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When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do

Homes and ruins of ancient Rome. when in rome

When in Rome Definition

When in Rome. In an unfamiliar land or with an unfamiliar group it is best to follow their customs and manners. Doing so will help you to fit in, and perhaps gain a better understanding of those groups or people.

When in Rome Examples

“There aren’t any chairs in this cafe, do we really need to sit on the floor?”
“Everyone else is, and they have such fancy cushions! When in Rome, do as the Romans do!”.

“Why are you carrying your groceries on your head?”
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Most of the other people shopping here are, and it’s actually much easier on my back!”



A portrait of Miguel de Cervantes. when in rome
Miguel de Cervantes

“When thou art at Rome, do as they do at Rome.”

Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes presumably born in 1547 is considered by many as the greatest Spanish writer in history.

His famous novel Don Quixote is one of the single most translated books in the world second only to the Bible. Don Quixote, considered the first ‘modern’ novel is a story about an eccentric Spanish noble who shuns the real world in favor of living out his fantasies as a royal knight errant. Quixote travels the countryside with his recruited farmer boy Sancho as his squire. He encounters many colorful characters in his imagined quest to prove his knightly honor and virtue.

Cervantes himself was born some 20 miles from Madrid. He was the fourth of seven children.

His father was a barber-surgeon. An interesting profession where on top of haircuts, these barbers performed procedures such as blood-letting, bone-setting and of course amputations! Barber-surgeons existed because of there ready access to blades and the fact physicians of the time considered surgery beneath them.

Cervantes family was close to poverty. He had a love of books since he was very young although he likely never studied at a university. Miguel left Spain for Italy in 1569. The reason he left is not certain. There is a chance he was fleeing the law. As around the same time their is records of a man of the same name seriously wounding another in a duel.

In Italy he studied Renaissance art and literature. Shortly afterwards he joined the Spanish Navy Marines. In the Battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman fleet the Spanish were victorious. Though Cervantes suffered two gunshots to the chest and one to his left arm rendering it useless. It took him six months to recover.

Cervantes Part 2

An attack on Cervantes galley by Ottoman pirates led to his capture in September 1575 while sailing from Naples to Barcelona. He managed four escape attempts in the five years he remained imprisoned. Finally his parents were able to pay a ransom and Cervantes returned home.

Living again in Spain he spent his years working as a purchaser for the Spanish Navy, a tax collector and a banker.

Cervantes completed Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda his final book three days before his death. The legendary writer died in 1616 from type II diabetes.

A painting of Cervantes characters Don Quixote and Sancho at a crossroads. when in rome
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at a crossroad a painting by Wilhelm Marstrand


“When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.”

Flannery O’Conner

Flannery O’Conner was an American novelist born in 1925. She grew up in Georgia and considered one the greatest short story writers of the 20th century.

O’Conner moved to Milledgeville, Georgia at age 15 where shortly afterwards her father died of lupus.

Her most notable works include the two short story books A Good Man is Hard to Find, Everything That Rises Must Converge and two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away.

Flannery died on August 3, 1964 after ten years of fighting the same form of lupus her father had.

When in Rome Origin

Literary Origin

“The siesto, or afternoon 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.”

Lorenzo Ganganelli, Interesting letters of Pope Clement XIV

Pope Clement

This is earliest modern version of the idiom I’ve found in text. Found in a letter to one Dom Gailland from the Pope Clement XIV. The Popes birth name is Giovanni Vincenzo Antonio Ganganelli (say that five times fast) and was the last Pope to take the name Clement.

At one time Pope Clement XIV invited Leopold Mozart and his son (whom, you may know)Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to his company. While in Rome A 14-year-old Mozart performed an amazing feat by performing a Miserere mei, Deus a set of psalms written for two choirs. He played it entirely from memory after only hearing it once!

Wolfgang memorized the music since the church forbid making copies. Clement had made Mozart a knight of his Order of the Golden Spur.

A portrait of Pope Clement XIV. when in rome
Pope Clement XIV

Spiritual Origin

“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.”

St Augustine, St Augustine: Letters Volume I

St Augustine

Augustine of Hippo aka Saint Augustine was an early christian saint and philosopher. In the letter above he is quoting an older Bishop Ambrose. St Ambrose sent him that advice when Augustine moved from Rome to Milan and found out that the congregation there did not fast on Saturdays.

St Augustine is represented in art as one of the four Doctors of the Church. Alongside St Jerome, St Ambrose and Pope Gregory I.