Episode 29: Life in a Crumbling Empire
In our last two episodes I talked about the high politics of Gallia and the Roman Empire. Today, we’re going to look at daily life for the people living in Gallia. The Gauls had been through a lot over the past two centuries. They were arguably the worst hit during the Crisis of the Third Century as constant invasions led to near-total societal collapse by the 280s when Diocletian sent Maximian to pacify the region. Then the following fifty-year period spanning the rules of Maximian, Constantius and his son Constantine was incredibly transformative. This half-century brought stability to Gallia, but not prosperity, as the Roman Empire developed into the Late Roman Empire.
The Late Roman Empire is an important concept among ancient historians, as the character of the empire shifted from a Classical system towards feudalism. At Rome’s height during the reign of Antoninus Pius, Rome was the world’s largest open society; a Roman citizen could travel from Britannia all the way to Syria, across northern Africa and all along the Mediterranean in peace, since Rome had hard borders that kept military threats far from civilian life. This hypothetical traveler would be able to visit enormous cities, unrivaled by anything outside of China and India during their travels as the Roman central state poured money into building projects such as aqueducts and public baths which spurred growth. While each province had their own regional language, Vulgar Latin was employed across the empire and one could cross thousands of miles without having to learn a new language.
The Late Roman Empire was so different from the early Roman Empire that in some aspects it was almost a different country. First, troops were stationed inside cities, not the frontiers, meaning that the civilian and military spheres were in frequent contact. Moreover, soldiers acquired the right to requisition food, shelter and day labor from civilians so their daily lives were subject to the demands of the army. In the best of circumstances a civilian would be forced to carry a soldier’s pack a few miles or house them for a day. But if a soldier were corrupt they would go from civilian to civilian demanding food and money at the point of a sword.
Second, the borders were porous as Rome largely abandoned the frontiers. Whenever large groups of migrants tried to cross certain landmarks the army would rush to attack them, but smaller groups and individuals constantly moved from Germania into Gallia, bringing with them their culture, languages and even their own political system. These ‘barbarians’ diluted Gallia’s Romaness but by allowing them to settle within its borders it gained a new host of conscripts to fight against invaders. Thus, Late Roman Gallia was culturally somewhere between Classical Rome and Germania, with some areas such as Narbonensis on the southern coast looking much like it would have in the first century, while some areas in northeastern Gallia were populated by towns made up exclusively of Franks.
Third, the Late Roman Empire was gradually losing its linguistic cohesion. The city of Rome and Italy’s importance took a massive hit during the Antonine Plague and subsequent chaos while simultaneously migrating Germans and Goths settled across the frontiers. Meanwhile, the Greek-speaking East remained relatively prosperous and when Constantine founded the new city of Constantinople on the Bosporus it rapidly eclipsed the declining Rome.
Finally, our theoretical traveler would have one more obstacle since travel was legally restricted. Diocletian and then Constantine passed a number of laws tying poor agriculturalists to the land. Meanwhile there was a 2%-5% tax on exports between provinces which meant that fewer merchants moved across the empire.
These developments combined with the new political system that removed Rome as the center of the Roman Empire and established political capitals in various regions. The end result was that the different provinces of the empire were far more insular as Roman citizens and their goods were increasingly trapped within their own regions. This insularity led to increasing cultural and linguistic differentiation. Even though strong emperors like Constantine could keep the empire united as one political unit, culturally Rome was fragmenting.
That’s the broad overview of developments in Late Roman Gallia, the rest of this episode will look at daily life for the 80% or more of the population which were either rural agriculturalists or urban laborers.
Most people before the Industrial Revolution worked in agriculture and Gallia was no exception. The overwhelming majority of Gauls were small farmers. This had been the case even during the height of the villa system but as the villa system declined small farmers became even more important. These farmers raised animals, often cows and pigs, who provided manure for their crops. Farmers lived harvest to harvest and almost never planned for profit. Whatever small earnings they acquired were reinvested in new tools and seeds for the coming year. Moreover, whenever farmers did profit it was almost always because tragedy struck somewhere else. If grain prices increased in one area it was because grain was scarce, either due to raiding, fire or a grain ship sinking en route to the market. Thus, capital accumulation was rare for individuals and usually a marker of disaster within a society.
