What Life in Ancient Rome Was Really Like
No other civilization in human history has fascinated the world quite like the Roman Empire. On the battlefield, the Romans were a force the world had never seen before, an unparalleled war machine that could sweep through cities and absorb entire countries into its borders.
At the heart of it all was Rome, the epicenter of the world. But what was it really like to live there? Where did the common Roman person live? What were the Roman games really like? And just how bad were some of those Roman emperors?
From the streets to the senate to the games, this is what life was like in ancient Rome.
If You Were Poor, You Lived in a High Rise
Most Romans lived in tall (up to 100 feet), rectangular apartment buildings called insula, meaning "island." Rome was crammed with these buildings, which were spaced very closely together, creating a labyrinth-esque network of narrow alleys.
These buildings were built so close together that one man wrote that he and the man in the apartment across from him could stretch their arms out and shake hands from their windows. And unlike today, the worst apartments were on the top floor, where it was darker, more cramped, and less safe. If the building burned, you'd need to haul it down those stairs. Richer citizens lived on the bottom floors.
There was no running water or sanitation in the insulae. Poorer folk had to rent apartments with several other roommates, who were day laborers, so the places stunk. It also was not uncommon to hear the agony of childbirth if your neighbor was a pregnant woman, as women gave birth at home in Rome.
And the buildings were cheap, so the insulation was terrible.
Apartment Buildings Burned Down. A Lot.
Insulae were made of mud-brick and wood and had a reputation for being unsafe. A total collapse was possible, especially if the builder cheaped out on cost. Here's how Cicero described one of the buildings in "Letters to Atticus":
"Two of my buildings have fallen down, and the rest have large cracks. Not only the tenants, but even the mice have moved out!"
There was a lot of wood in these buildings, with wood floors and even a wooden roof covered in tiles. To make matters worse, fire-preventative building codes enacted by Nero appeared to have gone ignored, according to professor Garett Ryan, who holds a Ph.D. in ancient Greek and Roman history and runs the YouTube series "Questions About Ancient Greece and Rome You Were Afraid to Ask in School."
While Romans did not have ovens, they did have portable braziers with hot coals. So you could imagine why there were so many fires.
Rome did have firemen, the Vigilies, who watched for fires. To contain fires, they tore down adjacent buildings with ballistae to create firebreaks and carried water buckets to douse the flames.
The Romans Had Fire Insurance — and Insurance Fraud
The Romans were some of the first people to use fire insurance. Naturally, this would only be for people who could afford it.
And, of course, with insurance, comes possible insurance fraud. The poet Martial, in his "Epigrams," writes of fire insurance fraud in a tongue-in-cheek manner:
"You had purchased a house, Tongilianus, for two hundred thousand sesterces; and a calamity but too frequent in this city destroyed it. Contributions poured in to the amount of a million sesterces. May you not, I ask, be suspected of having set fire to your own house, Tongilianus?"
If Your Apartment Was Gone, You Were out of Luck
Even though fire and shoddy buildings meant a lot of displaced (if not dead) people, there were no public shelters where people could go and spend the night.
"You were on your own," says Ryan. "At best, you might hope for help from friends or relatives, or perhaps a wealthy patron."
This also meant all of your stuff was gone, too. The average Roman citizen did not have access to the banks, which were typically for the wealthy.
Romans Went to the Bathroom Together, and Sometimes the Toilets Exploded
Romans may have had a chamber pot in their bedrooms, but it was more comfortable to use a toilet with running water. Roman bathrooms were large, multi-toilet structures made up of benches. There were no dividing walls.
Romans walked in, lifted toga, sat down and did their business. Their waste was washed away into the sewers, but all that defecation in an ancient sewage system meant the accumulation of dangerous gasses.
"Methane and other gasses sometimes built up in Roman toilets, causing sudden explosions and bursts of flame," says Ryan. "I don't know of any stories about someone being killed by an exploding toilet, though it probably happened to some poor plebe."
Add exploding toilets to the list of things that could kill you in ancient Rome. When Romans were finished going to the bathroom, they would brush themselves with a communal sponge on a stick, which also doubled as a disease spreader.
The Roman Workday Was Pretty Short
While Roman working conditions may have been awful, at least the day wasn't too long. Although it did start at the crack of dawn, or around 6 a.m.
A Roman's internal clock and the sun would have to be enough to wake them, but if that wasn't enough, the noise of the streets would do it. Precise time wasn't kept by pretty much anyone in ancient Rome, so getting to work meant getting to work at a reasonable hour, not by the minute.
From there, a typical Roman would leave their insula and head to the streets and pick up a quick take-out breakfast at a thermopolium — the ancient Roman equivalent to fast-food. Work would last until the afternoon, which was a time devoted to leisure. This was prime time to hit up the baths.
While some shops would remain open, most would be closed for the night, leaving taverns as a place to eat.
Boots Were Expensive. Or Were Wages Just Poor?
While the Roman Empire spanned several centuries and the Roman denarii's worth went through periods of inflation and deflation, we do have solid information on how much Romans were paid during the time of Diocletian, who reigned from 284-305 C.E.
During his reign, inflation was so out of control that Diocletian made an edict declaring the maximum price for certain goods. Those caught charging more could be punished by exile or death. While this edict proved impossible to enforce and was later rescinded, it left us with some cool little tidbits about Roman pay during this time.
Mule drivers and farm laborers earned 25 denarii daily, while a wall painter made 75 denarii a day (these wages also included meals). It's practically impossible to translate the worth of a denarii to the modern dollar or pound, but for perspective, a pair of good leather boots (without hobnails) cost 120 denarii — meaning you would have to work five full days to afford a pair as a laborer or mule driver.
