Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World

Khalid Elhassan - January 20, 2023

The ancient world was quite different than how many of us believe it to have been. The ancients grew up in radically different environments, so their outlook often radically differed from ours. For example, ancient Romans saw it as perfectly normal entertainment to spend a day watching people and animals get slaughtered. They also frowned upon excessive grief displays. So they hired people to cry and wail for them at funerals. Below are twenty five things about those and other fascinating ancient world facts.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
‘Hail Caesar, Those Who Are About to Die Salute You’, by Jean-Leon Gerome, depicts some of the Coloseum’s lethal entertainments. Yale University Art Gallery

Ancient Roman Humor Could be Pretty Mean

The ancients were not merely technologically deprived versions of us. They were not just like you, sans smartphone and electricity. They were born and raised in a different world, with different mental and moral landscapes. Their basic assumptions about life – and right and wrong – could be extremely different from our moral compasses today. Only when we factor that in, can we grasp how otherwise normal people spent entire days in places like Rome’s Colosseum to watch other humans meet their end in a variety of gruesome ways. And they deemed it great entertainment. Before it ceased operations as a gladiatorial arena and public execution site, it is estimated that up to a million people lost their lives in the Colosseum, aside from the millions of animals slaughtered for the crowd’s pleasure. Ancient Romans thought massive scale snuff was awesome.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
‘Nero’s Torches’, by Henryk Siemiradzki. Polish National Museum, Krakow

Their sense of humor was also on the cruel end of things. For example, when Rome burned in Nero’s reign, many Christians celebrated – apparently, they thought it was a sign of the anticipated end of days and Jesus’ return. Understandably, other Romans were appalled at such giddiness amidst widespread misery. They suspected that the Christians had started the fire or at least spread it, and demanded that they be punished. So Nero rounded up Christians, and arranged a spectacle to make an example of them. The highlight – literally – was when he had some of them covered in pitch, and set on fire so they became human torches. Roman spectators thought that was an apt and funny punishment, especially fit for arsonists who had torched Rome, and now became torches themselves.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
‘The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer’, by Jean-Leon Gerome. Walters Art Museum

Christians (Specifically) Were Not Fed to Lions in the Colosseum

For centuries, it was widely believed that early Christians had been slaughtered in droves in Rome’s Colosseum. Indeed, the image of Christian martyrs being fed to lions became – and remains – an art and cultural trope. So widely accepted was it, that it almost seems as if early Christians were the Colosseum’s big cats’ main diet. However, there is no historical evidence that Christians were ever fed to the lions in Rome’s deadly arena. To be sure, as seen above, Roman authorities had no problem with inflicting horrific punishments upon some Christians. Moreover, there actually were waves of official persecution against Christians. However, there are no contemporary accounts of Christians being fed to the lions.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
The Colosseum in its Roman Empire glory days, and now. Italy Guides

Such tales were popularized by what came to be known as the Acts of the Martyrs, accounts of the sufferings of early Christians, compiled after Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official faith. While such accounts are historically dubious, they had a silver lining for which history owes them many thanks: they saved the Colosseum. In the centuries after the Western Roman Empire fell, Rome went into a steep decline. The Colosseum was among many buildings pilfered of marble and stone to reuse in local construction, until it became the shell we know today. Starting in the eighteenth century, however, various popes cited the supposed martyrdoms in the Colosseum to declare it a site sanctified by blood, in order to preserve what was left of it.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Ancient Minoan bull vaulting. Fine Art America

The Olympics Weren’t The Only Greek Athletic Competition

The ancient world liked athletic events, and archaeology has unearthed athletic scenes depicted by various civilizations such as the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Minoans, and Mycenaeans. The Minoans, for example, were really into gymnastics, and they depicted such events, plus boxing, wrestling, running, and bull vaulting, on graceful frescoes. However, those events were usually one-offs, mostly for the nobility. The ancient Greeks were the first to hold regular athletic competitions, open to all freeborn Greek men. Women could enter chariot races by proxy by sponsoring a team, but could not personally participate.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Ancient Olympics. History Network

