Tuesday, September 24

The Debunker: Were Gladiators Condemned With A "Thumbs Down"?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Were Gladiators Sentenced to Death with a “Thumbs Down”?

Do you like… movies about gladiators? A staple of the genre is the scene in which the crowd renders its verdict on the combat. If it’s thumbs-up, the bronzed, gleaming, sinewy muscleman lives to fight another day. Thumbs down, and he’s dog meat. In 1872, the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme immortalized the scene in his painting Pollice Verso (“The Turned Thumb”, shown below) which cemented in the public’s mind the idea that thumbs-down = doom.

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Tuesday, September 17

The Debunker: What Went On in a Roman Vomitorium?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Ancient Romans Vomit in a Vomitorium?

In the popular imagination, the Romans were so debauched and hedonistic that they set aside a special room just for tossing one’s cookies at a banquet. I guess you’d be chowing down on grapes at a banquet when you’d start to notice you were feeling a little full, so you’d head out to the vomitorium, enjoy a refreshing Technicolor yawn, and then come back to the table for a second helping. We’re supposed to believe, I guess, that this was a common upper-class architectural feature, like listings for Roman houses were all “3 bd/2 bth/1 vm.” Uh, no. Let me clarify: Romans did vomit sometimes. And they did build buildings with vomitoria. But nobody ever vomited in a vomitorium. Not on purpose, anyway.

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Tuesday, September 10

The Debunker: What Were the Christians Doing in Rome's Catacombs?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Christians Hide from Persecution in Rome’s Catacombs?

In last week’s Debunker, we learned that Emperor Nero did not, in fact, fiddle while Rome burned. He did, however, seek to deflect responsibility for the fire by blaming it on a brand-new Roman religious cult: the Christians. In the years following the fire, Nero became the first great persecutor of the new faith, ordering many of its followers crucified, fed to dogs, or even (according to Tacitus) burned at Nero’s palace "to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired." Yikes.

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Tuesday, September 03

The Debunker: What Was Nero Doing While Rome Burned?

by Ken Jennings

It's now September, which means we've entered that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is clearly the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth month), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth month) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month yada). This confusion is all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Let's stick it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by having Ken Jennings debunk four bits of persistent historical malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Nero Fiddle While Rome Burned?

The fifth emperor of Rome was, even by the low, low standards of Roman politics, a realis opus frustrum: a real piece of work. Lots of Roman emperors wallowed in luxury while neglecting their people, but Nero was also a cruel tyrant who ordered scores of executions - including those of his own mother and brother! But he was not an inventor or a time traveler, as the common myth about how he "fiddled while Rome burned" implies. The violin and its cousins, you see, weren't invented until the 11th century.

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