The Other Side of History

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

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Let’s look beyond the known, popular side of history—the great men, wars, and politics—and explore the lesser-known side, the 99 percent, the unrepresented, and the anonymous.

A view of Roman forum in the fall season.
Roman Forum is often considered as the center of Roman history, denying the 99 percent or the other side its due. (Image: Elena Nechiporenko/Shutterstock)

The Lead Players, or the Main Side

Let’s imagine ourselves in ancient Rome, March 15, 44 B.C., the infamous Ides of March, to be precise. There was a very severe thunderstorm in the night and the streets are strewn with broken branches, roof tiles, and other debris.

We’re inside a building attached to a brand new theater in the Campus Martius on the west side of the city—the first stone theater in Rome incidentally. The official senate-house burned down some years ago, so meetings take place in a variety of locations.

This one, ironically, belongs to a complex paid for by Pompey the Great, Caesar’s enemy. Caius Julius Caesar, dictator perpetuo, perpetual dictator, the greatest man of his generation, has just arrived. He’s perhaps as many as five hours late. The Senate was due to meet around dawn and it’s now close to midday. But nothing can happen in Rome without him. There’s so much tension in the air you could cut it with a knife. And talking about cutting it with a knife when he walks into the senate—But wait, we know this story, don’t we? We don’t need to continue.

Learn more about being a Greek woman.

The Ordinary People, or the Other Side

And besides, it’s not Caesar and other great men and women who concern us in this article but ordinary people. The people such as the ordinary inhabitants of Rome, the thousands, for instance, who rioted at his funeral in the Roman Forum when they heard from Mark Antony that Caesar had bequeathed them his great fortune. It was to be distributed liberally among each of them, each Roman citizen. Caesar had the common touch. He understood the other side of history himself. He understood ordinary Romans, citizens, and soldiers.

Though the people we’re going to be encountering in this article are anonymous, they nevertheless had dreams and aspirations just as we do. They had arisen that morning with work to do, just like us. Some of them had a raging toothache. Some of them had a hangover. They loved, they hated, they got by as best they could. And yet, however much they may have been like us, they also lived in a very different world. They were beset by very different challenges, and they also thought very differently from us.

All of us know the emotions of joy and anger, the feelings of hunger and anxiety. But which of us knows what it’s like to be a slave or, from the perspective of the free population, what it means to believe unhesitatingly that slavery is part of the natural order? In Caesar’s house that March morning in the Roman Forum, the center of the universe as it was then, there were men and women who had no legal or political status. They were property that could be bought or sold. They could be physically or sexually abused. They could be tossed out into the street, once they had outlived their usefulness.

A mosaic of a black knitted slave, third century B.C.
 A mosaic of a black slave from the house of Dionysus, third century B.C., providing us a glance into the other side of history. (Image: Sytilin Pavel/Shutterstock)

Although the events involving the great and the powerful continue to fascinate us, what also makes history come alive is the imagination of what daily life was like for the ordinary people.

Whenever we think about the past, we try to put ourselves in the shoes—or rather the sandals—of the people whose lives we’re investigating. The questions such as, “What would it feel like to be a Spartan hoplite, or a Roman gladiator, or a medieval nun?” enthrall us.

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.

Covering the History of the 99 Percent

The 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle wrote, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Carlyle believed it was great men and great men only who shaped history. And like all historians of his time, he thought that what really mattered about the past was politics and war. For that reason, he and his contemporaries were chiefly interested in kings, conquerors, statesmen, and tyrants.

But if we concentrate upon those who made the headlines, then we’re leaving out 99 percent of the human population who have ever lived, possibly more. That 99 percent deserves recognition. So we’re asking not what it meant to wield great power in the ancient and medieval worlds but rather what it meant to be human in those worlds—what it meant to be on the receiving end of history, so to speak.

By exploring the other side of history, we’re going to try to understand what daily life was like for people who, in addition to being neglected by most conventional history texts, also suffered neglect and disadvantage in their own lifetimes. The sick, the infirm, the enslaved, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the refugees: These are the people who truly inhabit the other side of history. And the women, too.

Let’s see this through an example. She’s Greek, but her situation was universal. Ithmonike went to the great healing sanctuary at Epidaurus in Greece, dedicated to the divine healer Asclepius, because she desperately wanted a cure for her infertility. Hers, by the way, was a very common problem in antiquity. If anything, being a married woman who couldn’t conceive back then was a harder situation than it is today because it carried a lot of social stigma.

Well, the divine healer duly obliged; Ithmonike became pregnant. Three years later, however, she was still pregnant. So she returned to Epidaurus and politely asked Asclepius what was going on. “Ah,” said the god. “You again. You said you wanted to become pregnant. So I obliged. Now you tell me you wanted to give birth. You silly woman, you should have been more specific.”

No doubt Asclepius enjoyed his little joke, after which Ithmonike did indeed give birth and recorded her strange story on one of the pillars at Epidaurus, erected by those whose prayers had been answered by the god. Whether we believe it or not, and whatever we make of it, Ithmonike’s story speaks of the fervent hopes of thousands upon thousands of childless women throughout history.

Learn more about being a Greek refugee.

Common Questions about the Other Side of History

Q: What is the use of history?

History offers a repository of information regarding how people and societies behave. The purpose of history is to help us analyze the present with an eye on the past to not repeat the same mistakes.

Q: What is meant by everyday life?

Everyday life or common life comprises the daily activities in which people generally think, act, feel, and behave on a regular basis.

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 in our past.

Q: How is history used in everyday life?

History helps us understand what really happened in the world before our birth, and it also helps us explain why things are the way they are.

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