One reason HBO's Game of Thrones was so popular was its capacity to shock us. Loyal audiences loved it because each season was filled with larger-than-life events - bloody fights and political intrigue alike - all set against the backdrop of familial drama. But as wild as a show like Game of Thrones can be, none will ever compare to the theatrics of actual history - Roman history in particular.
From its founding as a kingdom in 753 BC, through its days as a republic from 509-27 BC, and up to the imperial era from 27 BC to 476 AD, the Roman civilization was one of the most powerful in the ancient world. At its height, Rome controlled territory from modern Great Britain all the way to Mesopotamia, with a population of up to 100 million citizens. That level of wealth and power meant constant behind-the-scenes machinations. There was always someone new who wanted the throne all to himself and would do anything to get it. Here are 13 stories from Roman history that make the Lannister family look like playful kittens.
Becoming a Vestal Virgin - AKA a priestess who served Vesta, the Roman goddess of home, hearth, and religion - was a high honor. Vestal Virgins were the only female priests in the ancient Roman religion, and only six women were chosen to serve at a time. Their primary task was to maintain Vesta's sacred fire, which never went out. They also safeguarded wills and testaments for the wealthy, prepared foods for use in rituals, and protected holy objects in Vesta's temple. Being in such a prestigious position meant the Vestals enjoyed many privileges unavailable to other Roman women. They always got a place of honor at public ceremonies. They were allowed to own property, vote, and give evidence in trials. And their bodies were considered so sacrosanct that merely touching a Vestal could lead to capital punishment.
But Vestals were also expected to adhere to a number of rules. As their title suggests, Vestal Virgins kept a vow of chastity for the entirety of their 30-year terms. If a Vestal did copulate, there was a special type of execution reserved for the occasion. Since Vestals weren't allowed to be touched, spilling their blood could itself be considered a transgression. Instead, a disobedient Vestal was buried alive in an underground chamber called the Campus Sceleratus, or "Evil Fields," which was near the Colline Gate.
Punishment for unchastity was rare, but Livy describes the demise of one Vestal Virgin named Minucia in The History of Rome, Volume 2. Minucia first drew the wrong sort of attention to herself in 337 AD, when she began wearing clothes just a bit too elegant for her station. She was then accused of incest, on the evidence of an enslaved person, and was buried in the Evil Fields.
Livy doesn't specify which family member Minucia got involved with, and the act itself probably didn't really happen. In Minucia's time, Rome was embroiled in a class struggle between the patricians (aristocrats) and plebeians (commoners). Minucia was one of the first plebeians ever allowed to hold a religious office - an idea that not all wealthy Romans appreciated. It's likely the accusation against Minucia was just a pretext to remove an upstart lowborn from a place of influence.
In modern parlance, the word "cult" refers to a religious group that holds unorthodox beliefs and is fronted by a charismatic leader. When it applies to ancient religions, however, "cult" just means "a group of worshippers." To the Romans, cults could be just as controversial as our cults today.
The religious cult that worshipped the Greco-Roman god Bacchus, AKA the god of wine and fertility, first arrived in Southern Italy around 200 BC via the Greek colonies on the Italian peninsula. Followers of Bacchus, who were initially only women but expanded to include men, would hold religious services called "Bacchanalia." Since Bacchanalia were mostly held in secret, it's unclear exactly what these services entailed, but contemporary rumors suggest they were basically libidinous free-for-alls.
Livy, writing about the Bacchanalia about 200 years later, took things a step further and accused the followers of Bacchus of being part of a massive underworld organization. He wrote:
Nor was the mischief confined to the promiscuous intercourse of men and women; false witness, the forging of seals and testaments, and false informations, all proceeded from the same source, as also poisonings and murders of families where the bodies could not even be found for burial. Many crimes were committed by treachery; most by violence, which was kept secret, because the cries of those who were being violated or murdered could not be heard owing to the noise of drums and cymbals.
Hysteria grew, and in 186 BC, the Roman Senate held an emergency meeting to ban Bacchanalia and punish the participants. Seven thousand people either received capital punishment or took their own lives. However, this was most likely politically motivated by perceived threats to the status quo. The cult of Bacchus allowed women to hold leadership positions, and allowed the poor and the enslaved to become members. When the Roman establishment felt threatened, it wasn't afraid to take action.
The Emperor Tiberius was known for his paranoia, and thanks to Sejanus, that paranoia was well-founded. Lucius Aeilius Sejanus was a lowborn soldier who rose to become the commander of the emperor's elite Praetorian Guard. Sejanus's favor never sat well with Drusus, Tiberius's son and only heir. Sejanus and Drusus didn't hide their enmity for each other. Things came to a head in 23 AD, when Drusus punched Sejanus and said, "A stranger was invited to assist in the government while the emperor's son was alive."
Sejanus wanted the throne for himself, but first, he needed to remove his rival. To do this, he seduced Drusus's wife Livilla and secured her support - which must have taken some degree of persuasion, since Drusus was already directly in line to inherit the empire. Next, Drusus abruptly perished. His demise appeared to be natural, but after Tiberius tormented the slaves in Drusus's household, two of them - Eudemus and Lygdus - confessed to dosing Drusus with a slow-acting toxin. Sejanus somehow wasn't directly implicated in Drusus's demise, even though he was the obvious beneficiary. He then asked Tiberius for permission to marry Livilla, but was denied.
In the aftermath of Drusus's passing, Sejanus had become so powerful that Tiberius left Rome to live in Campania, and then on the Isle of Capri. Left alone in the capital, Sejanus further consolidated his power and wiped out many of his rivals. When Tiberius finally learned of Sejanus's treachery, he summoned him for a meeting on October 18, 31 AD, and took him into custody. Sejanus was fatally asphyxiated, and his remains were thrown down the Gemonian stairs, where a mob tore them to pieces.
When it comes to matters of succession, certain Romans were just as ruthless as the Lannisters. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who would grow up to become Emperor Nero, managed to become Emperor Claudius's heir despite not being his biological son - and despite the fact that Claudius already had a biological son, Britannicus. Nero owed it all to his mother, Agrippina the Younger, one of the most cunning and ruthless figures in Roman history. Agrippina married Emperor Claudius (who was also her uncle), and manipulated him into naming Nero as his successor. It didn't help Britannicus's case that Nero was three years older and therefore could have taken the throne sooner, ensuring a peaceful transfer of power.
In AD 54, Britannicus celebrated his 13th birthday, making him an adult in Roman eyes, and the aging Emperor Claudius showed signs that he might change his mind and name his son heir. Claudius soon perished under suspicious circumstances, and Agrippina was suspected of dosing him with toxins. But Agrippina also secured the support of the Praetorian Guard, and Nero ascended to the throne.
Britannicus still had his supporters, and Nero couldn't feel secure unless his rival was eliminated. Nero hired a man to take out Britannicus - using a slow-acting toxin to avoid suspicion. It proved too weak, so they tried again. The next time, Britannicus expired at a dinner party in front of his friend, the future emperor Titus.