Monday, January 17, 2011

The Quality of Life in Classical Antiquity

Oh, yes. Demographics and economics. Remember when I warned you that history was boring? Sure, counting the mistresses of Caligula and the follies of Nero is fun, and even archeologists have their day in the spotlight when they stumble upon a piece of jewelry or a statue that actually has a head attached to it – but when you go into the bowels of history, it's still about dates, stones, trade routes and birth rates.

So here's a rare attempt to make these a bit sexier: The Quality of Life in Classical Antiquity is a videocast of a presentation held by Stanford's Walter Scheidel in Athens, at the inauguration of the new Onassis Center. Be warned that the video is about an hour long, so go get a cup of tea before you start watching it.

Notice that I said tea, not coffee. Professor Walter Scheidel may not be a glitzy presenter like those who get invited at TED conferences (or does not have the team of advisers TED makes available to the speakers – I've always wondered about that) but anyway, I didn't fall asleep, and yes, the presentation was about demographics and economics, with numbers and tables and charts. Yay! Maybe it's time to confess that I find charts rather sexy in a presentation. Even sexier than pictures, in a kinky way.

The premises of the conference were quite intriguing, starting with the modern concept of the quality of life. Can't say I've paid much attention to the concept before, aside from the constant whining about the quality of my life, but I've found out some neat stuff watching the videocast. For instance, there's something called the gross national happiness index – which takes into account factors such as education, culture and so on, and a little something called “use of time” - whether people are coerced or make their own decisions regarding how they spend time. Y'know, occasionally these indexes actually make sense.

Back to the presentation, the charts depicting the relation between the population and the real wages were bone chilling. I know that people make more money in the periods when the population is reduced, such as after a war, an epidemic or a cataclysm, but seeing the numbers is not funny. My co-workers would get double wages if I died in a smallpox epidemic.

Needless to say, I won't tell you the conclusions of the conference, regarding how the quality of life in ancient times compares to that of modern days. Go watch it, in all due honesty, if you've read this post so far, you probably have what it takes to listen to one hour of ancient demographic data.

Walter Scheidel is the author of Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, which has been on my reading list for a while, but, I have to confess, I find the current price a bit prohibitive. So I guess I'll keep myself occupied with the other Death on the Nile. The one by Agatha Christie, of course.