When it comes to ancient history it’s often difficult to differentiate truth from legend or rumour. It’s hard enough in modern times, what to speak of 2,000 years ago?
Our sources about how the Ancient Romans lived, from their customs to major historical events, are largely surviving writings from Rome and other contemporary civilisations like Greece. We can also look to disciplines like archaeology to try to fill in some blanks, but sometimes we can never be sure.
Nevertheless, there are some commonly long-held beliefs about Rome that we can pretty much rule out.
Here are four common misconceptions about Ancient Rome.
1. Wealthy Romans feasted, vomited and then ate more
While this may fit in with our image of an “empire of excess” and while compared to some civilisations, Romans certainly knew how to party, the term vomitorium does not refer to a room in which to purge the contents of one’s stomach.
Though there are some records of bulimia in Ancient Rome, vomitoria were simply pathways or tunnels for exiting and entering amphitheatres or stadiums. While the Latin word vomo could mean throwing up, in its broader context it simply meant to discharge.
2. Romans salted the earth of destroyed cities
The practice of spreading salt to prevent the growing of crops, thereby making a place inhabitable, may not have ever been carried out by anyone, except as a ritual. Salt was a very expensive commodity, even hundreds of years ago, and a large enough quantity would be an absurd outlay.
Accounts of Scipio Africanus salting the ground after destroying Carthage or Titus doing the same at the Temple in Jerusalem come from sources many hundreds of years after the fact.
3. Nero fiddled while Rome burned
According to several contemporary accounts, Nero was both a bad Emperor and a horrible person. But did he watch Rome burn in the Great Fire while playing a fiddle?
Firstly, if Nero played anything, it would have most likely been a lyre, a small harp that was common Ancient Greece and Rome. However, there were no fiddles back then.
Secondly, according to several secondary accounts (Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Tacitus), Nero sent men to light the fire while he played the lyre and sang, either watching from one of his palaces or on a private stage. Other accounts blame it on Christians (which Nero is believed to have done) or state that the Emperor was not even in Rome when the fire took place.
As all primary sources have been lost, it is easy to categorise all accounts as at least partially politically motivated rumours. At any rate, we will most likely never know.
4. Caligula made his horse a senator
Emperor Caligula was known for extravagance, grand gestures and whimsical killings. Power obviously got to his head. His favourite horse, Incitatus, was reportedly extremely spoiled. Suetonious writes that he was kept in a marble stable and war a necklace of jewels, while Dio Cassius claimed he was fed oats mixed with gold flake and made a priest.
The most famous claim about Incitatus, however, was that Caligula made him senator or consul. However, scholarly interpretation points to the probability that these are exaggerated claims. Caligula may indeed have threatened to do the above, as a joke or provocation, but there is no hard evidence he actually did so.
As in the case of Nero, these critical reports may be inspired by rumour and political motivation. Later semi-fictional depictions of Caligula’s life have also cemented the legend of Senator Incitatus.