They connected east and west cultures, built roads, spanned bridges, and even constructed sporting arenas that featured gladiatorial combat and sea battles. Emperor Augustus alone is credited with founding the principate, establishing a standing military, and a permanent fire-fighting and police force.
But beginning with that she-wolf nursing those terrible twins, Romulus and Remus, the Romans also left behind a freaky legacy that simply boggles the imagination. Here’s just a small glimpse into the wacky world that sprang from Rome.
He changed Rome forever. His legacy is firmly cemented as one of the greatest generals of all time. He conquered his opponents in battle and seduced scores of women, including Cleopatra. But his time spent as an alleged crossdresser remains one overlooked aspect of Julius Caesar’s extraordinary life.
Born into a well-connected patrician family, Caesar exhibited political ambition at an early age. His father governed the Roman province of Asia (modern-day Turkey), and his uncle, Gaius Marius, would become a powerful general and statesman — and famously responsible for reforming the Roman Army.
So with this pedigree, Caesar embarked on a diplomatic mission to Bithynia at the age of 20 to convince King Nicomedes IV of providing naval support to the Republic. Negotiations dragged (sorry, cheap pun) on much longer than expected — fueling rumors of a steamy romance between the two men in which the young Roman assumed a feminine role.
In his latest book, In Bed with the Romans, historian and frequent BBC contributor Paul Chrystal writes that Caesar “dressed up as a woman and he indulged in, I would imagine, interesting sex with the king of Bithynia. That moved him along politically; it was good for his CV.”
Caesar would vehemently deny the accusation throughout his life, but his many enemies mocked him, nonetheless, dubbing him ‘Queen of Bithynia’. According to the ancient scribe Suetonius, other Roman leaders such as Emperor Tiberius dressed as a woman for his debaucheries on the island of Capri, and notorious party animal Caligula enjoyed dressing up as Venus at lavish state banquets.
Paw & Order
The Romans respected cats for their independence and freedom, as well as vermin-catching abilities. Although felines in ancient Rome lacked the same deification found in Egyptian culture, cats frequently accompanied Roman armies to protect grain stores while also serving as military mascots.
Historians typically point to Phoenician traders for introducing cats into Europe as early as the 5th century BC. Romans initially used ferrets to control their rodent population but later recognized that cats not only had better hygiene habits but were superior hunters.
Keeping cats as pets would gradually become more prevalent in households throughout the Empire. A well-known mosaic panel from the House of the Faun, one of the most luxurious aristocratic houses in Pompeii, depicts a cat holding a dead game bird.
Today in Rome, an estimated 300,000 cats inhabit the city as part of the local government’s Bio Heritage program. The provision protects the revered felines, allowing them to roam the same monuments for centuries, such as the Colosseum and the Forum.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche‘s oft-quoted aphorism ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is generally used as an affirmation of resilience. However, many Roman Emperors actively risked death by consuming small amounts of poison to thwart an assassination.
Known as Mithridatism, Rome’s leaders engaged in the dangerous practice to build up immunity against certain toxins. Although micro-dosing can be effective against some types of poisons such as Arsenic, too much could result in death. Still, the plague aside, the deadliest threat facing Rome’s powerful was from other power-hungry Romans.
In 54 AD, poison claimed the life of Emperor Claudius by his wife (and niece) Agrippina the Younger. However, to borrow another well-known phrase, “payback is a b****,” Agrippina would be poisoned to death by her son from a previous marriage, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known as Nero.
The Cult of Christianity
For Roman citizens, religions outside of the state-sanctioned pantheon of gods were characterized as “Mystery Cults.” By definition, these pagan groups involved secretive initiation rites and communal rituals and included followers of early Christianity.
As the Empire grew, so did a variety of influences from within its realm. Cults adopted from other cultures, such as the Isis Mysteries (Egyptian) and the Mithraic Mysteries (Persian), provided a sense of comfort in an otherwise dark world marked by pain and suffering.
Christian fellowship extended an even greater reward with the promise of deliverance from evil and eternal salvation in Heaven. But for those looking for a little more excitement in their faith, the worship of Bacchus offered one helluva bonus: boozy orgies.
Bacchanalia festivals rapidly gained in popularity beginning in the second century AD. Modeled on Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, participants were encouraged to loosen their sexual inhibitions by getting hammered while dancing to music. Not surprisingly, the party never stopped even though the religion is long gone.
Precious metals, rare gems, and exotic furs have long been associated with royalty and wealth. In ancient Rome, however, one’s social status depended on the mucous secretion of predatory sea snails — a commodity that not only equaled the value of silver but Roman law decreed who could wear it.
Traders from the Phoenician city of Tyre in modern-day Lebanon manufactured a rare purple dye taken from mollusks found in the Mediterranean Sea. The extract would then be used to treat certain fabrics, producing vibrant, fade-resistant colors.
The elaborate process required both extensive manpower and large vats of the slimy creatures that also yielded an overpowering stench. According to historian David Jacoby, “Twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 grams of pure dye, enough to color only the trim of single garment.”
