11 Misconceptions About Ancient Rome, Debunked

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Released in 1959, Charlton Heston's Ben-Hur is considered one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. Unfortunately, the film helped perpetuate a few mistaken beliefs concerning Rome and her citizenry. With the Ben-Hur remake set to hit theaters on August 19, now seems like a good time to bust some myths.


In his epic poem The Aeneid, Jupiter talks about the future of the Romans as the “masters of the world, the race that wears the toga.” No article of clothing has ever been more synonymous with this ancient culture. Only a Roman citizen could legally wear one, and as years went by, different styles came to be used as a way of displaying the wearer’s socioeconomic status. But for most of Rome’s history, togas were not considered everyday attire.

At first, the toga emphasized function over form. During the Republic’s early days, men, women, and children alike wore these accessories as a kind of durable outerwear. Underneath, they’d don a tunic, which was a sleeved, t-shaped garment that extended from the collar to the knees. Inevitably, though, the region’s fashion standards evolved. By the 2nd century BCE, it became taboo for adult women to put on a toga (prostitutes and adulteresses notwithstanding). Within the next hundred years, the toga turned into a bulky, impractical article of clothing that was mostly reserved for formal occasions like religious services and funerals. In casual environments, the average male Roman citizen would instead wear one of his tunics, sans toga.

Because togas were made with large quantities of costly wool, they were also quite expensive. The Roman poet Juvenal once observed that “there are many parts of Italy, to tell the truth, in which no man puts on the toga until he is dead.” Toward the dawn of the 4th century CE, the toga was more or less replaced by a kind of cloak called the paenula.


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You’ll often hear it said that the Romans created this now-infamous gesture. Supposedly, it was then copied by Adolf Hitler’s devotees many centuries later. The whole myth is so widespread that the motion is sometimes referred to as the “Roman salute.” And yet there’s no historical evidence to suggest that such a greeting was ever used in ancient Rome.

Instead, the salute can probably be traced back to a 1784 painting called The Oath of the Horatii. Created by French Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David, it shows three Roman brothers pledging to defend their homeland. While the men do so, we see that they’ve raised their right arms and extended the fingers. Over the next century, other artists started to portray Romans in this pose and playwrights began writing it into their historical drama scripts.

Mussolini’s Italian Fascist Party later claimed the salutation as its own and celebrated the gesture’s allegedly Roman origins. Inspired by il Duce, Hitler created a German variant for his own fascist organization. “I introduced the salute into the Party at our first meeting in Weimar,” he recalled in 1942. “The S.S. at once gave it a soldierly style.”


But they probably weren’t “Et tu, Brute?” On March 15 in the year 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was murdered by a group of over 60 co-conspirators, one of whom was Marcus Junius Brutus, the son of the dictator’s longtime mistress. The Roman historian Suetonius later wrote that, according to bystanders, Caesar’s dying utterance was “Kai su, teknon?” which means “You too, child?” in Greek. For the record, however, both Suetonius and another scholar named Plutarch believed that when he was slain, the dictator didn’t say anything at all. The world-famous “Et tu, Brute?” line was made up by William Shakespeare.


While it’s true that most gladiators were captives who’d been forced into this dangerous occupation, the lifestyle attracted plenty of freeborn citizens as well—including women. The appeal was plain to see: Like modern wrestlers, successful gladiators frequently became celebrities. A few of them even amassed small fortunes, since winning a big fight could mean taking home a cash prize.

Those who willingly became gladiators were usually impoverished people who sought the financial security that the profession offered. A good number of ex-Roman soldiers signed up as well. To receive training, they’d join what was known as a ludus—gladiator troupes that doubled as rigorous combat schools. The typical ludus was owned by a wealthy politician or former gladiator, who’d rent out his fighters for use in organized shows. Julius Caesar himself once ran a troupe which may have contained up to 1000 gladiators.

Eventually, the government cracked down on freeborn combatants. To help keep young aristocrats out of the fighting pits, the Senate issued an age requirement in 11 CE. This made it illegal for free men who were younger than 25 and free women who hadn’t yet turned 20 from joining a ludus. A subsequent ruling enacted in 19 CE barred all upper-class ladies from becoming gladiators. Then, in 200 CE, Emperor Septimus Severus officially turned this into an all-male sport.


Historian Georges Ville has calculated that during the first century CE, out of 100 fights (and 200 gladiators), 19 gladiators died, giving a death rate of around 10 percent (approximately 20 percent for the loser). By the year 300 CE, however, these confrontations became deadlier. In Ville’s estimation, half of all the man-to-man gladiator fights around that time ended with the loser’s demise.

Even so, those odds still might seem low to contemporary movie fans—after all, in “sword and sandal” flicks, gladiator fights almost always result in at least one fatality. However, Ville’s numbers make a lot more sense when you consider the real-life economics involved. Gladiators were expensive, and if one died in combat or was permanently disabled, the venue paid a steep fine to the owner of his ludus. To help keep the body count down, fighters might receive first-rate medical attention after leaving the arena.

But with that said, the crowd often demanded death. Throughout Roman history, most gladiator duels concluded when one party was rendered too weak or injured to keep fighting. Defeated athletes could surrender by throwing down their weapon or shield, or the loser would extend one arm and point upward. At that point, the bested fighter’s fate would be decided by the presiding event chairman, or editor. Generally, his verdict could be expected to appease the audience, whose cheers and jeers helped determine if the fallen warrior lived to fight another day.


