Ancient Rome in Six Iconic Symbols
Updated: Aug 21
The Colosseum, public baths, togas, and wall paintings are some of the iconic symbols of Rome, made possible with creativity and invention. Ancient Rome has had a long life in popular culture and continues to attract millions of tourists. Dozens of movies have been set in Rome or showcase its cinematic allure, from Gidget to James Bond. Classics movies like Gladiator (2000, although not filmed in Rome), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), or Ben-Hur (1959) established ideas about what ancient Rome was like. Some are more accurate than others, and justly represent the cruelty and harshness of the empire.
Originality and invention were key to the empire’s success. Material objects, art, and buildings mirrored those qualities. We can understand quite a bit about what ancient Rome was like through these objects. We can also dispel some popular myths about togas and their parties!
Romans took bathing very seriously and considered exercise and bathing important for wellness. Citizens enjoyed massive building projects funded by taxes and the spoils of conquered lands. Public temples, baths, markets, and amphitheaters appeased and appealed to the masses. Bathing and toilets were necessities, and the Romans knew how to soothe the tensions present in their territories with entertainment and complex bathing structures that would put today’s spas to shame.
First, a word about Roman waste. Gravity fed latrines in rows with stone seats were an amenity of the baths. Few apartment buildings had gravity toilets with most just tossing waste out into the streets. Sewage was flushed out into cesspits or eventually the Tiber. Rome had plenty of clean water for drinking, bathing, and cooking, however, the sewage and filth on the streets was definitely pre-modern, which makes a good soak with your neighbors even more enticing.
Public baths consisted of a changing area, separate for men and women, rows of latrines, which lacked privacy, some had an exercising area, and finally, the pools of water. After disrobing and storing clothing in cubicles, people applied oil for massage or prior to exercise. The sweat and oils were scraped off prior to entering the waters. There wasn’t just one bath, but temperature-controlled water according to individual likes. The caldarium was the warm water and where most started; then headed to the tepidarium which as its name implies was tepid water; and finally, the frigidarium for cool water. Some were open-air, others had a dome to protect bathers from inclement weather.
The public bathing concept started under Augustus in the first century CE. Subsequent emperors including Nero, Titus, and Trajan all continued to build baths. Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 CE) built the first extravagant baths in 109 CE. These baths could accommodate 1,000 Romans and had a cistern with two million gallons of water. None of that could be possible without hundreds of slaves to heat the water with wood fires, clean the baths, and attend to the bathers for massages and to wipe the sweat off their bodies. The propaganda value to the emperor and his family was immeasurable when public projects were undertaken.
Emperor Caracalla built elaborate baths along the Via Appia in Rome, dedicated in 216 CE, with saunas, multiple small hot and cold bathing rooms, and even a lecture hall and library. Construction took about four years with an estimated six to ten thousand workers, both slaves, freedmen, and citizens. Fifty furnaces heated the caldarium underground with heat and steam supplied through pipes. A nearly mile long system of tunnels supply wood and the slaves to stoke the fires. Today the ruined remains hide the pleasures of this former grand public meeting place which comprised twenty-seven acres. In their day the baths were surrounded by gardens, enclosed with walls, and decorated with sculptures. People could play outside, watch men wrestle or engage in athletic games, listen to poetry, or music. Mosaics decorated the surfaces in geometric shapes or of muscular male athletes.
Baths were social mixing grounds with upper and lower classes, as well as slaves, all bathing together. The baths fulfilled many objectives including honoring the emperor, networking, socializing, gossiping, and glorifying Rome. It seems each emperor outdid the former in public bath construction. Diocletian began his bath project in 299 CE. The site is now sandwiched in between the Piazza della Repubblica and busy streets. Artefacts from the baths are in the nearby Palazzo Massimo. Over three thousand bathers could be accommodated. Until about 200 CE women and men bathed naked in the same waters, but following scandals, the sexes were separated.
In the Home
At the end of the day the elite would retire home to eat, relax, and perhaps host a dinner party. Romans enjoyed exquisite table settings with glass, silver table ware, and pottery, relishing the company of friends and business associates in a room with colorful wall paintings and marble or mosaic floors. Ritual banqueting was a much-admired Greek custom, one that the Romans adopted with enthusiasm.