A pound of fattened goose was for the rich. One pound of that cost 200 denarii.
Roman Clothes Were Washed in Urine
The public toilets were large structures, and only existed in certain places. Romans needed more bathrooms, so large chamber pots placed in certain places throughout the city did the trick. At least it did for urinating. Plus, they served a dual purpose: laundry detergent.
Roman laundry workers would collect this urine and head on over to their laundry shop, where they would dilute it with water and pour it over the clothes in a tub. They would then stomp on the clothes, trading the dirt and oil for urine, then rinse the togas with water.
It's gross, but pee contains ammonia, which is a cleansing agent. It also made their togas whiter.
Some Emperors Kept Lions and Bears as Pets
Rome had its fair share of eccentric and/or completely mad emperors, and many of them liked to own exotic pets. The original tiger king was the emperor Elagabalus, who ruled for just four years before people became fed up with his insanity and murdered him.
If you happened to be at one of Elagabalus' parties, you'd likely be viewing orgies. In one tale of something he did in public, Elagabalus gathered all of Rome's prostitutes in the Forum, and then instructed the crowd to have their way with them, barking orders like a general, promising prizes. Oh, and he was 14 years old when he became emperor.
Elagabulus owned "dozens of tame lions and tigers" and "liked to amuse himself by unleashing his pets on unsuspecting guests during parties," says Ryan.
Another emperor, Valentinian I, owned two beloved bears, whom he named Innocence and Snowflake. Sometimes Innocence and Snowflake had their master's political enemies for dinner.
"Innocence was always his favorite, and eventually — since he couldn't stand to see her caged — he released her back into the wild," says Ryan.
Another emperor, Caracalla, kept a lion named Scimitar in his bedroom.
The Streets of Rome Were Dangerous, and Not Just Because of the Thugs
Rome's city streets were terribly narrow. They were stuffed with humanity, too. Not only did you have to watch your feet, but you also had to watch the sky.
A 13-year-old tourist was killed by a falling roof tile, and it wasn't unusual for a chamber pot to be emptied from a window. Juvenal in "Satires" wrote, "You would be considered thoughtless and careless about sudden accidents if you were to go out for dinner without first making a will." He's joking, but there's truth in his words.
There are reports of people being crushed to death by crowds as well, although it's not clear if there was something to cause so much movement (like running away from a crumbling building).
The Streets Were Also Dangerous Because of All the Thugs. And Emperor Nero
When the sun set, Roman streets were shrouded in shadows and frequented by dangerous people.
"Most Romans simply tried to avoid crime by not going at night, when thieves haunted the unlit streets," says Ryan.
A person who chose to brave the streets for a game of dice and a pint may even have had the misfortune of bumping into Emperor Nero. According to the historian Suetonius, Nero would disguise himself with a hat or a wig and attack men "coming home from supper" and beat them up. If they put up a fight, he would "wound them, and throw them in the common sewer."
Nero would break into shops and pilfer their contents, then sell them from his house. He finally stopped going out into the streets after he took a severe beating from a senator, who put the disguised emperor in his place after Nero groped his wife.
There Were No Police
Part of the crime problem in ancient Rome was due to the fact that the Romans had no real police force. While there were paramilitary forces on the street level, their duty was to keep mobs in check and quell possible uprisings.
The Vigiles, Rome's firemen, doubled as night watchmen and were supposed to enforce some semblance of policing, but they were either too few or too ineffective to be considered an actual force.
Of course, if you were rich, you were fine.
"Important men sometimes traveled with bands of armed slaves, or even with hired gladiators," says Ryan.
For the common folk, it came down to people policing themselves. And it could work. Ryan notes that even though there was crime and no police, Roman society "was less lawless than this might suggest, since the face-to-face nature of social interactions in Roman neighborhoods helped to build local solidarity."
Yet if something terrible happened to you and a loved one, you were on your own.
Romans Were Cool With Vigilante Justice
Today, if someone is murdered, there's an investigation. In Rome, if one of your loved ones was murdered, you would most likely be seeking vigilante-style justice.
"Justice was remarkably informal in Rome. If your wife was murdered, you and your relatives would be responsible for finding the killer," says Ryan.
It would be up to you and your gang of vengeance seekers to find the man and bring him to justice — which would most likely mean killing them. Unless the killer was someone more important than you. You weren't going to get away with murdering someone powerful.
However, in the late Roman era (circa 146 B.C.), there was a court system where you could attempt to prosecute someone, even if they were rich. Of course, you'd have to hire a lawyer to argue for you, and chances are that the rich person has a better lawyer, or could just pay off the judges.
"Your chances of success in court would depend largely on your status vis-a-vis the accused murderer," says Ryan.
Some things don't change.
Actual Justice Was for the Rich
The absence of police didn't mean the Romans had no laws. There were harsh punishments, but again, they were mainly directed at the lower class.
Laws were explicitly designed to give Roman's more powerful citizens, the honestiores, even more room to break laws. The honestiores included people such as senators, local officials and army officers, who were given an entirely different scale of punishments because they "did more" for society.
Everyone else was a member of the humiliores, regular Roman citizens who could be sentenced to work in the mines, which was essentially a death sentence. The worst sentence would be crucifixion, although that fate was almost never given to Roman citizens.
When Julius Caesar was still a lawyer, he was captured by Mediterranean pirates. After escaping, he hired men to hunt them down and bring them back to Rome, where he had them crucified. But rather than let them suffer on the cross, he had their throats slit.
Some Death Sentences Were Brutal
While crucifixion was considered "the ultimate punishment" (summum supplicium), there was another curious and dreadful fate that awaited the most serious of offenders: poena cullei, or "punishment of the sack."
