The Roman Republic and its Roman Empire successor are mostly remembered for both their glories and follies – both done on a grand scale. A great civilization that collapsed centuries ago, yet its legacy is still felt to this day. A culture that produced titans like Cicero, Caesar, and Augustus, and travesties like Caligula, Nero, and Elagabalus. However, ancient Rome was not just about big names and bigger deeds. It consisted overwhelmingly of everyday people who went about their daily lives, as they tried to better themselves and their families. Below are thirty things about some fascinating ancient Roman facts.
30. Roman Funerals Were Over the Top
Ancient Romans saw themselves as the serious and stolid types. They were into the stiff upper lip and frowned upon excessive displays of emotion. They made an exception for funerals, however. On the one hand, the more people attended a funeral, and the showier the funerary procession was, the more respected the deceased was. On the other hand, an excessive display of grief by the deceased’s relatives – especially when it came to upper-class Roman families – was seen as undignified. To solve that conundrum the ever-practical Romans hired professional mourners.
The deceased’s family paid special women to weep, wail, grieve loudly, and engage in other emotional displays that well-born Romans were not supposed to demonstrate in public. To seriously sell their sadness and impress the crowds, professional mourners threw dust and dirt on themselves, tore out their hair, ripped their clothes, and scratched their faces until they drew blood. Eventually, such ostentatious displays became too much. So laws were passed to prohibit the hiring of professional mourners because their antics “invoked strong emotions and were incompatible with the idea of the quiet life of the citizen“.
29. The Ancient Romans Used Lead in Just About Everything
Nowadays, we know that lead should be avoided as much as possible. It once was used in children’s toys, but not anymore, and it is no longer used in paint like it was back in the days. In ancient Rome, however, people were ignorant of what we know of lead’s adverse health effects. So they put it to widespread use in ways that modern science has shown to be quite dangerous. For example, lead was widely used in Roman hair dyes. Rich Romans also used lead pipes to carry water to their homes, and it is theorized that those pipes caused widespread lead poisoning. That might explain why so many Roman rulers were off their rockers.
Recent research has pushed back against that theory, on grounds that lead levels from Roman pipes might not have been as hazardous as previously thought. However, Romans were still exposed to lead in a variety of other ways that ensured they ingested it at exceptionally high levels. They drank water and wine from lead jugs, poured into lead cups. Their cooking pots were made of lead. They used amphorae to transport and store chief staples such as wine, olive oil, and their favorite sauce – a rotten fish concoction called garum. Lead was used to seal those amphorae, so lead particles made it into just about every sip of wine, or bite of their staple meal – bread dipped into olive oil or garnished with garum. Lead was also used in jewelry, to keep precious stones in place.
28. The Roman Fascination with Flying Phallic Symbols
The Roman world had a rich religious pantheon, that included over 200 gods. One of the lesser-known ones today – although he was quite popular in ancient Rome – was Fascinus, the winged phallic god. Fascinus was the god of masculine regenerative power, whose symbol was a phallus. He was literally all-male appendage, taken to the nth degree of maleness. His body was an erect member and a pair of testes. He had a phallus for a tail, and also for legs. And he had wings, so he could fly around and spurt his blessings upon lucky mortals.
Fascinus was believed to be lucky. So worshippers carried him around in the form of amulets or pendants that hung from their necks, just like pious Christians wear crosses around their necks today. Except that instead of a cross, Romans had an erect male member dangling from their necks. Fascinus, being what he was… was naturally constantly on the prowl. He had a particular preference for sleeping women. Many Roman art motifs and tales revolve around sleeping maidens, usually getting some shuteye in bucolic settings, waking up to discover that Fascinus had flown between their legs to bless them.
