A fresco painting of game players in a tavern on the Via di Mercurio in Pompeii
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.
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.
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.