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10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The Romans

Roman History is one of the most popular periods of History and is well-loved by people of all ages. It is a colourful and exciting time, sparking the interest and imagination of people for centuries. However much you learn about the Romans there is always something new and surprising about them. Here are ten things that most people don't know about the Romans.

1) Gladiators usually weren’t killed

The Gladiator Games is one of the most popular and well-loved parts of Roman History. Roman Gladiators fought against each other in arenas across the Roman Empire. Hollywood Films and television have led us to believe that this gruesome and gory sport usually ended with the death of a gladiator, but this was not the case.

Gladiators would have been expensive. The majority of gladiators were slaves, who needed to be bought and paid for by a gladiator school. Once in a gladiator school the gladiators needed to be trained up so they were able to put on a good show in the arena. They would exercise to increase their fitness, they would be shown fighting styles and they were taught the etiquette of how to behave in the arena. Obviously throughout all of this training the gladiator needed food.If a gladiator was killed then the owner would need to be reimbursed for their costs.

However there was death in the arena. Criminals, known as noxi and exotic animals would be killed in the arena as a 'warm up' act before the main event.

Losing Gladiator killed by the Winning Gladiator

2) Not all Roman citizens spoke Latin.

Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire and was used in the army and in Roman Law. At its height the Roman Empire stretched over most of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and would have supported around 65 million people. When people in new areas of the world joined the Roman Empire and became Roman Citizens many of them would have continued to speak their native tongue and not Latin. This was especially true in more remote places, were Roman Officials and Legions were less likely to travel to.

High up Romans were often bilingual. The Romans saw being able to speak other languages, such as Greek, as a status symbol. It became so normal to speak both Latin and Greek that it is said that when Julius Caesar was assassinated by the senators that some of them shouted out in Greek and not Latin.

Painting depicting the death of Julius Ceasar by Vincenzo Camuccini

3) Romans had Street food

Ancient Rome was a massive bustling city with anything up to 1 million inhabitants at its peak. Most of the poor and middle class people living in Rome lived in blocks of flats known as insulae which could be up to 5 or 6 stories high. Most of these insulae were constructed from wood and did not have bathrooms or kitchens.

If the people living in these insulae wanted a hot meal they would have to visit one of the many cook shops that Rome had to offer, known as thermopolia. These thermopolia usually operated out of small rooms with large counters on the street. Many of these counters had large containers known as dolia which kept the food warm. A few thermopolia had small dining rooms, but most people would get their food and eat on the street. The foods on offer would have consisted of a variety of lentils, vegetables, meat and cheese. As thermopolia were mostly used by lower class people they were often looked down upon by the richer Roman citizens.

Thermopolium in Herculaneum, Italy

4) Vomitoriums weren’t for being sick

Most people know that Romans used to make themselves sick in order to carry on consuming more food at banquets and feasts. It is thought that some lavish Romans may have carried out this practice but is most certainly would not have been a common occurrence. It is thought that this misnomer has come about because of the term ‘vomitorium’, which to our modern ears sounds like it could be a place where Romans may go to vomit.

In actuality a vomitorium is a passage found either behind or below the rows of seats in an amphitheatre, and were designed to allow the large numbers of people in the audience to leave quickly when a performance has ended. The Latin word vomitorium actually comes from the verb vomere which means ‘to spew forth’. The term vomitorium was first used in the 4th century by a Roman writer called Macrobius, his work described the passageways that could 'disgorge' the audience. This term has since been accepted by historians and archaeologists.

Vomitorium at the Colosseum, Rome

5)Thumbs up and thumbs down is a myth

It is well known that in a gladiatorial combat in Ancient Rome thumbs up signalled that a gladiator would live and thumbs down signalled that a gladiator would die. This is simply not true. As mentioned earlier in this article gladiators were not killed as often as the media often lets us believe, however it is true that in some cases audiences could determine the fate of a gladiator by use of a hand gesture, just not the one that you may think. It is thought that this misnomer originally came from a popular 19th century painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme showing an audience at a gladiatorial combat with their thumbs down.

If the audience wished for a gladiator to be killed they carried out ‘pollice verso’. This Latin term roughly translates as ‘turned thumb’. There are no surviving accounts describing this hand gesture in any great detail. However some sources believe that the thumb would be held out sideways and the hand thrust forward, mimicking the action of the knife cutting the gladiators throat.

If an audience wanted the gladiator to be spared they wouldn’t do a thumbs up or a thumbs down. An individual would wave an open palm, or perhaps tuck their thumb into their closed fist, to signal that they wished the blade to be put away.

It is documented that the Colosseum could accommodate 87,000 people, which is a similar capacity to Wembley Stadium today. Standing in the middle of Wembley it would be difficult to tell if people in the audience had thumbs up or thumbs down. Thrusting a thumb forward or waving an open hand would be much easier to distinguish.