A person sentenced to the sack had their arms and feet bound and shoved in a leather sack. And then came the animals: a dog, a monkey, a snake and a rooster, all together. The sack was then tied shut as the animals bit and clawed at one another, and then the sack was thrown into a body of water.
This execution appeared to have been reserved for parricide. So if you lived in ancient Rome, you really would not want to kill a relative.
The Roman Baths Were Incredible
One Roman's epitaph has this line: "Baths, wine, sex ruin our bodies, but baths, wine and love make life work living." If someone mentions something along with wine and sex, you know it means a good time.
So what were the baths like?
The largest of the baths were multi-structure units the size of entire neighborhoods, or even small towns. The Baths of Caracalla, located near a working-class area in the northeast of ancient Rome, enclosed around 27 acres and could accommodate 1,600 bathers or 8,000 people at time.
It included two 19-foot-long fountains, a library and gymnasium. It was lavishly decorated with mosaics, artwork and marble statues. It likely included a brothel (or was at least frequented by prostitutes, like all public baths) and possibly even a restaurant.
In the Roman baths, you were "just as likely to get your coat nicked as you were to catch the clap," Mary Beard said in the three-part documentary series "Meet the Romans."
Like seeing a celebrity at a basketball game, even the emperors might show up to the baths for a public appearance. The rich came with an entourage of slaves to carry their clothes and rub them down with olive oil and scraped their skin with a strigil, while the poor rubbed themselves down and rubbed their bare backs on the stone walls.
Need a Laugh? Crack Open a Joke Book
Humans have always loved a good joke, and the Romans even had their own joke book. Called "Philogelos," which translates to "The Laughter Lover," the book dates to around the third or fourth century A.D., during the collapse of the Roman Empire — a time when every Roman could use a good laugh.
Here are a few of them:
"Someone needled a jokester: 'I had your wife, without paying a dime.' He replied: 'It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?'"
"A man with bad breath asked his wife: 'Madame, why do you hate me?' And she said in reply: 'Because you love me.'"
"When an intellectual was told by someone, 'Your beard is now coming in,' he went to the rear-entrance and waited for it. Another intellectual asked what he was doing. Once he heard the whole story, he said: 'I’m not surprised that people say we lack common sense. How do you know that it’s not coming in by the other gate?'"
"'An intellectual bought a pair of pants. But he could hardly put them on because they were too tight. So he got rid of the hair around his legs.'"
We didn't say they were good jokes.
More jokes from "The Laughter Lover," translated by John T. Quinn, can be found at Diotima.
And speaking of pants…
You Couldn't Wear Pants
For a period of time, Romans saw pants as barbaric clothing because other nations' people — like the Gauls and Persians — wore them (the ancient Greeks hated pants as well).
As Rome's culture expanded with its borders, trousers became more and more common among its people, something the powers that be didn't want to see.
In 399 A.D., a law was passed banning the wearing of pants and/or boots. Those who donned the barbaric clothing would be exiled.
It didn't really matter though. The Visigoths sacked Rome 13 years later, and Rome already was far into its decline.
Slavery Wasn't a Life Sentence
Slavery was part of Roman culture, but if you had to pick, it may have been better to be a slave in ancient Rome than in pre-Civil War America. Sometimes.
Slavery was not a life sentence in Rome. Slaves could earn their freedom or be granted manumission (their release from slavery) by their masters, and, once freed, became full Roman citizens.
There is evidence of Romans buying slaves in another land, taking them home, and freeing them. One gravemarker for a freed slave tells the story of this. Her husband bought her, took her home, freed her and married her.
Slaves also could buy their freedom if they could accumulate enough money, usually as gifts. "Familia," the Roman word for family, included slaves, too, and it was not uncommon for slaves to be buried alongside their masters.
Slaves were, of course, property, and if a master wanted to have sex with their slave, the slave couldn't say no. And masters could abuse or kill their slaves at will.
Some slaves had power, too, like one who belonged to Caligula. He was said to hold two huge scrolls under each arm, one marked "dagger" and the other "sword." They were lists of who Caligula was to have killed, and how.
Slaves Had a Holiday
The Romans liked to party, and for a few days each year, they let their slaves partake in the parties, too.
Saturnalia occurred on Dec. 17 and, by the late republic period, extended over several days. It was one of the most popular festivals of the year. Shops and businesses closed so everyone could attend the free public banquets at the temple of Saturn and partake in the revelry.
During Saturnalia, owners waited on their slaves and gave them gifts. Slaves, in turn, could dine with their masters, gamble with them, and speak freely — well, relatively freely. It would be quite stupid for a slave to be too critical of their owners.
But one thing's for sure: If you were sober at Saturnalia, you'd be the odd one out.
But Slavery Could be Horribly Brutal
That's not to say slavery was without its horrors. Like slavery in pre-Civil War America, how you were treated entirely depended on who bought you and what you had to do. Slaves owned by the state did hard labor constructing public buildings, and slaves owned by landowners did back-breaking work in the fields. Slaves were commonly forced into prostitution, too.
Roman law was particularly harsh on slaves. If a slave needed to be questioned, they were required to be tortured first. If a slave owner died, every single slave he owned would be tortured before questioning. If one slave was convicted of murdering his master, every slave that master owned could be crucified. The emperor Augustus would throw slaves sentenced to death in a pool full of eels because he enjoyed seeing a man torn apart in an instant.
Slave conditions did improve going into the imperial period, and slave owners were encouraged to treat their slaves properly. Hadrian outlawed the ability of a master to murder their slaves. It also outlawed the selling of slaves to pimps and gladiator schools.
