10 things you thought you knew about the Romans . . . but didn't
I shall be replying to the flood of comments about the last post on the Greek fires by the by (though let me say here and now that something very odd happened in the translation of my post on the Greek website that so many people saw!). But meanwhile to happier topics. A fellow blogger suggests that we classicists tend to keep too many secrets about the ancient world to ourselves. So let me share a few.
Here are 10 things you thought you knew about the Romans but didn’t. 10 myths about the Romans exploded…!
1) JULIUS CAESAR’S LAST WORDS WERE ‘ET TU BRUTE’
Well, only in Shakespeare’s version of the assassination. Probably our best ancient source is Suetonius and he records the words as (in Greek) “kai su teknon” – or “you too my child”. What this means, in fact, isn’t so clear. If it is has a question mark, it smacks of quizzical, dying desperation. Give it an exclamation mark and it becomes a threat (“they’ll get you too kid…”).
2) ROME WAS BUILT ON SEVEN HILLS.
Some serious miscalculation here. Palatine, Aventine, Capitoline, Janiculan, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Pincian, Vatican. That’s 10 for a start. Though it all depends I suppose, on what you call a hill.
3) ROMANS HAD ‘VOMITORIA’ TO BE SICK IN BETWEEN COURSES AT LAVISH DINNERS
Sorry. This is an old one, But vomitoria were the exit routes which spewed people out of the amphitheatres.
4) ROMAN MEN DRESSED IN TOGAS
OK sometimes they did. But it was very formal wear – and it’s a bit like saying ‘Englishmen wear dinner jackets’. Actually you’d have seen all kinds of dress on the Roman street, from tunics to trousers -- and, just to confuse things, prostitutes in togas. (Here’s a neat article which sets this one straight.)
5) NERO FIDDLED WHILE ROME BURNED
Not if you mean that he sat around ineffectually twiddling his thumbs while the city went up in flames. Actually what Nero did was fiddle in another sense: he played the violin (or so it was said).
Five more after the jump. . .
6) THE PLEBEIANS WERE THE ROMAN POOR
OK Romans, just like us, did sometimes use the word ‘plebeian’ or ‘plebs’ for the ‘great unwashed’ (literally ‘sordida plebs’). But in the strict sense both ‘plebeian’ and ‘patrician’ were old hereditary divisions of the Roman people. These may once have signalled the poor/powerless versus the rich/powerful. But by the time of the later Republic there were enormously rich plebeians – like Marcus Licinius Crassus, the plutocrat who famously said that you couldn’t be counted as rich if you couldn’t raise your own private army.
7) GLADIATORS SAID ‘HAIL CAESAR, THOSE ABOUT TO DIE SALUTE THEE’ BEFORE EACH SHOW
This favourite phrase is actually attested only once in classical antiquity – and not at a gladiatorial show. It was apparently spoken by the participants at a mock naval battle laid on outside Rome by the emperor Claudius. I tried to lay this particular myth to rest in the book on the Colosseum I wrote with Keith Hopkins – but not with much success I fear.
8) WHEN THE ROMANS FINALLY DESTROYED CARTHAGE IN 146 BCE, THEY PLOUGHED SALT INTO ITS SOIL -- TO MAKE IT COMPLETELY BARREN
This is slightly trickier ground, but I know of no ancient writer who says this. It’s a view that got common currency thanks to an article by B Hallward in the first edition of the Cambridge Ancient History – and he gives no ancient reference.
9) THE ROMANS WERE MUCH SMALLER THAN US
Depends on who you mean by ‘us’. The skeletons found in Pompeii and Herculaneum actually suggest that the Roman inhabitants were on average a bit taller than the modern Neapolitans.
10) HADRIAN BUILT HIS WALL TO KEEP THE BARBARIANS OUT OF THE PROVINCE OF BRITANNIA
Only if he was a military idiot. A good proportion of it is built only in turf anyway, which wouldn’t have deterred many self respecting barbarians. Even if the rest was in stone, it is now thought much more likely that the whole thing was administrative (for customs levying perhaps) – and to help east-west communications.
And that’s only the first ten!