There were Ethiopians in ancient Rome

Ancient housing shortage : Rent exuberance in ancient Rome

He was just 22 and a king at home. But now the young Egyptian was sitting in a tiny apartment far from home. And although the process already took place in the year 164 BC, it is not difficult to understand the plight of Ptolemy VI. to introduce. Like a student today, the pharaoh who had been driven out by his brother lived "because of the high rents in Rome now in a narrow and completely poorer upper floor". This is what an ancient historian wrote it down.

Ptolemy was lucky. He found accommodation with a certain Demetrios whom he knew from his homeland. By the way, Demetrios was a successful geographer. But Rome wasn't just any city, it was the most exciting metropolis of that time. And neither the overthrown king nor the scholar could afford anything better there than an apartment on the upper floor of a Roman tenement.

These multi-storey buildings, known as insulae, could span an entire block; in Rome's heyday there were more than 46,000 of them. Difficult to determine how many people ancient Rome had. The majority of scientists today, however, agree that there must have been several hundred thousand at the time of Ptolemy, and even a million at the time of the empire, i.e. around the birth of Christ. Most of the Romans lived on rent. The more than 40,000 tenement barracks were only opposed to domus in 1797, single-family houses that could, however, reach palatial dimensions.

A million people is a lot when you consider that there was no subway, suburban train or any other reasonable means of transport in this big city. After all, only a minority were forced to move to Rome, namely slaves who could not choose their place of residence - but who worked in the countryside in far greater numbers. They didn't play a role in Rome's rental housing market until they were released.

Most of them came because they wanted to. Because they were hoping for a better job - Rome was the administrative center of a huge empire. Because they were waiting for influential patrons, like the overthrown King Ptolemy, who would have loved to have his kingdom on the Nile back and was actually supposed to return as king by the grace of Rome. Because they wanted to be invited to a decent orgy, or at least to the theater. Because, as the writer Decimus Junius Iuvenalis, known as Juvenal, wrote in one of his satires: In the provinces, life may be more contemplative, but there is only one reason to dress well. Namely at your own funeral.

And because so many of them did not even want to hang dead over the fence to Juvenal in the province, they were pushed from all corners of the empire, drawing Jews, Dacians and Teutons, Iberians, Cappadocians and Ethiopians to Rome. Even the ancient city planners recognized that this would cause problems. Because if every house had only one floor, the city would inevitably extend to the Adriatic as early as 100 years, as a contemporary mathematician calculated.

"With the enormous expansion of Rome and an infinitely numerous population, countless dwellings had to be built," wrote Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, better known as Vitruvius, 2000 years ago in his "Ten Books on Architecture". Vitruvius continued: "Since the existing building land could no longer be sufficient for residential purposes with such a mass of residents, necessity forced the erection of multi-storey buildings to be introduced".

At first sight Vitruvius was very impressed with the Roman real estate market. He claimed that the residents found "functional living conditions" in their tenements. But he also wrote that "very ample income" can be achieved with multiple, divided upper attic apartments.

That is not the only indication that reveals that the Romans not only invented rental apartment construction on a large scale over 2000 years ago, they also made a business out of it.

The trendy metropolis on the Tiber suffered from the consequences of galloping property speculation. Because when kings get stuck in the attic, one thing is clear: this is a market that promises profit. The ancient writer Marcus Valerius Martialis, known as Martial, uses an example to calculate a great deal of profit, 30 times as much as animal husbandry.

The first famous rental shark to be put on record is Marcus Licinius Crassus. A man whose nickname means something like "fat", to whom the word "crass" still goes back today. It was Crassus who with his army ended the slave revolt led by Spartacus in a bloody way: the captured slaves were nailed to crosses along the Via Appia. The wealth of the Crassus was also extreme. At the beginning of his career he is said to have only had a manageable fortune of 8,400 sesterces. He made it 200 million. For comparison: an ancient Roman worker earned 1,000 sesterces a year. For 200 million he would have had to work 200,000 years.

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