Surprising Facts About The Ancient Roman Empire

The smell of the city is strong and foul as you make your way down Trajan’s Market. The narrow streets are hot and overcrowded with soldiers supervising, civilians running errands, and the aristocracy taking a stroll in their expensive togas. All around you peddlers and customers are squabbling and negotiating prices. Amidst all of the commotion, you can still hear the roars from the Colosseum as another gladiator meets their violent end. Welcome to Ancient Rome. While most people have a basic understanding of Ancient Rome, take a deeper look into the culture that’s credited with shaping the Western World.

Learn about the misconception of the life expectancy of a Roman citizen.

Gladiator Fighting Wasn’t The Predominant Source Of Entertainment

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When most people think of Roman entertainment, it usually involves gladiators in the Colosseum fighting to the death for the pleasure of the Roman public. While gladiator fighting was a beloved sport by the Romans, it turns out that it wasn’t the most popular. The sheer brutality and the size of such games was astounding, but not admired by all.

Chariot racing was the most popular sport of its time. The Colosseum, where the gladiator fights occurred, could seat around 50,000 people. Yet, the Circus Maximus, which was for chariot racing, could seat an audience of up to 250,000.

Roman Life Expectancy

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Although Rome was extremely technologically advanced, that doesn’t mean that the living conditions of the commoners or the city were anywhere close to being sanitary. This led historians to believe that the life expectancy in Ancient Rome was probably around 25 to 40 years old. However, this is a massive misconception because that is the average lifespan of the population, not the expectancy of the individual.

Ancient Rome had an incredibly high child mortality rate with half of the children dying before they were ten years old. However, if you did live past ten, you were expected to live a long life. Another factor that brought the average down was men in military service and women that died during childbirth.

See how the Romans weren’t quick to waste anything.

Christmas Has Its Roots In Saturnalia

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Saturnalia was a Roman pagan festival to honor the god of agriculture Saturnalia during mid-December each year. Some of the traditions, such as decorating and gift-giving, are believed to be the roots of modern-day Christmas. Saturnalia was a week-long holiday that began on December 17th. During that week of celebration, all work would stop, and typical day-to-day activities cease to exist.

People would decorate their homes with greenery and wreaths and even changed the style of clothing they wore. Slaves also stopped working and were even allowed to participate in the festivities and in some cases switched places with their masters. Essentially, it was one of the biggest parties the Western World has ever seen.

The Vestal Virgins

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In Ancient Rome, the Vestal VIrgins were an order of priestesses of the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta. There were typically four to six of these priestesses at a time who worked as full-time members of the clergy. Their duties included tending the sacred fire, caring for sacred artifacts, and officiating public events that involved Vesta.

The Virgins were selected by the chief priest between the ages of six and ten. They were then required to serve for 30 years as well as remain chaste during their years of service. After their 30 years were up they were free to leave, although few rarely did. If a Vestal Virgin failed in her duties they were severely punished and beaten. Furthermore, those who broke their chastity were buried alive or had molten lead poured down their throats.

Urine Was A High Commodity

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As if using a public bathroom isn’t bad enough, Ancient Romans were taxed for using public facilities. It was first Emperor Nero and then Vespasian that passed this tax called the vectigal, urinae or the urine tax. However, the urine didn’t go to waste. All of the urinals both public and private would lead to pools where it was then recycled and used for various purposes.

Back then, urine was great for cleaning animal pelts because it would help to remove the hair fibers on the pelt. Also, believe it or not, it was used for laundry because it was a source of ammonia and could be used for bleaching and cleaning garments.

Even gladiator blood had its uses.

The Legend Of The Founders Of Rome

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According to Ancient Greek legend, Rome was founded by the two demi-god twin brothers Romulus and Remus on April 21, 753 BCE. Supposedly, the boys were the children of Rhea Silvia and Mars. As babies, their death was ordered by their grandfather who had the two boys thrown into the Tiber river. They were then saved by a she-wolf until they were discovered by a herdsman who raised them.

After growing up, the boys killed King Amulius of Alba Longa and were offered the throne. Instead, the two set off to start their own city in the best location possible. The brothers argued about the area, and eventually, Romulus killed Remus and named the new city after himself. Although this is just a myth, the story remains prominent today.

Gladiator Blood Was Special

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Ancient Romans were known for doing some pretty questionable things in the name of health. Whether it was brushing their teeth with urine or sharing wiping sponges in public bathrooms, nothing was out of the question. However, during the first and sixth centuries, it was believed that the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver was successful in curing epilepsy.

