Roman poetry is filled with entertaining rants against urban evils, which I revisited with glee while preparing for a gallery class I taught at the Getty Villa last month. Some of the most illuminating diatribes come to us from D. Iunius Iuvenalis (Juvenal), an embittered poet of the late first and early second centuries A.D. As translated by Peter Green, his verses showcase many of the irritants still encountered in city life today, from traffic jams to fashion requirements.\n\n### 1. The Rent Is Too Damn High\n\n\nJuvenal emphasized the excessive cost of living in the city, with rent easily adding up to the cost of a house one could have bought in a country town.\n\n>If you can tear yourself loose from the Games, a first-class\nhouse can be purchased, freehold, in any small country town\nat the price of a year’s rent, here, for some shabby, ill-lit attic.<cite>Juvenal, *Satire* 3.223–225</cite>\n\n### 2. Slumlords Shrug at Fires, Collapses\n\n\nCheap construction was another fear of the city dweller, and a reasonable one, since fires often started in largely wooden “high rises” of up to five or six stories.\n\n>Who fears, or ever feared, the collapse of his house in cool\nPraeneste, or rural Gabii, or Tivoli perched on its hillside,\nor Volsinii, nestling amid its woodland ridges? But here\nwe inhabit a city largely shored up with gimcrack\nstays and props: that’s how our landlords postpone slippage,\nand—after masking great cracks in the ancient fabric—assure\nthe tenants they can sleep sound, when the house is tottering.\nMyself, I prefer life without fires, and without nocturnal panics.<cite>Juvenal, *Satire* 3.190–197</cite>\n\n### 3. Street Hustlers Torment with Bad Performances\n\n\nAlmost as bad as fires resulting from cheap construction, Romans had to put up, like us, with street performers. To a poet, nothing was worse than hearing fellow (lesser) poets reciting in public in the hottest weather:\n\n>Myself, I’d prefer a barren island to down-town Rome:\nwhat squalor, what isolation would not be minor evils\ncompared to an endless nightmare of fires and collapsing\nhouses, the myriad perils encountered in this brutal\ncity, and poets reciting their epics all through *August*!<cite>Juvenal, *Satire* 3.5-9</cite>\n\nJuvenal’s fellow satirist M. Valerius Martialis (Martial), translated in verse by Garry Wills, also hated public poets:\n\n>You wonder why no people pay you heed?\nWell, I’ll unveil the mystery—you read.\nIncessantly you foist on us your rhymes,\na legendary peril of our times.\nNo mother tiger snarling near her cubs,\nno snake attacking us despite our clubs,\nno scorpion paralyzingly come near,\ncan deal us such humiliating fear\nas you, in undeterr’d reciting mode\nproducing endless drivel by the load. . .<cite>Martial, *Epigram* 3.44</cite>\n\n### 4. Noise Pollution Causes Insomnia\n\n\nAnd then there was the nighttime traffic. The noise at night in Rome could be deafening, because carts with produce and products were only allowed into the city after dark. The daytime streets were already too crowded. Only the wealthy with homes on a secluded hill could avoid hearing the noise of traffic all night long.\n\n>Insomnia causes most deaths here. . .Show me the apartment\nthat lets you sleep! In this city sleep costs millions,\nand that’s the root of the trouble. The waggons thundering past\nthrough those narrow twisting streets, the oaths of draymen caught\nin a traffic-jam, would rouse a dozing seal—or an emperor.<cite>Juvenal, *Satire* 3.232–238</cite>\n\n### 5. Rich Snobs Make the Streets Unbearable\n\n\nDaytime traffic was just as bad, especially for the pedestrian. The really rich were carried in commodious litters (curtained traveling couch-beds) by eight muscular slaves trained to move together to afford the most comfort to their masters.\n\n>If the tycoon has an appointment, he rides there in a big litter,\nthe crowd parting before him. There’s plenty of room inside:\nhe can read, or take notes, or snooze as he jogs along—\nthose drawn blinds are most soporific. Even so\nhe outstrips us: however fast we pedestrians may hurry\ncrowds surge ahead, those behind us buffet my rib-cage,\npoles poke into me; one lout swings a crossbeam\ndown on my skull, another scores with a barrel.\nMy legs are mud-encrusted, from all sides big feet kick me,\na hobnailed soldier’s boot lands squarely on my toes . . .<cite>Juvenal, *Satire* 3.241–248</cite>\n\n### 6. Men Bankrupt Themselves for Urban Fashion Requirements\n\n\nAnd, of course, there was the need to dress fashionably in the city. For men, a toga was a burden dreaded more than a man’s wool suit today. This national formal (male) dress was the equivalent of a gigantic woolen blanket, carefully folded and draped, hard to clean (dry cleaners tended to use urine), and unbearably uncomfortable. Juvenal pretends that nowhere else were men stuck wearing this garment that announced both citizenship and (by its decoration) important distinctions in status.\n\n>Throughout most of Italy—let’s admit it—no one is seen\nwearing a toga until he’s dead. Even on public\nholidays, when last year’s shows are cheerfully staged\nin the grass-grown theatre, when peasant children, sitting\non their mothers’ laps, shrink back in terror at the sight\nof those gaping, whitened masks, you’ll still find the entire\naudience—top row or bottom—dressed exactly alike.\nEven the highest magistrates feel themselves entitled\nto no better badge of status than a plain white tunic.\nBut in Rome we must toe the line of fashion, spending\nbeyond our means, and often on borrowed credit.<cite>Juvenal, *Satire* 3.171–181</cite>\n\n### 7. Falling Pots (and Worse) Brain Pedestrians\n\n\nIn one way, most modern urbanites have it far better than the Romans: we have indoor plumbing lacking in ancient apartment buildings. The Roman inhabitants of upper stories sometimes threw trash, garbage, broken pottery, and even the contents of their chamber pots out the window.\n\n>It’s a long way up to the rooftops, and a falling tile\ncan brain you. Think of all those cracked or leaky vessels\ntossed out of windows—the way they smash, their weight,\nthe damage they do to the sidewalk! You’ll be thought most improvident,\na catastrophe-happy fool, if you don’t make your will before\nventuring out to dinner. Each open upper casement\nalong your route at night may prove a death-trap:\nso pray and hope (poor you!) that the local housewives\ndrop nothing worse on your head than a pailful of slops.<cite>Juvenal, *Satire* 3.269–277</cite>\n\nAlthough ancient Rome offered its inhabitants many of the same irritants we complain about today, there are no parallels for some contemporary problems—like parking tickets, car alarms, and people who talk loudly on their cell phones in public. Which may be a pretty low price to pay for indoor plumbing.