Pollice verso painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1872)

6) Not all hours were the same length

Like today in Roman times a day was split up into 24 hours, however unlike today not all of the hours were the same length. The Romans always had twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. It has been estimated that this meant that a Roman hour ranged from between forty-five minutes and an hour and a half in length. Midday was always the sixth hour of day and midnight was always the sixth hour of night. The concept of AM and PM also came from the Romans. The Romans called Midday meridies; A.M. stands for ante meridiem (before midday), and P.M. stands for post meridiem (after midday).

The Romans had clocks, or horologia to help them tell the time. There were two different types of horologia, solaria and clepsydrae.

Solaria were shadow clocks, or sundials. They were introduced to Rome in the third century BC. They were not a perfect solution for telling the time as they needed adjustment for different geographical location, needed to be adjusted with the seasons and as they relied on the use of sun, could not be used at night.

Clepsydrae were water clocks. They worked by measuring a regulated flow of water out of a vessel. They were usually initially calibrated from the solaria and needed to be periodically refilled with water. These also required adjustments for the seasons, but, as they did not require sunlight to function were able to be used at night.

Solarium from the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii

7) There was loads of pollution

It is often thought that before the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th Century that our planet was pollutant free with lovely clean air. However this is not true.

Research has been carried out looking at pollutant levels in ice and rock which has discovered that there may have been almost as much pollution in the Roman Empire as there is today.

This pollution was primarily caused by wood fires, which were burnt in all homes to provide heat. Other causes of pollution would have included methane released from large scale farming and from mining (primarily lead used for building complex plumbing systems for water).

The residents of ancient Rome referred to their city’s smoke cloud as gravioris caeli (heavy heaven) and infamis aer (infamous air). The pollution in Ancient Rome was so bad that it was documented by writers at the time. In AD 61 a philosopher wrote “No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city [Rome] and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition,”

Raised hearth with pots at Pompeii, Italy.

8) Not everyone wore togas

Togas are considered the traditional dress in Ancient Rome, but most people did not wear togas and those who did probably wouldn’t have worn them every day.

Togas were made up from a long piece of cloth, which was usually an elongated semi-circle in shape which was not sewn or pinned at all, but was draped over the body and arm. It is a symbol of wealth in Rome, probably due to the fact that when adorned in a toga the wearer only has full use of one arm and so would need servants or slaves to help them complete everyday tasks.

The everyday dress for both men and women was the tunica. A male tunic would be around knee length and a female tunic would be ankle length. Tunics would generally be made from wool or linen and could be layered up to adjust for the seasons.

Men wearing a toga would always wear a tunic underneath. Women would often wear a stola over their tunic. A stola was a long pleated dress, which was usually sleeveless and was held in place at the shoulders by two brooches known as fibula.

Marble Statue showing a man in a toga, from La Louvre, Paris

9) Women dyed their hair and wore make up

We think of beauty practices such as wearing makeup and dying hair as being modern phenomenon, however in actuality these things go back to the Romans.

Throughout Roman times the colour of hair considered fashionable changed, to start with dark hair was fashionable and later on blonde hair became the most desired. There have been over 100 different recipes found for either dying or bleaching hair in Ancient Rome. One recipe for dark hair dye included the use of walnut shells, charred eggs and leeches. To colour greying hair they would use a mixture of ash, boiled walnut shells and earthworms. The richest Romans would sprinkle gold dust on their hair to give the appearance of lighter hair.

Roman women wore a lot of make up. The richer a roman woman was the more make up she was likely to wear, as this was a symbol of her status. Make up available in Roman times included foundations, lip colouring eye liner and eyeshadow. Pale skin was often favoured by the women and they would often make themselves seem more pale by using chalk, orris root and even lead, which was used even though it was known to ruin your skin.

Fresco of a Roman Woman from Pompeii, Italy

10) The Romans never went home

In 410 AD the Roman Empire was in trouble, it was being attacked in numerous areas at once. The Roman Legions in Britain were recalled to Rome to help deal with these attacks. However Britain was under threat of attack from the Picts and Saxons. Britain appealed to Rome for help, the emperor of the time Emperor Honorius, famously responded to Britain telling them to ‘look to their own defences’ and this was the beginning of the end of Roman rule in Britain.

While it is true that the Roman Legions left Britain and returned to Rome it is inaccurate to state that the ‘Romans went home’. All of the people living in Britain in 410 AD were part of the Roman Empire and many of them would have been Roman Citizens. Roman rule in Britain lasted for nearly 400 years, in this time many new generations of Roman Britain’s would have been born and had children of their own, to these people Britain was there home and that was where they stayed and lived their lives and had more children. It is possible that you could be descended from the Roman Citizens who stayed in Britain after the end of Roman Rule.

Roman Army marching

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