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10 myths and lies about ancient Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

There are many myths and lies about the ancient Romans – their lifestyle, culture and military. In this article, I will try to present selected 10 distortions that should be corrected and explained.

I. Did gladiator fights always end in slaughter?

Gladiator Fight During Meal At Pompeii by Francesco Netti

The cost of training a gladiator was very high. Training of gladiator costed even tens of thousands of sesterces. In Institutes1
the Roman lawyer Gaius reports that when the owner of the gladiator loaned him for a fight in munera he received 20 denarii (80 sestertii) for the return of his alive gladiator from the arena, and a thousand denarii for the disabled or the dead. As you can see, the goal was for gladiators to give an interesting fight, not a bloody one. Hardly any school would allow itself carnage in which dozens of gladiators would lose their lives.

Moreover, it should be emphasized that a doctor was often admitted to the arena so that he could quickly dress the wounds. The doctor then assessed which gladiator was fit for the fight, and which was crippled after his injuries.

Of course, gladiators also died. Until today, many gladiators’ cemeteries have been found. But it certainly is not so bloody as is now presented. Many gladiators were given freedom after winning dozens of fights, and many Romans and Romans saw fights as an opportunity to make a good career and earn money.

II. Were gladiators perfectly muscular men?

Ancient gravestone of a gladiator named Quinto Sossio Or

In 1993, in Ephesus (the western part of Turkey), the former capital of the Roman province of Asia, an ancient burial ground was found, where, according to researchers, gladiators were buried. A total of over 60 people were buried in the cemetery, of which 22 gladiators and 31 other people buried on the spot, not fighting in the arena, were examined. Researchers conducted detailed studies of the bones and skulls of the buried bodies for comparison purposes2. The conclusions were surprising: the gladiatorial diet was, in today’s view, very vegetarian and high in carbohydrates; or rather low in protein. After the isotope analysis was performed, it turned out that the gladiators, compared to the rest of the city’s inhabitants, ate much more vegetables and less meat. Hence the colloquial term for gladiators – hordearii used by Pliny the Elder, meaning “barley-eaters”3.

Moreover, gladiators were not perfectly muscled men, with impeccable figures in our opinion, but rather had significant amounts of fat. We also have sources describing the catering of gladiators. It is, for example, Galen, a Roman medic, who in 159-161 CE he worked in a medical school that looked after the health of gladiators in Pergamon (now western Turkey). Galen mentions that gladiators ate mainly barley (either in the form of a pudding or with water as a drink) and legumes (such as broad bean soup). Another type of meal was broad beans mash (vicia faba) mixed with peeled barley4. Dried fruit was also eaten. Food was easy to prepare and cheap. Carbohydrates allowed the gladiators to fill their stomachs and provide the necessary energy for exercise and fighting in the arena.

Scientists believe that such a diet was aimed at acquiring significant amounts of subcutaneous fat. It was extremely helpful in the arena because it protected the most important parts of the body, such as ligaments, nerves, and blood vessels from cutting. It guaranteed a better spectacle for the masses, as the gladiators were injured, you could see cut and bloody bodies, and yet they were still fighting in the arena.

Interestingly enough, Cicero in his third Philippics aimed at Mark Antony, compares his body to a gladiator, suggesting a bulky body and diminishing his status.

III. Did the ancient Romans maintain a high level of hygiene?

Roman toilet in Cerro da Vila

Ancient Rome is known for beautiful villas and majestic buildings in which the elite of the country lived. Most, however, of Roman society lived in small apartments, single rooms or apartments without any facilities. They collected water from public wells or fountains fed by aqueducts. Certainly no water was taken from the rivers, as they were aware of their strong pollution.

Of course, hygiene in Rome could raise many objections, as (especially in multi-storey residential buildings) there were no passages and impurities were poured straight onto the streets. There was even a law that for pouring the excrements on passers was inputting a penalty.
It was similar to garbage. For the most part, all waste was collected in streets between buildings, which sometimes resulted in numerous congestion. For washing the body, Romans went to public or paid baths. As there were no urban cleaning services, the area was certainly filled with uninteresting scent, and to make matters worse, the dogs and cats that were spread caused numerous illnesses.

