Strange Tales and Surprising Facts about Ancient Rome

By James C. McKeown

The Romans have a reputation as being a very practical society, building impressive aqueducts with really good cement, while maintaining a ruthlessly efficient army that conquered and maintained a vast empire. They may sometimes seem rather dull and unimaginative, but this is not at all the case. They have left us lots of rather bizarre information about themselves, some of which is perhaps not entirely credible. For example:

1. In 173 BC, a large fleet of ships was seen in the sky near Rome.

2. Cobwebs were used to stop bleeding from fractured skulls and shaving cuts.

3. The Romans wondered whether plants enjoy travel in the same way as people do. There was a law against using magic to transfer growing crops from one place to another.

4. Faustina, the wife of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, had a collection of several hundred wigs.

5. The Latin word musculus means both “little mouse” and “muscle”, since muscles rippling under the skin were thought to be like little mice.

6. The emperor Commodus frequently fought as a gladiator, armed with iron weapons, whereas his opponents had lead ones.

7. A person found guilty of parricide was sewn up in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper, and a monkey, and thrown into the sea.

8. Kissing a she-mule on the nostrils cures hiccups and sneezing.

9. Even though the Romans had no stirrups, Julius Caesar could ride at a gallop with his hands behind his back.

10. The emperor Maximinus was said to have drunk seven gallons of wine per day and to have been eight feet, six inches tall.

J. C. McKeown, author of A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire, is Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

IMAGE: Communal toilets at Ostia, the port of Rome. Up to eighty people could sit together and socialize in Roman toilets. Photo by Jo Winston.

Congratulations to the following W & M winners of this book:

Gary, librarypat, and Lon!


  1. Urbano says

    What a delightful book! Please enter me in the draw! In the meantime, why did the dog, rooster, viper, and monkey have to die along with the murderer?

  2. says

    Wow, this sounds really interesting! I know about the public toilets (my history prof in college talked about them) and I love learning these kinds of things about history. :)

  3. Vicky Alvear Shecter says

    Oh my gods, this book sounds awesome. Must have! I am crossing my fingers up to my elbows in the hopes of winning the drawing. But even if I don’t win, that book will be mine one way or the other!

  4. Kathy Petersen says

    I’ve read a bit about Roman history, but never anything like what McKeown is offering! Sign me up.

  5. librarypat says

    Those are some truly odd bits of information. I have my doubts about some of them, but some actually make sense. I love surious bits of information like this. Please sign me up for the drawing.

  6. Cheryl Smith says

    I have always liked Roman history and am presently reading Marcus Aurelius. And of course, who can’t like guys who look like Russell Crowe and save the day from the evil Commodus. The Roman emperors, in particular, seem like a cross between Puritan values; and the severe and frightening results of constant in-breeding. This looks like a lot of fun, please put me in the drawing. csmith

  7. says

    Thank you for this contest! I have a client who is writing an excellent novel about Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia. On the lucky chance that I win, I can’t wait to give this book to her as a gift.

  8. says

    Great bit of information & heresay! And while we have a “Rome” in Wisconsin, this isn’t quite Rome…but maybe entertaining to the crowd anyway! Did you know that the “King of Michigan”, John Heisman (for whom the college football award is named) and the man who gave the world pink lemonade are all buried in Wisconsin? Cheers! And please enter my name for the book drawing. Thank you.

  9. Stace says

    Now those are flat out strange – a whole book worth . . . hmmmm, the story ideas that might lie between those covers!

  10. says

    I never really thought that the Romans were dull. In fact they always seemed very interesting and ingenious to me. I thought that the fact that they stole all their gods from the Greeks and renamed them for themselves was pretty cool. These tidbits though make them all the more fascinating. Can’t wait to read the book. And if it’s free for me, then all the better. :) Great blog, BTW.

  11. diane holschuh says

    I love this stuff, and I know my father does as well. So, hopefully I will win the book before I have to buy one for father’s day!
    Jim McKeown, you rule!

  12. MBL says

    Another interesting tidbit, inspired by the photo of the toilets: public latrines were typically equipped with communal sponges attached to the end of long sticks. The sponge was rinsed in running water in between uses. Notice in the photo the openings in the front of the toilet benches – the opening on the top of the seat is obvious, and the opening on the front was for sponge-on-stick access!

  13. says

    As an English teacher, I found the fact about the Latin word “musculus” fascinating. Of course I had to look up the etymology in the dictionary, and it says for the word “muscle”: “ORIGIN late Middle English : from French, from Latin musculus, diminutive of mus ‘mouse’ (some muscles being thought to be mouselike in form).”

    As to what’s wrong with me that I zeroed in on that fact over Maximinus and his copious wine-drinking and giant height or a fleet of ships in the sky, I’ll leave it to others to judge.

  14. Laura Seeber says

    I cannot tell if this drawing is past or not as there is no date mentioned, but if I’m in time, I would absolutely love this one as I read all things ancient Rome that I can get my hands on.

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