own house (the only thing missing is the leering faun fountain in the garden).

I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about housing arrangements and the cost of living in Egretia and (Republican) Rome.


Housing

I think it’s first worth noting that this “classic” house configuration might not have been that common in the later Middle republic and onwards for the majority of the population. Certainly not in Rome, where the constant influx of immigrants let to the rise of the insula – large apartment blocks, called literally ‘islands’ because they were surrounded by streets and alleys on all sides. (For those who want a deeper treatment of insulae, they, their tenants, and the lifestyles in them are an integral to the plot of In Numina.)

Location, location, location

Only the rich could afford to maintain such houses inside the city limits, or people who hung on to inheritance over generations despite natural and financial disasters (Felix is one example). It was more common in the country side, both farther afield and around Rome (and Egretia). It wasn’t even that specific neighbourhoods tended to have them and others didn’t — it was common to have insulae in even posh neighbourhoods (although the tenants were usually of a bit better class), and find older, traditional homes nestled in run-down neighbourhoods between stale-cabbage-and-urine-smelling tenements.

With that out of the way, let’s consider what you might expect if you could afford such a house to live in. I’d encourage you to visit Pompeii Online and see the houses on offer. You can also review some features of Pompeii Houses: Pompeii dig reveals erotic Leda and Swan fresco, or Enchanted garden unearthed at Pompeii.

Of course, no matter how beautiful the inside, the outside was plagued by graffiti. Most of it proves that human nature hasn’t changed in two millennia, only that “writing on someone’s wall” was a bit more literal back then. See the listings from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Felix himself is known to chalk the occasional advertisement of his services on city walls (see the 2nd excerpt from In Numina). It’s one of those things that bring great joy to an historical-fiction author — being able to integrate historical trivia in a way that is both relevant to the plot and enriches the story world. Consequently, expect even more colourful graffiti in the WIP.

Felix is lucky that he has his own private, spacious house in a simple-but-decent neighbourhood (the real slums are on the other side of the hill from him). The graffiti around his place are more to do with the races and elections than brothels and digestive output. So what if it’s above the Street of Cheesemakers, and gets the occasional bad whiff with the sea breeze? At least he’s not next to a tannery.

Inside configuration

You’d note in the image above that there is a narrow vestibule leading to the atrium, and next to it are marked “shops”. Those were small, single rooms, that were separate from the main house but often owned by the same person. They would be rented out to local petty businesses — and in fact account for some of Felix’s income. Barely enough to keep from starving, but still.

Once inside, there is the atrium. The shallow pool of water (impluvium) was originally the house’s store of fresh water (the roof above it was open), but became more a decorative feature as more and more aqueducts were built from the Middle Republic. The atrium served as the main reception hall for visitors. Beyond that lay the tablinum, the master’s office that separated the external and internal parts of the house.

On the inside was a peristyle (surrounded by a colonnade) garden. The size and opulence of the garden related to the owner’s financial success, but it normally ornamented and used by family members in daily lives. The rooms on the sides were not much more than sleeping cubicles — life was mostly carried outside in the open. This fitted the Italian weather perfectly, with the shaded colonnades and open air garden allowing for fresh air, sunlight and easy temperature control year round. (The Romans loved it so much they did the same in Roman Britain — despite the weather making it impractical).

At the back were the kitchens. Net to them are marked storerooms, though often the latrines were there. These would be cesspits that were dug deep, and sluiced with used water from the kitchen. Occasionally they’d require special carts to come and remove accumulated solid matter (what didn’t get absorbed by porous stone and the water), which was in turn used to fertilise fields. And yes, if you’re thinking about the spread of plagues, that would have been a contributing factor.

Not many houses were close enough to sewer lines to have their latrines connected. Apartment blocks had chamber pots and shared facilities at the bottom (or, y’know, the outside corridor of it’s past midnight and you couldn’t be arsed to go down six floors in the dark). Hygiene is a relative term, and there are quotes about the dangers of looking down to avoid falling human waste while being pelted by it from above from contemporary poets.

Back to more pleasurable surrounds, note the fountain in the garden. That was only available to those who tapped into the various aqueducts. To have such luxuries home owners were charged based on the diameter of the connecting pipe. Naturally, bribing the installing technician for a bigger pipe, as well as completely illegal tapping, was rife.

Rome famously had eleven aqueducts, but only three were built in the Middle Republic. Egretia has a single one for simplicity, but its engineering and supply is augmented by magic. Same with the sewers, for slightly better living conditions. This is how I justify the somewhat larger populatin in Egretia, Felix’s housing luxuries despite his otherwise impoverished state, as well as the two large thermae (major bath complexes) that appeared only later in Rome. (Note that smaller baths, the balneae, were still very common in all neighbourhoods). I may like to drop Felix in the sewers every book, but I wanted to flush out his old misdeeds 😁

Cost of Living

Of course, once you have a place to sleep (with your family — which potentially includes slaves), you need to feed everyone. From the state-subsidised grain dole, to staples like bread made from corn (that’s old British for wheat, not American maize) or spelt or other grains, to meats and fish (that have to be bought almost daily to be kept fresh), to the extras that make life worth living, such as garum (fermented fish sauce) and wine (which is important both socially and for diet).

