How did the Ancient Romans stay warm in winter?

It’s freezing – and apparently more Arctic conditions will hit the western world in February. Brrr. But how did Ancient Romans keep warm in winter?

Central heating in Ancient Rome

Roman underfloor heating system, bath, UK (Image: CCL Wikipedia)

We know they felt the cold because Romans were the first to invent underfloor heating – a system of conduits beneath the floors of buildings that carried hot air that warmed the walls. There would be a furnace built near an outside wall of the property and smoke would be directed up chimneys. The conduits comprised stacks of tiles roughly 60cm high built in a grid pattern – and the air rose and warmed the brick-built Roman buildings.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome site of Roman baths heated by warm air

It was essential to keep the fire fuelled and stoked to keep the buildings warm – and also to clean the furnace and remove ashes. The heating system also warmed the public baths – and especially the caldarium – the room containing hot water at the public baths or in a home of a wealthy family, senator, general or the emperor.

Ancient Romans also invented lavatories – some with heated seats – and families might also have a portable brazier to carry from room to room, perhaps similar to our halogen or fan heaters.

So Ancient Romans were already toasty warm, while other ancient nations were at best clinging to a single fire in the middle of their house – and risking having their thatched houses burned down.

Winter fashion for Ancient Romans

In ancient times, Rome itself was not immune to freezing conditions – the weather was so cold at times that the River Tiber completely froze over in 398 BC, 396 BC, 271 BC and 177 BC.

Ancient Romans did not stop at constructing central heating to keep warm, however – in winter, they dressed in layers, as we do when the weather turns cold.

Gladiators in winter in Rome in modern times
(Image: Copyright A. Meredith)

In January in Ancient Rome, the day-time temperature was around 12C during the day – but at night the temperature fell to around 3C. Even now in Rome, autumn days can reach temperatures of 25C – but at night the temperature drops to normal autumn temperatures and the weather can also be wet in autumn, winter and spring. It is not unknown to see the Vatican covered in snow and the waters of the Trevi Fountain frozen solid.

So in Ancient Rome when the temperature dropped, Romans would add woollen clothing to their wardrobe. Soldiers especially would layer up, including short woollen trousers called braccae, woolly tunics – and they might wear several of these in layers. Emperor Augustus was known to wear up to four tunics under his toga to keep warm!

Emperor Tiberius wrapped up for winter circa 1AD
(Image: CCL Wikipedia)

Romans also wore clothing with hoods, including woollen cloaks – and even scarves, including some fashion-forward designs boasting tassels, as we have today. They also had socks known as udones – for the military, these might have been part of their official winter uniform.

Correspondence between Roman soldiers stationed in cold countries like Britannia and their families reveals that they received gifts of clothing from family at home in Rome. In snowy parts of the Roman Empire, there was a risk of frostbite and even trench foot if feet got wet. Roman soldiers are known to have wrapped cloth round their legs and feet to keep warm and prevent frostbite, before popping on their socks, which might have been handmade by or sent to them by family. Unlike us, the Roman soldier would have been thrilled to receive a pair of socks for Saturnalia (Christmas). They might be made from papyrus or wool or other cloth.

Not only did the Romans have all the winter clothes we wear – they also had sheepskin boots very similar to a certain designer brand today! The Roman winter boots were handmade and reached to mid calf. In rainy weather, Romans and Roman soldiers wore shoes with tanned leather soles known as pero.

Pair of leather shoes soles found at the Roman Mithraeum in London
(Image: Copyright A. Meredith)

Warm up with a Roman hot toddy

The Romans did not just stop at clothing and central heating in winter, however – they also were fond of a hot toddy to warm up. The favourite warm Roman drink was known as calda (meaning ‘warm’) and it comprised wine mixed with water and added spices, which sounds very similar to the mulled wine we drink in Europe today. Ancient Romans and Greeks would have bought it at inns or taverns, pretty much as we visit bars for a drink today.

Posca using a recipe by the blogger Allyson Batis (Image CCL Wikipedia)

Ancient Romans also drank posca – a honey drink which also contained vinegar or sour red wine, water and herbs, that was allowed to cool to room temperature before drinking. Today it can be made using red wine vinegar and ground coriander to produce a similar drink – blogger Allyson Batis has a posca recipe online.

So this winter, wrap up nice and warm like an Ancient Roman and enjoy your favourite hot toddy.

Bibe! (Drink!)

Yes, it does rain in Rome (Image: Copyright A. Meredith)

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