Weird as we might think the world is getting today, it probably doesn’t come anywhere close to the odd, fascinating, and sometimes bonkers bizarre weird stuff that used to go on in the ancient world. Following are forty things about lesser known facts from ancient history, that most people don’t know about.
40. Roman Fathers Could Sell Their Kids Into Slavery – But Only Three Times
Whatever complaints might be made about the patriarchy today, it was nothing like the patriarchy back in the days of ancient Rome. There, the degree of authority that a Roman head of the household, or pater familias, exercised over the family would shock modern sensibilities. At the lower end of the spectrum, Roman law and tradition granted the family patriarch the power to reject or approve the marriages of his sons and daughters. At the more extreme end, those laws and traditions granted Roman patriarchs a literal power of life and death over their family. Indeed, in some instances, such as when it came to deformed babies, Roman law mandated that the patriarch put to death infants with obvious deformities.
Roman law also granted fathers the right to sell their children into slavery. It was not the kind of thing that was done as a matter of routine, but typically happened only in dire circumstances, when hard pressed patriarchs sought to ease their burdens. While the practice was not widespread, it did take place from time to time. However – and for what it was worth for the kids – a father’s right to sell his kids was not absolute. He could only do so a maximum of three times – assuming the kids regained their freedom after each occurrence – before the thrice enslaved kids were deemed forever free from his familial authority.
39. Roman Dads Could Kill Their Daughters and Those Defiling Them
The Roman patriarch’s powers of life and death over his family members were particularly evident when it came to his authority over the women of the family. Notwithstanding the ancient Romans’ reputation for licentiousness and debauchery and wild orgies, they managed to indulge in such carnal excesses while simultaneously viewing adultery as a serious matter. Not just on moral grounds, but also because it introduced the possibility of illegitimate heirs to a pater familias’ estate. When Augustus became emperor, he sought to restore traditional values with a slate of morality laws aimed at combating adultery – defined as a woman having sex with a man who was not her husband. However, sex with female slaves and prostitutes did not count.
One of Augustus’ morality laws, enacted in 18 BC, codified a father’s traditional rights if he caught somebody engaged in adultery with his daughter. The father could legally kill the lover, as well as his daughter, whether in his own house or in the house of his son in law. Ironically, Augustus’ own daughter, Julia the Elder, ran afoul of those anti-adultery laws. He did not kill her, but to save face, he had her exiled in 2 BC, first to a small island, then to a tiny village in the toe of Italy. She remained in exile for the rest of her life. In 8 AD, Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger, also got caught up in an adultery scandal with a Roman Senator. He had her exiled to a remote island, where she gave birth to a love child. Augustus ordered the infant exposed.
38. The Romans Super Frowned Upon Kids Killing Their Dads
Considering the extraordinary powers – we might call them excessive nowadays – that Roman fathers exercised over their offspring, it is perhaps unsurprising that, from time to time, some kids snapped and did in the patriarchs. It also unsurprising that, ancient Rome being as pure a distillation of patriarchy as ever existed, that patriarchy took a particularly dim view of the crime of murdering a patriarch. Romans – or at least Roman law – was particularly horrified and revolted by patricide, or the killing of one’s father. So they expressed their abhorrence with a particularly inventive punishment: poena cullei, or the “Punishment of the Sack”.
Those convicted of patricide were first severely beaten with blood colored rods, while their heads were covered in a bag made of a wolf’ hide. Then the patricide was sewn into the poena cullei, a sack made of ox hide, together with an assortment of live animals including a snake, a rooster, a monkey, and a dog. The sack was then beaten to rile up the animals and get them to bite and tear at the patricide. It was then put on a cart driven by black oxen, to a river or the sea, where the sack and its occupants were thrown into the water.
37. Ancient Egyptians Had an Odd, and Oddly Effective, Pregnancy Test
Before modern medicine or even the concept of medicine as a professional discipline came into being, the ancients had no firm grasp on why some women became pregnant and others did not. Nor did they have any way of predicting pregnancy, or telling the gender of a fetus in a woman’s womb. That did not stop some ancient healers – whether they were charlatans or whether the were simply acting on sincerely held but mistaken beliefs – from trying. Some of those tries even worked. One of the earliest written records of a pregnancy is found in an ancient Egyptian papyrus, dating to around 1350 BC. It called for a woman who might be pregnant to pee on wheat and barley seeds over the course of several days.
According to the ancient Eyptian test: “If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all“. Surprisingly, when tested in 1963, it turned out there might be something to the ancient Egyptian pregnancy test. It did nothing for predicting gender, but the urine of pregnant women actually promoted growth 70% of the time, while the pee of non-pregnant women (and men) did not. It was the earliest known example of testing for pregnancy by detecting something unique in the urine of pregnant women. In this case, the elevated levels of estrogen in pregnant women’s urine might have been the key to the test’s success.
Another odd ancient Egyptian pregnancy test, although less successful than the peeing on wheat and barley seeds one, had to do with garlic. Egyptian women who might be pregnant would place a clove of raw garlic next to their cervix when they went to bed at night. When they woke up the next morning, if the sulfuric taste of garlic had migrated to their mouth, they were thought to be pregnant. Unfortunately, it does not seem that any modern scientific tests have supported the effectiveness of the garlic pregnancy test.
Egyptian men also had a special use for garlic. The ancient Greek philosopher Charmidas wrote that Egyptian husbands chewed garlic cloves on their way home from their mistresses, so their wives would not suspect that anybody would have been kissing them with such bad breath. Other ancient cultures ascribed various medicinal properties to garlic, from relieving headaches to curing rabies. The Roman naturalist Pliny thought garlic could sap a magnet’s power, while Roman legionaries were fed garlic in the belief that it would give them courage. Either that, or repel the enemy with their garlic breath.
35. Ancient Egyptians Might Not Exactly Have Loved Cats The Way We Think They Did
If there is one animal that the people most commonly associates with ancient Egypt, it is probably cats. And for good reason: there are thousands of cat statutes all over the place, and millions of mummified cats. Indeed, so common were mummified cats, that archaeologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries frequently observed Egyptian farmers crushing and using them as fertilizers. However, recent discoveries and research indicates that while cats were popular in ancient Egypt, the reason for that popularity was nothing like the reason for cats’ popularity today.