The belief was that the blood of a fallen gladiator could cleanse the soul and that’s what people with epilepsy needed to cure their disease. It was not uncommon to see gladiator blood for sale while it was still warm not long after their death in the arena.

Goddess Of The Sewers

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Believe it or not, the Ancient Romans had a goddess of the sewers and drains of Rome. Cloacina, or “The Cleanser,” was believed to have presided over the Cloaca Maxima, “The Great Drain,” which was the main system of sewers in Ancient Rome. Originally derived from Etruscan mythology, she was eventually adopted by the Romans and came to be identified with Venus.

Over time, as well as being the goddess of the sewers, Cloaca was also deemed the protector of sexual intercourse in marriage, the goddess of filth, and the goddess purity. A shrine was built in her honor directly above the entrance to the Cloaca Maxima Sewer and is where historians believe there was once a shrine.

Being goddess of the sewers couldn’t have been as bad as being the god of farts!

Ancient Rome Invented The Shopping Mall

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It is believed that the world’s first-ever shopping mall was Trajan’s Market. It is assumed that Trajan’s Market was constructed between 100-110 AD by Apollodorus Damascus. Damascus was an architect and a close friend of Trajan whom Trajan entrusted to construct the Forum. It’s a large complex that was located on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, at the opposite end of the Colosseum.

The complex had a covered market, shops, and even a residential apartment block. As time went on, more levels were built, adding more residential living, stores, and socializing establishments. Although it was once a bustling part of the city of Rome, it is now another large complex that lays in ruins.

It Wasn’t Good To Be Left-Handed

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Although being left-handed today is more of an inconvenience rather than an actual problem, in Ancient Rome, that wasn’t the case. People that were left-handed were considered to be unfortunate or even wicked by their right-handed counterparts. Those who were left-handed were held in suspicion by others because they were also believed to be deceitful people.

Although some people claim that left-handed Romans were held in high regard, this is false. The prejudice against left-handed individuals was so strong that the Ancient Romans began to wear their wedding rings on their left hand’s third finger to avoid sin from lefties.

There Was A God For Your Bowel Problems

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The ancient Romans had a god for just about anything it seems, including farting. Crepitus was the Roman god of flatulence according to some sources. Crepitus was typically invoked to help people move their bowels.

Many scholars believe that Crepitus was never actually worshipped in the traditional sense. They believe that Crepitus was the invention of a Christian satirist who wrote of Roman culture. However, the fact that there was a god named Crepitus hasn’t been discredited, since there is evidence of him in many works of French literature.

Home Of The Longest War In History

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The Roman Empire was home to the longest conflict in human history, the Roman-Persian Wars. These wars went on for an estimated 721 years and throughout that whole time, the Roman empire remained a solid frontier (for the most part).

The Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire began waging war as early as 66 BC. These major scuffles would continue throughout the Roman and Sasanian Persian empires. Being at war for so long exhausted valuable resources and resulted in many casualties. Ultimately, the Roman-Persian wars faded out at the onset of the Arab Muslim Conquests around 628 AD.

Reclining And Dining Was The Way

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Romans didn’t like to eat at the table. They usually enjoyed their meals lying down and eating with their hands — if they could afford to. Typically only the wealthier Romans who enjoyed their meals in such a relaxed state and even then, it was mainly men.

Women weren’t really invited to nice banquets and when they were, they still had to eat sitting upright. Eventually, customs changed to allow upper-class women to enjoy fancy lying-down meals. Enjoying a lavish meal in this manner was a way to show off your wealth in those days.

Atheists Of The Ancient World

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Inhabitants of the Roman Empire had a variety of gods and goddesses, but there were people back then who would be considered early Christians. Ironically, these people were considered atheists by the ancient Romans because they didn’t pay tribute to any of the pagan gods.

But their refusal to acknowledge traditional pagan gods wasn’t the only reason early Christians were considered atheists. These Christians didn’t really practice an organized religion, had no temples or shrines, and no priests. As a result, these people were ostracized from society as salacious rumors regarding their lives would often float around.

Soliders Had To Be Worth Their Salt

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The word “salary” is derived from the Latin word salarium, which is related to the word pertaining to salt. This is because, during the days of the Roman Empire, soldiers were paid in salt — so the story goes.

