10 Things People Did in Ancient Times that Were Surprising

Are you one of the thinkers who wonders whether we have progressed with time or regressed? Were our ancestors more intelligent and able than us or are we more able than them? Although it is difficult to answer that question, reading about these things that people did in the ancient times might help you determine. One of the surprising things about the old ages was the duration of an hour in Rome. As people used sundials, the duration of an hour would vary from season to season. In winters, the hour would be  45 minutes. and in summer. the hour would be 75 minutes. Here are more such surprising facts!

1. Ancient Greeks made it illegal for a person to die or give birth on the island of Delos. They wanted to keep the island “pure” and sacred for worship.

Island of Delos
Image credit: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia

Famous for being the birthplace of Apollo, Delos is an island near Mykonos, Greece. After being a holy sanctuary for a million years, Delos underwent a lot of “purifications” at the hands of the Athenians from the sixth century BCE. They wanted to make the island pure for worship. One of the first such attempts was by Pisistratus who ordered all the graves to be moved to a nearby island. After a hundred years, under similar instructions from the Delphic Oracle, all graves were removed once again and instructions were given that nobody could die to give birth on the island. This was to make sure that Delos remained “pure” and also to ensure that no one could claim ownership of the island through inheritance thereby maintaining its neutrality in commerce.

Today, this tiny island with an area of 1.32 square miles, has only 14 inhabitants and finds a mention on the UNESCO World Heritage List. (source)

2. The Finnish in the old days used squirrel pelts as currency while the Chinese used cowrie shells. Salt, whale teeth, and snails were also used as “money” before coins were invented.

Commodity money
Image credit: PHGCOM/Wikimedia, Peter Trimming/Flickr

Before coinage was invented and made popular, a large number of things were used as money. This was referred to as “shell money” or “commodity money.” In Finland, red squirrel pelts were used as currency, while beaver pelts were used in Canada. Salt was used as money in ancient Rome, while snails were used by the indigenous people of California, the Andes, and Mexico. China has been to known to have attached a high value to cowry shells, but other parts of the world also used cowry shells as currency. In Africa, shell money was legal tender until the 19th century. Some tribes of North America also accepted shells as payment. In the Solomon Islands, the cowry shells are still in use in certain parts as currency. In the pre-Hispanic times, cocoa beans were money. Eventually, with the minting of metals and once the value of those metals rose, coins were invented and accepted as money. (1, 2, 3)

3. In ancient Rome, commoners had a form of revolt known as “Secessions of the Plebians” in which they would evacuate an entire city and leave the rich to fend for themselves.

Secessions of the Plebians
Image credit: B.Barloccini via copia-di-arte.com

An ancient form of a strike, Secessio plebs, was a movement where the free, common citizens of Rome (plebeians) would abandon the city in huge numbers. Imagine that! The entire city abandoned overnight! This would mean that all workers would stop work, shops would be shut, and all kinds of commercial transactions would not take place. The elite would struggle to fend for themselves as it was the common folk who produced the food and resources. From 494 BCE to 287 BCE, there were at least five such secessions of the common people of Rome.

This show of power was meant to make the upper class learn a lesson, and often the demands of the “plebeians” would be met. For instance, in 494 BCE when the citizens vacated the city to strike, many of them were freed from their debts and for the very first time, and a government position was awarded to them by setting up the Tribune of the Plebs. (source)

4. Egyptians during the ancient times tried to domesticate cheetahs as house pets. They also tamed them for hunting in the 15th century.

Domesticate cheetahs
Image source: cheetahsalive.org

Ancient Egyptians would keep cheetahs as pets and were also buried with them to keep them company after death. They also believed that a cheetah would bring a person’s spirit faster into the afterlife. In the middle of the 15th century, people saw profit in keeping cheetahs alive rather than killing them and would tame them to take along hunting as it was a natural predator. This was a fun activity the wealthy people practiced with the wild cat. Because of this, many cheetah trappers, tamers, and dealers earned hefty sums of money from working with the animals. For the same reason, the cheetah was strangely referred to as the “hunting leopard.” (source)

5. In Hawaii, women were forbidden to eat along with men and were also not allowed to touch certain food. The practice continued until 1819 when King Kamehameha II had a dinner party with women.

Hawaii party
Image for representational purpose only. Image credit: Wikimedia

In ancient Hawaii, foods that were not common or served only during special occasions were banned to everyone in the society except the men. Women dined separately as a religious tradition. King Kamehameha II in 1819 removed all such religious acts and took part in a symbolic feast by eating with women. This marked an end to all the religious taboos in Hawaii and the beginning of the famous Luau feast.

