17 Facts About Ancient Rome You May Not Have Known

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Rome dominated Europe during the Roman Empire’s rule from CE 27 to CE 476, but the history of Ancient Rome goes back much further. Ancient Roman history goes back to the 8th century BCE when Rome was founded.

There were three main periods. The first was the Roman Kingdom, a regal period when a monarchy ruled from 753 to 509 BCE before they were overthrown.

After that came the Roman Republic, where Roman politics were based on the rule was by a public Roman forum or council. This lasted from 509 BCE until 27 BCE.

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Ancient Rome Ruins

Finally and most famously came the Roman Empire, when Caeser Augustus rose as the first Roman Emperor and established a succession of Roman emperors and a Roman society based on military glory. This period focused on expanding Roman territory and overcoming others like the Germanic tribes and Celtic tribes for power.

The following sixteen detailed facts about Ancient Rome cover Ancient Roman facts from all three periods. They focus on the city of Rome and the place of the Roman citizen in the Ancient World.

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The Colosseum, Rome

1. According to Legend, the First King of Rome was Romulus

King Romulus founded Rome after a fascinating life story! The war god Mars lay with Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin who was the daughter of the deposed king Numitor.

Rhea Silvia gave birth to twins Romulus and Remus, and the new king Amulius (her uncle) saw them as a threat and ordered them killed.

The children were abandoned and left to die. They were saved by the river god Tiberinus and suckled by a she-wolf. Eventually, they were found and raised by a shepherd, Faustulus.

They grew up as strong young men who were natural leaders, though they didn’t know of their royal or godly blood. As a young adult, Remus was captured by Amulius, and Romulus worked with his deposed grandfather to overthrow Amulius and free Remus.

Once Amulius was restored to the throne, the twins decided to found their own city. However, when they discovered the seven hills, they couldn’t agree on where to build the city. Remus preferred Aventine Hill, while Romulus preferred Palatine Hill.

They appealed to all the gods, and Romulus claimed divine support. A fight broke out between the brothers and their supporters – one of the first civil wars! – and Remus was killed.

Afterwards, Romulus built the only city atop Palatine hill, named it for himself, and began the imperial period.

2. The phrase “All Roads Lead to Rome” Refers Back to the Roman Empire

The major selection of the very straight roads that the Ancient Romans built throughout the Empire literally led back to Rome. Roman roads were known for their uniformity and, despite the sea in between, some were even built when the Romans invaded Britain.

Roman armies always returned to Rome when they could, as the city was considered a paradise. Some Roman roads can still be seen and even followed all over Europe and some of the Middle East.

There were several uses for the roads, but the most prominent were the 29 that were built specifically for moving Roman soldiers from the city of Rome across the Empire.

3. The Roman Colosseum, which Stands as a Landmark in Rome Today, is Still the Largest Amphitheatre in the World.

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A closeup of the Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum was built under Emperor Vespasian in the third period of Ancient Rome. It took eight years to build and was completed around 80 BCE. Today, the Colosseum is one of the most famous landmarks in Europe.

Though it is known for its gladiator fights, one of the most interesting facts about Ancient Rome is that these fights were only part of the entertainment in the famous amphitheatre! Gladiators were slaves, criminals, and other social outcasts who fought to win their freedom.

Rich Romans sometimes kept a favourite gladiator and would bet on the outcome of the gladiator fights. As well as each other, they would battle wild animals from the Middle East and North Africa, including lions and hippopotamuses.

Some gladiators won the right to earn their freedom. The wild animals were also used for executions, which were a show on their own. Condemned prisoners would be dropped in the fighting pit with no weapons or clothes, and people would watch as the animals ate them!

Apart from the fights, the Colosseum was well-known for its chariot racing. They would also recreate natural scenes like forests and introduce animals for rich Romans to observe – poor Romans could only enter some shows. Painters, artists, musicians, and actors also performed there.

Sometimes, the Ancient Romans would use dramatic plays about the gods as a form of execution for those condemned by Roman law! The breaker of Roman peace would be cast as a villain and killed by the hero of the play.

4. When Rome was Sacked in BCE 390, Many Roman Names of the Kings of the Ancient City Were Lost

The names we still know to this day may have been real or legendary, as they are mostly known through the oral tradition, which was eventually written down. We know the names of seven different kings of Rome, plus one co-king who ruled alongside Romulus. These kings were:

Romulus, who founded the city and ruled for 37 years until BCE 716. After their war ended and the two kingdoms were united, he shared the throne with Titus Tatius, the King of the Sabines. Romulus married Titus Tatius’s sister, Hersilia.