In a nutshell, most ancient Egyptians did not see cats like we do, as pets and cute companions. Instead, they viewed cats as religious sacrifices, to be killed in order to please one of their gods. Those millions of mummified cats? They were not dear pets, lovingly preserved by their saddened owners after their demise. Instead, they were bred by the millions near temples, and soon as they got big enough – usually about 5 or 6 months old, but sometimes as young as 2 to 4 months old – they were sold to worshipers as offerings, to sacrifice at the temple. So while ancient Egyptians esteemed cats, it was a different kind of esteem than what most people assume.
34. Ancient Greeks and Romans Had Flush Toilets and Public Restrooms
In the second millennium, BC, the Minoans of ancient Crete developed toilets with a capacity to flush the waste. For centuries, that remained a luxury available only to the elites, until the first millennium BC, when the spread of prosperity allowed the introduction of flush toilets to middle class houses. Before long, some ancient Greek cities had built 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.
In the ancient world, it was the Romans, however, who made the most use of flush technology and public latrines. By the 1st century BC, many Roman houses had private flush toilets that were connected to the public drainage system, and public restrooms were a common feature in cities and towns. They did not have private stalls, however: 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 resorted to 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.
33. Ancient Women Dyed Their Hair With Lead and Sulfur
Dyeing hair has been popular for thousands of years, but until the arrival of modern science, people often flew blind when it came to selecting and applying hair dye ingredients. As a result, dyeing one’s hair was often a fraught affair, with risks ranging from the cosmetic of hair damage or destruction at the low end, to catastrophic damage to health at the high end. In ancient Rome, the safer end included temporary dyes such as henna, and odd dyes such as a paste made of pigeon dung and earthworms to lighten the hair, or the ashes of donkey testicles to fight hair loss.
The more dangerous end of the spectrum included substances such as lead and sulfur. Both ancient Greeks and Romans – who probably learned it from the Greeks – used lead and sulfur in their concoctions when they wanted a permanent hair dye. Their hair probably looked great as a result, but the health consequences could be extreme. For example, we now know such exposure to lead could lead to maladies that include headaches, weight loss, miscarriages, birth defects, seizures, and death, among many other bad side effects.
32. The Romans’ Lead Exposure Levels Were Off the Charts
Today, we try to keep as far away from lead as possible. We don’t allow it in children’s toys, and are backing off of using it in paint. The ancients, however, did not know what we know about lead. The use of lead in Roman hair dyes was just one illustration of a widespread Roman tendency to use it in ways that modern science has revealed to be extremely dangerous. There is a theory that Romans – particularly elite Romans who could afford it – used lead pipes to carry water into their homes, resulting in widespread lead poisoning. It might also shed light on what made so many Roman rulers were so nutty.
Whatever the merits of that theory – and modern research indicates that lead levels from Roman pipes might not have been that dangerous – Romans where exposed to lead in a variety of other ways that ensured they ingested it at exceptionally high levels. For example, the Romans used cooking pots made of lead. They drank water and wine from lead jugs, poured into lead cups. They used amphorae to transport and store chief staples such as wine, olive oil, and their favorite sauce – a rotten fish concoction called garum. To seal those amphorae, they routinely used lead, with the result that 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. They also used lead in jewelry, to help keep precious stones in place.
The Romans, who liked to see themselves as the serious and stolid types, went in for the stiff upper lip and avoiding excessive displays of emotion. That, however, created a bit of a conundrum when it came to funerals. 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 for upper class Romans – was seen as somewhat gauche and undignified. So they solved that by hiring professional mourners.
For a fee, special women could be hired to do all the extraordinary wailing and ostentatious displays of grief – the kinds of emotional displays that custom kept well born Roman women from demonstrating in public. The professional mourners would weep to impress the crowds, and to seriously sell their sadness, they would throw dust and dirt on themselves, tear out their hair, rip their clothes, and scratch their faces until they drew blood. Eventually, those ostentatious displays of professional mourning 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“.
Although disgusting, dung is widely available, and at some point some ancient decided to use it as a medicine. Whether for better or for worse, the exact details of how somebody first arrived at that brainstorm are lost in the mists of history, but it must have been an interesting tale. However it came about, by the time civilization arose, poop was frequently used in treating maladies. For example, the ancient Egyptians swore by the healing properties of gazelle, donkey, dog, and fly dung, and the ability of those animals’ droppings to ward off evil spirits. They also used animal poop to heal their wounds. On the one hand, that might have caused tetanus and other infections on occasion, especially when applying poop to wounds. On the other hand, the microflora in some animal dung contains antibiotics, so the remedy might actually have worked every now and then.
However, fly dung in particular raises a fascinating question: just how did the ancient Egyptians, long before microscopes were invented, even manage to spot, let alone gather, tiny fly turds? The ancient Greeks borrowed a lot from the Egyptians, including the medical prescription for using crocodile poop as birth control. Ancient Greek women believed that inserting crocodile dung in their vaginas would serve as a powerful contraceptive. Who knows: perhaps it actually worked, at least in the sense that encountering a vagina full of crocodile poop might have been such a huge turn off that it averted sex from occurring in the first place?
29. The Weirdest Death Caused by the Medicinal Use of Poop
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) was a self-taught man who advanced the notion that the universe is constantly changing. He was critical of other philosophers, had a dim view of humanity, loathed mobs and democracy, and preferred instead rule by a few wise men – a concept later distilled by Plato into the ideal ruler being a philosopher-king. Deeming wealth a form of punishment, Heraclitus wished upon his fellow Ephesians, whom he hated, that they be cursed with wealth as punishment. In short, Heraclitus was a misanthrope, and his misanthropy made him to avoid contact with other people for long stretches. During those times, he wandered alone through mountains and wilderness, surviving on plants and whatever he could scavenge. As Diogenes summed him up: “finally, [Heraclitus] became a hater of his kind, and roamed the mountains, surviving on grass and herbs“.
