Despite being a highly advanced civilisation responsible for huge technological, economic and political advances the Romans certainly had their moments of barbaric cruelty. Whether it was having your legs broken for kissing, spilling a virgin’s guts to reveal the future or feeding the Coliseum audience to the lions to liven up a dull afternoon at the games, life on the rec eiving end of the Roman emperor’s whims was a pretty grim prospect. A new book reveals just how dangerous life in ancient Rome really was.
By: Terry Deary
The Romans are famous for building 50,000-seat arenas to watch the slaughter of humans. Emperor Caligula in particular was a big fan of the bloodthirsty games. He started out as a reasonably kind emperor but after recovering from a serious illness his temperament took a turn for the worse. At one event a set of criminals were to be eaten by wild animals. That was bad enough but after the criminals were all dead Caligula declared himself bored and ordered a whole section of the crowd to be thrown into the arena and massacred for his amusement.
Caligula was also told by a soothsayer that he had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae”. To prove the prophet wrong he built a floating bridge using boats as pontoons. He then rode his favourite horse across the three-mile wide bay while wearing Alexander The Great’s breastplate, which he had plundered from his tomb.
Emperor Augustus made great improvements to Roman infrastructure including building vast aqueducts to transport fresh water and a mighty sewer called Cloaca Maxima. It was so important it had its own goddess – Cloacina – and so big that Admiral Agrippa used to sail a boat through the sewers to ensure that it was clean.
Under the rule of Tiberius there was a law against men going to the lavatory while carrying coins featuring the emperor’s head, punishments for kissing and a Scrooge-like prohibition on giving gifts at New Year. The typical punishment was for the offender to have their legs broken.
Nero used to make trips in disguise to the seedier parts of Rome beating up passers-by. However this dark side of his character did not stop him from becoming a luvvie. He ate leeks in the belief that they sweetened his singing voice and locked the doors of the theatre to stop people leaving when he recited his endless piece on the Trojan War.
Boudica, the warrior queen of the East Anglian Iceni tribe, was originally installed by the Romans. They had made her their stooge and her husband Prasutagus king to try to keep the rebellious tribe under control. However when he died the Roman emperor’s financial agent Catus Decianus stole the Iceni’s treasures and humiliated its nobles and when Boudica complained she was publicly flogged. Her rebellion led to the deaths of 70,000 Romans and their sympathisers until her army – by that point numbering more than 230,000 Britons – was finally defeated and massacred by the Roman forces. Boudica’s fate remains unknown.
The Romans felt threatened by the Jewish-Christian idea of a single god. They thought there were plenty of things to which this one supreme being would not have the time or energy to attend . The Roman gods included Cardea, the god of door hinges, Robigus, the god of mildew and agricultural diseases and the Penates, deities who were responsible for looking after cupboards.
The Romans went in for fortune telling in a big way. Extispicy used the guts of dismembered animals to see the future and Emperor Claudius was such a fan he set up a college to teach the subject. Then Emperor Augustus used stolisomancy, telling the future from the way people dress, to predict a military revolt when he saw an attendant buckling his right sandal on his left foot. Most gruesome of all was the use of anthropomancy where human guts – those of a virgin or child were best because they were innocent and hadn’t offended the gods – were read to tell Romans what was just around the corner.
There were claims that Christians indulged in incest, cannibalism, eating stolen babies and sexual deviancy. They were in for an especially rough time under Emperor Nero who used to have Christians tied to poles, covered in tar and set alight to provide illumination for the public gardens.
The Coliseum’s inaugural games lasted for 100 days and included gladiatorial combat, horse and chariot races, fights between wild animals and even mock naval battles in which the theatre was flooded. On one day 5,000 beasts died. Things didn’t get much better. Over the next 300 years more than half a million people and a million animals went on to die in the Coliseum. Among the largest games ceremonies was that of Emperor Trajan who celebrated his war wins with a series of contests lasting 123 days that featured 11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators.
Emperor Titus was succeeded by his brother Domitian, who also took on the role of “censor” which gave him an overview of Roman morals that includ ed sex scandals. This was a bit like putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. He was attracted to eunuchs and had been romantically involved with several senators. He also lived in an illicit relationship with his niece Julia whom he forced to abort their baby. The procedure killed her but Domitian tried to make up for it by having coins made depicting her ascending to Heaven on the back of a peacock.
Hadrian’s Wall was part of a bigger project. Hadrian had decided that the empire was big as it could be and it was time for the Romans to stop expanding their territories. His wall in Britain took six years to build and he used 9,000 soldiers to patrol it. Nobody is quite sure why he expended so much effort on protecting a sparsely populated corner of the empire. In Germany he built a fortified fence complete with regularly spaced watchtowers to keep out marauding tribes the Roman army had failed to quell.
The prophet Alexander of Abonutichus was predictably a conman rather than a genuine seer. This didn’t stop him making grand pronouncements about the future. He used to carry a snake called Glycon with him and a whole cult developed about this god. However Glycon was really a glove puppet: a stuffed snake with a false human head. Alexander was consulted by Emperor Marcus before he launched an attack on the German Marcomanni tribe. He told the Romans to throw two live lions into the Tiber and a great victory would follow. Sure enough the Romans did so... and their army was duly crushed. When challenged the “prophet” announced: “I said a great victory would follow. I didn’t say who would be victorious.” Amazingly he got away with it and lived into his 70s.
Dangerous Days In The Roman Empire by Terry Deary (Phoenix, £7.99). To order call 0872 562 310; send a cheque or PO made payable to The Express Bookshop to The Express Bookshop, PO BOX 200, Falmouth, TR11 4WJ; or visit expressbookshop.com (UK postage is free)