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5 Things You Might Not Know about the Ancient Romans

Illustration of Famous colonnade of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican, Rome, Italy
Vladimir Sazonov/Shutterstock

Asking someone to explain what Ancient Rome was is sort of like asking, “what’s a dog?” It’s just…it’s a dog, yeah? We’re all so familiar with the concept that the answer is too obvious to articulate. But what do we really know?

Well, there will always be lots of gaps, but the Ancient Romans, unlike loads of other mostly lost ancient cultures, really dug posterity and wrote loads of things down. Accounting for the shortcomings of autobiography, we actually should know quite a bit.

However, you don’t investigate things you think you already know. So, to whet your appetite for learning more about the ancient world, here are five things that—hey, maybe you know these facts about the Ancient Romans, and maybe you don’t. I don’t know what you know. But these bits are certainly less commonly mentioned in a discussion of the Romans.

Also, nota bene: we’re talking about a big place with lots of people over nearly 1,000 years (the Roman Republic began around 509 BCE, and the Empire proper collapsed around 476 CE). Under this burden of time and scale, even the “factiest” facts become more like slices of life—samplings of time and place.

Roman Sanitation Wasn’t So Great

I’ll say this for the Ancient Romans: they knew how to move water around (and lots of other things, like soldiers, food for soldiers, etc.). But did they know how to make that water clean?

No. It’s not their fault—they didn’t have germ theory or understand how diseases worked. These folks were working off of the Greeks’ four-humors system that would stay popular throughout the medieval period. If you were sick, you must have had some imbalance of your black or yellow biles, blood, or phlegm. Diseases, thus, came from within the body, not from the world.

That’s a shame, because, aside from public baths, which were kind of nice, the Romans also had latrinae—public toilets. And not onesie public toilets with dividers, but more like a gang-toilet setup. Just a long bench with holes in it that just sort of dropped straight into sewage canals.

Honestly, that still sounds pretty good to me, considering most people back then probably had to dig little graves for every B.M. they took. But Roman restrooms were still quite a few steps down from your average restaurant bathroom.

One thing they did have back then is something we still have today: archaeologists have surmised that the Ancient Romans probably missed the hole a lot, so all the “seats” would’ve been pretty gnarly—just like today!

Another similarity: bathroom wall graffiti jokes. With minimal scientific knowledge, the stanky miasma of the latrinae, coupled with folks getting sick and the odd sewer rat biting an ass cheek, people were superstitious about using the public toilets. Laughter, meanwhile, was thought to ward off demons (and perhaps warn toilet rats that you’re not a dead person yet). Ipso facto: you carve jokes into the latrinae walls to help your fellow scatters. Another famous carving: Fortuna, goddess of luck (not to be confused with Bib Fortuna, Jabba the Hutt’s translator). Today, you can still hear her whisper in dive-bar toilets.

Oh, and it appears that the Romans weren’t bashful about all wiping with a shared sponge on a stick. I would posit that there’s not much point in putting a nasty thing on a stick if you’re just gonna rub it on yourself anyway, but what do I know?

Urine, Urine, Everywhere

We’re not out of the woods with the scatological stuff yet (soon). Fortunately, for the ancient Romans, you didn’t need to hit the public petri dish every time you had to do a number I.

No matter how poor you got in a Roman city, chances are you’d always have a pot to piss in. They lined the streets with said pots, you see—and presumably placed extra pots around popinae (wine bars) if they knew what they were doing.

But why? Well, my friend—to learn that, you must simply follow the pee. Topped-off pots would be taken (carefully!) to the fullonica, or laundry place, where the urine would be cut with water and poured all over dirty clothes once it was good and stale. At this point, a worker—presumably a teenager, because they need to build character—would agitate the laundry by stomping on it like grapes in a bucket.

The interesting thing is, the Romans knew all about soap, which even early Europeans were familiar with. But old pee contains ammonia, which was far tougher on stains. And, it is why the Romans also used it for mouthwash.

C Was Generally Pronounced like K

Sign of "Via Appia Antica", an ancient roman road in Rome, Italy
Martina Badini/Shutterstock

Latin’s a dead language, so there aren’t many people left to complain about our modern mispronunciations. Fortunately, researchers still care about accuracy, and the Romans left us a written record regarding their pet peeves regarding contemporary mispronunciations.

Also, and this will seem totally illogical to native English speakers: Latin was phonetic. Because the Latin alphabet was designed for Latin, rather than adapted for, say, a Germanic language that was then further mixed with a Romance language (i.e., English), the letters are what they are.

A prime example of this is the letter c. The c, in classical Latin, was always pronounced like our hard k. Other notable differences: the Romans considered u and to be the very same letter, and and j did not exist—instead, u and i could act as consonants.

As Germanic folks in the medieval period used Latin, they made some tweaks (e.g., sometimes writing vv or even to represent the English w  sound for non-Latin names).

The takeaway is that, while we write “Julius Caesar” and say “JOO-lee-us SEE-zer,” the original spelling would be more like “Iulius Caesar,” pronounced “YOO-lee-us KYE-sahr”—a lot closer to the derived German “Kaiser.”

Of course, that’s not taking into account the fact that there were many dialects spanning such a vast empire over a significant period. Then there was Vulgar Latin, with other differences. At any rate, nobody really nails it today: we Anglicize it, the Catholic Church italicizes it, and all the folks who grew up speaking it are dust.