In 776 BC, the first Olympic Games were held at Olympia, to honor Zeus. They were one of the four Panhellenic Games, although the most prestigious. The others were the Nemean Games held at Nemea, in honor of Zeus and Heracles; the Pythian Games, held at Delphi in honor of Apollo; and the Isthmian Games, held in the Isthmus of Corinth, in honor of Poseidon. Olympic Games were held for over a thousand years, with the last recorded competition in 393 AD, and some games might have been held after that date.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Opening ceremony of the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Olympics. Times of India

The Olympics Originally Only Had One Athletic Event

The ancient Greek Olympics were a big deal, but they pale in scope to the modern Olympics. Today, the Olympic Games are a mega global event, rivaled perhaps only by soccer’s FIFA World Cup. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021) hosted 11,326 athletes from 205 nations, plus the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Olympic Team. All eager to compete over a seventeen-day stretch for glory and medals in 339 events, divided between 33 sports and 50 disciplines. The difference between the scope of the current Olympics and the original event would probably astonish and amaze the ancient Greek.

In the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, and for over half a century through 724 BC, there was only one athletic event: the stadion. It was named after the building in which it was held, from which the English word stadium is derived. More events were eventually added, but the stadion remained the most prestigious. The building after which was named was big enough for 20 competitors, who ran about a 200 yard or 180 meter sprint. The first few races might have been slightly longer, however, as the original stadion in Olympia had a track that was 210 yards or 190 meters long. The athletes lined up, and games officials were positioned at the starting blocks to keep a sharp eye out against false starts.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Olympia, and the track on which ancient Greek competitors ran the stadion race. World Heritage Journeys

The Ancient Games’ Initial Sole Competition

Unlike modern runners who start from a crouch, ancient Greek sprinters took off from an upright position, with their arms stretched out before them. They were also naked. By the fifth century BC at the latest, there was a stone start line, known as the balbis. In due course, double grooves about four to four and a half inches apart were carved into the balbis. They gave runners toeholds from which to launch themselves at the start of the race. Muscles tensed and coiled, the stadion sprinters awaited the start of the race. Behind and to their sides hovered officials to ensure that nobody took off too early. Before them lay a packed earth track, at the end of which were more officials. Their task was to decide the winner – and spot and disqualify any cheaters. If the officials determined that it was a tie, the race would be rerun.

Finally, the start signal came – a sharp trumpet blow. The competitors exploded into action, took off, and within a few frantic seconds, the race was over. Since the stadion was the original Olympics’ sole competition, those few seconds encapsulated the entirety of the athletic portion of the original games. However, it is hard to grasp today just how important those few seconds were to the participants. The ancient Greeks often dated events not by a numbered calendar like we do today, but by four-year Olympiads. The Olympiads were named after the stadion winner. Thus, the winner literally won a place in the history books.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Ancient Samnite warriors fighting Roman legionaries. Art Station, Manuel Krommenacker

The Secret To Roman Conquest Success: Stubbornness

The ancient Romans won their empire through military discipline, tenacity, and persistence in war. Not so much military genius: the Romans conquered many enemies who had great generals, such as the Carthaginians and the brilliant Hannibal. 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 begun in 220 BC, and that lasted over two centuries until completed in 19 BC.

That tenacity gave rise to one of history’s most hardcore rejoinders, uttered in the Social War (91 – 88 BC) between Rome and her Italian allies. In that conflict Samnites, who had stubbornly fought the Romans before they were conquered centuries ago, seized and fortified the town of Nola. Around 91 BC, a Roman army was sent to take it back. A negotiated settlement was attempted, 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.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
A Roman siege. World History Encyclopedia

Rome’s Unyielding Siege: The Fall of Nola

The Samnites were famous for their stubbornness, and they seriously disliked the Romans. 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 general replied: “then we shall take Nola in the eleventh year“. He meant it. 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 left a legion behind to continue the siege, and marched on Rome. Sulla chased Marius out of Italy and executed some of his followers, then headed east to fight a war against 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 slaughtered thousands of Marians. Throughout, the siege of Nola, virtually forgotten by the outside world, went on. Finally, on the eleventh year of the siege, in 80 BC, Nola’s defenders ran out of supplies and were starved into surrender.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Ancient bust of Scipio Africanus. Ancient Rome

Few People Know Who Scipio Is, Even Though He Saved All Of Rome

Ancient Roman general and statesman Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236 BC – 183 BC) was a formidable warrior. He is best known for his conquest of Carthage’s territories in Iberia during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC). He closed the war strong, and defeated Hannibal on his home turf at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC to end the conflict with a Roman victory. Scipio’s first mention in the historic record dates to 218 BC, when he led a cavalry charge that saved his father, one of that year’s consuls, from encirclement by Carthaginians. He survived a Roman disaster at Cannae two years later, when Hannibal nearly wiped out a Roman army 87,000 strong.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
The Battle of Cannae. Realm of History

Scipio was among the few Roman officers who kept their wits about them, and cut their way to safety with 10,000 men. Those survivors formed the nucleus of a reconstituted Roman army. In 211 BC, Scipio’s father and uncle were defeated and killed by Hannibal’s brother in Hispania. In elections for a new proconsul to lead an army to avenge that defeat, Scipio was the only Roman who sought the position, which others eschewed as a death sentence. Only 25 at the time, Scipio was underage to be elected a magistrate, so a special law was enacted to give him command. In a surprise attack in 209 BC, he captured New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the Carthaginian seat of power in Hispania.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
The Battle of Zama. Penn State

Scipio’s Strategic Mastery Saves Rome

Scipio’s capture of New Carthage changed the strategic picture and the course of the war. At a stroke, he secured ample supplies, as well as a great harbor and base for further operations. He then campaigned across Hispania, where he won a series of victories. By 206 BC, he had wrested all of Hispania from the Carthaginians. Scipio then returned to Rome as its most successful general to date, and was elected consul in 205 BC. By then, Hannibal was isolated in southern Italy, cutoff from supplies and reinforcements. Then Scipio transformed the war with another bold stroke. Rather than go after Hannibal in southern Italy, Scipio decided to go directly after Carthage. Scipio boldly took the war to the enemy’s homeland, and invaded North Africa in 204 BC.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Ancient bust formerly identified as Sulla’s, now believed to be of Scipio Africanus. Wikimedia

The Carthaginians recalled Hannibal from Italy to lead their armies at home. That set the stage for a climactic showdown between Rome’s and Carthage’s greatest generals. At the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, Scipio won a decisive victory that ended the Second Punic War. He returned to Rome and a hero’s welcome. However, while he was widely celebrated and lionized by the general public, he was hated by fellow patricians. Jealous of his accomplishments, they resented his status as the Republic’s foremost warrior, and went about tearing him down. To sully his reputation, they persecuted him with trumped up charges of treason, bribery, and general corruption. The ingratitude left Scipio disillusioned and bitter, and he withdrew from public life. He retired to his estates in Campania, where he remained until his death in 183 BC.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Ancient Greek depiction of athletes in the stadion race. Pinterest

The Prestige of Olympic Winners Was Way Greater in Ancient Greece Than Today

The ancient Greeks dated events based on four-year Olympiad cycles. Because of that, the winner of the stadion race – the only competition in the first half century of the Olympic Games – achieved extraordinary fame and prestige. Since the Olympiad was named after him, from then on out, people would include his name whenever they referred to anything that happened in the four year cycle of his victory. For example: “such and such happened in the first (or second, or third, or fourth) year of [Olympic Winner’s Name] Olympiad“.

Eventually, more athletic events were added to the competition, such as wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus, long jump, and chariot racing. However, the stadion remained the most prestigious competition, and the four-year Olympiad cycles continued to be named after its victor. Because of that, historians today are able to name just about every stadion winner. The first of them – and thus the first Olympic Games victor, was a cook from the city-state of Elis named Koroibos, who won the stadion in 776 BC.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
An ancient Roman lead pipe in Bath, England. Earth Magazine

The Romans Used Way Too Much Lead

We now know that lead should be avoided. It once was used in children’s toys, but not anymore, and it is no longer used in paint like it used to be. In ancient Rome, however, people were ignorant of what we know of lead’s downside. So they widely used it in ways that modern science has shown to be quite dangerous. For example, lead was commonly 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 nutjobs.