“Luau” was the name of the food that was served during the first feast—chicken combined with tender leaves of the taro plant, baked in coconut milk. The Luau feast, which is a tradition that has been carried forward until today, has a large variety of foods served like poi, Kalua pig, Lomi salmon, opihi, etc., along with beer. People were also entertained through music and hula which is a dance accompanied by chanting or singing. (source)

6. If ancient Persians decided something when they were drunk, there was a rule that they had to reconsider when they were sober. And if they made a decision when they were sober, they had to reconsider it when drunk.

Alexander and Clitus
Image for representational purpose only. Image credit: Wikimedia

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus stated that Persians would reconsider a decision they made when they were drunk after getting sober. The historians after him added that the reverse was also true for the Persians. If the decision remained during both the times, it was to be held.

The famous Latin saying, in vino veritas which means “in wine there is truth” also finds a place in Persia where, in its own Persian version, the saying states that by drinking wine, the truth comes out. Often people make decisions when drunk that they would not make otherwise. But perhaps the Persians believed that reconsidering a decision when drunk was also vital. As then, the person would then know what they really want in their heart, as opposed to the brain having more weight in decision-making when sober. Studies have shown that decisions made in a “hot” state of mind (drunk) when compared to a “cold” state of mind (sober), were “frighteningly clear.” (1, 2)

7. In ancient Egypt, women were made to pee on barley and wheat seeds as a form of a pregnancy test. If the barley grew, it was a boy. If the wheat grew, it was a girl. If none grew, she was not pregnant.

Ancient Egypt
Image credit: Wikimedia

Over the course of several days, women in 1350 BCE were asked to pee on wheat and barley seeds to determine whether they were going to have a girl or a boy or were not pregnant at all. One might think that these tests were bogus, but they actually worked. We know that because a laboratory experiment was conducted in 1963 through which the wheat and barley pregnancy tests were proved to be correct around 70% of the time.

That was Egypt. In the 16th century Europe, there were “piss prophets” who could tell if a woman was pregnant by looking at the characteristics and color of her urine. Some also mixed urine with wine to determine pregnancy. Well, thanks to the modern pregnancy tests, we got rid of all of this! (source)

8. Back in the day, kissing was considered to be a legal way to seal contracts and was used instead of signatures. As people often did not know how to read or write, they would kiss the “X” line on the contracts.

Kissing to seal contracts
Image credit: Jastrow/Wikimedia

In ancient times, kissing symbolized a lot more than a romantic expression. It was a sign of respect and used in place of fingerprints or signatures. The “X” symbol we use to denote kisses today has its origin in the Middle Ages when people kissed to seal a contract as many did not know to read or write. They would kiss on the “X” and the contract was deemed to be accepted by them and was legally binding. When the ancient Romans reached an agreement, they would exchange a kiss to mark its completion which is one of the theories to explain the origin of the phrase, “sealed with a kiss.” (1, 2)

9. A “trial by ordeal” existed in the ancient times, where a person who was accused of a crime would take a sip of holy water and then be thrown into a pool. If they sunk to the bottom, it meant they were innocent as the Gods had accepted them, if they floated, they were condemned.

Trial by ordeal
Image credit: Wikimedia

According to Superstition and Force, compiled by Henry Charles Lee in 1870, there were four trials by ordeal. Out of the four trials by ordeal that existed in the ancient times, one of those was “Trial by Cold Water.” The defendant who would not plead guilty and confess was subjected to one of the four trials by the plaintiff. In the “Trial by Cold Water,” a person was to take a sip of holy water and was then thrown into a pool of water to prove their innocence. If they sunk, the God had accepted them as they were innocent, but if they floated, they were sinners and God had rejected them. Some records suggest that the defendants who sank were not left to die, and they were usually rescued.

The other three trials by ordeal were “Trial by Hot Iron” (where a person had to carry a hot iron for nine feet), “Trial by Hot Water” (where one had to pluck out a hot stone from a pot of boiling water), and the third one which was only for a priest who was accused—“Trial by Host” (where a priest would pray to God to choke him while swallowing food, dry bread and cheese,  if he was guilty and save him if he was innocent). (source)

10. In the ancient times, the doctors used electrotherapy to treat neurological conditions like migraines. An electric torpedo fish was placed on the patient’s head for it!

Electric torpedo fish
Image credit: Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC

In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Plato has the character Meno accuse Socrates of “stunning” people. In Compositiones Medicae of 46 AD, a Roman physician, Scribonius Largus, recorded the use of torpedo fish for treatment of gout and headaches through electric shocks. He wrote, “To immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live, black torpedo is put on the place which is in pain until the pain ceases and the part grows numb.”

In ancient Greece and Rome, the shocks of the species Torpedo nobiliana measured up to 220 volts. The torpedo fish, also known as an electric ray, is the most electrosensitive of all animals whose name comes from the Latin torpere which means to paralyze or stiffen. They do not emit electric shocks to stun or kill their prey unless they feel threatened, for example when they are stepped on. (1, 2)

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