There Are So Many Marble Heads for a Reason
Ever wonder why there are so many heads of emperors, philosophers, senators and other influential Romans, but so few bodies? It's because the statue bodies were a placeholder and the heads were swapped out.
Many emperors had short reigns that ended bloody. Why bother committing so many resources to a ruler who was going to get stabbed to death in an alleyway? That's what happened to Caligula, whose marble head wasn't even preserved when he was murdered.
When the throne went to his uncle, Claudius, sculptors cut Caligula's face in the shape of Claudius.
Romans Made a Mountain Out of Trash
If Rome were a machine, olive oil would have been its fuel. Romans imported an unfathomable amount of the stuff. They rubbed it on their bodies, used it as fuel in their lamps, used it in meals, mixed it in perfumes, and used it as medicine. Olive oil was imported from around the Mediterranean and came to Italy in amphorae, large terracotta jars that could be as tall as five feet.
But these jars couldn't be reused, because the leftover olive oil turned rancid, leaving a fetid smell. The Romans came up with an ingenious way of disposing of these pots. They made an entire hill out of it. Officially called Monte Testaccio, which means "broken pot mountain" in Latin, the hill is 150 tall and ventures 45 feet below the ground, with an estimated 25 to 80 million shards of amphora carefully laid.
It wasn't just a garbage dump. It was a kind of shrine to the power of the Roman Empire.
There Were So Many Exotic Goods
With one million people, Italy was far too small to sustain the entire populace of Rome. So Rome imported nearly everything — grain, olive oil, food, ropes, copper, lead, spices, jewels, perfume, flaxseed, silk, wine, ceramics, tin, wood, glass, ivory, pigs, salt, man-eating animals. Every country in the Mediterranean world provided Rome with something.
Living in Rome meant access to an incredible amount of goods and services that must have been impossible to buy elsewhere. Of course, you'd need to have the money or enough brass to get what you wanted. It was the world's first consumer city.
Branding Was Alive and Well in Rome
Bread was stamped with an official marking, as each loaf needed to weigh as advertised. Selling underweight loaves was a punishable offense. Roman artisans put their mark on glassware and pottery.
One man, Umbricus Scaurus, who lived in Pompei, was a famous producer of fish sauce who marked each of his bottles. And he is thought to have controlled a third of the ancient fish sauce market.
Not Every Roman Received Bread
Approximately 200,000 Romans received monthly stipends of 35-40 kilos of grain, about enough to make bread for a month for two people. The rations went only to full Roman citizens and were one of the main selling points of why you wanted to be a Roman citizen. You might live in a craphole apartment and do low-wage work every day, but at least you wouldn't starve, even if you lost that job.
But the crazy thing is, Romans received their grain all at once. That's close to 90 pounds of grain per Roman citizen, which needed to be moved, milled and baked if bread was to be had. According to Ryan, grain arrived in Ostia via ship along the Tiber River, where the grain was then sent to neighborhood distribution centers. Ryan says they would haul their grain directly to a miller, who would grind it into flour.
But most people did not have an oven in their apartment. So they would have to take that flour to the baker, whom they would have to pay to bake them bread. The poorest Romans, who couldn't pay for bread, would boil their grains and turn it into porridge.
It actually wasn't until the third century A.D. — when Rome's glory days were well behind her — that the empire gave out bread instead of all that grain.
Bread Baking Was a Big Deal
It's no surprise, then, that being a Roman baker was a damn good job to have. Everyone had flour, but nobody had the ovens. Bakers could make a ton of money. One man, Eurysaces the baker, made enough money that he built himself a lavish tomb. Even more interesting, Eurysaces was a freed slave. Again, being a slave wasn't a life sentence.
His epitaph reads in part: "This is the monument to Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces, baker, contractor get it?" or "isn't it obvious?" according to a translation by Beard.
A Roman Dinner (and Ancient Recipes)
If you were better off and could afford more expensive ingredients, a Roman might have roasted ostrich for dinner with dessert afterward. Here are three recipes from Apicius' cookbook (the oldest known cookbook) as translated by Patrick Faas in "Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome." The cookbook dates to the first century A.D.
"For boiled ostrich: pepper, mint, roast cumin, celery seed, dates or Jericho dates, honey, vinegar, passum [raisin wine], garum [Roman fish sauce], a little oil. Put these in the pot and bring to the boil. Bind with amulum [a thickening starch], pour over the pieces of ostrich in a serving dish and sprinkle with pepper. If you wish to cook the ostrich in the sauce, add alica [a semolina flour made from spelt]."
Roast tuna sauce
"Sauce for roast tuna: pepper, lovage, mint, onion, a little vinegar, and oil."
"Try patina as dessert: roast pine nuts, peeled and chopped nuts. Add honey, pepper, garum, milk, eggs, a little undiluted wine, and oil. Pour on to a plate."
Romans Used Snow Instead of Ice Cubes, and Other Food Facts
The wealthiest Romans would use snow, brought down from the mountain tops, to cool their drinks, which were, more often than not, wine. Sow udders and peacock were delicacies.
We say "from the soup to the nuts" — their equivalent was "from the eggs to the apples." Eggs were an extremely common food in Roman society, although the poor mainly stuck to beans, leaks and sheep lips in addition to grain.
There was little distinction between sweet and savory, and meat was often mixed with fruit.
Attending a Private Roman Banquet
Let's say you're invited to attend a wealthy Roman banquet, or, more likely, you're a slave at one of them. What would you see?
Private banquets thrown by wealthy citizens were shows of wealth and power, designed to impress the attendants. They were a place to drink, gorge on food, do business and be entertained. There were at least three couches, likely made of ivory and gold, formed in a U-shape around a dining table.
