Pop culture loves to depict the Romans as an extremely serious, organized, and warlike culture. And while this is undoubtedly true, it can’t be denied that the Romans were at times downright insane. Despite their sophistication in areas like architecture, mathematics, and government, they believed some really strange things.
From psychedelic fish, sewer goddesses, gladiator perfume, blood rituals, and an unhealthy obsession with penises, here are 10 shocking facts about the Roman Empire that are guaranteed to lighten your mood.
10. The Goddess of the Sewers
Throughout history, we humans have personified unexplained forces, weather patterns, subjective concepts, human behavior, and even states of matter into gods to help us explain the natural world. We expect gods of the sea, fire, war, famine, storms, thunder, and even for more subjective concepts like art and beauty.
But would you believe that the Roman Empire had a goddess of the sewers?
Yes. They did.
The Romans worshiped Cloacina as the Goddess of Sewers. Hey, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to be the goddess of it, right? Cloacina not only ruled the sewers, but also became known as the goddess of filth, purity, and strangely also the goddess of sexual intercourse in marriage.
Oh, and she was also the goddess of beauty too. We can’t forget that. Because nothing says beauty and intercourse like ruling over the sewers, right?
Romulus even erected a statue in Cloacina’s honor, and the remnants of one still preside over her less than sanitary domain in Rome.
9. Gladiator Perfume
Gladiators in the Roman Empire were essentially the equivalent of celebrities today. It might surprise (and disturb) you to learn that the practice of selling a celebrity’s bodily fluids (or bath water) to their fanbase might have had a historical precedent, but it did.
Yes, gladiator sweat was thought to be an aphrodisiac and was sold in the Coliseum as a beauty product of all things.
Peddlers hoping to make some extra money would market their parfum de gladiateur to women of status alongside a host of other products, like animal fat and gladiator blood (which women would drip onto their hairpins).
8. Atheist Christians?
Before adopting Christianity as its primary religion, the Roman Empire was so confounded by the monotheistic practices of Christians that they regarded the emerging religion as a form of atheism! Before this time, monotheism was almost unheard of, and the Romans of the time considered it to be a great crime, equating it with denying the gods entirely.
This is in part due to how different Judaism and Christianity are to the beliefs and practices of the Roman Empire. To the Romans of the time, Christianity didn’t resemble religion as they knew it at all.
To paint a picture of just how odd this must have been to the Romans, we must first understand that Roman households, cities, and any social gathering held within the confines of the Roman Empire typically celebrated or involved the worship of a Roman deity.
It was a massive offense and resulted in verbal and physical abuse, sometimes even death.
7. They Built the First Mall
You read that right, don’t worry. Trajan’s Market is the world’s oldest shopping mall, consisting of hundreds of shops, a covered market, and offices across several stories. The site also featured a residential apartment block and even a library.
The “shopping mall” gets its name from Emperor Trajan, who’s thought to be one of the city’s greatest rulers. Through his military campaigns (98-117 CE), he expanded the empire to the greatest it had ever been. He could be surprisingly progressive as well, enacting a number of social welfare and public building initiatives that would see him be regarded as the emperor who brought peace to the Mediterranean.
But it’s also pretty cool that he created the first “shopping mall.”
6. They Drank Goat Dung as an Energy Elixir
Yes: Roman gladiators often drank a concoction made from the melted or boiled, dung of goats.
Sometimes it would be mixed into milk, sometimes boiled with vinegar, and sometimes sweetened with grapes and honey. But, almost unsurprisingly, gladiators were not the only ones who enjoyed this gag-inducing beverage. The famous mad emperor Nero absolutely loved it and claimed that it refreshed him.
So, remember that the next time you complain about the mysterious ingredients found in today’s energy drinks.
5. Hallucinatory Fish
The Romans loved to have a good time; nothing is surprising about that. The most common recreational drug used throughout the Roman Empire was wine; however, there were some cases of rich Roman citizens becoming addicted to Opium; but the oddest example of recreational drug use came in the form of a fish no bigger than a household goldfish.