Sometimes the apartments had latrines, but as a rule they were located next to the kitchen annex, which naturally caused the transfer of microorganisms to the food they eat.

IV. Did Roman soldiers only fight in red tunics?

Legionaries throwing pilum

In films, historical reconstructions and illustrations, Roman legionaries are dressed in red tunics. But in reality, did the ancient Romans in the army have a unified dress, which was mainly made up of red?

In the beginning, it should be noted what was symbolized by the red colour. In the Romans’ sense, it was the colour and symbol of Mars – the god of war and the mythological father of twins Romulus and Remus. Thus, red was of great importance in the public sphere of the Romans, who considered themselves warlike people, coming directly from Mars.

On the battlefield, the red tunic worn under the armour represented blood and strength. Certainly, the compact line of the Roman infantry, dressed in red, had a psychological impact on the enemy army, which perceived it as strong and valiant.

We do not have any hard evidence that the legionaries were wearing only red (as we commonly see). You need to know that the soldiers themselves took care of their wardrobes and often, for example, received parcels from their families, including tunics. Thus, they certainly had more than one. What’s more, there was no requirement for unified weapons and clothing. And yes, soldiers had different types of armour (depending on what they could afford) and different colours of tunics.

It also happened that the generals confiscated the fabrics in a given area and assigned them to the attire of soldiers. There was no top-down command to use only red. In addition, one should also take into account the fact that there was various access to individual dyes at different latitudes. The cheap colour in Egypt did not necessarily have to cost as much as in Britain.

The price itself was also a big barrier. Legionaries did not earn much money, and the tunic during service was easy to get dirty and destroyed. Probably the tunic was losing its colour after many washes, and grey-bure colours predominated. It is certain that tunic in natural colours was worn, i.e. from white, through shades of grey, browns to black. During the ceremony, specially prepared snow-white tunics were set up.

The proof that the soldiers were serving in various colours of tunics is a fresco from one of the houses in Pompeii. We can see there two legionaries in white tunics, and one in red clothes.

It can certainly be said, however, that red was the most popular because of the cheapness of its production. White and dark colours (i.e. dark brown) probably predominated. Among the higher command of the legion appeared more expensive – “red scarlet”. The most expensive purple, in turn, was reserved for generals, and later only for emperors.

When it comes to Roman soldiers and rowers serving in the sea fleet, we know that they had blue tunics thanks to a Vegetius (writer from the 4th century CE).

V. Were the medics respected in ancient Rome?

Roman fresco of a doctor providing medical assistance

In ancient times, the Romans originally did not have great respect for doctors. Their knowledge and possible remedies came from rural life. Treated with simple home remedies. Cato the Elder writes that the father of the family – pater familias should have the appropriate knowledge.

This is how Plutarch shows his approach to medicine :

He himself, he said, had written a book of recipes, which he followed in the treatment and regimen of any who were sick in his family. He never required his patients to fast, but fed them on greens, on bits of duck, pigeon, or hare. Such a diet, he said, was light and good for sick people, except that it often causes dreams. By following such treatment and regimen he said he had good health himself, and kept his family in good health.

Plutarch of Caesarea, Cato the Elder, 23

The first doctors were often Greek slaves (servi medici). It was not proper for a Roman to pursue this profession. There were also plenty of charlatans, ignorant quacks and magicians.

In the 2nd century BCE the success of Archagatos’ wound surgeon paved the way for other doctors, but due to his actions, which were associated with severe pain in patients, he was nicknamed Carnifex, meaning “executioner”.

