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11 Misconceptions About Ancient Rome, Debunked

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Released in 1959, Charlton Heston's Ben-Hur is considered one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. Unfortunately, the film helped perpetuate a few mistaken beliefs concerning Rome and her citizenry. With the Ben-Hur remake set to hit theaters on August 19, now seems like a good time to bust some myths.


In his epic poem The Aeneid, Jupiter talks about the future of the Romans as the “masters of the world, the race that wears the toga.” No article of clothing has ever been more synonymous with this ancient culture. Only a Roman citizen could legally wear one, and as years went by, different styles came to be used as a way of displaying the wearer’s socioeconomic status. But for most of Rome’s history, togas were not considered everyday attire.

At first, the toga emphasized function over form. During the Republic’s early days, men, women, and children alike wore these accessories as a kind of durable outerwear. Underneath, they’d don a tunic, which was a sleeved, t-shaped garment that extended from the collar to the knees. Inevitably, though, the region’s fashion standards evolved. By the 2nd century BCE, it became taboo for adult women to put on a toga (prostitutes and adulteresses notwithstanding). Within the next hundred years, the toga turned into a bulky, impractical article of clothing that was mostly reserved for formal occasions like religious services and funerals. In casual environments, the average male Roman citizen would instead wear one of his tunics, sans toga.

Because togas were made with large quantities of costly wool, they were also quite expensive. The Roman poet Juvenal once observed that “there are many parts of Italy, to tell the truth, in which no man puts on the toga until he is dead.” Toward the dawn of the 4th century CE, the toga was more or less replaced by a kind of cloak called the paenula.


You’ll often hear it said that the Romans created this now-infamous gesture. Supposedly, it was then copied by Adolf Hitler’s devotees many centuries later. The whole myth is so widespread that the motion is sometimes referred to as the “Roman salute.” And yet there’s no historical evidence to suggest that such a greeting was ever used in ancient Rome.

Instead, the salute can probably be traced back to a 1784 painting called The Oath of the Horatii. Created by French Neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David, it shows three Roman brothers pledging to defend their homeland. While the men do so, we see that they’ve raised their right arms and extended the fingers. Over the next century, other artists started to portray Romans in this pose and playwrights began writing it into their historical drama scripts.

Mussolini’s Italian Fascist Party later claimed the salutation as its own and celebrated the gesture’s allegedly Roman origins. Inspired by il Duce, Hitler created a German variant for his own fascist organization. “I introduced the salute into the Party at our first meeting in Weimar,” he recalled in 1942. “The S.S. at once gave it a soldierly style.”


But they probably weren’t “Et tu, Brute?” On March 15 in the year 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was murdered by a group of over 60 co-conspirators, one of whom was Marcus Junius Brutus, the son of the dictator’s longtime mistress. The Roman historian Suetonius later wrote that, according to bystanders, Caesar’s dying utterance was “Kai su, teknon?” which means “You too, child?” in Greek. For the record, however, both Suetonius and another scholar named Plutarch believed that when he was slain, the dictator didn’t say anything at all. The world-famous “Et tu, Brute?” line was made up by William Shakespeare.


While it’s true that most gladiators were captives who’d been forced into this dangerous occupation, the lifestyle attracted plenty of freeborn citizens as well—including women. The appeal was plain to see: Like modern wrestlers, successful gladiators frequently became celebrities. A few of them even amassed small fortunes, since winning a big fight could mean taking home a cash prize.

Those who willingly became gladiators were usually impoverished people who sought the financial security that the profession offered. A good number of ex-Roman soldiers signed up as well. To receive training, they’d join what was known as a ludus—gladiator troupes that doubled as rigorous combat schools. The typical ludus was owned by a wealthy politician or former gladiator, who’d rent out his fighters for use in organized shows. Julius Caesar himself once ran a troupe which may have contained up to 1000 gladiators.

Eventually, the government cracked down on freeborn combatants. To help keep young aristocrats out of the fighting pits, the Senate issued an age requirement in 11 CE. This made it illegal for free men who were younger than 25 and free women who hadn’t yet turned 20 from joining a ludus. A subsequent ruling enacted in 19 CE barred all upper-class ladies from becoming gladiators. Then, in 200 CE, Emperor Septimus Severus officially turned this into an all-male sport.


Historian Georges Ville has calculated that during the first century CE, out of 100 fights (and 200 gladiators), 19 gladiators died, giving a death rate of around 10 percent (approximately 20 percent for the loser). By the year 300 CE, however, these confrontations became deadlier. In Ville’s estimation, half of all the man-to-man gladiator fights around that time ended with the loser’s demise.

