Reconstructing the Ancient Daily Life

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The past 20 years have seen a massive increase in interest in how ordinary people led their lives in the ancient world. It has become a veritable industry, so let’s find out how historians go about reconstructing ancient daily life.

An illustration of ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptian writing.
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are one of the examples of literary sources that can be used to reconstruct ancient daily life. (Image: Artform/Shutterstock)

Role of Literary Sources to Understand the Ancient World

We face some real challenges in reconstructing the other side of history. There’s no getting away from it. First, we need to remember that, both in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, history was mainly written by upper-class males. In almost all the narratives that have come down to us, women feature only incidentally while slaves and children and many other marginalized groups such as the poor and the elderly appear only very rarely, if at all.

It’s also the case that although Greece, for instance, has left us a wealth of literature we have no private documents. We’ve no letters, no bills, no shopping lists, no accounts until the Hellenistic period, the period following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great.

Until the Middle Ages, we have no autobiographies from anyone who might remotely be described as ordinary. So to get to the other side of history we have to turn history upside down.

We are not, however, limited to literary evidence in our investigation—we also have archeology. And we must give the archeology a particular emphasis. It’s not the great works of art but humble artifacts that speak to us about mundane activities like cooking or about features of everyday existence like heating and sanitation.

There is another thing to keep in mind as we imagine our way into the past. Whether we are talking about being an Egyptian worker or being a Greek soldier or being a medieval woman, we need to bear in mind that the world, or rather worlds, of Egyptian workers were extremely heterogeneous, as were the worlds of Greek soldiers and medieval women. We should never forget that every generalized class of human beings is actually composed of specific individuals. And of course, no two individuals in any class or age are ever exactly alike.

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 Role of New Archaeological Discoveries

Let’s remember, too, that history is anything but a static discipline. Discoveries are being made all the time—sometimes momentous ones—that are radically altering our picture of the past. Let’s take three important discoveries that were made in July 2010 since I started researching on this topic.

First, a haul of 78 razor-sharp flint tools was discovered on a beach in Norfolk in the east of England, revealing that Britain was occupied by humans at least 840,000 years ago. That’s to say, a cool quarter of a million years earlier than scientists had previously believed.

A collection of ancient Roman coins.
Discovery of ancient archaeological evidence, such as a collection of ancient Roman coins, can help us reconstruct ancient daily life. (Bukhta Yurii/Shutterstock)

Second, the largest single hoard of Roman coins ever found in Britain came to light in a field in Somerset—52,500 bronze and silver coins dating to the 3rd century A.D. Fifty-two thousand five hundred, and it’s just one hoard. This then was a society almost as monetary-based as our own.

Third, a new analysis of bones found in a cave in the south of England forced us to accept the fact that our British ancestors were cannibals. Using new technologies, scientists have confirmed that the hunter-gatherers who migrated from Spain and France about 14,700 years ago and settled in England’s Cheddar Gorge practiced cannibalism as a way of obtaining food.

Learn more about being Persian.

Chris Stringer, the head of human origins at the National History Museum in London, said, “These people were processing the flesh of humans with exactly the same expertise that they used to process the flesh of animals.”

That’s three major discoveries in England alone and in the course of only one month. History is on the move all the time. And it’s not just our knowledge of what happened in the past that changes. The very discipline of history itself changes, too. New methods of analysis emerge, our paradigms shift, and historians find fresh topics.

Learn more about being a Greek slave.

New Interest in Daily Life History

The past 20 years have seen a huge increase in interest in daily life history. In fact, it has become a veritable industry. It doesn’t just mean that there’s been a lot of interest in questions like what did the Romans eat for breakfast? Fascinating though that question is, it means the interest in what it meant to be, say, a Mesopotamian slave, an Egyptian mother, an Anglo-Saxon warrior, a medieval child, and so on. But historians don’t just focus on the physical conditions of, say, slavery, they also try to delve into the worldview of slaves.

They’ve begun to ask questions such as what was the relationship between slaves and their owners? What image did slaves have of themselves? How did they interact with other slaves? And so on.

Imagine yourself as someone else, as a Roman slave or a Greek refugee or a medieval monk. It’s like looking up at the stars. It helps us to put our own lives into some sort of perspective. Trying to be another is an attempt to cross space and time. It also helps us to empathize with other human beings, even human beings with whom we might think we have nothing at all in common. It helps us to realize our human interconnectedness.

Let’s imagine this by talking about a scene in the Iliad. The Iliad is sometimes regarded as a celebration of war. It isn’t. It focuses upon the terrible, ruinous cost of war—and of anger. And, yes, it’s about the other side of history, too.

An image of Homer's Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205, edition late 5th or early 6th c. A.D.
Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205, late 5th or early 6th century A.D., an example of a literary source that could be used in reconstructing the ancient daily life of Greece. (Unknown author/Public domain)

At the end of the Iliad the Trojan king, Priam, comes to beg the corpse of his son Hector from the Greek warrior Achilles, his killer. Priam’s action, his courage, his love, and his humanity are an example to us all. Achilles has been desecrating his son’s corpse by attaching it to the wheels of his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. And yet Priam is driven by something greater than either fear or anger.

It is one of the most extraordinary passages in all literature. After Priam has managed to slip unseen into Achilles’ tent, evading all the guards, the two enemies gaze into each other’s eyes and marvel and then weep. Achilles is reminded of his father, Peleus, back in Greece. His father whom he will never see again. Priam and Achilles at this moment are no longer Trojan and Greek, they are simply human.

They are elevated to the level of their common humanity. Achilles sees Priam as a father. It shows how far he has traveled psychologically. This is the kind of journey we’re trying to seek.

The famous biologist and historian Jacob Bronowski ended his lecture on the Nazi concentration camps in his acclaimed BBC series The Ascent of Man by walking unscripted into the ankle-deep mud of Auschwitz. Kneeling down, he picked up a handful of that mud and said, “We have to touch people.” We have to touch them so that the dead in turn can speak to us all.

Common Questions about Reconstructing the Ancient Daily Life

Q: What are the sources of ancient history?

There are primarily two main sources from which history is written. These sources are literary or written sources and archaeological sources. We can use these sources in reconstructing ancient daily life and history.

Q: Who is the father of history?

Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, is known as the father of history.

Q: What are the main literary sources of ancient history?

The three main literary sources of ancient history are religious, secular, and foreign accounts. We can use these sources in reconstructing ancient daily life and history.

Q: How is history helpful in leading everyday life in a better way?

History is capable of providing us an insight into our future. History also helps us analyze our present better by providing a reference point to our past.

Keep Reading
Reconstructing Egyptian History with Archaeology Excavation Techniques
The Celtic World after Rome
The First Dynasty of Egypt