'When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on December 25, 2023

Have you ever wondered what it means when people say, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'? If so, you're in the right place. In this article, you'll learn the meaning of this popular idiom, its origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

Before we get started, here's the short version:

  • 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do' means you should adapt to the local customs of the place you're visiting. 

What Does 'When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do' Mean?

The idiom 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do' means that when you are in a foreign or unfamiliar place, you should adopt the customs, behavior, and practices of the people who live there. In other words, you should conform to the local culture and follow the norms and etiquette of the community you are in.

It's an idiom, which means you shouldn't interpret it literally. It doesn't only apply to people visiting Rome. It applies to any setting you're in that isn't your usual one. This could be when you're traveling to a new city or country, but it could also be when you start a new job, go to someone's house, learn about a new religion, etc.

Imagine, for example, that you go on vacation in France, and you notice they tend to have a glass of wine with their lunch. You might say,

I don't usually drink alcohol in the daytime but 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do.'

The saying is usually shortened to 'When in Rome' because it's very famous, so everyone knows what you mean.

Where Does 'When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do' Come From?

The idiom is often attributed to a saint by the name of Saint Ambrose, a bishop of Milan, when he offered a valuable piece of advice to Saint Augustine, who had recently moved from his hometown of Milan to Rome. The latter was surprised to find that the church in Rome didn't fast on Saturdays as he was used to. This change threw him, and he was unsure whether he should continue to fast on Saturdays as he was used to.

Saint Ambrose told 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. 

This 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?

This communication took place in letters, which is why we know today that this conversation took place, and we can attribute the idiom to Saint Ambrose. This was sometime between 387 and 390 AD.

After this, the saying became increasingly popular over the years and began appearing in print more and more often. One of the most famous was in the 1777 Interesting Letters of Pope Clement XIV when he said:

The siesta 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 were at Rome, we should do as the Romans do – cum Romanus eris.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it.

In the Middle East, it's customary to remove your shoes before entering someone's home, so we did too, because 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do.'

I don't usually take so many breaks during the day but at my new job they do, and as they say, 'When in Rome.' 

When I go to Spain, I'm going to take a nap every day, because 'When in Rome.' 

Joining a different social group in college, she quickly adjusted her behavior to fit in, because 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do.'

When studying abroad, she made an effort to learn the local language and culture, because she knew that 'When in Rome, you do as the Romans do.'  

Moving to a different city for work, he knew that 'When in Rome, you do as the Romans do' so he tried his best to embrace the local customs and traditions.

 As a diplomat, he understood the importance of adhering to local customs and etiquette, because of the 'When in Rome' principle.

When transitioning to a new school, it's essential for students to follow the established rules and norms. After all, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do.'

During his travels, he always tries the local cuisine, following the When in Rome tradition.

She decided to wear traditional clothing during the local festival, embracing the When in Rome philosophy.

Other Ways to Say 'When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do'

There are plenty of other ways to say you should adapt to your circumstances. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

  • When you're in a different kitchen, you must lick the spoon.
  • Adapt or perish.
  • Act as the locals act.
  • When you're a guest, you follow the host.
  • When you're with wolves, you have to howl.
  • Do as the situation demands.
  • When you enter a village, follow its customs.

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says, 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do,' they mean you should try to adapt to new situations by acting the way people who are used to it do. 

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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