(Over) shared life in Roman Paris

Demystifying Paris ?

As romantic ideas about Paris give way to more realistic ones, I am beginning to entertain ambitions of demystifying Paris. The initial satisfaction of enjoying the sights and  immortalizing Paris in photographs is increasingly overtaken by a desire to peer beneath the surface and observe the layers that are not immediately apparent. 

As such, the 2014 resolution for this blog is to explore different points in the history of Paris, and attempt to  uncover them by engaging the senses. That is to say this blog will try to explore this city’s past by imagining what people tasted, saw, touched, heard, smelt at different points in the history of Paris. Hopefully, historical insights will  shed light onto the present.

This year’s journey captured in twelve blog posts begins in fourth and fifth century Paris – or Lutetia, as  the gallo-roman city may have been known then.

Bodies and the Roman City

One of the centres of fourth century city life in Paris/Lutetia would have been a large public bath, similar to those one would have encountered  in cities across the Roman world.  

The bare bodies of men, women, and people of different social classes (to some degree) engaged with this urban space in ways that are completely unrecognisable to us today.

The baths created a distinct sensual experiences of a public space: forcing bodies to brush against stone surfaces  while shrinking physical distance between neighbours, demanding every citizen’s active participation in the life of the city and of each other’s lives. 

The public bath also represented particular ideas about health and hygiene – among them the concept of health being a public good, delivered through the ‘state’ and consumed communally by all citizens.  Hygiene, the maintenance of the body and the promotion of wellbeing was channeled through  a common, public source.  

I see you, I smell you

In addition to its value as a public space, the bath also  represented an understanding of decency and etiquette fa removed from our more puritan codes of acceptable public behavior.

As much as we take pride in being evolved 21st Century humanoids, our relationship to nudity in public space may have been perceived as primitive by these 4th century-ers who had a much less conflicted relationship to the body and its visibility in public urban space. 

Nonetheless, while these early Parisians held less childish ideas about nudity in public space, one could wonder how the sense of smell factored into the whole bath house experience. Perhaps we win over the 4th century Parisians/Lutetians  because we do not  subject ourselves to the olfactory assault of bath houses that serve to aggregate the dirt of the city’s citizens.

Then again, maybe the sense of smell is a relative thing. For the modern nose, the city may have  carried an objectionable odor to it. Yet, for those living at the time, the nose may have been trained to adapt to the scent of human bodies and would have judged certain scents as a ‘normal’ part of the urban sensory experience.  We also know that in a pre-soap context, perfumes and oils would have formed part of the bath’s ‘smellscape’. Both manmade and more organic scents found a place in the city’s bath  – an intimate urban space that is unrecognisable today.

Yet, for all of the peculiarities of this central feature of this Roman city’s life, the bath as a public space was also a democratising influence. The baths were also a place to socialise, play sport, take walks, consult a library, and maybe even have a meal in public.  Life in the city demanded physical exertion, imposed proximity, while opening up to new possibilities of social life and expansion.

Darkness and Proximity

While the bath may have brought people together, the urban planning of the city may have done so even more.

Walking down the street then was a far cry from today’s experience of strolling down Haussmann’s wide boulevards. Life would have been lived in much closer proximity by  the city residents in houses separated by very little, ‘streets’ more resembling narrow pathways.

This raises interesting questions about the absence of buffers to sound  between houses. How loudly did people speak, and to what degree was the idea of private conversation cherished?  Perhaps the reality of being in close proximity also informed a strong sense of a shared life, as people heard the same things, smelt each other’s food, and had very similar experiences of the city.This stands in contrast to our ability to insulate ourselves and have wildly different experiences of the same city.

City life also involved proximity to farm animals. Agricultural life was not too far. The bleating of sheep and the cock’s crow were not unfamiliar – nor were their scents. Touching your food while it still lived and the feeling of sand from plants from the fields around the city were a natural component of Parisian life.

The Roman city also enjoyed a very different relationship to darkness.  Where electric lighting renders darkness a rare experience for us, the eye would have been more accustomed to deep darkness then (The city would not  have had artificial light to force people awake for long hours, maybe making for better rested Parisians who were clear minded enough to overcome various threats from the Huns and Barbarians).


While cereals and wheat were central to  daily diet, it is quite interesting to ponder upon the process of getting other messier types of food onto the table.Clearly, there was an absence of packaging and  the other barriers to touching the food that people consumed.   Preparation of meat at home  implied bringing dinner home in a  live state.  To many of us, this is an upsetting thought (particularly the vegetarians among us).  

The texture  of organic food, the scent and sound of dinner formed part of a larger reality of a city life shared in vivid ways by ‘man’ and ‘beast’, where human ‘civilisation’ impinged upon nature in observable ways. 

Imagination and the Unseen

As the Roman world came under threat from barbarians, as Christianity contended with heresy, and certainties became less so – the lives that Parisians shared with each other were increasingly under threat.

While the Roman city had succeeded in creating a strong public culture and an intensely shared life,  the city had a poorly informed understanding of the threats that it faced from the Huns and other threats to the empire.

The solidarity that people sensed in an intensely shared daily life seems to have paid off. The  city withstood external threat and survived destruction by the unknown perhaps most notably under the leadership of a visionary woman, Genevieve who encouraged the city to stand its ground in the face of approaching Huns. 

Last Word

Lutetia must have been an interesting place to live – what with its Greco-Roman idea of urban life and democratic social life.  The organisation of space, and the blurred lines between public and private would have created a solid sense of community badly needed in many a 21st century city. 

It’s easy to see  continuities that suggests that old Lutetia subsists –  Paris, now, as then, remains a city where shared urban space remains very important.  Well, perhaps not to the degree of  its Roman ancestor.  Yet, the sense of a  shared city experience remains more palpable in Paris than in many of the cities that this blogger has lived in.