Roman society was highly distrustful of foreign doctors. Cato the Elder presented his opinion on the Greek doctors. In his letter to his son, he writes:

In due course, my son Marcus, I shall explain what I found out in Athens about these Greeks, and demonstrate what advantage there may be in looking into their writings (while not taking them too seriously). They are a worthless and unruly tribe. Take this as a prophecy: when those folk give us their writings they will corrupt everything. All the more if they send their doctors here. They have sworn to kill all barbarians with medicine—and they charge a fee for doing it, in order to be trusted and to work more easily. They call us barbarians, too, of course, and Opici, a dirtier name than the rest. I have forbidden you to deal with doctors.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 29.13-14

Many Romans used the services of suspicious medics offering mysterious ointments, elixirs or praying to the gods. Over time, in the Roman state, a kind of competition arose between doctors who, wanting to gain fame, prescribed various types of medicines and recommendations for the sick, which often ended in death for him. An interesting fragment was left by Pliny the Elder.

(…) man who swept away all the precepts of his predecessors, and declaimed with a sort of frenzy against the physicians of every age; but with what discretion and in what spirit, we may abundantly conclude from a single trait presented by his character — upon his tomb, which is still to be seen on the Appian Way, he had his name inscribed as the “Iatronices” — the “Conqueror of the Physicians”. (…)
Hence those woeful discussions, those consultations at the bedside of the patient, where no one thinks fit to be of the same opinion as another, lest he may have the appearance of being subordinate to another; hence, too, that ominous inscription to be read upon a tomb, “It was the multitude of physicians that killed me.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History XXIX, 5

VI. Was the vomitorium a vomiting room?


At present, there is a common misconception that the vomitorium was a room specially dedicated by the ancient Romans to empty the stomach during banquets.

In fact, the vomitorium was an exit in an amphitheatre or stadium, allowing the crowd to quickly leave the building. Usually, the passage was marked under the rows of seats. Often, the vomitorium was used by actors to enter or leave the stage. Modern stadiums imitate the innovative idea of the Romans.

But why there is such a mistake in the meaning of the word vomitorium? The word was used by Macrobius5, but not in the context of feasts, but as an image of spectators leaving the amphitheater en masse. This wording was misinterpreted in the 19th century with reference to special rooms during feasts. The prevailing belief in uncouth and decadent feasts has resulted in an over-interpretation. However, it cannot be ruled out that the hosts did not actually prepare such rooms.

There is no doubt, however, that the generous Roman feasts in the homes of rich noblemen ended in vomiting. The stoic writer Seneca the Younger (4 BCE – 65 CE) mentions this. In one of his writings he tells how slaves clean up vomit at banquets, summarizing the feasters: “They vomit so they may eat, and eat so they may vomit”.

VII. Weren’t Roman women allowed to run businesses?

Woman in Roman fresco

Women in the Roman world did not have the same position as men; e.g. they could not vote in assemblies or hold public office. On the other hand, they could own land, write their own wills, and testify in court. However, this independence was limited.

Roman law, since the times of the law of the XII Tables, made women incapacitated: at home, they remained under the care of their father – pater potestas or their husband after marriagemanus. However, during the 2nd BCE – 2nd century CE it was customary that a woman usually did not come under the authority of her husband. Moreover, in 46 CE, the Senate passed the senatus consultum Velleianum law that forbids women from making surety or from making any commitments themselves.

A woman, in the case when her father was dead and was not under the authority of her husband, had to have her guardian (tutela mulieris or tutor) throughout her life, who acted as an authorization in the case of a transaction, a will or any other contract under oath. The guardian was a kind of security for her interests. It was an adopted law and it has been mentioned many times in ancient sources.

It should also be noted that under the rule of Octavian Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) law was introduced that abolished the obligation to have a guardian if a woman had given birth to a sufficient number of descendants (three children in the case of a free woman and four in the case of a freedman).

Our knowledge about the participation of Roman women in the finances of the ancient world comes largely from the preserved wooden tablets (tabulae), covered with wax, on which information about concluded transactions and financial obligations was written. To our times, among others, 153 such tablets were found in the house of the banker Lucius Caecilius Iucundus in Pompeii.