The belief in poop’s healing properties did him in. Heraclitus came down with dropsy, or edema – a painful accumulation of fluids beneath the skin and in the body’s cavities. Healers were unable to help, so Heraclitus, the self taught philosopher, sought to apply his self teaching skills to medicine and heal himself. He tried the unusual cure of covering himself in cow dung, on the theory that the warmth of the manure would dry and draw out of him the “noxious damp humor”, or the fluids accumulated beneath his skin. Covering himself in cow manure, Heraclitus lay out in the sun to dry, but the cow dung dried around him into a body cast. He was thus immobilized, and unable to shoo off a pack of dogs that came upon him in his vulnerable state, and ate him alive.
28. The Wise Man Who Laid the Foundations of Classical Athens
For millennia, wealth equated power, both were based on land ownership, and that ownership was disproportionately concentrated in the hands of hereditary aristocrats. Ancient Athens, like the rest of Greece, was dominated by nobles who owned the best land and monopolized government. The Athenian region of Attica was made of three parts: The Plains, a prosperous agricultural interior; The Coast, which relied on fishing and trade; and The Hills, an impoverished region containing a majority of the population, mostly shepherds and small farmers scratching a living from poor soil. Over the centuries, a pattern had developed in which poor farmers borrowed seed from rich aristocrats to plant, then repaid the loan at harvest time with grain and labor. That pattern was disrupted in the 7th century BC when the non aristocratic Athenians of the coast got into seaborne trade, and bought land with their profits.
Using slave labor, the newly enriched merchants farmed their lands more efficiently than the aristocrats. The aristocrats, outcompeted by the nouveau riche, resorted to squeezing their poorer neighbors, enslaving them and seizing their farms whenever they failed to repay their loans on time. That outraged other Athenians – not that they objected to slavery per se, but to the enslavement of Athenians. Between that, and the resentment of the middling farmers, craftsmen, and rising merchants at their exclusion from government, Athens was on the brink of revolution. So the citizens met in the Ecclesia, the Athenian Assembly, and entrusted Solon (circa 630 – 560 BC), a respected aristocrat, to reform Athens, binding themselves with solemn oaths to accept his decisions. His reforms ended up laying the foundations of Athenian democracy, and earned him the nickname “The Lawgiver”.
27. Solon Resolved a Crisis by Making Everybody Unhappy
Solon’s reforms solved the immediate problem of factional strife, although it upset everybody. The wealthy were upset because he canceled debts, freed the Athenian debt slaves, and prohibited the future enslavement of Athenians. The aristocrats were upset because Solon ended their monopoly on power by granting the vote to all adult male citizens, regardless of class or wealth. The poor were upset because he did not return the lands that had been seized by the aristocrats, refused to break up the big estates and redistribute the land, and because he reserved all posts in the Athenian government for the wealthy. And the newly rich were unhappy because some government positions were reserved for aristocrats, to the exclusion of non nobles.
Despite the discontent, the Athenians kept their promise to accept Solon’s decision. In order to avoid having to constantly defend and explain his reforms, Solon left the Athenians to work out the kinks in his new system, and went traveling for ten years. His reforms alleviated the immediate crisis and averted civil war, but they did not resolve many underlying tensions that would continue to plague Athens for years. Solon took the first steps by making all citizens equal before the law and reducing the power of the aristocracy, but it would take generations of reformers to build upon and fine tune what he had created before Athenian democracy was firmly established.
When Solon returned from traveling, Athens had divided into regional factions. One of them was controlled by Peisistratos, a popular general whom Solon suspected of planning to overthrow the government and set himself up as tyrant. In Ancient Greece, “tyrant” did not carry the modern connotations of brutal oppression. It had instead a narrower meaning of a populist strongman who, with a support base of commoners excluded from power by an aristocracy, overthrew an oligarchy and replaced it with his own one man rule. Many tyrants were wildly popular – except with the aristocracy, of course. Commoners had little power in the aristocratic system, so they were no worse off ruled by one tyrant than when they had been ruled by a clique of nobles. Moreover, with the power of an overbearing aristocracy reduced, government under tyrants tended to be more equitable, rather than wildly skewed to benefit the nobles.
Commoners also tended to do better economically under tyrants, who usually encouraged activities such as commerce and crafts and manufactures. Such activities would have been viewed by the previously ruling aristocrats as gauche, and even threatening insofar as they destabilized the social order by making jumped up commoners as rich as or richer than their social betters. A tyranny was thus often a first step towards democracy, because it removed from its path the barrier and stranglehold of a strongly entrenched aristocracy. Tyrants had an interest in weakening the nobles who had monopolized power for centuries, so they adopted populist policies that appealed to commoners, whose support was necessary for the tyrant’s continued hold on power. Only after the aristocracy had been weakened, and its stranglehold on power broken, would there be an opening for democracy. That is what happened in Athens.
The hill district was Athens’ poorest and most populous region, and its impoverished residents got little from Solon’s reforms other than a meaningless vote. So they invited Peisistratos to make himself tyrant. With their support, he marched on the city in a procession headed by a tall girl dressed up as the goddess Athena, who blessed Peisistratos and declared it her divine will that he be made tyrant. The other Athenians saw through the mummery, and chased Peisistratos and his followers out of town. Fleeing, he bought silver and gold mines in northern Greece and got rich off their proceeds. Then, investing his wealth in mercenaries, Peisistratos returned to Athens and tried again, this time with a well equipped private army instead of a girl dressed up as a goddess. It worked, and in 546 BC, he overthrew the government and proclaimed himself tyrant.
Championing the lower classes, Peisistratos’ tyranny was wildly popular. He suppressed the feuding factions, exiled his aristocratic enemies, and confiscated their land holdings. He then broke up the confiscated estates into small farms and redistributed them to his followers, thus cementing their support. Peistrators also loaned small farmers money for tools; lowered taxes; standardized currency; enforced the laws evenly; promoted the growing of olives and grapes; encouraged commerce and craftsmen; funded popular religious rites such as the Dionysia; promoted theater, culture, and the arts; built an aqueduct; implemented a public buildings program, and beautified the city. By the time Peisistratos died, circa 527 BC, Athens was peaceful and more prosperous than it had ever been, with a growing and increasingly affluent middle class.
