I've come across claims that prehistoric people didn't get much sleep, which seems to be extrapolated from observations of existing primitive cultures. I'm wondering whether there's something more solid for a somewhat more recent time, say during 0-500 CE. This probably varies by region, maybe mostly depending on level of development. A few groups of people that I could come up with that were almost certainly up at night would be

  • night guards
  • sailors
  • astronomers
  • possibly traveling merchants
  • people partying in taverns

I'm curious what groups are known to have been active during the night, and I'm not picky with regard to region or which part of antiquity really; anything that's reasonably well known will be interesting.

Question: which groups of people are known to have been active at night in antiquity?

  • 1
    You might find this answer useful and also this one. Jan 6, 2019 at 2:29
  • @LarsBosteen They're somewhat related, and do help, thanks!
    – G. Bach
    Jan 6, 2019 at 2:37
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    You would certainly have the Vigiles in Imperial Rome, as just one example. Jan 6, 2019 at 4:58
  • 4
    Parents of newborns?
    – DJohnM
    Jan 6, 2019 at 8:57

1 Answer 1


Aside from the Vigiles (basically, firemen and police) mentioned by sempaiscuba in his comment, there were quite a few groups of people who would have been active at night in Imperial Rome.

Perhaps most numerous were household slaves. They could be required to perform a wide range of duties at night as most were expected to be available at all times:

  • running errands (e.g. carrying messages)
  • if the master went out, slaves would be required to light the way with torches or provide protection
  • serving at banquets and generally being on hand to fetch things, fan the guests or assist those who had drunk too much

enter image description here

Pompeii: "painting of banqueting scene from west wall of triclinium. End of the Banquet. The guests are rising but one of them cannot stand up without assistance3." Source: Pompeii in Pictures

  • bedroom slaves were in or near the master / mistress’ bedroom at night (even when couples were making out) in case he/she needed anything

enter image description here

"Fresco of couple in bed. Man talks to his shy bride. A servant on the left watches the scene." Source: Wikipedia.

  • watchmen and doormen
  • nurses for infants
  • Weaving and yarning were done by the female slaves of less wealthy Romans who often had their servants multi-task.

Among other groups active at night were:

  • Temple attendants
  • Workers in taverns and brothels
  • Street vendors
  • Soldiers acting as sentries for armies camped for the night
  • Bakers had to get up early to prepare bread
  • Wagon drivers delivering goods
  • Fishermen
  • Entertainers, especially musicians
  • Christians sometimes met at night
  • Some authors would write at night; this was known as lucubratio. This could have been simply working late, or waking up and working and then going back to bed. This could also vary with the seasons, as was the case with both Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger
  • According to S. Sticka, "Juvenal relates the importance of fathers training their sons to wake in the middle of the night in order to accomplish their tasks."
  • Some slaves also turned to crime at night (as suggested by @bof in his comment).

As Jason Linn points out in his doctoral thesis, The Dark Side of Rome (2014) many of these jobs were boring

Not only did many night jobs entail periods of waiting, but often waiting alone: guards waited for trouble; nurses waited on sleeping children; prostitutes waited for customers.... With plenty of free time many night workers had to stay awake and endure boredom alone... Some guards were even chained to their posts.

Other sources:

Shaun Sticka Segmented Sleep in First-Century Roman Society (Master's thesis, 2017)

K. D. Matthews, The Embattled Driver in Ancient Rome

A. R. Ekirch, At Day's Close

  • Thieves and burglars?
    – bof
    Jan 6, 2019 at 12:04
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    Most of those groups I hadn't thought about, thanks! I'm gonna take a look at the sources, and leave the question open for a few more days in case someone else has more info to add.
    – G. Bach
    Jan 6, 2019 at 12:37
  • @G.Bach I'll be adding to this answer, and also I'll add links to make it easier to find the sources. Jan 6, 2019 at 12:47
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    The "wagon drivers" bullet point shouldn't be underestimated. Rome had a population (at times) of up to a million people. For significant periods, the use of wagons on city streets during the day time was banned. This means that ALL transportation activities requiring the use of a vehicle would happen at night.
    – tbrookside
    Jan 6, 2019 at 17:37
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    @G.Bach It has been postulated the birth rate was exceeded by the death rate and that, consequently, Rome relied heavily on immigrants to maintain and increase its population. When the centre of the empire shifted east, Rome became less wealthy and less attractive to immigrants. The city was also sacked three times (410, 455, 546 AD). Have look at the pdf Death and disease in the ancient city of Rome for more info. Jan 19, 2019 at 5:47

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