In this early period virtually all labor was done by human and animal power. These people lived without complex machines, without many of the New World crops that have since become staples of the world diet like maize and potatoes, and without scientific agricultural techniques such as crop rotation. Most people could only hope to make it through the year and didn’t imagine becoming wealthier than they had always been.
An unexpected storm or a fire was devastating to a peasant family, though not nearly as bad as we might think, since peasants banded together to help when one of their townspeople were in need.
The villa system described in previous episodes declined, but villas themselves actually grew in importance. Before, villas grew crops for sale on the Roman market, but in the 4th century they became insular worlds producing goods and raising troops for their own protection. The economically-based villa system of the 2nd century became a militarily-based system in the 4th. Large landholders rented land to tenant farmers who shared their profits with the landlord in exchange for protection from raiders. During Diocletian and Constantine’s reigns tenants were legally tied to the land. Even the children of tenant farmers were tied to the land, leading to a generation of serf-like labor. By the way, if I say ‘serf-like’ or ‘feudal-like’ it’s because many historians claim this was a precursor to serfdom and feudalism, though a growing minority claim it was its own unique system. To any of those historians listening, may I suggest dubbing this ‘Feudal-Lite,’ a name which can double as a soft drink for peasants.
From the Antonine Plague to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Gallia’s population massively declined. The survivors often clustered together in small villages and towns, while a few major cities still remained. This population collapse meant that the landscape altered dramatically. With less people woods grew again. Without central state funding for major buildings projects many swamps weren’t drained and marshlands grew across the country. More swamps and woods meant less crops were grown and people hunted and fished more. Moreover, these phenomena weren’t restricted to Gallia but happened across the world since the smallpox outbreak was a pandemic that affected most of Eurasia and Africa. The sheer amount of deaths across the Eastern Hemisphere meant that far fewer people were burning wood and forests across the planet grew, absorbing CO2. While the early 300s were probably the hottest years in centuries, by the mid-300s the global temperature nosedived a full .6 degrees Celsius. That might not sound like a lot since it’s an average temperature, but bear in mind that this varied by region and year. Since Europe is a northern continent it was the most affected. Glaciers expanded, blizzards and harsh winters became more frequent, and this land which was already cold by our modern standards kept getting colder. Gallia was becoming a lot more wild; in fact, Gallia of the 4th century CE probably looked less like 2nd Century Gallia and more like Gaul of the 4th Cent. BCE.
The major difference were the large Roman cities, which were less populous but still grand by contemporary standards. Some cities such as Trier and what would become Bordeaux, actually grew during this period. While the countryside was de-Romanizing the cities were bastions of Roman culture and values, most importantly law. Cities were legal centers and people came to them for court proceedings if they couldn’t resolve their problems where they lived in the country. Law courts were open to the public and could become public events if the case was controversial. Even though many poorer Romans didn’t engage in high politics they still gained a sense of Roman legal identity and rights from attending court cases, even if they only did so for entertainment purposes in what was essentially a Classical version of Law and Order.
Cities were also the information hubs of the empire and public pronouncements and monuments for imperial conquest broadcasted the goings-on of the Emperor.
An important characteristic of the Roman city’s unique layout is its lack of zoning laws. Most cities grew organically, and the result was that rich and poor lived side-by-side. While class issues still divided Gauls these were assuaged by common problems such as dirt and disease, which affected all classes. Furthermore, while the rich lived in large townhouses and the middle class and poor lived in crowded apartments or shanties they often visited the same public baths, temples and markets.
Most urban workers were free members of a middle-class. They were skilled artisans and traders and could make a decent living selling their expertise to the wealthy. Beneath them were the unskilled day laborers who scratched out a living doing odd jobs. At the bottom of society’s social standing, though not necessarily at the bottom economically, were the ‘infamia,’ or infamous people. These included pimps, prostitutes, gladiators, innkeepers, charioteers, dancers and actors who were called ‘infamous’ because they made their living by displaying their body, rather than through physical or mental labor. The infamia were barred access to civic offices and from marrying a non-infamous person. While infamous people were shunned by polite society they were an important part of it. Female prostitution was legal and taxes were collected on it until the fall of Western Rome. Conversely, male prostitution was discouraged by the mid-3rd century and increasingly so as Rome Christianized. Romans believed that men needed to have sex and could do so through prostitution, while women should remain chaste. During this period adultery by a wife carried the death penalty, though it wasn’t a crime for men. As Christianity became more popular Christians discouraged men from cheating on their wives but the law remained in place.