Ordinary glass storage and tableware were part of everyday life and exemplifies Roman ability to take a good idea developed elsewhere and scale it to the empire. By mid 150s CE the Italian glass industry was transformed by blown glass. Before blown glass, most was made by a casting technique with a lost wax method or a mold. These methods were time consuming and labor intensive.
Romans were great assimilators of technologies and crafts from lands they conquered. In 64 BCE craftsmen and slaves from the Syro-Palestinian region brought their glass blowing talents to Rome. The use of a blow pipe and tank furnace allowed for large numbers of glass items to be made in imaginative and creative shapes. The first discovery of pipe blown glass is thought to have originated in Jerusalem at the end of the first century BCE. Pottery or terracotta drinking cups became a thing of the past. Glass goods changed from luxury items to goods used by everyone for personal use or business transactions. Beakers, dishes, bowls, tableware, flasks, vessels in the shapes of animals or food, dice for games, beads, cameos, or rings in a variety of colors were readily available. Every household would have glass objects, from grooming tools to jugs and flasks for transporting goods. Even glass windowpanes were common in the baths and some homes.
Romans loved displaying beautiful objects and art. Frescoed wall paintings were one way to impress and entertain. Scholars group wall paintings into four styles, named first through fourth, spanning from 200 BCE to 79 CE. The first style consists of plastering and painting faux or imitation stone and marble on interior walls, often in color blocks and dividing the wall into sections with different colors or imitation stone or marble. Like most Roman wall painting, illusion was a key element. The second style (80-15 BCE) continued illusionistic treatment by painting scenes on the wall that extend the spatial boundaries of the room. Columns and architectural elements were painted on the wall and beyond an outdoor scene. Romans were fond of gardens, the sea, and sea creatures.
One of the most distinctive examples of this style is in the Villa of the Mysteries, near Pompeii. These frescoes include a series of scenes of women participating in the initiation of the Dionysus cult, the god of wine. His cult had a robust following with a peculiar initiation and rites of worship. This villa is appropriately located in a winery, and although this room was private, it gives us great insight into the rituals of Roman religion and how paintings reflected practices.
This is most likely the “room where it happened” – the actual initiation into the rite of Dionysus. A woman reads a sacred text, the initiate woman washes her hands prior to the ceremony prior to undergoing a series of ordeals, including a lashing. This calls to mind the Relief with Dancing Maenads from the recent Botticelli exhibit in Minneapolis. As part of a wild and rapturous dance as followers of Dionysus the three maenads danced in a drunken frenzy and were known to tear apart animals and eat their flesh. The cult of Dionysus was apparently for serious devotees.
More calming and tranquil second style wall paintings are found in the Villa of Livia frescoes (20 BCE) now in the Palazzo Massimo, Rome. As the wife of Emperor Augustus, Livia had access to unlimited resources and had the dining room of her villa painted to extend views into a perfect imaginary garden of trees, fruit, birds, and abundance. The third and fourth styles tend to be more abstract and cover ceilings and walls. A good example is the Golden House (Domus Aurea) of Nero, 64 CE.
Domestic interior decoration focused on illusion of nature and mythological scenes. Roman families would dine in a room decorated with pretend and perfect gardens, gods, and goddesses. Missing were any depictions of emperors or military conquest in private spaces. Some of the best places to see Roman frescoes are in Pompeii, Ostia Antica outside of Rome, and the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a bedroom excavated from Boscoreale, which was buried in the 79 CE Vesuvius eruption.
Tunics and Togas
But what to wear to dinner? A toga is not required. A simple tunic for men would suffice. A tunic is like an oversized t-shirt cinched at the waist with a belt. Women would wear a stola, a tube type dress sewn together with clasps or broaches at the shoulders. Sandals were common footwear for men and women. Toga parties did not exist and were the invention of an American comedy movie. Banquets with a great deal of debauchery did exist, just not with togas. Moreover, the toga partiers depicted in the movie and subsequent comedy television shows were not technically always wearing the toga, but more of a modified oversized tunic.
Togas were worn only by men, and men who were Roman citizens. A male citizen who reached maturity would first don a toga in a ceremony, then when he married, and when he died, he would be buried in his toga. Senators wore them more frequently for formal occasions. Purple togas were the mark of an emperor while ordinary citizens wore off-white plain togas. It required some skill to wear the toga. The toga was made of wool and was an awkwardly large swath of material, measuring ten feet across and over sixteen feet long. It was worn over a tunic and was reportedly very hot in the summer and unwieldy outdoors on a windy day.
