Thanks to Hollywood, basic common knowledge, and whatever Western Civ/Ancient History course we took in high school, we all have a set image in our heads whenever someone mentions ancient Greece or Rome. Despite numerous resources and websites dedicated to misconceptions, I still see them pop up occasionally. I’ll try to correct a few for the two of you who regularly read this blog.
First: Gladiators. Whether it’s the movie Gladiator, or any one of the Spartacus shows, a lot of people still have misconceptions about gladiators. Part of this is understandable; not everyone keeps up with the scholarship—ok, nobody does. New information is always being discovered and added to the books. For example, back in my day Pluto was a planet (thanks, Obama). A big issue with gladiators is the mortality rate. Scholars still debate this, but the range is between 5 and 50%. While still quite deadly and bloody, even 50% is nowhere near the massacre usually depicted in movies. Russel Crowe’s “are you not entertained” line might be a little less effective if half the other gladiators were still alive. The reason for the lower rates is gladiators were professional athletes, and just like today, they were incredibly expensive to hire and maintain. They underwent expensive training and upkeep, and most owners did not want to flush the equivalent of a million dollar investment down the drain on a three minute fight to the death. While fights sine missio (literally “without relief”) did happen, the literary evidence seems to point to these matches being a rarity rather than the norm. In addition, we have gladiator tombstones listing their records. One famous one is Flamma, who “fought 34 times, won 21, drew 9, and lost 4”. There are two possibilities: 1. Flamma was killed and brought back from the dead. Zombie Flamma didn’t have the same dexterity though, so he lost 3 more times before being killed by fire, holy water, decapitation, silver, garlic, and a wood stake through the heart. Or 2. Gladiators didn’t always fight to the death. As sweet as option 1 would be (Zombie Gladiators; in theaters 2018), chances are option 2 is the correct answer.
This brings me to a second gladiator misconception: Gladiators were the main sport in ancient Rome. Gladiators are utterly fascinating, and they were a major source of entertainment for the Romans. The ponies were still more popular. Here’s a fun fact; adjusted for inflation, the highest paid athlete in the history of the world is a Roman charioteer. Keep that in mind next time you think about how well paid today’s athletes are. Diocles raked in $15 billion in winnings, not counting endorsement deals. In reality, gladiators were the main event at the ludi (games), but no means Rome’s only, or even greatest sport. The Romans also had a love of public execution, “beast fights”, fake naval battles (yes, the Colosseum could actually be filled with water), and the aforementioned ponies. The chariot races were so popular that they continued long into the Byzantine period, well after the decline of gladiator combat.
I don’t want this to be all about gladiators though, there’s a bunch of other things people have incorrect views on. So the second big category is sexuality. We all know Greeks and Romans were like rock stars; sex, drugs, rock and roll, live fast and die young. Drunken symposia and orgies, not to mention the constant sex. Did I mention the sex? SEX! Basically, any show on HBO. It is true that we have many stories of drunken orgies and promiscuous activities that would make Jerry Springer shows look bland; Caligula’s story of debauchery is so well known that they made a porno of it—which I only know about for research purposes, I swear. Nevertheless, they are the exception rather than the rule. Modesty is one of the chief Roman virtues, and is described extensively in the literature. This included the sex and drugs. In point of fact, the crazy sex parties and stories of lewd behavior usually damaged, rather than enhanced one’s reputation. Cicero somewhat famously called out Mark Antony for being a prostitute in his youth.
“sumpsisti virilem, quam statim muliebrem togam reddidisti. primo volgarescortum; certa flagiti merces nec ea parva.”
“You put on men’s clothing, which you immediately returned to a woman’s toga. At first you were a common prostitute; you whored yourself out for a set price, and not a small one”.
~Cicero, 2nd Philippics 44. Cicero was also world champion of “yo momma” jokes.
Similarly throughout the Greek world, lascivious behavior was more the exception than the rule. These are the people who invented Stoicism, Epicureanism, and other ethical and moral philosophies, many of which preach modesty and moderation. More than enough examples show Athenian society to be a bit more puritan than common perception suggests. For example, the standard Athenian house had separate quarters for husband and wife. Likewise, women were chaperoned when in public. This is Middle Ages type stuff. Spartan women enjoyed a bit more progression than their Athenian counterparts, as they not only received a decent education, but also were largely responsible for managing the house, slaves, and in some sense, the state, while the men trained or fought their wars.
