“I’m sure when they partied when Rome was burning, that was a really great party.” -Adam McKay

(Author’s Note: Due to this post I have added a new Category, History Shmistory, now found on the Navigating the Blog page.)

We’ve all heard the phrase “When in Rome…” which is short for “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In American culture, this quote is generally used to excuse a lavish or indulgent act, like drinking before noon or deciding to take the day off from work. (Is that also the reason government buildings tend to mimic Roman architecture?)

Anyway, Ancient Rome was a place of great beauty, where the rich lounged and drank wine under the light breeze from their slaves’ palm-leaf-fanning. These slaves also probably curtsied meekly, because otherwise what’s the point? Rome was the height of civilization and culture.

But they also made slaves fight to the death, and ate until they threw up, because, you know, why not? So, as beautiful as Ancient Rome was, it was also a pretty weird place.

You may remember that last Thursday I had an encounter with my new favorite tool, the Strigil (thank you Chris), which is a hand-held, curved piece of metal used to scrape off dirt and sweat after applying perfumed oils. This seems pretty weird to us, but to be fair they didn’t really use soap so at least they came up with some sort of cleansing process. Also, the strigil is only the tip of the weird Roman iceberg.

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I could use a good strigil-ing.

Another commonly known fact about Ancient Romans is maybe how the color purple was considered royal, making it treason for anyone but the Emperor of Rome to wear all-purple clothing. Or maybe how left-handed people were considered unlucky, which also happens to be the origin of the word sinister.

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Little known fact: Lil’ Wayne is Roman royalty.

You might even remember the Roman obsession with phalluses, if you had a particularly liberal history teacher in High School. The phallus was considered a lucky object, which seems to have been a good choice seeing as men have controlled society for the past several thousand years. You may not have known, though, that sculpted phalluses were worn as charms and necklaces.

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Romans let it all hang out.

Another interesting tidbit: Roman bathhouses were a social environment. This may not seem weird at first, but just imagine sitting next to someone else who is actively using the toilet and having a conversation with them. This obviously didn’t last, and I’m starting to think Rome may have actually fell out of sheer awkwardness.

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Guys today don’t even make eye contact at the urinal.

And then there’s Caligula.

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Side Note: This picture is accurate. Greek and Roman sculptures were actually painted to be life-like, back in their day. Which probably would have made for the creepiest walk around the city, like, ever.

Emperor Caligula, or Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, was Emperor of Rome from 37 AD to 41 AD. He was also the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated, meaning he lasted a whopping 4 years before someone decided he was just too freaking weird to continue living.

Did I mention he was crazy? Aside from frequently dressing up in what was considered women’s clothing, which to be fair isn’t all that deserving of death, he was known for his “cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and intense sexual perversity, presenting him as an insane tyrant.” Yes, I just quoted the same Wikipedia article I linked to two paragraphs ago. I’m that kind of person. But in my defense it’s a good Wikipedia article, and I highly suggest reading it. Especially the section on “Scandals.”

Like most people who go mad with power, Emperor Caligula did not come to a pleasant end, and there was much rejoicing once they sorted out who would be Emperor next. But I’m not a Caligula fan simply because he had a Julius Caesar-esque death. I also appreciate that he really loved his horse.

incitatus

It’s recorded that Incitatus, Emperor Caligula’s favorite horse, was living in a stable made of marble and ate out of a manger made of Ivory. Also, Caligula also supposedly had plans to make his steed a Consul, otherwise known as the highest elected office of the Roman empire. Which is usually either regarded as plain insanity or a clever joke about how a horse could do a Senator’s job. Or maybe both.

So, thank you Ancient Romans. Thank you Emperor Caligula. You did more than your part in making history a fun thing to learn about. I appreciate you all dearly.

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