Cities were important as hubs for trade, although this was in decline across the empire and they were first and foremost havens against raiders. In the Late Empire every major city had to have walls to protect against raiders and a local garrison. Since the large-scale, disciplined armies capable of long-term sieges were rare cities were the best-defended locales in Gallia and those who could afford to live in them did so for protection.
Aside from its walls, the cities’ most important asset was its entertainment amenities. Compared to the modern age, the 4th century was shockingly bereft of amusement, particularly in the countryside where endless monotony was usually only interrupted by death. Cities had public baths, which had hot, medium and cold-water pools alongside oils patrons rubbed into their skin and grooming instruments for body hair. They also had workout facilities which were patronized by the elites who otherwise wouldn’t get the kind of exercise that hard labor gives. Baths were social places where people made business deals, talked politics and met with friends. Baths also had mosaics and decorations to gods and emperors, effectively making them petty art galleries. Public baths lasted until the 5th century, when Christians shut them down as places of homosexuality and sexual depravity. Thus the clean Roman citizen gave way to the Dark Ages’ dirt-covered peasant that Monty Python endlessly skewered.
The infamous Roman games kept arenas packed until the empire’s end. The games were routinely attacked by Christians as pagan, though as time passed the games disconnected from their pagan roots and were cultural, rather than religious festivals. Gladiator games were popular until near the empire’s fall. Contrary to modern conceptions of gladiator games, gladiators didn’t often die because they were expensive and no slave-master wanted to lose a valuable investment in one game. Instead, gladiators killed wild animals, although this was also expensive and fell out of fashion in the 5th century. Athletic Greek-style competitions were common and less controversial than the violent gladiatorial games.
Chariot racing was the by far the most popular sport. Crowds roared as chariots drawn by two towering horses raced around the arena at full-speed. These games were especially exciting because the carts were easily knocked over and there were no rules against physical contact. Charioteers routinely attacked each other and the races were incredibly dangerous, which only made it more exciting.
Circuses supplemented the games with performative arts, such as pantomime, wherein a single male told a story through dancing and gestures set to music, often using props and wigs to play other characters. Pantomimes often became celebrities and had their clubs connected with the clubs for the charioteers. Mime plays were the comedic counterpart to the pantomime. Unlike modern, silent mimes, these mimes spoke and often performed a combination of scripted and unscripted raunchy comedy.
Aside from the games and circuses, the cities offered morbid entertainment. In contested legal cases a judge might order the torture of a defendant, which was done in public. Executions were also public and took place in arenas or theaters. Interestingly, in the coming centuries Christians ended gladiatorial games and other supposed ‘pagan’ or immoral rituals, but public violence and even execution of criminals remained.
If the cities were entertaining they were also dirty. The old sewer systems declined, aqueducts broke and the people of Gallia increasingly relied on wells, cisterns and other still-water, which wasn’t as clean. Slaves owned by the city collected excrement for use as fertilizer in the surrounding countryside. What waste couldn’t be reused was dumped just outside the city walls, out of immediate sight but probably still within smelling distance.
New constructions weren’t truly new since the Romans recycled a lot of their materials. Glass and metal were constantly refashioned for new purposes. Slag, a byproduct of smelting and refining, was used in street construction. Decrepit old buildings were broken down and used to build new ones. The cities of the High Roman Empire suffered many of the same problems that the Late Roman cities experienced, including dirtiness, disease and odious smells, but the 4th century’s crumbling infrastructure exacerbated all of the negative aspects of the city. One major difference between Western and Eastern Rome was that wealthy Eastern Romans generally lived in cities, while wealthy Westerners lived in villas, which became self-enclosed worlds, with their own troops and large communities of laborers. Without a steady tax base to draw on the cities of the West declined while the East continued to prosper.
