Most of us know Pythagoras from grade school geometry, as that ancient guy who came up with that theory about a triangle and a hypotenuse. Relatively few of us know that Pythagoras was also a cult leader who advocated some stuff that was good, some stuff that was bad, and a lot of stuff that was just plain bizarre. Following are forty things about Pythagoras, his cult, and other fascinating people and events from the ancient world.
40. The Ancient Geometry Genius Who Was More Than a Geek
When most of us think of Pythagoras (circa 570 – circa 495 BC), the first thing that comes to mind – probably the only thing that comes to mind – is the Pythagorean theorem from grade school. Which is unfortunate, because there was so much more to the man than “for right-angled triangles, side A squared plus side B squared equals side C (hypotenuse) squared“.
The real Pythagoras was actually more of an eccentric – or even lunatic – cult leader, who was good at math and got his followers to worship numbers. However, the theorems and equations competed with Pythagoras’ other weird beliefs. For example, he launched a crusade against beans: he equated eating them to cannibalism and to eating one’s parents.
Pythagoras was not just a mathematician: he was a full-blown cult leader. Those who followed him were not just people who liked math, but adherents of a full-blown religion that revolved around math. Pythagoras preached that the world was based and built on numbers. He taught his followers that reality and the entire universe were controlled by mathematical harmonies.
Pythagoras also preached that math was holy, and that numbers were sacred and godlike. The number seven, for example, was associated with wisdom, and eight was associated with justice. Ten was the universe’s holiest number, and the Pythagoreans worshiped it with a prayer that began: “Bless us divine number, who created gods and men“. Their most sacred symbol was the Tetractys, a triangle with ten points across four rows.
38. Beans, Beans, the Magic Fruit, the More You Eat, the More You Toot
Pythagoras advanced many reasons for avoiding beans, especially fava beans. One of the funnier ones was his belief that human beings lost a part of their soul whenever they farted, with a bit of their inner being exiting along with the expelled gasses. More seriously, Pythagoras believed that beans contained the souls of the dead. He got there after a “scientific” experiment to prove that humans and beans were spawned from the same source.
Pythagoras buried beans in mud, and left them for a few weeks before retrieving them. When he dug them up, he saw a resemblance to human fetuses. So he convinced himself of an intimate relationship between beans and humans, and reasoned that eating beans was akin to eating human flesh. Thus, Pythagoras equated eating beans with cannibalism, and not just as any cannibalism, but cannibalism of one’s father and mother. As he explained it to his followers: “Eating fava beans and gnawing on the heads of one’s parents are one and the same“.
In addition to abhorring beans, Pythagoras taught his followers that meat should never be eaten under any circumstances. That made him one of the earliest known vegetarians in Western civilization. His stance was based on a belief in the transmigration of souls – the notion that souls pass from one body to another, whether human or animal. As such, Pythagoras refrained from eating meat out of fear that he might end up accidentally eating a deceased friend or relative.
The belief in the transmigration of souls also led Pythagoras to advocate for kindness towards animals. In one instance, he came across a man beating a dog, and recognized in its yelps of pain the voice of a recently deceased friend. So he physically intervened and got the man to release the dog, thus sparing it a life of misery with a cruel owner.
Members of Pythagoras’ cult worshiped him as a demigod, and referred to him as “the divine Pythagoras“. They believed that he possessed supernatural powers, enabling him to write words on the face of the moon. They also thought that Pythagoras could tame the wild animals of the earth and the birds of the sky by stroking them, and that he could control them with his voice.
Pythagoras’ followers claimed that he was the son of the god Apollo, or according to some sources, that he was fathered by the god Hermes. As a sign of his divinity, they claimed that he had a golden thigh, whose shimmering sight turned doubters into believers. Pythagoras encouraged such beliefs, and claimed that the gods had blessed him with the ability to return to life after death via a divine rebirth.
Pythagoras was accused of murdering his most famous acolyte, Hippasus, a genius in his own right, in a dispute over math. Pythagoras’ math religion revolved around the belief that numbers could explain everything in life. Central to that was the belief that everything in the universe could be explained by rational numbers that could be expressed as fractions. Then Hippasus demonstrated the existence of irrational numbers.
