10 Facts You Probably Don’t Know about Ancient Rome

10 Facts You Probably Don’t Know about Ancient Rome

For the Glory of Rome

1. How big was the Roman Empire?

The Roman Empire at its peak. Photo Credit: Tataryn via Wiki Commons

The Roman Empire at its peak. Photo Credit: Tataryn via Wiki Commons

Over its history, the empire saw periods of wealth and stability and periods of unrest and civil war. The size of the Roman Empire was actually at its peak during the reign of Trajan. While not as famous today as other Roman emperors, Trajan was a skilled soldier turned beloved ruler. He was respected in his time and is one of the few Roman rulers who still benefits from a positive reputation.

2. It wasn’t always an empire.

Nowadays, we are very familiar with the concept of a Roman Empire as many of its rulers became some of the most famous people in Antiquity. However, before this, Rome was a republic for 500 years, ruled by a government headed by consuls and advised by the Senate. And before this Rome was a kingdom for 250 years, but information from that time is scarce and what little we do know has often been mixed with myth and legend. We’ve actually talked before of how Rome’s Senate planned Caesar’s assassination in the hope of saving the Republic when, in reality, it all but guaranteed its demise.

3. Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

Ancient ruins of Herculaneum with the modern city of Ercolano behind it and Mount Vesuvius in the background. Photo Credit: Qfl247 via Wiki Commons

Ancient ruins of Herculaneum with the modern city of Ercolano behind it and Mount Vesuvius in the background. Photo Credit: Qfl247 via Wiki Commons

This is pretty common knowledge – Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii and burying it under a layer of ash. However, what often gets overlooked is the fact that Pompeii wasn’t the only city destroyed by the eruption. Another prominent Roman city called Herculaneum was also destroyed, as well as several smaller towns like Stabiae and Oplontis.

4. Rome also had dictators.

However, they weren’t really like we picture dictators today. They were chosen and appointed only during times of military or internal instability. They were, indeed, given extraordinary powers that basically said they could do whatever they wanted, but they were only allowed to serve for a period of six months. Even so, it was customary for the dictator to relinquish power as soon as the crisis had been averted. It was also possible for someone to serve as dictator more than once. Marcus Furius Camillus was elected dictator five times, more than anyone else (apart from Caesar, but he’s a special case).

5. The Roman Colosseum is still the largest amphitheatre in the world.

Photo Credit: Bjf via WIki Commons

Photo Credit: Bjf via WIki Commons

Built over a 10-year period between 70-80 AD, the Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, had an estimated capacity ranging anywhere from 50,000 to 87,000. Famously, it was used for gladiatorial fights, but it was also used to recreate fights, to exhibit dramas, to stage animal hunts etc. The events were generally categorized as either ludi or munera. Ludi were public games organized by the state while munera were public works organized and paid for by wealthy citizens.

6. Gladiators weren’t always slaves.

Sometimes free men would willingly give up their status in order to become gladiators. This was most likely done for the money and, although they were basically giving up their life, fights to the death weren’t nearly as common as you might expect. Gladiatorial fights were public events paid for by the Roman elite (munera) and the death of a gladiator could be very costly.

7. Certain emperors fought in the arena.

Commodus_Musei_Capitolini_MC1120

Hadrian, Titus, Caligula and others have all been reported to have fought as gladiators. Obviously, they have done so under strict supervision so there was never any chance of them being harmed. Out of them all, the most famous example was Commodus. If you saw the movie Gladiator then the name will be familiar to you, but the real life Commodus was way more insane than his movie counterpart. He believed himself to be a demigod, the reincarnation of Hercules to be exact. That’s why most surviving statues of him feature Commodus wearing the pelt of a lion, like Hercules did after slaying the Nemean Lion. That is also why he took part in gladiatorial fights where he would either slay animals from the safety of a platform (he was reportedly a very good marksman) or beat up and kill wounded or sickly fighters.

8. They really liked purple.

For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, purple remained a color associated with royalty and this is mostly due to the Romans’ love for this particular color. Specifically, we are talking about a dye called Tyrian Purple that was extremely expensive and extremely rare so it was more of a status symbol than just a simple color. The Romans didn’t invent it, but the color became very popular with them and, typically, only the Roman elite had togas and ceremonial clothes dyed in this color.

9. They had something a lot bigger than the Colosseum.

Circus Maximus replica on the left and the Colosseum at the far right. Photo Credit: Pascal Radigue

Circus Maximus replica on the left and the Colosseum at the far right. Photo Credit: Pascal Radigue

We already talked about it and how it’s the largest amphitheatre in the world and used for gladiator fights, but the Romans had something a lot bigger – Circus Maximus. This venue measured over 2,000 ft in length (620 m) and modern historians claim it had a capacity of 150,000, although Pliny the Elder gives us a capacity of 250,000. Nowadays it is a public park which is still occasionally used for concerts and celebrations. Back then it was used for a sport which was way more popular than gladiator fights – chariot racing.

10. Charioteers made a lot of money.

If you think modern athletes are overpaid, they’ve got nothing on Gaius Appuleius Diocles. Successful charioteers usually made a lot of money and records point to Diocles being the most successful of all time. He started racing when he was 18, retired at age 42 with over 1,450 wins under his belt. His total winnings amount to almost 36 million sesterces which, in modern currency, would mean around $15 billion.

 

 

Featured image courtesy of David Iliff. License CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wiki Commons.