15 Of The Strangest Customs From The Ancient Roman Era
On 5th March 2017
Eating the ashes of the dead, binding a person’s feet so that the feet remain small and beautiful (supposedly) even as the person grows, a husband picking up his pregnant wife and carrying her across burning coals – many customs and rituals from across the world are incredibly weird (and sometimes, outright grotesque). Some of the weirdest customs come from old civilizations and old empires. In this, as in many other things, the Ancient Roman Empire often takes the cake.
Go through this list and you will quickly discover that the Romans indeed led the way in the race to develop the most elaborate and, by our modern standards, weird and shocking rituals and customs. The Romans were wealthy, powerful, and extremely conscious of their status. They also loved socializing, partying, and displaying their wealth and power. At the same time, they were very superstitious.
To add to all of this, they had a huge empire. Such a large empire needed lots of rules and regulations in order to hold it together and ensure that it does not quickly fall apart. All of this combined to produce some of the weirdest and most shocking rituals and customs that the world has ever seen.
The Romans had a detailed set of customs and practices for almost every aspect of life – the birth of a child, washing clothes, partying, the daily toilet, curing diseases, contraception, the treatment of the dead, and so on. Read on and see for yourself just how weird Roman customs could get.
#1 Urine Was Used To Clean Their Dirty Clothes
As gross as it sounds, the Romans indeed used urine to wash their clothes. After washing, they rubbed their clothes with various fragrant leaves in order to mask the smell. Soap was not used by the Romans. Instead, they used urine because the ammonia in the urine did a good enough job of cleaning their clothes.
Lye was sometimes used to wash clothes. However, lye was rather expensive and most Romans could not afford it. Hence, they collected urine from all over the town in establishments known as fullones – the Roman equivalent of modern launderers. This urine was then used to clean their clothes.
Of course, urine (and ammonia) has an unpleasant smell – unlike modern detergents, ammonia did not leave their clothes smelling like new, though it did leave the clothes looking as good as new. To get rid of this stench, they would then rub bay leaves (or other sweet-smelling leaves) on their clothes.
#2 Gladiator Blood Was Often Consumed As A Cure For Various Diseases
The Romans were extremely superstitious and correspondingly, they had a grave fear of diseases and infirmity of any kind. Gladiators often used to be in the prime of their health. Indeed, it was often said that gladiators were lion-hearted. The Romans believed that gladiators, literally, possessed the soul of a lion.
As a result, it was believed that consuming a gladiator’s blood could cure many diseases, including infertility, epilepsy, etc. Ancient Roman physicians often recommended that their patients should consume a gladiator’s blood in order to reinvigorate themselves and become healthy again.
If you think that was bizarre, do note that Cato – a Roman statesman – recommended that babies should be bathed in urine. Specifically, he recommended that the urine of an adult who had consumed cabbage should be warmed and then, babies should be bathed in this warm urine. He also recommended that goat dung should be placed in diapers in order to lull babies to sleep.
#3 The Romans Used To Induce Vomiting In Order To Party Harder
How often have you been to a party that was so good that you just did not want to leave? Yet, our human bodies have limited capacities to eat or drink. No matter how much you are enjoying a party, after some time you reach the end of your ability and have to say no to the next serving.
The Romans too were just like us in this regard. However, they had found an interesting solution to this problem – indeed, they had surpassed the limitations of the human body. Their solution – eat and drink as much as you can, then induce vomiting to free up some space in your limited stomach, and then eat and drink some more.
The Romans loved partying and they used to indulge in long banquets. Attendance in these feasts was a sign of social standing. Further, the ability to eat and drink more was seen as the mark of a great man. Hence, the Romans came up with this ingenious solution.
#4 Phalluses Were Used As Lucky Charms On Necklaces & Door Frames
As we have seen, the Romans were extremely superstitious. Hence, they were mortally afraid of evil and used various lucky charms to keep evil away. A common Roman practice involved wearing phalluses as pendants on necklaces in order to ward off evil. Similarly, they would also use large phalluses as wind chimes and hang them on doors and door frames.
The use of lucky charms was not limited to Romans alone. Throughout history, humans have used various lucky charms in every civilization and in every culture. Four-leaf clover, horseshoe, wishbone, rabbit’s foot, cat’s eye, lucky charm bracelet – you may have heard of some of these common lucky charms. Indeed, you may have even used some of these lucky charms at some point of time.
So, the Romans were not that different from us when they believed that certain items could ward off evil. However, their choice of lucky charms – phalluses – was certainly weird. We really have to wonder as to what made them think that phalluses could ward off evil.