Next misconception: Homogeneity. Hollywood is weird. Ancient Greeks have been portrayed in a number of different ways by various people, but Romans? Why do Romans always have to be posh British? There is a weird disconnect where we tend to think of the Romans as a homogenous group. But throughout Roman history, the expansion of territory and citizenship made them the original “melting pot” country. Roman auxilia legions were drawn up from foreigners and provincials, including Gauls, Germans, and Britons. Likewise, even the emperor became more and more someone not even born in Italy, let alone Rome. Hadrian was born in Spain, the first of the “provincial” emperors.
Rome was a metropolis and highly international city; slaves, foreign traders, diplomats, and the ancient equivalent of resident aliens crowded the streets. A mix of languages and people, not the stark and bland place many movies depict.
Notice how whenever I talk about Greece, I separate different city-states like Sparta and Athens? That’s because there isn’t really a “Greece” for these articles. What we now think of as a unified country and culture was a hundred different poleis, or “city-states”, essentially with each city as its own country. Except in certain cases such as the Persian Wars or Philip and Alexander’s annexation of Greece, these city-states were not often united, and commonly were at war with each other. Stark differences can be seen in culture between city-states. Likewise, the various regions developed their own dialects; Attic Greek was spoken by the Athenians while Doric Greek was the dominant dialect of the Peloponnese and Spartans. Herodotus, hailing from Halicarnassus in what is now Turkey, wrote in Ionic Greek. Sappho wrote her poetry in Aeolic Greek. These are all preceded by Homeric Greek, and after Alexander, we start talking about Koine Greek, which is what dialect the New Testament uses.
In its heyday, Athens was similar to Rome; it was a major international capital. It was cosmopolitan—they would know, they invented the word. Its scientific and cultural fame attracted thousands from all over. Vassal states would come to pay tribute during the Athenian empire; Aristophanes lampoons this in the Acharnians. Only a small portion of the population were citizens and Athens hosted a large population of metics, essentially resident aliens living and working in Attica and Athens.
The last misconception I want to touch on is on slavery. While not the same in every detail, slavery in Greece and Rome could be as demeaning and inhuman as American slavery. Slavery, in any form, is bad, mmk? But one’s status as a slave in some respects was not all bad; some Roman Imperial slaves had a good deal of power and status, domestic slaves tended to live more comfortably (and longer) than those in the fields or mines, and many rose to prominence, like Cicero’s slave Tiro or some of the gladiators. Unlike US slavery, Greco-Roman slavery was not primarily a racial issue; many were acquired through conquest and might be ethnically similar to the society or owner. Greek slavery differed from city-state to city-state; Spartans relied heavily on helots—who were similar to serfs in the middle Ages—to till the fields and work the non-military industries. The helots were treated extremely harshly, to the extent that the Spartans essentially had an annual Helot-killing party to keep their spirits broken. Athenian slavery was a little more like American slavery, with a strong economic basis, and slave treatment ranging from absolute brutality to some measure of upward mobility; some legal protections were afforded Athenian slaves against excessive violence—although more to protect the state from revolts than the slave from inhuman treatment.
Roman slavery was likewise varied and complex. There is still debate over how many slaves flowed into the state between the first centuries BC an AD, and ongoing work to figure out the details of freeborn, freedman, and slave identities. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Roman slavery was manumission, whereby a slave could gain their freedom. The children of a freedman became Roman citizens, and this offered an unparalleled way for a family to rise up out of slavery; the Roman poet Horace was the free-born son of a freed slave. Similar to the Greek world, slaves could be treated on a wide spectrum. Not all gladiators were slaves, but many were, and while some achieved significant fame and fortune, others fought for freedom after being brutally treated (Spartacus’ revolt comes to mind). Technically, slaves could own nothing, but often acquired money and could save up enough to buy their own freedom.
And while we’re on the topic, a remake of Ben-Hur is on the horizon (actually, the Heston version is a remake of the 1927 movie called uh, “Ben-Hur”—Hollywood really likes to beat dead horses). I’m sure we are all looking forward to a CGI chariot race and the famous ship ramming rowing scene, parodied to death. Except slaves did not row Roman warships. Just like Greek navies of the day, rowers were citizens, if not professional sailors. The scale of precision needed alone would make slaves an impractical choice for rowers, not to mention the inherent problems the Heston movie made clear; like how under duress, a chained slave is more likely to try escaping than continuing the fight. There is simply no evidence that this occurred except in extreme circumstances. For example, during the Civil War, Octavian and Pompey bought slaves, but freed them before making them rowers. Slaves were used for many things, rowing was not one of them.