XVIII. SOME MANNERS AND CUSTOMS OF THE ROMAN PEOPLE.
We have now traced the career of the people of Rome from the time when they were the plain and rustic subjects of a king, through their long history as a conquering republic, down to the period when they lost the control of government and fell into the hands of a ruler more autocratic than their earlier tyrants. The heroic age of the republic had now long since passed away, and with it had gone even the admiration of those personal qualities which had lain at the foundation of the national greatness.
History at its best is to such an extent made up of stories of the doings of rulers and fighting-men, who happen by their mere strength and physical force to have made themselves prominent, that it is often read without conveying any actual familiarity with the people it is ostensibly engaged with. The soldiers and magistrates of whom we have ourselves been reading were but few, and we may well ask what the millions of other citizens were doing all these ages. How did they live? What were their joys and griefs? We have, it is true, not failed to get an occasional glimpse of the intimate life of the people who were governed, as we have seen a Virginia passing through the forum to her school, and a Lucretia spinning among her maidens, and we have learned that in the earliest times the workers were honored so much that they were formed into guilds, and had a very high position among the centuries (see pages 31 and 50), but these were only suggestions that make us all the more desirous to know particulars.
Rome had not become a really magnificent city, even after seven hundred years of existence. We know that it was a mere collection of huts in the time of Romulus, and that after the burning of the principal edifices by the Gauls, it was rebuilt in a hurried and careless manner, the houses being low and mean, the streets narrow and crooked, so that when the population had increased to hundreds of thousands the crowds found it difficult to make their way along the thoroughfares, and vehicles with wheels were not able to get about at all, except in two of the streets. The streets were paved, it is true, and there were roads and aqueducts so well built and firm that they claim our admiration even in their ruins.
The Roman house at first was extremely simple, being of but one room called the atrium, or darkened chamber, because its walls were stained by the smoke that rose from the fire upon the hearth and with difficulty found its way through a hole in the roof. The aperture also admitted light and rain, the water that dripped from the roof being caught in a cistern that was formed in the middle of the room. The atrium was entered by way of a vestibule open to the sky, in which the gentleman of the house put on his toga as he went out. [Footnote: When Cincinnatus went out to work in the field, he left his toga at home, wearing his tunic only, and was "naked" (nudus), as the Romans said. The custom illustrates MATT, xxiv., 18. (See p. 86.)] Double doors admitted the visitor to the entrance-hall or ostium. There was a threshold, upon which it was unlucky to place the left foot; a knocker afforded means of announcing one's approach, and a porter, who had a small room at the side, opened the door, showing the caller the words Cave canem (beware of the dog), or Salve (welcome), or perchance the dog himself reached out toward the visitor as far as his chain would allow. Sometimes, too, there would be noticed in the mosaic of the pavement the representation of the faithful domestic animal which has so long been the companion as well as the protector of his human friend. Perhaps myrtle or laurel might be seen on a door, indicating that a marriage was in process of celebration, or a chaplet announcing the happy birth of an heir. Cypress, probably set in pots in the vestibule, indicated a death, as a crape festoon does upon our own door-handles, while torches, lamps, wreaths, garlands, branches of trees, showed that there was joy from some cause in the house.
In the "black room" the bed stood; there the meals were cooked and eaten, there the goodman received his friends, and there the goodwife sat in the midst of her maidens spinning. The original house grew larger in the course of time: wings were built on the sides, and the Romans called them wings as well as we (ala, a wing). Beyond the black room a recess was built in which the family records and archives were preserved, but with it for a long period the Roman house stopped its growth.
Before the empire came, however, there had been great progress in making the dwelling convenient as well as luxurious. Another hall had been built out from the room of archives, leading to an open court, surrounded by columns, known as the peristylum (peri about, stulos, a pillar), which was sometimes of great magnificence. Bedchambers were made separate from the atrium, but they were small, and would not seem very convenient to modern eyes.