Many of our perceptions of ancient Rome, in particular those surrounding the emperors, have been shaped by legend and exaggeration, notably motion pictures made during the 20th Century.
But when we return to actual history, particularly what was recorded in primary sources, a somewhat different picture emerges.
Caligula and his horse General
An example is the story of Emperor Caligula (ruled AD 37-41) who supposedly made his horse Incitatus a Consul. However several contemporary sources suggest that this never actually happened and that Caligula was merely criticising the Consuls of the time – they were such “asses” that his own horse could readily join the group.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned
Emperor Nero (ruled AD 54-68) has been made infamous for starting the Great Fire of Rome – and then playing the fiddle as it burned. However it was also recorded that Nero was at his villa at Antium, about 60 km away, when the fire broke out and that he subsequently organised relief operations at his own expense.
The vomitorium is where you vomit
The popular misconception is that a vomitorium is a room where Romans could go to regurgitate their food after feasting. This is untrue, vomitoria referred to ampitheater passageways that could “spew forth” spectators into their seats.
Emperor Commodus the father killer
Emperor Commodus (ruled 177 AD to 192) was known for his excesses and debauchery and was believed to have killed his father, Marcus Aurelius. However this is doubted by many historians with the other favoured view being that Aurelius died of the plague.
Thumbs up, thumbs down
One of the more popular myths about ancient Rome concerns the death of gladiators in he Colosseum, with the common belief being a crowd signalling “thumbs up or “thumbs down” to determine whether a fallen gladiator should be spared or killed. In reality only the Emperor could make this judgement, which he did with an open or closed hand.
Et tu Brute?
Caesar’s last words have been widely reported as “Et tu Brute”, as he was being stabbed by his friend and confidant Brutus. However other versions of the killing reported that he said “You too child?” – while still another reported that he said nothing.
Image: A bust of Emperor Caligula located at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.