In an iconic sequence from Ben-Hur, we see a group of slaves being forced to row a Roman galley ship at increasingly demanding speeds. While a war beating drum sets the relentless tempo, wandering soldiers mercilessly flog those poor souls who collapse from fatigue. Though the scene is definitely compelling, it’s also inaccurate. Roman galleys were actually powered by paid and well-trained freemen unless absolutely necessary. Frankly, handing this job over to slaves would have been foolish—if a ship were captured, enslaved oarsmen might well side with the enemy and attack their masters.


Posterity remembers Rome’s third emperor as a sadistic, incestuous lunatic and a testament to the dangers of absolute power—but claims about his madness may have been grossly exaggerated. Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus—better known by his nickname, Caligula—began a brief stint as Rome’s supreme leader in 37 CE. His own guards assassinated him just four years later.

Eighty years after the Emperor’s death, our old pal Suetonius published some truly depraved anecdotes about him in an ambitious set of biographies called The Twelve Caesars. At certain points, Suetonius’s Caligula chapter reads like an excerpt from a particularly vile Game of Thrones screenplay. (Among other things, he accuses the dictator of fornicating with his sisters—sometimes, while his dinner guests looked on.)

One often-quoted passage concerns Caligula’s beloved horse, Incitatus. According to Suetonius, the prized steed was kept in a marble stable, given precious jewelry, and waited upon by its very own slaves. Weirder still, the historian writes that Caligula “planned to make him a consul.” If true, this would have been a really strange power move because the consulship was one of the most prestigious offices in Rome.

But Caligula didn’t actually go through with the appointment, and today, some scholars dismiss the whole story as a myth. (Others, however, think the story has some truth, but it wasn’t because Caligula was crazy. As historian Aloys Winterling writes in Caligula: A Biography, “Besides symbolically devaluing the Roman consulars, Caligula’s designation of Incitatus as a consul sent a further message: The emperor can appoint anyone he likes to the consulship.”) Still, it’s often erroneously said that Incitatus became a genuine consul or, at the very least, joined the senate. This misconception was spread by Robert Graves’ classic novel I, Claudius and the wildly successful BBC television series it inspired, both of which depict Incitatus as crazy Caligula’s favorite senator.


It’s hard to find a film or TV show about ancient Rome in which the actors don’t sound like Royal Shakespearean players. The idea that all Romans spoke with an English accent was popularized by such Hollywood classics as 1959’s Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis (1951). A generation later, the aforementioned I, Claudius television series helped reinforce the trope.

So what sort of accent did the ancient Romans really have? The answer might be several. At its height, the Roman empire stretched from Portugal to Persia. Within this vast area, Latin (and Greek) was no doubt spoken through many different accents. As linguistic historian J.N. Adams has argued, “The combination of lexical and phonetic evidence establishes the existence (in e.g. Gaul, Africa, and Italy) of genuine regional varieties.” We also know that some Romans weren’t above snickering at those who pronounced certain words in a non-typical way. The Emperor Hadrian’s noticeable Spanish accent once triggered a chorus of audible laughter when he read an announcement before the senate. Poor guy.


Gratuitous sex scenes filled with writhing masses of toga-clad aristocrats are a standard fixture in movies and TV shows set in ancient Rome. But firsthand accounts of orgies are fairly rare in the annals of Roman texts. As classics professor Alastair Blanshard contends, “There have been more orgies in Hollywood films than there ever were in Rome.” It would appear that—at least to some extent—religious propaganda begat our misapprehensions about the prevalence of wild, Roman sex parties. Medieval Christian writers would often peddle embellished stories of lecherous get-togethers in an attempt to paint the Empire as a morally-bankrupt cesspool.

Still, no modern person would mistake the Romans for prudes. Inside a typical household, married men would regularly have sexual affairs with numerous slaves. On the other hand, public displays of affection were frowned upon—particularly in the days of the old Republic. One senator was even expelled after word got out that he’d kissed his own wife in front of their daughter.


Today, the marble sculptures left behind by the Romans look bone white. Yet, archaeologists have known for over a century that when these sculptures were first created, they received vibrant, multicolored paint jobs. Using a technique known as multispectral imaging, historians can identify the pigments left behind by various paints on ancient statues. With this information, they can tentatively reconstruct an original coat in all its polychromatic glory.

Of course, the ancient paints were mostly washed away by time. Thus, future civilizations assumed that Rome’s wonderful sculptures had always been devoid of color. By and large, Hollywood has followed suit. Virtually all movies that take place in classical Rome are (anachronistically) filled with drab, white statues.


Conventional wisdom holds that Rome simply adopted the Greek gods and gave them new names. What actually happened is a bit more complicated. As Rome grew increasingly enamored with Greek society, comparisons were deliberately made between Greece’s gods and some of the native Italian deities that many Romans already worshiped.

Early Roman religion had its own divine beings, each of whom came with a name and a role. For instance, the supreme god was Jupiter, an impersonal, ambiguously-defined entity that (among other things) controlled the weather. Over time, Rome’s size and influence grew. This expansion put the rising city into regular contact with the Greeks and, by extension, their gods. Gradually, Romans began to equate Italy’s existing deities with their Greek counterparts. Thus, by the third century BCE, Jupiter had transformed into a hybrid of his original Italian self and Zeus, the leader of Mount Olympus. Legends that Greeks traditionally associated with good old Zeus were now repeated as part of Jupiter’s backstory.

Despite this theological interchange, major differences between the Greek and Roman gods persisted. Many scholars have pointed out that the Greek deities were viewed as being more human-like, both in terms of appearance and behavior. Also, some Roman gods occupied slightly different roles than their Olympian equivalents did. Juno is a perfect example. As Jupiter’s wife, the goddess is seen as Rome’s answer to Hera. However, she was also considered the protector of women and childbirth. In Greek tradition, that job was more associated with Artemis (whose Roman analogue was called Diana) and not with Hera.