The most famous Roman maiden supposedly impregnated by Fascinus was Ocrisia, the mother of Rome’s sixth king, Servius Tullius. Ocrisia was a foreign noblewoman captured in war, and made a slave in the household of Rome’s King Tarquinius. As the legend went, Ocrisia was a “maiden”, and one day, as she performed the sacred rites of the Vestal Virgins, a disembodied winged phallus flew in and impregnated her. The result was Servius Tullius, who was raised in the royal household. Although a slave, Tullius so impressed King Tarquinius that he eventually freed him and gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage. After the king’s death, he was succeeded on the throne by Servius, his son-in-law and son of the divine Fascinus.
Fascinus’ name gave rise to the Latin verb “fascinare“. It means the power to use the Fascinus, entrance, or cast a spell since the flying phallic god was supposed to have such powers. Fascinus’ worship declined with the rise of Christianity, and eventually vanished, along with the rest of antiquity’s pagan pantheon. Nonetheless, a trace of Fascinus is still with us today. The etymology of the English word “fascinate” traces back to the Latin word “fascinare“, and the flying Roman god.
Elagabalus (204- 222) was declared Roman emperor when he was barely fourteen years old. He had not been groomed or prepared for the job, and until he was thrust on the throne, he had been a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabal. As might be expected, if you hand absolute power to an unprepared teenager, you should not be surprised if things go wrong. While he was not as vicious as some of Rome’s more monstrous rulers – he was no gratuitously cruel Caligula or Commodus – Elagabalus did display the occasional mean streak.
It often showed in his practical jokes. Jokes that, considering the fact that he was emperor of the Roman world with none above him, always meant punching down. At the milder end of Elagabalus’ pranks was his propensity to seat some of his more pompous dinner guests on the ancient Roman version of whoopee cushions. It was a special stuffed pad that emitted farting noises when somebody sat on them. At the crueler end of the spectrum, as seen below, Elagabalus liked to put people in fear of their lives.
To seat people on whoopee cushions is relatively harmless, as far as pranks go. Not so Elagabalus’ habit of pranking people by putting them in mortal fear for life and limb. One of his favorite pranks began with the teenaged emperor getting his dinner guests so drunk, that they had to crash and sleep it off in the palace. Once the marks were zonked out, Elagabalus had his servants sneak tame lions, leopards, bears, or a mix thereof, into the bedroom.
Come the morning, the Roman emperor would bust a gut as he laughed heartily at his hungover guests’ reaction to waking up in the midst of a menagerie of man-eating predators. Unsurprisingly, not many of the emperor’s marks appreciated the humor. Between that and other behavior that his subjects viewed as deviant, Romans heaved a sigh of relief when Elagabalus was violently overthrown at age eighteen. He was beheaded, his remains were tossed into a river, and his memory was forbidden by a senatorial edict.
24. Pee Was Used to Brush Teeth in the Roman World
The ancient Roman poet Catullus (circa 84 – circa 54 BC) once insulted a man named Egnatius, whose smile the poet seems to have disliked. It reveals something unusual about Romans’ day-to-day lives: they cleaned their mouths with pee. As the poet put it in his put down: “There’s nothing more foolish than foolishly smiling. Now you’re Spanish – in the country of Spain what each man [urines], he’s used to brushing his teeth and red gums with, every morning, so the fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re more full of [urine]“.
The abnormal practice decried was that Egnatius smiled too much, which was bad because smiles were presumably worthless. The diss was not about the cleaning-one’s-mouth-with-pee bit: for Romans, that was perfectly normal. Urine’s active ingredient is ammonia, which the body secretes in the form of urea. Today, we use ammonia in many things, from explosives to cleaning products to agricultural fertilizers. Not only will ammonia remove stubborn stains from your bathtub and oven, it will also leave your dishes and glasses glossy and shiny.
Nowadays, ammonia is extracted with chemical processes that don’t involve pee. Ancient Romans understood ammonia’s benefits, but lacked our modern science. So they got ammonia from the most readily available source back then: urine. Not only was pee used to clean mouths in the Roman world, it was put to a variety of other uses. The laundry trade, for example, relied heavily on stale urine. In giant public laundries known as fullonica, dirty clothes were placed in vats, where they were soaked in stale urine. Then workers – usually slaves – stomped on them until the stains came out.
