‘Did you know,’ says Barney, as he and I stand in the Colosseum, ‘that Domitian – he was the emperor when this place opened – liked catching flies, stabbing them with the point of a pen, then tearing their wings off?’
As it happens I didn’t. I haven’t reached that page in Horrible Histories: Rome. But I have reached page 89 in Horrible Histories: Rotten Rome. ‘Do you know how Caligula saved money on food for the wild animals they brought from Africa to fight here?’
My son shakes his head.
‘He fed them on Rome’s criminals.’
‘Wow.’ Nine year-old boys like details like this. So do 47 year-old men, come to think of it, which is why our family trip to Rome has been themed around Horrible Histories. Like me my partner is a fan of the books (and TV series, and – later this year – movie) aimed at educating kids about the past in a way they can relate to. We both had to endure school history lessons that amounted to ‘shut up and learn this list of dates’.
So here we are, walking around the Colosseum, imagining the ‘naumachiae’, or sea battles achieved by flooding the arena. They even featured horses and bulls specially trained to swim. We visualise the man sent in after gladiatorial contests to check that a defeated combatant really was dead (method: jab him with a red-hot poker). We sympathise with the Christians fed to the lions. As if things weren’t enough of a mismatch to begin with, the Romans broke the Christians’ legs to make it easier for the lions to catch them.
The next morning, Barney is delighted to discover (in Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans) that Nero kept a ‘glutton’, an enormous Egyptian slave who ate anything and everything served up to him. ‘
‘It was said,’ he reads aloud, ‘that Nero really enjoyed watching his glutton kill a human and eat him.’
‘Great stuff, Barn,’ I say, quickly taking the book from him, ‘but can we save that bit for later?’ I explain that the detail might not be appreciated by the other guests in the breakfast room of the Radisson Palazzo Montemartini. Instead I point to the ornate initials above the door: ‘SPQR’. The hotel, built in 1881 as a grand private residence, later became a bus station. (This huge room – the marble pillars are still in place – was the ticket office.) The initials stand for ‘Senatus Populus Que Romanus’, or ‘the Senate and the People of Rome’. They have adorned public buildings in this city for 2000 years: you still see them on the drain covers and lampposts today.
After breakfast, Barney, Jo and I swap more food-related details. A rich Roman called Trimalchio, for instance, once held a feast at which a wild boar was served – when its belly was sliced open, song thrushes flew out. Sausages were banned by Emperor Constantine: he saw them as peasant food. Meanwhile do you know what Romans used for toothpaste? Powdered mouse brains.
Then it’s out for another day exploring the Eternal City, swapping facts as we go. Caligula’s real name was Gaius – his more famous nickname means ‘little boot’, because as a child he liked to dress up and play at being a soldier. Romans believed it was bad luck to enter a house with your left foot, even employing servants to make sure guests used their right foot first. (The Latin for ‘left’, of course, was ‘sinister’, which is where the modern word got its meaning.) And the Roman goddess of the hearth was Vesta – hence Swan Vestas matches.
Traditionalists argue that this sort of ‘fun fact’ is all very well, but in the end you have to learn the important stuff. The very best fun facts, however – the kind you find in Horrible Histories – are all about the important stuff. It’s just that they teach you it in a memorable way. Take the AD67 Olympics, for example. Nero himself took part in the ten-horse chariot race, and they declared him the winner even though he fell off. You might dismiss this as unimportant, simply because you laughed at it. But think again and you’ll realise it tells you an awful lot about Roman emperors.
Likewise the death of Julius Caesar. His attackers inflicted 23 stab wounds. In fact they stabbed him so many times that they accidentally injured each other. A lesson for the current British Cabinet, perhaps.
Horribly historic things to see in Rome:
- Villa Borghese gardens (Piazzale Napoleone I). This is a great park that gives the younger historians in your group plenty of room to burn off their energy. It also has a zoo and a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.
- The Pantheon (Piazza della Rotonda). The legendary temple’s roof is still, after a couple of millennia, the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The hole at its centre works as a massive sundial – at midday the light hits the main doors.
- The building that makes up 88 to 104 Via Cavour (halfway between Termini train station and the Colosseum, at the corner of Via Cavour and Via di S. Maria Maggiore). The building is no more beautiful than most of the old buildings in Rome – but it is engraved with the year of its construction – MDCCCLXXXVIII. And this just happens to be the longest year in Roman numerals. We’ll let you work it out …