Idioms: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”

By Kaitlin Strohschein
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a pithy saying with such distinctly pious, Catholic origins that perhaps it is written in stained glass somewhere. In 387 A.D., Saint Augustine moved from Rome to Milan. The renowned theologian, philosopher and author of numerous works of literature including “Confessions” and “The City of God,” noticed that the church in his new town did not fast on Saturdays. Augustine questioned the politician and early “Father of the Church” Saint Ambrose, about his personal convictions as to whether one ought to fast on Saturday, as was the custom in Rome, or not, as was the custom in Milan. Ambrose said, “When I am in Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am in Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are.” The saying made its way into English usage when the phrase “When they are in Rome, they do there as they see done” appeared in the Anatomy of Melancholy, a book of proverbs written by the British author, church vicar, and Oxford graduate, Robert Burton, under the pseudonym of Democritus Junior. According to American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer, the phrase means “follow local custom.” Some less-religious, English idioms about Rome include “fiddle while Rome burns” and “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”