Other industries, such as agriculture and hide tanning, used not only urine, but urine mixed with feces. Urine was so important that pee collection was a big business. As a result, public chamber pots or big vats where anybody could stop and urinate, were commonplace. In addition to dental hygiene, industrial, and commercial uses, the ancient Romans also used pee in medicine. Pliny the Elder, for example, praised stale urine’s effectiveness in the treatment of diaper rashes. He also wrote that fresh urine could heal “sores, burns, infections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings“.
22. Pee Was an Important Revenue Source for the Roman Treasury
Today, the use of pee in medicinal remedies comes across as gross. However, considering urine’s sterile properties – or more precisely the sterile properties of the ammonia contained in urine – such medicinal applications might have actually had something going for them. Pee collection and resale was a major business in the Roman world. And as happens with any business that generates revenue, the pee industry did not escape the attention of the government’s tax collectors. In that, the Roman world was not much different from ours.
Tradesmen who specialized in pee collection were granted special licenses for the privilege, and were taxed accordingly. That was when the government did not tax the urine ådonors directly. One of Emperor Vespasian’s revenue schemes involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. When his son argued that to raise money from bodily excreta was beneath imperial dignity, Vespasian held a coin beneath his nose, and asked whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson by remarking: “money does not smell“, a phrase that became a Latin proverb.
Ancient Romans had mixed feelings about gladiators. On the one hand, gladiators were despised as slaves, trained under extremely brutal conditions, marginalized, and generally segregated from free Romans. On the other hand, gladiators, especially the most successful ones, were admired and celebrated like a cross between modern rock stars and star athletes. Gladiators’ constant training turned them into impressive physical specimens, well proportioned, with rippling muscles that glistened in the arena before spectators. Unsurprisingly, that made gladiators the objects of illicit fantasies for many Roman women, and for quite a few Roman men, as well.
If the gladiator fantasy could not be gratified directly – and huge social barriers stood in the way – it might be gratified at a remove. Gladiator bodily fluids, especially their sweat, were highly sought after commodities. Rich Roman women, in particular, paid quite a bit for sweat and dirt from famous gladiators’ bodies. The Romans used a curved metal blade, called a strigil, to remove dirt, perspiration, and oils from the skin before bathing. That is how they scraped scrape sweat and dirt from gladiators’ skins. It was then collected in vials that were sold outside the gladiatorial games.
20. The Roman World Believed in the Healing Properties of Gladiator Blood
Roman purchasers of gladiator sweat and grime often applied it directly to their faces, as a type of facial cream. Others mixed it with cosmetics and perfumes – which in ancient Rome were usually the preserve of upper-class women. Gladiator blood was also highly sought after. Many women applied the blood of their favorite gladiators to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accouterments, or mixed it with their cosmetics. Gladiators were seen as particularly virile, which led to the ghoulish practice of using gladiator blood (and sometimes sweat) as an aphrodisiac. The more successful and famous a gladiator, the more potent an aphrodisiac his blood or sweet were believed to be. It could be drunk pure, but more often, was mixed with wine and ingested that way.
Gladiator blood’s usefulness was not limited to cosmetics and aphrodisiacs. It was also used to treat various maladies, particularly epilepsy. As Pliny the Elder described it: “Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts filled with life as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts in the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons consider it a most effective cure for their disease, to drink the warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast!”
Just as a jet engine turns fuel into a loud roar, farts are created by the conversion of undigested food in our lower colon into intestinal gas. That gas is blown through a narrow opening, the butthole, which is surrounded by fatty flaps and folds. As the gas exits, those flaps and folds vibrate, and create a fleshy clamor – the fart. Over 99% of a fart does not smell. On average, a fart is 59% nitrogen, 21% hydrogen, 9% carbon dioxide, 7% methane, and 4% oxygen – all of them odorless. However, a tiny fraction – less than 1% – consists of stuff like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and skatole (from the Greek skatos, meaning feces) that seriously stinks.
