Weird History
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12 Of The Dumbest Things Pop Culture Has Us Believe About Ancient Rome

September 30, 2020 7.5k votes 1.8k voters 245.8k views12 items

List RulesVote up the most common Rome tropes in Hollywood.

Popular culture can inform our beliefs about many things. Historic events, people, and even entire civilizations are often over-simplified, stereotyped, or just plain reshaped to provide entertainment, action, or comedic relief. Often, this comes at the expense of the truth - or common sense. As a result, depictions of a historically accurate Rome can be difficult to find in movies, on television, and in video games - leading to an incredibly misinformed view of the ancient world.

Granted, many details about ancient Rome are lost to the ages, but sometimes popular culture presents some really egregious errors. Gladiator was full of mistakes and misrepresentations, and while that film is certainly included on this list of less-than-accurate pop-culture tropes about ancient Rome, it's hardly alone. Which one of the cliches below are just plain bad Roman history?

  • 1

    Roman Battles With Barbarians Were Wild Free-For-Alls

    Roman Battles With Barbarians Were Wild Free-For-Alls
    Photo: Gladiator / DreamWorks Pictures

    The Trope: On one side of the battle, you have the well-equipped, disciplined Roman military. On the other, you have a group of barbarians with little training or formal structure. However, when the battle commences, pure chaos ensues.

    Why Is It Inaccurate? The Roman military was incredibly organized and disciplined. There were some changes from the Republic to the Empire, but generally, Roman legions included between 5,000 and 6,000 men. Legions were divided into 10 cohorts, most of which had six centuries or roughly 480 infantrymen (the first cohort was slightly different). Centuries were divided into 10 contubernium of eight men each. There were additional cavalry, scouts, and non-fighting personnel that accompanied the legion. Groups had leaders, notably centurions, and provided a specific function on the battlefield. 

    The regimented and standardized structure of the Roman military streamlined warfare to a degree, allowing men to have uniform training in tactics and strategies that could be applied with greater efficacy. In the heat of battle, Romans were able to employ maneuvers like the tortoise-shell defense, often adapting them to specific circumstances, terrain, or enemy tactics. In Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, he discusses the lengths he and his men went to implement specific offensive and defensive strategies.

    As the Roman military moved through the ever-expanding Empire, it came into contact with hostile groups of all kinds. Each "barbarian" force (barbarians simply because they weren't Roman) had its own type of fighting, weaponry, and tactics. Contrary to common beliefs that barbarian forces were wild men running around the battlefield, groups in Gaul, according to Caesar, were "well-trained (as they were) beyond all others to arms." Basically, they were skilled, just not as skilled as the Romans. When Tacitus wrote about German armies in his 1st-century AD work, Germania, he described a "fixed" number of men in "wedge-shaped formations," indicative of a more organized group of soldiers than commonly believed.

    So, no, Roman armies and their opponents generally didn't run towards - and then smash into - each other with abandon. 

    Notable Offenders: GladiatorThe Last LegionThe EagleTotal War: Rome (video game)

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  • 2

    Everyone Wore A Toga

    Everyone Wore A Toga
    Photo: Rome / HBO

    The Trope: Togas, togas everywhere. Togas were the garment of choice throughout the ancient Roman world, worn in public and in private by pretty much everyone. 

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Togas were exclusively worn by men, required at public gatherings as a way to acknowledge citizenship. Women wore a tunic, a stola, and a palla, layered to reflect concerns for modesty and to display social prominence. The togas that men wore had similar function.

    As woolen garments were wrapped around a man's body - no fasteners required - togas were expensive. Togas could be plain, colored, or feature a stripe that indicated social and political status. A bordered toga with a large purple stripe was reserved for Senators, while lower political officials wore togas with smaller lines of the regal color. The emperor's toga, necessarily, featured the most purple of them all - dyed using highly prized Tyrian purple (derived from shellfish).

    Togas also varied in length at various stages of Roman history. During the Republic, togas were shorter than those worn during the Imperial period. They were increasingly heavy and restrictive when it came to movement and comfort but further distinguished wealthy and notable Romans from individuals wearing simple tunics. 

    Contrary to how movies and television shows represent Romans, it was those simple tunics that were more prevalent in society. Free men, servants, and slaves all wore tunics and, due to the continued complexity of the toga, even magistrates wore them less and less often as the Imperial period progressed. 

    Notable OffendersGladiator; Rome (TV series); Agora; PompeiiI, Claudius

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  • 3

    Romans Were Exclusively White

    Romans Were Exclusively White
    Photo: Gladiator / DreamWorks Pictures

    The Trope: Roman citizens throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and into Europe were Caucasian. If they appear at all, members of what we would now call "minority groups" were slaves and servants, excluded from the benefits of citizenship. 

    Why Is It Inaccurate? At one point, the Roman Empire spanned the entire Mediterranean Sea, and west from the Danube Valley into Britain. The vast number of groups under Roman authority ranged in ethnicity and appearance. While popular-culture versions of ancient Rome depict an overwhelmingly white population, archaeological, historical, and DNA evidence indicates the city was much more of a cultural melting pot.

    In 2019, researchers published a study that analyzed remains from 29 sites in and around Rome. According to DNA evidence, large scale migration into the burgeoning city resulted in "overwhelming" genetic diversity through 300 CE, when the population of Rome topped 1 million. Historians continue to debate the extent to which this same type of diversity may have extended throughout the Empire. 

    Romans themselves would not have been as concerned with ethnicity or race as they would have been with cultural and political superiority. Roman citizenship was extended to individuals and groups based on economic and military considerations, a legal award intended to instill a sense of unity among residents in the empire. It was "inferior" peoples, regardless of color, who made up the ranks of slaves in the Roman world (i.e., prisoners of war, criminals, debtors). While this could include individuals with dark skin, there were no indications citizenship was not an option for peoples of various ethnicities and appearance. 

    Notable Offenders: GladiatorPompeiiBen-Hur (1959), The EagleThe Last Legion

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  • 4

    Gladiators Always Fought To The Death

    Gladiators Always Fought To The Death
    Photo: Gladiator / DreamWorks Pictures

    The Trope: Gladiatorial combat was a fight to the death for at least one, if not both, of the combatants. Onlookers enjoyed the spectacle of blood and carnage that unfolded before them, as criminals, prisoners of war, and slaves vied against one another for survival. 

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Gladiators were well-trained athletes and valuable commodities. Gladiators were managed by lanistae, men who invested a lot of money into their fighters. Because of this, it was in everyone's interest, including the crowd, to keep a gladiator alive and bring him back for future fights. Most gladiatorial contests ended in a serious wound (seen in the skeletal remains of gladiators) or when one of the two men ran out of energy. 

    Some gladiators may have been slaves or criminals at one point in their lives, and many were held in high regard - later freed when their days of fighting came to an end. Evidence suggests gladiators could even retire and become trainers in their own right.

    Notable Offenders: GladiatorSpartacusShadow of Rome (video game), Colosseum: Road to Freedom (video game), Rome (TV series), Spartacus (TV series)

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