There is no concrete proof that this was actually the case, but many scholars believe this myth to be true. Salt was a huge commodity for trade in those days, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it was used as a substitute for ancient currency. It was also believed that slaves were bought with salt.

Gladiator Sweat Was The Hottest Beauty Trend

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You already learned that urine was used for laundry and gladiator blood was consumed, but apparently, no ounce of human bodily fluids went to waste. The ancient Romans even harvested the sweat of gladiators!

Outside of the arena, it was common to see people selling vials of gladiator sweat. Wealthy women would buy these vials and use it as a face cream. The sweat and dirt were scraped off the skin of famous gladiators using a tool called a strigil. But not everyone could indulge in this product. These items were only reserved for women of status.

They Wanted You To Respect Your Elders

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You should always respect your elders anyway, but if you lived during the Roman Empire, not doing so would have some seriously fatal consequences. The ultimate form of disrespect, of course, would be a patricide, killing one’s parents or relatives.

If someone committed patricide during the Roman Empire, they were subject to a punishment called Poena cullei. This particular punishment was not for the claustrophobic or those afraid of drowning. Offenders would be sewn up in the leather sack and thrown into the water. Even worse, sometimes they would sew you up with an assortment of live animals.

Ancient Romans Got High Off Fish

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There are probably plenty of ways that people partied hard in the days of the Roman Empire, but one of those ways was by consuming a lot of fish. The salema porgy fish, to be exact.

Salema porgy have hallucinogenic properties that are known to cause LSD-like trips in those who consumed it. As a result, the fish was used as a recreational drug throughout the Roman Empire. But we wouldn’t suggest trying to find this fish for yourself. In the present day, there are few cases of actual trips caused by eating this fish, probably because people have learned to prepare it safely.

Ancient Romans Were Ahead Of Their Time

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It may appear that folks of the Roman Empire hardly batted an eye towards same-sex marriage. Emperor Nero who reigned for 13 years during the Roman Empire, married two men during his reign.

During the Saturnalia, Nero married Pythagoras, a freedman under his rule. Nero acted as the wife in the ceremony during this marriage. Of course, Nero did marry some women, but after horribly murdering one of them, he took a young boy named Sporus as his new wife. He even had Sporus castrated to make him more womanlike.

It Wasn’t As Great As It Seemed

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For how much we are taught about the Roman Empire, it makes it seem like it was pretty vast. You’d be surprised to learn, however, that it really wasn’t. The Roman Empire was only the 28th largest empire in the world’s history.

Not only that, the Roman Empire only accounted for just 12% of the world’s population at its peak! So in actuality, the Roman Empire was quite small, but that certainly doesn’t take away from how much they’ve contributed to history. After all, they did last for centuries despite their small size in comparison to the rest of the world.

The Fanciest Horse In The Roman Empire

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Emperor Gaius Caligula favored his horse Incitatus so much, that he decided to make his horse a senator. At least, that’s what ancient historian Suentonius would have us believe. Incitatus was loved so much, that Caligula outfitted him with marble stalls, an ivory manger, and his own house!

Incitatus also owned a jeweled collar and was fed a lovely diet of oats mixed with gold flakes. Many scholars try to discredit this story, suggesting that Caligula joked about making his horse a consul. Still, he really did love that horse so stories about its digs are possibly true.

Ancient Romans Shared A Poop Stick

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We know by now that citizens of the Roman Empire pretty much had no clue about personal hygiene. So it might come as no surprise when you learn that these guys used a communal sponge on a stick to clean themselves up after going number two.

You read that right, communal! They shared this special sponge on a stick amongst themselves, disgustingly enough. In Ancient Rome it was called a tersorium and they had them in public latrines. Of course, they washed the stick in a bucket of salt water and vinegar, but it was pretty much useless against the spread of disease.

Wives Took A Mandatory Three-Day Vacation

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Wives in the Roman Empire had to be vigilant enough to leave their homes for three days in the year. The “usucapio” laws dictated how long you could possess something before it was legally yours. These laws also applied to humans.

If a wife stayed in her house for a whole year than she legally became her husband’s property. Luckily, women were somewhat entitled to their freedom, so many of them left their homes for three consecutive days to avoid becoming their husband’s property.

Fathers Had Too Many Rights In Ancient Rome

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In the early days of Ancient Rome, there weren’t many laws prohibiting fathers from doing whatever they felt so inclined to do. He could force marriage or divorces, sell kids into slavery, and even had a right to abuse — and sometimes kill — his family members.