24. The Sacrilegious Trick That Freed Athens From Tyranny
After Peisistratos died in 527 BC, he was succeeded as co-tyrants by his sons Hippias and Hipparchus. The duo governed Athens competently and with a light hand, until Hipparchus was assassinated in 514 BC in a private feud stemming from a romance that went bad. After his brother’s assassination, Hippias grew paranoid, and his rule became oppressive as he lashed out indiscriminately at enemies real and imagined. As the number of Hippias’ victims and exiles forced to flew Athens grew, the popularity that tyranny had enjoyed in his father’s day declined. One exile was Cleisthenes, who began plotting with other exiles to overthrow the tyranny.
Invasion was considered, but Hippias had a well equipped army, while the exiles did not, and lacked the funds for an army of their own. So they set out to secure aid from of Sparta, which had the Greek world’s best army, to liberate Athens. The Spartans were famous for their piety, so to get them to help, the Athenian exiles bribed the priests of Delphi, the Greek world’s most important religious site and home of the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle, which for centuries had given petitioners cryptic answers that could be interpreted in a variety of ways, suddenly began giving every Spartan who showed up the same uncryptic answer: “LiberateAthens!” So the Spartans marched into Attica in 508 BC, liberated Athens, then marched back home.
Cleisthenes, born circa 570 BC and referred to as “The Father of Athenian Democracy”, is credited with creating the system that governed Athens during the Classical era. When Sparta left Athens after defeating the tyrant Hippias, the Athenians were left to govern themselves. They immediately split into rival camps: oligarchs led by Isagoras, who wanted government returned to the hands of the wealthy, and populists led by Cleisthenes and comprising a majority of Athenians, who declared Athens a democracy ruled by a popular Assembly. Cleisthenes’ camp prevailed, but the oligarchic faction solicited Spartan aid to overthrow the democracy. The Spartans, no fans of democracy, sent another army to Attica, overthrew the democracy, and replaced it with an oligarchy.
Cleisthenes and 700 democracy-supporting Athenian families were exiled. However, the exiles soon returned, the population rose up in revolt, and the aristocratic faction and the Spartans were besieged in the Acropolis, Athens’ fortified hilltop. The rebels allowed the Spartans to leave, but the Athenian anti-democrats were massacred to a man. Having decisively dealt with the oligarchic threat, Cleisthenes set about establishing the Athenian democracy. The major reform was the reorganization of the citizen body (demos) of Athens.
Before the democrats gained power, the Athenians had been grouped into four tribes, based on kin groups. Cleisthenes argued that such grouping lent itself too readily to factionalism. So he replaced that with an artificial classification system that divided the citizen body into ten at-large tribes, with membership drawn at random from all classes and all parts of Attica. With each tribe thus containing a representative sample of the entire population, including all classes and regions, the incentives for parochialism would be eliminated, as no tribe would have cause to act out of geographical or familial loyalties at the expense of Athens as a whole. That drastically reduced the factionalism that had plagued Athens for generations. Cleisthenes’ reforms also granted the entire male citizen population access to institutions and powers previously reserved for the aristocracy.
Another of Cleisthenes’ reforms was ostracism, whereby an annual vote would be held in which each citizen could name any person he thought was too dangerous or getting too powerful for the good of the city. The citizen receiving the most votes – which were written on bits of broken pottery known as ostra, hence “ostracism” –would be exiled for ten years, without prejudice to his property while he was gone, or to his citizenship rights upon his return. A new council, the boule, was also created, in which all citizens had the right to speak. Cleisthenes’ reforms thus established basic democracy in Athens, and created the constitutional structure by which further incremental reforms would be made in subsequent decades to transform Athens into a direct democracy.
21. The Radical and His Protege Who Perfected Democracy
Classical Athens’ final transformation into a radical democracy is credited to the reformer Ephialtes (died 461 BC). He was opposed by the conservative upper classes, led by Cimon, son of Miltiades. The conservatives began the contest with the upper hand and control of the Athenian Assembly. That changed in 464 BC, when Sparta appealed to Athens for help in suppressing a Helot serf revolt. Over Ephialtes’ strong objections, Cimon carried the day and convinced the Assembly to send an Athenian force to help Sparta. However, when the Athenians arrived, the Spartans changed their minds. Fearing that their democratic notions might infect their remaining Helots and inflame them into joining the revolt, the Spartans sent the Athenians back. Cimon’s humiliated faction lost credibility, and leading conservatives were tried for corruption. Ephialtes engineered Cimon’s ostracism and exile, became Athens’ leader, and launched a program of radical reforms.
Ephialtes’ greatest reform was to emasculate the Areopagus, a council of elders that was more conservative than the citizen Assembly. It served as Athens’ highest court, with a constitutional review that gave it a veto over the more democratic Assembly. Ephialtes stripped the Areopagus of nearly all its powers, transferring them to more democratic bodies whose membership was drawn by lot, such as the Boule and the Heliaia. The Areopagus’ jurisdiction was narrowed to murder and arson cases. Ephialtes also reduced property qualifications for office holders, and introduced pay for the holders of public office, thus enabling poorer citizens to hold offices that previously had been the preserve of the wealthy. His reforms were strongly resented by the oligarchic faction, who assassinated him in 461 BC. His deputy, Pericles, took the leadership reins, and completed Ephialtes’ agenda, finalizing the transformation of Athens into a direct democracy.
Ephialtes’ protege Pericles (495 – 429 BC) became Athens’ dominant political figure in the mid 5th century BC. The Athenian golden age, during which the city reached the apogee of its power and its empire reached its greatest extent, is also known as the “Age of Pericles”. The son of a prominent and populist general, Pericles grew up wealthy, and was a patron of culture and the arts since his youth. Aeschylus’ oldest surviving play, The Persians, was paid for by Pericles in 472 BC. Pericles was also a friend and patron of Phidias, Ancient Greece’s greatest sculptor. During the Periclean Age, Athens flowered into a center of culture, art, education, and democracy.
Inheriting his father’s democratic leanings, Pericles became the deputy and right hand man of Athenian radical democratic leader Ephialtes in the 460s BC. When Ephialtes was assassinated in 461 BC, Pericles stepped into his shoes, completed his reform agenda, and dominated Athens until his death in 429 BC. A hawk, Pericles was a proponent of expanding Athens’ power abroad, and throughout his years in power aggressively advocated the expansion of Athenian dominance in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.
