7 surprising Ancient Rome facts

Our fascination with Ancient Rome has inspired a glut of books, documentaries, movies and even games. But, writer Jem Duducu points out, our focus tends primarily to centre on just one period – the era from Julius Caesar to (roughly) Constantine the Great. Here, Jem brings you seven lesser-known facts about the fascinating years before Nero or Hadrian, and about the era of Roman decline…

Painting of The Intervention of the Sabine Women in a museum, Musee Du Louvre, Paris, France


1) The Roman’s couldn’t decide on their origins

The legend of Romulus and Remus tells the story of twin brothers raised by wolves who become the founding fathers of Rome.
The boys’ mother, Rhea Silvia, had been forced into becoming a Vestal Virgin (priestesses who attended to the sacred fire of Vesta) by the usurper Amulius. Rhea Silvia then had a miraculous conception, either by the god Mars or by Hercules (there are variations on the myth). When Amulius heard of this, he ordered the infant twins to be taken to the river Tiber where they were left to die.
In the event they were saved and nourished by a she-wolf and later taken in by a shepherd and his family until they grew to manhood, unaware of their origins. Eventually they heard the story of the treachery of Amulius, after which they confronted and killed the tyrant. Then, because Romulus wanted to found their new city on the Palatine Hill and Remus preferred the Aventine Hill, they agreed to see a soothsayer. However, each brother interpreted the results in his own favour. This led to a fight in which Romulus killed Remus, and that founded the new city of Rome in 753 BC.
What’s stranger still is that there was a later ‘founding of Rome’ story. Written around the 8th century BC, Homer’s Iliad recalls the story of the Trojan War but Rome’s origins are linked to the second telling of this same story by another giant of ancient writing, Virgil, in his book The Aeneid. As well as enhancing Homer’s earlier story, The Aeneid also postdates the tale of Romulus and Remus. This is important because, according to Virgil, Troy’s population wasn’t completely destroyed. Instead, a prince called Aeneas escaped with a small group of Trojans and sailed the Mediterranean until he found an area he liked the look of. So this ancient and noble civilisation transplanted itself in Italy and founded Rome.
Both tales are revealing. The first shows us that the Romans were explaining where their predatory and argumentative attitudes came from: they are all the children of wolves. The second story was created at the time of emperors, so there is a demand for respectability and heritage. The Trojan War was as famous then as now, so why not connect this new empire to a very old and familiar tale?


A stone plate of Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus, suckled by a female wolf, seen at the National Historical Museum, Sofia, Bulgaria, in April 2011. (Photo by Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty Images)

2) Rome was a bad neighbour

By the 5th century BC, Rome was one of many tiny states on the Italian peninsula. If you were a gambler in 480 BC you would probably have put your money on an eventual Etruscan empire. The Etruscans were after all the biggest power on the Italian peninsula at that time. Over the centuries the realm had grown substantially, and while Rome’s central and southern towns had thrown off Etruscan dominance, it was still the largest power in an area populated by numerous other Italic peoples, many of their names barely remembered by history.
It’s a forgotten fact that the Romans had to conquer the rest of Italy, and one of the first tribes to fall was the Sabines. According to a famous legend, oft repeated in ancient texts (and a popular subject with Renaissance artists), the Romans abducted the Sabine women for breeding purposes, in order to increase the population of Rome. Whether this was true or not is impossible to say, but the Romans were consistently avid slavers, and what is uncontested is that by the dawn of the 4th century BC the Sabine kingdom had been absorbed into Roman lands.

Romans and Italians were never the same thing. It’s just that the Roman city state was more aggressive, with a better army, or luckier than the other kingdoms of Italy.  It wouldn’t have taken much to snuff out Rome at this time, in which case this article you are reading could have been about the empire of the Frentani, yet another Italic people then located on the east coast of the peninsula.
Although geographically close to each other, these realms were so diverse that they didn’t even speak the same language. Etruscan is still, frustratingly, one of the languages that has yet to be satisfactorily translated. The Sabines, similarly, were not Latin speakers. The Hellenic colonies in the toe of Italy spoke Greek. To these people the Romans were not fellow countrymen carrying out a hostile takeover that was always inevitable and perhaps a tiny bit yearned for. Instead, this was an invasion by a foreign nation of terrifying men who spoke an alien tongue.

