Streets Of Ancient Rome Were Very Dangerous - Going out on the streets of ancient Rome after dark was a very dangerous thing.

By the first century BC, the time of Julius Caesar, ancient Rome was a city of a million inhabitants. This was a city inhabited by people of all classes and a number of different nations. Here, live the rich and poor, slaves and ex-slaves, free and foreign.

ancient Rome

It was the world’s first multicultural metropolis, complete with slums, multiple-occupancy tenements and sink estates. As glorious as some of the ancient Roman palaces and other buildings might have been, there was a different side of Rome.

Outside the splendid center, Rome was a place of narrow alleyways, a labyrinth of lanes and passageways. There was no street lighting, nowhere to throw your excrement and no police force.

The real city was the backstreets and they should be avoided after the lights went out or you risked being mugged and robbed by any group of thugs that came along.

Praetorian Guard was an organization to protect the emperor and serve as his personal bodyguards. They enforced his laws and maintained public order, which was of so high level that it remained in effect until the decline of the great Roman empire.

Most rich people avoided going out after dark unless they were accompanied by private security team of slaves or their “long retinue of attendants”. The only public protection you could hope for was the paramilitary force of the night watch, the vigiles.

Exactly what these watchmen did and how effective they were is unclear. They were split into battalions across the city and their main duty was to look out for fires breaking out.

See also: 

Ancient Inventions Of Firefighting Vehicles

Praetorian Guard: Roman Elite Unit Assigned To Protect But Also Involved In Confinement, Execution, Spying And Threats

What Was A ‘Triumvirate’ In Ancient Rome?

Ancient Roman Government Structure And The Twelve Tables

If you were a crime victim, you had no other option than to defend yourself.  One particularly tricky case discussed in an ancient handbook on Roman law proves the line between crime and self-defense was very thim.. The case concerns a shop-keeper who kept his business open at night and left a lamp on the counter, which faced onto the street. A man came down the street and pinched the lamp, and the man in the shop went after him, and a brawl ensued.

The thief was carrying a weapon – a piece of rope with a lump of metal at the end – and he coshed the shop-keeper, who retaliated and knocked out the eye of the thief.

This presented Roman lawyers with a tricky question: was the shopkeeper liable for the injury?

Still, night-time Rome wasn’t just dangerous. There was also fun to be had in the clubs, taverns and bars late at night, if you dared to go out that is.

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Expand for references


Gibbon E. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire