Fun Facts: Roman Empire
"When you are at Rome, live in the Roman style; when you are elsewhere, live as they live elsewhere."
The Circus Maximus in Rome, after its rebuilding by Julius Caesar,
could accommodate 150,000 people. It was enlarged again in the days of the
early empire to admit an additional 100,000.
Vergil, who is generally accepted as the greatest of the Roman poets, left
instructions that, upon his death, his manuscript of the
Aeneid should be burned because
he had not been able to polish it. Roman emperor Augustus—who may
have been the one who requested Vergil to write it—stepped
in and countermanded Vergil's request. He had others polish the work,
and ordered it published.
Though only a child, Gaius Caesar, son of the famous Roman general
Germanicus (15 B.C.-19 A.D.) and his wife, Agrippina, travelled
with his parents among the legions of Rome, and was wildly popular.
The soldiers nicknamed him Caligula, or "Little Boots," and the
sobriquet stuck with him right through the last unbalanced years of
his sordid life. Caligula (12-41 A.D.) became Emperor of Rome
(37-41 A.D.) and earned a reputation for ruthless cruelty, torture,
and execution. He became so hated that he was assassinated by one
of his own guards.
According to Roman historian Suetonius, it was rumoured that
one consul and coregent of Rome was a horse - Emperor Caligula's
favourite, Incitatus, who was accorded honour at every turn. Caligula's
successor, Claudius, did not invite Incitatus in to dine, as had
Caligula, but the horse was still decently treated, in his ivory manger,
with a golden drinking goblet for partaking of wine.
The first volume of recipes was published in 62 A.D. by the Roman
Apicius. Titled De Re Coquinaria, it described the feasts
enjoyed by the Emperor Claudius.
Roman Emperor Nero's last words were
"Qualis artifex pereo"—roughly,
"What an artist dies in me".
During the hundred days of the opening games at the Colosseum in
Rome, in 80 A.D., over 5,000 animals were killed, including
lions, elks, hyenas, hippopotamuses, and giraffes.
Modern archaeologists have not yet agreed on how large a crowd
the Colosseum in Rome could hold in its glory days. One authority
estimates 50,000, but around 45,000 is the generally accepted figure.
At the height of the Roman Empire in the second century,
its area was approximately equal to that of the United States today.
The population was at least 70 million and might have been more than 100 million.
Over one million people lived in the city of Rome itself.
There were over 18,000 miles of roads in the empire.
When the Romans built Hadrian's wall, they built a moat, not only around
the outside of the wall, but also around the inside, at a cost of a million
days' labour. The exact purpose of the inside moat has never been determined.
Only a few years after building it, the Romans decided to fill it in.
Commodus (161–192), who was emperor of Rome between 180 and 192,
fought and won 1,031 battles in the gladiatorial arena.
One of the worst Roman emperors was Heliogabulus. He was proclaimed
a god at the age of 14, and became the high priest at the
pantheon of Baal, the Syrian sun-god. In 219, largely due to the
scheming of his mother, Heliogabulus became emperor of Rome. He was
a practical joker, a spendthrift and a gourmand. He never gave a
banquet that cost less than 100,000 sesterces (about $10,000), and
often he would pay up to 3,000,000 sesterces. Furthermore, he retired
the ancient gods of Rome and replaced them with the Syrian customs
familiar to him. The residents of Rome were offended by many of the
eastern rites, which they felt to be obscene. Heliogabulus was
assassinated in 222.
One of the many causes of the decline of the Roman Empire may
have been their use of slave labour. While the ancient Greeks had many
impressive scientific and mathematical achievements,
they never succeeded in applying any of their discoveries to any
practical use, in part because slave labour was cheap and readily
By the end of the second century A.D., the ancient world's lack of
industrial technology and labour-saving machines began to make it difficult
for the Roman Empire to maintain both its military and a healthy
Around the end of the fourth century, about 20 great families in six
large clans owned most of the land in Gaul (modern-day France) and Italy.
When the Roman Empire "fell" in the fifth century, it was only the
Western half that actually fell. The Eastern half, which would later
become known as the Byzantine Empire, survived the fifth
century intact, and would last for almost a millennium more, until
Constantinople was captured by the Turks in 1453.
The Italian city of Ravenna was once an important port on the coast
of the Adriatic Sea. Emperor Honorius made it the capital of the Western Roman Empire
in the year 402 because of its strategic location,
being surrounded by marshes and virtually inaccessible by land, while
having a major port, Classis. Today, Ravenna, being five miles from the
sea, is no longer a port. Sand and silt have been deposited by the River Po from the plains of Lombardy and a sand bar has been created by sea currents, burying the harbour and forming new land beyond it.
Roman Emperor Theodosius II built a triple wall from the Golden Horn
to the Sea of Marmara, blocking the landward side of Constantinople
by a very strong barrier. The walls took over 30 years to construct,
from 413-47 A.D. On the far side of the
wall was a moat, sixty feet wide and twenty-two feet deep, which the
enemy would have to cross in order simply to reach the first wall.