Other tablets were also found in Herculaneum or in a Roman villa between Naples and Salerno. Especially in this second place, known as the “Archive of Sulpicii”, almost 300 tablets, dating back to the 1st century CE, have been discovered, mostly describing the transactions made in the small port of Puteoli. Researchers to this day are not sure whether the representatives of the Sulpicii family were argentarii (bankers with broader financial powers) or faeneratores (moneylenders). At any rate, it is certain that they were descendants of the liberated people who created a truly impressive financial business.

Interestingly, 127 tablets have so far been thoroughly analyzed in Sulpicia’s house, 23 of which mention women in transactions. It is noteworthy that these are not just Roman women of high society; we are dealing with a slave (serva), a freedwoman (liberta) or a housewife (domina). What can we read from the plates? For example:

  • Patulcia Erotis, liberta, confirms that she received 19,500 sesterces in the auction where her item was auctioned. As it turns out, it was a really impressive amount, as it allowed to buy almost 40 tons of grain.
  • Marcia Fausta, liberta, took a loan of 2,000 sesterces from a representative of Sulpicia.
  • freeborn Caesia Priscilla owed 24,000 sesterces to the Sulpicii family.

The only surviving plaque with the so-called The triptychonu (a document of three tablets) shows us an interesting transaction/contract made by a slave at the behest of his mistress. The pledge (stipulatio) was made by a certain Pyramus, one of the slaves of the high-ranking matron Caesia Priscilla. On the tablet, we can read that the slave is making a promise aloud. Gaius – a Roman jurist from the 2nd century CE – presents this type of oath on the principle of question-answer:

An obligation is verbally contracted by question and answer, as for instance:
“Do you solemnly agree to give it to me?”
“I do solemnly agree.”
“Will you give it?”
“I will give it.”
“Do you promise?”
“I do promise

Gaius, Institutions, 3.92

As you can see, in ancient times, people were obliged to keep the contract not only in writing, but also orally. Certainly, however, the need to have material evidence dominated, hence the agreement was written on tablets.

Returning to Pyramus – banker Gaius Sulpicius Faustus paid him 4,000 sesterces, demanding a promise to return his money earlier; it was the so-called mutuum (loan). This proves that Roman law was very flexible and even allowed slaves to mediate transactions/operations. Probably a high-ranking Roman woman wanted to avoid rumours about herself or appearing in public at a banking representative.

The common belief that Roman women are inactive in the public sphere is incorrect. Naturally, they did not have a similar situation to men, but by using the law in a proper way, they could run their own business, take care of finances and borrow. The death of her father did not mean that the woman would automatically pass under her husband’s potestas and could remain completely independent by receiving a legal guardian or having the necessary number of children.

Women of high society did not show up in person for financial operations but rather enlisted the help of their freedmen or slaves. Probably the consent to “direct” contracting resulted from the fulfilment of the requirements of Augusta’s legislation regarding the number of children. Women with a lower status probably appeared in person, and if the fertility requirement was not met, they were accompanied by their guardians.

VIII. Did the Romans live only in villas and low-rise houses?

Roman tenement house

In 1884, the first skyscraper was built in Chicago, USA. It was 42 meters high. Shortly afterwards, the New York World Building exceeded a hundred meters. In both cases, however, it was only an imitation of the ancient Romans. The first skyscrapers grew in ancient Rome. They were insulae, including the most famous of them, the real miracle and singularity of the city – Insula Felicles.

However, before Feliculi’s property – a brief reminder of what insula was.

Insula was – simply put – a rental house. Tenement house. Those started to be built in Rome around the 4th century BCE and were the answer to the constant growth of inhabitants within the Servian walls. With the expansion of the Republic, and then of the Empire, insulae appeared in many other cities of the empire – an example would be Tire, which will be discussed later. But of course, they have not become the only type of city houses.

