Since not all of us decided to tell our parents we'd be moving back home in four years by majoring in classics, much of what we know about ancient Greece and Rome tends to come from films and TV -- meaning that much of what we "know" originated with some Hollywood producer saying, "Yes, but can we make the togas sexier?"
For example, you probably think that ...
#5. The Romans Were Orgy-Crazed
Quick, let's do a word association. When we say "Roman," you say "orgy!" Some of you might have said "empire." That's also correct, but for the purposes of this introduction, you said "orgy," goddammit, because we all know the Romans were like human rabbits -- all humping, all the time, and also they had abnormally long ears and pooped little round pellets.
Geography Pictures / UIV / Getty / Hemera Technologies / PhotoObjects.ne
"Veni vidi vhat's up, doc?"
Here's why you should never get your history lessons from a film produced by Penthouse : It appears the stories of Roman sex festivals were mostly the result of nasty rumors made up after the fact. Or awesome rumors, depends on where you're coming from. The reality is the ancient Romans actually went to insane lengths to have the exact opposite of orgies. We're talking prudery to the highest degree -- couples had sex at night, in complete darkness, and with most of their clothes on. Sure, wealthy Romans had sex in front of their servants, but to them house servants were like furniture that could bring you stuff.
"... and this one won't giggle while he fetches the anal lube."
As it turns out, the Romans had trouble even imagining an orgy. In one of our favorite Hercules myths, our refractory-period-free hero deflowers all 50 daughters of a Greek king in a single night. In keeping with the times, though, the king sent one daughter in at a time. One in, one out, just like a nightclub ... where your father's the doorman, and also the guy who pimps you out to get all inseminated up with a half-god's "li'l heroes."
But if the movie Caligula isn't as accurate as we'd hoped, who invented the Roman orgy? Early Christians, that's who. Christian proselytizers knew their audience, and nothing stirs up the blood of an entire culture of super-prudes like the idea that somewhere, someone is having sex differently from everybody else. So, to promote their nascent religion to the Roman masses, early Christian writers crafted lurid tales of debauchery that were "Hey, no kidding, totally happening -- but only at those rich guys' houses." In a culture that celebrated solemnity and virtue, nothing defamed the traditional religion of the day like being associated with well-lit nudity and sex parties.
This was painted in 1470.
The Christian marketing pitch essentially boiled down to: "See those pagans with their orgies, and their different positions -- they take their clothes off for sex! Gross, right? Now, let me tell you all about Jesus ..." And something tells us it totally worked. (That something being the four Christian churches we can see from where we're sitting right now.)
#4. Ancient Rome Was Lily White
If we asked you to picture a coliseum full of ancient Romans, chances are you'd picture a sea of red mohawk helmets. And beneath those helmets? Scads of white, European-looking fellows in togas.
All stuffed to the gills with oily $5 pizza.
It's not that you're racist. It's that almost every filmmaker in cinematic history has made that same assumption about the ancient Romans, with logic along the lines of: "Rome's in Europe. Europe's white-ish, so ancient Romans were white-ish." What difference could 2,000 years possibly make?"
Here's a picture of the Roman Empire. Notice that a goodly chunk of the empire is in what some might refer to as "Africa" or "the Middle East."
Making it roughly as white as the cast of Lawrence of Arabia.
Based on that alone, it should be pretty obvious that Romans would've been a bit tanner than we tend to imagine. The Roman Empire would have been a pretty colorful place, considering it was a mix of North African, Semitic, West Asian, Latin, and Greek peoples -- although you'd never know it from modern cinema.
"He's laughing at my helmet, isn't he?"
But despite Hollywood's near-complete refusal to acknowledge it, ancient Rome was the original melting pot. See, back then, color and prejudice weren't linked -- unlike racism and stupidity today. Rome even had at least two African emperors, Severus and Macrinus. Rome was unique in the ancient world for its inclusive citizenship. In the past, a city-state like Sparta might have conquered a people and enslaved or slaughtered them all. Rome, on the other hand, blew ancient people's minds by assimilating or even naturalizing the conquered. The ancient Romans didn't even force conquered peoples to give up their own languages or customs.
The important thing for the Romans was that people followed the law, paid taxes, and, oh yeah, fought in the Roman army. The Romans were no dummies: Little old Rome was never going to be able to populate the world it conquered, let alone defend it, so absorbing other peoples like a giant legionary sponge was the only way to keep enough bodies in the military and on its farms. Rome enrolled northwest Africans, Moors, Gauls, Celts, Jews -- pretty much anyone who could swing a sword or throw a spear -- which is how an Ethiopian soldier could find himself fighting in Britain (maybe that's why every film Roman speaks with a British accent).
There are no exact numbers on ancient Roman diversity, but given Rome's constant contact with Africa and the Near East, the coliseum we asked you to imagine earlier should look more like Ellis Island and less like a Dave Matthews Band concert.
#3. Christians Were Fed to Lions and Martyred in the Colosseum
Whenever the ancient Romans needed more trident-stabbing fodder for the pleasure dome's gladiators or more kibble for the Colosseum's big cats, Roman authorities simply rounded up another group of Christians and herded them into the arena. Reserve your seats now! Bring the kids!
Splatter guards available for the first three rows.
There are zero authentic accounts of Christian martyrdom in the Colosseum until over a century after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In fact, not a single legitimate record exists of the Romans executing any Christians in the Colosseum. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
"Those Christians wish they were cool enough to get into our lion parties."
But how do we know not one lion picked his teeth with the bones of a faithful believer in the Colosseum? Because back when Emperor Nero was busily persecuting early Christians as arsonists, the Colosseum hadn't even been built yet. And by the time construction was completed decades later, Imperial Rome had reverted back to its standard policy of "Jesus, Yahweh, Zeus -- whatever, just pay your taxes, K?"
But there's an entire tradition of martyrs, saints, and apostles who were eaten by lions, burned at the stake, or murdered to appease the crowds of the Colosseum! So where did all those pleasant bedtime stories come from? Brace yourself for a touch of deja vu, because the short answer is: early Christian writers.
So the Left Behind books are really a step up.
In the second century A.D., a whole new genre of fiction cropped up. The "Martyr Acts" were stories about the church's beginnings, when heroic men and women professed their faith in spite of terrible torture and suffering. This "sacred pornography of cruelty" was hugely popular -- if you were a literate Christian living in Imperial Rome, the Martyr Acts were your Harry Potter. With symbolism even less subtle than Dan Brown's novels, the Martyr Acts told stories of good and pure Christians being trampled to death or decapitated by violent Roman officials. The Martyr Acts satisfied the desire of early Christians to: 1) read faith-affirming literature filled with heroes exemplifying pacifism, love, and forgiveness and 2) read faith-affirming literature overflowing with the violence, death, and destruction that made a story readable to Romans.
Instead of blaming the Christian writers for creating a millennium's worth of misconceptions, though, we should really be thanking those guys for helping to preserve a historic landmark. That's because, starting in the 18th century, various popes used this spurious history to declare the Colosseum a site sanctified with the blood of martyrs in order to stave off its destruction.
The fake memory of their not-sacrifice is worth preserving.