19. Athens Reached Its Zenith Under Pericles, Then Collapsed After His Death
After Persian invaders were kicked out of Greece in 479 BC, Greek city states led by Athens formed a defensive alliance headquartered in the island of Delos, that came to be known as the Delian League. Pericles transformed that alliance into a de facto Athenian empire whose members were not permitted to leave, and who were compelled to pay annual taxes and other contributions into a treasury controlled by Athens. By the 440s BC, any remaining pretense was abandoned, and the Delian treasury was transferred from Delos to Athens, where it was used it to pay for a magnificent public works program. Athens’ logic might have been: “The alliance’s goal is to keep the Persians away. Do you see any Persians? No? Then pay up“. Athens’ grandest monuments, such as the Acropolis and the Parthenon, were paid for by that act of brazen embezzlement.
In 431 BC, the drawn out Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC) between Athens and Sparta began. Pericles ably led his city in the first two years, successfully neutralizing Sparta’s advantages as the Greek world’s most formidable land power, while leveraging Athens’ sea power to take the war to Sparta and her allies. However, a plague struck Athens in 429 BC, and Pericles was one of its victims. Athens failed to produce another leader of Pericles’ caliber. The city, led by a series of lesser men during the prolonged conflict, lurched from mistake to mistake, until the war ended in catastrophic Athenian defeat and collapse in 404 BC.
18. Augustus Shuffled Off the Mortal Coil With Cool Last Words
Gaius Octavius (63 BC – 14 AD), better known as the emperor Augustus, began his rise to power at age 19, following the assassination of his uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar in 44 BC. A shrewd political operator, the teenager played the competing Roman factions against each other, steadily accumulating power in the process. Within two years, he was running the Roman Republic along with Mark Antony and a third wheel named Lepidus (who was soon eased out of power), and had defeated Caesar’s assassins. By 31 BC, he emerged as Rome’s sole ruler, after defeating Antony and Cleopatra.
Octavius then set about reorganizing 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 and resulted in a century of chaos and bloodshed. In its place, Octavius, whom the Roman Senate granted the honorific “Augustus”, created the Roman Empire: a stable and centralized de-facto monarchy. That began a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity. As he lay on his deathbed in 14 AD, Augustus compared the role he had played as emperor to that of an actor in a theater. His last words were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit“.
Vespasian (9 – 79 AD) rose from humble origins to become emperor of Rome and found the Flavian Dynasty. His ancestors included a common legionary who rose in the ranks to become a centurion, a debt collector, and a small scale money lender with a clientele of barbarians. A self made man, Vespasian entered the cursus honorum (the career ladder of Roman officialdom) as a military tribune, and steadily rose through military and civilian positions of increasing responsibility. His first big break came during the invasion of Britain in 43 AD, when he displayed exceptional brilliance in command of a Roman legion, and won the esteem of the emperor Claudius. Vespasian’s success led to a consulship, but somewhere along the line he displeased the emperor’s wife, and was forced to retire.
Vespasian reemerged from retirement after Claudius’ death in 54 AD, and won favor with the new emperor, Nero. However, his career was derailed when he gave offense by falling asleep while Nero was giving a lyre recital. Vespasian’s fortunes sank so low, that to make ends meet, the former general and consul became a muleteer. His fortunes revived when he was appointed to suppress the Jewish Rebellion in 67 AD, and he was busily engaged in that when Nero was forced from power and driven to suicide in 68. In the subsequent scramble for power, competing governors and generals mounted the throne in quick succession. By April of 69, the year was already known as “The Year of the Three Emperors”. Vespasian reasoned why not four? So he threw his hat into the ring, and set out to become emperor.
16. Vespasian Shuffled Off the Mortal Coil With a Joke
In the chaos following Nero’s suicide, Vespasian gathered support in the Roman east, declared himself emperor, sent his forces to Rome, and by the end of 69 AD, he had won. His rule was successful, as he restored stability and good governance, and launched a massive building and public works program. The man had a reputation for wit and amiability, and as emperor, he seldom stood on ceremony. Instead of pretentiousness, Vespasian cultivated a blunt and even coarse mannerism, and was given to forthright speech. Never forgetting his origins, he resisted the temptation to put on airs – a temptation to which most Roman emperors succumbed.
One of Vespasian’s revenue raising schemes was a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. His son and designated heir took him to task for that, arguing that it was beneath imperial dignity to collect revenue from bodily excreta. Vespasian responded by holding a coin beneath his son’s nose, and asking whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson by saying: “money does not smell” – which became a Latin proverb. He was witty to the literal end. Starting with Julius Caesar, who was declared a god after his assassination, Roman emperors who died in good repute were deified after death. When Vespasian was on his deathbed in 79 AD, he gave a final example of his lifelong penchant for not taking himself too seriously, and joked just before dying: “dear me, I think I am becoming a god“.
15. The Roman Republic’s Richest Man Took Avarice to New Heights (or Depths)
Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) was the Roman Republic’s richest man. As an ally of the dictator Sulla, Crassus started on the road to wealth by buying the confiscated properties of executed enemies of the state in rigged auctions, for a fraction of their value. Crassus even had the names of those whose property he coveted added to the lists of those slated for execution and confiscation of property. He continued to amass wealth and property after Sulla’s death, including a scheme involving a private firefighter company. Rome’s buildings were fire prone, so when one broke, Crassus would rush in and offer to buy the burning property then and there at a knockdown price – a literal fire sale. Soon as an agreement was reached, Crassus’ firefighters would spring into action to control the fire and rescue the property for its new owner.
By the 70s BC, Crassus was Rome’s richest man, and he leveraged his wealth into political power by sponsoring politicians such as Julius Caesar, whose political rise he financed. Eventually, Crassus entered into a power sharing agreement with Caesar and Pompey the Great known as “The First Triumvirate”, by which the trio divided the Roman Republic amongst themselves. However, the one thing Crassus wanted that his fellow Triumvirs had but he did not was military glory. Unlike Pompey’s and Caesar’s brilliant military records, Crassus’ only military accomplishment had been to crush Spartacus’ slave uprising, and that did not count for much in Roman eyes. As seen below, Crassus’ quest for military glory led him to an ignominious end.
