"When in Rome:" A Phrase That Goes Beyond Tourism


| LAST UPDATE 12/05/2022

By Rose Fairchild
When In Rome meaning
@traveltogether_cs via Instagram

Rome, the Eternal City. The land of ancient ruins and home of fresh gelato, the colosseum, and Spanish steps looking over the Trevi fountain. The phrase 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do' is used commonly among tourists and citizens - but where did it come from?

A city full of cultural and delicious benefits offers tourists an abundance of opportunities to absorb its traditional taste. Its classical architecture brings every aspect of your imagination to life, while its famous historical landmarks, fresh food, gardens, and galleries are also on offer. Visitors might come to terms with the cliche phrase 'when in Rome.' Though, it has a deeper meaning behind it. When Christian saint, St Augustine, moved to Milan in the 4th Century AD as a professor of rhetoric, he realized his new church did not practice fasting on Sundays. At the time, the bishop of Milan, St Ambrose, enlightened him, "Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; hic sum, non ieiuno: sic etiam tu, ad quam forte ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalum nec quemquam tibi."

When In Rome saying origin
@traveltogether_cs via Instagram
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St Ambrose's phrase translates to, "when I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here I do not. Do you also follow the custom of whatever church you attend if you do not want to give or receive scandal [?]" Once this was forwarded to modern scholars, it was a moment pinpointed in history, which then returned in 1599. Henry Porter adapted these lines in the play The Pleasant History of the Two Angry Women of Abington. He said, "Nay, I hope, as I have temperance to forbear drink, so have I patience to endure drink: Ile do as company dooth; for when a man doth to Rome come, he must do as there is done." Starting to see a formulation? Now it's 1777, and the phrase was written in the most recognizable form to what we hear today in Interesting Letters of Pope Clement XIV; "The siesto, or afternoon's nap of Italy, my most dear and reverend Father, would not have alarmed you so much, if you had recollected, that when we are at Rome, we should do as the Romans do." There we have it, a phrase too close to Rome's heart and history to ever let go. 

Now that we know it was thanks to a Christian who was initially confused about customs in his new church, we can dismiss it as a cliche social media caption. Not to mention, it has been heard in multiple modern films and television shows. So, next time you visit Italy and find yourself ticking off the traditional activity checklist, you're doing Rome just right.

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