Ancient Romans are often portrayed as civilized folks who occasionally liked to watch slaves get eaten alive by wild animals, then went back to their regular nonviolent lives. But no, Rome's relationship with elaborate carnage wasn't a mere fling. It was a torrid, bloodsoaked affair. The empire that gave us plumbing and the calendar also liked to do insane shit like ...
Ancient Romans had a knack for coming up with fun new ways of drawing out human suffering. You've probably heard of a little thing called crucifixion, but then there was the punishment for killing a parent or close relative. The condemned would be thrown into a sack containing the members of the Looney Tunes. They called it the poena cullei, which roughly translates to "punishment of the sack" (admittedly, that sounds like it could be something even worse).
Carole Raddato/Wikimedia Commons
Basically, they'd sew you into a leather bag with various live animals, then throw you into the nearest and deepest body of water. Snakes were an early favorite, but documents also mention dogs, monkeys, and roosters. You'd be plunged into a struggle where, regardless of whether you or Foghorn Leghorn won the sack fight, everyone still drowned.
And no, the Romans didn't pick these animals for their comedic value. They believed these crimes "polluted" the community, and animal sacrifices were a way of cleansing it. It was more about appeasing the gods than deterring any monkey-phobic parricidal maniacs lurking about town. These sacrifices would also deny the condemned the "light of heaven and earth," with the snake even adding an infernal symbol. Which honestly makes the punishment that much more metal. Not only did the Romans force you to die a watery death while a monkey ripped your face off, but they also straight up thought they were damning you for all eternity. After a few centuries, they did eventually say, "Hey, maybe this is kind of a bit much," and call it off.
Laureolus was a popular Roman play that was a mainstay for two bloody (literally) centuries. Imagine if the people of the year 2195 were still putting on showings of Cats. Of course, Cats didn't have an actor gruesomely slaughtered in front of you, unlike Laureolus.
The play follows a bandit who ends up nailed to a cross -- a plot evocative of the myth of Prometheus, and also of the fact that Romans fucking loved gore. Sometimes they performed the story's climax in pantomime, but often they actually crucified some lucky criminal. But because crucifixions are pretty long and Romans were busy people (they had other crucifixions to attend), they'd speed up the process by unleashing a bear, which would disembowel the protagonist as the audience hooted and hollered. Add an orange hoodie and it's a South Park scene.
We even have a firsthand account of this from a Roman poet named Martial, who also gleefully described another play wherein a female prisoner "did couple with [a] bull." We're ... just gonna back away slowly from this entry and move on to the next one.
Rome is famed for its sophisticated network of sewers, but its bathrooms were actually rather gnarly. Most were public, and there was no sense of privacy. You didn't grab your copy of Mars And Jupiter Monthly and duck out of the salt mines to shit on company time. No, you'd sit there with every other stinking ass, and then you'd all wipe using the same sponge on a stick.
D. Herdemerten/Wikimedia Commons
Private bathrooms weren't any better, though. They rarely had direct sewer connections, so they'd just lead to an open cesspit, which was often located in the kitchen. Romans apparently figured that food would end up there anyway, so they might as well keep it all in one place.
It gets worse. Giant rats snacking on your junk while you used the can was more than an urban legend for Romans. Rats loved the sewers and tunnels in the Cloaca Maxima, but the system wasn't sophisticated enough to prevent them from climbing out of the toilets while you sat there doing your business. At least you could fight them off with the communal butt stick.
Oh, and on top of all this, the toilets had a tendency to explode. Not in the "just had Taco Bell" sense, but literal explosions. Romans' general grasp on science wasn't much more complex than "If you stab someone, red stuff comes out," so what ventilation they had didn't prevent the buildup of methane and hydrogen sulfide. If too much accumulated, then flames would burst out of a toilet, giving whoever was on it a very spicy enema.
You might be starting to get the impression that the Romans were some sort of savages, but they also did nice things for each other. For instance, when Roman soldiers got caught trying to mutiny, or acting like cowards, or simply being lazy, their superior officers didn't just kill all of them. Nope, every once in a while, they'd see a section of the army in need of improvement, then generously pick only one in every ten soldiers and make their buddies beat him to death. That way, an example was set, but the officers still had an army. Everyone ... well, almost everyone wins!
The victims were picked totally at random, according to a lottery. We're now picturing a group of soldiers playing bingo to find out who wins a painful death.
William Hogarth/Metropolitan Museum of Art
During the Parthian War, Mark Antony (Cleopatra's paramour, not J-Lo's) decimated two cohorts for cowardice and insubordination -- meaning "letting" the enemy fire siege engines. In other words, the enemy was doing too well, ergo the soldiers must be traitorous cowards. The survivors were also punished, though. They got fed barley instead of wheat.
While decimation declined over the years, the idea remained popular among some people ... including soldiers. Caesar's troops twice begged to be decimated to expunge the shame of doing a shitty job and trying to mutiny. That must have been some tasty-ass barley.
One of the most bizarre aspects of Ancient Rome was that the lazy patricians had all the wealth, while the plebeians toiled to ensure civilization operated properly, if you can imagine such a thing. But then the plebeians realized they could do something about it. No, not bitch on Twitter, or even leave their jobs. They left the city. All of them.
It was called the "secession of the plebeians." Everyone, including the army, left Rome in 494 BCE and camped on a hill. They realized that the patricians' lifestyles depended on them, and demonstrated this by straight up disappearing and leaving those useless rich morons to wander around an empty Rome like, well, present-day tourists.
B. Barloccini/Wikimedia Commons
Soon, the patricians realized with horror that without farmers, they couldn't eat, and without soldiers, they couldn't kill anyone. It worked, and the plebeians' demands for the abolition of debt and debt slaves were met, although it took a few more tries to get everything they wanted. And that was the last time the people making things work ever let some rich dopes jerk them around in human history [citation extremely needed].
It's well-known that Rome got a big part of its pantheon by essentially asking Greece if they could copy their homework, to which Greece said, "Yeah, just change it enough so the teacher doesn't notice." But Rome didn't just steal from Greece. They took on the gods of wherever they conquered. And when they conquered Phyrgia (part of modern-day Turkey), they incorporated Cybele, the goddess of cutting your dick off.
See, Cybele had a consort named Attis, and her followers had to model themselves after him if they wanted to become priests. Unfortunately, Attis was a eunuch, so this meant publicly removing one's penis and testicles.
Grant Showerman/Wikimedia Commons
As part of the final initiation rite into the cult, male applicants would work themselves into a frenzy (if you catch our drift) and then take a serrated tool and chop it all down. They then would dress as their favorite goddess and wander the land evangelizing. The problem was that the cult tended to dominate wherever it was introduced (as far north as Britain), because self-castration and cross-dressing was a hard combo to pass.
Rome was like "ew," but they couldn't outright ban the cult, since Cybele had already been brought into the state pantheon. All they could do was enact legislation to stop people from picking up a pair of scissors and joining. Honestly, it's kind of a relief to find out that Rome did draw the line somewhere, even if that somewhere was public self-castration.
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