It stinks so bad, in fact, that people can smell those gas particles even when they comprise only 1 part per 100 million parts of air. History’s baddest – as in deadliest – fart was let go around the time of Passover in 44 AD, in Jerusalem, not long after the death of King Herod Agrippa. As thousands of Jews gathered to partake in the Passover feast and festivities, a Roman soldier stationed above the temple turned around, bared his butt, mooned the crowd, and cut a fart. The consequences were terrible.
18. This Roman Soldier’s Idea of Funny Did Not Make Jerusalem’s Temple Goers Laugh
Understandably, the Jewish crowd below the flatulent Roman soldier did not take kindly to his blasphemous insult in the temple. Rioting erupted, and the Roman authorities rushed in soldiers to quell the disturbances. Things escalated, and by the time the dust settled, about 10,000 people lost their lives – all because of a chain of events that started with a fart. First-century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus left posterity an account of the lethal posterior emission. As he described how the disturbance began:
“The Jews’ ruin came on, for when the multitudes were come together to Jerusalem, to the feast of unleavened bread, and a Roman cohort stood over the cloisters of the temple (for they always were armed and kept guard at the festivals, to prevent any innovation which the multitude thus gathered together might take), one of the soldiers pulled back his garment, and cowering down after an indecent manner, turned his breech [rear end] to the Jews, and spoke such words as you might expect at such a posture“. As seen below, the results were disastrous.
As Josephus continued his narrative of what happened after a Roman soldier mooned and farted at a religious crowd in Jerusalem: “At this, the whole multitude had indignation, and made a clamor to Cumanus [the provincial Roman procurator], that he would punish the soldier; while the rasher part of the youth, and such as were naturally the most tumultuous, fell to fighting, and caught up stones, and threw them at the soldiers“. It was the start of a bout of widespread violence and a weird chain of events that led to mass death. Things escalated quickly, as the Romans, never known for a light touch when it came to disturbances in their provinces, came down hard on the Jews.
Josephus went on to describe what happened next, when the Roman procurator heard of the Jerusalem riot: “Cumanus was afraid lest all the people should make an assault upon him, and sent to call for more men, who, when they came in great numbers into the cloisters, the Jews were in a very great consternation. Being beaten out of the temple, they ran into the city; and the violence with which they crowded to get out was so great, that they trod upon each other, and squeezed one another, till ten thousand of them were killed, insomuch that this feast became the cause for mourning to the whole nation, and every family lamented“.
16. The Roman World Had Public Restrooms and Flushing Toilets
Ancient Crete’s Minoans developed toilets that could flush waste in the second millennium, BC. For centuries, that remained a luxury available only to the elites, until an economic boom and increased prosperity in the first millennium BC introduced flush toilets to middle-class houses. Before long, some ancient Greek cities had large scale latrines that were open to the general public. Those early public restrooms consisted of large rooms with bench seats, connected to a drainage system. It was the Romans, however, who made the most use of flush technology and public latrines in the ancient world.
By the first century BC, public restrooms were common in Roman cities and towns. They did not have private stalls: the facility consisted of a room lined with stone or wooden bench seats, with toilet openings over a sewer. Everybody – of both sexes – did their business in front of everybody else. To clean themselves, they used reusable sponges on a stick. The sponges were “cleaned” between uses by dipping them into small gutters with running water that flowed in front of the toilet seats. Many Roman houses also had private flush toilets that were connected to the public drainage system.
