There were plenty of things the citizens of the Roman empire did not have that most of us take for granted today. Potatoes, for example, or tomatoes, or universal suffrage. They rode horses without stirrups, and sweetened their food with honey as they had no sugar.
But there are still a lot of mistaken ideas about things the Romans had or commonly did. Historical novelists, of course, generally try to avoid falling into such traps, but it’s often surprising how many times I’ve had to think twice about some detail or other of the world I’m describing. So many notions about ancient or other historical societies are deeply rooted, and hard to dislodge. So here are ten things that the Romans (probably) did not have or do – I say probably, as our ideas about history are constantly changing!
1. Galley slaves
Despite the famous scenes in old films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra, Roman galleys were not rowed by chained slaves. Roman oarsmen were paid professionals, and those in the navy were enlisted in the armed forces. Galley slaves did exist, but not until centuries later; medieval ships of both the Christian and Islamic Mediterranean powers used them extensively. In fact, the French were still using chained prisoners to row their galleys until the eighteenth century.
2. Forearm ‘handshakes’
This is another Hollywood favourite. The manly clasp of forearms turns up all over the place, but has no basis in historical fact. Romans actually shook hands in the same way as we do, although perhaps not as frequently; it was a gesture of fellowship, used to agree deals and treaties. The handshake even appears on Roman coins, symbolising trust and mutual concord. It was also, apparently, part of the wedding ritual. It was probably not used as a casual greeting, though: Romans preferred to embrace, or even kiss, when they met, just as people in Mediterranean societies do to this day.
3. Noisy scabbards
Imagine somebody drawing a sword; you’ve probably already superimposed the sound effect. The shwing noise of a drawn sword is omnipresent in films and TV; even in books it’s seldom a sword is drawn without at least a rasp. In fact, scabbards were made of wood and leather, and made very little sound at all. Perhaps just a rattle, as the blade tapped against the inside. A shame, perhaps, as the schwing noise is so satisfying…
4. Ineffective armour
The Roman army was one of the most heavily armoured in antiquity. For good reason: Roman armour was very effective at keeping its wearer alive and relatively unharmed. The most famous type, of course, is the banded iron cuirass known to historians as the lorica segmentata, although mail and scale were probably more common, especially in the later era. Despite this, one would think from many depictions of ancient warfare that body armour had the protective qualities of a knitted jumper. In practice, it was almost impossible to cut or stab through armour with a hand weapon. Tests carried out on sections of mail armour (medieval, but the technology was the same) suggest that a penetrating blow would need far more energy than could be delivered by a sword or spear. A cavalry lance or heavy javelin might break through; an arrow from a powerful bow shot at very close range might puncture it. But against the majority of weapons a Roman soldier would encounter on the battlefield, his mail or scale or banded armour would prove very good protection indeed. When the Romans themselves encountered armoured opponents, they were more likely to try and batter them to death with blunt implements. An effective method, although not perhaps such a photogenic one.
5. Highly flammable oil
Battle scenes in films about Roman and medieval warfare commonly feature great balls of fire. True enough, the Romans did use incendiary weapons: combinations of pitch and naptha, or just dry straw set alight. These weapons were even used at sea; a graffito of the 1st C. BC shows a naval galley with a firepot suspended over the ram. The Romans also knew of natural petroleum: asphalt or seep oil. But the ‘oil’ of the ancient world, used in lamps and in food, and by bath-house masseurs, was derived from olive oil and was not particularly flammable. Covering something in it might make that thing very slippery, but would not cause it to burst into flames.
6. Tireless horses
Like most pre-industrial societies, the Roman empire relied on horse power. Roman horses were comparatively small by modern standards – 13 to 14 hands, pony size, being the probable average – but they were doubtless hardy beasts. But, like all horses, Roman mounts needed considerable quantities of fodder and water, and plenty of rest. There were instances in Roman history of very long journeys accomplished very rapidly, but this was only possible because the Romans maintained a system of posting stations along major roads, where horses could be rested and exchanged. The state messenger service – cursus publicus – could cover fifty miles a day, or much greater distances, using this relay system. The messengers probably did not actually ride the horses, but travelled in light carriages, with the teams being regularly replaced. Cavalry forces, unless they brought large numbers of remounts, could not match this speed. In fact, an American colonel writing in the 1860s estimated that, over long distances, marching infantry could out-distance cavalry. So unless Maximus Decimus Meridius availed himself of the imperial posting system, it’s very unlikely he could have ridden his horse all the way from the Danube to Spain in less than a couple of months!
Drums are so much a part of our conception of historical armies, it’s hard to imagine that the Romans did without them. In fact, the drum as we know it today was pretty much unknown in the Roman world – the closest instrument they possessed was a sort of big tambourine, like the Sicilian tamburello. Some sources suggest that the Romans thought drumming to be somehow effeminate, and associated it with certain eastern religious sects. So how did Roman armies keep in step when they marched? Possibly they used flutes, like the Greeks, or primitive bagpipes – but it’s highly likely that they didn’t march in step at all…
In a world without clocks, Roman timekeeping was often a rather haphazard affair. The day and the night were divided into twelve hours each, but the length of these hours fluctuated depending on the season. There were sundials, of course, to show the approximate time in daylight, and waterclocks, commonly used in courts to measure the length of lawyer’s speeches. But the smallest increment of time measurable by a waterclock was a quarter of an hour. How did Romans talk about shorter periods of time? The idea of the minute runs so deeply in our thinking – we talk of things taking ‘a few minutes’, tell people to ‘wait a minute’, or give something ‘a minute’s thought’ that it’s hard to imagine a world in which small increments of time could not be considered. Novelists writing about the ancient world often get around this by having their characters measure time in heartbeats – I do it as well, although I have no idea whether anybody has ever really counted their own heartbeat in this way!
9. Chunky leather wristbands
The bane of conscientious historical reenactors, the leather wristband, or vambrace, is another of those anomalies that seem to have been invented by Hollywood, and to have bound themselves deeply into popular conceptions of the ancient world. They probably originated with a gold or silver armbands, called armillae, awarded by the Roman army as decorations of valour. These are often shown on Roman tombstone images. However, in film and TV depictions from the 1930s to the present day these wristbands reach incredible proportions. Often they are reinforced with buckles, studs, bit of fur, or even metal plates. Why? One theory is that artistic directors needed something to hide the visible pale mark left by a watch strap on an actor’s wrist. Possibly so – but I suspect it’s more likely that somebody decided they look tough and somehow ‘ancient’, and the idea has proven too attractive to shake off ever since.
Orgies, like bloody gladiator duels and people reclining on couches eating grapes, are among the quintessential aspects of the popular ancient scene. There are fairly obvious reasons for this: sex sells. Even the comparatively prudish Victorians were nervously fascinated by Roman sexual license, although they usually drew a discreet veil over what might have been going on among the flower garlands… The Romans themselves had a pretty robust attitude to sex, as their literature and poetry proclaims. But in an age without any effective contraception, and when childbirth was often fatal, unbridled sex could never have been commonplace. While sex in itself was not considered immoral, Roman society had an obsession with self control, and to give in to lust was to lose control of oneself and become bestial, uncivilised, even unmanly. The sexual excesses of various emperors and other notables, as described by Roman historians, are probably intended as examples of bad moral practice; many of them are almost certainly exaggerations. As with so many things, we shouldn’t take the evidence of Roman literature too literally!