10 things you probably did not know about the Romans
Here we present you a list of 10 surprising facts about the Romans that you probably did not know. These facts are brought to you by Oxford historian Harry Sidebottom. 1) Gladiatorial fighting was not the most popular entertainment The seating capacity of the main venues was different, depending what kind of show was on the stage. The arena for gladiatorial combat, the Colosseum, which in the antiquity was known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, was huge. Archaeologists estimate that it could accommodate 50,000 people. One ancient source puts the number even higher, at 87,000. However the Circus Maximus, could accommodate 250,000 people, who could watch chariot racing. Despite the popularity of pantomime, theatrical shows came off a poor third. The largest theatre in Rome, that of Marcellus, could hold a mere 20,500. 2) Roman warships were not rowed by slaves In almost all ‘swords and sandals’ movies and novels, when a galley [a large ship propelled primarily by rowing] appears, we hear the clank of slaves’ chains and the crack of the overseer’s whip. Both are completely anachronistic: the Romans, like the Greeks, had an ideology that we call ‘civic militarism’. It was believed that if you were a citizen you had a duty to fight for your state, and conversely if you fought you were entitled to political rights. This excluded the use of slave rowers, or slave soldiers like those of medieval Islam. 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 performed well in battle. 3) They did not all die young The average life expectancy was only about 25. However, this did not mean that no one lived into their thirties or on into old age. The average was skewed by the 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. 4) Very few Roman hours lasted an hour Like us, the Romans divided the day into 24 hours. But unlike us, their hours varied in length. For the Romans there were always 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Thus, for example, a daylight hour in high summer was considerably longer than one in midwinter. 5) Not all Romans spoke Latin Stretching from the Atlantic to the Tigris, the Roman Empire contained perhaps about 65 million inhabitants. While Latin was the language of the army and of Roman law, many peoples incorporated into the empire continued to speak their native language, instead of Latin. Thus variants of Celtic and Syriac, and more obscure languages such as Cappadocian and Thracian, survived. The Roman elite was bilingual. For them, the knowledge of Greek was a badge of. So internalized was the Roman usage, when the senators assassinated Julius Caesar, some shouted out not in Latin, but Greek. 6) Many Romans disliked philosophy The empire produced eminent philosophers such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Yet some Romans were hostile to philosophy for two main reasons: first, it was a Greek invention, and the Greeks were a conquered race – Roman attitudes to the Greeks were very mixed. Second, the study of philosophy, with its hair-splitting definitions and its concentration on the inner man, could be considered to unfit a man for an active life that would serve the state. The latter view had long been held by some Greeks. Galen, the doctor to the imperial court, remarked that the Romans regarded philosophy as being of no more use than drilling holes in millet seeds. 7) There were sexual ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s The great French scholar Paul Veyne said that the Romans were paralyzed by sexual inhibitions. While that might be going too far, there were strict limits to socially acceptable behavior: after the wedding night, for example, a modest Roman wife should not let her husband see her naked again. Consequently, it might be no surprise that those philosophers who argued that a man should not have sex with anyone but his wife, not even with his slaves, won few converts. 8) Generals seldom fought in combat Although in art they liked to be depicted in heroic and martial posture, Roman generals were ‘battle managers’, not warriors. Only in the most exceptional circumstances were they expected to fight hand-to-hand. If a battle was lost, the commander should draw his sword and either turn it on himself, or seek an honorable death at the hands of the enemy. Not until Maximinus Thrax (who reigned from AD235 to 238) was an emperor recorded as fighting in the line of battle. 9) 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. The mixture was known as the Mithridatium, after the originator of the practice, Mithridates the Great, king of Pontus (who reigned from c120 to 65BC).
A drinking vessel made from the horn of the one-horned horses or donkeys, believed by the Romans to have lived in India, was thought to be an antidote to fatal poisons. 10) Romans believed they had good reasons to persecute Christians The Romans believed their empire rested on the Pax Deorum: if the Romans did right by the pagan gods, those deities would do right by them. Christians, on the other hand, either claimed the pagan gods were evil demons, or denied they existed at all. If the Romans allowed such atheists to propagate their beliefs, it was little wonder that the gods were angered and withheld their favor from Rome.
The gladiatorial arena wasn’t just a meat grinder for male slaves with rippling abs. In fact, many of the people who participated in history’s most notorious blood sport were volunteers – trained soldiers and politicians looking for a little extra street cred. And, as it turns out, plenty of gladiators were women. Written records of female gladiators are persistent, but sparse, almost as if the Romans didn’t think the concept was so bizarre that they needed to specify when the combatants were women. Lady gladiators weren’t the result of some particularly progressive emperor who believed in gender equality in death sports, either. It was quite the opposite – women’s participation was the norm for 200 years, with evidence of various restrictions (no direct female relatives of a general or a senator could be recruited as gladiators, for instance) until Emperor Septimius Severus finally banned it, possibly because he had a cousin or something that got his ass chopped off by Lucretia the Crusher.
Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla, the daughter of emperor Marcus Aurelius, organized an unsuccessful conspiracy against her brother, the emperor Commodus. She was born in 148 C.E., the daughter of the younger Annia Galeria Faustina and Marcus Aurelius. Had she been born a son rather than a daughter, she may well have been a worthy successor to her father. […] In 164 her father arranged her marriage with Lucius Verus, whom he had made co-emperor in 161. The marriage took place in Ephesus, and she was given the title Augusta. She was some 18 years younger than her weak and ineffectual husband, who died in 169 on his way back to Rome from the Danube. Against her will and the wishes of Faustina, Marcus Aurelius immediately had Lucilla marry the much older Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, a native of Antioch. She was 21 and he was probably over 50. Her new husband was her father’s trusted friend and had been a commander in all of his campaigns. His father had been prefect of Egypt and the family was descended from rulers in the East. Lucilla undoubtedly considered the marriage beneath her and detested the sedentary country life that suited her ailing husband. Marcus Aurelius died in 180 and was succeeded by his son Commodus. […] Commodus treated his sister Lucilla respectfully. She sat on the imperial seat at the theatre and retained other privileges. However, she hated her sister-in-law, Crispina Bruttia, and recognized her brother’s limitations. In 182 Lucilla had uncovered sufficient discontent with her brother’s rule to organize a conspiracy for his overthrow. Members of the group included […] Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus, who was to do the actual stabbing. He was arrested while announcing to Commodus his intention to stab him. Lucilla was banished to Capri and soon afterwards killed. Her son, Claudius Pompeianus, was later murdered by the emperor Caracalla. [x]