All of these cost money. How much? That depends, of course. Take this graffito outside a Pompeii bar, for example:

You can get a drink here for only one coin. You can drink better wine for two coins. You can drink Falernian for four coins

Or this bar tab:

Some nuts …? coins; drinks: 14 coins; lard: 2 coins; bread: 3 coins; three meat cutlets: 12 coins; four sausages: 8 coins. Total: 51 coins

Coinage

The coins mentioned above are probably the as, the most common coin in Republican Rome. It’s a coin I didn’t include in Egretian economy as it gets too confusing in English. I went with semis and quadrans (nickels and dimes) as small-value bronze coins, sestertii as the ‘standard’ silver coin, the silver denarii as the most common tender, and the rare golden aureus.

Sestertii are interesting. They were silver in the Roman Republic (and thus in Egretia), but bronze during the empire. Even though it was the basic unit for accounting, it was issued rarely. Denarii were the most common silver coin. Note that there were plenty of other small value coins — and in the empire, more higher-value coins — but I chose to keep it simple. Side note: the sesterce (as it’s rendered in English) my favourite coin, because Astrix keeps using them πŸ™‚

In terms of conversion rates, one aureus = 25 denarii = 100 sestertii (i.e. 4 sestertii to the denarius). The as was 10 to a denarius (so 2.5 per sestertius). Semis and Quadrans refer to the as, so come in as one-fifth and one-tenth of a sestertius, respectively.

On the higher-end, banking-level, there was also the weight-based measurement talent. It’s based on how much a man can carry, roughly 30 kg (66 lbs). A talent of silver denarii contained 6,250 coins (equivalent to 25,000 sestertii in value). It was used for large-scale transaction, transferred on paper between bankers or carried physically as pay for legions (the “war chest”).

For those who want further reading, I suggest this article on Roman Coinage, or the Wikipedia article about Roman Currency (which goes deeper into the history, issues of value debasement, conversion rates, etc.) For those who just want the pretty pictures, see my previous post on How To Get Paid.

Pricing

Back to the prices of things. Some gentle soul has collated information we have, and produced a Roman price list. This does vary with the centuries and is based on available data, but it should give you an idea. Alternatively take a look at the following (more scholarly) articles about Roman army pay-scale, and Aspects of wage payments and coinage in ancient Rome.

In brief, let’s put it this way. A soldier’s pay since the Marian reforms established a professional army, was 900 sestertii (or 225 denarii) per year. That meant that you’d need a talent of silver to pay for a cohort of 480 soldiers for a month. We do know the pay was docked for food, clothing, equipment, funeral club membership, etc., so the actual sum in coins the soldier got at the end would have been quite small. Hence why they relied on bonuses and land grants from the people at the top, and how the whole “loyal-to-the-general and not loyal-to-the-state” started and helped in the eventual collapse of the republic.

Back to pricing. I “fixed” the prices at the time that the books take place as follows. One sestertius would equal a good meal, or possibly enough to feed a small family on the cheap. (And do remember that most people got their grain dole as ready-made bread, and rather than cook would buy something from local cook-shops).

Price of slaves would vary based on quality. Under 500 silver denarii would get you someone old with rotten teeth, who would either die on the way home or run away. Greek (Hellican) tutors for the scion of your noble family might set you back at least a talent of silver, possibly more.

I didn’t really account for house prices, mostly because that wasn’t needed for the novels. Felix’s inherited his, and until he’s forced to move there’s no need for him to buy or rent. But consider that most common folk would rent apartments. To buy and build an insula would costs hundreds of talents (millions of sestertii), and is how senators (who formally were not allowed to participate in business but only gain income from rents) made their money. Since building standards weren’t exactly the safety-conscious as today’s, insulae were built cheaply and rented out for as much as could be squeezed. Houses could also be rented, although that was rares — more common for the high upper crust visiting dignitary, for example, than the common folk.

Summary

While I don’t specify Felix’s usual rates for solving cases (he’s just as good as bilking customers for whatever he thinks he can get away with — plus expenses, of course), I do note in passing as he pays his way around. More than that, I pay attention to his increasing fortunes. He had two very good cases this year, and before the year is out he was hired for a third one (the WIP: In Victrix — a tale of races, gladiators, politics, and womanly mysteries). His increased fortune lead to increased responsibility and an unaccustomed changes in life-style. It’s a fun exercise to write.

For readers and authors: how much attention do you pay to costs of living in books? How do housing, food, and other expenses influence the characters? And what, pray tell, do they do when someone keeps soiling their walls with graffiti proclaiming their various services and ancestral proclivities?

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