For Pythagoras and his closest adherents, Hippasus’ irrational numbers were like a turd dropped into their punch bowl. Unfortunately for Hippasus, although a genius, he was not very smart. He demonstrated his irrational numbers while on a boat that contained only him, Pythagoras, and a bunch of other Pythagoreans. Pythagoras wrestled Hippasus to the side of the boat, and dunked his head underwater until his struggling student stopped breathing. He then tossed the corpse overboard, and warned his other followers to never mention what they had seen or heard.
Like most cults, that of Pythagoras and his followers ended up alarming the rest of the community in which they dwelt. At first, the people of Croton, where Pythagoras lived with his followers, put up with the math weirdos in their midst. Then the Pythagoreans stepped over the line. Overestimating their power – and the appeal of their beliefs – they made a bid for power, and tried to compel ordinary citizens into adopting the Pythagorean lifestyle. It did not end well for Pythagoras and his adherents.
Morphing into an Ancient Greek math ISIS or Boko Haram, the Pythagoreans tried to prevent the people of Croton from eating beans, and directed that at all costs, they must abstain from eating meat. The good people of Croton reacted violently, and it ended in general persecution of Pythagoreans. By the time the dust had settled, many of the cultists had been killed, while the rest were forced to flee. The survivors attempted to regroup and carry on elsewhere, but they never again achieved as much prominence or power as they had secured in Croton, and the cult soon faded away.
As to Pythagoras himself, he was killed in the backlash against his cult, and a number of differing accounts depict his end. One of the more interesting ones has it that, while fleeing for his life with angry pursuers hot on his heels, Pythagoras’ flight took him to a field of beans. Beans being sacred to him, Pythagoras stated that he would rather die than step on a single bean. Which is what happened when his pursuers caught up with him at the edge of the bean field, and slit his throat.
Other versions have the people of Croton attacking a house in which Pythagoras and his followers were conducting a meeting, and setting it on fire. Pythagoras escaped with a small group of followers and eventually took shelter in a temple. There, he was besieged, and eventually starved to death. This version has him refusing to eat the only food available: beans. Contra his claims, Pythagoras was not a god, and contra his and his followers’ prediction, he did not return from the dead.
The Ancient Greek artist Zeuxis (flourished fifth century BC) was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived. He was innovative and broke with tradition, and departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color, relying instead upon a clever manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works. He often preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure.
None of his works survive today, but historical records describe his paintings as exceptionally realistic. As recounted by Roman writer Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, Zeuxis entered into a competition with a rival painter named Parhassius, to see who could create the most realistic painting. When Zeuxis unveiled his entry, the grapes that he painted were so life-like, so the story goes, that birds flew down to peck at them. Unfortunately, the great painter is better remembered for the manner of his death: he died from laughing too hard.
Zeuxis ended up losing his competition with Parhassius. Zeuxis’ rival invited him to examine the competing painting, but when he tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, he discovered, to his chagrin, that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that his rival had won, stating: “I have deceived the birds, but Parhassius has deceived Zeuxis“. Centuries later, that rivalry over realism between Zeuxis and Parhassius was viewed by Renaissance painters as a challenge and a spur in their quest to surpass the ancients.
Zeuxis’ end came when a wealthy patroness, an elderly widow, hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting fashioned in her own likeness, and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, who was supposed to be the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman wanting to pose as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, and kept on laughing until he dropped dead.
30. The Legend of Semiramis Was Based on a Real Person
Semiramis in Greco-Roman mythology was the daughter of a goddess and a mortal. She was fed by doves after her divine mother abandoned her as an infant, so she could drown herself. Semiramis grew into a wise and formidable woman, who married a general, advising him into great victories, before switching husbands and marrying the king. As queen and queen regnant, she personally led troops into battle and conquered much of Asia, as well as Ethiopia and Libya.
Domestically, Semiramis was supposed to have restored the declining ancient Babylon to its former glory, built the city’s famous Hanging Gardens, and protected it with impregnable defensive walls. While that Semiramis never existed, her legend was based on the life of an actual Assyrian queen named Sammu-Ramat, who lived in the ninth century BC.
