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Interview - Historian Garrett Ryan chats with us about Fat Gladiators, Awesome Emperors, and Perilous Piles of Pottery

Updated: Jul 9

At Imagining History we read a lot of history books - and I do mean a loooooooooot of history books. Yet, despite how much we read, our 'to-read pile' never seems to diminish. Which is odd. I'm pretty sure that some history-loving house-elf is just enjoying messing with our heads by sneaking new books into the stack. Anyway, of all those we've read, our absolute favourites are the two Roman history books written by the Historian Garrett Ryan, 'Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants' and 'Insane Emperors, Sunken Cities, and Earthquake Machines'.

Both books are filled with fascinating articles, exploding with arresting anecdotes, and topped up with terrific trivia! We simply had to get Garrett on the Imagining History blog to share some of his Roman knowledge and know-how with you, dear reader. And so... we did! Enjoy the interview!

Historian Garrett Ryan
Garrett hiking in Alaska!

What is it about Ancient Rome that still fascinates people today?

Garrett Ryan - I think in general for people, across all walks of life, that Rome was the most familiar Ancient Empire, which is both good and bad. We think we know a lot about the Romans, even if we actually don't. People know them through mass media; Hollywood movies, video games, through all kinds of popular channels that tend to focus, I think, above all on the violence - So, war, the gladiators, all that spectacle - and on the sheer scale of the empire, both its geographic extent, going from Britain to Syria, and on its enduring monuments, the Colosseum, the Aqueducts, etc.

And I think on my YouTube channel ToldinStone, that what people find most interesting reflects what they're most familiar with. And so it is things like the wars, above all engineering feats, that people seem to love. People are aware, even if only vaguely, that our society has borrowed so much from the Romans, whether it's in terms of language, in terms of customs, of law, and that anywhere you care to look, the Romans are there behind various cultural screens. And that combination of the Romans being so ubiquitous, and telegenic, there's so much fun stuff to learn. All these things have created a visibility for Rome that most ancient empires lack in Western culture.

Who was a good Emperor of ancient Rome? A person that the Romans found particularly awesome?

Well, the Romans tended to have rather narrow criteria of what made a good emperor. And that's because the guys writing history, of course, are senators, for the most part. And if the emperor treats you and your class well, then he's a great emperor.

The book cover of Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants
The book cover of Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants

And so for these guys, Augustus and Trajan are the two touchstones of what makes a good emperor. Above all, Augustus himself, who established the system that survives with various changes for a millennium and a half, incredibly. And Trajan, of course, because he does everything well; He's a good guy. He's a conqueror of various distant provinces. He treats senators well. He's all things to all men.

I think for many people today, the emperor who appeals the most is Marcus Aurelius, because we have his meditations. And we see how this man with so much power is thinking hard and deeply about what it means to have that much power and how to be a virtuous person despite having the power to do whatever you want.

I think Marcus is the emperor who's most admirable, even if he wouldn’t be that fun to hang out with. He'd probably, I think, be kind of a stick in the mud.

But he's certainly someone who's given thought to what it means to be both a human being and a human being with the potential to change the lives of millions of people. There are many Romans who are more interesting than Marcus, I think. I mean, not admirable, but interesting.

Even Nero, who is everyone's favourite monster and is a tyrant in all kinds of ways, seeing how he uses being emperor, how he treats it like being an actor on the stage, as a theatre on a grand scale, is fascinating. Again, not someone you want to hang out with or spend too much time with, but interesting in a way that stodgy Marcus might not be.

It's interesting you bring Nero up because he's one of the big villains of Roman history. But is there someone who did worse things?

Bust of Emperor Nero's Head
Emperor Nero - was he really such a bad egg?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think Caligula is more unhinged or at least is less inhibited in how he rules. Nero does certainly kill people, but most of them are members of the high aristocracy, senators, who either have, or he believes have, conspired against him.

The damage he does to the average Roman is financial because he's such a spendthrift that he goes through hundreds of millions of sestertii, putting on shows and entertaining kings and whatnot. In terms of sheer bloodthirstiness, though, no, he's not taking the cake by any means. That might be someone like Commodus, who is much more bloodthirsty, or the great persecutors in the third century, people like Odysseus or Diocletian, who are good rulers in the sense that they administer the empire well, but preside over the deaths of hundreds or even thousands in some cases.

Perspective is everything when it comes to what makes a good or bad emperor. If you're a senator in Rome, Nero's pretty terrifying, because he might kill you. He’s paranoid, he thinks you might conspire against him.

If you're in the provinces, though, he's probably just another emperor. And maybe, if you're a pleb in Rome, he's a lot of fun. He’s putting on the best shows in town. He's giving out lots of grain. He's making your life, which is usually pretty miserable, a little less miserable. And so it depends who you are, of course, on what makes a good or bad emperor.

The book cover of Insane Emperors, Sunken Cities, and Earthquake Machines
The book cover of Insane Emperors, Sunken Cities, and Earthquake Machines

Are there any villainous emperors, that were unfairly judged by history, that actually were not that bad?

Oh, yeah, there are several, even Tiberius. We read Sertonius's life of this emperor, and Tiberius comes off as the worst dude ever. All this terrible stuff, all this depravity. In fact, he seems to have been a fairly dutiful manager of the empire, who just really had very bad PR skills. He wasn't a good people person.

And so he's unfairly compared to Augustus, his glad-handing predecessor, in all kinds of ways. I think also Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, is unfairly maligned by emperors running under his successors, Nerva and Trajan, who, of course, have every good reason to cast Domitian in the worst possible light. Domitian was, after Augustus, the greatest builder in Roman history.

