The Truth And History Behind April Fool’s Day

"Probus is assassinated by his soldiers". (Sirmium, September 282). Etching by G.Mochetti after a drawing by Bartolomeo Pinelli (1781-1835). From the series: Istoria Romana (1810).

April Fool’s Day is best known for the pranks and practical jokes pulled on innocent and unsuspecting people simply for entertainment and laughs.

While the day itself is supposed to be a light hearted and comedic time, the history behind it is not so humorous.

Circa AD 276, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus was proclaimed to power by Danubian legions. During his reign over the Roman Empire, Probus founded multiple cultural innovations and changes that sparked advancement for the civilization of Rome. April Fool’s Day was one of them.

[one_third]Citizens who were rounded up to become witnesses to the event were forced to chant “Aperio Foolus” (Latin for “open up the fool”) until the dismemberment is complete. [/one_third]

Probus was a harsh ruler and one of the most detestable crimes in his eyes at this time was what is commonly known today as a practical joke. Most likely in an attempt to escape the realities of Probus’ oppressive rule, some Roman citizens took to scaring and startling people as a secret form of entertainment. However, the government was strongly opposed to such activities as they challenged Probus’ control over civil society and, in his view, diminished his masculine image.

Pranksters who were caught suffered the most severe consequences. The most infamous punishment was a practice known as Horse Hanging. Horse Hanging was a death sentence that brought extreme humiliation and pain. This barbaric penalty involved a contraption that closely resembled a gallows, though much shorter in height. The victim’s neck was placed in an iron noose with spikes attached at the inner rim with the points firmly pressed into the neck. Any movement by the victim led to more pain. After being positioned in the noose, the sufferer, or foolus as he was called, was then forced to lie prostrate on the ground, though the neck was bent in an upward angle due to the obstruction by the noose. Two horses were brought in and tied to the person’s ankles. The moment of execution would take place when riders ride the horses opposite directions, ripping off the limbs of the tainted victim.

Citizens who were rounded up to become witnesses to the event were forced to chant “Aperio Foolus” (Latin for “open up the fool”) until the dismemberment is complete. “Aperio” is the root word for April.

Probus’ reign ended abruptly in AD 287 when he was assassinated by his political rivals. His terrifying treatment of practical jokers was imprinted in the minds of Roman citizens many decades thereafter.

The next time you yell “April Fools!” to an unsuspecting victim, remember the Roman citizens who failed to fool Probus and paid with their lives.

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