Compare & Contrast Aspects of Life & Society
in Ancient Rome, Compared With Those in
Early Modern Europe.
Throughout history, we have seen the rise and fall of incredible civilizations, societies and ideas. As the Romans prevailed over Europe for one thousand years (from roughly 500 BC to 500 AD), the early modern Europeans from about the 1400's to the 1800's put forward some ideas which were key in the development of our modern world. Had Europe progressed considerably one thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire? This essay will examine this debated issue by establishing and comparing daily life in both societies.
Due to the fact that marriage was an important political aspect in ancient Rome and that no religious beliefs prevented divorce, it was common for the marriage of aristocrats to be dissolved. Couples could separate for personal or political reasons. Augustus demanded that Tiberius divorce his wife and marry his widowed daughter Julia instead. "Among lower class people who had no political affiliation, the divorce rate was probably lower."1 Romans seemed to view marriage as more of an arrangement then a romantic fulfilment. Women were encouraged to stay married since strict laws would award the custody of the children to the husbands in case of divorce. Augustus was bothered by the marriage patterns of the aristocrats due to its effect on the birthrate and the image of Rome. Augustus therefore passed a series of laws which made divorce, adultery and bachelorhood extremely distasteful. These laws brought unhappiness to his own family when his daughter and granddaughter committed adultery. Roman families were generally small. The aristocrats worried about the chance for their offspring to hold public office and the inheritance which they would receive. Even lower income families seemed to have few children. Low fertility, high infant mortality,
1. RichardGreaves et al. Civilizations of the West. (N.Y.:Addison-Wesley, 1997) p. 160.
the exposure of unwanted babies, the infrequency of sexual relations between husband and wife and even contraceptive methods were all factors which affected the low Roman birthrate. Abortion was legal but quite dangerous due to the lack of medical technology. Couples would generally abandon their children if they were unwanted. Even after Christian agitators attempted to outlaw this practice, babies continued to be abandoned.
Before the 1700's in early modern Europe, the three generation family among the aristocracy which involved ownership and inheritance was quite common. However, the lower class generally lived in nuclear or conjugal units. Except for parts of eastern Europe, most couple married in their mid-twenties in order to properly establish households. This type of family unit was disadvantageous to the lower class due to the fact that economic hardships were more common if a spouse would become unemployed. The large family network was key for the higher class to assume and maintain control. However, the influence of relatives among the higher class couples led to many internal disputes. Arranged marriages were quite common in early modern Europe. Young people often had no say in determining who they were going to wed, for matrimony was a collective family decision based on key financial issues. Whereas aristocrats usually married in their early twenties to facilitate property settlements, normal people usual married around the age of 28. "By the middle of the sixteenth century, the idea of matrimony seemed to shift from a financial arrangement to a settlement based on love and children."2 The rise of the nuclear family among the aristocrats also led to more successful relationships between spouses; however, the man was considered to be the king of the house. In case of an unsuccessful marriage, divorce was illegal. Only in rare situations were marriage annulments approved. Sexual morals were mainly determined by the church. For the masses, sex was confined to marriage or engagement for the purpose of procreation. Sex before marriage was
2. RichardGreaves et al. Civilizations of the West. (N.Y.:Harper Collins, 1992) p. 452.
disapproved since bearing children out of wedlock would be illegitimate.
In ancient Rome, the government did not hold a very high regard toward education. The average level of literacy was about 20% for men and 10% for women. In most parts of the empire, business transactions were done orally. Writing was very useful for the Roman army since they recorded everything. School was not mandatory and folks in the countryside could not easily access them. Slaves could be required to go to school while looking after the free children. Romans favoured an education that was largely verbal and written. Subjects such as science and social science were nonexistent. Children were taught the bare minimum with a bias in favour of the Romans.
The effects of printing in early modern Europe had an extensive effect on education. Children were encouraged to go to school and even attend universities. Between the Reformation and the French Revolution, mass literacy began to develop. Many new schools were formed in order to meet the demand. Most educational developments were closely linked to religion; the Jesuits and the Ursulines were formed during this period. For the Jewish community, schooling was mandatory for boys and some girls were taught to read. By the 1800, literacy rates for males were close to 90% in Scotland and 67% in France. "Universal education began in Prussia in 1717 were male attendance at elementary schools was obligatory."3 For the Muslims in Turkey, education was narrowly confined and provided by few schools.
Few residents of Rome could ever afford to escape the daily routine of work. Men generally worked for the state or private business. Women were most often forbidden from serving the state directly. Children would attend school in the early hours of the day. Women in the workforce were generally slaves. Supper was served fairly early. For most people it was a simple meal which consisted of simple foods such as beans and a lot of vegetables. Entertainment such as music would often
3. RichardGreaves et al. Civilizations of the West. (N.Y.:Harper Collins, 1992) p. 459.
accompany the meal along with wine. Roman women attended meals with their husbands. As for leisure, the Romans hide widespread diversions. Children would play with nuts while adults enjoyed a variety of board games. The public baths constituted the most popular form of diversion. The baths functioned as civic centres, shopping malls, libraries, gyms and running tracks. Gladiatorial combats were also held in the arenas where citizens could witness gruesome killings and violence. Many wealthier Romans travelled to their country homes to escape the daily routine of life. However, the majority of Romans who travelled did so in military service. Furthermore, Romans enjoyed a hug system of aqueducts which carried millions of gallons of water every day. Despite all the ingenuity of its public work, Rome remained an overcrowded and noisy area.