The Roman army’s largest military unit was the legion, and it changed a lot in its centuries-long existence. In the mid-Roman Republic, it numbered about 3,000 heavy infantry divided into maniples of 120 soldiers, each comprised of two 60-man centuries. There were also 1,200 skirmishers and 300 cavalry, for a total of around 4,500 legionaries. In the late Republic, the centuries grew to 80 men, and six centuries were grouped into a cohort of 480 legionaries. A legion contained nine such standard cohorts, plus a first cohort of the best soldiers, made of five double-strength centuries of 160 men each. That meant a total nominal legion strength of 5,120 men, but in practice, about 4,500 was the norm. In the early Roman Empire, Augustus had 30 legions, stationed along the borders.
They were supported by auxiliary troops of non-citizens, who were granted Roman citizenship at the end of their service. Each legion was led by a Legate, usually a senator appointed by the emperor. Below him were six tribunes, one from the senatorial class who served as the legion’s second in command, and five from the lower equestrian class. Third in command was the Camp Prefect, usually a veteran ranker from the lower classes. He had typically served 25 years, including a stint as a centurion of the first cohort. Next came the centurions, officers promoted from the ranks to command the legion’s centuries and cohorts. Beneath them came optios, equivalent to First Sergeants, one for each century, assisted by guard commanders, one per optio, and the common legionaries.
14. The Romans Did Not Hesitate to Adopt New Tactics from Their Enemies When Necessary
Roman legions originally consisted of spear-armed soldiers, who fought in dense phalanxes. They switched to a more spread-out legion with sword-wielding legionaries because of the Samnite Wars, fought from 343 to 290 BC. The Samnites inhabited the Apennine Mountains south of Rome, and in that rough terrain, the dense phalanx proved to be unwieldy. By contrast, the Samnites were armed with swords and fought in flexible formations, with smaller subunits known as maniples (“handfuls”). They ran rings around the Romans and dealt them a series of defeats that culminated in the surrender of an entire Roman army at the Caudine Forks in 321 BC. The Romans were pragmatic, and often copied from others what worked. So they abandoned the phalanx and adopted the manipular system around 315 BC, and legions were broken into heavy infantry maniples of 120 men, in three ranks of 40 men.
Until the late second century BC, Roman soldiers paid for their own equipment, and maniples were deployed in three layers, based on experience and wealth. In front of them were the velites, or skirmishers, often the youngest and nimblest. The first heavy infantry line were the hastati, armed with short swords, a squared shield, the scutum, and throwing spears, the pila. Then came the princepes, prosperous men in the prime of their lives, who could afford decent equipment. Finally came the triari, the oldest and often richest men, who could afford the best equipment. Armed with spears, they formed the last battle line. They were seldom used, because battles were usually won by the soldiers ahead of them. They were only committed if things went wrong, and “it has come to the triarii” became a common Roman phrase to mean the need to use one’s last resort.
13. Soldiers Came to Identify With their Generals More than they Did with the Roman State
For over two centuries, Roman legions used maniples, until they were replaced by larger cohorts of 480 soldiers in the military reforms of Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC). Germanic tribes had crossed the Alps, entered southern Gaul, threatened Italy, and wiped out two Roman armies sent to meet them. That threw the Italian Peninsula, always fearful of barbarians since Gauls had sacked Rome and devastated Italy in 387 BC, into a panic. To meet the crisis, Marius opened the Roman legions’ ranks, hitherto restricted to propertied citizens who could afford to arm and equip themselves, to all citizens, including the poorest. The Roman government now furnished their weapons and armor, and paid them salaries. The army’s character was transformed from a middle-class and patrician institution into a professional force, for whose legionaries’ military service became a career.
Legionaries came to look upon their generals, not the government in Rome, for rewards during service, and for severance pay and retirement benefits when they were discharged. Unscrupulous generals exploited that, and used legions more loyal to their commanders than to the state as their private armies against rival generals, and against Rome itself. The result was a chaotic century of civil wars that finally ended with the collapse of the Roman Republic and its replacement with the Roman Empire. One of Augustus’ first acts, when he became Rome’s first emperor, was to further professionalize the legions, and break legionaries’ dependence on their generals. Enlistment terms were extended from 10 years to 25, pay was standardized, and the legionary was guaranteed a land grant or a cash payment at the end of his service. The legionary’s oath of allegiance, the Sacramentum, was also switched from the general to the emperor.
