The Three T’s of Ancient Rome (and Osteria)

As I’ve mentioned before, the world of Osteria didn’t just pop into my head. It was heavily based on life in Ancient Rome and, to a lesser extent, Ancient Greece.

In a previous newsletter you learned about some of the major influences of Roman culture on Osteria such as slavery, religion, and family life. This time, we’re doing the same with what I call the Three T’s: Timekeeping, Taverns, and Toilets. Be warned, things get a little gross on that last one.

You Might Need a Calculator: Timekeeping

If you don’t have a Rolex or Apple Watch, how in the world do you tell time? Sundials work well, but unless you’re in the Flintstones, you probably aren’t going to wear a sundial on your wrist.

In Osteria, I don’t mention time a great deal, but when I do, it’s based on the Roman method of tracking the day. Bear with me because this might send anyone who hates math into a tizzy.

Finn trying to calculate an hour in Ancient Rome.

Just like us, the Romans kept a 24-hour day. But these hours did not remain consistent. See, the hours were measured from midday, and there were 12 hours of daytime and 12 hours of nighttime. With me so far?

So, from sunrise to noon there were six hours, then from noon to sunset there were six hours. Then night was divided into 12 hours. I see the clock gears turning in you head!!

That’s right, these “hours” did not remain the same throughout the year. If you had 16 hours (our hours, 60 minutes) of daylight in summer, you still divided that time the sun was in the sky by 12. When daylight dwindles to only 8 hours (again, our hours), you still divided that by 12. And now I’m thinking that working out for an “hour” in the winter would have been WAY easier than working out for an “hour” in the summer. 

Yeah, kind of like that.

When you wanted to make an appointment with someone (and you’ll see this occasionally in Osteria), you would tell them to meet you in the seventh hour, meaning the seventh hour hour the sun was up (or one hour past midday). You just better hope you’ve set your sundial to the correct clock for the season!

Using this type of time system when writing books for Osteria can get tricky. I can easily use time dividers like “hour” but I have to be incredibly careful not use the words “second” or “minute” since these would be complete anomalies.

So, when something happens quickly in Osteria, rather than saying “in only a couple seconds,” I have to continually remind myself to write “in less than two heartbeats.”

I Need a Drink: Taverns

After you’ve broken your brain trying to figure out what time it is, you might need a drink (because it’s five o’clock somewhere).

This is my favorite of the Three T’s and it probably shows in some of the Osteria Chronicles books, especially in the kingdom of Minoa where Minos absolutely LOVES going to his favorite tavern run by poor Yerni.

Because cooking in Ancient Rome involved having to locate fuel, lighting a fire, keeping it stoked, risking burning down your house (or neighborhood), it wasn’t uncommon for many meals to be taken outside of the home, even for poor people. Probably especially for poor people since rich people could afford slaves to do all the kitchen drudgery for them.

You probably don’t want Finn cooking for you.

And where does a hungry Roman go to eat? The tavern (which might also be a brothel or gambling den — dinner and entertainment!). At the tavern was a counter in which were cut holes.

The tavern keeper then set pots of stew or bowls of nibbles into these holes, you sidled up to the bar, selected what looked tasty (even if it didn’t), and then paid. That’s right, the Ancient Romans invented the concept of the school cafeteria lunch lady. Who knew!?

If you visit Ostia Antica just outside of Rome, you can see an example of this set up, and maybe even get behind the counter and collect a drachar or two.

Mr. Husband working the bar in Ostia Antica (Rome)

And Now It’s Time for Toilets

Oh this newsletter is really going down the tubes with this one, but after you’ve had your fill at the tavern, you might need to use the loo.

Romans were outstanding engineers and used their skills to divert water along aqueducts. This doesn’t seem terribly impressive except when you consider these aqueducts had to be precisely sloped along their entire route (which could be dozens of miles) to keep the water flowing all the way into the city.

Aqueducts: Because you can’t make espresso without fresh water.

Some of this liquid went into public fountains to provide everyone with fresh water, some of it was even plumbed directly into the homes of the rich and famous (fancy!), and some of it went to the Roman version of toilet.

Anyone who has even the tiniest hint of a shy bladder will cringe at how these “toilets” worked. Basically, because the water could not be shut off, it continuously flowed through the public latrine.

And by public, I mean PUBLIC. You basically had a long bench with holes cut into it. Not just one hole, but several holes because you did your business with your fellow citizens. I know, I’m sorry, bear with me because it gets worse.

Amazing aqueducts, arenas, and roads, but this is the best they could come up with for a toilet? Notice the trough in the floor, by the way.

As the water from those glorious aqueducts carried away the waste you were making, running down the center of the latrine in front of the poo benches was a trough of flowing water. I hope you didn’t just eat.

Conveniently placed along this trough were sticks with cloth wrapped around one end for your, um, sanitary needs. Scrub a little, dip it in the trough, scrub a little more, and repeat until, well, you know.

In Osteria I do mention these latrines now and then, but not often because I tend not to focus too much on that aspect of my characters’ business.

I have however, given my higher ups indoor toilets and, in Colchis Castle, have stolen a bit of medieval architecture by providing a water closet where the “toilet” opens directly onto the sea below. It might be a scary trip to the loo, but least the air in there stays fresh, right?

By the way, if anyone is curious, the monetary unit “drachar” is a combination of the Greek “drachma” and the U.S. “dollar.” And that’s your final bit of Osteria trivia for the day!

If you’re not completely disgusted, why not HEAD BACK to the newsletter and let me know which of the four Osterian/Roman T’s you simply could NOT deal with.