How Did People Sleep in Roman Times?


The National Sleep Foundation based in Arlington, Virginia in the United States released new recommendations on the average number of hours a person should sleep based on age. It says that teenagers from 14-17 should sleep for 8-10 hours; adults aged 26-64 should have 7-9 hours of sleep while older adults 65 and over should sleep for 7-8 hours. This is now. But during the Middle Ages, situations were different. In those days, most people slept in two phases each night. So they have a first and second sleep, according to At Day’s Close: Nights in Past Time, written by Roger Ekirch.

Our ancestors, just like today, have different sleeping patterns.

Rising with the sun

The Romans were the originator of the saying “Carpe diem” that means “seize the day” and they did! Not even the best beds during that era could keep them from carpe-ing the diem! They were the great thinkers, philosophers, inventors, architects, construction workers, conquerors and more. Based on history, Romans did not like to sleep as it hampers the progress of whatever they were doing. For them, they have to attack the daytime, thus most of them rose even before the first rays of the sun show up in the sky.

For the Romans, staying in bed means you are drunk and should be treated with contempt. There were even those who rose up before the sunrise, such as Emperor Vespasian. So we could surmise that the Romans were an industrious lot.

However, it could be said that maybe their bedrooms had something to do with their short sleeping period. Despite being great architects who built beautiful temples, coliseums and massive halls, Roman bedrooms were simple and small. The conditions did not encourage one to stay in it. Their bedrooms were functional, with thick shutters that they close in the evening, leaving the room in total darkness. Their beds did not encourage sleep as well. They were more like sofas, made of wood and typically with hay-filled mattresses. There were no pillows then, although the very rich can afford to have a mattress filled with swan’s down.

Servants and slaves also rose before sunrise and they immediately start their day with cleaning and cooking. For most Romans, the period between 8 and 9 was already mid-morning.

Huddled together in one room

During the Middle Ages, there was barely any distinction between rich and poor during sleep times. With the absence of proper plumbing, electricity and other mod cons, families slept in one room, close to each other to keep warm. Servants slept in the same room as their masters, on straw mats at their masters’ feet. Chamber pots were kept close by, and warmth was generated by fires. Such conditions were not conducive to sleep, as the smoke and the smell wafting from chamber pots and the general filth tend to keep them awake.

Two-phase sleeping patterns

Based on the research of Professor Kirsch, people during Roman times did not sleep for one 8-hour stretch, but actually in two phases, involving some 12-hour period. In the first phase, people slept for up to 4 hours. When they woke up, most of them just stayed in their rooms. Some of them prayed, others read, while others pursue more carnal activities. Others got out of the house and visited neighbours who were also awake. About two hours later, they went back to their beds and slept a further 6 hours.

Before the advent of the industrial revolution, numerous groups of people also slept for shorter hours. Sleep scientist Jerome Siegel of the University of California did a study among the three traditional tribes that follow their forefathers’ traditions – the Tsimane (Bolivia), San (Namibia) and Hadza (Tanzania). Observing the 94 participants for more than 3 years, the scientist found that the average hours of actual sleep each night was between 5.7 and 7.1 hours. Lighting a small fire extended their wakeful state by about 3 hours. The researchers found that the sleeping habits of ancient societies are related to temperature instead of the absence of natural light. They normally go to sleep when the temperature starts to fall and they sleep for an extra hour when the weather is cold. Still they rise before the sun comes up.

Looking at these facts, the situation today is not much different from the days gone by. Should you sleep straight for 7 to 8 hours or do you train yourself to sleep in two phases? It’s your choice. What matters is to respect your sleeping hours to give your body and mind the time to rest, relax and recharge.

Also see: The Rise of the Holy Roman Empire

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