3) The first sacking of Rome nearly finished the city

The traditional date for the first sacking of Rome is 390 BC, but modern historians agree that a date of 387 BC is more likely. When a tribe of Gauls, called the Senones, came over the Alps into Italy in search of lands to settle, the first people they met were the Etruscans. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t want to cede any of their lands to these foreigners, so they asked for military assistance from the rising military power of Rome.
Rome gathered together a large army and sent it north to help its neighbour fight this alien threat. Meanwhile, the diplomacy wasn’t going well. Even in this ancient era there was a general rule that ambassadors and messengers were to be left unharmed, but one of the Roman diplomats killed one of the Gaulish chieftains. The Gauls (not unreasonably) demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice, and some in Rome agreed. However, the Roman masses did not, and this provocation led to the meeting of both sides at the Allia River, both ready for battle.
The Romans had amassed a mighty army; the Senones had an army of about half the size. However, as battle ensued, the Gauls shattered the two flanks of the Roman army and surrounded the elite central force. Now outmanoeuvred and tired from fighting, this Roman army was completely annihilated. The road to Rome was open to the Gauls, who were led by the terrifying figure of Brennus.
What happened next is described in a series of fables and legends, none of which dispute that the Gauls fell on Rome and destroyed much of it. Indeed, they did such a good job that contemporary histories of Rome prior to and during this period are sketchy because of the scale of destruction.
Why the Gauls didn’t settle in the conquered city is unknown. One Roman source claims they were chased away by another Roman army, but this was most likely an explanation created to give the Romans something of a face-saving ending to an otherwise total defeat. What is more probable is that like many northern armies that had tried to settle around Rome, the Gauls found the climate distinctly unhealthy, and it’s probable that disease spread through Brennus’ men. Either way, the Gauls retreated into the mists of legend and hearsay.
Rome was so completely destroyed that there was serious debate about re-founding the capital in the nearby (and completely forgotten town) of Veii. Instead, the Senate decided to stay and authorised the building of the first major stone walls to defend the city.

Battle between Romans and Gauls. (Photo by Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

4) The battle of Adrianople was the beginning of the end

By the 4th century AD, Germanic invasions were starting to become a serious problem for the Roman empire. It was during this period that a number of new groups began to appear in the Roman hinterlands. Some of these people were known as the Goths.
Initially the Goths agreed to join the empire, settle as farmers and, in essence, merge with the local population. But the Goths were hardly welcomed with open arms, and heavy-handedness by local Roman governors led to Goth resentments and uprisings. Exactly who was to blame for the resulting conflict is hard to say.
The Gothic War lasted from AD 376 to 382. This new wave of barbarians was running amok, and there were frequent clashes with the forces of the western Roman emperor Gratian. However, it was the eastern Roman emperor Valens who went personally to deal with them.
The two sides met near Adrianople (modern day Edirne in Turkey). The Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus claims that Valens had around 25,000 men against a horde of 80,000 (as is often the case with ancient texts, these numbers are probably exaggerated).
The Romans had marched for seven or eight hours over rough terrain; they were tired and out of formation when they arrived in front of the Gothic army. The 4thcentury legions were, by now, clad in mail armour and had large round shields, all of which were an added burden under the hot August sun. Some of the Roman army attacked without orders and were easily pushed back. The Roman soldier’s rash actions meant he had no option but to engage in battle.
The Gothic force’s centre was a defensive circle of wagons, which the Romans failed to penetrate. However, while the Romans were busy attacking this defensive position, the Goth cavalry crept in from the sides and outflanked Valens’ forces. The heavily armoured Romans were not as nimble or agile as the Goths, and while they managed to break out from the enveloping moves by the Goth cavalry, they were now fighting in small groups and not as a unified army. In the ensuing chaos most of the Roman troops were slaughtered, including the emperor, Valens.
Valens’ successor, Theodosius, was forced to turn the Goths from enemies into allies, but at the cost of land. This was a turning point from which the Roman empire never recovered.

5) The capital of the late Roman empire wasn’t Rome

The Roman empire got its name from its founding city. Therefore, when Rome finally fell forever from the power of the emperors, the change in circumstances must mark the end of the Roman empire, right?
However, while it is often recognised that in the late Roman era Constantinople was the more important city, what almost nobody realises is that by the early 5th century AD, the western Roman emperors had moved the capital from the ancient and illustrious city of Rome.
By AD 402 the terrible emperor Honorius felt that Rome was no longer defensible and decided to move the capital to Ravenna. This was a large town with a population of around 50,000, and had been part of the empire since the 2nd century BC. Despite receiving regular investment funds (emperor Trajan built a massive aqueduct), it was never one of the most important urban areas of the empire and had been in decline in recent times. However, Ravenna had a large and easily defendable port and became the base for Rome’s naval fleet in the Adriatic Sea. As it was also surrounded by marshland, it was regarded as a place of safety, with guaranteed connections to the stronger eastern empire.
The move to Ravenna was an admission by Honorius that Rome could no longer hold back the barbarian invasions. It remained the capital of the empire until its eventual fall in AD 476. It was recaptured by the eastern Roman empire in AD 584 and was part of those lands until 751.

