10 Shocking Facts About The Ancient Roman Empire

1. The Colosseum was not the name of the iconic arena in Rome. Its real name was the Flavian Amphitheater. The name “Colosseum” was derived from a giant statue of Nero nearby. The name was adopted by the Flavian Amphitheater in the Middle Ages. The quote “as long as the Colosseum stands, so shall Rome; when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world” does not refer to the arena, but the Colossus of Nero.

Colossus of Nero

2. The Roman Empire under Vespasian taxed urine. The urine from Roman public toilets was collected from the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s biggest sewage system. The urine was sold as a chemical for tanning and laundry, which Vespasian taxed. A comical incident was that Vespasian’s son, Titus, complained about the disgusting nature of the tax. Vespasian responded by telling him to smell a gold coin, and asking him if it stank. Titus answered no. Vespasian replied, “Yet it comes from urine”. The conversation was a base for the saying pecunia non olet (“money does not stink”).

Cloaca Maxima

3. Speaking of Roman public toilets, some of them were bio-hazards. First of all, because they weren’t cleaned frequently, parasites such as roundworms, fleas, and lice inhabited them. All kinds of creepy-crawlies could come out of the toilets via the sewage system. I’m not talking about cockroaches, but snakes. Finally, the methane trapped within the toilets from all that waste could potentially cause the toilets to explode. Some charms of the goddess Fortuna were placed in the toilets for good luck.

Roman latrines

4. Gladiator body parts were all the rage. While gladiators were rarely killed, Romans had many medical purposes for gladiator body parts. Gladiators’ blood and livers were used as a medicine to cure epilepsy. When gladiatorial combat was outlawed in 400 AD, blood from executed criminals was used as a substitute. If that wasn’t bad enough, dead skin cells collected from a gladiator’s bath were reused as facial cream and aphrodisiac.

5. A Roman soldier showed his buttocks to the Jews (i.e mooning) during a Passover celebration in Jerusalem, as recorded by Josephus.

6. Christianity and Judaism were persecuted partly because they were thought of as barbaric religions with savage practices. The Romans abhorred the Jewish practice of circumcision, which was seen as genital mutilation. Christians were accused of cannibalism, with the “Flesh of Christ” and “Blood of Christ” thing during communion.


7. The western portion of the Roman Empire wasn’t always underdeveloped. The mines of Hispania produced 9 tonnes of gold per annum, while Gaul was in economic boom in the 1st century AD from the military camps on the Rhine and increased agriculture. The economy collapsed in the 2nd-3rd centuries AD, when the Roman Empire was engaged with barbarian invasions from all sides and civil war.

8. The most brutal punishment according to the Romans wasn’t crucifixion, but the poena cullei (penalty of the sack). The head of the condemned was covered in a sack made from wolf’s skin and his feet covered with wooden shoes, and then he was beaten with virgis sanguinis (blood-colored rods). Finally, the person would be put in a sack with some animals, usually a snake, monkey, and dog. The sack would be dragged into the sea or a river, drowning its contents. It was reserved for citizens guilty of patricide, one of the worst possible crimes in Ancient Rome.

9. The Romans were responsible for turning their homeland, Italy, into a backwater in the Early Middle Ages. After the Fall of Rome in 476 AD, the Ostrogoths mostly kept Roman institutions and law in Italy, patronizing the arts and constructing buildings in cities such as Ravenna. Life went on as usual for the Romans in Italy. Even chariot races in the Circus Maximus continued. Then, in 535 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire under Justinian attempted a reconquest of the Italian Peninsula. The Gothic Warlasted for 20 years, depopulating the Italian Peninsula and destroying cities such as Mediolanum and Neapolis. The population of Rome plummeted from 500,000 to 35,000 in the long war. Italy never recovered until the High Middle Ages.

The Gothic War

10. Rome (the city) declared independence from the Roman Empire in 751 AD. By that time, Italy was divided into Lombard and Roman possession. The Byzantines controlled Southern Italy and the Exarchate of Ravenna, while the Lombards controlled most of Northern Italy and Benevento. The Lombards took the Byzantine Exarchate in 751 AD. Pope Stephen II, who ruled Rome, declared independence from the Byzantine Empire and appealed to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, for help. Pepin defeated the Lombards and gave lands to the Pope, establishing the Papal States. The Byzantine Empire still controlled Southern Italy until Norman conquest in 1071.