In Pompeii – a rich city – apart from rent insulas, single-family domus, often extended to the size of a villa (this is the ancient version of the modern division of cities into the block of flats and single-family housing estates). But where the population is increasing rapidly and the city area is not, this traditional Roman house is disappearing. Due to lack of space, insula grows not outwards but upwards. Already in the 3rd century BCE, most of these buildings have three floors – and will soon cross this barrier. Insula was supposed to generate profit for the owners – hence they were built very quickly, cheaply and very messily. Collapses or fires in insulae occurred more often than often. Hence the attempt to limit the height of Roman buildings by subsequent emperors, for example, Octavian Augustus (maximum height 70 pes, Roman feet, just over 20 meters; 1 pes = ca 44.5 cm) or Trajan. After a great fire in Rome, Nero limited its height to 60 pes. These restrictions did not apply in other cities of the empire, hence the surprise of the famous Strabo, that in the mentioned Tire the insulae are almost as impressive as in the capital.

In Rome, imperial restrictions were considered fairly freely. Suffice it to say that the only preserved Roman insula, dating from the second century CE the five-story Insula dell’Ada Coela at the foot of Capitol Hill was estimated at 30 meters in height (23 ruins have survived). The height of the world’s first residential skyscraper – the Insula Felicles (Felicula) – was hard to say. The eight-story creation was created during the period of the greatest prosperity of the Empire, and its fame reflected a wide arc throughout the entire Mediterranean Sea. An example would be placing this building in polemics of Tertullian and Valentinians. This building stood near the Flaminius Circus in the 4th century CE and was treated, along with the Aurelian Column and the Pantheon, as a tourist attraction of the city. Against the background of five or six floors, 40 meters high, insulae Feliculi’s property must have looked really impressive. Much less information is available about the building on the south-eastern slope called Septizodium (from the Emperor Septimius Severus). There is not much left of it, but some scientists estimate its height at about 70 meters.

Unfortunately, these giants have not survived to this day. Fortunately, the slightly lower insulae has survived. In Rome itself, as I mentioned, there is one; a little unearthed in Pompeii and Herculaneum. The real mainstay of these ancient blocks of flats is Ostia – a huge number of these buildings have survived in the former port city, making us realize how many inhabitants crowded in the cities of that time – just like in modern metropolises.

IX. Were the Romans always building geniuses?

Amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia

The Romans left behind many wonderful buildings, many of them have survived to this day in a better or worse condition. Amphitheatres, where crowds of people gathered to see gladiatorial battles, enjoyed great popularity among the Romans. Unfortunately, one of them resulted in a huge tragedy as a result of miserliness, which resulted in a number of deaths compared to the losses of Roman legions in the battle of the Teutoburg Forest 9 CE.

Today, we can admire the remains and ruins of stone arenas, but in the cities of the empire also built amphitheatres built of wood, which, however, over time were supplanted by the former. One such construction was erected in Fidana, 8 kilometres north of Rome, wherein 27 CE became the site of the largest stadium crash in the history of Rome. The course of the whole event was described by the Roman historian Tacitus in his Annals, where he mentions Attilius – probably an entrepreneur from a family of liberators who wanted to organize gladiator games. To this end, he undertook the construction of a wooden amphitheatre, but he was very skimpy and saved on materials for its construction. He did not build foundations on stable ground or strengthen the above-ground part of the structure with solid rafters. According to Tacitus, he did so because he did not do it with excess money or ambition, but for the greatest greedy gain.

When construction was completed, gladiator fights were organized, crowds of spectators filled the arena to the last place. Unfortunately, under the pressure of the filled stands, the wooden structure did not last and collapsed partly inwards and partly outside, crushing and burying a lot of people both in the stadium itself and in the shopping arcade around it. Those who were killed immediately died relatively quickly and painlessly. Much worse fate happened to those who were covered with building elements or had crushed or torn out limbs suffering terrible suffering. Many of them probably died only a few days after these events. Tacitus says that the number of victims killed and mutilated was about 50,000. In turn, another historian Suetonius in The Lives of the Caesars reported that only the number of fatalities alone amounted to over 20,000 people. This is comparable to the losses of Roman legions in a bloody battle in the Teutoburg Forest where 25,000 to 30,000 legionaries were killed.

