The ancient world was chock full of fascinating facts that are little known today. For example, how many know that the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras was so peeved about friends drinking more than their fair share of wine, that he invented a goblet that punished greedy drinkers by spilling wine on them? Or that the ancient Romans cleaned their mouths with pee? Or that whoopee cushions existed in ancient Rome? Following are forty things about those and other fascinating but lesser-known facts from the ancient world.
40. Ancient Fun From an Unexpected Source
“Fun” is not what comes to mind when most people think of Pythagoras (circa 570 – circa 495 BC), the ancient Greek philosopher whose Pythagorean theorem has tormented school children for generations untold. To be sure, he had some funny beliefs, such as loathing beans because he thought that they contained the souls of the dead, or that people lost a part of their soul whenever they farted.
The thing though is that Pythagoras did not think those beliefs were funny: he was dead serious about them. Literally dead serious. When fleeing from pursuers out to kill him, his flight path ended at a field of beans. Rather than cut through the field and come in contact with the detested beans, he turned around to face his killers, who promptly did him in. However, as seen below, Pythagoras did have a fun side, some of which was manifested in his invention of a prank cup that spilled wine on drinkers.
One fun activity that Pythagoras enjoyed was drinking wine. For that matter, so did most ancient Greeks. However, Pythagoras had a pet peeve when it came to drinking: he did not like wine hogs. Specifically, he did not like it when greedy friends filled their cups to the brim, and took more than their fair share of the wine. He decided to do something about that, and invented a special cup that came to be named after him.
Superficially, the Pythagorean Cup looks like a traditional ancient Greek goblet. Inside, however, it contains a column sticking up in the middle. One can drink from it like any other goblet, provided one does not try to fill it to the maximum. Pythagoras designed the cup so that if an unsuspecting drinking companion became a wine hog and tried to fill it, it would instead drain all the wine and spill it out the bottom. Presumably, getting wine spilled all over him – and the hassle of figuring out how to remove wine stains – would teach the greedy friend a lesson about the moderation.
The Pythagorean Cup uses the basic principle of the siphon – same as that used to drain gas out of a car’s tank with a hose. The column inside the cup has a small hole at the bottom. The hole leads to an inverted U-shaped pathway inside the column. The pathway leads up from the hole at the bottom of the cup’s interior, to the top of the column, then loops back down to another hole at the base of the cup.
When wine is poured into the cup, the column inside fills to the same level as that of the wine in the cup. So long as the cup’s wine level does not reach the top of the U, the Pythagorean Cup functions like any other cup. However, if the wine level tops the column, and thus the U bend within it, the cup’s special effect takes over. Soon as wine tops the U bend and spills into the part of the column headed towards the hole at the base of the cup, the cup becomes a siphon, and begins to drain. Once the siphoning effect begins, it does not stop draining wine until the cup is empty.
The ancient Roman poet Catullus (circa 84 – circa 54 BC) once directed an insult at a man named Egnatius, whose smile the poet seems to have disliked. It reveals something startling about Romans’ day-to-day lives: they cleaned their mouths with pee. As the poet put it in his put down:
“There’s nothing more foolish than foolishly smiling. Now you’re Spanish – in the country of Spain what each man pisses, he’s used to brushing his teeth and red gums with, every morning, so the fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re more full of piss“. The insult regarding an abnormal practice was that of Egnatius smiling too much, which was bad because smiles were presumably worthless. The diss was not about the cleaning-one’s-mouth-with-pee bit: that part was perfectly normal in ancient Rome.
36. Ancient Romans Routinely Used Urine in Dental Hygiene
Urine’s active ingredient is ammonia, which the body secretes in the form of urea. Today, we use ammonia in many things, from explosives to cleaning products to agricultural fertilizers. Not only will ammonia remove stubborn stains from your bathtub and oven, it will also leave your dishes and glasses twinkling.
In the modern era, we usually extract ammonia with chemical process that do not rely on pee. The ancient Romans did not have access to modern science, but they still understood the benefits of ammonia. So they got it from the most readily available source back then: piss.
In addition to cleaning their mouths, ancient Romans put pee to a variety of other uses. The laundry trade, for example, relied heavily on stale urine. In giant public laundries known as fullonica, dirty clothes were placed in vats, where they were soaked in stale urine. Then workers – usually slaves – would stomp on them until the stains came out.
Other industries, such as hide tanning and agriculture, used not only urine, but urine mixed with feces. Urine was so important in ancient Romans’ daily lives and their economy, that collecting pee was a big business. As a result, public chamber pots or big vats where anybody could stop and take a piss, were commonplace.
