Imagine you’re good-natured city dweller in the ancient Roman empire. You sell your goods at the market each morning, chase rats in your apartment in the afternoon, and play dice with your friends each evening.
Each day after you finish up at the market, you walk to the city center to hear the latest gossip from important citizens and to read the posted news on the Acta Diurna.
On this day, the news is bad.
A giant army of strange-looking people has been spotted at the borders of the empire, and they are headed your way. No one has ever heard of or seen them before. The men are seven-foot white-haired monsters, and they are crushing everything in their path.
Prepare, prepare! the people wail. This terrible, world-ending horde will be here in…
One to two months. Maybe three. Depends on how many villages they stop to sack along the way. Or maybe they won’t make it at all; perhaps Rome will raise an army in time to march out and stop them.
This kind of thing happened from time to time in the Roman world and Middle-Ages Europe. The “white-haired” people were blonde Germanic tribes, and they probably averaged closer to six-two in height—this was gigantic for the time.
Once again, I’ve gone down the wonderful Hardcore History rabbit hole, lost in the magnificent strangeness of the ancient world. My particular fascination right now is Dan Carlin’s description of how threats—and more specifically the news of threats—traveled in the ancient world.
In a word? Slowly.
Two things could happen in the ancient and early medieval world that largely become impossible by the 12th or 13th century:
1) A race of people no one had ever heard of might suddenly appear on the horizon, ready to destroy your entire society.
2) You might know about their impending attack months before it happened.
Those Germanic tribes (or tribes from the Central Asian steppes, like the Huns) were a tidal wave of maple syrup. Terrifying, implacable, and thoroughly alien, but slow to arrive relative to the news of them.
So what to do?
If you lived in the Roman Empire during a time that it was still relatively strong, you could hope the legions would turn back the threat. Until the latter 4th century, this was a pretty good bet, even if they weren’t always successful on the first try.
Romans lacked a standing army during these earliest Germanic invasions. They would quickly put together an army, get their butts handed to them, and figure it out on the second try. The Romans were brilliant long-term logistical planners and strategizers, and the barbarian hordes often lacked enough food and water to get them through the next day.
But what if you couldn’t count on Rome? Do you start running, trying to find a more peaceful land? Or do you stick it out and bury your gold? Maybe you try to earn even more gold to buy off the barbarians—they loved the stuff.
Or perhaps you go all out and blow your cash on the ancient world’s equivalent of a big weekend in Vegas. Live it up before white-haired aliens arrive to drink your blood…
It’s a fascinating question, and the kind of experience that’s (fortunately) impossible to imagine in our insta-news culture. Not only do we know of real threats the moment they appear, we know of imagined future threats the instant someone thinks them up. Half the internet is just shrieks and omens about horrible things that might happen.
The closest personal experience I’ve had to a slow-moving ancient invasion was the news reports from my childhood that warned of killer bees inching their way northward from Texas. They never got here (that I know of), but I can still remember worrying about the day they would arrive.
It long ago became impossible for us to discover a “new people” in this world (fingers still crossed for subterranean mole people). And killer bees aside, I can’t think of any sentient threat that might advance on us across a continent, leaving destruction in its wake.
For anything like this now or in the future, we turn to science fiction. A number of sci-fi films and books depict sudden human awareness of an approaching alien threat well before it gets to Earth. Often it comes in the form of probe or satellite that has captured images of something behind Saturn, or Jupiter, drifting its way through the solar system…
It’s moving fast, General. The ship will reach our moon in two weeks… or seven days… or 24 hours…
It’s good fun for a story, and it mimics on a global scale the kind of impending alien attack that Roman citizens experienced with a Cimbri or Teutone invasion. The government scientists and leaders try to keep it hush-hush for a bit, but the news inevitably gets out and the story gives us the obligatory riots, wailing, and societal gnashing of teeth.
This often turns out to be the best part of the story. The “waiting period” when you can see the enemy on the horizon but don’t yet know what to expect upon arrival.
The reveal is usually a letdown. Sleek shiny ships shooting laser beams or scaly green reptiles or slimy whatevers that suck your brains… they shoot, we shoot back, plot happens, humans turn on each other, humans unite, achieve resolution…
The ever-present drip drip drip of news about threats, real and imagined, is doubtless not healthy for us as a global society. I’m not even trying to preach because I read the stuff too. But I imagine that it’s probably preferable to the ancient alternative—having only the capacity to get spotty news about the world for two hundred miles in any direction.
What would you prefer (if all other quality of life measures were equal)? Learning of a big threat two months before it arrives, or getting constant real-time updates about every single threat in the entire world for your entire life? A concentrated fight-or-flight mode or a permanent one?