Meanwhile those landlords living on villas grew insanely wealthy and dominated Gallic society. These nobles were usually the tax collectors, and they raised armies for the central state, and exercised incredible control over the judiciary. They had all state power concentrated in their hands and they used it to kill off the middle class, leaving Gaul with a handful of artisans while the overwhelming majority were poor peasants tied to the land in an early form of serfdom. To give you an idea of just how unequal this society was, bear in mind that by 400 CE it’s estimated that the average senatorial income was 120,000 solidi, just 1,000 for a court official, and 5 for a peasant. Also, less than a dozen clans owned most of the land of Italy and Gaul, while the majority of Gauls owned no land. While older historians have claimed that the fall of the Western Roman Empire led to a period of incredible inequality and forced agricultural labor, this transformation was already well underway during the Late Roman Empire.
Now, onto something a little more cheerful: food. As the Romans conquered different territories they took their Mediterranean diet with them, mixing it with local cuisines. Yet wherever they went the four staples of every Roman’s diet, regardless of social status, were: olive oil, bread, pork and wine. One major reason for this was that the state guaranteed these four food items to the army, thus they had to be grown and shipped across the empire, and many people produced them since the state was a guaranteed buyer.
The Roman love of olive oil is well-documented. Olives are perfectly suited to the Mediterranean environment and their oil added flavor and calories to every meal. As trade declined, Gallia’s olives increasingly came from the south, in what we call La Provence, but what was then the region of Narbonensis.
Bread has always been the main source of calories in Europe since the Continent is too cold and dry to effectively grow rice, while potatoes and corn only came to Europe after the Columbian exchange. Poor people ate dark, bran-heavy bread, while the rich ate white bread, which tasted better, though we now know is less nutritious.
Romans ate all kinds of meat, including sheep, goat, pork and beef, though not horses since they were too valuable. All classes consumed all types of meat, and the Romans ate every single part of the animal, usually grinding the various parts into sausages or adding them to stews. Romans had to eat every part of an animal because they were valuable. Animals required lots of grazing land and care. Moreover, animals like goats and oxen were more valuable as work animals, while sheep’s wool was more important than their meat. Finally, without refrigeration meat had to be consumed within a short amount of time. For all these reasons Romans ate far less meat than modern peoples, though probably more than most peoples of their time. Rome’s meat of choice was the pig. Pigs can live in virtually any climate, require relatively little care and produce large amounts of succulent, high-fat meat.
The final staple of the Roman diet was wine. All Romans drank wine, usually a liter a day, though the wine was almost always mixed with water. Believe it or not, wine was often healthier than water back then, since the alcohol killed the harmful bacteria found in many water supplies. As I mentioned way back in episode 8, wine was originally an import from Greece but it became enormously popular in Gaul, whose rich soil could grow an endless variety of grapes. The Gauls developed their own wines and their own storing system; while Romans stored wine in clay pots the Gauls kept them in wooden barrels which absorbed the different wood tastes. We can’t be sure, but it’s possible that even back then Gallia had the best-tasting wine in Europe. Unless you were poor, in which case you were getting the dregs; literally. While the rich drank numerous different high-quality wines, poor people drank old wines that had soured and turned into vinegar.
Now let’s talk about the family and romance. Since the earliest civilizations households were economic units. Marriage brought two people together to pool resources while ostensibly producing children who cared for their parents in their old age. As more Gauls were tied to the land the peasants married each other while free peoples married other free. Rome was a patriarchal society, and in order for a couple to get married they needed the consent of each family’s father. If a man married a woman without her father’s permission this was considered bride-theft, since daughters weren’t just considered to be ‘sort-of-but-not-fully-people’ by the Roman men, but also valuable assets to bring strong men into the family. Husbands could legally marry once they turned 14, roughly the age that they could work and provide for a family, while brides had to be at least 12, roughly the age that they could start bearing children. Once two people were engaged the fiancé presented gifts to the bride’s family who reciprocated with a dowry. Marriage did not require a state ceremony, but parties were often held to celebrate their union.
