This is the author’s historical note from the end of Watchmen of Rome, with spoilers removed:
The vigiles, also known as the vigiles urbani or cohortes vigilum, were the first official fire-fighting organisation in Rome. They were nicknamed the spartoli or little bucket boys after the rope buckets sealed with pitch that they carred to do their duties. Founded by August in AD 6 to combat the frequent fires that broke out in the poorly built city. Prior to their formation, fire-fighting organisations were privately owned. Most famously, Crassus made a lot of his riches by sending his private firemen to the site of a fire, and putting the blaze out only after the owner had agreed to sell him the property at a knock down price.
The vigiles recruits were originally made up largely of freedmen, but take up of the job was low, so a law was introduced to give a cash bonus and full citizenship to watchmen after they had served in the vigiles for six years. Nevertheless, the vigiles, being full of the low born, and being only quasi-military, must have been viewed with contempt by the legionaries of the Urban Cohorts and the Praetorian Guard.
The vigiles main raison d’être was firefighting, and they had a variety of tools at their disposal for this, including the eponymous little buckets, hooks and levers for tearing down burning buildings and cushions and mattresses for people to jump out of upper floors. They also used blankets soaked in vinegar or a vinegar based substance called acetum which they believed helped extinguish the flames. They may also have had a sort of mechanical water pumping device called a sipho.
The vigiles also had a role in fire prevention, and were able to enter people’s homes to inspect their fire fighting equipment, and even recommend that the prefect sentence those in breach of the fire prevention laws to corporal punishment.
The vigiles patrolled during the day, but the bulk of their duties were at night, and inevitably they became a type of police force. This mainly involved prevention and punishment of minor acts of crime, such as burglary and minor disturbances of the peace. Major problems such as riots were dealt with by the Urban Cohorts.
Sources for the lives of the vigiles are few and far between, and the only complete work that I am aware of is the Vigiles of Ancient Rome, by P. K. Baillie Reynolds, which was first published in 1926.
I am not aware of any evidence that the gods of Ba’al Hammon and Tanit were worshipped in the first century AD. However, it is possible that the religion survived in the regions around Carthage after its destruction, the tradition handed down through generations. First century AD Rome was certainly very open to new cults, with cults devoted to Isis, Mithras and Christ all becoming established around that time.
Rome was a society dominated by a tiny, super-rich elite, and the majority of books about Rome, fiction and non-fiction, concentrate on this elite, or the military they commanded. Much less is known about the lowest classes of Rome, the slaves, the freedmen, the poor free, the people who predominantly populate Carbo’s world, partly because they left no written legacy of their own. However, we do know that the number of individuals in these strata of Roman society were extremely numerous, with slaves alone being estimated to make up to 40% of the population of Italy by Carbo’s time. Some excellent studies of Rome’s underprivileged do exist, notably Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp.
Although Watchmen of Rome was some four years in its creation, my research in the subject of Ancient Rome began two decades ago, when my interest was piqued by Colleen McCullough’s wonderful Masters of Rome series. A complete source list would be too extensive to reproduce here, but is available on my website, as is a glossary of Latin words used in the book.
Alex Gough, Somerset, 2014