Even so, those odds still might seem low to contemporary movie fans—after all, in “sword and sandal” flicks, gladiator fights almost always result in at least one fatality. However, Ville’s numbers make a lot more sense when you consider the real-life economics involved. Gladiators were expensive, and if one died in combat or was permanently disabled, the venue paid a steep fine to the owner of his ludus. To help keep the body count down, fighters might receive first-rate medical attention after leaving the arena.

But with that said, the crowd often demanded death. Throughout Roman history, most gladiator duels concluded when one party was rendered too weak or injured to keep fighting. Defeated athletes could surrender by throwing down their weapon or shield, or the loser would extend one arm and point upward. At that point, the bested fighter’s fate would be decided by the presiding event chairman, or editor. Generally, his verdict could be expected to appease the audience, whose cheers and jeers helped determine if the fallen warrior lived to fight another day.


In an iconic sequence from Ben-Hur, we see a group of slaves being forced to row a Roman galley ship at increasingly demanding speeds. While a war beating drum sets the relentless tempo, wandering soldiers mercilessly flog those poor souls who collapse from fatigue. Though the scene is definitely compelling, it’s also inaccurate. Roman galleys were actually powered by paid and well-trained freemen unless absolutely necessary. Frankly, handing this job over to slaves would have been foolish—if a ship were captured, enslaved oarsmen might well side with the enemy and attack their masters.


Posterity remembers Rome’s third emperor as a sadistic, incestuous lunatic and a testament to the dangers of absolute power—but claims about his madness may have been grossly exaggerated. Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus—better known by his nickname, Caligula—began a brief stint as Rome’s supreme leader in 37 CE. His own guards assassinated him just four years later.

Eighty years after the Emperor’s death, our old pal Suetonius published some truly depraved anecdotes about him in an ambitious set of biographies called The Twelve Caesars. At certain points, Suetonius’s Caligula chapter reads like an excerpt from a particularly vile Game of Thrones screenplay. (Among other things, he accuses the dictator of fornicating with his sisters—sometimes, while his dinner guests looked on.)

One often-quoted passage concerns Caligula’s beloved horse, Incitatus. According to Suetonius, the prized steed was kept in a marble stable, given precious jewelry, and waited upon by its very own slaves. Weirder still, the historian writes that Caligula “planned to make him a consul.” If true, this would have been a really strange power move because the consulship was one of the most prestigious offices in Rome.

But Caligula didn’t actually go through with the appointment, and today, some scholars dismiss the whole story as a myth. (Others, however, think the story has some truth, but it wasn’t because Caligula was crazy. As historian Aloys Winterling writes in Caligula: A Biography, “Besides symbolically devaluing the Roman consulars, Caligula’s designation of Incitatus as a consul sent a further message: The emperor can appoint anyone he likes to the consulship.”) Still, it’s often erroneously said that Incitatus became a genuine consul or, at the very least, joined the senate. This misconception was spread by Robert Graves’ classic novel I, Claudius and the wildly successful BBC television series it inspired, both of which depict Incitatus as crazy Caligula’s favorite senator.


It’s hard to find a film or TV show about ancient Rome in which the actors don’t sound like Royal Shakespearean players. The idea that all Romans spoke with an English accent was popularized by such Hollywood classics as 1959’s Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis (1951). A generation later, the aforementioned I, Claudius television series helped reinforce the trope.

So what sort of accent did the ancient Romans really have? The answer might be several. At its height, the Roman empire stretched from Portugal to Persia. Within this vast area, Latin (and Greek) was no doubt spoken through many different accents. As linguistic historian J.N. Adams has argued, “The combination of lexical and phonetic evidence establishes the existence (in e.g. Gaul, Africa, and Italy) of genuine regional varieties.” We also know that some Romans weren’t above snickering at those who pronounced certain words in a non-typical way. The Emperor Hadrian’s noticeable Spanish accent once triggered a chorus of audible laughter when he read an announcement before the senate. Poor guy.


Gratuitous sex scenes filled with writhing masses of toga-clad aristocrats are a standard fixture in movies and TV shows set in ancient Rome. But firsthand accounts of orgies are fairly rare in the annals of Roman texts. As classics professor Alastair Blanshard contends, “There have been more orgies in Hollywood films than there ever were in Rome.” It would appear that—at least to some extent—religious propaganda begat our misapprehensions about the prevalence of wild, Roman sex parties. Medieval Christian writers would often peddle embellished stories of lecherous get-togethers in an attempt to paint the Empire as a morally-bankrupt cesspool.

