What are the darkest secrets of ancient Rome?
Here are my top ten darkest secrets from ancient Rome.
I. Infants were left to die outside the city gates.
With a rich tradition of the city’s founders being left to die, exposure of unwanted children seemed to receive a tacit seal of approval.
In a world where women (in particular, poor women, prostitutes, and those whose husbands refused to acknowledge the woman’s child as legitimate) had no real legal standing per se, the unwanted children of said women would be left outside the Esquiline gates, along with sick or dying slaves, pets, homeless, what have you. (The gate is to the far east on the map below.)
Here’s what stands there today.
Sometimes slave dealers would save a newborn from death by exposure, but only to sell it once it became viable.
We’ll come back to slavery.
II. Patriarchs had the power of life and death over their entire household.
A leftover from the “good ol’ days” of Rome’s early years, when the mythical men had been tougher and more self reliant, this law was probably instituted since there was no police force in Rome, and the soldiers were also citizens, causing the power structure to look a little wonky. So the oldest male relative of a family could put any member of his family to death with good reason. We can see this play out in the story of the Oath of the Horatii. We aren't going to talk about the Oath, but it’s fascinating. Here’s a picture and a link that will hopefully inspire you to read more about it.
In this cautionary moralistic account, a Roman soldier, Horatius, returns to Rome after defeating the enemy (Alba Longa), to find his sister, Camilla, mourning the death of her fiancé, whom Horatius had killed in combat. He killed her, saying, “Let the same fate befall any Roman woman who mourns an enemy of Rome,” and was acquitted. Here is Horatius fresh from sororicide.
And while we’re on the subject of slaying siblings…
III. Fratricide was not illegal.
Since the city’s founder, Romulus, had slain his own brother for daring to insult the nascent city’s walls by jumping over them mockingly, Romans were hesitant to put this law on the books.
While most Romans would have frowned upon a premeditated fratricide, it certainly occurred without much consequence when the emperor Caracalla invited his co-emperor and brother, Geta, to a little peace talk at their mother’s. Caracalla, it is said, slew his brother on his mother’s lap. Here’s Caracalla, who always wanted to be depicted as tough, fearsome, and a little intimidating. The picture to the right is an artist’s depiction in color.
IV. Slaves had a terrible existence.
Maybe this isn’t exactly a secret, but even if half of what we know about the ancient Romans and their treatment of slaves is true, it must have been unlivable for many.
Roman law was never fully clear on whether slaves were people or property; certainly they could be bought and sold, whipped and raped, humiliated and caged, tortured and killed (with good reason). Slaves built the public buildings, including one particularly cruel incident when the Jewish people, crushed by the Flavian dynasty, were forced to fund and help the Colosseum. Nearby, the emperor Domitian constructed the Arch of Titus, the monument to their temple’s destruction, seen below.
Here’s a depiction of the Romans carrying away a menorah from the inside of the arch.
Since all prostitutes in brothels were slaves, one can only imagine what sick and sadistic acts the sex workers had to endure.
After Spartacus’ rebellion, the last in Roman history, Marcus Crassus crucified six thousand rebel slaves along the Appian Way as a reminder of Rome’s power.
Runaway slaves were branded with the letter F (for fugitivus, or fugitive).
The worst fate of all, at least according to the Romans, was the mines. This spelled certain death, and usually a speedy one. They were relentlessly and remorselessly beaten by men probably selected for their brutal sadism, or what their boss might have called “getting results.”
Behind closed doors in a patriarchal world in a culture of violence, there is no telling what ineffable cruelty Romans inflicted on their helpless victims. We catch glimpses of this from the emperors, who will most likely take the next slot, who set (or lowered) the bar for what was acceptable. Speaking of this pack of perverts…
V. Some of the Roman emperors were some sick puppies.
While none of these salacious tales is really a secret, I am choosing the lesser known tales of depravity, cruelty, and darkness of the human heart than the typically trodden ones of Caligula and his horse, Nero and his lyre, Tiberius and his guppies…
Instead, how about Domitian and his black room?
Domitian instituted what historians later called a “reign of terror.” One particular incident demonstrating Domitian’s dark sense of humor is recounted by Cassius Dio.
At this time, then, he feasted the populace as described; and on another occasion he entertained the foremost men among the senators and knights in the following fashion. He prepared a room that was pitch black on every side, ceiling, walls and floor, and had made ready bare couches of the same colour resting on the uncovered floor; then he invited in his guests alone at night without their attendants. And first he set beside each of them a slab shaped like a gravestone, bearing the guest's name and also a small lamp, such as hang in tombs. Next comely naked boys, likewise painted black, entered like phantoms, and after encircling the guests in an awe-inspiring dance took up their stations at their feet. After this all the things that are commonly offered at the sacrifices to departed spirits were likewise set before the guests, all of them black and in dishes of a similar colour. Consequently, every single one of the guests feared and trembled and was kept in constant expectation of having his throat cut the next moment, the more so as on the part of everybody but Domitian there was dead silence, as if they were already in the realms of the dead, and the emperor himself conversed only upon topics relating to death and slaughter. Finally he dismissed them; but he had first removed their slaves, who had stood in the vestibule, and now gave his guests in charge of other slaves, whom they did not know, to be conveyed either in carriages or litters, and by this procedure he filled them with far greater fear. And scarcely had each guest reached his home and was beginning to get his breath again, as one might say, when word was brought him that a messenger from the Augustus had come. While they were accordingly expecting to perish this time in any case, one person brought in the slab, which was of silver, and then others in turn brought in various articles, including the dishes that had been set before them at the dinner, which were constructed of very costly material; and last of all came that particular boy who had been each guest's familiar spirit, now washed and adorned. Thus, after having passed the entire night in terror, they received the gifts.
