CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

11 Misconceptions About Ancient Rome, Debunked

Getty Images
Getty Images

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.

1. ROMANS DIDN’T WEAR TOGAS 24-7.

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.

2. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, IT LOOKS LIKE THE “NAZI SALUTE” WASN’T INVENTED IN ROME.

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.”

3. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT JULIUS CAESAR’S LAST WORDS WERE.

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.

4. NOT ALL GLADIATORS WERE SLAVES OR PRISONERS … OR MEN.

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.

5. MANY—IF NOT, MOST—GLADIATOR FIGHTS WEREN’T TO THE DEATH.

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.

6. THE ROMANS DIDN’T MAKE SLAVES ROW THEIR WAR VESSELS.

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.

7. CALIGULA’S HORSE NEVER BECAME A GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL.

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.

8. THE ROMANS PROBABLY DIDN’T HAVE BRITISH ACCENTS.

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.

9. ROMAN ELITES DIDN’T HAVE REGULAR ORGIES.

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.

10. ROME’S FAMOUS MARBLE STATUES WEREN’T ALWAYS MONOCHROMATIC.

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.

11. ROME’S PRE-CHRISTIAN GODS WEREN’T JUST GREEK IMPORTS.

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
15 Reasons You Should Appreciate Squirrels
iStock
iStock

Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. THEY CAN JUMP REALLY, REALLY FAR.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
iStock

In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].

2. THEY'RE VERY ORGANIZED …

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
iStock

In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A recent study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. … BUT THEIR FORGETFULNESS HELPS TREES GROW.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
iStock

Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. THEY HELP TRUFFLES THRIVE.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
iStock

The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. THEY'RE ONE OF THE FEW MAMMALS THAT CAN SPRINT DOWN A TREE HEAD-FIRST.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
iStock

You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. SEVERAL TOWNS COMPETE FOR THE TITLE OF 'HOME OF THE WHITE SQUIRREL.'

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. THEY CAN AID STROKE RESEARCH.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
iStock

Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. THEIR FUR MAY HAVE SPREAD LEPROSY IN THE MIDDLE AGES.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
iStock

If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. THEY'RE MORE POWERFUL THAN HACKERS.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. THEY CAN HEAT UP THEIR TAILS TO WARD OFF PREDATORS.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. THEY HELP SCIENTISTS KNOW WHETHER A FOREST IS HEALTHY.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
iStock

Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. THEY CAN LIE.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
iStock

Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. THEY WERE ONCE AMERICA'S MOST POPULAR PET.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. THE MERE SIGHT OF JUST ONE COULD ONCE ATTRACT A CROWD.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. IN THE 19TH CENTURY, THEY WERE TASKED WITH TEACHING COMPASSION.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

BONUS: THEY USED TO HATE TAX SEASON TOO.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
arrow
Retrobituaries
Leon Ray Livingston, America's Most Famous Hobo
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

With no more troops or supplies to move after the end of the Civil War, the country's railroads became home to another army—that of the hobos. The ever-increasing web of rails nationwide would go from 45,000 miles before 1871 to nearly 200,000 by 1900, making it easier for the poorest of working-class folk, many of whom were veterans, to hitch a ride on a train and travel from state to state looking for employment. These hobos were soon a familiar sight coast to coast.

The journeys of these destitute travelers quickly caught on in the popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating a romanticized view of this unique lifestyle. It was a time when writers like W. H. Davies and Jack London parlayed their hoboing experiences into literary notoriety, while Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" would become one of the most recognizable movie characters of the 20th century. Among these wandering folk figures was a man with a sense of showmanship and a keen eye for branding: Leon Ray Livingston—a writer, lecturer, and transient who would go on to dub himself "King of the Hobos."

What we know about Livingston's early life comes solely from the books he wrote, which often read like tall tales designed to help build his mystique. According to Livingston, he was born in August 1872 into a family from San Francisco that he described as "well-to-do," but at age 11, misbehavior at school led him down a different path in life. On the day after his 11th birthday, his teacher sent him home with a note detailing his bad behavior, which was to be signed by Livingston's father. The boy didn't show his father the note that night, and when he spotted his teacher heading toward his house the next morning, Livingston snuck out of the house and kept moving. He wouldn't fully stop for decades.

Livingston says he left his house that day armed with a .22-caliber rifle and a pocket full of money—some stolen from his mother, some a birthday gift from his uncle. From there, his life became an odyssey of riding the rails, hopping on steamers, and taking on odd jobs as he traversed a country in the midst of an industrial revolution. Years later, Livingston would famously brag that he traveled 500,000 miles while only spending $7.61 on fares.

In his decades on the road, he took to writing about his experiences, eventually self-publishing around a dozen books about his adventures; the most comprehensive was Life and Adventures of A-No. 1: America's Most Celebrated Tramp. Published in 1910—nearly 30 years after he left home—this book includes tales of his early life as a hobo, including one globe-trotting adventure in his first year that found him working aboard a British trade ship that set off from New Orleans for Belize, where he jumped ship and began working for a mahogany camp.