The husband and father had dictatorial power over his family while the woman was expected to submit to his whims. Men were socially allowed to commit infidelity on their wives, especially with slaves, while a wife cheating garnered the death penalty. Women had between 4-6 live births, not counting still-borns and miscarriages. Initially, men could divorce their wives whenever they desired but as Christianity dominated society in the late 4th to early 5th century the laws changed, since Christians believed that marriage was a sacrament and divorce was an unnatural separation. Once Christians came into power men could only divorce a woman if she were an adulteress, sorceress or if she was unable to produce children. Meanwhile women could only divorce a man if he were a murderer or a traitor.
But things weren’t all bad for women; only mostly. Women could inherit property if their husbands died, and since mortality was common, this happened quite frequently. Women who were 25 and had no father or husband were financially independent, though they could remarry if they so chose, and remarriage was also common during this period.
Now let’s talk about children; they didn’t last long. In the Late Roman Empire 35% of newborns didn’t live past 1 month while 50% of all children didn’t live past age 10. But that half of all children that survived usually made it to adulthood. A quarter of all people lived to 50, while roughly ~16% lived to the ripe old age of 60.
Peasant children worked from a young age on the farm, artisan children apprenticed in the family trade, while rich children were educated in the home by slaves, starting at age 6. When they weren’t working or learning, children liked to play. Girls played with dolls and house sets. Boys played with knucklebones, marbles and hoops, or with improvised toys like sticks, which could be used in rudimentary games or just to whack each other until someone cried. Play was done in courtyards or streets as there weren’t designated play areas.
All children were under the authority of the paterfamilias, who we might call the Patriarch, the oldest living male relative on the direct paternal line. Children became legal adults at 25. Otherwise, females became adults when they married or males when they joined the army at 18. Boys received togas at 14 in a ceremony for manhood. In Gallia, manhood probably came later, as there is evidence that Gauls considered a male a man only when they became a father.
In a society where death was so prevalent it’s understandable that so many people were obsessed with health and medicine. The Romans adopted the Hippocratic theory of health from the Greeks, which held that the body had four humors and that a person’s health was tied to them. Roman conquest of Gaul spread this belief but the old Gallic belief that diseases were caused by evil spirits never died out. While these belief systems were opposed to each other, people often believed both and patronized Roman physicians and Gallic healers. Just as modern people go to their doctor while still using old family recipes, prayer, faith healing, or other spiritual methods of healthcare, Gauls bought Roman medicines while purchasing charms from pagan priests.
Medicine was one area of life that allowed women to gain a measure of power and respect. As midwives, women were in charge of the all-important process of birth. Furthermore, women were often associated with the mystic and unknowable, and could become wise women who developed herbal remedies to ward off disease. Finally, women could become physicians. At this time there were no ‘doctors’ as we think of them, but physicians, who learned their craft from practical experience, rather than formal education. Since there was no formal certification system a ‘physician’ was anyone who claimed to have knowledge of the body and possessed surgical tools. These physicians were allowed to practice within communities based on their reputation. But since physicians were pretty useless before modern medicine, even if most of their patients died they were still probably allowed to practice in their communities.
As you can guess, disease was rampant in these societies. Germ theory hadn’t been postulated and so even the tiniest wounds could become horribly infected since they weren’t properly cleaned. Poor nutrition meant that people in this period had weaker immune systems. More marshes meant malaria was common. Probably the only thing worse than the diseases were the cures. The first step in treating disease consisted of eating (or not eating), exercise and bathing. If that didn’t work, physicians prescribed medicines. If that didn’t work, they used bloodletting, during which they cut a patient and drained them of much of their blood, supposedly to balance out their humors. When this didn’t work they resorted to surgery. Ancient surgeons were surprisingly adept and performed gallstone and cataract removal, though even successful surgeries led to new wounds, which could become infected, so if the disease didn’t kill you the physician would.
During the Late Roman Empire rural life was healthier than city life as city waste went into the rivers and more waste meant more disease. Yet, malnutrition was common among the poor and during famines they went to the city.
Finally, a note on the physically-disabled. These people were often cast-off from their family since they put too heavy a burden on most peasants. However, some wealthy people collected disabled slaves, especially the severely disabled, who were considered to be part of monster races or half-animals.
Christians believed in taking care of the poor and increasingly founded carehouses were people were fed, though these were largely run by lay people, not professionals.
