Historic novel set in Rome (an account of life in everyday 115 AD)

  • Book: A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome
  • Location: Rome
  • Author: Alberto Angela

Review Author: tripfiction



On a recent trip to Rome I decided to take “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” by Alberto Angela. The author’s objective is to “make the ruins of ancient Rome live again through an account of everyday life …”  In other words, what might it have felt like to walk down the ancient streets, what did the average Roman hear, see and smell? We are taken back to 115 AD (the author prefers to use the terms BCE – Before the Common Era which equates to BC, and Common Era CE, which equates to AD, thus removing himself from the notional eras governed by the Christian calendar). Trajan is the Emperor at the helm.

romeWe start early in the morning and progress through the day, visiting the forum, enjoying the baths, and exploring the various dwellings – the domus of a typical rich Roman, and the Insulae (the skyscrapers of Rome). Technically, an apartment building was only to rise to 6 floors but often was expanded by further floors causing tremendous instability. The kitchen of a typical home consisted of a brazier, and with the innumerable oil lamps, fires were hugely common – in a total reversal of today’s culture, the poorer the people, the higher they lived (escape at times of crisis from the upper echelons was nigh impossible). Thus, the more wealthy Romans lived nearer the ground so that escape was easier. But here the views weren’t great and the smells from the streets rather pungent.

Angela equates the feel of ancient Rome with the bustle of, say, a typical Indian city – colour, buzz, poverty, and incredibly pungent smells would all have been redolent in this ancient city.

He looks at the games in the Colosseum – the travertine marble would have given the construction a real glow, so different to the skeleton we see today. The types of games, the animals, the gladiators are all brought to life through his eloquent prose.

Food was a hugely important feature of culture – whether door mice (who had their own terracotta exercise pots), stuffed pig’s teats, honey, pine nuts and so much more, but at this point, the Romans would have to wait another 1400 years to experience tomatoes and potatoes, part of todays staple diet. And collecting urine was a daily event – apparently it was used to wash laundry and clean teeth (don’t say you don’t learn anything on the TF blog!).

Sex, too, is something to savour, a gift from the goddess Venus, though there were strict codes that had be observed, who could sleep with whom….

Slavery of course was at the heart  of ancient Rome – some of the slaves did ok but the majority had a very, very hard life that one just cannot compute from today’s Western perspective.

So, as I visited the recently discovered Domus at the Palazzo Valentini I had the words of Angela ringing in my ears. It too is a domus that existed at the time of Trajan and, in fact, Trajan’s column (situated nearby) plays its part in the whole experience. Palazzo Valentini is subterranean excavation, located in modern day beneath a palatial Renaissance building, a visitor experience that comes to life through a unique, multi-media visit. The voices of Angela’s people on the streets under my own feet, the smells, and the sounds all reverberated as I viewed the mosaics and the frescoes and what remains of the building structure.

A fabulous book to take on a visit to this wonderful city.

This review first appeared on the TF blog

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