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

September 30, 2020 5.2k votes 944 voters 225.1k 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

    Women Wore Revealing Clothing

    Women Wore Revealing Clothing
    Photo: Spartacus / Starz

    The Trope: Roman women - across social classes - wore clothes to show off a lot of skin. Revealing clothing might be worn to emphasize attractiveness and sensuality, but it could also be a not-so-subtle indication of sexual manipulation. 

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Women in the Roman world were prone to show as little skin as possible when they left their homes. Married women demonstrated their modesty by layering clothes, something that also reflected a fair amount of wealth.

    The more items a woman had on, the more clothing she could afford. A stola (similar to a toga and made out of wool) was worn over a tunic, which was topped off by a palla over a woman's head. Unmarried women and widows were not as concerned with keeping their heads covered and may or may not have donned a palla. While married women were covered from head to toe, lower-class women may not have worn a palla because it was a hindrance to work.

    Clothes were generally more colorful and elaborately decorated depending on wealth, too. Women's garments could be one or many colors, but dyes used to color clothes were expensive. Colors like purple were reserved for only the most elite members of society and not appropriate for women. 

    Notable OffendersSpartacus (TV series), GladiatorRome (TV series), PompeiiHistory of the World: Part I

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  • 2

    Romans Left Their Marble Sculptures Unpainted

    Romans Left Their Marble Sculptures Unpainted
    Photo: Gladiator / DreamWorks Pictures

    The Trope: Roman buildings, monuments, and statues were devoid of color, and part of an ultra-white marble landscape. 

    Why Is It Inaccurate? Romans, much like ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians, added bright paint to the walls of marble structures and to statuary. Sculptures and statues, specifically, were painted to create a life-like representation of a person or deity. Hair, skin, and eye color, as well as ornate clothing, were all present.

    When many Roman artifacts were essentially rediscovered during the Renaissance, they lacked color - the result of centuries of the elements stripping them of paint. Renaissance artists recreated the pure, natural look of marble statues, perpetuating the notion of artistic whiteness. During the 18th century, scholars like Johann Joachim Winckelmann, attributed ancient Roman artistic style to a sense of austere beauty, writing,

    The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well.... Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence.

    Dismissing what remnants of paint remained, Winckelmann helped establish a general assumption about Roman artwork that has only recently been corrected. More recently, researchers using ultraviolet, infrared, and microscope technologies have determined that Roman works of art were painted with elaborate, polychromatic flair.

    Notable Offenders: GladiatorRome (TV series), The Fall of the Roman EmpireMonty Python's Life of Brian

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  • 3

    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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  • 4

    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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