However, it is possible that lead levels from Roman pipes might not have been as hazardous as previously thought. Nonetheless, Romans were still exposed to lead in a other ways that ensured they ingested it at exceptionally high levels. Their cooking pots were 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. Those amphorae were sealed with lead, so its 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.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
The progression of Roman legionary arms and equipment over the centuries. Imgur

The Instrument That Allowed the Ancient Romans to Dominate Their World

The legion was the Roman army’s largest military unit, and it underwent various changes in its centuries-long existence. In the mid Roman Republic, it numbered about 3000 heavy infantry divided into maniples of 120 soldiers, each comprised of two 60-man centuries. There were also 1200 skirmishers and 300 cavalry, for a total of around 4500 legionaries. In the late Republic, the centuries were enlarged to 80 men, and six centuries were grouped into a 480-man cohort. A legion contained nine such cohorts, plus a first cohort of the best soldiers, made of five double strength centuries of 160 men each, for a total nominal legion strength of 5120 men. In practice, about 4500 men was the norm.

Emperor Augustus had 30 legions in the early Roman Empire, stationed along the borders. They were supported by auxiliary troops of non-Roman citizens, who became citizens at the end of their service. Each legion was led by a Legate, usually a senator appointed by the emperor. Beneath 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 centurion of the first cohort. Next came 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.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Roman soldiers towards the end of the Samnite Wars. Flickr

The Romans Did Not Fear Copying Others

Ancient Romans originally fought with spears in dense phalanx formations. 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 mountainous terrain, the dense phalanx was unwieldy. By contrast, the Samnites were armed with swords and fought in flexible formations, with smaller subunits known as maniples (“handfuls”). They easily outmaneuvered 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 what worked. So they abandoned the phalanx and adopted the manipular system around 315 BC. The legions were broken into heavy infantry maniples of 120 men, in three ranks of 40 men.

Maniples were deployed in three layers, based on experience and wealth – until the late second century BC, Roman soldiers paid for their own equipment. 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 wealthiest men, who could afford the best equipment. Armed with spears, they formed the last battle line. They were seldom used, as 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.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Roman legionary reenactors. Imgur

The Legions Made the Roman Republic Master of the Mediterranean – Then Destroyed the Republic

Roman legions used maniples for over two centuries, until they were replaced by larger cohorts of 480 soldiers in the Marian 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 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.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
A Marian cohort legion. Pinterest

The soldiers began to depend upon their generals, not the government in Rome, for rewards during service, and for severance pay and retirement benefits upon discharge. Unscrupulous generals exploited that, and used legions more loyal to their commanders than to the state against Rome. 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 consolidated power was to further professionalize the legions, and break the legionary’s dependence on his general. Enlistment terms were extended from 10 years to 25, pay was standardized, and the legionary was guaranteed a land grant or 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.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Epaminondas defends Pelopidas. Plutarch’s Lives for Boys and Girls

Ancient Greece’s Elite Homosexual Warriors

Ancient Greek city-state armies were composed of citizen soldiers who had civilian careers, but took up arms in times of war. The Spartans, however, had a system whereby most work was done by state slaves. That freed Sparta’s citizens – about a tenth of the total population – to dedicate themselves full time to military training. The result was an elite Spartan phalanx, unmatched anywhere in the world for discipline and toughness. So when Thebes went to war against Sparta in the fourth century BC, it had its work cut out for it.

Fortunately for the Thebans, they had creative military commanders such as Epaminondas (died 362 BC), and Pelopidas (died 364 BC). They used innovative tactics that allowed them to overcome the Spartans’ advantages, such as at the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC. There, although outnumbered by the Spartans, Epaminondas stacked the left flank of the Theban phalanx fifty men deep. With that great mass, he achieved local superiority against the Spartan right flank, formed in a standard depth of eight to twelve men, and shattered it. The Theban advance was spearheaded by the Sacred Band, an elite unit composed of 150 pairs of gay lovers.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
The Sacred Band of Thebes. Legacy Project Chicago

