5 strange things we learned about the Roman Emperors on a tour of the Roman Forum

Sun 26 Jun 2022

5 strange things we learned about the Roman Emperors on a tour of the Roman Forum

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, if you’ve ever had the chance to tour the Roman Forum with one of our expert archaeologists, you’ll know that the answer is: quite a lot. From the Latin alphabet to advances in sanitation, architecture, legal codes, engineering and much more, many of the fundamentals of our modern world can be traced back to the great ancient empire. But not everything that went down in ancient Rome was quite so noble. This week on our blog we’ve collected five bizarre facts about the Roman emperors that we learned on a tour of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill in the company of one of our resident experts. From cheese overdoses to toilet humour and an emperor who wanted to become a prostitute, read on to discover the stranger side of the ancient world!

Antoninus Pius died of a cheese overdose 

The temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman ForumThe temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the Roman Forum

What is it that we find so fascinating about ignoble celebrity deaths? It might not quite be up there with the final moments of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe, but the untimely demise of the emperor Antoninus Pius in 161 AD is pretty embarrassing. Antoninus was that rare thing - a Roman emperor who was popular with his subjects, well-regarded for his moderation and wise council, and who wasn’t bumped off by jealous rivals or disgruntled relatives. Indeed, Antinous lived to the ripe old age of 75, and would probably have chalked up a few more years had he not fallen victim to his too-healthy appetite.  

The much-loved emperor, who was by all accounts something of a gourmet, spent the final years of his reign at his villa in the town of Lorium outside Rome, where he overdosed on cheese. According to ancient sources, Antoninus ‘rather greedily’ overindulged one night at dinner on some particularly delicious Alpine fromage, and the following day came down with a raging fever. Things only got worse for the aged emperor, who died three days later. Still, it’s a better way to go than the fate of the next emperor on our list…

Nero had aspirations to be a musician

The interior of Nero's Golden House in Rome

The megalomaniacal Nero was one of the ancient world’s most notorious despots, known to history as the murderer of his own mother, a perescutor of Christians, a violent bully and much more besides. But the bad-to-the-bone emperor’s final words revealed a very different side to his character. As he paced to and fro before his suicide, with his enemies closing in, ancient sources recount that the emperor uttered the immortal line ‘Qualis artifex pereo’ (What an artist dies in me). Nero, you see, was a keen amateur actor and musician, and loved nothing more than whiling away the hours strumming on his lyre (whether he was actually happily fiddling as Rome burned is, however, questioned by historians). 

Ever the narcissist, the emperor enjoyed performing in public too - despite the fact that his musical abilities were open to serious dispute. It seems that audiences often weren’t overly keen to listen to his performances, and would sometimes attempt to make good their escape. Not so fast! The emperor apparently habitually had the doors locked when he pitched up to give an impromptu recital, making sure that nobody would miss a single tortured note. 

To learn more about the emperor and his life of wild excess, explore the Domus Aurea with us on a tour of Nero's Golden House.

A slang word for a toilet refers to the emperor Vespasian

A typical French vespasienne

If you had the good fortune to become the emperor of the world’s largest ancient empire, what would you like to have been remembered for? Ushering in the long period of peace known as the Pax Romana, like Augustus? Commissioning fabulous buildings like the Pantheon, one of the many fruits of the architecture-obsessed Hadrian’s reign? Or even just being an unhinged despot like Caligula or Nero? All might be preferable to the most enduring legacy of the emperor Vespasian. 

Despite being responsible for a series of military successes and beginning work on the Colosseum, in Italy Vespasian’s name is synonymous with, well, public toilets. During his reign the emperor imposed a tax on the collection and sale of urine, which was valuable in the dying and tanning industries due to its high ammonia content. As the unabashed ruler remarked to his outraged son Titus, ‘pecunia non olet’ - money doesn’t stink. Perhaps not, but the link between the emperor and urine stuck, to the degree that when public urinals arrived on the scene centuries later they soon became known as vespasiani in Italian and vespasienne in French.

Caligula attempted to have his horse elected a consul

A statue reputed to be of Caligula in the British Musuem

Caligula, or Little Boots, was certainly one of the worst ancient Roman emperors of all. Famed amongst contemporaries and in future generations for the fathomless depths of his cruelty, the young emperor left behind him a laundry list of excess when he was eventually assassinated at the still tender age of 28. Putting enemies to death on the merest whim, committing incest with his sisters, humiliating senators and relishing in torture were amongst his more banal crimes. 

It should come as little surprise then, that Caligula wasn’t merely evil; he was also insane. He once caused a famine in Rome by diverting endless grain ships to the southern city of Naples, where he had them lashed together to make a 3 mile-long bridge across the bay. His nuttiest move, however, was his attempt to make his favourite horse, Incitatus, a consul. So beloved was the cosseted equine that he was fed oats flecked with gold, given a marble stable and even his own house where he was expected to entertain visiting dignitaries. Oh, and he also made him a priest.

As if all that wasn’t enough, according to legend Caligula decided that Incitatus deserved to be elevated to the rank of consul, above the members of the Roman Senate. Modern historians question the veracity of the tale, suggesting that Caligula was ironically critiquing the competency of Rome’s political elites rather than making a serious proposition. One thing is certain though - he was just about insane enough to have carried the plan through!

Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels 

The House of the Vestal Virgins in Roman Forum

Although he is far from the most famous emperor in the annals of Roman history, Elagabulus deserves to be much better known for his eccentric lifestyle and exasperating incompetence.

Elagabalus came from a family of Syrian high priests devoted to the god Baal (or Elah-Gabal, hence his exotic sounding moniker). Unexpectedly elevated to power at the age of 14 due to complex family and political machinations, the young emperor apparently cared little for the customs or culture of the empire he would come to rule. 

Indeed, one of Elagabulus’ first acts as emperor was to demote Jupiter from his perch as Rome’s most important god and replace him with his beloved Baal instead, to whom he dedicated a magnificent temple on the Palatine Hill. As if that wasn’t bad enough, after dabbling with the idea of marrying a charioteer by the name of Hierocles and making him joint-caesar, Elagabalus instead wedded the high priestess of Vesta (having a relationship with a Vestal Virgin was an outrageous provocation of Rome’s sacred norms).

Elagabulus sexuality was the cause of much discontentment in Rome: beyond his open homosexuality, he was also provocatively gender-fluid, frequently dressing as a woman and propositioning members of his elite Praetorian guard. Most controversially, it was rumoured that Elagabulus liked to frequent the city’s seediest brothels disguised as a prostitute where, according to the historian Cassius Dio, ‘he would imitate the most lewd women.’

In perhaps the least surprising twist of ancient Roman history, things soon went pear-shaped for the eccentric emperor, who further infuriated the conservative aristocratic elites by openly seeking out a doctor capable of providing him with a vagina (sex reassignment surgery was unsurpsingly not within the reach of antique medical science). At the age of 18, in the 5th year of his reign, the emperor was assassinated and thrown in the Tiber, along with his lusty charioteer lover Hierocles. The leader of the assassination plot? Elagabulus’ own grandmother Julia Maesa, whose schemings were responsible for putting him on the throne in the first place. We all make mistakes!

Through Eternity tours offer expert-led guided itineraries through the most important sites of ancient Rome.  If you'd like to get the inside-track on the ancient empire from the people who know it best, then make sure to join our ancient Rome group tours and private ancient city itineries on your next visit to the Eternal City!

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