Ancient Rome had a huge effect on the world as we know it today. Many of the ideas they had in regards to governing and infrastructure are still in use in the modern world, and similar to Ancient Egypt, everyone knows quite a lot about the Ancient Romans.
However, just like with the Ancient Egyptians, when a culture becomes that ingrained in the public consciousness, we tend to learn a lot of things that aren’t actually true. Some of the stranger or less convenient facts get swept entirely under the rug. The Ancient Romans are a fascinating culture, and in some ways stranger or more disgusting than you might have imagined.
10. Christians Weren’t Fed To Lions and Many Tales of Martyrdom Were Exaggerated
One of the most popularly told tales about the Romans is how they fed the Christians to the lions for having the audacity to start a new religion and do their own thing. This has been recounted in so much popular culture it is staggering, and at this point it may be impossible to remove it from the public mindset. The sad part here is that it is incredibly untrue, but the untruth has become so ingrained it may as well be fact to most people. Not only are the stories about feeding Christians to lions without any real basis, but many scholars argue that there is no real proof for the kind of sustained, and targeted persecution that many later Christian writers would put forth.
There were, truthfully, only a handful of scattered years where Christians were ever targeted specifically at all, and many of the more colorful accounts of martyrdom are completely impossible to verify, and there is good reason to believe many of the stories were much exaggerated. Now, this doesn’t mean that Christians weren’t ever put to death for reasons that involved their beliefs, but some scholars argue that in many cases where a Christian was killed for being Christian, it was because they made statements refusing the divinity of the emperor or something similar while in court. This wasn’t a specifically targeted persecution, even if it was a difficult position for them to be in – not wanting to say someone is divine when they do not believe they are.
9. In Ancient Rome the Word Decimate had an Entirely Different Meaning
When we use the word decimate today, we just mean to destroy something really badly, often completely or entirely. This is essentially the correct meaning now because of common usage, but when the term was first coined, its meaning was much more literal. As you might imagine from the root of the word, it originally had to do with the number ten. When a group of soldiers committed some crime, such as desertion, the entire troop would be punished to put them in their place. They would isolate the entire group, and then have them draw lots to decide who was going to die.
The Romans would then force those who were to live to kill the tenth of the troops that drew lots. This meant that, quite literally, they were removing one tenth of that troop, or “decimating” it. This was one of the earlier forms of something referred to today as military discipline, where an entire troop is punished for a few men’s infractions, to make sure the entire troop self-polices. This can be seen some today in modern armies where someone will make a mistake and the entire unit will be forced to pay for the mistake. However, in today’s modern world we don’t kill our troops, we just make them do pushups or something similar.
8. Romans Shared a Sponge on a Stick for Cleaning Up After Using Public Toilets
Today we like to think of Romans as very hygienic for their time. In fact, we often consider them a beacon of cleanliness that the world didn’t see anything like for quite some time. They had their own sewer and water systems and they had public baths and were very much into being clean. However, the truth is that many of the Roman’s habits would disgust many people today who live in some of the countries without much infrastructure. For example, their public bathrooms were a horror show. It wasn’t uncommon for gigantic rats to come out of the sewer, and because they contained gases, fires could erupt randomly.
To make matters worse, the Romans at public toilets shared a single sponge on a stick that they used to clean up after using the bathroom. They would use the sponge on a stick to wipe themselves up, rinse it, and then leave it for the next person to use. Most people today would be absolutely disgusted by the thought of using a sponge to clean themselves that a bunch of random people had also used. And while people think they were clean, the Romans didn’t actually bathe traditionally, per se. Instead, they would cover themselves in oils, and then scrape it off their skin with an instrument called a strigil.
7. The Romans Invented an Early Form of Concrete
The Romans did an incredible amount of building, and their gigantic structures as well as their infrastructure such as aqueducts are one of the things they are most famous for. One of the biggest reasons we still talk about their buildings so much is because so many of them have managed to withstand the test of time. They managed this by using an early form of concrete, something that was essentially unheard of at that time in history. On top of that, once the Roman Empire fell, the knowledge was lost, and concrete was basically rediscovered much later on.
However, that doesn’t mean that Roman concrete is the same as modern concrete. Modern concrete is actually ten times the strength of Roman concrete, however, the concrete they had back in the day was still an incredible achievement, and not just because they were able to build it at all. Because they had their own unique kind of concrete, it may have been weaker, but it had advantages ours does not. Due to being made with volcanic ash, it actually performs way better against erosion, especially from water, something that modern concrete does not do very well with at all. This has allowed their buildings to withstand the test of time, for generations of tourists to continue to explore and be fascinated by.
6. The Romans Drove a Birth Control Plant to Extinction
Back in the day Romans were definitely known for their love of sex, and they would not have denied their love for it at all. There was a plant called Silphium which they greatly prized, because they believed that it could act as a method of birth control. It could only be grown wild and attempts to put a quota on the harvest failed miserably, due to how ridiculously popular the plant became. It was soon worth an incredible amount of money, and before too many years, the Romans had managed to lust their way to the extinction of the entire plant.
However, some people today wonder if it really worked. The problem is that there is really no way to be actually sure. The plant has gone extinct so we cannot really check samples, and there were plenty of dubious medical cures in Ancient Rome, so this could have been one of them. On the other hand, some experts believe it could have had abortion inducing affects, which means all the men taking it would have been wasting their time and the plant. However, the truth is that whether it worked or not is hardly important. The truth is that just thinking it had that effect was enough – the Romans loved consequence free sex so they drove the plant to extinction.
