15 Crazy Facts About Life In The First Century


Photo: Flickr/Jean-Louis Zimmermann

Last week, the estimated global population reached 7 billion. In fewer than 100 years, the world will likely hit the 10 billion mark. It seems like an appropriate time to take a look a back at what the world was like in the first century, when there were only around 200 million people in the world, and the Roman empire ruled the planet. 

Although we can’t know very much for certain about the first century, a surprising number of things we still use today were introduced in this era, including a definitive census and the precursor to e-readers: the “book.”

Rome was the world's largest city

With an estimated population between 800,000 and 1 million residents, Rome was the largest and most powerful city by the year 1 AD. Much of what we know about civilisation in this ancient era comes from history recorded during Rome's reign.

The world's population was somewhere around 231 million

Give or take a whole bunch. It would be impossible to know anything close to the real number, but estimates have put the global population in the 200 million range.

The most populated areas were the communities based around the Ganges, Tigris, Yangtze, Nile and Po rivers.

Jewish girls could be married as early as 12 years and a day

Though to be fair, it was more common to wait until they reached 12 and a half.

In those days, marriage took place in two stages. The formal betrothal would first be agreed upon between the husband and the girl's father. Several months to a year later, the girl would move into her new husband's house. It wasn't until they started living together that the marriage became official.

Women had almost no, or very limited, legal and economic rights

Women rarely had economic independence. A woman's wages would always go directly to her father or husband, depending on her marital status. Legally, women weren't allowed to file for divorce, while men could ask for a 'writ of renouncement.'

On the other hand, men had to be sure to buy back their wives if they were captured.

China's census in 2 AD counted 57,671,400 people

Considered the world's oldest surviving ancient census, the Han dynasty wanted to count its people to determine revenues and military strength in each region.

Even in the first century, China accounted for a huge portion of the world's overall population.

The first vending machines sold holy water

Vending machines were invented in the first century in the city of Alexandria. But first century citizens weren't buying potato chips or soda: they were buying holy water.

'When a coin was dropped into a slot, its weight would pull a cork out of a spigot and the machine would dispense a trickle of holy water.'

Prior to the first century, most of what was written could be found on scrolls of parchment. But once the AD era started, the practice of stringing together wooden tablets into a 'codex' began.

The precursor to the book as we know it today, the codex became popular once it was co-opted by a new religious group -- called the Christians -- for their holy book: the Bible.

The economies of the city and the country were radically different

There are still variations in prices between urban and rural areas today, but nothing like it was in the first century. For example, fruit was three to six times more expensive in Jerusalem than in the rural areas surrounding it. Livestock was also costlier in the city, and doves (for sacrifices) were sold at a premium.

You could work as a camel driver, pigeon contest organiser, and dog dung collector

There were some strange jobs in the first century world. The list of jobs that were looked down upon by the general public included the shepherd, 'the dealer in products from the sabbatical year,' butchers, and doctors.

Men hung out at the public baths after work

Public baths were a fundamental part of Roman culture and daily life. At the end of the workday, men of all ages and social classes would convene at the local baths to converse, discuss business, and relax. The baths also provided areas to exercise and plays sports as well as buy food.

Gladiators were the equivalent to modern-day movie stars

Despite the extreme violence, gladiator fighting was one of the most popular forms of public entertainment in first century Rome.

While most gladiators were criminals, slaves, or prisoners or war, successful contestants usually achieved great fame and fortune. These men in armour who battled wild animals and other human challengers for sport were celebrated in frescoes and mosaics throughout the Roman world.

People attended chariot races instead of football games

Like gladiator contests, chariot racing was a dangerous and bloody sport that often resulted in the death of drivers or horses. But that only made the event more popular.

Almost 200,000 devoted fans would come out to watch the chariot races that took place in Circus Maximus, considered the oldest stadium in Rome.

There was terrorism

Early terrorists, known as Sicarii or 'dagger-men' were an extremist group that opposed Roman leadership over the Jews and wanted to take back Jerusalem.

The Sicarii were famous for using small daggers and stealth tactics to murder their enemies in crowded places before slipping away.

Tunics and togas were the popular fashion of the day

Most men and women in Ancient Rome wore a basic undergarment called a tunic, which they belted at the waist. The length and design of the tunic distinguished the wearer's social status. Elite Romans wore longer tunics with stripes, whereas slaves and manual laborers generally wore tunics that came above the knee and allowed freer movement. Only male citizens were allowed to wear the togas. These draped over the body on top of the tunic.

Infant mortality rates were extremely high

Only about 75% of babies in the first century AD survived their first year; half of all children died before the age of 10. It was also up to the father to decide whether or not the family would keep a newborn baby. If the baby was deformed or the family could not afford to keep it, the baby would be abandoned in the street where someone might take it in as a slave or servant.

Now see what the world will look like in the future

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