How often do you think about the Roman Empire? A recent meme and TikTok trend that made the rounds on social media suggests that many men, at least in the United States, think about it perhaps way too much—maybe even daily. Is that true? It’s certainly a case of Not All Men, but it may be a fact that some men think about the Roman Empire far more than the rest of us could have guessed. Regardless, it’s got a lot of people asking questions about the Roman Empire, and about how much we know—and think—about it!
Spanning several hundred years and controlling most of the land around the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman Empire exerts a perhaps outsized influence on Western culture and thought. Many great thinkers and important statesmen and philosophers called the empire home, and for generations after it had fallen, rulers of Western nations looked to it as a model and inspiration, for better or worse. The Roman Empire was an important touchstone of the European Renaissance, and the art, culture, tactics, politics, and thought of the Roman Empire have left an indelible impression on both those nations the empire once touched, and those it never reached at all.
How much do we really know about it, though? Perhaps not as much as we might like to think. Many of our ideas of classical antiquity are distorted through centuries of fiction, movies, and propaganda, as you will learn from these five fascinating and often surprising facts about the Roman Empire. If any of this is news to you, you may want to dig deeper. Centuries of misinformation have distorted our understanding of this important piece of history, even while they placed it on a higher pedestal than it may have deserved.
It wasn't as big as you might think
The Roman Empire wasn’t always one unified conglomerate during its existence. Spanning more than 1,000 years, the Roman Empire underwent numerous political changes during that time. By 395 CE, the unified empire had fractured into the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, with the former lasting only until around 480 CE while the latter persisted until 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. At its height, the Roman Empire circled the Mediterranean and extended into what is now England as well as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and points beyond. However, plenty of other empires throughout history have controlled considerably more land than Rome ever did. Rome’s significance lies with its imprint on Western culture, as much as with the territories that it conquered.
The Great Fire of Rome was originally blamed on Christians
In 64 CE, a fire broke out in the Circus Maximus of Rome. Within six days, it had spread throughout much of the capital, burning some 70 percent of the city. This fire has been the source of much mythologizing and misinformation over the centuries, including the popular perception that the Roman Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned,” which most historians now reject on a variety of grounds. Even at the time, however, rumors about the fire spread almost as quickly as the flames, which led the emperor to blame the conflagration on a “rebellious new cult”—aka Christians. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.”
The Colosseum housed more than just Gladiators
Originally built nearly 2,000 years ago, the Colosseum has become one of the most recognizable of all Roman landmarks and is often seen as synonymous with the empire. While the huge structure was best known for housing gladiatorial combat, that wasn’t all that happened within its walls. Perhaps the weirdest thing that we know of to ever take place in the Colosseum was a simulated naval battle which is said to have been staged during the structure’s inauguration. Researchers believe that the lower levels of the Colosseum were flooded so that water reached a depth of between five and seven feet on the floor of the Colosseum itself, and prisoners who had already been sentenced to death participated in a mock naval battle using miniature ships. Those that survived were believed to have been granted mercy.
We still use Roman roads
One of the many reasons why Rome has enjoyed such an exalted position in the historiography of Western culture is because much of what was built by the Roman Empire still stands today. Among other inventions, Romans developed a type of concrete that was sturdy and long-lasting, and built many structures that still persist, including buildings, aqueducts, walls, and roads. In fact, during the Roman Empire’s conquest of what is now Britan, they built some 2,000 miles of roads crisscrossing the island, many of which are still in use today. These aren’t the only Roman artifacts that can still be found across the many nations that the Roman Empire once covered, either. Hadrian’s Wall is a famous landmark in the UK, while numerous Roman buildings still stand throughout the city itself and much of the nearby territory.
Roman statues were actually brightly painted
For centuries, Rome has been synonymous with the white marble statues that decorate many of its structures. Here’s the thing, though: Those ancient statues probably weren’t white at the time. Modern scientists have used technology such as X-ray fluorescence analysis to prove that these statues were painted in often vivid, vibrant colors when they were originally displayed. The paint had simply flecked and worn off over the years. In fact, evidence of this polychromy has been in existence for centuries, so why has the idea of the pure white marble statue held on so tightly? During the Renaissance in Europe, it became something more than merely an aesthetic ideal—it became a part of Western identity, and one that is hard to shake. Shockingly, those scientists and scholars who study the bright colors of ancient Roman and Greek statues regularly receive death threats from white supremacists.