Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On

Khalid Elhassan - July 8, 2022

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Roman senatorial mob ends Tiberius Gracchus. Pinterest

9. A Roman Reformer Snuffed Out by Conservatives

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Romans conducting a siege. World History Encyclopedia

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
The Gracchi brothers, Gaius, left, and Tiberius. Ancient Rome

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Roman Senate. World History Encyclopedia.

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
The flight of Gaius Gracchus from a mob. Eon Images

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
A session of Roman Senate. ThoughtCo.

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
The death of Octavius’ uncle, Julius Caesar. Smithsonian Magazine

6. Rome’s First Emperor

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Bust of Octavius, and a reconstruction of how he would have look. Royalty Now

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Roman gold aureus depicting Mark Antony, left, and Octavius, right, struck in 41 BC to celebrate their power-sharing agreement. Coin Talk

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Octavius and Mark Antony oversee the proscription of optimates in 43 BC. Alamy

4. The Deadly Pendulum Swings of Roman Politics

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Cicero was among those who underestimated Octavius. Senteniae Antiquae

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Augustus at the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, by Lionel Royer. Pinterest

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
‘The Emperor Augustus Rebukes Cinna for his Treachery’, by Etienne Jean Delecluze, 1814 – Augustus pardoned Cinna and gave him a government position. Van Go Yourself

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Augustus at the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria, by Lionel Royer. Pinterest

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Roman Emperor Augustus. Wikimedia

1. Augustus Exited the Scene in Style

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.

Every Day Life in Ancient Rome was More Scandalous than Historians Let On
Augustus. Khan Academy

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.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – Ancient Romans Brushed Their Teeth With Urine

AV Club – Wikipedia Erected a Page to Explain Ancient Rome’s Fascination With the Phallus

Ball, Warwick – Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire (2000)

Best Glam Health and Lifestyle – Gladiator Sweat and Other Surprising Aphrodisiacs of the Ancient World

Daily Beast – How a Fart Killed 10,000 People

Dawson, Jim – Who Cut the Cheese? A Cultural History of the Fart (1998)

Eck, Werner – The Age of Augustus (2002)

Folk Texts – Breaking Wind: Legendary Farts

Goldsworthy, Adrian – Augustus: First Emperor of Rome (2014)

Goldsworthy, Adrian – The Complete Roman Army (2003)

Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct., 1932) – Cremation and Burial in the Roman Empire

History Collection – Celebrities in the Ancient World

Kang, Lydia – Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything (2017)

Mayo Clinic – Lead Poisoning

Med Page Today – Gladiator Blood and Liquid Gold: Good for What Ails You?

Messy Nessy Chic – When the Phallus Was Fashion

Nature, May 24th, 2016 – The Secret History of Ancient Toilets

Parkin, Tim, and Pomeroy, Arthur – Roman Social History (2007)

Plutarch – The Parallel Lives: The Life of Tiberius Gracchus

Scullard, Howard Hayes – From the Gracchi to Nero (1982)

Severy, Beth – Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire (2003)

Ranker – What it Was Like to Live in Ancient Rome During its Golden Age

Rowell, Henry Thompson – Rome in the Augustan Age (1962)

Sherwood, Andrew N., et al Greek and Roman Technology, a Sourcebook of Translated Greek and Roman Texts (2019)

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Augustus

Vintage News – The Romans Used Urine For Mouthwash

Washington Post, February 17th, 2016 – Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome

Watson, George Ronald – The Roman Soldier (1969)

World History Encyclopedia – The Roman Funeral

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