Correct Your Tour Guide: Two Major Misconceptions About Ancient Romans

Bikini girls mosaic Sicily

These 4th-century Roman mosaics, located in the Villa Romana del Casale of Sicily, show women throwing a discus, running, even lifting weights—and because one woman looks like she’s being crowned victor, may show an actual athletic competition

Over the years, I have heard a lot of misconceptions about ancient Rome. From guidebooks. From tourists. Even from (some) tour guides.

My favorite might be what I spotted in the Fodor’s Rome guidebook: The holes in the Colosseum come from the fact that it was shelled by Nazis. WTF? That’s just false. Thankfully, this year I was, for the first time, an updater for Fodor’s… so it’s one error you won’t see in the 2012 edition.

Still, lots of other misconceptions are hanging around—and way harder to correct. Here are two that I find most irritating, and what the truth is behind them.

Major misconception #1: Ancient Romans had very short lives, and if you made it to 35, you were old 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this: “The life expectancy of the average Roman was 35.” What people, including many tour guides, usually draw from this is that 30- and 40-something Romans must have been very venerable indeed.

Here’s the problem. Aside from the fact that the data is terrible, this 35-year life expectancy is the average. Meaning it factors in the ancient world’s very high child mortality rate: Up to half of all Roman kids died before the age of 10. If you did reach 10, you could expect to live into your 40s or 50s, at least. Then there’s all the Roman men who died in military service… and the women who died in childbirth.

If you jumped through those hoops and survived your teens, 20s, and 30s, you’d have no reason to think you wouldn’t lead a nice, long life. In fact, those who reached the age of 60 would, on average, die after their 70th birthdays.

Antinous in the Naples archaeological museum

No, not everyone was this age, and looked like this, in ancient Rome (although a girl can dream!)

So someone at 35 wouldn’t have been seen as an “old person.” “From around the first century B.C. onwards, the age of 60 or 65 was commonly mentioned as the threshold of old age,” writes Karen Cokayne in “Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome.” That’s also when you got out of previous public obligations, like jury duty (yay!).

In other words: In the ancient world, child mortality sucked. But if they survived their childhood, childbirth, and military service, Romans could expect to live as long as we do today.

Major misconception #2: Ancient Roman women had, like, no rights whatsoever

House of Vestal Virgins

The House of the Vestal Virgins, in the Roman forum

Let me make one thing clear: In no way would I rather be an ancient Roman woman than an American/Italian one (although, as a huge history nerd, making the trade for the chance to see the empire in its glory would be tempting…). But I might rather be a woman in ancient Rome than, I don’t know, a 21st-century woman in some other countries in the world.

Here’s the bad news: Ancient Roman women were citizens, but they couldn’t vote or hold political office. (Like America less than 100 years ago). And, technically, their father held patria potestas, or ultimate life-and-death power, over them until they died. (Eek!).

Still, some other things might surprise you. Ancient Roman women:

  • could own property, engage in business, and loan money
  • served as some of the empire’s most important priests (think: the Vestal Virgins, who weren’t under their father’s technical authority and who, thanks to those vows of chastity, didn’t have the usual obligation to marry and raise children)
  • had the legal right to split their father’s property, 50-50, with their brothers
  • fought as gladiators (a rare occurrence, but it did happen!)
  • went to public primary schools, and either received the same education as, or learned alongside, the boys
  • worked out in gyms and may have participated in athletic contests (see the photo at top!)

In other words: Men and women were hardly equal in ancient Roman society. But, compared to other ancient societies—and even to some modern ones—Roman women had it pretty well.

Intrigued? Here’s some further reading:

Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia, a close look at the inner workings of urban Roman life

Ancient Rome: The Autobiography, an entertaining look at what it would have been like to live in ancient Roman times

Roman Women (Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization), a great, comprehensive, and easy-to-read overview of women’s roles in ancient Roman society

Rome’s Vestal Virgins, a thorough, and fascinating, look at the cult of Rome’s most powerful priestesses

Roman Women, a collection of essays about Roman women who were active in politics, theater, culture, and religion

Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome, on how Romans experienced and dealt with aging

Also: Rome’s most cutting-edge ancient site, 11 etiquette mistakes not to make at an Italian meal and can Rome’s ancient world be saved? (my 2016 video with the BBC).

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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5 comments

  1. Amanda, if the tour guides had said Romans in the Dark Ages or Middle Ages, I would probably agree about the life expectancy, but, as you say, certainly not the Ancient Romans. Maybe it was the obsession with visiting the baths, but they certainly did have reasonable life expectancy if they made it past young childhood.

    One of the things that’s amazing, and not in a good way, is that, after the fall of the Western Empire, infrastructure fell apart, especially the provision of running water to cities, and no one tried to fix it. I always wonder why the powers-that-be which came to power didn’t make any kind of effort to maintain the aqueducts, in particular.

  2. Rome went from having 1,000,000 citizens to under 50,000. The powers that be were more worried and concerned with staying alive versus trying to rebuild infrastructure they didn’t understand.

    Remember we lost a lot of knowledge when Rome fell, so the capability of the people was not as great as Rome.

  3. You have to remember that even today we wouldn’t be able to build roads or water pipes if we didn’t have a central organisation structure (such as a local or national government).

    After the Roman Empire fell in Western Europe the social struckee changed dramatically.

    Public works were generally funded through the church (hospital, school, relegious, bishops castle), a local Castle (new castle or walls etc) or a guild (market, road, bridge, commercial investments).

    With such weak central funding apparatus it is not surprising major investments, such as those that were enabled under the Caesars, did not take place (no collaseum built in dark ages europe for example)

    1. What you are saying is simply not true. Public works in Roman times were funded in multiple ways throughout the evolution of the empire but the primary method was from the public treasury. The notion that a central funding apparatus is required for public investments demonstrably false. Major public works that benefit the public are constructed all the time without any central government involvement.

  4. Concerning the top picture on the article:

    You know how sometimes you’ll see pictures of a gorgeous woman online in skimpy clothing carrying a tricked out AR-15, or wearing camo and modeling for a minigun promo (al a Dillon Aero)? When we see these pictures, do we automatically assume the woman holding the rifle or bending over the minigun is a well-trained armorer or war fighter?

    Now, do we have any reason to believe that that 4th Cent mosaic wasn’t created to serve a similar purpose?

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