To get some military glory, Crassus led an army of 50,000 to invade Parthia, a wealthy kingdom comprised of today’s Iraq and Iran. He trusted a local chieftain to guide him, but the guide was in Parthian pay. He led Crassus along an arid route, until, hot and thirsty, they reached Carrhae in today’s Turkey. There, Crasus and his army encountered a Parthian force of 9000 horse archers and 1000 armored cataphract heavy cavalry. Although they outnumbered the Parthians 5:1, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ uninspiring leadership. The mounted archers shot up the Romans from a distance, retreating whenever the Romans advanced. As casualties mounted, morale plummeted. Crassus, unable to think of a plan, rested his hopes on the Parthians running out of arrows. The Parthians however had a supply train of thousands of camels loaded with arrows.
Finally, Crassus ordered his son to take the Roman cavalry and some infantry, and drive off the horse archers. The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians rode back to Roman army, and taunted Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear. Shaken, Crassus retreated to Carrhae, abandoning thousands of his wounded. The Parthians invited him to negotiate, offering to let his army go in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant, but his men threatened to mutiny if he did not, so he went. Things went bad, violence broke out at the meeting, and it ended with Crassus and his generals killed. Mocking his avarice, the Parthians poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat. The surviving Romans fled, but most were hunted down and killed or captured. Out of Crassus’ 50,000, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.
13. Two Emperors’ Lucky Escape From a Natural Disaster
In 115 BC, Antioch was a flourishing and economically vibrant Greco-Roman city in Syria, and was the Roman Empire’s third biggest metropolis after Rome and Alexandria. On December 13th of that year, as described by the historian Cassius Dio, a loud and bellowing roar was heard in Antioch, then the ground started to violently vibrate and shake. People and entire trees were tossed up into the air as if they were water drops shaken off a wet dog’s fur, while buildings were lifted off the ground then slammed back down to earth. Many were killed or injured by falling debris, and many more by buildings collapsing atop and burying them. The aftershocks, which continued for days, killed and injured many survivors of the first day’s tremors. About 260,000 people lost their lives, and many more were injured and/or became homeless.
The Roman emperor Trajan and his chief deputy and successor, the future emperor Hadrian, were wintering in Antioch at the time, overseeing preparations for a military campaign against Parthia. Trajan managed to escape via a window from the building in which he had been housed, and was fortunate to suffer only light injuries. As buildings and debris kept falling due to aftershocks, the emperor and his entourage relocated to the open hippodrome, or race track, where they erected tents and set up house. His deputy Hadrian also escaped with only slight injuries, and both set to overseeing the recovery and rebuilding process, which was begun by Trajan, and after his death in 117, was continued and completed by his successor, Hadrian.
In 480 BC, Persia’s king Xerxes invaded Greece with a huge army. The Malians, in northeastern Greece, were among the many Greeks in the Persian army’s path who chose discretion over valor, and collaborated with the Persians against their fellow Greeks. Along the Persian army’s route through Malian lands was a narrow pass known as Thermopylae, or “hot gates”, situated between mountains to the south and the cliff-lined shore of the Malian Gulf to the north. A small Spartan led Greek force, under the command of Sparta’s king Leonidas, occupied and fortified the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians, forced to attack directly up the pass on a narrow front, were unable to make use of their advantages in numbers and cavalry, and were repeatedly bested by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks, especially the elite core of superbly trained Spartans.
The Persians were stuck at Thermopylae for three days, until a Malian, Ephialtes of Traches, told Xerxes of a mountain track that bypassed Thermopylae and reemerged to join the road behind the Greek position. In exchange for the promise of rich rewards, Ephialtes showed the Persians the way. Alerted that he was about to be outflanked, Leonidas sent the rest of the Greeks away, but stayed behind with what remained of a 300-strong contingent of Spartans, who fought to the death until they were wiped out. Ephialtes was reviled, and his name came to mean “nightmare” in Greek. He never collected his reward because the Persians were defeated at Salamis later that year, and at Platea the following year, and their invasion of Greece collapsed. Ephialtes fled, with a reward on his head. He was killed ten years later over an unrelated matter, but the Spartans rewarded his killer anyhow.
11. The Leader Who Saved Himself With a Rigged Lottery
Yosef ben Matityahu (37 – 100 AD), who went on to Latinize his name into Titus Flavius Josephus, was a Jewish general and leader who commanded rebel forces in Galilee at the start of the Great Jewish Revolt (66 – 73 AD). With a combination of guile and force – such as his bluffing the town of Tiberias into surrender with an overwhelming display of force from a navy of 230 boats that, unbeknownst to the Tiberans carried no more than five men each – Josephus brought Galilee under his control. Eventually, the Roman Empire struck back, and general Vespasian was appointed to crush the revolt. Vespasian marched from Syria into Judea, with Galilee as his first stop. Josephus gathered an army, but its undisciplined ranks broke and ran at the first sight of the Roman legions, and fled to the hilltop town of Jotapata.
There, Vespasian surrounded Josephus and his men, and after a 47 day siege, stormed the town. Josephus and the rebel leaders fled to a secret hiding place down a well. However, a prisoner told the Romans, who shouted an offer down the well for Josephus to surrender, as Vespasian wanted him alive. Josephus wanted to surrender, but the other leaders insisted that they all commit suicide instead – death before dishonour, and all that. So Josephus suggested they do so in an orderly fashion, by drawing lots, with the loser of each round getting killed by the others. Josephus rigged the lots, as one by one the leaders were killed, until he was one of only two men left alive, at which point he convinced the other survivor that they should surrender. They did. The Romans summarily executed the other man, but Josephus was taken in shackles to Vespasian.
When Josephus was brought before Vespasian, he claimed to be a prophet, and told the Roman general that he had a vision in which he saw Vespasian as emperor. Vespasian, who was already pondering a revolt, spared Josephus’ life and kept him as a prisoner. In 69 AD, after Nero’s ouster and suicide, three Roman generals had followed in quick succession as Roman emperors, and Vespasian decided that he should be the fourth. He led a successful revolt that put him on the throne, and recalling Josephus’ prophecy, ordered him freed. While Vespasian sailed off to Rome, Josephus joined Vespasian’s son, Titus, in besieging Jerusalem and finishing off the revolt.