The mythical Semiramis is based on the real-life Sammu-Ramat, wife of Assyrian king Shamshi Adad V (reigned 824 – 811 BC). She took control of the kingdom following her husband’s death, and ruled for five years as queen regent for her underage son Adad Nirari III, until he was old enough to rule in his own right.
Steles from that period record Sammu-Ramat as negotiating alliances on behalf of her son, and as a generous patroness of religious temples. She seems to have ruled well enough to become a revered figure in Assyria. Between that, and the fact that rule by a woman was such an extraordinary event in Assyrian history, the story of Sammu-Ramat grew over the years, until she emerged centuries later as a full-blown mythological figure, the legendary Queen Semiramis.
28. Ancient Greeks Choked Their “Johns” With String
Nudity did not bother Ancient Greeks as much as it does modern society, and many of their statues and vase paintings depict naked athletes. Ancient Greek literature also makes clear that athletes competed while naked. So one might assume that the Greeks did not have the kinds of hangups we do today about nudity, seeing how often went about while letting it all hang out. However, it turns out that they did have one particular hangup, having to do with the penis: they thought the naked glans was vulgar.
Ancient Greeks did not circumcise, so the glans was usually covered by the foreskin. However, the glans might pop out while engaged in frenetic activity such as athletics. To avoid such a faux pas, a string, known as the kynodesme (“dog leash”), was wrapped around the penis and foreskin to ensure that the glans stayed out of sight. The Romans, who thought the Greeks were sissies, took it a step further: instead of dainty strings, they used iron clamps, iron rings, or straight-up safety pins through the foreskin.
27. Ancient Egyptians Liked Cats – But Not as Pets
Cats are probably the animal that most people commonly associate with ancient Egypt. And for good reason: there are thousands of cat statues all over the place, and millions of mummified cats. Indeed, so common were mummified cats, that archaeologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries frequently observed Egyptian farmers crushing and using them as fertilizers.
However, recent discoveries and research indicate that while cats were popular in ancient Egypt, the reason for that popularity was nothing like the reason for cats’ popularity today. All those cat mummies? They were not pets: they were sacrificed to the gods.
Today, we see cats as cute and cuddly companions. However, that is not how Ancient Egyptians saw them. Instead, they saw cats as religious sacrifices, to be killed in order to please their gods. Those millions of mummified cats? They were not dear pets, lovingly preserved by their saddened owners after their demise. They were sacrificed.
Ancient Egyptians bred cats by the millions near temples. As soon as they got big enough – usually about 5 or 6 months old, but sometimes as young as 2 to 4 months old – they were sold to worshipers as offerings, to sacrifice at the temple. So while ancient Egyptians esteemed cats, it was a different kind of esteem than what we have long assumed.
Herod the Great of Judea is best known as the king from the New Testament who ordered all babies killed when Jesus was born. That event, The Massacre of the Innocents, never happened, but Herod was still a bloody murderer, whose victims included his own flesh and blood. Indeed, quipping about how Herod treated his offspring, Roman Emperor Augustus remarked: “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son“.
A Roman client king, Herod built some massive projects during his reign, such as the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the fortress of Masada. His reign started off well, but as it progressed, Herod started getting paranoid about plots against him, some real, others imaginary. Those around Herod manipulated his fears, causing him to often lash out violently. The victims of his wrath included members of his own family.
Herod the Great was born to an Edomite father, from a people who had been forcibly converted to Judaism only a generation or two before Herod’s birth. However, he was raised as a nominal Jew, and he married into the ruling Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty, tying the knot with princess Mariamne, one of the last Hasmonean heirs.
Herod then killed her relatives, removing contenders for the throne of Judea, and got the Romans to make him king of the Jews. Understandably, that gave Mariamne plenty of cause to resent her husband. As seen below, that did not turn out well for Mariamne. It also did not turn out well for two of her sons Herod, Alexander and Aristobulus, who resented how their father had treated their mother.