6) The last western emperor shared a name with the founder of Rome

Romulus Augustus, better known as Romulus Augustulus, ‘little Augustus’, was a boy who ‘ruled’ for about 10 months from AD 475–476.  He was little more than a figurehead for his father Orestes, a Roman aristocrat (of Germanic ancestry), who had manoeuvred his way into a position of power in the court in Ravenna.
By now the title of western Roman emperor was virtually meaningless. The only remaining areas of the empire were the Italian peninsula, along with some fragmentary lands in Gaul, Spain and Croatia. Barbarian groups had already sacked Rome twice, and any real power was held by these tribes and not by the Roman court in Ravenna.
Little is known about the teenage Romulus Augustulus. Coins were minted with his face, but he led no armies and no monuments were built for him. He was an irrelevance.

The Germanic leader Odoacer knew this and, in AD 476, marched on Ravenna. Odoacer had been leading the foederati, the barbarian contingents that by now made up almost the entire ‘Roman’ army. He had all the real power and he knew it.
On arriving in Ravenna and finding no resistance, Odoacer met face-to-face with the so-called emperor, Romulus Augustus. However, the chronicles then say that Odoacer, “taking pity on his youth”, spared Romulus’ life. Odoacer carried out no bloody coup, nor did he take the imperial title, because he knew that it had ceased to have any significance. Instead, he recast himself as the first king of Italy, after which he granted Romulus an annual pension and sent him to live with relatives in southern Italy.
Odoacer then got on with reshaping Italy, not in the mould of the old empire, but in the form of a new kingdom. The transformation was long overdue, and as a result, Odoacer was able to bring more stability to the time of his reign than the previous emperors had managed during the past 80 years.
The last western Roman emperor did not go down in a battle, nor did he commit suicide. He was deposed and sent home like a naughty schoolboy. This was final humiliation for a title that, from Scotland to Iraq, had once put fear in men’s hearts.

c475 AD, last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus. (Photo by Spencer Arnold/Getty Images)

7) When the Roman empire ended is up for debate

What determines the final demise of the empire is notoriously difficult. The easiest date to use is the fall of Rome… but which one? 410 doesn’t mark the end of the list of western Roman emperors, nor does 455. The other problem is that while Rome was the cradle of the empire, by the 5th century it was neither the most important city (Constantinople), nor the capital of the Western Roman Empire (Ravenna).
The second date that could be used is 476, when Romulus Augutulus was deposed. Again, this doesn’t work because the eastern Roman emperor was still the most powerful person in the world (except for the emperor of China). His empire might have become known as the Byzantine empire, and its inhabitants might have begun speaking Greek, but they considered themselves to be as Roman as Julius Caesar – right up until the bitter end – an ending that happened twice.
The Byzantine empire was the victim of the Fourth Crusade and was conquered in 1204. This was the end of the empire then, surely?
However, just a couple of generations later, it threw off its western overlords, and the emperors returned. These were to last until the Ottoman conquest of 1453 (where the last eastern Roman emperor, unlike the last western one, did go down in a blaze of glory on the city’s battlements).
So does 1453 count as the end of the empire? This is an even harder date to use because the 15th-century world was very different to that of the Roman empire at its peak. Worse still, since Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans in 800, there had been a number of Germanic rulers who would, by the Middle Ages, claim to be ‘holy Roman emperors’. They were no such thing, but the title was still in play.
And yet, still later dates could be used: when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, two very different dynasties took up the title of Roman emperor and Caesar. Firstly the Ottoman sultan took the title because he had just conquered the old eastern capital. Secondly, as Constantinople had been the capital of Orthodox Christianity, the Russian rulers, as defenders of the Orthodox faith, took the title Caesar (‘tsar’ in Russian).
None of these dates are satisfactory, so the last fact is really a question. Which date would you choose?


Jem Duducu is the author of The Romans in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2015). You can follow Jem on Twitter and Facebook @HistoryGems.