#5 The Romans Used Goat Fat And Beechwood Ashes To Color Their Hair
The Romans loved to show off and were extremely fashion conscious – much like us. Hence, hair coloring was common among Romans. Dyeing the hair blond, red, saffron and even purple was a common practice. To achieve this effect, the Romans used to rub goat fat, beechwood ashes, henna, saffron, bleach, etc. on their hair.
Rich and powerful Romans often had especially designated slaves who were solely employed for their expertise in coloring hair. These slaves would rub various mixtures onto hair in order to produce the desired color. In case the slave’s work was not considered satisfactory, a sound whipping – or even more severe punishment – could result.
Interestingly, Emperor Claudius’ third wife – Valeria Messalina – reportedly once colored her hair blond, gilded her breasts gold and entered a contest with a prostitute to see who could sleep with more men in one night. As per historians, the emperor had her executed.
#6 The Romans Rubbed Lead Paste On Their Faces In Order To Look Pale
Hair coloring was not the only roman indulgence in their pursuit to look cool. They also used a wide variety of cosmetics to enhance their aesthetic appeal. A common practice was rubbing lead paste on their face in order to look fashionably pale. The use of moisturizers was also common. They used to rub ass’ milk and crushed snails in order to hydrate and moisturize their face.
Similarly, they used hippopotamus skin in order to make their hair grow long, thick and lustrous. For hair removal, they used bat’s blood and hedgehog ashes, which were rubbed on various body parts. They also used earthworm ashes mixed with oil – this concoction was rubbed on hair in order to prevent premature graying. Further, they rubbed crushed ant eggs on their eyebrows. Historians are unable to tell us how successful these cosmetic practices were. But, the Romans certainly deserve full marks for effort and ingenuity!
#7 Toilets Were A Popular Social Hangout Among Ancient Romans
Prestige and social standing were very important for the Romans. Thus, they used communal toilets for socializing. Accordingly, spending inordinately large amounts of time – by our standards – in communal toilets was common among Romans. Groups of Romans would often discuss politics, military strategy and war, philosophical issues, even religion, and other everyday issues in these toilets.
The toilets were quite large and well-maintained with a host of slaves to cater to the Romans as they went about their daily business. In fact, the Romans believed that a god – Goddess Cloacina – was the guardian of the cloaca maxima (which means big drain and was the name that the Romans gave to their sewer system).
Interestingly, the Romans did not use water to wipe themselves. They used wet sponges to wipe themselves after doing their business – and they shared these wet sponges. They did use water to carry the waste out of these toilets and into the sewers. Thus, the Romans are believed to have invented the flushing toilet.
#8 The Romans Used Olive Oil, Honey & Even Wool As Contraceptives
Family planning was quite common among ancient Romans. Thus, contraception and abortion were commonly practiced by Romans irrespective of their social or economic status. Historians point out that the Romans used to insert olive oil, honey, and other clogging liquids into the vagina in order to prevent pregnancies.
Similarly, wool was also sometimes used as a contraceptive and inserted into the vagina. Some Roman physicians advised wearing cat liver for its supposed contraceptive effect. For this purpose, cat liver was placed in a tube and the tube was worn on the left foot.
The Roman practice of using contraceptives and even abortion reflects a society that was very fastidious about child rearing and upbringing. Childbirth, therefore, was not a casual affair for the Romans. Rather, it placed significant burdens on a family that would be duty bound to ensure that the child was well cared for and well brought up. As a result, the Romans took a lot of precaution to ensure that an unplanned childbirth did not happen.
#9 They Threw Unwanted Children In Garbage Dumps
The Romans were very dedicated to ensuring that their children were well brought up and achieved the best possible social standing, depending on their family background. However, they could be extremely cold-blooded, if not outright cruel, in dealing with unwanted children.
Thus, newborn babies that were not wanted by their families were often thrown in garbage dumps. After the birth of a child, the infant would be placed at his father’s feet. If the father picked up the child, it symbolized that he was taking responsibility for the child’s upbringing and education.
If the father refused to pick up the child, it would be thrown in the garbage dumps. Such children may die in the dumps or some roman citizen could pick the child from the dumps and raise it as a slave. That gives a whole new meaning to the expression “being down in the dumps”!
#10 They Used Perfumed Oil, Instead Of Soap, To Bathe Themselves
We have already seen how devoted the Romans were to aesthetics and looking good. They were similarly fastidious about personal hygiene. Thus, bathing and smelling good were a big concern for the Romans.