Herod’s wife, Mariamne, was a stunning beauty, and he was crazy about her. Not the good kind of crazy, though. On the one hand, he was passionately in love with her. On the other hand, he was also crazy jealous. While Herod loved Mariamne, she did not return the feeling.
It was understandable, considering that Herod had killed her brother and uncle. That was on top of the fact that Herod’s father had killed Mariamne’s father, then embalmed him in a tub of honey. That might have led to awkwardness if Herod ever called his wife “honey” as a term of endearment. Despite the marriage’s shaky grounds, Herod still had five children with Mariamne – two girls and three boys.
In 29 BC, Herod suspected Mariamne of plotting against him, so he had her executed. Unsurprisingly, her children resented that, and grew up with a fractious relationship with their father. Two, in particular, Alexander and Aristobulus, did a poor job of hiding their resentment of their father. That led Herod to suspect them of plotting against him to avenge the execution of their mother.
So Herod imprisoned Alexander in 10 BC, and three years later, had him and his brother Aristobulus were charged with treason. Both were convicted, and Herod ordered his sons strangled to death in 7 BC, giving rise to Augustus’ quip that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.
Emperor Augustus’ great grand-niece Valeria Messalina (circa 20 – 48 AD), who ended her days as empress, was also a cousin of the emperors Caligula and Nero. Along with Augustus’ daughter Julia, who was banished by her father for excessive promiscuity, contemporary writers described Messalina as one of the most notoriously promiscuous women in Roman history.
Her rise to empress began in 37 AD, when the future Emperor Claudius, thirty years her senior, picked her to be his third wife. As with many unions between young women and significantly older men, the marriage did not pan out. Aside from the age difference, Claudius was an exceptionally physically unappealing man: he limped, stuttered, and drooled. Those shortcomings led the imperial family to sideline him as an embarrassment and borderline idiot. He was no idiot – indeed, Claudius was a scholar and the Roman equivalent of a nerd. Still, he was not exactly the type to set pretty girls’ hearts aflutter. It would end in murder.
Emperor Claudius doted on his younger wife, Messalina, and she used her sexual allure to wrap him around her finger. When he became emperor in 41, Messalina got Claudius to execute or exile anybody who displeased her – and a good many people displeased her. She seems to have despised Claudius, and cheated on him nonstop. Brazenly so: in one instance, salacious contemporary accounts had her winning a competition with a prostitute to see who could sleep with the most people in one night.
Messalina’s most famous affair was with a senator, Gaius Silius. She plotted with him to murder Claudius, so Silius could take his place on the throne. Considering the recklessness with which she went about it, she might have been a bit unhinged: while Claudius was out of Rome, Messalina married Silius, and celebrated it with a huge banquet. Claudius rushed back to Rome, confirmed the affair, and had her executed.
19. Killing One Wife, and Getting Killed by Another Wife
Claudius had terrible luck when it came to marriage. He had divorced his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, for adultery after she became pregnant by one of Claudius’ freedmen. She was also suspected of murdered her sister-in-law. His second marriage, to Aelia Paetina, also ended in divorce, because she mentally and physically abused him. His first two wives cheated on or abused Claudius, but at least they did not try to murder him. His third wife did.
Valeria Messalina seemingly slept with half of Rome, publicly wed another man while still married to Claudius, and plotted with her lover and bigamous husband to murder her imperial hubby and usurp his throne. That marriage ended in Messalina’s execution. An incorrigible optimist, Claudius married for a fourth time, this time wedding his niece Agrippina Minor (15 – 59 AD), thirty-three years his junior. That marriage ended with her poisoning him to death.
Agrippina was the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, and the younger sister of Emperor Caligula. At age thirteen, she married a cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, and bore him a son, the future Emperor Nero. Ahenobarbus died in 41 AD, and when Claudius executed Messalina in 48 AD, he chose Agrippina as his fourth wife. She convinced Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, and make him his heir and recognized successor in lieu of his biological son with Messalina, Britannicus.