Numa Pompilius was elected by Assembly and ruled for 43 years until BCE 672, when he died of old age. He was known for his discipline and severity. His first wife was Tatia, sister of Titus Tatius, making him brother-in-law to both previous kings. In his fifties, he married his second wife, Lucretia, after Tatia’s death.

Tullus Hostilius, was elected by Assembly and ruled for 32 years until BCE 672. He was a very warlike king and there are two accounts of his death. In one, he was struck down by a thunderbolt from the god Jupiter. In another, he caught the plague and died.

Ancus Marcius, was elected by Assembly and ruled for 24 years until BCE 616. His father was a friend of Numa Pompilius and his mother was Numa Pompilius’s daughter. He married Hostilia, the daughter of Tullus Hostilius, who was his father-in-law. He was a very religious king.

Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, known as Tarquin the Elder, was originally just a regent for Ancus Marcius’s young sons. Marcius had appointed him their guardian. However, Tarquin was soon elected king by Assembly instead. He ruled for 38 years until BCE 578. He was the first king of the Etruscan dynasty and was known for his influence on the Senate.

Servius Tullius, who was a servant said to be fathered by the god Vulcan to a slave woman, Ocrisia. He was a very popular king who expanded the ancient city of Rome. He married Tarquin’s daughter, Tarquinia, and ruled for 44 years until BCE 554. He was assasinated by his own daughter and son-in-law, Tullia Minor and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, known as Tarquin the Proud, was the son or grandson of Tarquin the Elder and son-in-law of Tullius. He first married Tullius’s oldest daughter, Tullia Major, while the younger sister, Tullia Minor, married Tarquin’s elder brother Arruns. Both Tullia Minor and Tarquin wanted the throne, so they plotted together and murdered their spouses, then got married! After that, they killed Servius Tullius and stole the throne. He was a tyrant and was overthrown for his terrible rule and exiled, after which the Republic began.

5. The Roman Republic was Known for its Constant Wars

The Roman Army and the city of Rome fought against many enemies, most famously the Punic War triad against Ancient Carthage.

The first of these began over land rights to the island of Sicily and lasted between BCE 264 and 241. Though it ended with a peace treaty, Rome took advantage and broke the treaty to seize the island under their rule.

The Second Punic War saw Ancient Rome seized by Hannibal, an enemy leader after he famously crossed the Alps. It lasted from BCE 218 to 201. The Romans invaded the Carthaginian homeland in Northern Africa after years of fighting and as a result, the Carthage people asked for peace, overwhelmed by the power of the Roman army. They signed a treaty that essentially made Carthage subservient to Rome.

The third Punic War started in BCE 149 and was entirely fought in Northern Africa. Even though it was in North Africa, it was considered part of Rome! After only three years, the Roman army sacked Carthage, killed most of its people, and claimed the land for themselves.

7. Gaius Julius Caesar is Probably the Most Famous “Emperor” – But he Never Actually Was One!

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A painting of Ancient Rome, Italy

The first Roman Emperor was his nephew and adopted son, Gaius Octavius, who renamed himself, Caesar Augustus. Julius Caesar was a politician and an army general.

With two other powerful politicians, Crassus and Pompey, he formed the First Triumvirate, which influenced Roman politics for many years.

He invaded Britain and built a bridge across the Rhine, expanding the territory of Rome even before the Empire. After Crassus died, Caesar raised an army and started a civil war against the Senate, crossing the Rubicon to do so.

He won and became the most powerful man in Rome. He created the Julian calendar and made many social reforms, including giving Roman citizenship to foreigners and supporting veterans.

Despite this, when Julius Caesar declared himself dictator for life, the Republican politicians were worried that he was trying to become king. As a result, they plotted against him, and he was murdered on the Ides of March by his previous friends and allies.

The word “Caesar” became a byword for “emperor” and can still be seen around the world in words like “tsar” and “kaiser”.

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8. The Roman poet Juvenal popularised the phrase panem et circenses

The phrase means “bread and circuses” or “bread and games” – to insult the common people of Rome and the politicians that catered to them!