Salema porgy (commonly known as sarpa salpa) is a small gold striped fish that, when ingested by a Roman who was looking for a good time, caused hallucinations similar to what might be expected from ingesting LSD. The medical term is ichthyoallyeinotoxism, a form of food poisoning known for inducing vivid auditory and visual hallucinations, nausea, nightmares, vertigo, and even delirium. Yeah, just like LSD, right?
So, the next time your crazy uncle starts talking about their trip to Burning Man, ask them if they’ve tried Salema porgy.
4. Same-sex Marriage
Despite there being quite a bit of animosity toward homosexual relationships among Romans (sometimes referring to them as “little Greeks” due to how Greeks tended to tolerate homosexual relationships), and Rome would go on to create legislation condemning the act of same-sex intercourse, the emperor Nero was the first Roman ruler to take a man as his betrothed, twice.
Other examples include, Emperor Elagabalus, marrying a famous male athlete named Zoticus and also referring to one of his slaves as his husband, and writings suggesting that homosexual men did practice same-sex marriage ceremonies throughout the empire.
Ultimately, how tolerant the Romans seemed to be of this practice, at least before the rise of Christianity, seemed to be determined by what class that person belonged to.
3. They Also Thought Christians were Cannibals
When compared to the other crimes Romans thought the emerging Christians were guilty of, cannibalism is a unique one. To justify this claim, at least early on, Roman officials looked to the Gospel of Jesus’ last supper in the most literal way you can possibly imagine. When he stated that Christians would “take his flesh and blood” Romans thought this meant literally. Thus, the act of taking communion was vilified as a blood ritual.
But that’s not all, some officials went so far as to claim that these early Christians had eaten babies during initiation ceremonies, disguising the infant as some other type of meal and ravenously licking up the blood left in the wake of its consumption.
Yeah. Talk about brutal.
The mad emperor Nero would famously go on to persecute Christians, and it would be some time before the religion would come to dominate the empire.
This is, of course, a common theme with humans. We fear things that are different, at least until that new thing is proved to be harmless to us, but it is a bit surprising that the Romans were so adamant that Christians hypothetically drinking blood counted as a form of cannibalism, considering the next part of this list.
2. Romans Drank Gladiator Blood
Yep. You read that right. Along with enjoying gladiator sweat as perfume, they also thought that their blood had magical properties. This is in part due to them thinking that it cured epilepsy, something historians think must have been a coincidence.
Roman religion even claimed that drinking a gladiator’s blood had the power to purify a person’s very soul.
But this isn’t the only instance of Romans drinking blood. On March 24 of every year, a festival would be held in Ancient Rome called Dies Sanguinis (the Day of Blood). Among the festivities were self-castrations, priests devoted to the goddess Cybele flogging themselves to the point of sprinkling the surrounding altars in their sanctuaries with blood, and priests of Bellona mutilating their own legs and arms so they could drink their own blood or offer it up to their goddess.
So, it does seem that the Romans were more than a little hypocritical when it came to regarding Christians as cannibals. But, hey, isn’t hypocrisy kind of human nature as well?
1. They Drew Penises on Everything
Humans just love to put penises on things. We make monuments resembling them, artwork that exemplifies them, and mold them into statues and sculptures of all kinds. The Romans were certainly no exception to this.
Examples of this phallic fascination include carvings, mosaics, frescoes, statues, charms, and (my favorite example) wind chimes.
Another hilarious example involved Roman soldiers deployed to aid in the repair of Hadrian’s Wall in 207 CE, drawing penises all over the structure in an effort (we think) to either emasculate their enemies or their commanding officer.
Romans revered the male form as beautiful and powerful, so the penis was a symbol of power and war.
Unsurprisingly, the Romans also had a god devoted to phallic power named Fascinus. His devout followers wore their penises with pride and believed their sexual energy would provide protection.