Not long after the birth of Christ, when the most debauched phase of Roman history began, the wife of Emperor Claudius -- Messalina, 34 years his junior -- made a name for herself by challenging the city's best known whore to a sex marathon. Who can keep going for longer, the licentious wife wanted to know. She won by holding out for "25 rounds."
Details on the wanton competition can be found in the "Book of Ancient Records," compiled by Allan and Cecilia Klynne and published in Germany by the C.H. Beck publishing house. How fat was the fattest snail? What was the price of the most expensive slave? Swedish archaeologists Cecilia and Allan Klynne provide the answers, free of "academic commentary and lengthy footnotes."
The scientists combed through hundreds of old texts in their search for superlatives. Here are some of the results: The tallest man in the ancient world measured 288 centimeters (9 foot 5 inches), while the shortest (60 centimeters -- 2 feet) was barely as tall as a bedside table. Another treat from the book: The naturalist Pliny reports the case of some conserved beans that were forgotten in the cellar and retained their taste for 220 years.
"Extreme accomplishments and bizarre phenomena have always fascinated mankind," the "Book of Ancient Records" states.
Even the Ancient Greeks kept records of top achievements in the areas of sports, nature and anatomy, according to the book. The most resilient runner covered 238 kilometers (176 miles) in a day. A soldier from Alexander's army drank 13.5 liters (3.6 gallons) of wine during a drinking competition -- and then fell over dead.
Ancient Greece may also have ranked virtues and vices. The greatest sycophants are said to have sat at the table of Dionysius I of Syracuse. To make the half-blind tyrant look good, they constantly reached clumsily across the table. When he drooled, they licked the saliva from his clothes.
During the early days of the Roman empire, the appetite for whatever was "faster, bigger, further" became the general attitude towards life. The empire went in for full-scale one-upmanship. So it purchased the heaviest amber stone (four kilograms, 8.8 lbs.) and allowed per capita water consumption in the city to climb as high as 1,100 liters (291 gallons). Actress Galeria Copiola still appeared on stage at age 104. But she had an unfair advantage over other aged thespians: She specialized in mime.
Since the senatorial nobility that roamed from one party to the next in those days constantly required new subject matter for small talk, scholars sat down and compiled lists of astonishing facts. The resulting literary rubric was known as "mirabilia" ("wondrous things").
The anthologies were a source of helpful tips to toga-wearing braggarts out to woo women at the buffet. They contained information on the "most beautiful bosom" and on the catapult whose reach was 720 meters (2,362 feet). Emperor Augustus purchased a bird that crowed "Ave Caesar!" ("Hail Caesar!") for the record sum of 20,000 sestertia (some €120,000).
When woven elegantly into conversation, such factoids always worked. So the mirabilia authors provided ever new catalogs of eccentric records. Pliny put together a list of the most painful diseases. Kidney stones are given first place by him, followed by stomach ulcers and migraines.
The Romans didn't even stop short of the obscene. The cleanest sodomist was a shepherd from southern Italy said to have made his favorite goat gargle rose water because of its halitosis. Architects also inclined towards excess in those days. They built an aqueduct 48 meters (158 feet) tall near Nimes in what is today southern France. The largest race track for horses had room for an audience of 250,000.
Nero's gold-plated villa on the Palatine Hill was considered the most expensive palace of all times. A hall of pillars 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) wide stretched in front of the main building. Pipes running across the ceilings of the dining rooms sprayed flower blossoms or perfume down onto the guests.
But Rome's gossip-hungry nobility had nothing but derision for the inhabitants of the empire's fringe regions. The Germans were considered the most primitive people in the world, while geographer Strabon (63 BC-23 AD) attributed the most eccentric personal hygiene habit -- storing urine in cisterns and bathing in it -- to the natives of Spain.
But its doubtful if these kinds of negative records always corresponded to reality. Stopwatches and official inspectors were unheard of at the time. The editors of the "Book of Ancient Records," Allan and Cecilia Klynne, have their doubts as to whether a certain Marcus Aponius really lived to be 140, just as they're skeptical about extremely handicapped people who were unable to walk despite having legs.
The reason they couldn't walk? Their feet pointed backward.