7 Hoaxes About Ancient Rome (and Why They Are Not True)


Ancient Rome has been, especially since Hollywood included it among its favorite plots, the subject of many stories that are not always true (or not entirely). We all have in mind Julius Caesar saying to Brutus, “You too, my son?” while he fell victim to a stabbing, or the “evil” Nero burning down Rome for a poem. Also quite widespread is the hoax that the Romans forced themselves to vomit to continue eating in their “rocambolesque” orgies, or that Livia, the wife of Octavius ​​Augustus, was a psychopath poisoner.

But what is true in all this? Sometimes, little; others, nothing. In today’s article, and following the magnificent study by historian Néstor F. Marqués Fake news about ancient Rome (see bibliography), we bring you 7 hoaxes about ancient Rome and the explanation of why they are not true.

Myths about ancient Rome that need to be debunked

As always, part of the “blame” that these hoaxes have become consolidated in popular imagery lies with novels and movies. There is nothing wrong with fiction, of course, as long as the reader is aware that it is just that, fiction.

In the case of the alleged poisoner Livia Drusilla, her fame as an evil stepmother came with Robert Graves’ (magnificent, on the other hand) novel I, Claudius (and, above all, with the no less magnificent BBC series in it based). Nero, for his part, acquired a reputation as an incendiary with the splendid novel Quo Vadis? by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and with the full color film that was made in 1951.

However, movies and novels have not always been the cause of the consolidation of hoaxes about Rome. In fact, these fictions extract information from much older sources that, in addition, were considered true for many centuries. We are talking about Roman writers such as Dio Cassius or Suetonius, who recorded in their writings a series of myths that have remained, forever, as reliable and unquestionable facts. Let’s see 7 of these myths below.

1. “You too, my son?”

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the famous English bard, bears much responsibility for the fact that this myth has been perpetuated. In his work Julius Caesar captures the death of the dictator, where he puts the famous phrase on his lips, just before falling riddled with stabs (at the feet of the statue of his eternal enemy Pompey, by the way).

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The fact that Caesar called Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the conspirators, “my son,” led people to think that Brutus was indeed Caesar’s son. However, and As the historian Néstor F. Marqués records in the work already cited, the source closest to the events, that of Suetonio, tells us that the dictator only said: “You too, son?”.

It is, in fact, a very similar phrase, but which, recorded in Greek in the original, uses a word that mature men used to refer to younger ones, in a kind of affectionate vocative from the experience granted by old age. . In any case, Marcus Junius Brutus was not Caesar’s son, despite many works of fiction (including the well-known Asterix comic) insisting otherwise.


2. Orgies, vomiting and bacchanals

If the Romans are known for anything, it is for their colossal banquets, where food, wine and, of course, sex abounded. The Christians were especially responsible for spreading their reputation as “libidinous”, very interested in putting a full stop between those pagan Romans and the new Christian Rome.

Let’s pause for a moment on the etymology of the word orgy. It is the plural of orgium, sacred rituals dedicated to the god Dionysus, introduced to the Roman people through the Greeks. These were mysterious rites reserved for a few initiates, who were persecuted in the 2nd century BC by the Roman state, in a similar way to what would happen shortly after with the Christians.

As these rituals fell out of favor, hoaxes began to proliferate about them, proclaiming that their followers were promiscuous and indulged in unlimited sexual debauchery. We must remember that Roman morality, in this sense (and despite what we have been told) was not so different from Christian morality. The hoax was served.

By the way, The lie included the implausible story that the participants of the orgies forced themselves to vomit to continue eating. Seneca, in one of his writings, commented that “they eat to vomit and vomit to continue eating”, which, without a doubt, was directed at certain people in particular (there have always been excessive people), and may even simply be an exaggeration of the writer himself to emphasize these exaggerated customs.

The myth was popularized from a Latin word, vomitoria, which was supposedly the place where the Romans retired to vomit, by inserting a feather into their throat, all the food ingested until then. In reality, the vomitoria were the exits from the amphitheaters (vomitare means to expel), a word that, by the way, is still present in many modern soccer fields.