12. Roman Tenacity Was Their Biggest Asset in Warfare
The Romans won their empire through military discipline, and tenacity and persistence in war. Not so much through military genius… The Romans conquered many enemies who had great generals, with the Carthaginians and the brilliant Hannibal as prime examples. The Roman state excelled in its ability to marshal its resources, go after its foes relentlessly, and stick to the task stubbornly without cease or letup until the enemy was ground down into submission. An example was Rome’s systematic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, a process began in 220 BC, and that lasted over two centuries until its completion in 19 BC.
Such tenacity gave rise to one of history’s most chilling rejoinders, uttered in the midst of the Social War (91 – 88 BC) between Rome and her Italian allies. In that conflict Samnites, who had not forgotten their bitter wars against Rome from centuries ago, seized and fortified the town of Nola. Around 91 BC, a Roman army was sent to take it back. Its commander went to parley with the rebels, but the parties were unable to reach agreeable terms. As the Romans left, the Samnite leader taunted them with the boast that Nola would never surrender. Its fortifications were too powerful to storm, and the defenders could withstand a siege because they had enough supplies for ten years. The Roman commander’s reply, as seen below, was epic.
The Samnites seriously disliked the Romans, as evinced by their numerous wars against Rome. They were also famously stubborn. There was thus little reason to doubt that the Nola’s Samnite defenders would continue to fight unless the Romans improved their terms. However, the Romans were even more stubborn. To the Samnite commander’s taunt that Nola had enough supplies for ten years, the Roman commander replied “then we shall take Nola in the eleventh year“. He was in deadly earnest. The Roman general and future dictator Sulla was put in charge of the siege of Nola to keep it under tight siege. The Social War ended in 88 BC, and the siege of Nola went on.
A Roman civil war broke out between Sulla and Marius. Sulla marched on Rome, and left a legion behind to continue the Siege of Nola. Sulla chased Marius out of Italy and executed some of his followers, then headed east to fight a war against King Mithridates of Pontus. The siege of Nola went on. The Marians came back, retook Rome, and executed an even bigger batch of Sullans before Marius dropped dead. The siege of Nola went on. Then Sulla came back, retook Rome, made himself dictator, and subjected the Marians to a bloodbath that claimed thousands. All throughout, the siege of Nola, virtually forgotten by the outside world, went on. Finally, in the eleventh year of the siege, in 80 BC, Nola’s defenders ran out of supplies and were starved into surrender.
10. The Start of the Decline of the Roman Republic
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC), a Roman tribune of the plebes and a pro-commoners populares politician, met a violent end at the hands of Rome’s conservative upper classes. His widowed mother Cornelia, who became known as “Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi”, was a daughter of Scipio Africanus, the general who had defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War. She had refused a marriage proposal from King Ptolemy VIII to devote herself to her children. Tiberius’ political platform revolved around public lands that had been steadily concentrated into illegal giant estates controlled by Rome’s patrician senators. That threatened to extinguish the class of small independent farmers who formed the backbone of the Roman military.
Tiberius had served in the military as a young man, and he noticed that the legions faced a manpower crisis. Rome’s legions were drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves, mostly independent farmers. However, the class of independent farmers had drastically shrunk over a generation, as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by Roman elites. In addition to illegality, it drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty. That diminished the pool of prospective legionaries. Tiberius sponsored agrarian reform laws to redistribute those public lands from the elites to the commoners. Unsurprisingly, his efforts were met by a vicious backlash from the elites.