After a horrific siege, the city fell in 70 AD. Titus ordered Jerusalem’s complete destruction, while tens of thousands of prisoners were sold off as slaves or forced to fight to death in games for Titus’ amusement and to celebrate his victory. Titus then took Josephus back with him to Rome, where he held a triumphal parade featuring captive rebel leaders chained to models of their towns on floats that paraded down Rome’s street, en route to their execution sites. Josephus joined Vespasian’s household, and spent the remainder of his life writing, leaving behind a valuable history of the Jewish Revolt.
9. How Alexander the Great Won a Victory by Lulling the Enemy
In 326 BC, Alexander the Great marched into the Punjab. Its king, Porus, beat the invaders to the Hydaspes river, which Alexander had to cross. When the Macedonians arrived, Porus camped across the river from Alexander, and shadowed the Macedonian’s movements from the opposite side, as the invader marched up and down the far bank, seeking a safe crossing. So long as Porus shadowed the Macedonians from the opposite bank, crossing the deep and fast-moving Hydaspes could prove catastrophic if made against opposition. The Indians would be able to strike the Macedonians at their most vulnerable mid-river, or fall upon and overwhelm a portion of Alexander’s on the Indian side of the river, before the crossing was completed. So Alexander set out to lull Porus by marching his troops up and down his side of the river each day.
The Indians vigilantly shadowed those movements at first, but over time, they became accustomed to them and grew complacent. Alexander then quietly drew off the bulk of his army, leaving behind a contingent to make noisy demonstrations in order to keep the Indians fixated on them. In the meantime, Alexander hurried to a crossing upriver, and safely got his force across the Hydaspes, unopposed. Once on Porus’ side of the river, Alexander advanced to attack him, and caught the Indians in a pincer between the main force under his command, and the smaller contingent left behind to keep Porus occupied. That contingent crossed the Hydaspes, and attacked the Indians’ rear and flank when they turned to face Alexander. The battle was hard fought, but it ended in a total Macedonian victory.
The Spartans were unique in Ancient Greece, in that they enslaved other Greeks. The entire Spartan system and economy was based upon the enslavement of their Messenian neighbors, whom they had conquered in the 8th to 7th century, BC. After a long war, the victorious Spartans transformed the entire Messenian population into state slaves, known as Helots. The Helots had few rights, and could be killed almost at will by their overlords. The Helots were also subjected to sundry humiliations to remind them of the inferiority of their status, such as being forced to get super drunk. The staggering serfs were then shown to Spartan children as object lessons in the evils of overindulgence in booze, and a demonstration of the superiority of Spartans over the contemptible Helots who behaved in such bestial manner.
The Spartans had not been that different from other Greeks before subjugating the Helots. However, once they had been conquered, controlling the restive Helots, who outnumbered the Spartans about ten to one, required the transformation of Sparta into a wholly militarized state and society. It also became a police state, with a secret police known as the Krypteia, established to spy on Helots and kill any who seemed restive or showed leadership potential. Thousands of years later, the Nazis looked to Sparta and its treatment of the Helots when they concocted their plans for lebensraum. Like the Spartans, the Nazis hoped to conquer their neighbors in Eastern Europe and Russia. They planned to then exterminate most of the native Slav population, and reduce the survivors to Helots, who would serve the German ‘Master Race’ like the Messenians had served the Spartans.
Sparta’s Helots frequently revolted, only to be brutally crushed by the better trained and equipped Spartans, then subjected to unsparing revenge. For example, after one failed revolt, thousands of Helots were gaily decked out, marched out of town, and never heard from again. In 464 BC, a major earthquake struck Sparta, killing thousands. Taking advantage of the turmoil, the Helots made another bid for freedom by rising up and establishing a fortified base in the mountains. The hard pressed Spartans asked Athens for help. A conservative faction controlled Athens at the time, so 4000 Athenian soldiers were duly sent. However, once they arrived, the Athenians’ democratic ideas alarmed the Spartans. Fearing that such notions would spread to their Helots and further fuel the uprising, or that the Athenians might switch sides, the Spartans sent them back home.
The insulted Athenians threw out their conservative leaders and repudiated their alliance with Sparta. Left to their own devices, the Spartans eventually managed to crush the Helot uprising after two years of bitter fighting, in 462 BC. They then subjected their slaves to yet another round of savage reprisals. The Helots finally gained their freedom a century later, when the Theban leader Epaminondas crushed the Spartans in battle, then liberated its Helots, and set up an independent country for them.
Valerian (circa 195 – 264 AD), who ruled the Roman Empire from 253 to 260, was crowned during a chaotic period known as the Crisis of the Third Century. Realizing that it was impractical for a single emperor to oversee the sprawling empire, Valerian appointed his son to command the western half of the empire, while he headed east with an army of 70,000 men to deal with the newly arisen menace of Sassanid Persia. In 260, Valerian fought an army commanded by Persian king Shapur I in the Battle of Edessa, and was decisively defeated. The remnants of the Roman army were besieged, and Valerian tried to personally negotiate a way out with Shapur. The peace talks turned out to be a trap, however, and Valerian was seized by Shapur when he showed up.
After his capture, Valerian was made Shapur’s slave, and subjected to sundry humiliations. The Persian king took particular delight in advertising his victory and demonstrating his might by using the former Roman emperor as a foot stool to mount his horse. Valerian’s death was as ignominious and undignified as his captivity, and came after he offended Shapur by offering a huge ransom in exchange for his release. As punishment, and to show his disdain for the offer, Shapur forced Valerian to drink molten gold. His humiliation continued even after death, as his captor ordered his corpse flayed, and had his skin dyed and displayed at a temple.
One of the drawbacks of ancient Athens’ direct democracy was that the fickle mood swings of the citizens were swiftly translated into government actions. One hallmark of that fickleness was the notoriety that Athens gained for the speed with which it put heroes upon pedestals one moment, then dashed them to the ground as public enemies the next. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Athenians’ treatment of Miltiades (550 – 489 BC), a general who beat the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. It was an upset victory against a numerically superior force, and it saved Athens from Persian conquest.