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3. Christians, to the lions?

Another classic story referring to the Roman world is the persecution of Christians. Although this persecution did occur at specific times (especially under the mandate of Diocletian), there were many times in which coexistence between Christians and pagans was quite peaceful, and the authorities did not intervene against their cult.

In fact, It seems that the emperor Hadrian was about to finance public temples in which to worship Christ as another god, although there is no evidence that this was carried out. It is known that he did not issue any document (or, at least, it has not reached us) of persecution, nor did Domitian, one of the emperors most reviled by Christian historiography.

In short, it is true that Christians were persecuted in Roman times, but it is no less true that later Christian authors exaggerated said persecution. On the other hand, the Christian martyrs were not executed in the circus, as many people believe, but in the amphitheater. The Roman circus was reserved for chariot races.

4. I will not be less than Caesar!

There is also a widespread story that Augustus added one more day to the month of August (dedicated to himself) so as not to be less than Julius Caesar, whose month (July) had 31 days. This would be the supposed explanation of why these two months, which are consecutive on the calendar, have the same duration. Again, another hoax, which, according to Néstor F. Marqués, was put into writing by Juan de Sarcobosco, a monk from the 13th century. It was actually Caesar himself who modified the length of the month of August (called Sextilis before Augustus), long before Octavian was even important.


5. Livia, the “poisoner”

Speaking of Octavian Augustus, we cannot make a list of Roman hoaxes without mentioning the fame attributed to his wife, Livia Drusilla. You will probably all remember a wonderful Siân Phillips who, in the BBC series I, Claudius, played an evil and calculating Livia, whose only objective was to seat her son Tiberius on the imperial throne, regardless of who she had to take down. in front of. In the series (and in the original novel, by the way) it is reflected how she managed to poison her husband Augusto by soaking the figs that he used to personally pick from the tree with poison.

The story already sounds, in itself, too fictional. There is no reliable evidence that Livia was behind the deaths attributed to her in the novel and the series. What we do know is that she was an extremely intelligent woman and very gifted in politics, something that the misogynistic Roman society could not conceive. For this reason (and as, apparently, happened later with Messalina, the wife of Emperor Claudius, accused of being an “insatiable prostitute”), the Roman sources were responsible for making her go down in history as an absolutely perfidious being…

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6. Burn down Rome for a poem

Another image that we have in mind about ancient Rome is that of Nero standing on top of the Palatine Hill, contemplating, lyre in hand, the burning of Rome of which he was the author. The story has transcended, but is it real?

Again, there is no evidence of this. We know that the emperor was not in the city when the fire occurred. We also know that, once warned and returned to Rome, he deployed general aid to help the victims. However, the fact that he took advantage of the land left after the destruction to build numerous buildings (among them, the Domus Aurea, an impressive palace complex) could fuel rumors of his authorship.

Exempting Nero from this crime does not mean exempting him from those he did commit. But we cannot so lightly attribute something for which we have no evidence, something on which not even contemporary sources agree.

7. Sex between men, widespread?

We finish this brief tour of the hoaxes about ancient Rome by talking about sex between men. Often, and in contrast to the strict Judeo-Christian morality in this regard, we keep in mind that the Romans were extremely permissive regarding homosexuality. However, this is not exactly the case.

While it is true that the private customs of citizens were not the concern of the state, a homosexual relationship in which the “dominant” man was penetrated was not at all welcomed. What do we mean by dominant? According to what the Romans believed, the one who had a higher status. For example, it could be accepted that a slave was penetrated by his master, but in no way was it left without disapproval that the master was the passive subject in a similar relationship.

On the other hand, Roman morality was quite strict and, in many cases, can be compared with Christian morality. Sexual “deviations” were considered execrable; For this reason, when they wanted to vilify a public figure, the sources attributed to him all the “debaucheries” imaginable. As always, historical sources must be taken with great care.