In addition to dental hygiene, industrial, and commercial uses, the ancient Romans also used pee for medicinal purposes. Pliny the Elder, for example, praised stale urine as being highly effective in treating diaper rashes. He also wrote that fresh urine was good for treating “sores, burns, infections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings“.
To modern sensibilities, such remedies might come across as gross and disgusting. However, considering urine’s sterile properties – or more precisely the sterile properties of the ammonia contained in urine – such medicinal applications might have actually had something going for them.
Pee collection and resale was a big and thriving business in ancient Rome. And as happens with any thriving business that generates revenue, the pee industry did not escape the attention of the government’s tax collectors – in that, the ancient world was not much different from the modern one. Ancient Roman tradesmen specializing in collecting pee were granted special licenses for the privilege, and were taxed accordingly. That was when the government did not tax the pissers directly.
One of Emperor Vespasian’s revenue-raising schemes involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. When his son argued that collecting revenue from bodily excreta was beneath imperial dignity, Vespasian held a coin beneath his nose, and asked whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson by remarking: “money does not smell“, a phrase that became a Latin proverb.
The ancient Greek xiphos sword was in use since the Bronze Age, and was mentioned by Homer. A pointed and double-edged short sword, typically with a two-foot-long leaf-shaped blade, the xiphos was used for both cutting and thrusting. Designed for single-handed use, it was favored by Greek hoplites and was carried by them as standard equipment when they marched off to war.
The xiphos’ leaf shape distributed the blade’s weight more towards the tip. That put more mass behind the point of impact in cutting and hacking strokes. Because added mass means added momentum, it allowed the blade to cut more readily. Additionally, the leaf shape gave the blade a curve on both sides, and such curves were useful in pushing and drawing cuts at close quarters.
31. Ancient Spartans Kept Their Swords Short to Draw Their Men Closer to the Enemy
Xiphoi were initially made of bronze. That made their leaf shape blades easy to create because bronze, unlike iron and steel, is cast rather than forged. Thus, getting the leaf shape for a bronze sword was simply a matter of pouring molten bronze into a leaf-shaped mold. By the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the ancient world had undergone significant advances in metallurgy, and iron supplanted bronze in making xiphoi.
Xiphoi were usually carried in a baldric and hung under the user’s left arm. As ancient Greek warfare revolved around the phalanx, which was a spear-based formation, the xiphos was the hoplite’s or phalangite’s secondary weapon. It was employed in close combat for situations in which the spear was ineffective or not ideal. The ancient Spartans were noted for their use of the xiphos, and Spartan xiphoi blades were particularly short, measuring only a foot in length. As the Spartans liked to tell anybody who asked, the short blades were intended to instill aggression in Spartan warriors, by forcing them to draw that much closer to their enemies.
In the centuries before Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and its subsequent pacification and Romanization, region was dominated by Celtic peoples. The ancient Celts controlled not only Gaul, but also most of Europe north of the Po and Danube river valleys. They had a fearsome reputation that terrified many. The Romans in particular saw the barbarian Celts – whom they referred to as Gauls – as their greatest national threat. For centuries, Roman mothers quieted down their fussy tots by warning them that the Gauls might hear them.
The Romans had good reason for alarm. Throughout much of Rome’s early history, Celtic/ Gaulish tribes dominated Italy north of the Po River and along much of Italy’s Adriatic coast. That was not particularly far as the crow flies, or as the barbarian marches. The dangers of that nearness was driven home in 387 BC, when Gaulish tribesmen, led by a chieftain named Brennus, defeated a Roman army, then marched on to capture and sack Rome. It was a feat that no foreigners would repeat for another eight centuries.
The ancient world’s Celtic warriors were famous for the quality of their weapons, their courage and ferocity in battle, their frightful battle cries, and their terrifying, butt naked, headlong charges. That intimidating reputation made them highly sought after as mercenaries.
Starting in the fourth century BC – and especially after the fragmentation of Alexander the Great’s empire into feuding Hellenistic states – Celtic mercenaries became all the rage from Sicily to Asia Minor. In addition to fighting for the various Greek kingdoms, Celts also fought for Carthage, and formed a significant part of Hannibal’s army when he invaded Italy in the Second Punic War, 218 – 201 BC.
Celtic mercenaries were also a bulwark of ancient Egypt’s Ptolemaic Dynasty in the third century BC, and were included in the Egyptian army’s order of battle. For example, King Ptolemy II Philadelphus hired 4000 Celtic mercenaries, recruited from the Balkans with help from the Anigonids of Macedon. They played a decisive role in beating back a challenge from a half-brother who made a bid for Ptolemy’s throne.
However, the Celt mercenaries then made a bid of their own to dethrone Ptolemy and seize Egypt for themselves. After crushing their rebellion, Ptolemy dumped them into a small island in the Nile, to die of starvation. Notwithstanding, the Ptolemies continued to hire Celts mercenaries – their lack of local roots made them particularly useful in putting down uprisings by native Egyptians. They remained in Ptolemaic service until the end, and the dynasty’s final ruler, Cleopatra, employed Celtic mercenaries.
The Roman legionaries’ chief weapon, the gladius sword, was copied from the ancient Celtiberians of Hispania. The Romans first came in contact with the Celtiberians during the early stages of their conquest of Hispania, beginning in the third century BC, and were impressed by the natives’ sword. The gladius hispaniensis, became the Romans’ primary weapon for the next five centuries. The gladius was thus the weapon that gained the Romans their empire, won their greatest victories, pushed their boundaries to their furthest extent, and brought ancient Rome to the zenith of its power.
There was various versions of the gladius, but all gladii shared some common characteristics. They were double-edged straight steel swords, with a blade measuring around two feet in length, tapering into a ‘V-shaped tip. The gladius was used mainly as a close-quarter combat thrusting weapon, although it could be used to cut and slash as well. The handle was usually ridged for the user’s fingers or knobbed for a solid grip. A significant feature distinguishing the gladius, as well as its descendants into the early and intermediate Middle Ages, was the absence of a cross guard.
26. The Sword With Which Ancient Rome Won an Empire
The gladius was typically carried in a scabbard affixed to a belt on the Roman legionary’s right hip. In combat, the legionary with his torso armored and his head protected by a helmet, carried a long shield. The shield was initially oval, but later became rectangular and curved. It covered most of his body from his shins to his chin. In his right hand, he held his gladius in an underhanded grip, its tip projecting from the right side of his shield at waist level.
The legionary strove to stab his gladius into his foe’s abdomen or chest; above the upper rim of his shield into the enemy’s face or neck; or if the opportunity presented itself, slashing at the opponent’s knees or legs, or hamstringing him with a drawing cut. The gladius’ relatively short blade was great in close quarters: it allowed the legionary to step inside his enemy’s guard and thrust at speed in any direction from which his foe was vulnerable. That would have been awkward with a long sword, which would have required more space between the parties for optimal thrusting.
Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (204- 222) was declared ruler of the empire when he was barely fourteen. Unsurprisingly, handing that kind of power to a teenager did not turn out well. While not as cruel as some of ancient Rome’s more monstrous rulers – he was no gratuitously cruel Caligula or Commodus – Heliogabalus did display the occasional mean streak.
That streak often showed in his practical jokes, which, considering that he was an emperor with none above him, always meant punching down. At the milder end of the teenaged emperor’s pranking was his propensity for seating some of his more pompous dinner guests on the ancient Roman version of whoopee cushions, that emitted farting noises when they parked their posterior. The crueler end of the spectrum, as seen below, was putting people in fear of their lives.
Embarrassing people by seating them on whoopee cushions is a relatively harmless practical joke, redolent of innocent fun. Not so Heliogabalus’ habit of pranking people by putting them in mortal fear of life and limb. One of his favorite pranks began with the teenaged emperor getting his dinner guests so drunk, that they had to crash and sleep it off in the palace.
Once the inebriated guests passed out, Heliogabalus had his servants sneak tamed lions, leopards, bears, or a mix thereof, into their bedroom. Come the morning, the emperor would bust a gut laughing at his hungover guests’ reaction to waking up in the midst of a menagerie of man-eating predators. Between that and other behavior his subjects viewed as deviant, Romans heaved a sigh of relief when Heliogabalus was violently overthrown at age eighteen. He was beheaded, his corpse was tossed into a river, and his memory was damned by a senatorial edict
Ancient Scythia’s King Idanthyrsus ruled a nomadic Iranian-speaking tribal confederacy in the sixth century BC, that inhabited the Steppe between the Carpathians and central China. His territory lay astride an overland trade network that connected the Greeks, Chinese, Persians, and Indians. Milking that network’s resources, the Scythians created the first of the Steppe empires that terrified the neighboring settled lands for millennia.
Starting in the seventh century BC, the Scythians began raiding into the Middle East. Their first major disruptive role occurred in 612 BC, when they played a leading part in the destruction of the Assyrian Empire. That forever extinguished a nation that had existed for over a millennium and had dominated the Middle East for centuries. The region was eventually taken over by the Persians, and in 513 BC Darius I of Persia sought to end Scythian raids on his empire by conquering them. It did not turn out well.
After assembling a huge army to settle the Scythians’ hash once and for all, Persia’s King Darius I launched an invasion along the western Black Sea coast, and into today’s southern Ukraine and Russia. It was one of the ancient world’s greatest attempts to subdue troublesome Steppe nomads. It failed when the Scythians adopted the simple expedient of retreating into the vastness of the Steppe, taking their families and herds with them.
