Since there were no public vehicles to transport workers from their homes to their toil, most of the plebs lived in brick tenements near the heart of the town, or in rooms behind or above their shops. A tenement usually covered an entire square, and was therefore called an insula, or island. Many of these buildings were six or seven stories high, and so flimsily built that several collapsed, killing hundreds of occupants. Augustus limited the frontal height of buildings to seventy Roman feet, but apparently the law permitted greater elevations in the rear, for Martial tells of “a poor devil whose attic is 200 steps up.” Many tenements had shops on the ground floor; some had balconies on the second; a few were connected at the top with tenements across the street by arched passages containing additional rooms- precarious penthouses for particular plebeians. Such insulae almost filled the Nova Via, the Clivus Victoriae (Victory Hill) on the Palatine, and the Subura- a noisy brothel-ridden district between the Viminal and the Esquiline. In them dwelt the longshoremen of the Emporium, the butchers of the Macellum, the fishmongers of the Forum Piscatorium, the cattlemen of the Forum Boarium, the vegetable vendors of the Forum Holitorium, and the workers in Rome’s factories, clerkships, and trades. The slums of Rome lapped the edges of the Forum. The streets off the Forum were filled with shops and resounded with labor and bargaining. Fruit sellers, booksellers, perfumers, milliners, dyers, florists, cutlers, locksmiths, apothecaries, and other caterers to the needs, foibles, and vanities of mankind blocked the thoroughfares with their projecting booths. Barbers plied their trade in the open air, where all could hear; wine taverns were so numerous that Rome seemed to Martial one vast saloon. Each trade tended to center in some quarter or street and often gave the locality a name; so the sandalmakers were gathered in the Vicus Sandalarius, the harnessmakers in the Vicus Lorarius, the glassblowers in the Vicus Vitrarius, the jewelers in the Vicus Margaritarius.

In such shops the artists of Italy did their work- all but the greatest of them, who drew high fees and lived in peripatetic luxury. Lucullus gave Arcesilaus a million sesterces to make a statue of the goddess Felicitas, and Zenodorus received 400,000 for a colossus of Mercury. Architects and sculptors were ranked with physicians, teachers, and chemists as pursuing artes liberales, arts of freemen; but the men who did most of the artwork of Rome were or had been slaves. Some owners had their bondsmen trained in carving, painting, and like skills, and sold their products in Italy and abroad. In such shops labor was sharply divided: some specialized in votive figures, others in decorative cornices; some cut glass eyes for statues; different painters made arabesques or flowers or landscapes or animals or men, and worked in turn on the same picture. Several artists were expert forgers, producing antiques of any marketable age. The Romans of the last century B.C. were easily deceived in these matters, for, like most nouveaux riches, they tended to value objects according to cost and rarity rather than by beauty and use. During the Empire, when it was no longer a distinction to be wealthy, taste improved, and a sincere love of excellence brought to many thousands of families a refinement of utensils and ornaments such as only a very few had known in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. Art was to antiquity what industry is to modernity. Men could not then enjoy the lavish abundance of useful products now poured forth by our machines; but they could, if they cared enough, gradually surround themselves with objects whose zealously finished form gave to all who lived with them the subtle and quiet happiness of beautiful things.