Behind the low first wall, crouching archers could securely
pick off attackers. If the moat was passed and
the first wall breached, there were two additional walls:
the middle wall was twenty-seven feet tall, and the third wall was
seventy feet tall; from the third, the defenders could shoot their
arrows and catapult their stones. The ruins are still impressive
over 1,500 years later.
The word "mile" comes from the Roman milia, "thousands".
The Romans measured distances in paces, which were about five feet.
So, milia passum, 1,000 paces or about 5,000 feet, was the
length of a mile.
The Romans used poisonous lead as a sweetening agent.
Cyprus was one of the world's important mining centres in ancient
times, but for reasons still unknown the Romans halted operations
there and sealed the tunnels. Many of the tunnels were found and
reopened in the 20th century, thanks to clever detective work by an
American mining engineer, D. A. Gunther. In the New York Public
Library, he had stumbled on an ancient account of the mines.
Years of ingenious search in Cyprus led him to the tunnels, which
he found complete with usable support timbers and oil lamps. Cyprus
became an important mining centre again.
The Byzantines never called themselves "Byzantines". This term is
derived from Byzantium, the Roman name for Byzantion, the original
name of the city that is now Istanbul. It was first used in
1557, over 100 years after the fall of the "Byzantine" Empire, when German historian Hieronymus Wolf published Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ. The "Byzantines"
called themselves Romans, while they were called Greeks by Western Europeans.
The Roman Empire and Persia both agreed to sign "The Endless Peace"
treaty in 533. Seven years later, they were back at war with each
In the year 534, Dionysius Exiguus (also known as Dennis the Little), created
the system, still used today, of counting the years starting with the
birth of Christ. Unfortunately, he made some errors in calculation,
so the birth of Jesus probably took place around 6 B.C. (Herod the Great,
who is mentioned in the stories of Jesus' birth in the bible, died in
To celebrate, in 537, the dedication of the new church Hagia Sophia
(Holy Wisdom), which is recognized as the supreme product of Byzantine
art and architecture, the Emperor Justinian held a banquet for which
6,000 sheep, 1,000 oxen, 1,000 pigs, 1,000 chickens, and 500 deer
The plague that swept through much of the civilized world
in 542–543 A.D. was said by Procopius (who, admittedly, wasn't
always a reliable witness) to have killed up to 10,000 people daily
in Constantinople alone at its height. Emperor
Justinian caught the plague, but he recovered.
In the year 554, at the age of 74, the eunuch Narses re-established Roman
rule over all of Italy by defeating the Ostrogoths. At the age of 90 he was
still governing Italy.
Emperor Justinian bribed two Persian monks who had lived in China
to return there and smuggle back silkworm eggs in hollow bamboo canes.
Thus, Constantinople was able to begin silk production around 550 A.D.
From those worms were descended all the silk-producing caterpillars in
Europe down to modern times.
Since 562, when the great dome of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia at
Constantinople (modern-day Instanbul) was rebuilt following its collapse
in 558, the cathedral has sustained what was, until recently, the largest
self-supporting dome ever constructed, and that in an active seismic region.
An authentic "lost weapon" is Greek fire, which the Byzantine Empire
used on several occasions between the seventh and ninth centuries to
defend Constantinople against attacking Muslims. Constantinople might
have fallen but for Greek fire, and conceivably the Muslims might have
taken over a weak and divided Europe. To this day, we don't know
exactly what the "recipe" for Greek fire was. All we know is that it
burned all the more fiercely when wet (hence it likely contained some
sort of petrol compound), and that it could be floated toward the
enemy's wooden ships.
In 695, Leontius, the leader of a group of rebellious
Constantinopolitans, seized the emperor, Justinian II, and had
Justinian's nose cut off in the belief that, being disfigured,
Justinian would never again attempt to regain
the throne. Three years later, in 698, Leontius was himself
overthrown by troops under General Tiberius, who became Emperor
Tiberius III, and who then cut off Leontius' nose. Seven years
after that, Justinian II then retook the throne and publicly
humiliated and executed both Leontius and Tiberius III.
In the ninth century, Vikings (known as Varangians in the East)
were raiding Constantinople, at the mouth of the Black Sea. These
expeditions were launched from Kiev via the Dnieper River.
In 1014, Byzantine emperor Basil II decided to end for once and for
all a war that had already lasted forty years. To break the spirit of
the hated Bulgarians, he blinded all but 150 of 15,000 prisoners. The
"lucky" 150 were blinded in one eye only. Every 100 blind men were
guided by a one-eyed leader back to the Bulgarian capital of Ohrid,
whose ruler, Samuel, had received word that his army was returning to
him. Samuel hastened to meet his men—and found himself staring at
thousands of helpless blind men. The sight was fatal. Samuel
suffered a stroke on the spot, and died two days later. (Basil II
received the title Bulgaroktonis, meaning "slayer of Bulgarians.")