“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, Gladiaator (2000).
Ancient Rome is one of the most epic civilization in human history. It started off as a small town on the bank of the Tiber River in central Italy, at the beginning of the eighth century BC. After countless wars and military campaigns, it encompassed all of continental Europe around the Mediterranean basin, all of Britain, and a huge part of western Asia and northern Africa.
Even more interesting is the rich, and sometimes incredibly odd, culture of the Roman civilization, and the indulgent yet strict lifestyle of ancient Roman people. From the spectacular battles of gladiators, to the elaborate dinner parties, to the famous and infamous emperors, here’s some crazy stuff that happened in ancient Rome.
46. Blood sport? How about we just do some racing…
Gladiatorial fighting wasn’t the most popular entertainment. Modern archaeologists estimate that the Colosseum could accommodate 50,000 people. To be frank, it was dwarfed by the Circus Maximus, where 250,000 Romans could watch chariot racing.
45. Live long and prosperous.
Life expectancy in Ancient Rome was only 20 to 30 years. But they didn’t all die young. Average life expectancy 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.
Statue of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who live to age 59.
44. Size matters.
The Roman Empire was not the largest empire in history. At its peak, it comprised 12% of the world’s population, making it the 28th largest empire. The British Empire was the largest in history, followed by the Mongol Empire.
Roman Empire, 54 AD (above).
British Empire, circa 1920 (above).
43. Can’t everyone just get along?
The wars between Romans and Persians lasted about 721 years. This constitutes the longest conflict in human history.
Artistic depiction of ancient Persian soldiers.
42. Now you know how it feels.
Ancient Romans celebrated a festival called “Saturnalia” in which slaves and their masters would switch places. Slaves were treated to a banquet of the kind usually enjoyed by their masters.
41. Nail in the coffin.
During the 7th century B.C., ancient Roman “vestal virgins” were required to keep their hymens intact as proof of virginity until age 30. Vestal virgins who engaged in sexual conduct were buried alive.
40. A little crowded.
Ancient Rome was at least six times more densely populated than present-day New York City.
Which is frankly mind-blowing. New York is, for many of us at least, the absolute pinnacle of hustle-n-bustle. To someone visiting Rome at its peak, it must have felt like a different planet.
39. Praying for a good poop.
The inhabitants of ancient Rome had a sewer goddess, a toilet god, and a god of excrement. The gods were said to frequent the latrine in large numbers and excrement was regarded as the food of the dead.
38. Dental hygiene matters.
Urine was used in Ancient Rome to wash clothes. The Romans also used it to whiten their teeth.
An ancient Roman, clearly upset about the fact that his society has started using pee to brush their teeth.
37. Darn those Christian atheists…
Early Christians were called “atheists” by Romans because they didn’t pay tribute to pagan gods. The early church were also considered cannibalists because they “ate” of the body of Christ and “drank” his blood. It got to a point where they actually had to invite Roman authorities to communion so that they could see they weren’t actually cannibals.
36. Close that income gap.
Ancient Rome in 150 CE had less income inequality than the United States today.
35. All is favour of the Free Carrots Bill?
The Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula made his horse a senator. Caligula also allegedly committed incest with his sisters, fed prisoners to wild beasts and had conversations with the moon.
The next time you complain about a modern politician, take a moment to say silent thanks that at the very least he doesn’t have a horse he wants to nominate for public office. Things can always be a little bit worse (and weirder)
Caligula on his horse.
34. Salt and Blood.
Ancient Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.
Salt not only served to flavor and preserve food but also made a good antiseptic, which is why the Roman word for these salubrious crystals (“sal”) is a first cousin to Salus, the goddess of health.
So it’s nice that salt was valuable and all, but you have to think that being purchased for salt would still be a hit to the self-esteem. The equivalent today would be someone trading you in exchange for a bunch of avocados. I mean, yes they’re healthy and delicious, but…
33. Ancient cook book: 100 Uses of Gladiator Fluids.
Ancient Roman women wore the sweat of Gladiators to improve their beauty and complexion. Romans also used to drink Gladiator blood because they thought that the blood of these strong and fierce beings had the power to cure epilepsy.
Spartacus, as seen in the popular TV series produced by Starz.