Still, no modern person would mistake the Romans for prudes. Inside a typical household, married men would regularly have sexual affairs with numerous slaves. On the other hand, public displays of affection were frowned upon—particularly in the days of the old Republic. One senator was even expelled after word got out that he’d kissed his own wife in front of their daughter.


Today, the marble sculptures left behind by the Romans look bone white. Yet, archaeologists have known for over a century that when these sculptures were first created, they received vibrant, multicolored paint jobs. Using a technique known as multispectral imaging, historians can identify the pigments left behind by various paints on ancient statues. With this information, they can tentatively reconstruct an original coat in all its polychromatic glory.

Of course, the ancient paints were mostly washed away by time. Thus, future civilizations assumed that Rome’s wonderful sculptures had always been devoid of color. By and large, Hollywood has followed suit. Virtually all movies that take place in classical Rome are (anachronistically) filled with drab, white statues.


Conventional wisdom holds that Rome simply adopted the Greek gods and gave them new names. What actually happened is a bit more complicated. As Rome grew increasingly enamored with Greek society, comparisons were deliberately made between Greece’s gods and some of the native Italian deities that many Romans already worshiped.

Early Roman religion had its own divine beings, each of whom came with a name and a role. For instance, the supreme god was Jupiter, an impersonal, ambiguously-defined entity that (among other things) controlled the weather. Over time, Rome’s size and influence grew. This expansion put the rising city into regular contact with the Greeks and, by extension, their gods. Gradually, Romans began to equate Italy’s existing deities with their Greek counterparts. Thus, by the third century BCE, Jupiter had transformed into a hybrid of his original Italian self and Zeus, the leader of Mount Olympus. Legends that Greeks traditionally associated with good old Zeus were now repeated as part of Jupiter’s backstory.

Despite this theological interchange, major differences between the Greek and Roman gods persisted. Many scholars have pointed out that the Greek deities were viewed as being more human-like, both in terms of appearance and behavior. Also, some Roman gods occupied slightly different roles than their Olympian equivalents did. Juno is a perfect example. As Jupiter’s wife, the goddess is seen as Rome’s answer to Hera. However, she was also considered the protector of women and childbirth. In Greek tradition, that job was more associated with Artemis (whose Roman analogue was called Diana) and not with Hera.

8 Allegedly Cursed Places

Some of the most picturesque spots in the world hide legends of a curse. Castles, islands, rivers, and more have supposedly suffered spooky misfortunes as the result of a muttered hex cast after a perceived slight—whether it's by a maligned monk or a mischievous pirate. Below are eight such (allegedly) unfortunate locations.


An 800-year-old ruined wall stands on the grounds of a large steelworks in Port Talbot, Wales. The wall is surrounded by a fence and held up by a number of brick buttresses—all because of an ancient curse. The story goes that when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 16th century, one of the local Cistercian monks evicted from Margam Abbey told the new owners of the site, in a bid to protect it, that if the wall fell, the entire town would fall with it (it's unclear why he would focus on that particular part of the structure). Since then, the townsfolk have tried hard to protect the wall, even as an enormous steelworks was built around it. Rumors abound that the hex-giving monk still haunts the site in a red habit, keeping an eye on his precious wall.


Alloa tower in Scotland
HARTLEPOOLMARINA2014, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

Alloa Tower in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, has reportedly been subject to a curse for hundreds of years. In the 16th century, the Earl of Mar is said to have destroyed the local Cambuskenneth Abbey and taken the stones to build his new palace. The Abbot of Cambuskenneth was so furious he supposedly cast a multi-part curse on the Erskine family—ominously known as “The Doom of Mar." It is said that at least part of the curse has come true over the years, including that three of the children of the Mar family would “never see the light” (three of the earl’s ancestors’ offspring were reportedly born blind). The curse also supposedly predicted that the house would burn down, which occurred in 1800. Another part of the curse: The house would lay in ruins until an ash sapling grew from its roof. Sure enough, around 1820 a sapling was seen sprouting from the roof, and since then the family curse is said to have been lifted.


In the fall of 2017, archeologists reopened an almost-4500-year-old tomb complex in Giza, Egypt, that contains the remains of hundreds of workers who built the great Pyramid of Giza. The tomb also contains the remains of the supervisor of the workers, who is believed to have added curses to the cemetery to protect it from thieves. One such curse reads: "All people who enter this tomb who will make evil against this tomb and destroy it, may the crocodile be against them in water and snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them in water, the scorpion against them on land." The complex is now open to the public—who may or may not want to take their chances.