The Sacred Band of Thebes

Thebes’ Sacred Band was formed sometime around 379 BC. The idea was that the same sex couples who formed the unit were devoted to each other, and would fight ferociously to protect their lovers and avoid dishonor or cowardice in their presence. They were spread out along the front ranks of the phalanx, or concentrated into a shock unit. The Sacred Band lived up to expectations, and spearheaded a series of Theban victories that shattered Sparta’s power and the myth of Spartan invincibility. For decades, Thebes’ gay warriors were acknowledged as ancient Greece’s greatest warriors. Their run of success finally ended at the Battle of Chaeronea, in 338 BC. There, Thebes was decisively defeated by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
The Lion of Chaeronea. Flickr

The Sacred Band refused to surrender, and fought to the last man until all its members were killed. The Thebans eventually erected a statue of a huge lion, nearly 13 feet tall, at Chaeronea to honor those killed in the battle. It was eventually discovered, broken and buried near the village of Chaeronea, in the nineteenth century. Further excavations revealed that the monument stood at the edge of an enclosure, in which were buried the bodies of 254 men, laid out neatly in seven rows. They were the remains of Thebes’ Sacred Band. The statue was pieced back together in 1902, and today, the Lion of Chaeronea stands near the site of the heroic last stand ancient Greece’s famous same sex unit.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Constantine the Great. BBC

Constantine the Great and An Evil Plot Few People Know About

Emperor Constantine I, commonly known as Constantine the Great, had many admirers in his era. Christians were particularly grateful, because he took Christianity out of the catacombs and into the palace. He also gave the Roman Empire a new lease on life, relocated the capital from Rome to the newly built Constantinople, and laid the foundations for an Eastern Roman Empire whose remnants survived into the fifteenth century. However, his admirers seldom mentioned his shortcomings, such as the mercurial temper that led him to kill his eldest son, Flavius Julius Crispus (circa 299 – 326).

It was especially unfortunate, because it seems that Crispus was the kind of dutiful and capable son who would make any father proud. While still in his teens, Constantine appointed Crispus commander in Gaul, and he delivered. Crispus won victories in 318, 320, and 323, that secured the province and the Germanic frontier for his father. In a civil war against Valerius Licinianus Licinius, a challenger to Constantine’s claim to rule the Roman world, Crispus commanded his father’s navy and led it to a decisive victory over a far larger enemy fleet.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Crispus, as depicted in a gold solidus coin. Wikimedia

An Emperor Tricked Into Killing His Son and Successor

Flavia Maxima Fausta (289 – 326), daughter of the Roman Emperor Maximianus, was married to Constantine the Great in 307 to seal an alliance between him and her father. She bore Constantine three sons, but her stepson Crispus, Constantine’s eldest from a previous marriage, stood between her kids and the throne. In 326, Crispus was at the height of his power, and the favorite to succeed Constantine after he played a key role in defeating his father’s chief challenger. So Fausta engineered his downfall. She succeeded, but as seen below, karma caught up with her.

Crispus also played a key role in a subsequent battle that secured his father’s triumph over Licinius. All signs indicated that Crispus was destined to go places, and that he would make a worthy successor to his father someday. Then in 326, his life came to a sudden end. His step mother, eager to remove an obstacle to her own sons’ succession to the throne, falsely accused Crispus of attempted rape. An enraged Constantine had his eldest son tried and convicted before a local court, then ordered him hanged.


Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Ancient coin depiction of Fausta. Wikimedia

An Evil Ancient Stepmother Who Met A Brutal End

While Crispus went from success to success and cemented his claim to imperial succession upon his father’s death, his half-brothers, Fausta’s sons, were in no position to don the purple. The eldest of them was only ten years old at the time. In order for any of Fausta’s sons to succeed Constantine, something would have to happen to Crispus. So Fausta saw to it that something did. She reportedly tried to seduce Crispus, but he balked, and hurriedly left the palace.

