The Roman Empire spread across a vast area, marking its influence on many lands that still today are shaped by its reach. Yet while most of us have a basic understanding of what Ancient Rome was like, there are still a number of things that you may not have known about the empire that will have you scratching your head or maybe even dropping your jaw upon discovering them. From the Colosseum where the gladiators fought to the strange uses for human urine, and to what they thought of people who were left-handed, be prepared to discover just what exactly went on within Ancient Rome.
Gladiator Blood Was Believed To Have Medicinal Properties
Although, as previously mentioned, gladiators weren't the most respected sportsmen of the time (chariot racers were), those who partook in the sport were still revered, especially those who perished from it. This is evident in the fact that the blood of those who died was frequently sold afterward.
It was believed by Ancient Romans that gladiator blood, or sometimes their livers, could ail those who suffered from epilepsy. It may seem odd to us, but then again we have to remember, this was a society that also used lead in their water systems and urine for brushing their teeth and cleaning their clothes!
The Vestal Virgins
Vestal Virgins were an order of priestesses in Ancient Rome who honored the Goddess of hearth, Vesta. There were typically six of them at any given time, and their duties included tending to the sacred fire, officiating events involving Vesta, and caring for various artifacts.
When vacancies in the order occurred, Vestal Virgins were selected by a priest between the ages of 6 and 10. They were required to serve out their duties for 30 years, but many of them chose to remain within the order beyond that time. There were severe punishments for breaking the rules, however, and any Vestal Virgin who broke her chastity could be killed by being buried alive, or having melted lead poured inside their throats.
They Used Urine For What??
Public restrooms served two purposes in Ancient Rome. Obviously, they were used primarily for people to relieve themselves when they needed it. But the "byproduct" of the restrooms were also utilized by Rome for other purposes.
Urine was used for cleaning many products in Ancient Rome, including animal pelts and laundry. They even brushed their teeth with it! It sounds disgusting, but urine was primarily used for this purpose due to the fact that it contains ammonia, which is helpful if you want to do a deep clean on things. However, public restrooms weren't all that great: Emperors Nero and Vespasian both taxed use of vectigals, or public facilities, during their reigns.
Cloacina — Goddess Of The Sewers
One of the main technological advances of the Roman Empire was their sewer system. So naturally, the Roman's had a goddess of the sewers! Cloacina, "The Cleanser," was considered this goddess, and was believed to watch over the Cloaca Maxima, or "The Great Drain," Rome's main system of sewers.
She was adopted from Etruscan mythology by the Romans, but was eventually associated with Venus. She took on more roles within Roman beliefs, including serving as the protector of sexual intercourse for married couples. She's simultaneously the goddess of filth and purity within Ancient Rome. It's believed a shrine of her likeness was placed outside of the Cloaca Maxima as well.
Ancient Rome Invented The Shopping Mall
If you've ever enjoyed going to the mall, you have the Ancient Romans to thank for it. It's believed that Trajan's Market, which was constructed between 100-110 CE in Rome, was the first-ever mall in the world.
The architect Apollodorus Damascus, who was also a close friend of Roman Emperor Trajan, was commissioned to design the layout. Located at the opposite end of the Colosseum on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, Trajan's Market included a covered shopping area, stores, and even apartments. As time went by, levels were added to the market to grow the number of stores and living areas for the Romans.
Lefties Were Looked Down Upon
Being left-handed today is somewhat of an inconvenience (especially if you've ever had to write in a notebook using ink, or use a standard scissors). But being a lefty in Ancient Rome was much more difficult, especially due to biases Romans had against them.
Left-handed individuals were believed to have been born with bad luck. Some even believed they were wicked or more deceitful by nature. Being a lefty meant that many of your peers didn't trust you, which made things increasingly difficult throughout your life. Biases against lefties were so bad that people began wearing their wedding rings on their left hands in order to ward off the wickedness that lefties could transfer to them.
A God Of Bowel Movements?
Did the Romans worship a god of flatulence? The Ancient Roman citizenry had a god for just about everything, and it's possible they had one for help with bowel movements as well. If such a god existed, his name would have been Crepitus, according to some accounts. However, it's unlikely that Crepitus would have been worshipped in the ordinary sense typical for a god of that era.
There are some scholars who aren't even sure that Crepitus was even real — evidence suggests that a Christian author, writing in satire, created the name, although other French literatures also cite the god.