Tableware would have been ornate eating and drinking vessels made of silver, gold, bronze and Roman luxury glass.
The food was decadent and had at least three meals. Some of them may have been served in ridiculous fashion. In Petronius' fictional "Satyricon," a wealthy nouveau riche freedman presented his guests with a rabbit decorated with wings like Pegasus and a pig stuffed with live thrushes. It's a fictional account, but there's probably some truth there.
Patrons ate while reclining and dipped their hands in water bowls by the table to clean them. Entertainment might consist of musical performances, acrobats and gladiators. Even the cooks would sing while serving. And, of course, there might be a live lion or bear. Hopefully, trained.
Romans Loved their Bars
Romans loved their baths, and they also loved their bars. In Pompeii, as many as 120 bars have been discovered. So what were they like?
Roman bars opened to the street with a large service counter at the very front for to-go drinks and food. Inside, there was room to eat and drink, with a kitchen area to cook. Eating at a tavern would have been much more enjoyable than eating in a cramped top-floor apartment. The physical bars had built-in container inserts, and it's unclear what they might have been for.
Their wine was stronger than ours and was typically watered down with three parts of water per one part of wine. However, at banquets, straight wine was mixed with water to the drinker's taste. Perhaps this was done at some fancier bars. Honey was often added to Roman wine to sweeten its acrid taste.
The wine could have been served at room temperature or heated up. Heated wine was a common Roman favorite.
The Roman Games Could Upset the Crowd, Or Make the Host Unpopular
The Roman games were a bloodletting sport. The most common attraction was the fight of man versus beast. Often large cats did the trick. But the elite who threw these games — those who produced the games were called the editor — needed to be careful as to what they chose.
The great general Pompey notoriously botched one such event by bringing 17 or 20 elephants into the arena for one of his shows. The elephants were brought out one by one while men hurled spears into the beast. But the elephant put up a tremendous fight, using its trunk to smash their shields in the air even while it was crawling on its knees.
The other elephants, watching behind iron gates to wait their turn, roared and butted their heads against their cage, then wailed in despair when they couldn't break through. The crowd turned on Pompey, jeering and cursing him.
These games could sway public opinion of an editor, so creating the best possible spectacle was important. The games were one of the main places that the true voice of the people could be heard en masse.
The Games Were Intense
The gladiator games were structured with animal fights during the morning (this could be animal vs. animal or animal vs. person), executions during the midday, with the main event of gladiatorial combat happening last (although probably not at night, since lighting would have been an issue).
The games included a good deal of theatrics, one of the coolest being huge underground lifts and trap doors, which would carry up exotic beasts. Alison Futrell in "The Roman Games" theorizes that the editor would make some kind of distraction, causing the crowd to look another way while an animal was being produced from below. When the audience looked back to the arena floor, it would seem like the beast came from nowhere.
Gladiators Were Wearing Stage Armor
There were about two dozen types of gladiators, with each one wearing specific armor and wielding certain weapons. The most iconic gladiator is the murmillo, who wore a nautical-style helmet, a gladius and a tall shield.
But if you think about it, wearing that helmet (its official name is the cassis crista) is completely nonsensical. It was never used in actual military combat, anywhere.
"It was worn only in the arena," says Ryan. "Gladiatorial armor in general was heavily stylized, and designed to encourage combat that was both balanced and fun to watch."
This armor wasn't entirely for show. The leather and bronze did offer protection, but the armor was not primarily designed to keep the wearer safe, as it was in the Roman army.
Part of making the games fun to watch was also training these gladiators the right way.
The Games Were Likely Not Fixed
People have long speculated whether or not the games were fixed. We're not entirely sure, but it seems that they usually weren't. If any Roman thought the games were fixed, they would do well to keep that to themselves. The emperor Domintan, upon hearing someone in the crowd claim the games were rigged, had the man thrown into the arena and torn apart by wild dogs.
We do know that gladiators were trained in a way to deal and parry specific blows in what was essentially gladiator school. This could, in effect, produce a series of strikes and counter-strikes that would look awesome to the crowd, but were not done just to harm the opponent. We do know for sure that gladiators fought and died on the Colosseum floor.
Gladiators Were Trained to Die
During gladiator school, the fighters were trained to properly deal a lethal blow and how to properly take one. After a bloody battle, if a gladiator were too injured to continue and the editor called for the final blow, he would steel his face and not flinch, waiting for the blade or spear to enter his heart.
However, gladiators were an investment. They weren't always killed in combat, but it certainly happened. One historian, George Villes, estimated that out of 100 bouts, there would be 19 fatalities. Villes also believes that these odds became even worse for gladiator mortality in the second and third centuries, with gladiator death rates climbing to 25 percent.
The Thumbs Down From 'Gladiator' Was Real
The 2000 film "Gladiator" made famous the thumbs-down gesture which would seal a gladiator's fate. In the movie, when combat was finished, with one man on the ground, the gladiators dramatically turn to the game's sponsor (in the movie's case, the emperor Commodus), waiting for a thumbs down or thumbs up, with a thumbs up meaning the man was spared.
This is actually pretty much exactly what happened during a real gladiatorial bout.
In real life, the fallen gladiator would "raise a finger as a sign of submission," according to Ryan. The referee — yes, there were referees — would stop the fight. The crowd would cheer for what fate they wanted to see, so you'd be either actively calling for the death of someone or for their life to be spared. The editor (which in Rome was often the emperor, notes Ryan) would then either give the thumbs-down signal or extend two fingers for mercy.
"Mercy seems to have almost always been given to a man who fought bravely, although some gladiatorial combats advertised 'no mercy' matches to excite the crowd's interest," says Ryan.