Miltiades was lionized by the Athenians, but it did not last long. The following year, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but he bungled it badly. Miltiades was defeated, and for icing on the cake, he suffered a severe leg wound in the process. Given the superior forces under his command, Miltiades’ defeat seemed so absurd to the Athenians, that they figured it could only be explained by deliberate treachery on his part. So his fellow citizens, whom he had so recently saved, put him on trial for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. Miltiades was sent to prison while his family and friends raised the money to pay the fine, but he died before the fine was paid when his leg wound became infected.
The rise of Persia in the 6th century BC upended the ancient Middle East, as the surging newcomers conquered left and right, and became the ancient world’s greatest empire until then. For a while, the Persians held off from taking on Egypt, until a disgruntled Egytpian doctor instigated a war. It began when Persia’s king Cambyses II wrote Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis II (570 – 524 BC), asking him to send an eye doctor. The doctor chosen by Amasis was upset at getting picked out of all of Egypt’s physician to get dragged away from his family and sent to distant Persia. So upon reaching Persia, the doctor got his revenge by advising Cambyses to ask for Amasis’ favorite daughter, knowing that it would put Amasis in a bind: accept and grow wretched at the loss of his daughter, or refuse, and offend Cambyses.
Amasis did not want want to send his beloved daughter to Persia, knowing that Cambyses did not even want her as a wife, but just as a mere concubine. However, the Egyptian ruler was also intimidated by Persia’s power. So Amasis sent the daughter of a former Pharaoh, claiming that she was his. The former Egyptian princess was no more pleased than the Egyptian doctor had been at getting sent to Persia. Soon as she reached the Persian king, she told Cambyses of the ruse. Angered, he declared war and prepared to invade Egypt.
3. The Greek Mercenary Who Delivered Egypt to the Persians
As Pharaoh Amasis gathered his forces and prepared to defend Egypt against the Persians, he managed to offend Phanes of Halicarnassus, a respected Greek general in his service. So the disgruntled Phanes decided to switch sides, and set out to join Persia’s king Cambyses. Amasis sent assassins to kill or capture Phanes, but after harrowing adventures, including an escape from captivity by getting his guards drunk, the fleeing general reached the Persians. Cambyses was trying to figure out the best invasion route into Egypt, and Phanes recommended a route through Arab tribal lands. He advised the Persian king to seek safe passage from their rulers, and to sweeten the request with generous gifts. Cambyses heeded the advice, and the Arabs gladly granted safe conduct through their territory.
By then, Amasis had died, and was succeeded as pharaoh by his son, Psamtik III, Enraged at Phanes, Psamtik tricked the Greek general’s sons into meeting with him, took them captive, and had them executed. Then, as an object lesson to would-be traitors, he had their blood drained and mixed with wine, which he drank and made his councilors consume as well. Phanes got his revenge by leading the Persian army into Egypt, acting as Cambyses’ guide and military advisor. With the Greek general’s assistance, the Persians defeated Psamtik’s forces, and forced him to retreat to his capital, where they besieged and eventually captured him. Phanes then engineered the execution of his sons’ murderer by uncovering and informing Cambyses of a plot by the captive pharaoh to stir up a revolt.
2. The Gracchi: The Reformer Brothers Who Tried to Save the Roman Republic
Rome’s legions were originally drawn from those who could afford to arm and equip themselves – mostly a middle class of independent farmers. However, the independent farmer class steadily shrank over the generations, as public lands were illegally seized and consolidated into vast estates controlled by the patrician senatorial classes. In addition to illegality, those large estates, worked by massive slave gangs, drove small farmers off their lands and into poverty, diminishing the pool of prospective legionaries. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (circa 164 – 133 BC) was a Roman tribune of the plebes and a populares politician – a faction that supported plebeians against the conservative aristocratic patricians. He sponsored agrarian reforms to help small independent farmers, who were being driven into extinction by the concentration of public lands into illegal giant estates controlled by a small elite of the patrician senatorial class.
Tiberius Gracchus proposed to break the giant estates and redistribute the lands in small parcels to lower class Romans. He was vehemently opposed by the senatorial class, and when he pushed through legislation that began redistributing land, he was murdered by a senatorial mob during a riot organized by optimates – conservatives who sought to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the tribunes, while extending that of the pro-aristocratic Senate. It was the Roman Republic’s first act of organized political violence, and it broke a double taboo: that against political violence in general, and that against visiting violence upon a tribune of the plebes, whose persons had been deemed inviolate for centuries. Tiberius Gracchus’ cause was carried on by his younger brother, Gaius, who as seen below, met a similar fate at the hands of Rome’s conservatives.
Tiberius Gracchus’ younger brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154 – 121 BC) followed in his older brother’s footsteps. He became a tribune of the plebes, a populares politician advancing the cause of the plebeians, an advocate of agrarian reform, and finally, 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 used the popular assemblies to push through his brother’s agrarian reforms, and advocated other measures to lessen the power of the senatorial nobility. He also pushed through legislation to provide all Romans with subsidized wheat, and was reelected tribune in 122 BC. In 121 BC, the Senate again organized a riot to go after a turbulent tribune. After one of his supporters was killed, Gaius Gracchus and his followers retreated to the Aventine Hill, the traditional asylum of plebeians in an earlier age.
The Senate ordered the consuls to go after Gaius, which they did with a mob. Gaius committed suicide, and the mob massacred hundreds of his followers, then threw their bodies into the Tiber river. In the long run, the murders of the Gracchi brothers backfired upon the optimates and the patrician class. The patricians were virtually exterminated during rounds of proscriptions that claimed the lives of thousands, first by the dictator Sulla going after populares following his victory in Rome’s first civil war, only for the pendulum to swing a generation later when Octavian and Mark Antony went after the optimates in an even bloodier and more thorough proscription following their victory in a civil war against Julius Caesar’s assassins. What relatively few patricians survived were gradually killed off later as they were caught up in or were falsely accused of conspiracies against various emperors, until they became virtually extinct.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading