I love imagining the brutality of life in the Middle Ages. Not in a vicarious enjoyment way (I’d never survive), but in a “how did civilization even exist?” way.
Disease, malnourishment, tainted food, dysentery, lack of cohesive government, frequent invasions, lawlessness, and the general stabbiness of the population all added up to one rough ride. And yet people lived, pushed forward, and advanced society. Some were even happy (I’m guessing).
Last year, a storm pushed over a big tree in Collooney, Ireland (has there ever been a more Irish name than Collooney?). Attached to the roots was a 1,000-year-old skeleton of a young man who died a violent death. His bones showed numerous wounds made with a sharp blade.
It was a fairly gruesome sight for the people of COLLOONY (you can’t say it without an Irish accent). For me, it inspires thoughts of many hypothetical scenarios. Was there a battle at the site, and he is part of the remainder? Or was he stabbed on the road, a simple robbery?
The body was buried in a shallow grave, so we know that someone either liked him or just wanted him to stop rotting in public. The trees enjoyed the rest.
I promise I’m not always so morbid. Just almost always.
If there’s anything I like more than considering the brutality of life in the Middle Ages, it’s considering the brutality of life in the ancient world. Ah, to be on a merchant ship in 200 B.C.E., sailing from port to port around the Mediterranean, taking in the sites…
Or 90 B.C.E.
Or 50 C.E.
Or 180 C.E. So many choices.
I’m currently listening to Dan Carlin’s series on the Punic Wars right now. It’s wonderful. The Second Punic War is bar none my favorite bit of ancient history. Hannibal crossed the Alps, raging around Italy for years stomping Roman butt, and the Romans finally scraping themselves off the floor and rising to eventual victory… magic.
I think Carlin is a great historian, but he would reject the title. He “takes sides” as he describes it, relishing the thrills and personalities instead of dispassionate analysis.
He also loves to imagine the lived experience of the people on the ground, so you get visceral descriptions of what it might have been like to campaign with a Carthaginian or Roman army.
In the battle of Cannae—one of the most famous of the ancient world—Hannibal managed to surround a 70,000 man Roman army (with a force half the size) and slaughter almost all of them. Did you see that Game of Throne “Battle of the Bastards” episode? Remember when Ramsey’s forces had John Snow’s troops completely encircled, closing in, suffocating and tearing them apart bit by bit? The ones in the middle could barely move, shoulder to shoulder, unable to even raise their swords for a strike.
Imagine that—but ten times larger. It took hours for the Carthaginian victors to reach the Romans in the middle of the encircled army. The final victims had to wait all that time, watching as the circle got tighter and tighter. After the battle was done, the victors found that people in the center of the mass had dug holes with which to suffocate themselves rather than wait patiently for slaughter.
It was around this time that Stoic philosophy came into being. It took another two hundred years for it to reach its finest form in the minds of Roman philosophers Epictetus and Seneca, and it was worth the wait.
I’m a huge lover of Stoic philosophy. I won’t give the full pitch here, but if you can boil it down to one sentence, it would be something like “worry about what you can control, let go of what you can’t control.”
I’ll probably do a full post on Stoicism at some point. But being so deep in the ancient world right now, I had to mention it.
It makes sense that Stoicism developed during this period. At any moment you could get stabbed, be struck with disease, see your family slaughtered by a barbarian invasion, or be executed for accidentally bumping a noble. A wolf could eat your baby. It happened, and you had to pick yourself up and keep going. If you couldn’t separate the parts of life you could control and from the horrors you couldn’t, your mind would fracture.
Terrible things can happen in the current era, of course, just less frequently and with much better dental care. Stoicism is still wildly important, but perhaps for different reasons. It’s unlikely you’ll find yourself at the center of a Carthaginian encirclement, but we are bombarded by a steady deluge of information (and resulting worries) that never ceases. Stoicism slices away the immutable (99% of it) and leaves the relevant.
I didn’t start this post as a pitch for stoicism. I mostly wanted to geek out on ancient history; it just slipped in there. but if you want a primer, I like Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic, but also the Gregory Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
But before we end this, let’s geek out again. Imagine you’re a twenty-year-old farmer in the Roman empire. A commander arrives on your doorstep, calling you to fulfill your obligations to the legions. You take your gear and follow him to the army. Just that morning you were planting potatoes; now you are in the front ranks, facing down an invading Carthaginian force.
The enemy has African elephants. Ten of them in a big line, ready to charge. You have never seen an elephant before. You didn’t even know they existed.
Your commander gives the call to attack…