He despised how the commoners were so “greedy” that their political approval could be won by food (bread) and entertainment (circuses), ignoring civic duty and other important aspects of the glorious Roman Empire.

In 140 CE, politicians began to provide “bread and circuses” to the people as a way to garner votes. The full disparaging quote goes:

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

9. The Thermae and Balneae of Rome, Collectively Known as the Roman Baths, were Public Meeting Places Where People Went to Get Clean!

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Thermae and Balneae of Rome

The thermae were grand complexes for the rich, while more common Romans would bathe in the smaller balnae. Bathing, eating, massages, and exercise were all considered good for the health in Ancient Rome, so the baths were where to do these things!

The baths were mostly for men, though smaller baths were adjacent to the main complex for women. Bathing was an event that took hours and was done communally with lots of chatting.

First, they’d spend time in the tepidarium, a hot room with underfoot central heating, until they were sweating. Then they’d go to the caldarium, a hot room with a steaming water pool where they’d wash with olive oil.

Finally, they’d go to the frigidarium, a large cold pool where they’d wash off the sweat and heat! In the pools, they’d talk about everything from politics to daily life.

The Roman bathhouses also had libraries, rooms for poetry readings, and places to buy and eat food – essentially, they were large community centres!

10. There was a Firm Class Structure in Ancient Rome, and Everyone Knew Their Place

There wasn’t much social movement, either. The two broad classes were patricians (upper class) and plebians (lower class), and the only way to move between the two classes was by marriage.

The patricians had the best land and control of the Senate. Plebians often had a patrician patron looking after them financially in exchange for services.

Under the Republic, there were several classes based on property. These were the Senator class, the Equestrian class, Classes 1 through 5, and the wage-earning proletariat.

Freeborn women were citizens but could not vote. They were the property of the pater familias, the male head of the family. Married women belonged to their husbands until the second century CE, though even then, men (usually her father) still had to sign paperwork for financial reasons, marriage contracts, or divorce proceedings.

Enslaved people were not citizens but property. Some owners allowed their slaves to make money to buy their freedom or freed slaves under other circumstances. Formerly enslaved people and their direct descendants were citizens but considered lesser until a few generations had passed.

11. The Law of the Twelve Tables, First Established in 449 BCE, Governed the Politics of Rome Throughout the Entire Ancient Period

It was a legal code that covered:

  • Court policies
  • Trial law
  • Judgement enactment
  • Rights of the head of the family
  • Inheritance and guardianship laws
  • Possession and acquisition laws
  • Land rights and criminal activity
  • Torts and injury laws
  • Civil and public law
  • Religious law
  • Marriage between classes
  • The legal status of slaves

Much of the foundation in this code can be seen in political systems even today.

12. In CE 69, there were Four Emperors!

It was the transition period between two imperial dynasties, the Julio-Claudius dynasty and the Flavian dynasty. During this time, there was a lot of civil unrest, fighting, rebellions, and turmoil.

The first emperor of the four was Galba, who replaced Nero. He was emperor for eight months until January in CE 69.Galba was murdered by Otho, who became emperor for three months until April.

He committed suicide rather than lose in the rebellion of Vitellius.

Vitellius was emperor for eight months until December, when Vespasian defeated his armies. Though he tried to abdicate for Vespasian, it didn’t work, and he was executed.

Vespasian ruled from CE 69 to CE 79, and founded the next dynasty when his son took over after his death.

13. There were Five Emperors Identified as “the Five Good Emperors” Due to their Moderate Politics and Benevolent Attitudes Toward their Citizens.

All of these emperors were adopted rather than natural-born heirs.

The five were:

  • Emperor Nerva, ruled from CE 96 to 98. He was already nearly 66 when he took the throne and died of natural causes.

  • Emperor Trajan, ruled from CE 98 to 117. Senate officially declared him Optimus primus (“best ruler”) due to both his military success and his social welfare programs and philanthropy. He died of a stroke and was deified by the Romans.

  • Emperor Hadrian, ruled from CE 117 to 138. He was mostly a peaceful ruler who opposed expansionism and preferred to focus on Rome. He was Trajan’s first cousin. He died of chronic illness.

  • Emperor Antoninus Pius, ruled from CE 136 to 161. He provided free access to drinking water through Rome and the empire and helped free slaves gain rights. He was the adopted son of Hadrian and his wife was Hadrian’s niece Faustina. He died of illness at 70.