The elite had a special slave called a vestiplicus who would help drape the toga properly. When draped around the body the left arm is bent to hold the material in place. The desired effect would create a nicely draped fold under the right arm and shoulder, allowing the right arm to remain free. There were many different types of togas to symbolize the male’s role or status, for example, some had stripes to indicate a military general or a senator. The emperor or a priest would drape part of the toga over their head while performing a sacrifice to the gods.
Greek style wrap around garments looked very similar to togas and were very popular to wear. Women wore these types of garments, but not togas. Togate women were only for prostitutes! This statue of Emperor Titus (r. 79-81) shows him holding a scroll in his carefully draped toga. Although his rule was short, he continued his father Vespasian’s building programs, constructing another iconic symbol of Rome.
Over ten million visitors, mostly international, came to Rome in 2022. Many saw the Colosseum and may not have known they were standing on a building made possible by a Roman invention. Rome’s state-of-the-art concrete was an architectural game changer. You’ve experienced a variation of Roman concrete in your home or town. Concrete is made of up of aggregate and mortar. Aggregate consists of ceramics, brick, or stones. Mortar goes between the masses of aggregate to hold it together. Water, lime, and crushed volcanic ash made the magic mortar for the Romans. Roman engineering innovations were made possible using volcanic ash from the Naples area. Called Pozzolana, this ash hardened quickly and could be used under water to make harbors. The end result is called opus caementicium, concrete.
Romans poured wet concrete into wood frames to set which was much less labor intensive that on site construction. No iron bars were used to reinforce structures. A heavier denser aggregate was used near the foundation of buildings and a thinner lighter aggregate was used as the height increased. Frames in curved shapes were able to be used for domes and arches, increasing the height and width of domed structures. Buildings were finished with brick, marble, or stone over the concrete to give it a pleasing look. The use of concrete increased during the reign of Augustus, in the late Republican period, from 27 BCE to 14 CE.
Concrete allowed for more complex structures and the Romans were adept at using it to their advantage. The Colosseum serves as a good example, and indirectly is the result of Emperor Nero (r. 54-68). Nero’s rule was self-centered and filled with extravagant building projects for his personal use of which the Golden House is a prime example. His disinterest in governing caused the Senate to declare him enemy of the state and persona non gratis. Following his forced suicide, a civil war ensued. In 68-69 CE four men vied for power. Three died, killing each other off, with factions of various contenders fighting in the streets of Rome. The winner of the civil war was Vespasian (r. 69-79 CE), a seasoned military general. He succeeded in distancing himself from Nero and Nero’s ancestral predecessors by claiming back the lavish pleasure palace and private lake of the Golden House. In place of the lake, he constructed the Colosseum for public enjoyment. A pragmatist, who unlike Nero and his family clan, he did not view Rome as his playground.
Converting an artificial lake with a concrete basin into a Colosseum for 50,000 spectators was a considerable engineering and architectural feat. In Roman times it was known as the Flavian Amphitheater after Vespasian’s family name. The name Colosseum derives from its proximity to the Colossus Neronis, Nero’s bronze statue which has long since been melted down.
The Colosseum was the site of horrific deaths and persecutions. Today it is difficult to understand how the Romans enjoyed such gruesome “games” but in the ethos of imperial Rome they provided an opportunity to instill civic pride, an emotional and physical outlet for the masses, and unity for citizens celebrating military victories or a new emperor. It is easier to appreciate the architectural marvels of the structure than make sense of egregious loss of human and animal lives. The oval shaped amphitheater is made of concrete and originally had travertine masonry on the exterior. Approximately 100,000 cubic meters (130,795 cubic yards) of travertine was used. Three hundred tons of iron clamps held the travertine in place. A series of intersecting arches and massive piers provide the structure with support. By the time Vespasian’s son Titus dedicated the Colosseum in 80 CE it was the largest amphitheater in the empire.
Colosseum, Rome, dedicated in 80 CE, photos Gerriann Brower.
What you see today is a stripped-down version of the arena since the travertine and other facing materials have been quarried away for centuries. When it stopped functioning as an amphitheater in the sixth century it became a source for building materials. The iron clamps were scavenged and left pock marks all along the exterior where the clamps were taken. Later on, a small church functioned on the site and people began using the structure for housing and workshops. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that preservation measures were taken to shore up the Colosseum and attitudes changed from seeing it as a source of building materials to site to be preserved.