Where the spread of education led to better working conditions in early modern Europe, many peasants still suffered under the rule of their landlords. The aristocrats enjoyed work with the state or very powerful private businesses. Women were free but still held in lower regard then their male counterparts. Children most often worked with their parents or attended school. Malnutrition was the plight of the rich and the poor. The rich because they overconsumed meat and the poor because they simply could not afford a lot of food. During the 16th century when the population rose sharply, farmers could not keep pace and starvation often occurred. "Food was so scarce in France in the early 1660's that people often ate the rotting flesh of dead animals or grass."4 Bread was the most valuable source of food during this period. For the peasants not much time was left for leisure. The severity of poverty led to an increase in crime and only the upper class enjoyed recreation. In some areas the police was so ineffective that criminals would meet openly in the courtyards and officials did not dare to enter those areas. Since no motor cars were invented until the late 19th century, mobility during both eras was quite similar. Travelling by foot was the most common mode of transportation.
4. RichardGreaves et al. Civilizations of the West. (N.Y.:Harper Collins, 1992) p. 466.
Although, the wealthier could afford to travel by horse and carriage or by boat.
The most dramatic change as Rome passed from republic to empire was the rise of a new class of wealthy. The new imperial system gave rise to many new jobs in bureaucracy. However, this society was extremely class conscious. Romans were quite racist and they disliked people of non-Italian origin. The tiny senatorial class stood at the top, followed by a larger class of equestrians, then the mass of free citizens and finally the slaves. About a third of the people in the empire were slaves. The acquisition of foreign territory allowed the Romans to capture enemies as slaves. Slavery was an important social structure as well as an economic one. The number of slaves one owned would indicate social status. However, slavery just as freedom was not absolute. A great number of slaves would be liberated if they had served their master well and often they could pursue their own lives.
Just as in the Roman Empire, hierarchical structure had a great deal of significance in early modern Europe. Civic and religious leaders insisted that each person should accept their place in the social order. "The common basis for social structure involved the source of one's wealth, the antiquity of one's title and the number of armed and paid retainers at one's disposal. A noble who could therefore be not as rich as an urban businessman outranked the latter in terms of prestige."5 To meet the demand for status, titles such as duke, marquis and viscount were created. Slavery in western Europe was not very common and illegal in some parts. However, in some eastern European states, peasants were slaves. Some peasants were owned by their landlords and did not receive wages. However, slavery was not as extensive as in ancient Rome.
In both eras being examined, one job that carried high prestige was that of the priest. Most priests in the Roman Empire were men, although there were a few women. Among the most popular religions in ancient Rome were Christianity, Mithraism and the worship of Isis. Religion was an
5. RichardGreaves et al. Civilizations of the West. (N.Y.:Harper Collins, 1992) p. 447.
important aspect of the Roman life although it did not have the amplitude that it had during the period of early modern Europe. In later European history, religion was a key factor in the development of society. The invention of printing allowed the Bible to be massly produced and translated into different languages. In western Europe, Catholicism and Protestantism were the main faiths. In eastern Europe, the religion of Islam was very present, especially in Turkey.
Medical care in the Roman empire was present but not very developed. One contraceptive method frequently practice for example was to take worms found inside a hairy spiders head and tying them to one's body using a strip of deerhide. However, most Romans were health conscious. Most doctors encouraged a balanced and healthy diet which could explain why vegetables were so popular during this era. Sometimes women worked not only as midwives but also as physicians. Sometimes medical teams involving husband and wife were used.
However, in the era of early modern Europe, medical care was not very developed either. People who sought medical treatment could find it in a variety of unqualified persons. Surgeons, apothecaries, physicians, midwives and faith healers were sought out by different people for different medical reasons. Treating the sick did not evolve very much in Europe from the ancient Greeks to the early modern Europeans. Some physicians still followed the ideas put forward by Greeks thousands of years earlier. Medical care often meant giving drugs, purging and bleeding. The hospitals in place during this period were often foul smelling, overcrowded and understaffed. Since no real understanding of diseases were at hand, the sick were often put all together which would allow diseases to spread quickly.
As there were vast differences in culture in early modern Europe, the ancient Roman Empire dealt with the same effects of the extensiveness of its property. The many inhabitants of the empire differed radically from one another in ethniticity, religion, language and diet. From Egypt to Syria and Britain to Spain, rural life had not changed much under the rule of the Romans. "Although, many aristocrats in those nations were part of a network which promoted mass Romanization."6 The effects of the Roman rule in Europe are still present today in language, architecture and culture.
Due to facts put forward in this essay, I believe that the Europeans wasted hundreds of years after the fall of Rome. Instead of learning from Rome's mistake, and developing on their ingenuity, early modern Europeans were careless in that there world remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. Only education and slavery improved through the years. The early modern Europeans had a more extensive education system with a distaste for slavery. However, the Romans had a much more elaborated sewage system which led to a healthier environment. Although poverty has always been omnipresent, early modern Europeans seemed to suffer of extreme poverty unknown to the Romans. Ancient Rome was a better society in terms of daily life. The extensiveness of their culture and knowhow is very impressive. By examining the facts elaborated in this essay, it is clear the ancient Romans had an advantage in terms of social structure and organization over early modern Europe.