A chateau just north of the French Riviera may sound like a delightful place to be, but amid the ruins of the Chateau de Rocca-Sparviera—the Castle of the Sparrow-Hawk—lies a disturbing legend. The tale centers around a medieval French queen named Jeanne, who supposedly fled to the castle after her husband was killed. She arrived with two young sons and a monk known to enjoy his drink. One Christmas, she went into the village to hear a midnight mass, and when she returned, she found that the monk had killed her sons in a drunken rage. (In another version of the story, she was served a banquet of her own children, which she unknowingly ate.) According to legend, Jeanne then cursed the castle, saying a bird would never sing nearby. To this day, some travelers report that the ruins are surrounded by an eerie silence.


Stopped off at a small uninhabited island that, according to Thai mythology, is cursed by the god Tarutao. If anyone dared to even take one pebble off this island they would be forever cursed! 😈 I heard from a local that every year the National Park office receive many stones back via mail from people who want to lift the curse! I was never much of a stone collector anyway... ☻☹☻☹☻ #thailand #kohlanta #kohlipe #kohhingham #islandhopping #islandlife #beachlife #pebbles #beach #speedboat #travelgram #instatraveling #wanderlust #exploringtheglobe #exploretocreate #traveleverywhere #aroundtheworld #exploringtheglobe #travelawesome #wanderer #earth_escape #natgeotravel #serialtraveler #awesomesauce #picoftheday #photooftheday #potd

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The tiny uninhabited island of Koh Hingham, off the coast of Thailand, is blessed with a covering of precious black stones. The stones are not precious because they contain anything valuable in a monetary sense, but because according to Thai mythology the god Tarutao made them so. Tarutao is said to have invoked a curse upon anyone who takes a stone off the island. As a result, every year the national park office that manages the island receives packages from all over the world, sent by tourists returning the stones and attempting to rid themselves of bad luck.


The "cursed" PH stones of St. Andrews University
Nuwandalice, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The initials PH are paved into the ground outside St. Salvator’s Chapel at St. Andrews University in Scotland. They mark the spot where 24-year-old preacher and faculty member Patrick Hamilton was burned at the stake for heresy in 1528—an early trigger of the Scottish Reformation. The location is therefore supposed to be cursed, and it is said that any student who stands on the initials is doomed to fail their exams. As a result of this superstition, after graduation day many students purposefully go back to stand on the spot now that all danger of failure has passed.


Charles Island, Connecticut
Michael Shaheen, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Charles Island lies off the coast of Milford, Connecticut, and is accessible from the mainland via a sandbar when the tide is low. Today it's home to a peaceful nature reserve for local birds, but its long history supposedly includes three curses. The first is said to have been cast in 1639 by the chief of the Paugussett tribe, after the nation was driven off the land by settlers—the chief supposedly cursed any building erected on the land. The second was supposedly laid in 1699 when the pirate Captain William Kidd stopped by the island to bury his booty and protected it with a curse. Shortly afterward, Kidd was caught and executed for his crimes—taking the location of his treasure to his grave.

The third curse is said to have come all the way from Mexico. In 1525, Mexican emperor Guatimozin was tortured by Spaniards hoping to locate Aztec treasure, but he refused to give up its whereabouts. In 1721, a group of sailors from Connecticut supposedly stumbled across the Aztec loot hidden in a cave in Mexico. After an unfortunate journey home in which disaster after disaster slowly depleted the crew, the sole surviving sailor reportedly landed on Charles Island, where he buried the cursed treasure in the hope of negating its hex.


A house in Bodie, California
Jim Bahn, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Bodie, in California's Sierra Nevadas, sprang up as a result of the gold rush. The town boomed in the late 19th century, with a population nearing 10,000 people. But as the gold seams ran dry, Bodie began a slow and steady decline, hastened by a series of devastating fires. By the 1950s, the place had become a ghost town, and in 1962 it was designated a State Historic Park, with the the buildings kept in a state of “arrested decay." Bodie's sad history has encouraged rumors of a curse, and many visitors to the site who have picked up an abandoned souvenir have reportedly been dogged with bad luck. So much so, the Bodie museum displays numerous letters from tourists who have sent back pilfered booty in the hope of breaking their run of ill fortune.

But the curse didn't start with prospectors or spooked visitors. The rumor apparently originated from rangers at the park, who hoped that the story would prevent visitors from continuing to steal items. In one sense the story worked, since many people are now too scared to pocket artifacts from the site; in another, the rangers have just succeeded in increasing their workload, as they now receive letter after letter expressing regret for taking an item and reporting on the bad luck it caused—further reinforcing the idea of the Bodie curse.