The Games Were Advertised Like Huge Movies
Today, some movies are given enormous advertising budgets, with some production companies shelling out millions for billboards and life-sized cardboard cutouts to hock their latest flick. The gladiator games did the same kind of thing 2,000 years ago.
When an emperor or editor really wanted to make a splash, they would have full-sized murals of famous gladiators painted on walls and pass written advertisements out to the populace. And these advertisements might also mention some amenities, like sun-shielding awnings, to attract more visitors, according to Ryan.
But that's not all. The emperor Augustus once "displayed crocodiles and their handlers in a specially designed enclosure to advertise his games," says Ryan.
The night before the games, the editor would host a feast for the gladiators for the public, and the fighters would gorge on what may be their last meal.
The Games Were Hugely Expensive
Like a blockbuster film, the games were insanely expensive. Caesar spent lavishly on games to finance his political career. In that respect, they could be seen as massive rallies. Here's what Plutarch had to say in "Caesar":
"[Caesar] spent money recklessly, and many people thought he was purchasing a moment's brief fame at an enormous price, whereas in reality he was buying the greatest place in the world at inconsiderable expense. We are told, for instance, that before entering upon public office, he was 1,300 talents* in debt."
Caesar's games were monumental spectacles. During one spectacle, Caesar outfitted 320 gladiators with silver armor and had them "fighting in a single combat," according to Plutarch. And of course, importing all those animals from Africa — including poor giraffes, which nearly always died before boats reached Rome's shore — was incredibly expensive.
There were other reasons to throw games as well. The games were often thrown by the elite not just for a reputation boost, but also to honor a dead relative. While there was no official obligation to do so, many plutocrats went deep into debt financing these games. But if you were a pleb, at least you had some entertainment at their expense.
*A talent was a measurement of weight in gold or silver of 100 pounds. From this instance, we can infer that Caesar was millions of dollars in debt by the time he ascended to emperor.
If You Were Really Bad, You Might Get Thrown Into the Arena
Those midday executions needed a steady supply of warm bodies, but luckily Rome was full of terrible people. Ryan says the people found sentenced to death in the arena would be "the lowest of the low — slaves, barbarians and dregs of the criminal underworld." Poor Romans who committed serious crimes like murder could also end up there, too.
There were several ways to kill a man in the arena. Damnatio ad bestias, or death by wild beasts, was one method, although it probably wasn't too common, says Ryan. Exotic animals "were expensive and didn't always cooperate," he says, which could make for a poor show.
Some men were thrown unarmed or poorly armed into the arena to "fight" gladiators to the death. Others may find themselves condemned to gladiator school, where they would meet their fate in the arena longer down the road, or leave mutilated and scarred after earning their freedom.
If You Were Crazy, You Could Become a Gladiator
While gladiators could become famous, they were social outcasts. Being a gladiator meant giving up freedom. You were enslaved to the lanista, the person who purchased and managed gladiators. You gave an oath and surrendered your body to the lanista, allowing them to subject you to grueling and painful training. The lanista told you where to go, what to do, where to eat and when to do so. Most gladiators were criminals or slaves, but some entered the schools as free men.
It's not impossible to see why some men would take this path, especially if they were already wholly destitute. The most successful gladiators became living legends and had murals painted of them, poems written about them, and a much wider selection of women (or men) to choose from. While gladiators earned money for their fights, some free men actually declined pay, which helped preserve their dignity and some of their social status.
Most People Did Not Want to Be Gladiators
While the idea of gladiators is romantic, in reality, it was absolutely terrifying. Some chose suicide rather than give their lives to pleasure a bloodthirsty crowd. Because of this, and also because gladiators would try to escape, guards watched gladiators at all times — except when they went to the bathroom.
There is one recorded case of a gladiator going to the toilets, grabbing the communal toilet sponge, and stuffing it down his throat until he choked to death. In "Moral Letters to Lucilius," Seneca the Younger praises the man for his bravery and ingenuity:
"Yes, indeed; it was not a very elegant or becoming way to die; but what is more foolish than to be over-nice about dying? ... Cut off from resources on every hand, he yet found a way to furnish himself with death, and with a weapon for death. Hence you can understand that nothing but the will need postpone death. Let each man judge the deed of this most zealous fellow as he likes, provided we agree on this point — that the foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery."
There Were Female Gladiators
While it was uncommon for women to enter into the Roman games, there is evidence of it happening.
Martial appears to write about a female fighter killing a lion during one of Caesar's games, while the emperor Domitian had women fight under torchlight in one of his spectacles.
However, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus, who ruled from 193 to 211 A.D., outlawed all women from fighting in the arena.
Chariot Racing Was Extremely Popular
While great gladiators became rich and famous, so too did great chariot drivers. Chariot racing was the most popular sport of the Romans. There were four chariot-racing teams: green, white, blue and red. Each team had their own fanatical fans who gathered together in the stands to cheer on their team, just like modern-day sports.
A typical race consisted of 12 chariots with three chariots to a team. These chariots were typically pulled by four horses and had one driver, although some chariots had two drivers, and sometimes a spectacular chariot with 10 horses would make an appearance.
The most popular seats were near the sharpest turn, a place where chariot racers had the highest likelihood of spills and crashes, which the Romans called "shipwrecks." Horse legs would snap between wheel spokes, and the carriage would follow the driver as he was hurled into the air, crushing him after he struck the ground.
In Rome, all of this took place in the great Circus Maximus, which was greatly expanded by Julius Caesar during his reign and could hold 150,000 to 200,000 spectators.
There Was a Lot of Money to be Made in the Races
Good chariot racers would be rewarded with a share of the purse from their respective team. Like gladiators, most chariot drivers were slaves. But the money was much better, which is why some manumitted slaves kept racing.