However, the Romans did not lather themselves with soap while bathing. Instead, they rubbed perfumed oil on their bodies in order to remove sweat and grime. Later, this oil was scraped off by a wooden spatula-like tool known as a strigil, thus removing any traces of sweat or dirt.
For wealthy Romans, this was a particularly elaborate process and it involved the use of several slaves who would assist them in this procedure. The choice of oil depending on the family’s wealth and the wealthier Romans would use more precious and fragrant oils. The scented oil would be warmed and then the slave would apply it on the body. Later, the oil would be removed with the strigil and various cosmetics would be applied.
#11 Roman Men Were Allowed To Have Sex Outside Their Marriage
The Romans had elaborate social structures and customs. Thus, adultery was not permitted generally. The institution of marriage was considered sacred and the family structure was inviolable. However, in certain cases, adultery was permitted.
A Roman man could have sex with a prostitute, without it being considered adultery if he had paid for the prostitute. Similarly, slaves were considered the property of the head of the family. Thus, if the man had sex with his slaves, it was not considered a violation of his familial responsibility.
A man could also have sex with a woman of lower social status without being considered an adulterer. Unmarried men were also allowed to keep a concubine and have sex with her. The social status of such concubines was only slightly lower than that of married women. A child born to a concubine was considered illegitimate but it was the duty of the father to provide for the child.
#12 Roman Graves Had Pipes That Were Used To Feed Dead People
he Romans did not forget their dead. Indeed, their ancestors were considered a part of the family. Thus, Roman graves had pipes through which wine, honey, and other food material could be lowered into the grave so that the dead could eat. On the occasion of festivals, the Romans had elaborate gatherings near the burial sites of their dead family members.
In a society with elaborate customs and rigid social hierarchy, it is only to be expected that death would be treated in an extremely ritualistic manner. When a person died, the closest relative would give a symbolic last kiss to the body. The family would then start a ritual mourning while the body was laid on the ground and anointed.
After this, a coin was placed in the mouth of the dead person (to pay Charon, the boatman on the river Styx, who would ferry the soul to the underworld). It was only after this that the body was carried to the cemetery.
#13 Murderers Were Placed In A Sack Along With A Snake, Rooster, Monkey And Dog
When the Romans had invented such bizarre customs, it is only to be expected that their legal systems would be equally imaginative. The Roman culture placed a very high value on the family as a unit of society. Thus, duty to one’s family was a supreme virtue in their culture.
Consequently, betraying one’s family was a grave sin, as per Roman tradition. Parricide – killing one’s family member was one of the worst crimes that a Roman could commit. The punishment for parricide was called poena cullei.
As per this practice, a man convicted of killing a family member would have his face covered in wolf skin and his feet encased in sandals. Following this, he would be placed in a prison while a large sack was prepared for him. The murderer would then be placed in the sack along with a snake, rooster, monkey and dog. The sack would then be thrown in a river or in the ocean.
#14 A Man Who Broke His Vows Could Legally Be Killed
In our modern society, we have Batman, the vigilante superhero. The Romans had their own version of vigilantism – a far harsher version. In Roman tradition, every man was expected to abide by his vows and oaths. Violating these oaths was sacrilege and resulted in a man becoming an outcast and a pariah.
Among early Romans, groups of vigilantes could declare a man homo sacre – one who is an outcast – if the man was thought to have broken his vows. Following this, the man lost his legal rights. For example, he lost all rights over any land or property that he owned. Such men could then be killed by anyone without any legal consequences.
The practice of homo sacre was widely prevalent and was applicable to a wide variety of cases. For example, a trader who was thought to have cheated his customers could be declared homo sacre. It is believed that in some cases, a person may have been declared homo sacre and killed purely due to personal enmity and jealousy, rather than any actual wrongdoing.
#15 The Romans Thought Left-Handed People Were Unlucky
The Romans were extremely superstitious. Often, they thought that anything abnormal was evil or afflicted by evil. Left handed people were therefore considered unlucky by the Romans. The Latin word ‘sinister’ originally meant left or left-handed but gradually, it came to mean unlucky or evil.
The Romans had many other superstitions and strange customs based on superstitious beliefs. For example, they believed that owls were unlucky and seeing an owl was a bad omen. They also believed that bees were messengers of God and thus, it was a good omen to see some bees.
Similarly, they used to release an eagle whenever an emperor died. Eagles were considered symbolic of Jupiter, the king of gods. Thus, it was thought that the eagle would carry the emperor’s soul to heaven. Among other superstitions, the Romans believed that baldness could be prevented by smelling cyclamen flowers. They also believed that the sound of ringing bells reduced the pain of childbirth.