Roman senate

8 Myths about Ancient Rome

Roman legion painting
A Roman legion in battle. Hastati and velites are in the center; principes and triarii are on the left. Art by Peter Connolly

1. Rome’s legions were a uniform fighting force

Most everyone’s familiar with the idea of the Roman legion as identically armored men marching in-step to battle. Yet soldiers in Roman legions looked highly diverse until the second century B.C./B.C.E. Instead of fielding soldiers with identical arms and armor, legions consisted of four different troop types: velites, hastati, principes, and triarii. The velites were a lightly-armored, hit-and-run skirmish force that marched just ahead of the troops on the front line. That front line was occupied by the youngest men, the hastati, armed with javelins and leather. Behind them were the principes, the experienced soldiers used to fill gaps that opened in the front. The triarii occupied the very rear. They were the elite troops and the older men, armed with spears or javelins.

Legions didn’t become more uniform until about 107 B.C./B.C.E., when the consul Gaius Marius reformed and restructured the Roman army. Equipment became standardized, and citizens were able to become professional soldiers, unlike the past when they served temporarily and supplied their own equipment.

2. Carthage was the underdog in its wars against Rome

Mediterranean world, 264 B.C.
Carthage was stronger than Rome, politically and territorially

It’s a heroic picture: little Carthage trying to stand up for itself against the Roman Empire, the mean, greedy power to the north. It’s also wrong.

First, Rome didn’t assume imperial status until the last decades (20s and 10s) B.C./B.C.E., so Carthage never fought a Roman empire. During the Punic Wars (264-241, 218-201, and 149-146), Rome was still a republic. Moreover, the image of a miniscule Carthage fighting a massive Rome is a reverse of the actual situation. Before the First Punic War, Rome was a tiny regional power confined to Italy, while Carthage was a Mediterranean merchant powerhouse with holdings in Africa, Sicily, various Mediterranean islands, and Spain. Even after Carthage lost most of its territory in the Second Punic War and ended up on more even footing with Rome, it was still a considerable mercantile power.

Some historians argue that Carthage’s invasion of the Italian Peninsula in the Second Punic War was one of the main factors that set Rome on its path to expansion. The idea is that the Romans saw the devastation caused by the Carthaginians and consequently decided that they would never again fight a foreign power on Italian soil, ensuring that they would fight in the enemy’s territory instead.

3. Roman religion was a copy of the Greeks’

“Greek” deities did comprise a significant part of the Roman pantheon, but Rome’s religion was more complex than that. Saturn (an adversary of the gods in Greek tradition) was specially revered because of his mythic attachment to Roman history. The Romans were also known for adopting conquered peoples’ gods, such as Mithras and Cybele, into the accepted Roman system of worship. As a result, the religious environment in Rome became more diverse than that in classical Greece, giving Rome a unique identity.

4. Rich Romans had servants

While this seems true thanks to later depictions of the wealthy being waited on hand and foot, it’s not the case at all. Servants were almost totally absent from Roman culture, and the Romans instead relied heavily on slaves. Many came from wars (tens of thousands were won in the First Punic War alone), but there were other techniques for acquiring them as well. Hired servants were an idea so alien to Roman culture that Latin doesn’t even have a word that really describes a servant in traditional terms. The closest word is “servus,” which still communicates an idea of bondage to another person or cause.

5. Romans used slaves to row their ships

Roman trireme
A Roman trireme. The front features a large ram, the main weapon in naval combat.

Rowers on ships were paid Roman citizens, not slaves. Not only is there evidence to suggest this, but it also makes sense. Naval combat of the time relied heavily on ramming enemy ships and attempting occasional boarding actions. Maneuverability was key, so it’s more sensible to have a trained, strong, professional force able to do its job than it is to have a host of weaker or untrained individuals. Sorry, Ben-Hur.

6. Gladiators were killed if they lost

Like number five, there’s both evidence to show this isn’t true and common sense to support that it’s not. During the republican era, gladiators were appreciated by the masses and were considered an economic asset of their masters or training school. Their schools invested large sums into training them with the expectation that it would pay off later, so regularly killing them would have been a massive waste of money. It would have been similarly pointless for them to die, since they helped to generate revenue by drawing people to gladiatorial games. In  more (slightly anachronistic) modern terms, it would be comparable to the owner of your favorite sports team killing the players for losing a match—maybe they failed to win, but they still made fans attend, and high attendance means more money. Sure, some gladiators were killed, but not nearly as many as pop culture makes it seem.

7. The Senate was a democratically elected body

Roman senate
Artist’s depiction of the Senate. In reality, it would have as many as 1,000 members at times

Most other Roman politicians were elected, but senatorial status was “earned.” During the republican era, members were appointed by two comitia centuriata, or “censors,” who took the census and evaluated citizens’ wealth and prestige, promoting worthy citizens to the senate and demoting those who had fallen into obscurity or irrelevance. Typically, men who became senators had served in public office and distinguished themselves enough for society to view them as dignified and worthy of authority.

8. Julius Caesar was the first emperor

Caesar coin
A coin featuring Julius Caesar as “dict perpetuo”: dictator for life

Gaius Julius Caesar wielded power similar to an emperor’s, but he was never styled as such. In fact, he made efforts to show that he wanted the people’s allegiance but not an imperial title. He was elected Dictator in 47 B.C./B.C.E., a legitimate Roman position filled in times of crisis. In 44 B.C./B.C.E., he assumed the title of “dictator for life,” which is where this misconception comes from: he exercised total control over the Roman state but with an autocratic twist on the constitution. It didn’t last long, however, as he was assassinated in March of the same year.

The first Roman “emperor” was Julius Caesar’s nephew, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus. Even Augustus worked to avoid the stigma of being the first emperor, trying to maintain the appearance that the republic still existed. He styled himself as princeps (“first citizen” or “first among equals”) instead of assuming an outright imperial title. In general, his successors also wouldn’t openly acknowledge themselves as emperors until much later.

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