Thus was the triumphal celebration, or, as the crowd put it, such was the funeral banquet that Domitian held for those who had died in Dacia and in Rome. Even at this time, too, he slew some of the foremost men. And in the case of a certain man who buried the body of one of the victims, he deprived him of his property because it was on his estate that the victim had died.
Here’s your dark host for the evening.
VI. Roman religion was a bloody, powerful profession, not a charity-based organization of faith.
Roman temples ran with blood on festival days.
Since many Romans experienced death so much regularly than we do, most of them became fairly inured to the sight of a goat’s throat being slit by a priest. There were people like Cicero, who were squeamish, but given the attendance at the games, it seems likely that Cicero and his ilk were a minority. Here are some Vestal Virgins looking violently vexed with the fallen gladiator.
Roman religion worked hand in hand with Roman politics.
Unlike most modern democracies, nearly every important Roman priest also served in the senate. There was no separation of church and state, and priests were routinely bribed to give favorable or bad omens.
Roman religion was a quid-pro-quo system.
The common prayer of a Roman, do ut des, means “I give so that you give,” or as the Romans saw it, reciprocity. Christians saw this as abhorrent, as it reduced the act of prayer to a business transaction instead of an expression of faith, piety, and generosity.
VII. Roman sanitation was a Band-Aid on an infected machete wound.
How to get rid of that awful offal?
The Romans would have been the first to admit how magnificent their aqueducts were, as well as how insufficient to carry the smell out of Rome.
To combat the source of the odious odor, the Romans constructed the Cloaca Maxima, literally the Greatest Excrement Hole, a sewer still used today. Here’s a shot from inside.
And here’s a map of the original plan of the Cloaca Maxima, which is depicted in brown.
Since the Tiber river, which runs through Rome, was prone to flooding, quite often whatever had been lurking in the darkness of the Cloaca made an unwelcome return to the light.
You’re in for it now.
Speaking of noxious fluids, the Romans used one to whiten their togas, urine being a key ingredient donated by passersby (pissersby, perhaps?) to the urns which sat out front of the ancient shops.
Catullus, a witty poet, recounted how a Roman took on the customs of the natives in Hispania (now Spain/Portugal) used urine to whiten his teeth.
If you haven’t had enough bathroom humor, here’s a link to one on Mental Floss.
Roman toilets were equipped not with luxurious rolls of bottom-pampering paper, but a communal sponge on a stick, which was often kept in brine.
Here is an artist’s rendition of a Roman military latrine, complete with the sponges, or spongia.
And don’t get me started on the baths, or more fittingly, wormfest. Gross!
VIII. Half of the lions captured for the games died before they arrived.
Before natural conservationism became a thing, the Romans hunted down entire species to extinction (Atlas bears from Africa, for example), as well as eradicating certain herbs (silphium:.)
The Romans celebrated their 1000th anniversary under Philip the Arab, who allegedly put on games that saw the demise of hippos, leopards, lions, giraffes, and one rhinoceros. Imagine how many died to make that happen.
The only redeeming part of the games for me was that the animals were used for food, so at least it wasn’t a totally wasteful slaughter. Zebra gyros, anyone?
Speaking of what the Romans put in their mouths…
IX. A dab of pickled fish gut sauce on your zebra gyros, dear?
Let’s start with the Roman ketchup: garum, or liquamen, a fish sauce added to everything that, if current scholarship is accurate, was most likely full of MSG. It consisted of fermented fish and salt.
Here’s a link to Pompeian garum, including an ancient recipe and a modern one for the adventurous palates out there:
Here’s one by National Geographic:
This pickled fish sauce is also experiencing a bit of a revival (or dare I say resurrection?):
Not to mention sow’s udders to make me shudder in revulsion. And dormice cooked in honey and sesame seeds. I think the Romans might have eaten just about anything short of each other.
X. The Roman Republic wasn’t a republic.
At least not in the modern sense. A republic is now defined as a government of officials elected by the people to represent the interests of said people in running the country. While Rome’s republic was similar to this, it was, at its corrupt and dark heart, an oligarchy (ruled by a small group of people: the aristocrats, or patricians). The common Roman citizen had a vote, but it did not count as much as that of a rich man’s when electing Rome’s officials for office.
The Roman Republic was (and shall always be) called a republic because it comes from the Latin res publica, or “the public thing.” The adjective publica is an easy cognate for our word “public,” whereas the less obvious res gives us rebus, and the ubiquitous Re: in emails, which in Latin is about this thing…
I hope that satisfied your craving for some salacious secrets.
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