  • Emperor Marcus Aurelius, ruled from CE 161 to 180. Pius was his adopted father, and Aurelius ruled alongside his adopted brother Lucius Verus (who married Marcus’s daughter) until Lucius died of plague in 169. He was known for military successes and work on the Roman currency. He’s famed for being a writer and philosopher who is still studied to this day.

14. Four Major Dynasties Ruled Over the City of Rome Between BCE 27 and 235 CE.

The Julio-Claudian dynasty started with Augustus and ended with Nero. It lasted 95 years, from BCE 27 to 68 CE

The Flavian dynasty started with Vespasian and ended with Domitian. It lasted 27 years, from 69 to 96 CE

The Nerva-Antonine dynasty started with Nerva and ended with Commodus. It lasted 96 years, from 96 to 192 CE

The Severan dynasty started with Septimius Severus and ended with Severus Alexander. It lasted 41 years, from 193 to 235 CE

15. Ancient Roman Religion was Very Complicated

The gods were not personified in archaic Rome, but this changed as civilisation evolved. They collected many gods from their travels worldwide and from their own mythology.

Much later, they began to identify their gods with Greek gods due to many cultural interactions. The main gods of the Roman pantheon and their Greek equivalents were: Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Neptune (Poseidon), Venus (Aphrodite), Pluto (Hades), Vulcan (Hephaestus), Ceres (Demeter), Apollo (same name), Minerva (Athena), Diana (Artemis), Mars (Ares), Mercury (Hermes), and Bacchus (Dionysus).

Christianity was punishable by death from the rule of Nero from 54 CE onward. However, when Emperor Diocletian was succeeded by Emperor Constantine I in 313, Christianity became very popular. By 391, Emperor Theodosius I had banned all religions except Christianity!

16. Ancient Rome was a Hub of Technology

They created new inventions or adapted from older Greek designs at a rate that wasn’t matched again until the 19th century! The engineering of famous monuments that still stand today was one of their biggest successes.

The Romans invented an early form of concrete for their roads, a good road system with drainage, sanitation procedures like indoor plumbing and flushing toilets, and complex aqueduct systems.

Despite how long ago it was, the city of Rome was extremely clean – some citizens even liked to bathe every day at a minimum.

17. Education was Very Important to Rich Roman Families, and any Roman who Wished to be a Politician was Expected to Have a Full Education.

Even poorer citizens did their best to get their children some level of education, as it was a point of moral pride for fathers to school their kids! However, there was never a legal obligation for children to be educated.

There were primary and secondary schools followed by college, and they ran on an eight-day week. Students didn’t progress through age, but rather by ability, and education was started as early as possible to take advantage of young children’s elastic memories.

There were four potential stages of education for a child in Rome, plus, later, one borrowed from Greece. These were:

Moral Education – Originally taught by the parents (mothers for girls, fathers for boys). It involved emphasis on the importance of home and family and basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, children were taught Roman morals – devotion to the state and military for boys, and devotion to husband and family for girls. During the Republic, Greek slaves began to take over as tutors.

Ludus – Wealthy children had tutors, but more common children went to a ludus litterarius, a school that could be held anywhere – in a gym, someone’s house, or even the street. There were no formal tests, so students competed to be the best. Students would progress from the basics to complex poetry and mathematics.

Grammaticus – This was a personal tutor for wealthy boys who would learn advanced writing, speaking, foreign languages, and analysis between the ages of 9 and 12. Less wealthy boys would instead be in an apprenticeship, and girls of any rank would be focused on learning to be good wives and mothers.

Rhetor – Not many boys went on to study rhetoric, but it was a requirement for lawyers and politicians. Private tutors taught a well-rounded education, including orating, geography, mythology, philosophy, music, geometry, and more.

Philosophy – A final state for eager learners! Only wealthy boys or common boys with patrons learned philosophy, and they usually had to study abroad in Greece. Though it was an option, Romans generally preferred their schools of law and rhetoric based in Rome.

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Sylvie Simpson is the founder of European Cities with Kids. For the past 6 years, she has been travelling all over Europe whenever she has the chance, both solo, for work and with her daughter. Sylvie is on a mission to help people make the most of city breaks in Europe with kids and helps over 50,000 readers per month plan and make the most of their trips in Europe with kids.

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