32. Ever thought about how much of a win the invention of toilet paper was?
Ancient Romans used a sponge on a stick called a “spongia” to clean themselves after pooping. Public facilities had a long marble bench with holes on top – for the obvious thing – and holes at the front: for the sponge-sticks. There were no doors or dividing walls. You sat right next to your friend and did what you had to do. Once you had done your business, you would rinse the spongia in the channel of running water at your feet and – without standing up or revealing anything –push the spongia through the hole at the front, give your bottom a solid wipe, rinse off the spongia… and leave it in a basin for the next person to use!
31. If only modern tactile companies had the same policy…
Most Romans avoided being cruel to slaves. Just like modern employers, they used bonuses and branding to improve productivity.
30. Screw you guys, I’m out of here.
Cincinnati is named after Cincinnatus, a dictator of the early Roman Republic who saved Rome from crisis and then retired to his farm because he didn’t want to rule.
Statue of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.
29. Your argument won’t hold water… at least not like the Romans.
Two Roman dams in Spain are still in use after 1900 years. These dams are noteworthy for their extraordinary height, which remained unsurpassed anywhere in the world until the Late Middle Ages.
Proserpina Dam, Spain.
28. Where’d they get the bears?
You might think that the world of entertainment has peaked in the 21st-century. Regardless of how you feel about the quality, it’s hard to argue that the sheer scale of things is at its pinnacle. You might even be sitting there with your Netflix subscription, and several thousand games on your iPhone, thinking, “This is as good as things could ever possibly get.”
But you’d be wrong.
Because as good as the options might be today, you’ll never get the experience of a real Roman-style party.
After all, in the 1st century A.D., the Romans had polar bears fight seals in amphitheaters they flooded with water. That is next level.
27. Dear Lady liberty.
The Statue of Liberty was inspired by the Roman Pagan-Goddess Libertas.
But they never had a statue of her that was as big as ours, so… Take that, Romans
26. Building like champions.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the technology to make concrete was lost for 1000 years. In fact, Ancient Roman concrete has withstood the attack by elements for over 2,000 years, which is considerably longer than the lifetime of modern concrete structures.
25. Better shopaholics than the Kardashians.
Ancient Rome had a 4-story-tall shopping mall called “Trajan’s Market” with 150 shops and offices.
24. Heft price tag.
If Ancient Rome’s Colosseum was built today, it would cost about $380 million.
23. A bad way to go…
In Ancient Rome, the punishment for killing one’s father was the death penalty, consisting of being sewn up in a sack along with a monkey, a viper, a dog, and a cock. The punishment (called “poena cullei”) varied slightly depending on the ruling emperor. It seems some rulers preferred more snakes and others more dogs. Regardless of the emperor, a fair fight wasn’t an option: the person was first beaten with virgis sanguinis (“blood-colored rods”) and his head was covered in a bag made of a wolf’s hide.
22. Well, if you’re going to brush your teeth with it…
In Ancient Rome, women would drink turpentine to make their urine smell sweet like roses.
21. Ancient drugs for ancient fun.
The Salema Porgy is a species of fish that can cause hallucinations when eaten. In Ancient Rome it was consumed as a recreational drug. In fact, Salema porgies are regularly eaten without their consumers experiencing hallucinogenic effects, but in 2006, two men were hospitalized in the south of France after consuming them, one of whom was 90 years old. They both claimed to fall “ill” and experience auditory hallucinations along with lucid nightmares for several nights, until the “symptoms” finally and mysteriously abated.
20. What time is it?
Very few Roman hours lasted sixty minutes. Like us, the Romans divided the day into 24 hours. But unlike us, their hours varied in length because the Romans ensured there were always 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Therefore, a daylight hour in high summer was considerably longer than one in midwinter.
19. Who you calling ancient, bro?
The Pyramids of Giza were far more ancient to the ancient Romans, than Ancient Rome is ancient to us.
Flamingo tongues were considered a delicacy in ancient Rome.
17. I wonder if they found flamingo tongues…
In 2012, divers discovered a 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck that was so well preserved that even the food was intact in its storage jars.
Photograph of divers illuminating Greco-Roman artifacts of a ship that sunk during the Punic Wars between 218-201 B.C., in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Aeolian Island of Panarea near Italy.
16. We’ve been butchering the pronunciation.
Julius Caesar was pronounced ‘YOO-lee-us KYE-sahr’ in ancient Rome.