One Of The Longest Wars In History
War is never something that people want to celebrate, but for the Romans, one war in particular lasted several lifetimes. The Roman-Persian wars began in 66 BCE, when the Roman Republic and Parthian Empire started fighting. The war would last for around 721 years after that.
It would extend beyond the Roman Republic, into the Empire's time. The Parthian Empire too would evolve into the Sasanian Persian Empire. An untold number of resources and human lives were lost due to the centuries-long conflict, and would only fade away once the Arab Muslim conflict began, near the middle of the 7th Century CE.
How Long Did Roman Citizens Live?
Scientists have long studied the lives of the Roman people, which inevitably brings about discussions over people's life expectancy. In Ancient Rome, however, the average number of years a person could expect to live was somewhat skewed by mitigating factors. The life expectancy for Ancient Romans spanned anywhere from 25 years to 40 years of age, which sounds dismal, but that doesn't take into the fact child mortality rates.
Half of all Roman children died by the age of 10, which was a main reason why the life expectancy numbers were so low. Childbirth itself caused many women to die, too. Usually, however, if someone lived past the age of 10, it was a good sign that they'd live a long and generally healthy life thereafter...if you survived military service, that is, which was another factor that brought down the life expectancy numbers.
It Wasn't Just About Gladiator Fighting
When many people think of Ancient Rome, quite a few images may pass through their minds — among them, the sport of gladiator fighting. Yet for those who lived in Rome at the time, the "sport" wasn't likely their favorite to watch. There was another pasttime in Ancient Rome that was much more beloved.
Chariot racing was the most popular sport at the time of Ancient Rome. This is evident not only in texts, but also in the sheer size of the venues for each sport. While the Colosseum in Rome, which housed the gladiator events, could sit 50,000 specators, the Circus Maximus, which hosted the chariot races, could hold around 250,000 fans of the sport.
Romulus And Remus
The legend of Ancient Rome's foundings is found in the lives of Romulus and Remus, twin brothers. The two were the children of the God of War, Mars, and Rhea Silvia, a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, so the story goes. King Amulius of Alba Longa, the boys' grandfather, ordered their deaths, and the two were thrown into the Tiber River. There, a mother wolf found the boys, and fed them her milk, until a herdsman found them and adopted them.
Later, the boys grew up, and killed their grandfather. They then set off to found their own city — but a dispute over its location led to a quarrel, and Romulus killing Remus. Thus, the city was named after the former of the twin boys. As for the exact date, Rome was supposedly founded on April 21, 753 BCE.
Eating While Lying Down
Eating while lying down is a trope of Ancient Rome most of us are familiar with. It's also one that typically distinguishes class and rank within Ancient Roman society. Typically, it was only the wealthy who ate while lying down, as those who were poorer couldn't afford accommodations that would allow them to eat in such a position.
Women who were wealthy weren't initially allowed to attend formal feasting events, and even if the rare opportunity came about where they were, it was expected that they would eat upright still. Eventually, customs changed, and even wealthy women were invited to eat lying down at these affairs.
Christians Were Considered Atheists
Roman gods are synonymous with the Roman Empire, and the slew of gods or goddesses that represented societal life at the time were easy to spot. There were a few Christians living in Rome during the early years of that faith, but Romans regarded them as atheists for a few reasons.
First, they didn't pay homage to the "proper" roster of gods. Additionally, they didn't have any shrines, statues, temples, or even priests in the city proper, making it hard for their faith to be visible to Romans who worshipped differently. A Christian was typically ostracized as a result, and rumors abounded about the salacious lifestyles that Christians must have led.
Were Soldiers Paid In Salt?
Soldiers had to be worth their weight in salt. Or, at least, their work had to be, as it is believed by many that they were actually paid in salt. The word "salary" itself is a Latin derivative of the word "salarium," which is related to the word for salt in Latin as well.
While many believe that soldiers were indeed paid in salt, the proof of this is hard to come by. Still, it's not that hard to imagine: salt was a very important aspect in society in those days. Getting paid in salt would have been just as good as being paid in coins, as you could undoubtedly use it for trading purposes in much the same way.
Gladiator Sweat Was Harvested, Too
The blood of gladiators was used as a means to "cure" epilepsy by the Romans, but it wasn't the only bodily fluid of these individuals that was harvested. Their sweat, too, was scraped off of their bodies, using a tool called a strigil, and put into vials to be sold outside of the Colosseum.
Only women of status could purchase these vials. And for what purpose did they use this sweat? It was believed that the liquid, mixed with dirt that was on their skin at the time of their fighting, could act as a facial cream for creating beauty on these women's faces.