Fathers could abuse their children for misbehaving and sometimes the abuse was so bad it turned into murder. In those days there were no laws against this, but eventually, after the first century BC, they decided that that was insane. After they applied some laws to the situation, fathers could only legally murder their sons for committing crimes.

The Color Purple Was Absolutely Off Limits

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In history, purple was often reserved for royalty and those in higher classes, and it was no different in Ancient Roman society. Emperors of the Roman Empire often donned purple-colored togas and such, but they wouldn’t let anyone else wear it.

It was so serious that it was made into a law and is one of the “sumptuary laws” of the time, which prevented lower-classes from making extravagant displays of wealth. These laws were in place so that Romans could know someone’s social standing just by looking at them, and they didn’t want to waste time being polite to a peasant.

Fathers Could Sell Their Kids Into Slavery

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Ancient Roman dads definitely put their kids to work and that included selling them into slavery. The arrangement, however, was kind of like a lease since the buyer had to return the kid at a certain point.

Fathers did this all the time apparently, but there were limits. You could only lease off your kid as a slave up to three times. If you tried to do it any more than that, you’d be considered an unfit father and therefore, your kid would earn emancipation from you. This is why it was helpful to have more than one kid, so you could lease off each one at least twice.

Don’t Mess With Someone Who Got Struck By Lightning

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If a citizen of the Roman Empire was struck with lightning, no one did anything about it. This sucked for people who witnessed their friends get struck then die because they didn’t even get to give them a proper burial.

This is because Romans believed that getting struck by lightning was an act of the god Jupiter. If something was struck by lightning, that simply meant that Jupiter didn’t like it. The same went for humans. If you tried to bury someone who died from a lightning strike, it was equivalent to stealing a sacrifice from Jupiter. If you did this, you’d get sacrificed to Jupiter as punishment.

Women Were Publicly Shamed For Having Affairs

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No one likes to be cheated on, but it happens, even in Ancient Rome. If a man cheated on his wife, the wife couldn’t do anything about it but cry. However, if a woman cheated on her husband, she got the ultimate punishment.

According to some sources, the husband would lock up his wife with her lover. He’d then have about a day to call up everyone he could so that they could come to check out the guy she cheated with. Then, the husband made a public declaration about the affair, providing as many details as possible before he was legally obligated to divorce her.

They Eventually Had To Ban Crying At Funerals

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A traditional funeral in Ancient Rome often started with a procession. People would walk the deceased body through the streets and wept as they did so. In those days, if you had a lot of people mourning you during the procession, it showed how popular and established you were.

Some people wanted to impress, so families would hire mourners to walk in the procession and cry. Some women got so into it that they would scratch their faces up and rip out their hair to seem believable. It got so intense, that eventually crying at funerals was outlawed to prevent people from hiring actors.

There Was Less Income Inequality Than There Is In Modern-Day America

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According to some historians, the wealth in Ancient Rome was spread out more evenly than it is in the present-day U.S. Research shows that Ancient Rome’s top one percent of earners only controlled 16% of society’s wealth. These days in the U.S., the top one percent control 40% of the country’s wealth.

While studies have shown that this inequality is what helped the expanse of the empire, it is also part of what ultimately led to the fall of the Roman Republic. As the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, eventually Julius Caesar came along and put an end to all of it.

Ancient Romans Thought Early Christians Were Cannibals

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As we’ve learned, the refusal of early Christians to acknowledge the Romans’ traditional pagan gods meant that they were considered to be atheists. It turns out that the Romans also had another negative impression of Christianity.

The ancient Romans believed that Christians were cannibals! This stems from the fact that they “drank” Christ’s blood and ate of his body during their communion services. The early Christians invited Roman authorities to come and observe their communion practices to prove that they weren’t literally eating human beings or drinking blood.

Emperor Caligula Might Have Had Incestuous Relationships With His Sisters

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Emperor Caligula ruled the Roman Empire from AD 37 to AD 41. His reign was filled with scandal and lurid tales about his luxurious lifestyle, sadism, and perversion. Caligula had a voracious appetite for pleasures of the flesh and was known to enjoy the company of other men’s wives.

It was also accused that he committed the sin of incest with his sisters, Drusilla, Livilla, and Agrippina the Younger. Caligula may have even sold their services out to other men. The sensational stories about Caligula and his reign have not been proven. As one author of a book about the Emporer said, “a lot of the evidence is pretty shaky.” But it’s still fascinating to read about.