More people bet on chariot racing, allowing chariot racers to also gamble on the winnings. One chariot racer, Scorpus, made "15 heavy bags of gold" in one hour, according to Martial in his "Epigrams." Another, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, made more than 35 million sesterces in prizes.
The best chariot racers wouldn't just stick around on one team. They would move between teams, racking up victories for each color. The red and white teams eventually emerged as the most prestigious racing companies and could afford the best chariot drivers.
The Mock Sea Battles Were Incredible
Caesar, always looking to keep the Roman public impressed with his games, created the first "mock' naval battle, the naumachia, in 46 B.C. But it wasn't really a mock battle. The encapsulated war was very real.
The first naumachia was an enormous event and heavily advertised, with people coming from all over Italy to attend. An artificial lake was excavated for this battle, requiring enormous amounts of manpower and water. When game day finally came, so many people showed up to the artificial lake in the Campus Martius that two senators were crushed by the crowd.
This battle was fought with fleets of ships powered by 4,000 oarsmen with 1,000 men fighting on each side. The men sent to fight in these battles were prisoners of war and men condemned to death. Here, though, they may have had a fighting chance, as the convicted were likely released from their death sentence.
Over a century later, emperor Claudius staged a sea battle with 19,000 fighters and hundreds of ships. He granted the surviving men their freedom.
Romans Loved Their Dogs
Romans loved their dogs, and even had "beware of dog" signs, just like we do. Common pets included the Melitan, a lapdog imported from Carthage. The Romans also favored the Molossus, a large dog breed that is believed to be the ascendants of Mastiffs.
Their "beware of dog" signs were mainly paintings or mosaics of the animal and are preserved in Pompeii. Dogs were leashed and had collars. The Zoninus collar is perhaps the most famous of all ancient collars as it still had a tag, with the inscription, "I have run away; hold me. When you bring me back to my master, Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin."
Scholars are not sure if the iron collar belonged to a slave or a dog, since the ring itself is so small.
You Might See Something Crawling from the Sewers
The Roman sewers were a modern marvel. They were also a good way for animals to make their way from the sea to the city, at least according to Aelian, a Greek writer who lived in Rome.
Aelian tells a tale of an octopus in Pozzuoli, who grew tired of the food in the sea and made its way up the sewers and into a merchant's home, where it crushed jars of pickled fish to bits and gobbled them up. The octopus was too large for one man to take on and had to be killed by several men armed with knives.
It's probably not true, although it might be the first instance of an urban myth about creatures living in the sewers.
If you'd like to know more fun facts about the ancient Romans, check out professor Garrett Ryan's website toldinstone.com and his YouTube channel.
The Romans Worshiped Many Gods
Pre-Christian Romans (those before 313 A.D.) worshiped the Olympian gods like Jupiter, Bacchus, Mercury, Mars, Apollo, etc., but they also prayed to very specific and localized spirits.
The Romans believed everything had a spirit, or was guarded by a spirit. Trees had a spirit, as did rivers. Fields were guarded by spirits, and there were household gods. The cupboard had a spirit and so did the fireplace. Each household was protected by a god, a lar, and a shrine to this god was established in each household.
So you likely had some kind of shrine to worship your household god. The bigger, the better, not only to appease the spirit but also to display your wealth and thus your civic honor.
They Prayed Differently Than We Do
All of these spirits were formless and only had influence over what was directly around them. Therefore, Romans prayed to spirits that were close to them and their place of work. Since the Romans had no way of knowing if a spirit was male or female, they would address it as "god or goddess" so as not to misgender the spirit. Doing so would give the god good reason to ignore the person praying.
Some spirits required more than prayer. For example, a farmer who wanted to plow land would sacrifice a pig to the presiding spirit in order to appease the field god for disturbing its sanctuary. Author Jo Ann Shelton in "As the Romans Did" says Roman prayer was "very legalistic" more than anything else, with Romans covering their bases and closing as many loopholes as possible (like saying both "god" or "goddess").
Establishing peace with the gods was the Roman's main religious mission.
The Romans Imported and Adopted Gods
Romans didn't just import goods from around the world. They imported gods, too. During their second war with Carthage in 205 B.C.E., the Romans ushered in the agrarian goddess Cybele, an important god in Asia Minor, for help.
They did this by bringing a black meteoric stone from Phyrgia, which symbolized the goddess. The stone was passed to Roman matrons, who carried it along the city streets, where Romans lit incense and prayed for the goddess to enter their city. Games were held, and that day, April 4, was declared a Roman holiday.
The Romans called Cybele "Magna Mater," meaning great mother, and her holiday was called Megalesia. Like Saturnalia, Megalesia ran for almost a week.
When Romans took over a city, they would pray to that city's gods and invite them to come to join the party in Rome.
The Cult of Cybele Was Nuts
Yet the most interesting thing about the goddess Cybele was not her arrival in the city, but the cult that she brought with her.
For worship, her followers brandished weapons, wore plumed headdresses, beat drums, blew horns, blew whistles, clashed symbols, danced and staged mock battles. Cybele's priests, the Galli, had to be castrated. Romans had no idea the cult was this insane and were actively horrified by them.
One of the rituals associated with the cult of Cybele was bathing in the blood of a slaughtered bull. The bull was washed and consecrated with grains and water and placed on a holed plank set above a pit. A person wearing a white robe would enter the pit. The bull's throat would be slashed, and the blood would pour into a pot or vat. When the last drops hit the pool of blood, the vat was pushed over, drenching the worshipper below.
Presumably, all of this is happening while the cult is frantically dancing. Atia in HBO's "Rome" undergoes this ritual.