After these events, the Roman Senate decided that the organization of gladiator games can only be dealt with by people whose assets are at least 400,000 sestertii, and that from now on the amphitheatre can only be built on land whose stability has been previously tested. The perpetrator of the entire event, Attyliusz, was banished and it is not known how his fate went on. As you can see, saving on building materials, and thus on safety did not pay him, he was remembered as guilty of the deaths of thousands of people disgracing himself.

X Did the ancient Romans sprinkle the land of defeated Carthage with salt?

The Capture of Carthage, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo

There is a popular belief that ancient Romans after defeating Carthage in 146 BCE not only razed the city to the ground but also sprinkled it with salt, in order to make sure that nothing would grow in these hated areas.

Carthage dominated the waters of the Mediterranean Sea for several hundred years of the first millennium BCE. With the expansion of the Roman republic, there was a conflict of interest that led to the devastating three Punic wars. The first two clashes were a levelled struggle between the powers, from which Rome emerged victorious; mainly due to determination and endless human resources. The Third Punic War (149-146 BCE) was largely just an execution made by the powerful Republic on the weak and subordinate Carthage. The elites of the Roman state (including the famous Cato the Elder) sought to destroy the hated Carthaginians who once dared to set foot in Italy and threaten the existence of the Republic. Carthage after the defeat in the Second Punic War was forced to pay enormous war contributions and limit its sovereignty and foreign policy for Rome. After years of meticulous repayment of financial obligations, the city was rising from its knees, which caused concern among many Roman politicians, who were looking for more profits. By using the conflict of Carthage with Numidia, another war was forced. After three years of the siege on the well-fortified Carthage, the city was conquered by the army of Scipio Africanus Minor in spring 146 BCE.

Reading the history of the Punic Wars, we can find in many books information that after the destruction of Carthage, the Romans sprinkled salt on her land so that nothing else grew on it. It was to be a full highlight of the fall of a former rival. This message, however, has no mention in ancient sources. Thanks to a Greek writer from the 1st century BCE – Diodorus Siculus – we know that the city has been razed and Carthaginians destroyed6. In turn, e.g. Horace or Propercius claim that after the city was destroyed, the land was symbolically ploughed, emphasizing full annihilation. The most reliable ancient source is the message of Polybius in “The Histories”. Polybius was a friend and companion of Scipio Minor in the African campaign. In his work, we will not find any information about the salting of the land, but only mention that the city was full of ruins; not that it was completely destroyed. A later author – Appian of Alexandria – reported that the reconstruction of the city took place at the request of Augustus at the end of the 1st century BCE. However, to avoid the evil spells that were cast on the ground where Carthage stood, it was decided to build the city in the near distance.

Absolutely, however, there is no mention of the saltiness of Carthaginian land, so as to prevent future cultivation of the land. Certainly, this statement appeared in nineteenth-century historiography, which was then regularly reproduced. Authors from the mentioned age referred to the ancient Middle East, where, among others in Assyrian or Hittite sources one can find information that salting the land was a curse and ritual aspect.

Interestingly, the lands surrounding Carthage were recognized as ager publicus (public lands), and were handed over to the local community and to Roman and Latin colonists. Shortly after the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War, this area was an important source of grain that was transported to Rome. Another interesting issue is that the Romans used salt as a deterrent to grazing animals. Pliny the Elder mentions this in his encyclopedia “Natural History”7.

  1. Gaius, Institutes, 3.146
  2. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 18/14
  3. Clark Spencer Larsen, Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus
  4. Galen, De alimentorum facultatibus
  5. Macrobius, Saturnalia, 6.4.3
  6. Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica, XXXII
  7. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 17.29

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