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21 Other Royal Babies Born In The Last 20 Years
Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

by Kenny Hemphill

At 11:01 a.m. on April 23, 2018, the Royal Family got a new member when it was announced that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have welcomed their third child, a (yet-to-be-named) boy, who will become fifth in line to the throne. While William and Kate's three children may be the youngsters closest to the throne, they're not the only pint-sized descendants of Queen Elizabeth II to be born in the past 20 years. Here are 21 more of them.


Arthur Robert Nathaniel Chatto, who turned 19 years old February 5, is the younger son of Lady Sarah and Daniel Chatto. He is 23rd in the line of succession—and has been raising some royal eyebrows with his penchant for Instagram selfies.


The grandson of Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret, and son of the 2nd Earl and Countess of Snowdon, Charles—who was born on July 1, 1999—is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.


Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) speaks to Serena Armstrong-Jones, Countess of Snowdon (L), David Armstrong-Jones (2L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, and Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (2R).

Born on May 14, 2002, Lady Margarita is sister to Charles Armstrong-Jones, and great-niece to the Queen. She's 20th in line to the throne.


Lady Louise Windsor is the eldest child and only daughter of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. She was born on November 8, 2003 and is 11th in line for the throne.


The third child of Lady Helen and Timothy Taylor, Eloise Olivia Katherine Taylor was born on March 2, 2003 and is 43rd in line for the throne.


Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge chats to Estella Taylor on the balcony during Trooping the Colour - Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Parade, at The Royal Horseguards on June 14, 2014 in London, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Eloise's younger sister, Estella Olga Elizabeth Taylor, was born on December 21, 2004. She is the youngest of the four Taylor children and is 44th in succession.


The younger child of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, James Alexander Philip Theo Mountbatten-Windsor—or Viscount Severn—was born on December 17, 2007 and is 10th in line for the throne.


Albert Louis Philip Edward Windsor, born September 22, 2007, is notable for being the first royal baby to be baptized a Catholic since 1688. He is the son of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and grandson of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. According to the Act of Settlement, which was passed in 1701, being baptized Catholic would automatically exclude a potential royal from the line of succession. But there was some controversy surrounding this when, up until 2015, the Royal Family website included Albert.


Lord Culloden, Xan Richard Anders Windsor, is son to the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and grandson of the Duke of Gloucester. He was born on March 2, 2007 and is 26th in succession.


Like his older brother Albert, Leopold Windsor—who was born on September 8, 2009—is not in line to the throne, by virtue of being baptized a Roman Catholic (though he, too, was listed on the Royal Family's website for a time).


Autumn Phillips, Isla Phillips, Peter Philips and Savannah Phillips attend Christmas Day Church service at Church of St Mary Magdalene on December 25, 2017 in King's Lynn, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, the Queen's first great-grandchild, was born on December 29, 2010 to Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and Autumn Kelly. She is 14th in line for the throne.


Senna Kowhai Lewis, who was born on June 2, 2010, is the daughter of Gary and Lady Davina Lewis, elder daughter of Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester. She was a beneficiary of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which abolished the practice of giving sons precedence over daughters in the line of succession, regardless of when they are born. As a result, she is 29th in succession.


Daughter of Lady Rose and George Gilman, and granddaughter of Prince Richard, 2nd Duke of Gloucester, Lyla Beatrix Christabel Gilman was born on May 30, 2010. She is 32nd in succession.


Lady Cosima Rose Alexandra Windsor was born on May 20, 2010. She is sister to Lord Culloden, daughter of the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and granddaughter to the Duke of Gloucester. She's 27th in line for the throne.


Lyla Gilman's brother, Rufus, born in October 2012, is 33rd in line for the throne.


Tāne Mahuta Lewis, Senna's brother, was named after a giant kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest of the Northland region of New Zealand. He was born on May 25, 2012 and is 30th in line for the throne, following the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.


Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Peter and Autumn Phillips's second and youngest daughter, Isla Elizabeth Phillips, was born on March 29, 2012 and is 15th in succession.


Maud Elizabeth Daphne Marina Windsor, the daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor and granddaughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, was born on August 15, 2013 and is 47th in line for the throne.


Louis Arthur Nicholas Felix Windsor, who was born on May 27, 2014, is the youngest child of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and brother of Leopold and Albert. As he was baptized into the Roman Catholic church, he's not in line to the throne.


Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Daughter of Zara Phillips and her husband, former England rugby player Mike Tindall, Mia Grace Tindall was born on January 17, 2014 and is 17th in the line of succession.


Isabella Alexandra May, the second and youngest daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor, was the last addition to the royal family. In July 2016, she was christened at Kensington Palace wearing the same gown worn by both Prince George and Princess Charlotte (it's a replica of the one that Queen Victoria's children wore). Looking on was celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is one of Isabella's godparents.


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