At least this was in private. During the "Dies Sanguinis," or Day of Blood, cultists flogged themselves raw, flicking their blood onto altars, and it was said that this is where the Galli castrated themselves. At least, that's one theory. There's not a lot of solid evidence to back up the Day of Blood. The bathing in bull's blood is also circumspect, but there is more evidence for it. What is known is that they threw frenzied, orgiastic rituals which appalled the stoic Romans.
Romans Believed in Magic, Even Witchcraft
Belief in magic in ancient Rome was common, and there are rituals that resemble witchcraft today. Want to make your enemy shut their trap? According to the poet Ovid, here's what you do:
- Find a mouse hole and put three pieces of incense under its entrance.
- Tie some enchanted thread onto some dark-colored lead.
- Put seven beans in your mouth.
- Get a fish head and sew up its mouth with a bronze needle.
- Roast that head over a fire and drizzle some wine on it, then drink the rest of the wine.
Curses were also a way to hurt your enemies. This was done by writing a person's name on a lead tablet and shoving some nails into it, then placing the tablet in the local tombs, thus ensuring they will quickly find their way to the underworld. Magical gemstones were inscribed with lettering and believed to possess some kind of magic properties.
The Health Care Was Awful
The only thing resembling hospitals in ancient Rome would be found on the battlefield, where the wounded would be treated in tents. In Rome itself, there was no such thing as a hospital. So when you were sick or wounded, you'd have to try your luck with a doctor.
And we do mean luck. Doctors in ancient Rome were completely untrained and looked down upon by most of Roman society. Anyone could call themselves a doctor, and the only way to train for it was to follow around another doctor and learn from them. Successful doctors were probably successful because they didn't consistently kill their patients.
Worse still, Rome banned the dissection of corpses, so doctors would not be able to fully grasp the human anatomy.
Bruised? Here's Some Manure
So let's say you were bruised up, possibly from a bar fight or a tumble in Rome's congested streets. A doctor likely would prescribe you the dried manure from a wild boar, which would be rubbed on the wound. Sometimes the manure was boiled in vinegar. And sometimes the manure was used when it was still fresh and smeared on the wounds of chariot racers, who would no doubt be lacerated.
Some Romans believed boar manure had healing effects when powdered and mixed with water or vinegar and could cure cuts and sprains.
Temples Doubled as Banks
Let's say you weren't a day laborer but made your money investing in real estate or a publican squeezing tax money from a conquered province. You wouldn't want your money lying about your domus (or dwelling). You would need to place it somewhere for protection. You wouldn't have to pray for a miracle. The priests had you covered.
Temples in ancient Rome doubled as banks, with basements used as vaults for Rome's elite citizens. The rich would deposit their money with a priest, who would keep tabs on how much you deposited or loaned out. Temples were kept under constant guard, so your money was safe. Although you may want to distribute your wealth to several temples in case of fire.
Men Had Total Familial Power
If you were a male Roman citizen in ancient Rome, then the world was your oyster. Men had absolute power over the familial unit, with the ability to arrange marriages for his children, divorce his wife on a whim, and even reject his newborn child — a Roman father could simply sell a child into slavery, or disown another and expose them at birth (in other words, infanticide).
While very rare, a Roman father could kill his own adult son. It was more common for poor Romans to kill their newborns. Adoption was an option and was legal, but one would need to know a family willing to take on another child.
Women Generally Had No Power
If you were a woman? Then you better pray to the gods for luck. They were expected to marry and produce children (and if they didn't, it was always considered their fault). Women could not vote or have a role in politics, and if their husband died, the next person in line to take over would be a male son.
Because of all this and the cost of dowries, a female child was less desirable than a male son, so female children were more likely to be disowned or sold.
It was a woman's job to run the household while the husband was away. But women could work, too, although their jobs were probably more limited. Tailoring, craftwork, waitressing, midwifing, fish selling, wet nursing and prostitution were common jobs of lower-class women.
To put another perspective on how Romans viewed women — they weren't given their own first name. Instead, their first names were the feminine form of their father's family name.
The Romans Had 'Funeral Clubs'
It's a bit more macabre than "The Breakfast Club," but some lower-class Romans would join a funeral club (or "funeraticium collegium" in Latin) to be able to pay for an honorable funeral. Romans paid an initial fee plus a monthly fee, which was paid during the club's monthly dinners and gave the club a social aspect.
You know, just a bunch of guys, sitting around, brought together by the omnipresent hourglass of death. Sounds like a good time.
These funeral clubs would pay for a member's funeral upon their death (as long as the dues have been paid). They also would send members to retrieve a body if a member died away from home.
Professional Mourners and the Last Trip Outside the City
Dead bodies were not allowed inside the walls of Rome. During the height of the Roman empire, corpses were cremated by pyre and their remains interred in a funerary urn before being taken to a sepulcher or tomb located outside the city. (In the second century, catacombs were excavated underneath Rome and burials were the norm.)
But before the body was burned, a funeral procession carried the body through the streets. The wealthiest (dead) people could afford musicians and actors. There would likely be professional mourners, women who were paid to attend the procession, wail dramatically and tear out their hair. Kind of like when Kim Jong Il died, only these people were paid.
There might even be a eulogy at the Forum for all to hear. And the path from the person's deathbed to the city gates would travel the long way around the city, using major roads for all to see.
Poor people, on the other hand, were carried from A to B quickly, and burned. Those who were in the club were buried in a columbaria , vast underground chambers that numbered in the hundreds outside of the city. Slaves who were too poor to buy their own plot and other undesirables were thrown into the Esquiline necropolis, where their remains apparently just withered away and decayed among the thousands of other bodies, including animal corpses.