Tiberius Gracchus wanted to save the independent Roman farmers. So he proposed agrarian reforms to break the giant estates illegally seized by the elites from public lands, and redistribute them in small parcels to lower-class citizens. He was vehemently opposed by the Rome’s elites. When he nonetheless pushed through legislation that began to redistribute the land, he was taken out by a senatorial mob in a riot organized by optimates. That was the name of a faction of conservatives who sought to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the tribunes, and extend that of the pro-aristocratic Senate. It was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence.
That broke two taboos: one against political violence in general, and one against violence against a tribune of the plebes, whose persons had been deemed sacrosanct and inviolate for centuries. Violence begat violence, and Tiberius Gracchus’ political murder ushered in nearly a century of turmoil. The Roman Republic eventually tore itself apart in bouts of civil wars and bloody political purges. In a historic irony, the violence fell disproportionately upon and virtually wiped out the very patrician and senatorial class whose interests the optimates sought to advance.
8. A Brother Who Followed in the Footsteps of His Tragic Sibling
The reformist torch of Tiberius Gracchus was picked by his younger brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 – 121 BC). Gaius was influenced by his brother’s reform policies and his end at the hands of a senatorial mob, and followed in his footsteps. He became a tribune of the plebes, a populares politician who advanced the cause of the plebeians, and an advocate of agrarian reform. He also followed in Tiberius’ footsteps as a victim of political violence when the conservative Roman Senate and the optimates murdered him.
Elected a tribune of the plebes in 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus made innovative use of the popular assemblies to push through legislation to reenact his brother’s agrarian reforms. He also advocated other measures to lessen the power of the patrician senators. Gaius also pushed through legislation to provide all Romans with subsidized wheat, and was reelected tribune in 122 BC. In 121 BC, the Senate and the Roman conservative elites once again turned to political violence, and organized a riot to go after a tribune.
7. In Hindsight, Roman Conservatives Would Have Been Better Off if They Had Allowed a Little Change
When Roman conservatives murdered one of Gaius Gracchus’ supporters, he and his followers retreated to the Aventine Hill, the traditional asylum of plebeians in an earlier age. In response, the Senate enacted a novel decree that ordered the consuls to go after Gaius, which they did with a mob. When he saw that all was lost, Gaius committed suicide, while the mob fell upon and massacred hundreds of his followers, then threw their bodies into the Tiber River. In the long run, the political murders of the Gracchi brothers backfired upon the optimates‘ cause and the patrician senatorial class whose interests they sought to advance.
Roman patricians were virtually exterminated in rounds of proscriptions that ended members of their class and confiscated the properties. First, the dictator Sulla went after the populares after his victory in Rome’s first civil war. Then the pendulum swung a generation later. Octavian and Mark Antony went after the optimates in an even bloodier and more thorough proscription after their victory in a civil war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. What relatively few patricians survived were gradually taken out later as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors. By the end of the first century AD, the Roman patrician class was virtually extinct.
History’s best dictator was probably Gaius Octavius, better known as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD). Rome’s first emperor, Octavius was born into an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage, and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand-uncle launched his grand-nephew into public life, and groomed him to be his heir. Octavius was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies, when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.
When he got back to Rome, Octavius learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. He was advised to decline the dangerous inheritance, but he ignored the advice and went to Rome. There, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will. Caesar’s assassins, from the conservative faction known as the optimates, ignored the teenaged Octavius. Cicero, one of Rome’s prominent elder statesmen and a key member of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him. He quipped that he would: “raise, praise, then erase” the young man. He was mistaken.
5. Underestimating This Teenager Turned Out to Be a Huge Mistake
Everybody in the Roman political scene underestimated Octavius. They took him for a lightweight teenager whose only asset was the famous Caesar name. However, the unprepossessing young man – he was frail and prone to illness throughout his life – was a master politician, and played a long game. The future emperor paid for public games in honor of Julius Caesar, his adoptive father. He sought to gain recognition and popularity, and to lead Rome’s populist faction, fittingly known as the populares. Octavius also set out to woo Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side.
He succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations. With a military force at Octavius’ command, Cicero’s faction sought his aid. They bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his being legally below the minimum age, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were exterminated. Octavius got the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship, once again despite the fact that he was legally too young for the position.
Once he got the Senate to make him consul, Octavius promptly double-crossed the senators who had bent the rules to get him the position. He reached an agreement with Mark Antony to share power in a joint dictatorship. A generation earlier, after his victory in the first Roman civil war, the dictator Sulla, head of the conservative patrician optimates faction, had gone after the populares faction that had stood for the Roman commoners. Sulla murdered the populares by the thousands in terrifying proscriptions. The conservative victory was not permanent, however.
Once Octavius secured power at the head of the populares, he paid back the optimates in full, and with interest. A generation after the Sulla at the head of the patrician optimates devastated the populares faction, the pendulum swung. Octavius and Mark Antony, now leading the populares, went after the optimates in even bloodier and more thorough proscriptions than those of Sulla against the populares. The duo launched a massive purge that executed thousands of Rome’s conservative optimates. They also ended other suspected opponents, including Cicero, who had tried to follow a centrist path but only ended up offending both sides.
3. The Consolidation of the Roman World Under Augustus’ Rule
After they slaughtered the Roman conservative faction and broke its back for good, Octavius and Mark Antony next went to war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. They defeated them, and exacted revenge. In subsequent generations, in the Roman Empire, what remained of the patrician class was gradually exterminated. Patricians were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until they became virtually extinct. After they defeated their enemies, Octavius and Mark Antony swore friendship. To seal their agreement to share power, Antony married Octavius’ sister.
The duo then divided the Roman world. Antony was given the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west. However, they fell out when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, married her, and abandoned Octavius’ sister. The future emperor used that family insult as a pretext to attack Antony. He defeated his former partner in 31 BC, and became Rome’s sole ruler. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, which finally brought the entire Roman world under his control.
2. The Death of the Roman Republic, and Birth of the Roman Empire
After he defeated Mark Antony, Octavius reorganized the state. He ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city-state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire. The Republic’s fraying institutions had led to a century of chaos and bloodshed, until the reins of power were taken in hand by Octavius. Because he had ended generations of chaos and restored stability, the Roman Senate granted Octavius the honorific title “Augustus”, by which he is known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established the Roman Empire, with himself as its de facto dictator.
Rome’s elites had hated Octavius’ uncle Julius Caesar because of the perception that he wanted to be king – a title and position that the Romans loathed. The Roman Republic had a legal office of dictator, who had nearly absolute and semi-monarchical powers, but only for a maximum term of six months. In 82 BC Sulla had himself appointed dictator with no time limit set on his office, but he resigned the following year. By contrast, Julius Caesar had first gotten himself appointed dictator for ten years, then extended it to dictator for life. That made him king in all but name, so Rome’s traditionalists did away with him. Augustus would not repeat his uncle’s mistake.
After Caesar’s assassination, the office of dictator was formally abolished. In 23 BC, the Senate offered to revive the office and make Augustus dictator. Augustus was well aware of his uncle’s fate and wanted to avoid it, so he declined. However, he accepted the executive powers of a consul for life, as well as those of a tribune – whose person was theoretically inviolate. Thus, Augustus effectively assumed the powers of a dictator for life, without the title. That setup was passed on to his successors. The Roman Empire ushered in by Augustus as dictator in fact but not in name, replaced the Roman Republic.
The new state was a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy, whose founding kicked off a period known as the Pax Romana. It brought the Roman world two centuries of peace and prosperity. Augustus held power from 43 BC, first in conjunction with Mark Antony until 31 BC, and thereafter alone, until his death in 14 AD. As he lay on his deathbed, Augustus compared the role he had played as emperor to that of an actor on a stage. His last words to those gathered around his deathbed were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading