WTF Fun Fact 13305 – Caesar’s Giraffe

What do you know about Caesar’s giraffe? Well, in ancient Rome, wealthy people collected exotic animals as possessions. Of course, the Roman Emperors has the most diverse menageries since they could afford them. For example, Julius Caesar was known for his love of giraffes.

What do we know about Caesar’s giraffe?

According to historian Cassius Dio, Caesar was the first emperor to bring a giraffe to Rome. He reportedly received the animal as a gift from the king of Egypt in 46 BC. Caesar kept his giraffe in a special enclosure in his palace, where it was fed a diet of hay and acacia leaves.

Caesar was not the only Roman emperor to keep giraffes as pets. His successor, Augustus Caesar, was also known to have a menagerie of exotic animals, including several giraffes. In fact, the giraffe became a popular symbol of Roman power and wealth as a result. It was frequently depicted in art and literature of the time.

Understanding “new” animals

Despite their popularity, giraffes were not well understood by the ancient Romans. Some believed that they were a hybrid of a camel and a leopard.

The reason for this confusion was likely the animal’s unique physical appearance. Its long neck, spotted coat, and tall legs made the giraffe unlike any other animal that the Romans had seen before. In other words, they had no frame of reference to compare it to. As a result, they tried to make sense of it by likening it to animals that they were more familiar with.

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote about giraffes in his Natural History. He described them as “the tallest of all quadrupeds” and noted that they were “spotted like a leopard, with the head of a camel.”

Cassius Dio noted, “This animal is like a camel in all respects except that its legs are not all of the same length, the hind legs being the shorter. Its skin is spotted like a leopard, and for this reason, it bears the joint name of both animals.”

Yep, they basically called it a “cameleopard.”

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Source: “When Julius Caesar brought the first giraffe to Europe, the perplexed Romans called it a ‘cameleopard'” — The Vintage News

WTF Fun Fact 13282 – The Ides of March

March 15th is known as the Ides of March. It’s a day that has become synonymous with betrayal and tragedy.

What is the Ides of March, and why is it infamous?

The Ides of March is a day on the Roman calendar that corresponds to March 15th.

After changing their calendar system multiple times, the ancient Romans eventually divided into three parts:

– The Kalends (the 1st day of all months).
– The Nones (the 7th of March, May, July, and October, and the 5th of other months).
– The Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October, and the 13th day of the other months).

Today, we associate the Ides of March with Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE. Interestingly, they were also a day set aside for settling debts in ancient Rome.

On that day, a group of senators, including Brutus and Cassius, stabbed Caesar 23 times. He died on the steps of the Roman Senate.

The senators believed he had become too powerful and, as a result, posed a threat to Roman Republican rule. One of the “offenses” Casear committed was to further change the calendar. While he theoretically redesigned it to match up better with the seasons and moon cycles, it also benefitted him politically.

Why choose March 15th?

According to JSTOR Daily (cited below, and which provides more popularized accounts of academic articles):

“While it’s commonly believed that the date of Caesar’s assassination was one chosen based on expediency and proximity—he would be leaving three days later for a potentially long military campaign against Parthia, and the Senate would meet on the Ides, thus putting Caesar within reach of the conspirators—one scholar argues that the date was also one that held symbolic meaning for Brutus, Cassius and the other assassins, and that the calendar reform may have been a “last straw” for them, symbolizing the rejection of the sacred traditions of Rome, the mos maiorum, not unlike if a US president were to sit during the National Anthem.”

What is the legacy of March 15th, 44 BCE?

Julius Caesar’s assassination was certainly a turning point for Rome and changed its political future. It may remind us that even the most powerful leaders are not invincible. Or that ambition can lead to tragic outcomes. It has long served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and the consequences of betraying one’s ideals.

You likely know that William Shakespeare immortalized the Ides in his play “Julius Caesar.” It famously warns us to “beware the Ides of March” and the danger they represent.

Of course, depending on how you look at it, the Ides of March can also represent the resilience of the human spirit. After all, despite the tragedy of Caesar’s assassination, Rome continued to grow.

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Source: “Beware the Ides of March. (But Why?)” — JSTOR Daily

WTF Fun Fact 13228 – The Lupercalia

Each year the ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia on February 15th. The Romans originally called the festival Februa, and it acted as a purification ritual for the city.

Why did Romans celebrate Lupercalia?

The Romans associated Lupercalia with fertility, renewal, and revelry. But they also conducted it under the eye of a group of priests called Luperci.

The origins of the Lupercalia festival aren’t entirely clear. But they may have something to do with the myth of the she-wolf that nursed the abandoned brothers Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome). The Romans also associated the festival with the god of fertility, Faunus.

In Rome, March was the start of the New Year

According to Encyclopedia Britannica (cited below):

“Each Lupercalia began with the sacrifice by the Luperci of goats and a dog, after which two of the Luperci were led to the altar, their foreheads were touched with a bloody knife, and the blood was wiped off with wool dipped in milk; the ritual required that the two young men laugh.