By 54 AD, Claudius seemed to repent of having married Agrippina, and began favoring Britannicus and preparing him for the throne. So Agrippina poisoned Claudius at a banquet with a plate of deadly mushrooms. For the remainder of her life, she jokingly referred to mushrooms as “the food of the gods” (because Roman emperors were deified as gods after their deaths, and by killing Claudius, mushrooms had made him a god).
Antonia Minor (36 BC – 37 AD) was the younger daughter of Mark Antony and Emperor Augustus’ sister Octavia Minor. In 16 BC, she married the future Emperor Tiberius’ brother, Drusus, and bore him several children. Three of the offspring survived: Germanicus, father of Emperor Caligula and maternal Grandfather of Emperor Nero; the future Emperor Claudius; and a daughter, Livilla. Antonia’s husband died in 9 BC from injuries sustained after falling from a horse, and although her uncle Augustus and the rest of the family pressured her to remarry, she never did.
Antonia Minor developed a reputation as an old-fashioned and straitlaced prude, who embodied the traditional virtues of Roman matrons. So it was unfortunate for all involved that her daughter Livilla became a chief participant in a scandal that rocked Rome to its foundations. Unfortunately for Livilla, that was when she discovered just how uncompromising and straitlaced a prude her mother really was.
16. A Mother Who Starved Her Daughter to Death in the Name of Decorum
Antonia Minor’s daughter Livilla was married to another Drusus, her cousin and the son of Emperor Tiberius, when she began an affair with Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus and Livilla poisoned Drusus, then plotted to kill Tiberius so Sejanus could seize power. Antonia Minor, however, tipped off Tiberius that Sejanus planned to kill him, so the emperor beat him to the punch and had him executed.
In the subsequent investigation, evidence emerged that Livilla had been involved in the plot, and that she had poisoned her husband Drusus. Tiberius spared Livilla’s life, and instead handed her over to her mother. To save face, as well as demonstrate her adherence to Rome’s traditions, Antonia Minor locked her daughter in a room, and starved her to death.
Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (272 – 337 AD) had many admirers in his era, particularly Christians grateful to him for taking Christianity out of the catacombs and into the palace. He also gave the Roman Empire a new lease on life, relocated the capital from Rome to the newly built Constantinople, and laid the foundations for an Eastern Roman Empire whose remnants survived into the fifteenth century.
However, Constantine’s admirers seldom mentioned his shortcomings. One such was a mercurial temper that led him to kill his eldest son, Crispus (circa 299 – 326) – a dutiful and capable son who would have made any father proud. Crispus was not the only close kin killed by Constantine: the great emperor also killed his wife, Fausta.
While Constantine’s eldest son Crispus was still in his teens, his father appointed him commander in Gaul. The son justified his father’s faith in his abilities and delivered, winning victories in 318, 320, and 323 AD, that secured the province and the Germanic frontier. In a civil war against a challenger, Licinius, Crispus commanded Constantine’s navy and led it to a decisive victory over a far larger fleet. He also played a key role in a subsequent battle that secured his father’s triumph over Licinius.
Then in 326, Crispus’ life came to a sudden end when his step mother, eager to remove an obstacle to her own sons’ succession to the throne, falsely accused Crispus of having tried to rape her. An enraged Constantine had Crispus tried and convicted before a local court, then ordered him executed by hanging.
In 307 AD, Constantine the Great married Flavia Maxima Fausta (289 – 326 AD), daughter of Roman Emperor Maximianus, to seal an alliance with her father. She bore Constantine three sons, but her stepson Crispus, Constantine’s eldest from a previous marriage, stood between her children and the throne.
In 326, Crispus was at the height of his power and heir apparent, having played a key role in defeating a recent challenger to his father. By contrast, Fausta’s sons were in no position to don the purple, the eldest of them being only ten years old at the time. In order for any of Fausta’s sons to succeed Constantine, something would have to happen to Crispus. So Fausta saw to it that something did.
Constantine the Great’s wife Fausta reportedly tried to seduce her stepson, Crispus. However, he balked, and hurriedly left the palace. Undaunted, Fausta did not miss a beat. She told Constantine that Crispus did not respect his father, since he was in love with and had tried to rape his father’s wife. Constantine believed her, and had his eldest son executed.
A few months later, Constantine discovered how his wife had manipulated him into killing Crispus, and had her executed by tossing her into boiling water. He then issued a damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory”) to erase her from official accounts – a form of dishonor issued against traitors and those who brought discredit to the Roman state.
Brexit, the seemingly never-ending saga of a divorce from the European Union, is neither the first nor most chaotic time that Britain has quit Europe. An even messier separation occurred a few thousand years ago, when Britain was literally separated from Europe.
Britain was not always an island. Until quite recently in geologic terms, what is now the British Isles were just the northwestern corner of the European mainland. Jutting out a bit, kind of like how Alaska juts out of North America, that European protrusion is known today as Doggerland. Then, about 8,000 years ago, that all changed in a most dramatic way.
Until the most recent Ice Age, Britain was part of Doggerland, Europe’s northwest corner. However, when the Ice Age ended and temperatures began to warm, the ice cap began to melt, and the sea levels began to rise. That was bad news for much of Doggerland, because much of it was lowlands. As the water levels steadily rose, the Atlantic and the expanding North Sea gradually chipped away at the region. Then, about 7500 BC, a landslide off Norway created a tsunami that rolled over much of Doggerland.
By 6000 BC, most inhabitants of the remaining lowlands, by now mostly marshes, had moved to the higher ground of today’s Britain and the Netherlands. Finally, about 5000 BC, the prehistoric Brexit was completed when the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea finally met, forming the English Channel that separates Britain from Europe. Traces of Doggerland come up today from time to time, as the nets of fishermen plying their trade over the former lowland occasionally pull up mammoth bones and prehistoric spear heads.
Woolly mammoths flourished during the Pleistocene epoch. The extinct pachyderms were about the size of modern African elephants, with males reaching shoulder heights greater than eleven feet, and weighing in at around six tons. Females reached nearly ten feet at the shoulder, weighed around four tons, and calved newborns that weighed around two hundred pounds at birth.
The furry pachyderms are most commonly associated with the Ice Age. Their shaggy coats, comprised of outer layers of long guard hairs atop a shorter undercoat, made them well adapted to the harsh winter environment. Other evolutionary adaptations included a short tail and small ears by pachyderm standards, to minimize frostbite and heat loss. That enabled them to thrive in the Mammoth Steppe – the earth’s most extensive biome during the Ice Age, extending from Canada and across Eurasia to Spain, and from the Arctic Circle to China. However, were woolly mammoths still around when the Great Pyramids were built?
8. Woolly Mammoths Were Still Around When the Pyramids Were Built
When, exactly, did woolly mammoths go extinct? The Ice Age ended about twelve thousand years ago, circa 9700 BC. It is widely assumed that woolly mammoth must have vanished into extinction sometime around then, if not sooner. However, contrary to popular perceptions, woolly mammoths did not become extinct that far back.
While no man ever saw a live dinosaur, mankind and its hominid ancestors did share the planet with woolly mammoths for hundreds of thousands of years. Woolly mammoths, in fact, were still around while the Ancient Egyptians were busy building the Great Pyramids.
7. The Pyramids and Woolly Mammoths Coexisted for Centuries
Most woolly mammoths were hunted by humans into extinction, and disappeared from the continental mainland of Eurasia and North America between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago. The last mainland population, in Siberia’s Kyttyk Peninsula, vanished about 9650 years ago. However, small populations survived in offshore islands, such as Saint Paul Island in Alaska, where woolly mammoths existed until 5600 years ago.
The last known population survived in Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean, until 4000 years ago, or roughly 2000 BC. That was well into the era of human civilization and recorded human history, and half a millennium after the Great Pyramid of Giza, whose construction concluded around 2560 BC, had been built.
Building the Great Pyramid of Giza was a massive undertaking, that involved moving and piling up six and a half million tons of stone, in blocks weighing as much as nine tons. All of that was done with manual labor, using little more than ropes and wood. Was it slave labor?