Laws Against Parricide
It's apparent that the Roman Empire wanted to promote a deep respect for one's elders. One of the ways that they did this was through their laws. Murder on its own was a punishable offense, but the murder of one's own parents could get you into a situation that many might consider a worse outcome.
Parricide, or the killing of parents, would land you a punishment called Poena cullei. This punishment wasn't for the faint of heart, nor those with claustrophobia — an assailant would be sewn into a leather sack, then thrown into the water, left to drown. If that's bad, it could get worse: sometimes, those found guilty of the crime would have live animals included inside the sack with them.
Party With A Fish
The wild party lifestyles of Ancient Romans have been highly publicized throughout the years. One of the ways Romans went wild, however, is not widely known, and it involves the consumption of a certain kind of fish.
The Salema Porgy fish is known to give those who consume it hallucinogenic episodes. Today, the fish is prepared by chefs who know what they're doing (although accidental preparations gone wrong still do happen from time to time). Back in Ancient Rome, however, the fish was used as a recreational drug. It was used beyond its natural habitats, in fact, throughout the entirety of the Empire.
Nero Married Men And Women
In some ways, Roman Emperors were ahead of the curve in some of their relationships, behaving in very progressive and open-minded ways. In other ways, they were vicious and immoral, acting out selfishly to pursue their own desires.
Take Nero. Some may say that he was millennia ahead of his time when, during his 13-year reign, he married a man named Pythagoras during Saturnalia. Yet he also married various women during his rule, which frequently ended violently, as one of his brides was murdered by him. Nero also acted in an immoral way, marrying a young boy and castrating him, in an effort to make the boy behave womanlike.
Saturnalia Created Christmas Traditions
Many Christian holidays have their traditions rooted in Ancient Roman days of celebration, and Christmas, the most iconic of Christian events, is no exception. Instead of Christmas, which of course hadn't been invented yet, Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, to honor the God of agriculture, Saturn.
Decorations were hung up to commemorate the event, including wreaths and other greeneries. It wasn't uncommon for gifts to be wrapped up and given between friends and family members. Even slaves were allowed to stop working and to participate in the festivities taking place during Saturnalia, which lasted a whole week in the middle of December.
The Roman Empire Wasn't The Greatest
The importance of the Roman Empire in the annals of history shouldn't be simplified. The Empire had a lasting legacy that remains to this day. Still, the typical person's understanding of the Empire is probably that it was vast or one of the largest in history.
Not to take away its greatness, but the Empire wasn't, well, that "great" — at least in terms of size. It was only the 28th largest empire in world history, and accounted for just 12 percent of the world's population at its highest point. The main reason it is well remembered is because of its duration, lasting for centuries, and how influential it was on Western society in the centuries after it perished.
That's Some Horse
Some people really love their pets. If you have ever walked down the streets of Beverly Hills, you've probably seen someone carrying a small dog in their purse. Some Roman emperors were the same way about their pets, including Emperor Gaius Caligula, who loved his horse Incitatus.
Incitatus was treated so well by his owner, in fact, that his housing was finer than some of the wealthiest people in Rome. He had an ivory manger, his own house, and marble stalls. Although it cannot be confirmed, the historian Suetonius also maintained that Incitatus was named a Roman Senator by Caligula!
They Wiped With The Same Sponge After Using The Public Restroom
By now, you've read about the many ways in which the Romans haven't been sanitary. They used sweat for beauty cream, urine to brush their teeth, and gladiators' blood to cure epilepsy. As if that wasn't bad enough, they also used a sponge, attached to the end of a stick, for wiping after going "number two."
This sponge, in public restrooms, was used by EVERYONE, without changing it between users! The Romans weren't completely naive — they at least washed the sponge in a bucket of salt water and vinegar between users. But as we know today, such methods aren't safeguards against disease.
Wives Took A Vacation To Avoid Becoming Property
The Romans had a special law, "usucapio," which allowed a person to take possession of something legally if they held onto it for a certain amount of time. Since slavery existed in Ancient Rome, this included people. Wives were at particular risk: if they stayed in their husband's homes for a full year without departing sans husband, they would become their spouse's property!
Though they lacked many rights elsewhere, women had a great deal of freedom when it came to traveling on their own in Ancient Rome. So many wives, to avoid becoming their husbands' legal property, took special three-day vacations to avoid the usucapio rule.
Fathers Could Sell Children Into Slavery, And Even Murder Their Kids
Parental rights, particularly for fathers, in Ancient Rome went to the extreme. In the early years of the Republic, a father had the right to get away with just about anything. They decided whom their children could marry, they could sell their kids into slavery if they wished, and if their children misbehaved, they could beat them, so severely that they could even legally murder them.
By the first century BCE, it was decided that these rights were wrong to protect. Fathers after that point could only murder their sons if they had themselves committed a crime warranting violent actions against them.
Only The Emperor Wore Purple
Certain rules about the appearances of the citizenry is not uncommon for many kingdoms and empires throughout time. Purple is often designated in many societies over the history of the world as being a color reserved for those in high places — particularly kings or queens. Ancient Rome had the same customs in place, but they actually enforced the rule to the extreme, denying commonfolk from being able to wear it.
As part of its "sumptuary laws" at the time, which disallowed poorer citizens from exaggerating their standing in society, the color purple was absolutely off-limits for everyone except for the emperor himself.
Selling Kids Into Slavery
As mentioned previously, fathers had the right to sell their kids into slavery, but the way we think about slavery today isn't the same as it was in Ancient Rome. Arrangements were made allowing the sale to take place, but there were limits on how long the child could be a slave.
A child could only be made a slave three times in their lifetimes, for example. Punishment for attempting a fourth sale could result in emancipation of the child away from their parents. Obviously, this made having more children more advantageous to some fathers who wanted to earn income in this way.
Those Struck By Lightning Weren't Helped
The Ancient Romans were extremely superstitious people, and when it came to lightning strikes, they were especially so. A person struck by lightning was particularly unfortunate. If they lived, nobody would help them; if they died, nobody would bury them, not even their friends or family.
The reason? Lightning strikes were considered by the Ancient Romans to be acts by the God of Lightning Jupiter himself, and any action contradicting his own was seen as an affront to him. It wasn't just a violation of a folkway, either: people who helped others struck by lightning would be sacrificed themselves to the lightning god.
Laws On Adultery Were Completely One-Sided
Adultery is something that has happened since the beginning of recorded history. So in Ancient Rome, it happened there as well. Unfortunately, laws regarding adultery, and how to resolve it, were entirely one-sided, favoring husbands over wives.
If a wife caught her husband cheating on her, there wasn't any recourse for her except to grieve about it privately. However, a husband catching his wife in an affair could, according to some sources, lock her up in a public display with the individual she cheated on him with. The husband could then invite everyone to view the spectacle, then make a public declaration about as many details of the affair that he wanted. He then was legally required to divorce her.
Crying At Funerals Was Not Allowed
Funerals are a time for grieving, but in Ancient Rome, crying was eventually outlawed completely at them. That's because people eventually hired others to cry at their family members' funerals.
In the old days, it was customary for funeral processions to be displayed in marches on the streets. Family members and friends would openly cry or grieve in public, and it eventually got to the point where a person's popularity was more impressive by how many people were grieving for them. This led to some hiring actors to cry and grieve on behalf of family members. Some actors would scratch up their faces, tear out their hair, and wail loudly in order to earn their pay...which led to the law banning such public displays.
Income Inequality In America Is Worse Than It Was In Ancient Rome
Many who conjure up images of Ancient Rome may think about the disparity between the rich and poor. While there certainly was a grave difference between the wealthiest and the poorest of Romans, it wasn't as bad as some people think — and isn't as bad as things are today.
The top one percent of income earners, per some historians' research, in Ancient Rome controlled 16 percent of the society's combined wealth. Compare that to the U.S., where the top 1 percent control 40 percent of the wealth, and you see right away that income disparity is worse in modern times than it was back then.
Romans Thought Christians Were Cannibals
As we've already seen, the Ancient Romans didn't think much of early Christians, who they saw as atheists because they didn't have statues, idols, or other physical embodiments of their faith at the time. They also thought they were cannibals!
This thought came about due to rumors of Christian practice of "feasting" on Christ's blood and body during ceremonies. The depiction of the eucharist confused Romans, so Christians invited Roman officials to these ceremonies to show them they weren't actually eating people, but engaging in consuming bread and wine that they believed transformed into the body and blood of Christ, respectively.
Did Caligula Have Incestual Relationships With His Sisters?
The rule of Emperor Caligula lasted just a few short years, from 37 CE to 41 CE. Still, the stories of his life have survived for centuries, and include lurid details about acts of sexual perversion. Caligula was rumored to have had many affairs, including committing acts of adultery with women he knew to have been married. It's also rumored that he committed acts of incest with his sisters, Drusilla, Livilla, and Agrippina the Younger.
Although the rumors about these incidents abound, they haven't been proven, and some historians have questioned their authenticity. We may never know if they're true or not, but they're likely to persist due to their sensational nature.
The Romans Ate Flamingo Tongue
Many view the Ancient Romans as having exquisite tastes, but even this seems weird. It seems that the Romans had a love for flamingo tongues, which were considered a great, if rare, delicacy. Lest you be concerned about the rest of the bird, Romans also dined on flamingos' other body parts, as one might with a standard chicken.
But even the recipe for flamingo sounds intricate. "Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar to be parboiled," reads one cookbook from the era. "Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [grape juice] to give it color."
The Word 'Salad' Comes From The Ancient Romans' Love For Salt
We've already explained to you that Ancient Romans (and other ancient cultures) put a high value on salt. The importance of this mineral at this time in world history was so high that it's likely that soldiers were paid in salt. Indeed, the word "salary" derives from the latin word for salt.
But Romans are also responsible for producing the word "salad" — oddly enough, for the same reason. While being a faux pas among many salad recipes today, the Romans actually salted all of their vegetables, including the ingredients in their leafy and veggie-based bowls — which came to be known colloquially as "salads" due to their salty nature.
Slavery Was A Big Deal
Slavery was a very big, albeit unfortunate, part of Ancient Roman life. It played a very big economic role in the empire, with as much as 15 percent of the population being a slave. But it was very different from what we might think of it today. For instance, slaves were not based on race, but rather conquests. As PBS has noted, "Slaves in Rome might include prisoners of war, sailors captured and sold by pirates, or slaves bought outside Roman territory." It wasn't uncommon to see, as we noted earlier, parents sell their children into temporary servitude, as many as three times during their childhood.
Who Was Cincinnatus?
Ancient Rome is rife with legendary stories, though their accuracies are highly suspect. Still, it's fun to tell them from time-to-time, even if they're not always based on truth. One such story centers on Cincinnatus, who owned a small farm and was approached by a delegation from Rome to help lead the army against the Aequi tribe in the north.
Supposedly, Cincinnatus led the Roman army to victory, doing so in just two weeks' time. Many wanted to see him become the next leader of Rome, but instead of that, Cincinnatus had another idea in mind — returning to his humble life as a farmer on his four-acre lot.
Libertas Helped Inspire The Creation Of The Statue Of Liberty
Libertas, the goddess of Liberty in ancient Rome, received a place at the temple on Aventine Hill in Ancient Rome in the year 238 BCE. She also appeared on many of the coinage during the late Republic years of Rome.
Looking closely at the Statue of Liberty in New York City, it's easy to see that Libertas played a role in the inspiration for that monument. It isn't only in the United States that Libertas has played a role in inspiring liberty — she also appears in coinage in countries like Switzerland, and in France, she appears on the Great Seal. It was France which gifted the Statue of Liberty to the United States in the first place.
Ancient Rome Took Executions Seriously
We've already mentioned some of the brutal punishments imposed against those who committed crimes in Ancient Rome. Those found guilty of patricide, for instance, were placed in a leather sack and thrown into water, sometimes with deadly animals like a wolf or a snake inside, left to drown or be devoured (whichever came first, we guess). Vestal Virgins could also be buried alive for breaking their vow of virginity.
In addition to these crimes were many others. The punishment for adultery, for example, was being burned at the stake. Those who were deemed to be enemies of the Roman state were strangled to death.
The Romans Had Common (And Uncommon) Pets
In these modern times, people love to have pet animals roaming about their homes (some today actually prefer the company of their pets to actual human interactions). Ancient Romans were not so different, opting to have pets in their abodes as well. They were often treated just like a part of the family, as they are in homes today, roaming about and being taken care of with great love and adoration.
Cats and dogs were generally the favorite among Romans, but they weren't the only pets kept. Some reptiles, particularly snakes, were also pets, as were birds. Among the more rarer pets were monkeys and apes!
The Empire Had A Dense Population Of People
The Roman Empire wasn't huge — it was only the 28th largest empire in the world's history — but for its time, it had a very huge population. It covered around 4.4 million square miles, but within that area lived around 57 million people. Obviously, the most densely populated areas were the big city centers, including Rome-proper itself. Although it wasn't nearly as densely populated as a city like New York is today, for its time it was definitely one of the most populated areas in the world. The population density, according to some research, even rivaled pre-industrial and even modern city centers across the globe.