5. Some Believe the Antichrist Referred to was Nero
The idea of an antichrist figure who becomes a ruler on earth, and helps set up the final battle between good and evil, that culminates in the second coming of Christ, has been fascinating people for a very long time. Many people will claim that the latest world leader they don’t like is the antichrist, and many people have been suggested to be this figure over the years. For some, the antichrist is always yet to come, but for others, he may have already been. Many scholars believe it is quite possible that the passages referring to the figure we now call the antichrist were actually talking about the Emperor Nero.
This man blamed the Christians for the fire of Rome, and persecuted them greatly. He killed his own mother and was known for being one of the most despicable tyrants in the history of Rome. However, even more telling, is the fact that when he died, many people believed he had just disappeared. Many believed he was actually going to be resurrected or return somehow, and bring more great evil to the world. And if you look at the encoded numbers that everyone always points to as the mark of the beast, the numbers can represent Nero’s name if you interpret them a certain way. Of course, this interpretation may not have been accurate either, but the fact the Christians thought he might resurrect at all shows how much they feared this man.
4. The Romans Flooded the Colosseum in Order to Conduct Mock Sea Battles
The Romans were a culture that liked to do things on a very grand scale, and they certainly kept true to this when they reenacted battles. Specifically, they decided that they wanted to reenact large scale naval battles, so they would dig out huge trenches in the ground, make artificial lakes, and then fill them with soldiers and rowers carrying out the various parts of the battle. In order to make it realistic as possible, prisoners and captured soldiers would literally be forced to fight to the death as part of the mock battles. These forms of entertainment were very popular, but due to the incredible expense they were only done on special occasions.
Many people were not sure at first if the coliseum was used for these spectacles, as it was hard to find physical evidence and it seemed like the structure would not support it. However, it turns out that the coliseum could have supported being flooded for such a purpose; they just would have had to use much smaller scale ships and such. And while there is little physical evidence, there are plenty of written sources that point to the coliseum being used at least a few times for this purpose. The Romans were always about going as big and all out as possible, and their theater was some of the most advanced and realistic you would find anywhere. Today, we stick with pretending to kill people when putting on a show.
3. The Very Strange Lives of Ancient Rome’s Vestal Virgins
The Romans were very religious and very superstitious and had many different gods. One of the more important gods was called Vesta, a great goddess of fire. They believed that as long as her fire was kept burning, Rome as a civilization would endure for the ages. To this extent, they decided they needed well trained and well-disciplined people to keep the fire burning always, to make sure Rome remained. For some reason, they decided that the best way to accomplish this would be to appoint six young girls at a time, who would remain virgins as long as they remained in their position.
It was a coveted position that gave them status most women would never get, but it did come with the price of having to remain virgins for as long as they were helping keep the fire lit. A vestal virgin who briefly let the fire go out was punished severely, usually taken aside, stripped and beaten in order to instill in them how important it is to attend to their sacred duty. And if a vestal virgin became a virgin no longer, it was considered an act of incest, because they were married to the city, and the cities citizens were related to the city in some form. This logic may not sound particularly sound, but to the Romans, it was very important that these women remained virgins. When they committed the crime of being a virgin no longer, certain rules forbade the normal means of execution for these women, so vestal no longer virgins were buried alive as punishment.
2. Urine Was Used as a Cleaning Product for Both Teeth and Clothes
As we mentioned earlier, the Romans were known for being hygienic, but they also did a lot of things that we might find rather questionable. And one of the most questionable things would likely be the way they made use of urine. Now, urine is mostly ammonia so it can be used in cleaning products, and ammonia does have cleaning properties, but the difference is that today we are essentially processing it to only keep the stuff we need.
Back in the day, Romans would use urine in order to whiten their teeth, and also in order to clean clothes. Urine would be collected throughout the day, and then diluted with water somewhat, and poured over clothes, where the launderer would then stomp on them to sort of simulate the workings of how a washing machine works now. While it may have indeed been useful at getting out the stains, we don’t really want to imagine what their clothes would have smelled like, since they soaked them in unprocessed urine in order to get them clean. However, likely the Romans would have been used to the smell, or perhaps would have used various oils or other perfumes to hide it. As we mentioned earlier, they also didn’t clean in the traditional sense to begin with and instead oiled themselves and then scraped off the excess.
1. There is Little Evidence That Romans Threw Up on Purpose So They Could Eat More Food
One of the most commonly believed myths is that Romans had a special room in which they threw up food so they could then go eat more food. This has been greatly confused because there is a word for a “vomitorium”, but this is just the exit of a coliseum, where it “vomits out” all the people back onto the street. This “fact” has made its way into books like the Hunger Games series, where the people of the capital are seen as being similar to the Romans in this respect. When most people learn that this isn’t actually true, many insist that the Romans at least still threw up on purpose to eat more.
However, there is really little evidence of such actually happening. Romans did sometimes throw up on purpose, just as some people do today. But it is likely there were other reasons for it, just as there are today. There is really little reason to believe that Romans were actually throwing up just to make room for more food right there on the spot, and then stuffing down more, just to throw up again. This widespread belief, which is a great exaggeration, likely has made its way around due to the fact that Romans were known for elaborate feasts and hedonism in general, making it very easy to believe. The truth is, what people are talking about likely wouldn’t work that well anyway. Most people don’t feel like eating after being full, and don’t really want to make room for more, and most people certainly don’t feel like eating after recently throwing up.