WTF Fun Fact 13152 – The Cadaver Synod

In 897, Pope Stephen VI held what is now known as the “Cadaver Synod.” He put Pope Formosus on trial. The catch was that Pope Formosus had been dead for about seven months. In what could (but should probably not) be described as a medieval Weekend At Bernie’s, the pope’s corpse was propped up on the papal throne throughout the interrogation.

What was the Cadaver Synod?

There’s no getting around the fact that this was a weird moment in papal history.

Pope Stephen VI even had Pope Formosus’ corpse dressed up in ecclesiastical robes for his “trial.” He hired a deacon to “speak” on the corpse’s behalf. All this is to say that Pope Stephen VI really felt like he was owning a corpse.

And if you think this all sounds crazy, consider the fact that there was an earthquake in the middle of the trial. One that the current pope was said not to notice he was so obsessed with his interrogation.

The verdict and aftermath

You’ll probably be unsurprised to know that Pope Formosus was found guilty of usurping the papcy. According to JSTOR Daily (cited below): “Stephen VI declared all his acts as pope null and void: all consecrations, all appointments, all ordinations were undone. Formosus’ body was stripped of its rich garments and dressed in rags. Three of his fingers—the fingers of the benediction, with which, in life, he had given blessings—were cut off, and his body was cast into the Tiber River.”

The living pope may have felt like a winner, but he was imprisoned and strange to death within months of the trial, having been pope only around one year.

The papacy was a particularly high-stakes position in the Middle Ages since the pope got to appoint the Holy Roman Emperor. The following pope lasted around a year and the next only roughly three weeks. But at least there were no more corpse trials.

Why did this happen?

You’re probably why Pope Stephen VI would go to so much trouble as to hold the trial of a corpse. To this we defer to JSTOR Daily:

“To understand this, you have to understand the importance of relics in the medieval era. The dead body of a holy person was more than rotting flesh; it was transformed by death into a holy relic, a source of miraculous power. These relics were the center of religious life. 

As historian Lionel Rothkrug writes:

Through their relics, saints continued to be members of the community: hearing the pleas of petitioners, responding to the needs of the people with divine intercession, and receiving their gifts of thanks. They were participants in the daily lives of the people that venerated them. In this sense, they were still alive.”

Apparently, Stephen VI wanted Pope Formosus both dead and forgotten.  WTF fun facts

Source: “The Cadaver Synod: Putting a Dead Pope on Trial” — JSTOR Daily

WTF Fun Fact 13138 – The First New Year’s Celebration

Much of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, but the main calendar alteration that paved is one made by Julius Caesar. In some sense, the first new year’s celebration can be dated back to his reign – 45 BCE, to be exact.

Altering the calendar

In the 7th century BCE, the Romans introduced a calendar that followed the lunar cycle. Of course, people didn’t have these things hanging on their walls. The calendar was mostly helpful in planning crops and collecting taxes.

While the lunar calendar eventually fell out of sync with the actual seasons and needed some tweaks, there was a bigger problem. Politicians would add days to the calendar at will, mainly to extend their reigns or mess around with political terms.

When Julius Caesar became dictator of Rome, he decided to change things. His calendar was solar-based.

According to (cited below), “In designing his new calendar, Caesar enlisted the aid of Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer, who advised him to do away with the lunar cycle entirely and follow the solar year, as did the Egyptians. The year was calculated to be 365 and 1/4 days, and Caesar added 67 days to 46 B.C., making 45 B.C. begin on January 1 rather than in March. He also decreed that every four years a day be added to February, thus theoretically keeping his calendar from falling out of step.”

January 1 was also a way to honor the Roman god Janus, the double-faced god (looking backward and forward).

What was the first New Year’s celebration?

So, the first January 1 that marked the new year wasn’t exactly a celebration so much as a bureaucratic decision. However, people would still offer sacrifices to the gods.

There were no ball drops and bubbly and no New Year’s resolutions. Still, 46 BCE is the first year New Year’s day started on January 1.

Months were renamed when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, but the calendar was still largely intact.

However, the “Celebration of New Year’s Day in January fell out of practice during the Middle Ages, and even those who strictly adhered to the Julian calendar did not observe the New Year exactly on January 1. The reason for the latter was that Caesar and Sosigenes failed to calculate the correct value for the solar year as 365.242199 days, not 365.25 days. Thus, an 11-minute-a-year error added seven days by the year 1000, and 10 days by the mid-15th century.”

Calendars are far more complicated than most of us realize!

The second New Year’s correction continues the explanation: “The Church became aware of this problem [of the calendar not lining up to the solar year], and in the 1570s Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with a new calendar. In 1582, the Gregorian calendar was implemented, omitting ten days for that year and establishing the new rule that only one of every four centennial years should be a leap year. Since then, people around the world have gathered en masse on January 1 to celebrate the precise arrival of the New Year.”

Celebrating the New Year goes back to 2000 BCE, when the Mesopotamians celebrated the vernal equinox towards the end of March. If you really want to play fast and loose with definitions of NYE celebrations, you could go back to the Babylonians in 4000 BCE and their 11-day, end-of-March festival called Akitu.

But if you’re looking to trace New Year’s Day back to January 1, you have Julius Caesar to thank for that. WTF fun facts

Source: “The Julian calendar takes effect for the first time on New Year’s Day” —

WTF Fun Fact 12900 – Goldfish Bowls Are Banned in Rome

If you want to keep a goldfish in a simple round, glass bowl, don’t move to Rome. While many people believe the myth that goldfish have no memories, that’s simply not true. Research has shown that they do, in fact, remember things. And that’s part of the reason goldfish bowls are banned in Rome.

What’s wrong with goldfish bowls?

The bowls in which many people house their goldfish are quite small compared to the distance the fish like to swim when free. That makes many people believe that it’s cruel to keep them in such a small space with so little stimulation.

According to CBC News, “Rome’s daily newspaper Il Messaggero reported that round bowls cause fish to go blind. Animal activists call the bowls cruel, while fish experts say the bowls don’t provide enough oxygen.”

In 2005, Rome’s city councilors decided that it would ban spherical goldfish bowls for the health of the fish. It also banned giving away goldfish and other animals as prizes.

“The Roman bylaw also prevents animal owners from clipping dogs’ tails or trimming cats’ claws for visual appeal or leaving animals in hot vehicles or store windows. It also offers legal protection to people who feed colonies of cats.”

The fight for (all) animal rights

Rome also made it a law that all owners need to exercise their dogs daily, and that failure to walk your dog could mean a fine of $700.

It’s all part of a trend across the world to secure the well-being of pets, remind people of their responsibilities when they adopt an animal, and try to prevent pet owners from treating animals as simply property instead of living beings entitled to a certain quality of life.

While it’s unclear exactly what effect the law has had, it’s likely made some people second guess their behavior towards animals.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Rome bans ‘cruel’ goldfish bowls” — CBC News

WTF Fun Fact 12896 – Coins in the Trevi Fountain Are Donated

Have you ever wondered what happens to coins in the Trevi Fountain – or any fountain that people toss coins into, for that matter?

They certainly can’t be left in there; otherwise, the fountain in Rome would be buried under a pile of coins by now.

Coins in the Trevi Fountain go to a good cause

Rome’s Trevi Fountain was built in the 18th century and remains a major tourist attraction. The superstition goes that if you toss a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi, you’re destined to return to Rome again someday. And for anyone who has been to the spectacular city, that’s reason enough to part with the extra change.

The tradition is so popular that around $1.7 MILLION is thrown into the fountain every year!

But where do the coins end up?

They go to help the poor by supporting soup kitchens, a homeless center, and other social assistance programs.

The Trevi’s coin controversy

The coins in the fountain have recently been the source of some controversy.

According to Smithsonian Magazine (cited below): “Visitors are so keen to engage in the tradition that around $1.7 million in change is thrown into the 18th-century fountain every year. For many years that money has gone to a Catholic charity called Caritas, which aids the poor—and it will continue to do so, Rome’s mayor assured residents after reports circulated that the city council intended to lay claim to the funds. The confusion and controversy stemmed from a leaked document suggesting that the administration of Virginia Raggi, a populist politician who became Rome’s first female mayor in 2016, planned to use the money to bolster city infrastructure, according to ABC News.”

Caritas then published an article accusing the government of taking money away from the city’s poor – and that did not go over well.

While it doesn’t sound like the worst idea to let some of the money go towards maintaining the city that tourists love (and trample), the money wasn’t guaranteed to be used that specifically if it went to the city’s populist government.

Virginia Raggi, the mayor at the time of the controversy in 2016, backtracked on her plans after she was accused of diverting money from the poor. While she asked the city council to approve her plan, she later (and inexplicably) said there were no plans to ever divert the money.

So it looks like the coins will continue to go to charity.  WTF fun facts

Source: “Rome’s Mayor Says Coins Tossed Into Trevi Fountain Will Still Go to Poor” — 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 12559 – The Roman Gladiatrix

The Romans were entertained by some pretty gruesome violence. And while gladiatorial combat didn’t originate in ancient Rome, that’s where we think of most of it taking place.

Gladiators were either born poor or were being punished for something. The most famous gladiator, Spartacus, had served as a soldier until a mistake got him imprisoned and enslaved and sent to train as a gladiator (prisoners had no choice – they could either train or be easily killed in the arena).

But if everything you know about gladiators comes from Spartacus or Russell Crowe’s turn in the arena, then you might be surprised to learn that every now and then, Romans could catch a glimpse of women in the arena fighting for their lives.

Referred to as gladiatracies (or Amazons, colloquially), they found topless, and there was an erotic element to their skillset. They weren’t pitted against men but other women or, occasionally, dwarves. It all depended on the predilections of that particular emperor at the time.

In fact, the memorably unstable emperor Nero put Ethiopian men, women, AND children in the arena together, presumably to shock and (for some) delight.

There were female gladiators in ancient Rome. They were rare, but we know gladiatrices existed partly because they were viewed as symptoms of a corrupt society and officially banned in 200 AD.

After all the scandal of seeing women this way, Septimius Severus (the emperor after the also-unstable gladiator-loving Commodus) decided that people had seen enough debauchery from women in the arena and banned female gladiators in 200 AD. –  WTF fun fact

Source: “Did female gladiators exist?” – BBC Culture

WTF Fun Fact 12552 – Mithridates’ Poison Plan

King Mithridates VI of Pontus (aka Mithridates the Great) ruled what is now eastern Turkey from 120-63 BCE. The ruled while the Roman Empire was in its prime, but was its sworn enemy. His goal was to build his own empire, which required taking parts of Rome.In fact, according to the ancient writer Plutarch, in 88 BCE, Mithridates’ armies slaughtered 150,000 Roman and Italian noncombatants in one day in his quest for land.

More recently, Mthridates VI has been referred to as The Poison King. His predecessor Mithridates V had been assassinated with poison and he became obsessed with studying toxicology. There is plenty of proof of this, but what we’re not entirely sure about is the story that he microdosed an elixer of toxins to build up an immunity to poisons in case someone tried to assassinate him.

Ancient writers attest to the story, but modern historians aren’t so sure. Still, historians admit that there are enough sources with stories of some of his public attempts to ingest poison that it’s partly true.

It’s also likely that he conducted experiments on potential poison remedies by using prisoners as his subjects.

Ancient writer Pliny the Elder wrote that Mithridites VI created his own elixer made up of toxins he thought would make him immune to poisoning. It became known mithridate (or mithridatium).

But if the legends are true, all of these plans backfired on the king. Eventually, Rome came for him and on the eve of his capture, he did try to poison himself with the lethal dose of poison he kept hidden in his sword’s hilt. But it didn’t work. Some believe that it was because he shared it with his daughters (who both died) and there wasn’t enough left for him. But this only adds to the theory that he may have, in some way, made himself immune to poison. Of course, he didn’t save the recipe.

In the end, Mithridates VI convinced a servent to slay him with a sword to avoid being captured by the Romans. And there’s really no antidote for that. –  WTF fun fact

Source: “Mithridates’ Poison Elixir: Fact or Fiction?” – World History Encyclopedia

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 12547 – Caligula’s Equine Obsession

There’s not a lot of love in the history books for the madman/Roman emperor Caligula. Much of what we know about him comes from ancient historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio, who weren’t big fans.

If you look up Caligula’s horse Incitatus (and he does have his own Wikipedia page!), you’ll see stories about how the emperor decided he had so little respect for the Roman Senate that he installed the horse as a senator and even made him consul. (A Roman consul is a senator elected to the executive office for a 1-year term.)

And while that may have been one of Caligula’s half-baked plans, he was assassinated before it became a reality.

Not everyone believes this was a real plan, however. Some historians think it was simply the result of a one-off remark the emperor made about his senators being “asses.” But one thing is likely, and that’s Caligula’s love for his horse. It’s possible that he even held parties in Incitatus’ grand stable where the horse served as “host.”

Interestingly, Caligula’s horse comes up in the “Rights of Great Britain Asserted against the Claims of America,” the British response to the American Declaration of Independence. Believing the ancient historians’ accounts that the horse did become consul, the author uses it as an example of what happens when a state goes rogue:

The extension of the right of electing Magistrates to the people at large, was the principal cause of the fall of freedom in Old Rome. The prejudices and fears of the rabble were the steps by which ambitious men ascended to a power, which they converted into tyranny over their foolish Constituents…the grandsons of voters who placed Marius, Cinna, and Caesar at the head of the State, were employed by Caligula in raising his horse to the Consulship.

True or not, the story of Caligula’s horse serves as a pretty striking talking point, especially for anyone who wants to call a politician an “ass.”

–  WTF fun fact

Source: “Mythbusting Ancient Rome – Caligula’s Horse” — The Conversation