Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Things Ancient Europe did not have

Besides the obvious – anything powered by electricity, gas, steam and so on – what do I need to pack before traveling to ancient Rome? This is like trying to think backwards, so I'll just scribble whatever I can come up with for now, and maybe I'll update the list later.

Coffee. Now, this is bad. How could they possibly live without coffee? Was anybody ever awake in those times? Coffee comes from Ethiopia, so, technically, the Romans could have been in contact with it, but there's no evidence that anybody drunk coffee until the 17th century. Weird people.

But wait, it gets worse – there's no sugar. Fair enough, if there's no coffee, what would you need sugar for? This made honey extremely expensive at the time, and various (toxic) alternative sweeteners were used, such as lead. I'm going to guess it was a bit more toxic than today's artificial sweeteners.

And, yes, it's getting even worse. Since cocoa originates from South America, there's no chocolate, either. I'm not so sure I want to go to ancient Rome anymore.

Let's see, what else originates from the Americas:

  • turkeys (I won't miss them)
  • tomatoes – this is strange, I can't picture any Mediterranean cooking without tomatoes. And those Romans, they thought they owned the Mediterranean sea.
  • potatoes and corn – commonsensical, but this means no chips!
  • pineapples
  • tobacco – there was a wealth of articles at some point all over the Internet claiming that ancient Egyptians were smoking. Weed, maybe, but certainly not tobacco.
  • a bunch of berries (blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries, farkleberries – ok, I'm just listing them for the fun of it, I'm pretty sure Europe had enough varieties of berries to over-compensate this shortage).
  • a bunch of nuts, including peanuts, pecan and cashew nuts
  • vanilla. Wait, what? No chocolate and no vanilla? What on earth were those people using to make ice cream?! (Bet you were going to say no ice cream either. Well, this is not entirely true. Emperor Nero had his crew mix snow and fruit juice for him, so that's sort of ice cream, we can't be too picky now.)

Ok, this is already very, very bad. What else is there that ancient Romans didn't have? Pills. Sure, they used all sorts of medicinal plants, but no pills... it's just odd. No syringes, either – so maybe doctors weren't as scary back then as they are today. I think they also had fewer illnesses, given that the life expectancy was shorter, probably many diseases associated with old age didn't exist, or existed only in a handful of people and could thus be ignored. Since mental illnesses were not considered treatable we can scratch those off the list, and there was a study suggesting that cancer didn't exist either, but I wouldn't go that far.

Forks. Romans ate with their hands, so no silver cutlery at the dinner. They had instruments shaped like today's forks, used to assist when carving meat. They also had spoons, in case you were wondering. And ladles.

Toothpaste, deodorant, soap and detergents. There is a reference somewhere about a mixture used by Spanish tribes to clean their teeth (which included urine, if I remember well), but no account of anything similar to toothpaste in Rome. Artificial detergents were not known, of course; soap didn't seem to be very popular in the Empire, though there are mentions that it was used in Germania and Gaul.

Ancient Romans obviously didn't have paper, and they managed the writing part well without it, but think of the implications... no toilet paper, no paper napkins, no cardboard boxes and no paper clips! What did they do during long, boring office meetings if they couldn't build paper clip figurines?

No plastic – ok, this is again something very obvious, but take a moment to think... can you imagine a world where nothing around you is made of plastic? No polyester, nylon, velcro or vinyl – guess no glam rock for the ancients.

I'd have to pack six pairs of eyeglasses, to include all possible changes in my prescription for the next years, though I have some doubts about this. They used magnifying glasses (they were called reading stones), how hard is it for anybody to figure out a way to attach them to a ribbon and tie them to the head?

No clocks, watches or pendulums – but I don't think this counts as a shortcoming. It would be nice to live your entire life without being pressured by the passing seconds.

Liquors and spirits. Ancient Greeks figured out how to get distilled water, and they stopped there. Figures, conceit wine drinkers. Alcohol was distilled for the first time in the 12th century, and fractional distillation appeared a century later. You know, I just figured out how I'm going to support myself while living in ancient Rome. I always thought I didn't have any skills marketable in an age where there's no electricity, but I lived all my life around home-made distillery devices, I can build one in ancient Rome. I know they were partial to wine, but it's a big empire, I'm sure I'll find a market. And no special taxes on alcohol either – this definitely has potential.