Much of Rome, as we see it, is shaped by him. Again, a prudent administrator, someone who, if you're a provincial, seems like a very good emperor. But if you're in Rome itself, and you're a senator, Domitian is a little too paranoid for you to be comfortable with and therefore gets the sharp end of the dagger.

You’ve answered loads of questions on your YouTube channel, Told In Stone, but what is your favourite question that you've ever been asked?

It's a good question in itself. I would say, of all my video topics, the one that was the most fun was when someone asked me about how much of the gold now in circulation in the world was mined by the Romans.

And it's a totally unanswerable question. But it got me into so many interesting nooks and crannies of Roman history that it was my favourite to research and write about. You know, everything from Roman gold mines in Spain, to the loot they're finding all over the empire, to the extravagant gilded things the emperors commissioned.

I ended up deciding, more or less arbitrarily, that about one-half of 1% of all gold now in existence was mined by the Romans. I wouldn't stick my life on that or anything, but that was a rough guesstimate. But along the way, I talked to a guy from Oxford, who researched chemical signatures in gold.

We'd see where it's mined, for example. The fun part of what I do, writing these books or on YouTube, is having excuses to go explore these weird parts of Roman history. And that topic allowed me to get weirder than I usually can.

Reading your book, I was fascinated to learn that carts in Roman Britain drove on the left side of the road - unlike in the rest of the Empire, who drove on the right side - just like we do in Britain today. Could you tell our readers more about it?

Yeah, it is fascinating. And, of course, we aren't totally sure about the accuracy because the evidence is so scattered. But there's a quarry somewhere in the southern south of the UK, I think it's Swindon, somewhere over that way. Archaeologists could see there were two sets of ruts, one leading out of the quarry and one leading back in. They can see that on the left side of the road, the ruts were much deeper meaning that the loaded carts drove away from the quarry on the left side.

We can't really be sure how systematic this was. It may have been a city-by-city thing, honestly, the left-right divide.

But it does seem that the UK or the Britannia was on the track, so to speak, to driving on the left already in the first century AD, which is pretty wild. I know, of course, that the custom evolved later, but it’s a fun parallel history.

Your books are filled with lots of brilliant trivia facts. Are there any other sort of weird or interesting facts about Romans that you would recommend our readers to share with their family and friends?

Actually, right before I started this call, I was working on a video for a few weeks from now, about Monte Testaccio in Rome, which is the ancient world's largest garbage dump. This hill is composed entirely of pottery. About 53 million amphorae are taken to one spot in Rome and smashed, keeping them out of the way because the oil smells too bad, making the pots unusable.

Monte Testaccio - and epic pile of pottery! Image courtesy Tales of Times Forgotten
Monte Testaccio - and epic pile of pottery! Image courtesy Tales of Times Forgotten

So there’s a single pile of 53 million amphorae on the edge of Rome, that's still there, because pottery doesn't decay. And because the pottery conserves heat quite well, the later Romans dug wine cellars into this stuff. And so you can still see these wine cellars that pock the sides in this mountain of ancient pottery.

And Gladiators, there’s some great information about these fearsome fighters in your book. Like when you investigate whether Gladiators were fat or not…

As I mentioned in the book, there was an excavation done in Ephesus on this gladiator cemetery. And it confirmed, among other things, that gladiators had eaten a very, very heavy carb-centered diet. They had this paste, almost a gruel, that was most of their calories, made of oats and beans.

It probably didn't taste great, but it was nutritious, filling, and quite cheap. And they ate this in massive quantities. And so the scientists working on this project speculated that this kind of diet is not what you eat if you're trying to be cut. This is something you eat if you're just trying to pack on pounds. And so they thought maybe these gladiators were doing this intentionally, that they'd have a layer of fat that would protect their vital organs from a probing sword. I think this is probably overdone because they were eating a fatty diet, but they're also exercising constantly.

A group image of the Gladiators from the 2024 TV show
Roman Gladiators probably weren't as ripped as this lot!

And no one running a gladiatorial school wants to show a bunch of guys with massive paunches popping out, who are winded within five minutes. You want to have people who can go the distance, can go through a whole fight. They would be very powerfully muscled. We see them on mosaics and they have these huge torsos and very heavily muscled arms and shoulders.

And yeah, maybe there's a little bit of flab at the midsection, but beneath that, there's quite a bit of muscle. These guys, especially the light fighters, are on their feet, hopping around, running around, jabbing, thrusting, parrying, as long as the match lasts, which might be a half hour or more. And you better be in good aerobic condition to do that.

And there are so many gladiatorial facts!

Give us one more!

Bust of the Roman Emperor Commodus
Emperor Commodus, a big fan of blunt swords.

Commodus, the emperor who thought he was a gladiator. To be an emperor you were expected to show gladiatorial games, and to show yourself at those games, to attend to be there in the seat of honour, because that was a way of showcasing your generosity to the people. But to appear in the arena itself to show yourself as a gladiator, was to breach the great social barrier between emperor and gladiator. You couldn't do that.

Gladiators were slaves, they were the lowest of the low, whereas Emperor, you were at the apex of the social pyramid. But Commodus, whether because he's deranged, which is part of the answer, or because he thinks it’s good PR, which is probably a bigger part of the answer, goes into the arena himself. But he never kills anybody. He always fights with blunted weapons, to show that the Emperor is always merciful. Even though he’s a bit crazy he doesn’t forget that as Emperor it is not his job to kill people, it is to spare people. To show the people in the audience that he is thinking of them, the common man.

Brilliant and fascinating! Thank you so much for talking to us today!

Garrett's books and YouTube channel are all essential reading and viewing for history lovers everywhere, be sure to follow the links and check them out!


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