Book cover for The Trail of the Tramp
The book cover to Livingston's The Trail of the Tramp
Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

Livingston's Central American exploits include anecdotes about the working conditions in the British mahogany camps, his repeated (but failed) attempts to desert his employers and head home on their dime, feasting on "roasted baboon," and his near-fatal run-in with something he called Black Swamp Fever (which could be a reference to malaria). The writing is colorful and no doubt romanticized, making it hard to separate facts from the legend Livingston aimed to enhance.

It was after his return trip to America that Livingston was christened with the nickname that would help him become something bigger than a lowly transient: A-No. 1. In his book, Livingston said the moniker was given to him by an older companion named Frenchy, who said:

"Every tramp gives his kid a nickname, a name that will distinguish him from all other members of the craft. You have been a good lad while you have been with me, in fact been always 'A-No. 1' in everything you had to do, and, Kid, take my advice, if you have to be anything in life, even if a tramp, try to be 'A-No. 1' all the time and in everything you undertake."

He also told Livingston to carve this new nickname into each mile post he passed on his journey, letting the world know who'd traveled here before them. This piece of advice gave the legend of Livingston more longevity than he could ever imagine: In the 21st century, people are still finding "A-No. 1" scribbled under bridges.

In addition to signing their nickname, the wandering tramps would also draw up symbols to alert others of possible danger or hospitality ahead. In his 1911 book Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales, Livingston provides drawings of 32 of these symbols and what they all mean—including signs for "This town has saloons," "The police in this place are 'Strictly Hostile,'" and "Hostile police judge in this town. Look out!" It's not completely clear if Livingston played a role in creating this hobo code, but he is credited with preserving these symbols and bringing them to the attention of a curious American public.

As Livingston became more of a cultural figure, he seemingly took an interest in leading people away from the tramp life. His books would often begin with a warning, telling readers, "Wandering, once it becomes a habit, is almost incurable, so NEVER RUN AWAY, but STAY AT HOME, as a roving lad usually ends in becoming a confirmed tramp." He then finished, saying this "pitiful existence" would likely end with any would-be tramp in a "pauper's grave." These warnings could be a well-meaning public service announcement, although scholars say they can also be read as Livingston's attempt to enhance the danger of the lifestyle to create even more intrigue about his exploits (and sell more books).

Always a showman, Livingston understood publicity as well as any celebrity at the time; in his travels he would often seek out local reporters, becoming the subject of numerous newspaper articles and magazine interviews around the country. Taking pride in his exploits, he carried a scrapbook of his journeys around with him, which included personalized letters and autographs from notable figures such as Thomas Edison, George Dewey, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.

His influence among the community was far-reaching, even capturing the imagination of a young Jack London, author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild, during his formative years. London had reached out to Livingston about his lifestyle in the late 19th century, and the two adventured together, as chronicled in Livingston's book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, which was published in 1917, a year after London's death.

Despite the freight-hopping and steamer trips and odd jobs, Livingston wasn't hurting for money; for him, hoboing was a spiritual necessity, not a financial one. When he would seek some stability during his travels, he could often be found staying at Mrs. Cunningham's Boarding House in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, where he would write many of his books. In The Ways of the Hobo, he claimed the house became "a veritable Mecca to chronic hoboes," including old friends like "Hobo Mike" and "Denver Johnny," who sought out his counsel and companionship.

In 1914, Livingston married a woman named Mary Trohoske (sometimes spelled Trohoski), and he settled down—as best a tramp could—in a house in Erie, Pennsylvania. His later years were spent working various jobs—including at electric and steel companies around Erie, though one source places him in real estate. While he stayed relatively put in his later years, Livingston did travel the lecture circuit to speak out against the lifestyle that defined him. With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, the warnings Livingston wrote about the hobo lifestyle in each of his books had transformed into full-on speeches against tramping. (Sadly, his lectures don't seem to have survived.)

Rumors persist about Livingston's final days. Some claim that he continued his traveling ways toward the end, dying in a train wreck in Houston, Texas, in 1944, but this is likely confusion with a 1912 wreck that killed one of his impersonators. According to most accounts, Livingston passed away due to heart failure in his home on April 5, 1944 around age 71, with his wife by his side. But for a man who lived to mythologize his own story, a little ambiguity about his end is only fitting.

Livingston's fame has waned significantly since the first quarter of the 20th century. He's only re-emerged in the mainstream a few times, most notably when Lee Marvin played A-No. 1 in the 1973 movie Emperor of the North, based on Livingston's travels with Jack London and on London's own book The Road. Though little-remembered now, Livingston was part of a fleeting moment in American history—a time when the country was getting the first real glimpse of itself as an interconnected nation, and when someone who lived by wandering could be the stuff of folklore.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios