Life in the 21st century is so full of technology that it can be hard to relate to the people who came before us. Mobile phones, the internet, and cars are just three of countless inventions which have ostensibly changed the world.
However, a cursory look at history shows that despite new technology, people have not changed all that much. Long before the invention of the flushing toilet, even long before the idea of a nation-state, people were behaving exactly the same way as they do now. You could see this either as reassuring or worrying. Either way, here are ten anecdotes from history which prove that people never change, for good or for bad.
10 The World’s Oldest Joke
Let’s begin with a joke. Humanity’s oldest civilization was that of the Sumerians. This ancient society, which built the first cities and invented writing, among many other achievements, flourished between the 5th and 3rd millennia BC. So, do we have anything in common with people who lived over five thousand years ago?
While it is tempting to imagine our ancient ancestors as far wiser than ourselves, the truth is quite surprising. One of the most sociologically fascinating artifacts uncovered by archaeologists working in modern-day Iraq is a tablet inscribed with the world’s oldest joke. Dated to between 2,300 and 1,900 BC, the joke runs thus: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
It is somehow reassuring to know that humanity’s first civilization was comfortable with toilet humor. Furthermore, to see them using a recognizable joke structure with a set-up and punchline brings ancient Mesopotamia to life in a way that statues and ruined remains never can.
9 Lovesick Teenagers
The idea of lovesick teenage boys who are left speechless when confronted with their crush is deeply ingrained in popular culture. But teenage boys have been struggling to express themselves long before Superbad (2007) hit cinemas.
Dante Alighieri, the revered Italian most famous for his religious epic The Divine Comedy, is a prime example. While a young man in 13th-century Florence, he produced a treatise on love called La Vita Nuova or The New Life. In one part, Dante writes about his reaction to seeing his crush, Beatrice, at a party. He feels a “trembling on the left side of [his] chest,” starts shaking uncontrollably, and nearly faints.
The other “gracious ladies” at the party make fun of him for behaving so strangely, after which Dante leaves to go home, cry, and write love poetry. All this gossip leads Beatrice to refuse to greet Dante when they run into each other in Florence, which apparently takes away “the source of all [his] bliss.” It should be reassuring for lovesick teenagers to know that the greatest Medieval poet was just as hopeless as they are.
8 Scipio’s Hair
Inter-generational clashes are nothing new. In the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll was berated as immoral, and fifty years later, hip-hop has had much the same treatment. In the intervening half-century, numerous cultural trends have been slammed by parents and grandparents alike, from the punks to the goths and everything in between.
The exact same thing happened in ancient Rome over two thousand years ago. During the Second Punic War, when Hannibal had nearly led the Carthaginians to victory over the Roman Republic, a young man stepped in to save the day—Scipio Africanus. He was, without doubt, a military genius, but his personal habits earned him the disrespect of the Roman Senate’s venerable older members.
The Roman historian Livy records that young Scipio had long, “flowing” hair, quite different from the usual Roman fashion of shaved scalps. This was semi-scandalous in Rome. Later, when Scipio proposed to invade Carthage, his hairstyle and dress sense were held against him by an elder statesman and general, Fabius Maximus. However much we idolize ancient Rome, it is worth remembering that they too had serious inter-generational clashes over things as minor as fashion.
7 Ancient Drunkards
Returning to Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilization, a number of rediscovered texts have proven just how relatable the Sumerians were. Not only did they drink beer, but they also absolutely loved it., the oldest written story in history, contains more than a few references to “fine” and “sweet” beer. Indeed, one Sumerian proverb says that “he who does not know beer, does not know what is good.”
The world’s oldest recipe foris recorded in the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” written in about 1800 BC, and there have been several recent attempts to follow it. It has even been speculated that civilization owes its very existence to beer. Those ancient people who discovered fermentation realized that to brew beer on a large scale, they would have to change from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural lifestyle.
So while drunkenness may seem like a modern problem, it is, in fact, an ancient one. To quote an insult from The Epic of Gilgamesh: “May a drunk soil your festal robe with vomit.” Cheers!
6 Poetic Diss Tracks
The idea of a “diss track” seems very 21st century, and it has become a staple of pop culture for rival rappers or musicians to deride one another. But long before Eminem and Machine Gun Kelly released their respective diss tracks, another disgruntled artist was hard at work taking down his enemies.
Lord Byron, the most famous and influential poet of the Romantic Age, was a specialist in diss tracks. His first collection of poetry, published in 1807, had been poorly received. In response, the troublesome Lord Byron wrote “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” a satirical poem that tore viciously into the critics and poets who had mocked his first collection.
Byron refers to his rivals’ fans as a “tabernacle of proselytes by whom [their] abilities are over-rated,” and repeatedly heaps biting insults on the other, more famous poets of the day. Literary critics now believe that the humiliating reception to Byron’s first poetry collection, and his response, probably launched his career. Either way, “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” is a hilarious read, and it takes the allegedly modern concept of the diss track to a whole new level.
5 The Roman Big Brother
George Orwell’s vision of an all-powerful police state is now more conceivable than ever before. With the advent of modern technology, the idea of “Big Brother” listening to us in our homes does not seem far-fetched. What may surprise you—and disappoint you—is that state-mandated eavesdropping predates 1984 by more than two thousand years.
The great Roman historian Tacitus wrote about the case of Titius Sabinus, a Roman knight who regularly complained about the emperor Tiberius. One of Sabinus’s friends betrayed him by building a secret room in his house and inviting Sabinus around one evening. Several witnesses hid in the secret room and overheard Sabinus’s opinions about Tiberius.
This confession was made public, and Sabinus was executed. Informing the emperor of treasonous individuals became a prosperous business in Imperial Rome. It was so well-rewarded that a whole class of professional informers—known as delatores—appeared. This is a somber reminder that history is full of lessons that we should be careful not to forget.
4 Espionage in Ancient Greece
The very idea of the spy is deeply intertwined with the 20th century. It brings to mind James Bond, the Cold War, the German Enigma machine, and recent films like the Jason Bourne and Kingsman franchises.
But the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, often referred to as the “Father of History,” wrote about an incredible bit of espionage that would have baffled even Mr. Bond.
During the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC, Histiaeus—the king of the Greek province of Miletus—was taken to the Persian capital after its defeat to Persia’s Darius I. Histiaeus knew he needed to get a message to his nephew Aristagoras, who remained in the conquered Miletus. To achieve this without raising suspicions, he chose his most trusted servant, shaved his head, and tattooed the message onto his scalp. When the servant’s hair had regrown, the king sent him to Greece on an innocuous errand, where the servant presented himself before Aristagoras and shaved his head to reveal the message.
This is the first recorded example of steganography, which is the practice of concealing a message within another object, and it was recently imitated in the buddy cop action film, starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
9 Boccaccio’s Decameron
Born not long after Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio was an Italian writer whose magnum opus, The Decameron, is a testament to the vibrancy of the Middle Ages. While we tend to think of Medieval people as having lived in miserable conditions, Boccaccio’s collection of stories presents an alternative, contemporary perspective.
The Decameron is full of wit, tragedy, and romance. We read about a sly man who pretends to be blind and finds employment as the gardener of a nunnery, where he seduces one of the sisters. There is the tale of a knight who offers to carry a lost maiden by horseback to the nearest city, but his subsequent chattering is so boring that the maiden dismounts and walks there herself. And, not exactly in keeping with the notion of religiously restrained Medieval people, there is a story about three boys who pull down a judge’s pants while he is presiding over a case.
So, rather than looking back and pitying those poor peasants who didn’t have flushing toilets or modern medicine, we should instead realize that they had just as much fun as—if not more than—modern people.
2 Children Behaving Badly
Livy, who was active toward the end of the 1st century BC, is regarded as Ancient Rome’s greatest epic historian. His account of the war with Hannibal is legendary, along with his retelling of the myth of Romulus and Remus. But beyond his grand narratives, Livy does make some amazingly modern comments.
While praising the behavior and integrity of previous generations of Romans, Livy complains about “the contempt and levity with which the parental authority is treated by children in the present age.” The news today is filled with people complaining about the behavior of children, whether because they play too many video games or no longer face any discipline in school. It is somewhat amusing then to read a Roman moaning about the same problem over two thousand years ago. If anything, it suggests that the idea of “falling standards” may be a result of nostalgia rather than any actual decline in the behavior of young people.
1 Death and Taxes
They say that only two things are certain in life:. This aphorism may sound highly modern, but it was actually made famous by Benjamin Franklin in the late 18th century. What is even more fascinating is that people have been complaining about taxes for as long as human civilization has existed.
When ancient Rome introduced a 5% inheritance tax it caused an uproar, much like Julius Caesar’s 1% sales tax. Indeed, the Roman Senate handed out contracts for tax collection to private companies, called publicans. There are countless stories of disgruntled citizens raising grievances with the Senate because the publicans were taxing them too heavily.
Perhaps the most important archaeological discovery of all time, the, is actually a tax concession written in three different languages! Not only have taxes been ubiquitous throughout history, but so too has tax evasion. Even Jesus was accused of to Caesar. And in Medieval France, an entire town was punished with torture and crucifixion for .
It hardly makes the burden any lighter, but it is perhaps reassuring to know that taxes have been irritating people for many millennia.