10 Bizarre Facts About the Roman Empire

1. Roman gladiators were the ancient era equivalent of our celebrities. Being a (successful) gladiator earned you fame and money. They were so revered that their bodily fluids and occasionally organs were harvested and sold to people. Gladiator sweat was collected from bathhouses and mixed together with cosmetic creams as an aphrodisiac. It was believed that the gladiator’s warrior essence would make people nearby lust after you. In the early stages of the Roman empire, it was also believed that a gladiator’s blood (or his liver) was a cure for epilepsy.

2. The Romans were a bit obsessed with…phalluses. This can be seen in the ruins of Pompeii where there are phallic shapes carved into stone walls, carved above doorways, carved into pathways, and even paintings depicting them. It was also common for people, particularly young boys, to wear phallic necklace charms to bring good luck. A theory for why the Romans were so obsessed with that part of the male anatomy is because of the god Priapus, who was the god of crops, livestock, and male genitals. Having phalluses everywhere was a way to worship him, hoping that he would bring bountiful harvests and keep the livestock healthy.

3. Urine was a vital part of cleaning in the Roman empire. They would use urine to wash their clothes, tan animal hides, and even whiten their teeth. Even if it seems disgusting now, it makes a lot of sense. Urine is full of ammonia, which is a potent cleanser. The collection and selling of urine from public restrooms was common practice, so much so that eventually the Emperor Vespasian created a urine tax to profit from the lucrative industry.

4. Public latrines were commonplace in Rome, but they were not like our modern restrooms. Instead of having private little stalls for everyone to do their business, everything was completely out in the open. Not only that, but it was completely normal to socialize with other people while going to the bathroom. I don’t mean like how sometimes you’ll go to the bathroom with your friends and talk while you wash your hands or while you’re walking there; I mean having full-fledged conversations and meeting new people in a smelly room full of people relieving themselves.

5. The Romans did not use soap. Soap wasn’t something unheard of during the days of ancient Rome, but culturally they didn’t typically use it. The preferred method of cleaning your body in ancient Rome was to lather your body in some type of oil and then to wash it off in a pool of water, or to scrape it off using a strigil, which is basically just a metal scraping stick. Typically, strigils were only used if you had a job that got you particularly dirty, something like an athlete or perhaps a soldier.

6. Roman feasts would last for a long time, it was not uncommon for feasts to last over five hours at a time. To make room for all the food at the feast, the Romans would vomit all the food they had eaten before so they could continue eating.

7. The Roman people had a very strong bias against left handedness. They considered being left handed evil, or unlucky. The right hand was considered the skillful hand, while the left hand was only there to pick up slack (sometimes literally). This is observable by looking at the Latin language. The English word sinister means something evil or nefarious, but it has its roots in the Latin word sinister/sinistra/sinistrum, which means left. Over time the definition of the word changed to reflect the bias of the people against the left hand.

8. Roman hours were inconsistent. The Romans believed in a 24-hour day, but they were a little bit off on practical side of it. Instead of everyday having 24 hours, everyday had 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark. This means that during the summer when there is daylight for a significantly larger portion of the day, the hours the Romans keep track of got longer. To put it simply, their “hour” would sometimes last for 90 minutes instead of 60. The inverse would happen during the winter months when night came sooner and lasted longer.

9. The Romans had a holiday known as Saturnalia, where the slaves were treated like nobility and allowed temporary free speech. The customs of the holiday were different from place to place, but typically the slaves would dine on a meal that would normally only be given to their masters, and the masters would serve it to the slaves. The slaves could say anything they wanted with the promise that they would not be punished for speaking freely.

10. Roman Emperors would intentionally poison themselves every single day. They would drink a concoction known as mithridatium, which is a mixture of every known poison at the time. The idea was, in the event of an assassination attempt via poison, they would be okay because they built up an immunity to whatever poison their would-be assassin used on them.

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