Flamingo Tongues Were Considered A Delicacy

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In Ancient Rome, flamingo tongues were considered a great delicacy. In fact, Pliny the Elder wrote in the Encyclopedia of Natural History that one famous food-lover said that they have “a specially fine flavor.”

Whole flamingoes were also eaten. A cookbook from the time gives these instructions for turning a flamingo into a meal: “Scald the flamingo, wash and dress it, put it in a pot, add water, salt, dill, and a little vinegar to be parboiled. Finish cooking with a bunch of leeks and coriander, and add some reduced must [grape juice] to give it color.” Sounds delicious.

The Word ‘Salad’ Originated From The Roman’s Eating Habits, And More On Salt’s Importance

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As we’ve read, the word “salary” was derived from “salt” due to the seasoning’s huge value in the Roman Empire. Another common word also arose because of salt’s importance: “salad.” The Ancient Romans salted all their vegetables and leafy greens, and these foods became known as “salads.”

As Time reported, “Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia.” Salt was certainly an important commodity in Rome.

Slavery Was A Big Part Of Life In Ancient Rome

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Slavery was an unfortunate but important part of Ancient Rome’s economy. One estimate is that slaves accounted for 10–15% of the total population of the Empire. It was the most widespread between the Second Punic War to the 4th century CE.

As PBS has reported, “Most slaves during the Roman Empire were foreigners and, unlike in modern times, Roman slavery was not based on race. Slaves in Rome might include prisoners of war, sailors captured and sold by pirates, or slaves bought outside Roman territory.” It’s also worth repeating that it was not rare for people to sell their children into slavery during desperate times.

The Fabled Story Of Cincinnatus

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One famous story about Ancient Rome centers around a man named Cincinnatus. He was a simple farmer with only four acres to his name. According to Ancient History, “Cincinnatus was plowing his field (others believe he was digging a ditch) when approached by a delegation from Rome.” The delegation asked him to help them defend Rome against the Aequi, a neighboring tribe to the east.

Legend has it that Cincinnatus led the Roman Army to victory in just 15 days. But instead of becoming a ruler of the Empire after winning the war, Cincinnatus returned to his humble life as a farmer.

America’s Statue Of Liberty Might Be Based On A Pagan Goddess

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In 238 BC, the pagan Roman goddess Libertas received a temple in her honor on the Aventine Hill. Centuries later, she helped inspire the Statue of Liberty, which stands in a Roman gown on Liberty Island in the Upper New York Bay.

Libertas, the female embodiment of liberty and freedom, has also appeared on the currency of many countries including Switzerland, and North Carolina in the United States. Additionally, she is depicted on the Great Seal of France.

The Romans Used Some Gruesome Execution Methods

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The Ancient Romans weren’t messing around when it came to punishments for people who had broken the law. The Empire’s execution methods could be extremely brutal. As mentioned earlier, the punishment for killing one’s parents involved being tied up in a sack with deadly animals, such as a hungry wolf or a venomous snake. The sack might also be thrown into the water, leaving the person inside to drown.

According to historians, the punishment for infidelity was burning at the stake. Strangulation was frequently used on enemies of Rome, and Vestal Virgins who broke their vows were buried alive. Brutal!

The Romans Were Fond Of Keeping Pets

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Just like modern people, ancient Romans had a fondness of keeping animals as pets. In fact, according to The Classical Journal, “The ancient Greeks and Romans were [even] more lavish than the modern world in their expressed affection for beasts.”

Dogs and cats were favorites, and were frequently spoiled. Some Romans opted to keep apes and monkeys as pets, and others preferred birds and even snakes. In the Journal, it’s reported that after a visit to Macedonia, Alexander the false prophet said he had seen “great serpents, quite tame and gentle, so that they were kept by women, slept with children, let themselves be stepped on, were not angry when they were stroked, and took milk from the breast just like babies.”

The Roman Empire Was Very Densely Populated

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We’ve already learned that the Roman Empire was only the 28th largest empire in the world’s history. But it sure packed a lot of people into that small(ish) area. One estimate posits that at its largest, the empire covered around 4.4 million square miles.

And as it was home to about 57 million people, that means that it was super densely populated. While Ancient Rome’s population density came nowhere near modern-day New York City’s, it was certainly up there.