No discussion of the Roman world is complete without talking about slavery. As Kyle Harper notes, “The Romans created one of, if not the largest pre-modern slave society in history,” which spanned, “3 continents, hundreds of years, [and] tens of millions of people.” We’ll never know how common slavery was, though estimates of the slave population range from 5% to 25% of the total population of Rome. Recently Harper estimated that there were 5 million slaves or 10% of the population. Whatever the figure is, slavery permeated society. But even though one out of ten people or more were slaves, relatively few people owned slaves. Around 90% of the population lived at subsistence level, meaning that only the richest 10% of Romans could afford slaves.
The thousands of senatorial class Romans owned hundreds of slaves each, which they paraded through city streets to showcase their wealth and power. Equestrians possessed 6 to 20 slaves, who took care of their mansions, while middle class free Romans had 1 to 3 slaves, usually women, who cared for the house and were used for sexual purposes. Slaves were both a source of wealth and a sign of wealth which made them doubly valuable to the Romans.
Life as a slave was degrading since their bodies belonged to their owners and they could be beaten, raped or killed at will. Furthermore, slaves were often marked on the forehead or branded to keep them from running away.
Yet, Roman slavery was markedly different from the chattel slavery of the early modern period. First, all races could be slaves and it wasn’t a person’s skin color that determined their status but their financial standing. Slaves were regularly manumitted, Moreover, slaves could work for money and even buy their own freedom. Slaves weren’t just employed in agricultural labor, but held any occupation, including public office. The educated and skilled craft workers who were slaves could work with free people and earn a decent living.
I’m surely not trying to sanitize slavery, since slaves were frequently abused, denied all rights and died younger than non-slaves. Interestingly, most Christians didn’t oppose slavery, but poor treatment of slaves. Slavery was accepted in the Old Testament and even the New Testament makes references to slavery, so Roman Christians accepted slavery and even bought their own slaves, but promised to treat them more kindly than pagans and use their authority to convert them to Christianity.
So, I’ve covered peasants, artisans, women, families, children, food, health and slavery. That leaves one final topic: barbarians. By the early 4th century many Germans legally lived within Gallia. The largest group were Franks, a conglomeration of tribes with a similar ethnolinguistic background from the land of Francia, literally ‘land of the Franks.’ Constantine settled numerous Frankish tribes within northeastern Gallia as long as they promised to stay within certain boundaries and keep out other tribes. However, pre-modern societies didn’t have the capacity to monitor numerous individuals, and could only control large groups. If an entire tribe of Franks moved from one part of Gallia to another then the military would assemble and fight the Franks. But if an individual Frank travelled to a nearby city and took up a profession there was very little the Romans could do about it since they didn’t have anything resembling police forces or modern intelligence agencies. It was the same situation with the frontier. The hard border established by the Antonines was gone, and the porous border allowed for the frequent migration of small bands of people who settled and mixed with existing Frankish people or even with the Gauls. Despite Constantine’s attempts to keep people apart Franks and Gauls worked, traded celebrated religious festivals, married each other, sued each other and otherwise intermingled.
Starting in the northeast and spreading southwestward Gallia transformed into a hybrid society that is most reflected in the development of a new language. Near the end of the Late Roman Empire the northeastern Gauls and Franks began developing a common language that was a mixture of Vulgar Latin, Gaulish and Frankish, a language which would eventually become Old French. The grammatical structure of this new language was based on Latin; Latin was far more practical since it had a writing system, unlike the German languages. But many of the words and idioms came from the Franks. Thus, even though Gallia was under Roman political control, culturally and linguistically it was becoming more and more like Francia.
Next time, I’ll discuss the rise and role of Christianity within Gallia, before we finally return to our broader narrative and follow Constantine’s descendants as they try to rule this vast empire.
– The Empire of the Tetrarchs: Imperial Pronouncements and Government AD 284-324, by Simon Corcoran
– The Roman Empire in Late Antiquity: A Political and Military History by Hugh Elton. 2018.
Mary T. Boatwright , Daniel J. Gargola,, and Richard J. A. Talbert, Romans : From Village to Empire, 2004
A Companion to the Roman Empire, Ed. David S Potter, 2006
Daily Life in Late Antiquity, Kristina Sessa, 2018
Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 by Kyle Harper, 2011