Undaunted, she lied to Emperor Constantine, and told him that Crispus did not respect his father since he was in love with and had tried to rape his father’s wife. Constantine believed her, and had his eldest son executed. A few months later, however, Constantine discovered how Fausta had manipulated and got him to kill Crispus. So he had her boiled alive. He then issued a damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory”) to erase her from official accounts – a form of dishonor issued against traitors and those who brought discredit to the Roman state.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Relief depiction of a Roman funeral with professional mourners. Ancient Origins

The Ancient Romans Paid People to Cry for Them

The ancient Romans saw themselves as serious and stolid types, 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.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Ancient Roman funeral with professional mourners. Imgur

Special women were paid 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“.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Croesus, as depicted on an ancient Greek vase. Livius

Modern Greedy Billionaires Have Nothing on This Ancient Plutocrat

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, when people wanted to say that somebody was really wealthy they would say he was “as rich as Croesus“, after a sixth century BC Lydian king who had been the first to mint coins. In the late Roman Republic, one man, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) became so wealthy that people changed the phrase, and pun that somebody was “as rich as Crassus“. Whether he had ever grown as rich as Croesus – and it is quite possible that he might have become even richer than the Lydian monarch – Crassus was the late Roman Republic’s wealthiest man and one of its key figures.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Crassus. Louvre Museum

He used his wealth to amass power, and sponsored politicians. Their numbers included Julius Caesar, whose political rise Crassus financed. With him and Pompey the Great, Crassus entered into a power sharing agreement known as “The First Triumvirate”, which effectively made the trio the masters of the Roman Republic. Crassus became rich because he was a shrewd businessman, and a notoriously avaricious one. He got started on the road to fabulous wealth through an alliance with the dictator Sulla. Crassus bought the confiscated properties of executed enemies of the state in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value. He even arranged to have the names of those whose properties he coveted added to the lists of the proscribed, slated for execution and confiscation of property. As seen below, he made even more money through other unscrupulous methods.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, the heads of the First Triumvirate. Wikimedia

Crassus Had His Own Private Firefighters And Manipulated Fire Victims

Rome in Crassus’ day was full of fire-prone buildings, and fires were common. However, the city had no public firefighters. So Crassus formed a private firefighting company manned by his slaves. When a fire broke out, he would rush to the scene with his firefighters, and on the spot, offer to buy the burning building or those nearby that were threatened by the flames, at literally fire-sale prices. To get at least something for their property was preferable to nothing if it was reduced to ashes, so the distressed owners often agreed. Through such shady methods, Crassus became Rome’s greatest property owner. By the 70s BC, Crassus was Rome’s wealthiest man. He leveraged his wealth into power and entered into the First Triumvirate, with Caesar and Pompey, to divvy up the Roman Republic. However, Crassus wanted to be more than just a rich man.

Billionaires today with more money than they know what to do with, build rockets and go to space. Their ancient Roman equivalents raised armies and invaded other countries. Crassus craved military glory such as that enjoyed by his partners. Unlike them, Crassus’ main military accomplishment had been to defeat Spartacus’ slave rebellion. In Roman eyes, defeating slaves paled in comparison to Pompey’s and Caesar’s deeds. To win glory of his own, Crassus decided to invade Parthia, a newly established wealthy kingdom that ruled Persia and Mesopotamia. Parthia did not seem a difficult nut to crack. A decade earlier, Pompey had easily defeated other eastern kingdoms, and there was little reason to assume the Parthians would be any tougher. It did not go well for Crassus.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
The Battle of Carrhae. Flickr

An Ancient Plutocrat’s Disastrous Adventure

With an army of 50,000 men, Crassus went to war against Parthia in 53 BC. Things went wrong from the start. His guide, secretly in Parthian pay, took Crassus on an arid route that left his men parched and exhausted by the time they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey. There, they encountered a Parthian army of 1000 armored heavy cavalry and 9000 horse archers. Although they greatly outnumbered the Parthians, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ poor leadership. Parthian archers whittled the Romans with arrows from a safe standoff distance. They used the superior mobility afforded them by their horses to retreat to safety whenever the Romans advanced on foot.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
The death of Crassus. ThoughtCo

