“I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the Coliseum. He’ll bring them death—and they will love him for it.”—Gracchus, Gladiator (2000).
To put it simply, ancient Rome is probably the most epic civilization in human history. What started in the eighth century BC as a small town on the bank of the Tiber River in what is now central Italy became one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. It lasted more than a millennium filled with countless wars and military campaigns, and in that time, it came to encompass all of continental Europe around the Mediterranean basin, all of Britain, and a huge part of western Asia and northern Africa. Few other civilizations can boast that longevity or totality of influence, making it one of the most fascinating historical subjects to learn about.
Burn, Baby, Burn!
Nero (emperor from 54 AD-68 AD) is famous for singing and playing the fiddle while much of Rome burned to the ground during the Great Fire of Rome.
It was later speculated that this account was false, and that it was propaganda created by the next emperor. One key piece of evidence: the fiddle wasn’t invented yet. The story was probably invented by subsequent rulers as propaganda, to suggest at the opulence and decadence of emperors like Nero.
Life tip: if you’re going to spread lies about your enemies, make sure they don’t entail activities that would be quite literally impossible. It diminishes credibility.
Then again, the image is pretty funny.
Roman Soldier: “My Emperor! The city is burning! What do we do????”
Nero: “Hmmmmmmmmm. Did I play you my new single yet?”
Bloodsport or Speed?
Despite what Hollywood movies may have led us to believe, gladiatorial fighting wasn’t the most popular form of entertainment—although it was likely still the most bloody and barbaric. Modern archaeologists estimate that the Colosseum could accommodate 50,000 people, which, for perspective, is just a bit less than the capacity of Yankee Stadium.
This means that the Colosseum was dwarfed by the Circus Maximus, where 250,000 Romans could gather to watch chariot racing. That’s more than twice as large as the biggest soccer stadium in the world, Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. Perhaps one of the reasons why chariot races were attended in such large numbers is because it was one of the few sports where women were allowed to join the audience as spectators—guess that letting the other half of the population participate is a pretty easy way to double your ticket sales!
Although chariot racing was less bluntly violent than gladiatorial combat, it was still incredibly dangerous for both horses and riders. The easiest way to get rid of opponents was, of course, to drive them into the median, creating a spectacular accident. As riders tied the reins around their waists, when anything at all went wrong, they would be dragged along by the horses until they could free themselves—that is, if they could free themselves.
Live Long and Prosper
As was the case in many ancient civilizations, most people weren’t exactly just waiting out the years to retire at 65. Life expectancy in ancient Rome was only 20 to 30 years—but they didn’t all die young. The average life expectancy at the time was skewed by the large number of women who died giving birth, and by high infant mortality. If a Roman made it to maturity, they were likely to live as long as people in the modern Western world.
It may be one of the most well known, but the Roman Empire was not actually the largest empire in history. Concentrated as it was in a relatively small area (okay, maybe it doesn’t look that small, but compared to most other continents, Europe is kind of eensy), at its peak, the Roman Empire comprised of five million square kilometers (1.93 million square miles), whereas the British Empire covered 35.5 million square kilometers (13.71 million square miles). That puts it at #25 on the list if we’re measuring by land size.
If we’re going by population size, the largest empire was the Achaemenid Empire, AKA the Persian Empire. In 480BC, at its peak, it accounted for 44% of the world’s population, whereas Rome only ever got to around 20%. At its peak, the Roman Empire had between 50 and 90 million inhabitants. That’s nothing to sneeze at!
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
The wars between the Romans and the Persians lasted about 721 years. This constitutes the longest conflict in human history. It wasn’t barbaric frontline warfare 24/7 though—the frontier between the two sides was largely stable, and it was more of a prolonged stalemate than a series of escalating battles.
After the wedding night, a modest Roman wife wasn’t supposed to let her husband see her naked again. Consequently, it may be no surprise that the philosophers who argued that a man shouldn’t have sex with anyone but his wife won few converts. Maybe being a Vestal Virgin wasn’t so bad after all…
During the 7th century BC, ancient Roman “Vestal Virgins” were required to keep their hymens intact as proof of virginity for 30 years. The Vestal Virgins were an order of priestesses who worshipped the goddess Vesta, and they were very important figures in the Roman religion. They tended to the sacred fire which wasn’t allowed to go out, and which was thought to give ancient Rome life and keep it safe. Their virginity was tied into this great responsibility, hence the 30-year vow. However, as a downside, Vestal Virgins who engaged in sexual conduct were punished by being buried alive. Is this where horror flicks from the ’70s got the stereotype of killing all the sexually active teens and letting only the virgin survive?
A Little Bit of a Flooding For a Lot of Fun
In 86 AD, the Colosseum was filled in with water to stage a full naval battle. Cassius Dio, a Roman writer, stated that “Titus suddenly filled this same theatre with water and brought in horses and bulls and some other domesticated animals that had been taught to behave in the liquid element just as on land. He also brought in people on ships, who engaged in a sea-fight there, impersonating the Corcyreans and Corinthians.” It sounds way more high budget and impressive than any historical reenactment I’ve ever seen!
The inhabitants of ancient Rome had a sewer goddess (Cloacina), a toilet god (Crepitus, also the god of flatulence), and a god of excrement (Stercutius). The gods were said to frequent the latrine in large numbers and excrement was regarded as the food of the dead. Looks like the ancient Romans had a surprisingly progressive view of the importance of gut health! Good on ’em!
Gotta Get Dirty to Get Clean
The ancient Romans did NOT have Tide or Crest, in case you were wondering. What was used to wash clothing in ancient Rome? Urine, of course. The Romans also used it to whiten their teeth. I’ll pass, thanks.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me—especially if they’re used wrong. Early Christians were actually called “atheists” by Romans because they didn’t pay tribute to the pagan gods. Members of the early church were also considered “cannibals” because they “ate” of the body of Christ and “drank” his blood. When you put it that way, I can see where they were coming from. It got to a point where they actually had to invite Roman authorities to communion so that they could see they weren’t actually practicing cannibalism.
Read more: https://www.factinate.com/places/46-interesting-facts-ancient-rome/