The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the sacrificial animals and ran in two bands around the Palatine hill, striking with the thongs at any woman who came near them. A blow from the thong was supposed to render a woman fertile.”

The Romans performed the sacrifice at the cave where the she-wolf supposedly suckled the founders Romulus and Remus.

The end of the festival

In 494 CE, Pope Gelasius I banned the Lupercalia because it was a pagan festival.

Some believe he tried to replace it with the Church’s Feast of the Purification (Candlemas), on February 2nd. But that holiday was likely established earlier.

Many people try to make the connection between Lupercalia and St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th. And while the holiday may have picked up some minor influences from the Lupercalia, the creation of that holiday came much later.

Regardless, Romans likely celebrated the Lupercalia for close to 1200 years. (However, academic Agnes Kirsopp Michaels has made the case that the festival only goes back to the 5th century B.C.)  WTF fun facts

Source: “Lupercalia” — Encyclopedia Britannica

WTF Fun Fact 12703 – The Ancient Art of Topiary

The art of topiary has a long history and going in and out of style. And we’re not exactly sure who made the first shaped and trained tree or shrub or why.

While the word “topiary” is a 16th-century English term, it comes from the Lain topiarius, meaning ornamental gardener. You can find that word in letters from 1st/2nd century CE author Pliny the Younger’s letters. He described the Tuscan villa of Gaius Matius Calvinus as having many animals and other figures made out of cypress. He introduced the art to his friend Julius Caesar.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, no one really had time for topiary (or for ornamental gardens at all) for a couple of hundred years, although the art was largely preserved among monks who manicured their gardens. (Even a manicured hedge is technically a topiary.)

The artistic boom of the Renaissance brought topiary back into favor among those who could afford ornamental gardens and Italian villas were home to everything from topiary animals to giant bushy obelisks and pyramids.

Of course, many of us associate topiary with the French because of the gardens of Versailles, which is still a premier place to view them to this day. But each country had its own way of doing things – some favored large cones, others liked things at smaller scales.

English gardens are also famous for topiaries, but things got a bit out of hand as people became obsessed with more elaborate shapes and sizes.

By the 18th century, topiary was primed for a take-down as being both too trendy and too ridiculous in some of its forms. So when satirist Alexander Pope wrote a widely-read essay called “Verdant Sculpture” in the newspaper in September 1713, it seemed so spot-on that people were soon embarrassed by their elaborate mazes and giant tree animals. By the 1730s, many mansions had their topiaries removed as people decided they were unstylish in light of the mocking.

Of course, people who didn’t care about the trendiest way to garden still had them, but aristocrats didn’t push the art forward for another century and a half.

By the 1870s, the style became popular in England again and remains popular today.

The U.S. caught up to the gardening trend in the 1950s and 60s when Walt Disney decided to introduce topiaries to Disney World in the shape of his cartoon characters. Now topiary was portable as well and could be brought indoors, which coincided with the rise in popularity of the U.S. houseplant.

(And let’s not forget that many of us aged 40 and up remember Edward Scissorhands as the ultimate topiarist!)

Now you can find topiary around the world in all shapes and sizes, and it shows no sign of going out of style any time soon. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Topiary Tango” — Center for Architecture

WTF Fun Fact 12676 – The Ancient History of Ukraine

There’s nothing “fun” about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the fact is that war turns up some interesting things. In this case, more proof that Ukraine has its own unique history and culture.

Digging war trenches is not the same as digging for archaeological purposes. Nevertheless, that’s how some of Ukraine’s ancient artifacts are coming to light as they defend themselves from the invading Russians.

According to the Kyiv Independent, digging in the port city Odesa, located on the Black Sea has uncovered ancient amphorae. Odesa was once known as Odessus. Ancient sources say it was founded by the Milesians, who came from a city in what’s now modern-day Turkey. Ancient inscriptions show that it was likely under some form of democratic government shared by five ancient Greek states. It played an important role in ancient history because it was a port town, so it saw people and goods from all over the region. Its local money even had an image of the Egyptian god Serapis on it.

The modern soldiers of the Ukrainian 126th Territorial Defense found slightly more recent archaeological artifacts – ancient Roman amphorae, which have been dated to the 4th or 5th century CE. These are tall jars (and shards that often held wine or were used as decorative vessels). They shared the discovery on Facebook.

Russia has been targeting Odesa with missile strikes as well as a blockade of the port in order to disable the city’s vital operations in grain and wheat exports to the rest of the world.

If anything can be said to be “lucky” here, it’s that the amphorae are in excellent condition and have been turned over to the Odessa Archaeological Museum, which will hopefully be able to preserve this important part of the city’s history. –  WTF fun fact

Source: “Ukrainian Soldiers Uncover Fourth-Century Urns While Digging Defense Trenches” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 12650 – The Largest Stadium Ever Built

Today, the world’s largest stadium/arena is Narendra Modi Stadium, which holds 132,000 spectators. But that’s a far cry from the largest one ever built. For that, you have to go back to ancient Rome’s Circus Maximus.

The Circus Maximus was a chariot racing stadium and the largest stadium in the entire Roman Empire. To this day, no one has ever built a bigger enclosed stadium.

Built in the 7th or 6th century BCE, it was also used for festivals and other competitions. It was big enough to hold wild animal hunts that people could watch from their seats.

The Circus Maximus was 621 meters long and 118 meters wide. Historians estimate that it could hold an amazing 250,000 people at once (some say it may have been closer to 300,000). Even more could watch from the surrounding hillsides. There is seating for around 150,000.

While you may be more familiar with the Roman Colosseum, by comparison, that stadium only ever held 50,000 spectators.

In any case, it’s hard to imagine a city accommodating that many visitors all at once!

As Christianity took over Rome, the stadium was used less. By the 6th century AD, it was no longer in use. The space it sat on is now a public park and little of the ruins remain because of a combination of theft of the building materials and degradation from flooding and the passage of time. However, concerts have been held on the site, including shows by Genesis and The Rolling Stones. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Circus Maximus – History and facts of the largest circus in Rome” —

WTF Fun Fact 12550 – Magical Gladiator Blood

It’s not hard to find references to the drinking of gladiator blood in ancient sources. However, it was most often used to treat what ancient medical writers called “The Sacred Disease,” which we now believe is epilepsy. Some thought it was brought on by the gods, while others argued for a more natural cause.

Of course, there’s no truth to the claim, but epilepsy held an important place in ancient medicine because it stumped doctors for centuries. It could come on suddenly, making it even more mysterious.

And when diseases are misunderstood, their potential cures are likely to get pretty interesting.

In their 2003 article, “Between horror and hope: gladiator’s blood as a cure for epileptics in ancient medicine,” scholars Ferdinand Peter Moog and Axel Karenberg state that not only was gladiator blood a potential cure for this disease but a gladiator’s liver would be consumed as well. AND that the tradition may have continued in some places up into recent times!

“Between the first and the sixth century a single theological and several medical authors reported on the consumption of gladiator’s blood or liver to cure epileptics…
…the magical use of gladiators’ blood continued for centuries. After the prohibition of gladiatorial combat in about 400 AD, an executed individual (particularly had he been beheaded) became the “legitimate” successor to the gladiator.
Occasional indications in early modern textbooks on medicine as well as reports in the popular literature of the 19th and early 20th century document the existence of this ancient magical practice until modern times. Spontaneous recovery of some forms of epilepsy may be responsible for the illusion of therapeutic effectiveness and for the confirming statements by physicians who have commented on this cure.”

As the authors state, the condition we now know as epilepsy got better on its own in some people. But if they had the “gladiator treatment” and did get better, it simply strengthened doctors’ resolve to keep using it.

But why gladiator blood? According to Dr. Lydia Kang, MD, author of the book, Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything:

“They stemmed from this magical idea that young, healthy males had energy. If you could harness that energy right at the point of death, you could ingest some of this healthfulness. In other words: you are what you eat.” –  WTF fun fact

Source: “Gladiator Blood and Liquid Gold: Good for What Ails You?” — MedPage Today

WTF Fun Fact 12433 – Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus

The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, is named after the Roman statesman and general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.

After serving as Roman consul (the highest elected position) in the 5th century BCE, he retired to his farm.

In 458 BCE, the Aequi people broke a treaty with Rome and launched an invasion in the city of Tusculum. Rome raised two armies to fight them off, but the consuls at the time were unable to get an advantage over the invaders. The Roman army was surrounded.

In times like this, the Roman Senate was entitled to appoint a “dictator” for a 6-month term. This man would have ultimate power over political affairs and the armies. Remembering that Cincinnatus was a great general and consul, a group of senators traveled to his farm and asked him to become dictator until the crisis was over.

As the historian Livy describes it, Cincinnatus called for his toga (the proper attire to meet with Roman leadership), wiped off the sweat and dirt, put down his plow, and finally agreed to the request – but it took some convincing. He eventually agreed for the good of Rome.

Cincinnatus took over the army and led to Romans to a swift victory. He returned to the city as a hero and could have lived a life of luxury and power. However, immediately afterward, he relinquished the title of dictator, returned to his farm, and picked up his plow in the very same place he left it.

He was in power for 15 full days, retiring on the 16th day.

Cincinnatus is held up as a paragon of civic virtue. US President George Washington, who also could have maintained absolute power but put it aside in favor of the new Constitution, is referred to as The American Cincinnatus. – WTF fun facts 

Source: “Our history: Who was Cincinnatus, inspiration for city’s name?” —