Due in large part to popular Hollywood films like Gladiator and Ben-Hur, there are plenty of misconceptions about ancient Rome and the way Romans lived. The ancient Romans wore togas, but not very often. They had several leaders who were certainly ineffectual, brutal, and careless, but they weren't necessarily insane - nor did they sing a sad song while the city of Rome burned down. There were gladiatorial fights, but they weren't nearly as bloody as we've been led to believe.
Reality: The ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians painted their statues with a variety of colors in a practice known as polychromy, derived from the Greek word meaning "many colors." In 2003, a professor used ultraviolet infrared lamps to examine layers of paint coatings that were invisible to the eye.
Why The Myth: By the time many ancient sculptures were discovered during the Renaissance, their paint had faded after centuries of elemental exposure. People assumed the original statues were white, and began imitating this practice by leaving their contemporary statues unpainted. The white marble was further idolized by a prominent 18th-century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.
Reality: Romans hired highly skilled freemen who were well-trained and paid to row their naval ships, particularly during times of conflict.
Why The Myth: Many older histories mention the ancient Romans' use of slave galleys, but they often cite evidence from periods of extended conflict. Both Augustus and Pompey hired slaves to row in their galleys out of necessity; however, both leaders also freed them before they did so.
Like many inaccuracies about ancient Rome, this myth has been propagated by Hollywood movies. In a famous scene from Ben-Hur, slaves are forced to row a naval ship at breakneck pace. In the film, the Romans even whip slaves who can't keep up with the exhausting pace. This made audiences believe this was a normal occurrence.
Reality: According to Anthony A. Barrett, author of Caligula: The Corruption of Power, Caligula was neither insane nor particularly evil; he was merely inexperienced and incapable of leading.
Why The Myth: Caligula has been portrayed as an incestuous, perverse, and incompetent ruler of ancient Rome. His incompetence fueled myths and inaccuracies about his reign, including his alleged threat to make his horse a senator, which was more of a jab at the Senate than a serious threat. Unfortunately, most of what we know about the emperor comes from rumors spread by his contemporaries. Through the centuries, he has been depicted as increasingly deranged.
Reality: Ancient Romans did wear togas, but certainly not every day, and not throughout the entirety of the empire's long reign. Only Roman citizens were allowed to wear togas. The garments were seen as civic dress, typically ceremonial and never used for everyday wear. The Romans used togas to signify a person's place in society and the level of respect they were owed.
Why The Myth: Most Hollywood films and many paintings portray men from ancient Rome in civic settings, giving off the perception that the toga was common attire.