Antiquity is the period from the arrival of writing to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Suffice to say that it’s been a good bit of history and that it leaves a lot of room for bullshit. Often it is the fault of the lack of historical sources, but it is also a bit of ours. So we’re going to try to reestablish the truth about the received ideas that we repeat the most.
1. “Julius Caesar was a Roman Emperor”
He never actually had that title. He was “simply” Imperator, which is the rank given to generals who have won campaigns. He was also dictator of the Empire, but be careful, that has nothing to do with wearing a little mustache and giving Nazi salutes or sending people to the gulag. The first real Roman emperor was his great-nephew Octave Augustus.
2. “The Roman Empire collapsed due to barbarian invasions”
Without going into details, when the Western Roman Empire came to an end, we had already been unstable for a long time. The barbarian invasions were in fact rather migrations of peoples that took place over the long term, and very often in a peaceful way. Certain peoples were accepted on the territory on condition that they ensure its security. That, plus the rise of Christianity, plus changes in people’s mores, plus lots of other reasons that historians don’t even agree on, led to the end of the Empire.
3. “Nero set Rome on fire”
In fact, these are only rumors, because some of his contemporaries imagined that he had done this to rebuild the city as he saw fit. But nothing can prove that it is indeed Nero. It is even unlikely, because he, according to the sources, organized the fight against the fire and the assistance to the victims. In short, we have no certainty, so let’s respect the presumption of innocence and wait for him to explain himself to a judge.
4. “The Gauls are barbarians”
There’s a whole bunch of clichés about the Gauls, but this one is one of the biggest. Already, the Gauls were not a single people but full of different peoples that the Romans had grouped under this name. Then, if they were indeed “barbarians” in the eyes of the Romans, they were not as we hear it today: the Gauls were not big oxen who growled and beat each other all the time. They invented soap, pants, they knew how to make beautiful jewelry, in short, they were quite civilized.
5. “Dido founded Carthage”
We tend to forget it, but Dido is a legend, best known thanks to theAeneid of Virgil. Dido and his family would have been offered a territory as large as it could fit in the skin of an ox. Basically she got screwed over. But, as she was not stupid, she cut the skin of the above-named animal to make a very thin and very long strip, just to draw a large territory (one of the edges of which was the sea, so that it required less lanyard.) Standing ovation.
6. “Gladiators said ‘Those who are about to die salute you’ to the emperor before they fought.
Ave Imperator, morituri greeting you, More precisely. In fact, only Suetonius (who wrote about the emperors of Rome and Julius Caesar) speaks of this phrase. It would have been spoken only once to the Emperor Claudius, in 52, by soldiers who were going to reenact a naval battle. Claudius would have answered “or not”. This Claude is fun.
7. “The streets of Rome were like in the movies”
And often, “like in the movies”, it’s not like in reality. The series and films give a fairly clean image of Rome, with cobbled streets wide enough for urban cohorts to parade amid shopkeepers and leisurely strollers. In reality, the streets of Rome were very narrow (which favored fires) and very often disgusting, the kind where you almost broke your face in the mud. It’s another charm.
8. “The Greeks were pd”
Already it is not pretty to say that, and moreover it is not true. Today we are still not sure we fully understand this aspect of their civilization, but it seems that homosexuality as we know it in our time was not necessarily well seen. On the other hand, pederasty, between a mature man and an adolescent, was accepted, even encouraged, because through this relationship there was also an education that was transmitted. What you have to remember is that it’s complicated, and no, not all Greeks were gay. And even less the women, because for them it was really frowned upon.
9. “Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants”
It is true that the Carthaginian general had crossed the Alps with the aim of attacking the Romans. And he had indeed left with several dozen elephants (we often say 27, but we weren’t there to count them). But what is less certain is that he managed to get his elephants through on the other side. Historians believe most died during the crossing. Poor beasts.