Morale plummeted as casualties mounted. Crassus finally ordered his son to drive off the horse archers with the Roman cavalry and an infantry detachment. The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians returned, and taunted the Roman army and Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear. Crassus abandoned thousands of his wounded, and retreated. The Parthians invited him to parley, and offered safe retreat in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant, but his army threatened to mutiny if he did not negotiate. The talks went badly, violence broke out, and Crassus was killed. To mock his greed, the Parthians poured molten gold down his throat. Out of his 50,000 man army, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Statue of Queen Teuta. Pinterest

The Ancient Pirate Kingdom in Rome’s Backyard

In the third century BC, piracy flourished among the Illyrian tribes that inhabited the coasts of modern Croatia and Albania. Piracy had been suppressed for a time in the Classical period, when the powerful navies of Athens and Rhodes kept the Greek world’s waters relatively safe. Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great followed suit, but after Alexander’s death his successors focused their energies on fighting each other. With no strong naval presence to keep them in check, the Illyrians exploited the many hidden inlets along their coastlines, and turned to piracy as a way of life. That eventually led to conflict with the expanding Roman Republic.

Rome became a dominant Mediterranean naval power for the first time after its victory over Carthage in the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC). However, that newly-won dominance was challenged by the Illyrians across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian Peninsula. Most notably the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe, and their ruler, Queen Teuta (reigned 231 – 227 BC). She had inherited the kingdom after the death of her husband, King Agron, in 231 BC. Teuta continued her husband’s expansionist policies, pushed her realm’s borders deeper into the Balkans, and encouraged and supported her subjects’ piratical activities.

Most People Completely Overlook These Fascinating Facts About The Ancient World
Queen Teuta orders the seizure of Rome’s envoys. Imgur

The Pirate Queen Who Gave the Romans Fits

Rome’s quarrel with Queen Teuta began when some of her pirates seized and plundered Roman vessels. When the merchants complained to the Roman Senate, it initially tried to handle the problem with diplomacy. Two envoys were accordingly sent to Teuta’s court to complain. She responded that piracy was legal among the Illyrians, and that her government had no right to interfere with its citizens’ private enterprises. When the Roman diplomats retorted that Rome would then have no choice but to make her change Illyrian laws, Teuta stopped feeling diplomatic. She ordered one of the Roman envoys killed, and the other imprisoned.

The outraged Romans declared war in 229 BC. A fleet of 200 warships was sent to harry the Illyrians at sea, while an army of 20,000 men and cavalry crossed the Adriatic to harry Teuta’s kingdom by land. The pirate queen conducted a fierce resistance that gave the Romans no end of trouble. However, Teuta’s kingdom was no match for the might of Rome. In 227 BC, she was forced to surrender and sign a humiliating peace treaty. She kept her throne, but as a Roman vassal forced to pay an annual tribute, and left to rule over a shrunken realm, stripped of much of its territory.


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

American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan., 1981) – The Annihilation of the Sacred Band at Chaeronea

Cracked – 15 Ways the Ancient World Was Different Than We Imagine

Daily Beast – The Victorious Gay Greek Army That Got Cancelled by History

Daily Beast – Things You Probably Don’t Know About the Olympics

Dando-Collins, Stephen – The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City (2010)

Dart, Christopher J. – The Social War, 91 to 88 BCE: A History of the Italian Insurgency Against the Roman Republic (2014)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Scipio Africanus

Encyclopedia Iranica – Carrhae

Gloria Romanorum – Constantine’s Execution of Crispus and Fausta

Goldworthy, Adrian – The Complete Roman Army (2003)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume II (1994)

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

Historia, Bd. 41, H. 4 (1992) – Flavia Maxima Fausta: Some Remarks

History Collection – 18 Examples of Crime and Punishment in the Ancient Persian Empire

History Today, Volume 44, Issue 11, November 1994 – An Army of Lovers: The Sacred Band of Thebes

Hopkins, Keith, and Beard, Mary – The Colosseum (2005)

Livy – History of Rome, Books XXVI, XXVIII, XXIX

Miller, Stephen G. – Ancient Greek Athletics (2004)

Moss, Candida – The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (2013)

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Life of Crassus

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

Swaddling, Judith – The Ancient Olympic Games (1984)

United Nations of Roma Victrix – The Samnite Wars

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