Let’s take a look at what the daily life was like in the ancient world: From the effects of the environment to the effects of mentalité in developing common life and civilizations.
Herodotus, the First Ethnographer
Herodotus, the Greek historian, has been called both “the father of history” and “the father of lies”, but he was also the father of anthropology and ethnography.
In other words, of the writers whose works have come down to us, he’s the first one to show an interest in what historians and anthropologists call “ the other ” . He was fascinated by how different peoples lived and how they observed different customs.
Herodotus demonstrated his deep respect for cultural differences in an anecdote involving the Persian king Darius. Darius asked some Greeks, who traditionally cremated their dead, what he would have to pay them to eat the corpses of their dead fathers. “Ye gods!” they exclaimed, utterly gobsmacked. “Don’t even mention such a thing.”
Next, he turned to some people from India who piously consumed the flesh of their deceased relatives and asked them what he would have to pay them to burn the corpses of their dead fathers. “Ye gods!” they exclaimed, equally gobsmacked. “Don’t even mention such a thing.” Which all goes to prove, as Herodotus concluded that, “Custom—or as we might call it ‘culture’—is king of all.”
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The Effect of Environment in Determining Daily Lives and Civilizations
As we look into the lives and livelihoods of men and women who never made headline news, we’ll notice several themes that recur again and again. First, we’ll discover that environment heavily influences the quality and potential of human life, and by extension, the quality and potential of human society. We will see how rivers, a mountainous landscape surrounded by the sea, a peninsula, and finally an island have given shape to the lives of those who lived in such environments. And in some cases they did more than just giving shape to life, they enabled humans to prosper and to flourish.
Egypt would not have produced the world’s first civilization were it not for the regularity and the beneficence of the annual flooding of the Nile, which, for those who settled beside its banks, gave life some predictability for the first time in human history.
Learn more about living in Mesopotamia.
Human Life in the Ancient World
It goes without saying that human life was very fragile in the ancient and medieval worlds. Famine, disease, and warfare were much more prevalent throughout the period than they are today in the West and were experienced by people at all levels of society.
Imagine having to dispose of your loved one—say, your parent, or your wife, or your child—at the time of the Black Death by dumping the body out of a second-floor window onto a cart already heaped with corpses. It wasn’t that you were disrespectful. You had no alternative. You lived at the edge. In fact, what you had to do was made so much worse by the fact that you were deeply religious. Or imagine being a child whose family has been wiped out by that terrible scourge, having to beg in the streets for scraps thrown at you from a distance to keep you at bay.
Add to this the fact that infant mortality in all of the societies we shall be talking about was perhaps as high as 25–30 percent. This means that every woman went into labor knowing that the life of the child she carried was at grave risk, and further that she herself stood a very good chance of dying in childbirth.
Correspondingly, life expectancy was much lower for the vast majority of people in every pre-industrial society. The men and women we’ll be talking about typically could expect to live to the age of 35–40. A consequence of this is that people tended to age much more quickly than we do today and also that they became afflicted by debilitating physiological conditions much earlier in life.
We will also discover that the subjugation of one group to another is a constant feature in all periods of human history. Prisoners of war, as well as debtors, were enslaved. People were born into slavery. The disenfranchised, like the medieval peasantry, were forced to serve in the army and pay crippling taxes. Entire peoples like the Jews were passed from one imperial power to another. The scale of human subjugation and degradation throughout history is barely imaginable, as is the depth of misery that it produced.
It’s estimated, for instance, that Julius Caesar in his conquest of Gaul enslaved nearly half a million people. Half a million! And each one of them was an individual. It’s probably fair to state that there were as many enslaved people living in the Roman Empire as there were free people.
And what the Romans did was no different, other than in scale, from what the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and others did.
And yet, despite all the turmoil and discontinuities at all periods of history, it has rarely been the case that one civilization has completely obliterated another or—to use a modern phrase—bombed it back into the Stone Age. Rather, there has been some degree of assimilation and acculturation on both sides—that of oppressor and oppressed. For instance, the many invasions that Britain experienced, each one of which did not obliterate but transformed, even enhanced, the one before it.
That’s an important fact. First because when we talk about the invasion of one country by a different set of people, for instance, we should bear in mind that not everyone’s life is turned upside down. But also because there is an indomitability to the routines of daily life—to the ways people prepare food, dress, entertain themselves, or think about their gods. So daily life itself tends to become richer as time passes, because ordinary people cling to and pass along their preferences and routines, as well as acquiring new ones along the way.
Learn more about being Egyptian.
The Effects of Mentalité in Daily Lives and Civilizations
It’s what French historians called mentalité, a people’s mindset and the harsh facts of their existence help shape what their daily life is like. In the modern West, our actions are guided by a mindset that includes such values as respect for individual liberty, equality between men and women, and human rights for all.
That mindset has a dramatic effect on our daily lives. It influences the way that we dress, how we speak to each other, raise our children, choose our politicians. Needless to say, our particular mindset would not have been shared even remotely by the ancient Greeks, whom we often revere as the founders of democracy, since the Greeks judged women to be politically and legally incompetent. And their democracy was made possible both by slavery and—in the case of the Athenians, generally the most admired Greeks of all—by the subjection of other Greeks, whom they forced to pay tribute.
Common Questions about Daily Life in the Ancient World
For the ancient world or historical era, 3000 B.C. is taken as the beginning, the period for which we have written evidence. The period before the historical era is called the prehistoric era.
Ancient history generally covers all continents and regions inhabited by humans from the 3000 B.C.–A.D. 500 period.
History helps us understand what really happened in the world before our birth. It also helps us explain why things are the way they are.
History offers a repository of information regarding how people and societies behave. History’s purpose is to help us analyze the present with an eye on the past to not repeat the same mistakes.