Gladiators Didn’t Usually Fight to the Death

Gladiators of Colosseum in Rome, Flavian Amphitheatre
David Gonzalez Rebollo/Shutterstock

I love the movie Gladiator (and also Prometheus—I don’t care what everyone says; Ridley Scott is a genius), but it takes some necessary liberties with history to give us what we need for a tense story.

While the gladiator’s arena certainly was a fun way to kill prisoners and exotic animals, the actual gladiators were not so expendable. Consider each gladiator as an athlete. Now, that athlete might be a slave, but it only makes them more profitable to their owner.

Being a dominus/domina, or master, meant investing a lot of time and money into promising gladiators—housing, feeding, training, etc. You simply can’t recoup those losses if your gladiator is murdered in the pit on their first go.

Far more ideally, a trainer would keep his gladiators alive through their fights, hoping to gain some fandom, and thereby increase the return on investment. But how do you keep gladiators alive?

Well, for one, don’t invite an evil Joaquin Phoenix Caesar to call for a death blow after every fight. Let the fighters duke it out some, but end things after one (or both) have tallied up a sufficiently visible set of superficial bleeding wounds to sate the crowd.

To that end, some precautions would increase the likelihood of wounds that looked brutal but were survivable. Consider the gladiators’ low-rent diet of bean and barley mash—cheap carb-loading meant to pack on subcutaneous fat around the midsection. It’s a diet very similar to that afforded to web content writers, and it means you can take cuts to the torso without spilling your guts or nicking vitals, and thus elate your patrons.

Here’s another cool trick they had: after a fight, rather than calling for one gladiator to dispatch the other, they’d call a doctor. Wild, right? And, as these were sometimes high-status (albeit enslaved) athletes, they’d often get the best doctors (for Ancient Rome, anyway).

Also consider this: the Romans knew how to quickly and efficiently kill enemies, given their military prowess and carefully considered battlefield tactics. They knew all about stabbing people with short swords to kill them very quickly, and how to use the massive scutum to avoid getting hit back. Often, however, gladiators had different sets of gear. Perhaps they used shorter knives or favored slashing over thrusting—which makes for a nice ugly show but with diminished lethality. That’s a bit of my own interpretation, anyway.

All that said, sure, someone probably died roughly one out of nine times in the gladiator fights, but that’s pretty similar to modern rugby (no; not really). Accidents happen, even in blood sports.

Decimation is Generally Misunderstood

Anyone comfortable in the English language is probably familiar with the word decimate. Of those, I think there are two main camps: those who believe it means the total destruction of a force or number, but without knowing the etymology of the word; and those who are aware of the Roman military context, and remember learning the word in school.

For the latter, it’s often learned in this context: the Roman military was the strongest the world had ever seen. Why? Among other reasons (like reliable supply trains and logistics): discipline. And, there is perhaps no greater example of Roman adherence to discipline than the practice of decimation, in which a group of Roman soldiers would be forced to beat to death one-tenth of their own, chosen at random, as punishment for not fighting in a war with sufficient gusto.

The former understanding is incorrect, and the latter simply overstates the commonality of decimation. By definition, decimation is the removal of one-tenth of a force, hence the word having the same route as decimal. Yeah, there’s like a third-string definition now, in which decimation indicates total destruction, but that has more to do with the cart leading the mule when it comes to how language tends to work—common usage often dictates definition, even when the people get it wrong.

The truth is, by the time that Dionysius of Halicarnassus described it in his writings in the fifth century BCE, decimation was already an “ancestral punishment.” That could either mean that it had been done but not for a while, or that it was just a bit of myth about how brutal things used to be, kind of like how we think of decimation today.

Whether Dionysius was correct or not, I don’t know. Still, the myth alone was enough for general Marcus Licinius (remember: it’s pronounced LiKinius) Crassus to revive it to some degree in 71 BCE, when quashing Spartacus’ slave revolt.

Otherwise, it probably was not very common. Think about it: a general would have to do some math before deciding to remove one-tenth of one of his own legions. Would it be worth it? Would he stand to lose more to mutiny or desertion if he didn’t instill some fear? Did he inspire so little loyalty that he had to resort to fear? I can’t imagine decimation would serve to boost soldier morale, so it all feels very last resort. Even if a decimation might kick a unit into shape, that shape would still be 90 percent of its former size, which would later need to be replenished.

Crassus apparently did that math and decided it was worth it to kill 4,000 of his own soldiers for their failures against the Spartacans. It’d appear that, in some cases, the math worked out: Crassus had demonstrated to his soldiers that he was more dangerous to them than the Spartacans. With that bit of motivation, they beat 10,000 Spartacans, killing two-thirds of them.

Soon after, in another engagement, Crassus surrounded Spartacus and killed 6,000 Spartacans when they tried to break through. Crassus lost only three men, with another seven wounded. So, that’s an argument for decimation (if you believe the numbers there). Still, Crassus is first and foremost famous for those decimations; the wins are further reading.

Decimation was costly, and therefore uncommon. For all we know, it may have been a scary story until Crassus’ iron fist made the dream a reality. For his trouble (and his historic avarice), Crassus has been immortalized as a blight of a man—so, decimation may have had some hidden costs.

Further reading:

Alex Johnson Alex Johnson
Alex Johnson is a freelance writer who has been writing professionally for over 12 years but has been a critical geek for nearly 34. He also writes history books with curse words in them. Read Full Bio »