15. No wonder Mario the plumber was Italian.
Ancient Romans ran cold aqueduct water in pipes through their houses in an early form of air conditioning. These aqueducts also supplied water for public baths, latrines, fountains and private households. Waste water was removed by the sewage systems and released into nearby bodies of water, keeping the towns clean.
14. Interesting emperors.
Nero, the Roman Emperor, married a man named Sporus, a freedman who took the role of the bride. While it may be tempting to give Nero props for his forward-thinking stance on sexuality, it’s also important to remember his darker side. He castrated Sporus. If that wasn’t enough, during his rule, he murdered his own mother, Agrippina the Younger; his first wife, Octavia; and allegedly, his second wife, Poppaea Sabina. There also was that incident with the Great Fire of Rome that we’ll get to later…
Statue of Nero.
13. Owen Wilson for emperor!
In ancient Rome, it was considered a sign of leadership to have a crooked nose.
That’s right, in some alternate-reality, Owen Wilson is a Roman Emperor.
Owen is a great-looking dude, and his nose adds character. Leadership, too, apparently.
12. Frankly, we’re just not wealthy enough for this anymore.
In Ancient Rome, while suicide was socially acceptable at first, it was later deemed a crime against the state due to its economic cost.
Imagine being stopped from killing yourself, only to be told that it wasn’t a problem because, say, someone would miss you or something. No, they stopped you because it would be bad for the economy. That’s not exactly confidence inspiring.
11. A little bit of a flooding issue…
In 86 AD, the Colosseum was filled 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.”
10. Take that, Cristiano Ronaldo!
Roman charioteers earned more than even the best-paid footballers and international sports stars of today, according to academic research. One charioteer, named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, amassed a fortune equivalent to $15 billion USD today.
9. We finally found the lost legion.
Inhabitants of the Chinese town of Liqian have blond hair and white skin. Historians have speculated they are the descendants of a lost Roman settlement. The most common theory is that Liquian features are linked to the legend of the missing army of Roman general Marcus Crassus. Basically, the Parthians massacred most the Roman troops Crassus sent into battle. 10,000 Romans survived and were captured. They were forced to fight for various rulers, eventually settling in China.
8. Well, this makes sense…
In 117 A.D., Emperor Hadrian declared attempted suicide by soldiers a form of desertion and made it a capital offence. This means that soldiers who attempted suicide and failed were killed anyway.
7. I’ll still choose law school, thanks.
Roman Gladiators rarely fought to the death or against animals and were considered celebrities of their time. That’s not to say it was easy being a gladiator. Gladiators did die in combat, many were slaves, and they lived in conditions harsh enough to inspire gladiator rebellions, at least in the case of Spartacus.
6. Thanks for the gold. Now please die.
The famous barbarian leader Attila accepted enormous subsidies in gold in exchange for not attacking Roman territory — then did it anyway. Not cool, Attila.
5. Row your own darn boat.
Roman warships were not rowed by slaves. In almost all movies, slaves row the war galleys, often under that watchful eye of whip-holding masters. In truth, it was believed that only free Roman citizens had a duty to fight the state. This excluded the use of slave rowers. In the handful of exceptional times when slaves were admitted to the armed forces, they were either freed before enlistment, or promised manumission if they fought well.
4. Cover up, sweetie.
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.
3. Arsenic for dinner, please.
Emperors poisoned themselves every day. From the end of the first century AD, Roman emperors had adopted the daily habit of taking a small amount of every known poison in an attempt to gain immunity, a practice called “Mithridatism.” Although effective against some types of poisons, it doesn’t work against all of them, and, depending on the toxin, the practice can lead to the lethal accumulation of a poison in the body. Turns out, it’s much easier just to label things “poison” and tell people not to eat them.
2. 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?”
1. A bit extreme, don’t you think?
Marcus Aurelius (largely known for his philosophy and humanitarianism) faced an interesting gladiator dilemma. His wife Faustina became aroused over one combatant and confessed her passion to her husband. His solution? Faustina was ordered to strip and have sex with the gladiator in question, who was then murdered while on top of her. Afterwards, she was obliged to bathe in his blood, do a quick cleanup, and then make love to her husband Marcus.
Russell Crowe killing Marcus’ son, Commodus.
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