Book review: “How to Survive in Ancient Rome” by LJ Trafford

“How to Survive in Ancient Rome” is a humorous yet enlightening, and certainly gruesome at times, look into ancient history. The time period mainly covers the Roman Empire.

The book is divided into chapters that cover one topic at a time — housing, clothing, diet, religion, politics, etc. It basically serves as a how-to guide for those who are looking to time-travel; very practical.

Ancient Rome is not all too different from today’s world. There’s some good stuff, but of course plenty of corruption. There are slaves, for both the rich and the middle class. In social ranking, all women have essentially the same status of slaves. The head of the household, “paterfamilias,” is always a man, in charge of all finances and possessions. But slaves can be freed and women can work, so I guess there’s the silver lining…?

Women do have options — not many, and not so great — but options. Getting married and having at least three kids is a perk for both men and women, as you will be granted a tax break. Rome already seems to be overcrowded, but with the threat of war, they must continue to reproduce and remain overpopulated.

Women have career choices ranging from “money lenders” to herbalism and supernatural healers. They can also be midwives, caretakers, and wet nurses. Those who are not interested in marriage and children can take two paths, both on different sides of the extreme — become a Vestal Virgin by dedicating their life to the gods while vowing chastity (in which they may be executed for breaking this vow) or enjoying a vivid sex life as a prostitute (which obviously comes with its own downsides, although sex work seemed to have more safety and protection by law back then, than it does in modern times.)

Interestingly, sex work was considered low-class in equivalent to actors, chariot racers, or anyone else in the “entertainment industry.” While today’s modern society seems to worship professional entertainers, Ancient Rome looked down on them, although they still loved their arts. To be a poet was considered highly valued, and poetry was a very competitive field, even back then.

At the tippy top of the social ranking was the political leaders. Rome began with kings, but quickly morphed into a society that prevents a single person from having too much power, although political leaders still had a ridiculous amount of influence. Still, the ancient Roman people were not afraid to express their disgust — through graffiti, mob formations, or heckling to their leader’s face when given the chance.

What I also learned is that the ancient Romans really liked to party. About 130 days or so of the year included a religious festival, with lots of wine, and some pretty wild activities. What stands out to me the most, is the festival in which boys run around the town naked with paddles, while girls and women of all ages come out into the streets hoping to get spanked by these paddles because it implies good luck and fertility from the gods. There are also plenty of animal sacrifices — but they are done for the purpose of eating meat while honoring the animal’s life — it’s actually far more sacred and respectful than today’s factory farming.

Another interesting aspect of Ancient Rome is their lack of personal utilities. Baths and toilets are public. The slaves help you bathe, and some of them are even unisex baths. They must have been a lot more open with their bodies and bodily functions than we are today.

I also have to point out their style of clothing — basically, both men and women wear dresses. Men wear knee-length tunics in their daily lives, and floor-length togas on special occasions. Women wear floor-length tunics, but with three layers. While men are at greater risk for exposure, they also wear underwear which is fabric (often wool) wrapped around their bottom. Good news for women, since they’ve got three layers of floor-length covering, they can just skip the undies and go commando.

My favorite thing about this era is their lack of time-keeping. They had sundials and other ways to keep track, but overall it wasn’t of importance the way it is today. They equated each day with twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness — despite the season. So, a summer’s hour took far longer than a winter’s hour — I like that concept. Unless you had an important legal appointment, exact time was not essential.

What I enjoyed about this book is that it provides an accurate look into daily life. Most ancient history pieces seem to solely focus on war and politics — which this book touches on for sure, but does not center around completely. It was interesting to see what life was like for an everyday person. Highly recommended!


8 thoughts on “Book review: “How to Survive in Ancient Rome” by LJ Trafford

  1. To quote Sasha Baron Cohen’s character, Bruno: “Great! I love Romans!”

    Nice review. I don’t know why, but I never get tired of stories about ancient Rome and Greece. You’re right, too many history books focus on war and politics to the exclusion of all else, and it’s great to hear more about how regular people lived.

    As Tyrion Lannister observed: “A wise man once said the true history of the world is the history of great conversations in elegant rooms.”

    Missandei: “And which wise man said this?”

    Tyrion: “I did, just now!”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Have you seen the HBO series “Rome”? It’s from 2005, at the very beginning of the prestige TV trend so it was ahead of its time, and it’s so good.

        Reading your review made me think of the show, so I watched the first episode last night. It’s probably at least 12 years since I’ve seen it, and I’d forgotten how fantastic it is. I’m going to pick up a copy of the book as well on the strength of your review and dive into ancient Rome for a while. Cheers.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. YES!!! It really was ahead of it’s time!!! It was like the original “Game of Thrones” before everyone got into that craze… I don’t understand how it only got two seasons. It could’ve gone for so many more seasons, it also could’ve done prequel type seasons too before Caesar’s assassination. Maybe if it had come out a few years later, it would’ve caught on better… at least it is still accessible to watch on HBO go. And the beauty of the show is that it covers famous people in history like Caesar, Cleopatra, Antony, Octavian, etc… but the two main characters are just everyday people who have just as compelling storylines.

        I’m so glad I inspired you to pick up this book. You will really like it, it’s very funny. Cheers!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yeah, unfortunately it cost around $100 million a season, and HBO and the BBC split that cost for the first one, but the BBC dropped out ahead of the second season.

        And if you look at the show, you can see why it cost so much: It’s all practical effects and real sets, since at the time CGI was still really expensive. It was lavishly produced. Even the Battlestar Galactica reboot, another amazing show from around that time period, was really careful with the amount of CGI they used because of the cost.

        It’s amazing how much things have changed in 15 years or so.

        Liked by 1 person

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