Spectators had a token for entry with a number indicating which entry to use. There are eighty arches on each of the three stories and eighty gates for entry. It is estimated it would take about twenty minutes for everyone to enter or exit as it was designed efficiently. Most onlookers would sit on masonry seats built into the structure. There were four levels of seating by social status. The emperor and Vestal Virgins sat on the ground lever north side axis. The second more important group, the senators, occupied the first level, followed by knights, plebeians or regular Roman citizens, and on the uppermost level women, the poor, and slaves. Few women dared to attend. The upper level was a wooden standing room only area 40 meters or about 130 feet or 10-12 stories above the action. A large retractable awning (now missing) protected spectators from the hot sun. In addition to the games, the spectacle offered a rare chance to glimpse the emperor, his entourage, and the rich.
The interior view shown here has part of the theatre floor reconstructed so visitors can see what it would be like to enter the arena as a human or animal. Below the flooring are the many tunnels and areas where humans and animals were kept prior to the games. A barracks for gladiators connected to the arena. When Titus inaugurated the first games the arena floor was filled with water to stage a naval battle. Nero’s former lake had a plentiful supply of water via an aqueduct now repurposed for the Colosseum.
Although references to emperors and conquests were absent from homes, they were readily visible in public life. There are numerous statues of emperors and imperial family members in museums, usually crafted with generic idealized bodies and portrait heads that were easily swapped out. Portraits served as important political tools. The empire was large and branding your image on coins, statues, temples, and other objects spread the word when there was a new ruler.
To narrate a story of conquest and elevate the emperor, the triumphal arch and victory column became an essential of imperial art. Sculptures and columns celebrating military victories and honoring emperors were to be found everywhere in ancient Rome, especially along public routes transitioning into different neighborhoods, important crossroads, temples, and marketplaces. The Arch of Constantine, begun in 312 CE, is unique yet continues a tradition of imperial imagery. Its location adjacent to the Colosseum makes it hard to miss (and free) for visitors. It is one of three remaining triumphal arches in Rome.
The arch celebrates a victory of Constantine over Maxentius, a rival for power in a civil war. Including this civil war theme was a novelty as killing fellow Romans was usually not a subject for imperial art. However, at this juncture Rome’s empire had more than a few fault lines. The empire was divided up into three regions each with a leader. Constantine desired to be the sole ruler, and he achieved that.
Arch of Constantine, 312-315 CE, Rome, photos Gerriann Brower.
Two views from street level; the other is the view from the Colosseum.
After defeating Maxentius outside of Rome, Constantine entered Rome as a new and different leader. His soldiers had a Christian symbol on their shields. As the first Christian emperor Constantine refused to make the usual sacrifices to the gods at the temples, or to visit the temples. He began to transform Rome into a Christian city until his death in 337, mostly through building projects, including the church at the burial site of St. Peter. But first he destroyed any statues or mentions of Maxentius. A statue of Maxentius was modified to his image with Constantine holding a Christian symbol.
The arch was built early on his rule to publicize his victory. Constantine decided to co-opt sculptural pieces from previous successful emperors, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. This re-cycling, called spolia, was a common technique. It served a purpose to put himself as equals to former popular leaders and equate his qualities with theirs. In some areas on the arch he replaced their heads or recut the facial features to his own likeness.
The three-part lower sections with one large arch in the middle flanked by two smaller arches is traditional in concept. There are reliefs with common subjects of conquered regions with enslaved people shown as captives or subjugated to the military. Two winged victory figures are placed on either side of the middle arch. Barbarians are featured here as captives. Unlike the victory Column of Trajan (113 CE), and other public monuments following a military conquest, no overall narrative story is told in the arch. It is a patch work of various scenes and messages. Missing are any references to Roman gods or goddesses.
The Roman triumphal arch served as inspiration to celebrate modern military victories. The Arc de Triumphe in Paris is modeled after the Roman arches. It commemorates Napoleon’s 1805 victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. The Washington Square triumphal arch in New York City (1892) honors the American Revolutionary General and President, George Washington.
A note for would-be Rome visitors: the Domus Aurea (Golden House), Colosseum, Arch of Constantine, and Roman Forum make a great half day of sightseeing and are all close by.
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Zanker, Paul. Roman Art. Translated by Henry Heitmann-Gordon. Getty Publications, 2010.