As a result, Rome passed a sumptuary law, declaring that only the elite could wear the rare, decadent hue. Stylish togas featured purple borders, and Julius Caesar is said to have been the first to wear an all-purple toga.
The Romans collected pee daily from public and private urinals located throughout the city. The contents would be used as a natural cleaning agent for a variety of applications such as washing clothes, tanning leather, bleaching textiles, and even brushing one’s teeth.
If you’ve wondered why urine smells, a simple chemical reaction is to blame. When exposed to nitrogen in the atmosphere, pee undergoes a transformation in which proteins metabolize to produce ammonia — a commodity in high demand during the first century AD.
Naturally, officials sought to capitalize on the flowing resource by levying what came to be known as the vectigal urinae or “urine tax.” When public urinals and private toilets became full, the collector would be charged a tariff s on these pots of liquid gold. As a result, it popularized the phrase, pecunia non olet (“money does not stink”).
Eunuchs played a unique role in Roman society, serving as both trusted confidants and intimate companions. The word eunuch derives from the Greek translation of eunoukhos, meaning “bed-guard” — an apt description of the castrated men privy to palace gossip and the innermost workings of the Empire.
During the notorious reign of Nero, a young slave named Sporus would emerge as perhaps Rome’s most famous eunuch. There is no shortage of stories about the sadistic Emperor, including the fabricated tale of playing the fiddle after setting the Eternal City ablaze. Nero did, however, kick his pregnant wife to death and replaced her with Sporus, who purportedly bore a striking resemblance to the tyrant’s former spouse. And because Nero’s gonna be Nero, he then married the boy in a lavish ceremony, dressing him as an empress.
Unlike most of the Emperor’s inner circle, Sporus never fell out of favor and stayed with him until the bitter end. Nero’s successor, Otho, also welcomed Sporus into his court but that ill-fated ruler would soon be assassinated as well. Finally, Emperor Vitellius planned to humiliate the royal eunuch by sacrificing him in a recreation of the mythological tale, the Rape of Proserpina, at a gladiator show. Sporus, however, escaped the spiteful plot by killing himself instead.
A Day at the Races
From history books to blockbuster movies, blood-splattered gladiators at the Colosseum receive plenty of attention. But Rome’s premier attraction took place 500 paces away (about a half mile) at the Circus Maximus, where chariot racing ruled supreme to the delight of 250,000 frenzied fans.
The sport featured a two-wheeled chariot pulled by a team of horses (usually 4) around an oval track. A total of 12 chariots competed for color-coded teams (called factions) identified by blue, green, red, and white. The races were fast, exciting, and dangerous. Competitors, armed with whips and knives, could be thrown from the vehicle, trampled or dragged to death. Although the story is highly fictionalized, the realistic stunts in Ben Hur are top notch and provide a good example of the mayhem.
Top drivers enjoyed rock star status from an adoring public. One daredevil, however, stood tallest. Gaius Appuleius Diocles came to be known as “The Champion of Charioteers” and amass a fortune of more than $15 billion, making him the highest paid athlete of all time.
During an illustrious 24 year career, Diocles either won or placed in nearly 70% of his races. He tallied most of his triumphs with the Reds, thrilling spectators with his signature move of coming from behind to win. The celebrated driver mingled with upper echelons of Roman society while poets immortalized him — not bad for an immigrant from Lusitania (modern-day Portugal), making the likes of Lebron James, Tiger Woods and Ronaldo look like paupers.
Tagged and Bagged
Roman laws carried a wide assortment of bizarre punishments, including a ritualistic torture known as the Poena Cullei (“penalty of the sack”). Those found guilty of killing certain family members (typically a father or mother) were sewn up inside a large bag along with a monkey, a viper, a dog, and a rooster, and then tossed into the sea.
Although the first documented case dates back to 100 BC, the practice may have also been used by the Etruscans. Following conviction, the parricide arrived in prison wearing wooden clogs and a cap made of wolf skin. Guards then whipped the prisoner with virgis sanguinis (“blood-colored rods”) before placing the offender into a leather sack with the animals.
The elaborate process ensured nobody escaped the symbolic womb and were either torn apart by the enraged beasts or drowned. Variations included using snakes only and throwing the perpetrators to the lions at the Coliseum. Around 530 AD, Emperor Justinian revived the original penalty, which remained in use for another 400 years.
Brow Wow Wow
Beauty fashions come and go. And not unlike today’s Botox injections, the women of Rome went to great lengths in pursuit of glamour. One particular furry trend even included the use of goat hair, tar, and grease to create an alluring look that we now call the unibrow.
Long before Frida Kahlo came along, both the Greeks and Romans saw the fulsome facial hair as a sign of beauty, sophistication, and intelligence. Women were encouraged to let their brows grow to the point of almost merging in an even row — or just create a false one.
Women darkened their eyebrows with lampblack and soot but needed additional help for a thicker and fuller appearance. For example, they applied goat hair using tree resin as an adhesive for the desired caterpillar effect. Eventually, untamed look gave way to plucking only to come full circle with the new “power brow” thanks to supermodel du jour, Cara Delevingne.