The Old Testament’s portrayal of the Hebrews’ forced labor for Pharaoh popularized the notion that slave labor was widespread in Ancient Egypt. Ancient Greek writers such as Herodotus and subsequent historians, fiction, and film in the modern era, have further cemented the perception that Ancient Egyptians used slave labor for their great building projects. Despite graffiti inside the Great Pyramids made by the workers who built the monuments, suggesting that they were paid laborers, the notion that slaves built the pyramids became entrenched in the popular imagination. That notion is wrong.
The notion that the pyramids were built by slaves remained widespread until Egyptologists discovered the city of the Great Pyramids’ builders in 1977. Excavations demonstrated that they were not slaves. In 2010, archaeologists unearthed the tombs of the Great Pyramids’ builders, and their contents conclusively debunked the notion that the edifices had been built by slave labor. The modest tombs, which held the perfectly preserved skeletons of about a dozen pyramid workers, showed that their occupants were paid laborers, not slaves.
The builders hailed from poor families from all over Egypt, and were not only paid for their work, but were so respected for that work that those who died during construction were honored by burial near the tombs of the sacred Pharaohs. The proximity to the sacred sites, and the care taken in preparing their bodies for their journeys to the afterlife, disprove the notion that the builders were slaves. Slaves would never have been extended such honors.
4. Antiquity’s Most Famous Queen Was Closer to Us Than to the Pyramids
The civilization of Ancient Egypt lasted for a seriously long time: from before the construction of the Great Pyramids, to the annexation of Egypt by the Romans, circa 30 BC. To put into perspective just how long that was, consider this: we are closer in time to one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous queens, Cleopatra, than she was to the Great Pyramids.
Fewer years separate us from Cleopatra (69 – 30 BC), than separate Cleopatra from the Pyramids. Cleopatra famously committed suicide in 30 BC, or 2050 years ago at the time of this writing. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built around 2580 BC, about 2510 years before Cleopatra was born. So we are roughly 461 years closer to Cleopatra, than she was to the Great Pyramid. And the Great Pyramid was not built at the start of Ancient Egypt’s civilization, but over five centuries after it began, sometime around 3150 BC.
The medieval era’s Black Death was history’s deadliest pandemic. However, the Plague of Justinian, 541 – 542 AD, gives it a run for its money in lethality and consequences. It was named after the East Roman Emperor Justinian I, during whose reign it occurred – and who survived getting infected with it. It swept across three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa, making it history’s first recorded pandemic.
The Plague of Justinian, like the Black Death, was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Also like the Black Death, the Plague of Justinian struck with a devastating initial outbreak, followed by several recurrences in succeeding years. By the time the last recurrence ended and the Plague of Justinian had died out, 25 million to 100 million people had perished.
The Plague of Justinian was caused by a strain of Yersinia pestis bacterium that probably originated near the Tian Shan Mountains in Central Asia, near the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. It was mainly bubonic, like the Black Death, and felled its victims with all the bubonic plague’s horrors. It first struck China and northern India, made its way via trade routes to the Great Lakes region of Africa, then down the Nile to Egypt.
The Plague of Justinian was transmitted by infected fleas carried by black rats. Egypt was the Eastern Roman Empire’s chief granary, and from its seaports, ships laden with grain – and also rats hosting infected fleas – sailed across the Mediterranean. The pandemic rapidly spread from Egypt to the rest of the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Constantinople, which served as both capital and commercial centers for the East Roman Empire. From Constantinople, the pandemic rapidly spread through the rest of Europe.
The Plague of Justinian hit Europe hard: an estimated 40% to 50% of the population perished. However, the mortality was not spread evenly. The pandemic followed the established trade routes, so ports and cities were hit especially hard. The countryside and the parts of Europe that lay off the established trade routes got off relatively lightly.
That lopsided death toll, heavy in the cities and relatively light in the countryside, marked a transitional point for Europe. It ended what was left of the Ancient Era’s Classical Age, and ushered in the Feudal Era. The Classical Age had been marked by a significant urban culture. The Plague of Justinian – on top of Justinian’s many wars – wrecked that, devastating the cities and an economy built around sustaining urban life. The center of power shifted from the cities to the countryside, and rural strong men emerged as the founders of feudalism. One era and way of life died, and another one was born.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading