Ancient Roman History Was Written by Upper-Class Men


By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

There is a popular saying that ‘History Is Written by the Winners’. While this may indeed generally hold true, there is an even more pronounced bias in the case of ancient Roman history. It is written by those who were rich, powerful, and male. Why is that so?

A sculpture showing the founder of Rome, Romulus and his brother Remus being fed by Lupa, the she-wolf, from Livy's History of Rome.
Stories from Livy’s History of Rome depicted on an altar from Piazzale dei Corporazioni in the port city of Ostia. (Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen/ Palazzo Massimo alle Terme/Public domain)

Literary Sources of Ancient Roman History

The surviving literary sources from the ancient Roman world were authored almost exclusively by wealthy men of the upper classes.

The histories that form the backbone of our knowledge of events during this period, such as those by Livy and Tacitus; the great works of literature that are admired and studied, such as Virgil’s Aeneid; the musings of philosophers such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius; the fiery speeches of orators such as Cicero; and even more prosaic or utilitarian writings, such as Pliny the Elder’s Encyclopedia and Frontinus’s survey of Rome’s aqueducts—all of these are the literary products of one extremely narrow demographic within Roman society: elite males.

Such men comprised far less than one-half of one percent of the total population of those living in the Roman Empire, yet their monopoly as the authors of sources about that world is so complete that it is impossible to cite a single well-known female Roman poet or even one major historical work written by a poor person.

Inevitably, the works produced by this tiny group of upper-classmen reflect their own specific concerns, customs, perspectives, and prejudices, yet these documents have been used as the basis for our understanding of what the entire ancient Roman world as a whole was like.

Learn more about the ordinary Roman.

Myopic Vision of Ancient Rome

For a long time, historians mostly looked at documents produced by the elites, and as a result, formed a vision of ancient Rome that presented only their perspective. They left out the viewpoints and experiences of a great many other people who, in reality, made up the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the Roman world. Among these lost voices, the poor, women, children, and slaves were the least represented groups.

The tenth book of Livy's History of Rome.
A page from Titus Livius or Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita or From the Founding of the City, which is popularly referred to as the History of Rome. (Image: Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura/Public domain)

It is not surprising that modern historians have leaned so heavily on the literary accounts of the elites. They are the most comprehensive and readily available sources of information about the Romans, and their upper-class perspective often aligned conveniently with that of the generally upper-class historians who read them.

Since the latter half of the 20th century, however, there has been increasing interest among historians in what the ‘average’ inhabitant of the Roman world thought, and what his or her life was like.

Individuals such as kings, generals, philosophers, and artists dominate the primary sources and tell us of wars and politics. The lives of ordinary people sometimes do intersect with these great events, but more often they were filled with private concerns that, while they may seem less epic, were no less important or worrisome to the people involved, like simply earning a living, raising children, and dealing with personal tribulations.

Learn more about the hazards of life in ancient Rome.

Anchorimphis’s Stolen Pig

In 34 A.D., in the Roman province of Egypt, in a tiny village located about 30 miles from the banks of the Nile, right on the edge of the desert, a crime was committed. On the sixth day of the Egyptian month of Pharmouthi, a gang of bandits suddenly appeared out of the desert and raided the humble farm of a man named Anchorimphis. The bandits made off with what was probably one of his most valuable possessions – a tawny-colored female pig.

Distraught over his loss, Anchorimphis promptly filed a report with the local chief of police, a man with the Roman name of Gaius Arrius Priscus, in which he urged the police to investigate the theft and assessed the value of his lost pig at the considerable sum of 12 drachmas.

Unfortunately, we do not know whether Anchorimphis’s prized pig was ever recovered, or if the bandits were ever caught and punished. However, through the random yet miraculous preservation of a fragment of papyrus recording this event, we gain a brief glimpse into the daily life and problems faced by an ordinary farmer, who lived 2,000 years ago. The hot, dry climate that limited the areas of Egypt that could be cultivated also perfectly preserved the scrap of papyrus on which Anchorimphis’s crime report was written.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Over time, as innumerable other documents produced by the inhabitants of the ancient world were destroyed or lost, Anchorimphis’s report of the theft of his pig continued to survive—not because it was considered important, but merely by chance.

No doubt Anchorimphis himself would have been astonished to know that while the names and deeds of the vast majority of ancient Egypt’s great administrators, famous artists, proud generals, and holy priests have been utterly forgotten, his own humble name and the story of his stolen pig have survived across the centuries.

Learn more about the crisis faced by the Roman Empire in the 3rd century.

Why Were the Ordinary Romans Not Heard?

The obstacles which prevent us from hearing the voices of the average people of the ancient Roman world are formidable. First of all, the most efficient way of transmitting one’s thoughts or history is through writing, but in order to do so, one must know how to read and write. There was no universal or required system of education for inhabitants of the Roman world, so obtaining even a basic level of literacy would have required special effort.

While members of the wealthiest families (at least the males) could expect to receive some education, ordinary Romans could not. Modern scholars disagree sharply over how much of the general public in the ancient world could read and write. While a decent percentage may have possessed some basic literacy, true fluency, especially for those in an agricultural setting, would have been unusual.

A second impediment to preserving the words of ordinary Romans is simply survival. While the writings of upper-class individuals were valued, copied, and (sometimes) preserved, those of average people were far less likely to receive such treatment.

The highly perishable nature of most available writing media, such as papyrus, wood, and wax, ensured that the life expectancy of most documents was quite short. The sheer span of time between antiquity and the present constitutes a considerable barrier. Even today, it is difficult to imagine that the average modern person will leave behind any trace or record of his or her existence that will survive in an intelligible form 2,000 years into the future.

Despite all these challenges, the writings of average Romans have not been completely destroyed. Like the account of Anchorimphis and his pig, a few have improbably survived to be read today. Primary among these are the graffiti of Pompeii which were miraculously preserved by the volcanic ash produced by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. These graffiti provided historians with a treasure trove of knowledge about ordinary Roman life.

Common Questions about Ancient Roman History

Q: How was the ancient Roman society divided?

The people of ancient Rome were divided into two classes. The upper-class people, who were wealthy and held important roles in Roman society, were known as patricians. All other people were categorized as plebeian.

Q: Did ancient Rome have a middle class?

Ancient Rome didn’t have a middle class. There were just two classes, and the gap between the people in the upper class and those considered lower class was extremely large. In addition, the number of people who made up the upper, richer class was very small in comparison to the multitude of people who formed the lower, poorer class.

Q: How did Rome came to be?

The people who were the original inhabitants of the city of Rome, in present-day Italy, are known as Romans. Legend has it that the city of Rome was formed by Romulus, which became the center of the powerful Roman Empire.

Q: What language did the Romans speak?

The two official languages of the Roman Empire were Latin and Greek. However, Latin was the original language of the Romans and was used in all administrative, legislative, and military communication. Regionally, a few other languages were also used.

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