Do as the Romans do… says who?

February 25, 2013 / Local Interest
Sts Augustine and Ambrose, tempera and gold on wood (ca 1437), Fillippo Lippi, L'Accademia Albertina, Torino, Italy
Sts Augustine and Ambrose, tempera and gold on wood (ca 1437), Fillippo Lippi, L’Accademia Albertina, Torino, Italy

Ever heard the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?

Of course you have.

Do you know the expression’s origin? St. Ambrose, way back in 387 A.D.

As the story goes, when St. Augustine arrived in Milan to assume his role as Professor of Rhetoric for the Imperial Court, he observed that the Church did not fast on Saturdays as it did in Rome.

Confused, Agostino consulted with the wiser and older Ambrogio (Ambrose), then the Bishop of Milan, who replied: “When I am at Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am at Milan I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are.”

In 1621, British author Robert Burton, in his classic writing Anatomy of Melancholy, edited St. Ambrose’s remark to read: “When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done.”

Down through the years, Burton’s turn of the St. Ambrose quote was further edited, anonymously, into what is widely repeated today on a daily basis by some traveler, somewhere, trying to adjust to his/her new or temporary surroundings.

View of Rome from Gianicolo Hill | ©Tom Palladio Images

Now, I wonder who authored that popular, and highly graphic, modern-day Roman expression where one fella, obviously very perturbed at another, threatens to lay waste the other guy along with three-quarters of the residents living in his apartment building.

Hmm. I’ll have to look into that.

by Tom Weber

Tom is a veteran print-broadcast journalist who resides in the Colli Euganei (Euganean Hills) in the province of Padova in the Veneto region of northestern Italy. He hosts the eclectic travel/foodie/photography blog The Palladian, is a regular contributor to Los Angeles-based, and is a member of the International Travel Writers Alliance. Feel free to follow Tom as he “meanders along the cobblestone to somewhere.”

9 Responses to “Do as the Romans do… says who?”

  1. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    Salute Tom; you may well be aware that the Apostle Paul also alluded to that pose at 1Cor.9:19 (…when with Jews etc….)but with a higher motive. as his words may have influenced the Good Ambrose, Ambrose may have been the first to skew the thought…?

  2. bob paglee

    Thanks for the beautiful photograph, but is it
    really supposed to be of Rome? Doesn’t look familiar to me.

    • Onofrio Curatolo

      Bob Paglee, I agree with you that photo is not the Vatican, although seems taken from the Vatican gardens. The circular building is the base of a church and not the St. Peter Dome, which stands high up above the Basilica. I see a Bell tower to the right, which doesn’t exist in the basilica. I do not see the front of the church adorned with the numerous statues.

    • GB

      The church you can see is Santa Maria in Agone (the one in Piazza Navona). Tom likely took this great photo just north of Piazza Garibaldi, on the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere. Basically, the shot is from the west of Rome, looking E-NE, with the river running from the left to the rigth at the base of the green trees in the shot.
      Bravo Tom!

  3. Ciao, Tom!
    Grazie for the always interesting commentary on a well-known phrase. I use it myself often (and even in my own blog). Always enjoy your observations.
    Ha una buona giornata! Victoria

  4. Love these sorts of stories! Why do we say what we say, do what we do? Etymology & Semantics are so much fun. Which may be geeky on my part but I don’t mind. Grazie per un bel racconto dell’origine di questa frase!


Leave a Reply