Avoiding the decisive pitched battle Darius sought, the Scythians’ King Idanthyrsus ordered his men to adopt scorched earth tactics in the face of the advancing invaders, and had them lay the countryside to waste. The Scythian men blocked wells and destroyed pastures while wearing down the Persian king’s forces with skirmishes and hit and run attacks.
Frustrated by the Scythians’ tactics, Darius challenged Idanthyrsus to stop fleeing and either fight, or admit his weakness and submit, recognizing the Persians as his lords. The Scythian’s response, as recorded by Herodutus, highlights the difficulty in forcing turbulent nomads to fight if they did not want to. As he put it in one of the ancient world’s cheekiest responses: “This is my way, O Persian. I have never fled in fear from any man and I do not flee from you now … We have neither cities nor cultivated land for which we might be willing to fight with you, fearing that they might be taken or ravaged … As for lords, I recognize only my ancestors Zeus and Hestia … As to you calling yourself my lord, I tell thee to ‘Go weep’“.
Darius had to give up and turn back, his invasion amounting to little more than an expensive and fruitless demonstration. Scythians were still raiding the Persian Empire centuries later until its destruction by Alexander the Great, and continued to raid the former Persian lands for centuries beyond that.
Ancient Rome’s Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12 – 41 AD) is better known to history by his nickname Caligula (“Little Boots”). He got the nickname because of the miniature legionary outfits he wore as a child while accompanying his father on military campaigns. Little Boots grew to become emperor of Rome from 37 to 41 AD, and is probably the gold standard for crazy rulers.
Caligula was raised by his uncle, Emperor Tiberius, who might have been the most paranoid odd fish to have ever ruled ancient Rome. Tiberius spent much of his reign as a recluse in a pedophilic pleasure palace in Capri, only surfacing on occasion to order the execution of relatives accused of treason. Tiberius’ victims included Caligula’s mother and two brothers, and he probably poisoned Caligula’s father as well. A great natural actor, Caligula hid any resentment felt towards his uncle and survived the bitter Tiberius, who named him heir, quipping “I am rearing a viper for the Roman people“.
The years of repressed living left their mark on Caligula. Once freed of the ever-present threat of execution by his paranoid uncle, he cut loose in an orgy of lavish spending and hedonistic living, as the combination of sudden freedom and sudden unlimited power went to his head. He kicked off the weirdness early.
To demonstrate his contempt for a soothsayer’s prediction that he had no more chance of becoming emperor than riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae, Caligula ordered a two-mile bridge built across the bay. He then rode his horse across it while wearing the breastplate and armor of Alexander the Great. On another occasion, he started cackling uncontrollably at a party. When asked what was so funny, Caligula replied that he found it hilarious that with a mere gesture of his finger, he could have anybody present beheaded right then and there.
On one occasion, Caligula was displeased by an unruly crowd at the Circus Maximus. So he pointed out a section of the stands to his guards, and ordered them to execute everybody “from baldhead to baldhead“. On another occasion, bored at an arena when told that there were no more criminals to throw to the beasts, he ordered a section of the crowd thrown to the wild animals.
His depravities included incest with his sisters. At dinner parties, he frequently ordered guests’ wives to his bedroom, and after bedding them, returned to the party to rate the quality of their performance, berating the cuckolded husbands if Caligula thought their wives were lacking. He also turned the imperial palace into a whorehouse, staffed with the wives of leading senators and other high-ranking dignitaries. To further demonstrate his contempt for the senatorial class and the Roman Republic for which they pined, Caligula had his beloved horse made consul – the Republic’s highest magistracy.
Caligula’s craziness included the time when he declared war on the sea god Neptune. He marched his legions to the sea, and had them collect seashells to show the deity who was boss. Caligula eventually declared himself a god, removed the heads from various deities’ statues, and replaced them with his own. However, it was not the weirdness that doomed Caligula, but his grievous error in offending his own bodyguards.
His security detail’s commander, Chaerea, had a high-pitched voice, and Caligula got a kick out of mocking him as effeminate. He thought it hilarious to come up with derogatory daily passwords that had to do with homosexuality, and whenever Chaerea was due to kiss the imperial ring, Caligula made sure it was on his middle finger, and waggled it obscenely. Chaerea finally had enough, and in 41 AD, he hatched an assassination plot with other Praetorian Guards, and hacked Caligula to death.
Phanes of Halicarnassus (flourished 6th century BC) was an ancient Greek mercenary general who served Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis II (570 – 524 BC). During a war between Egypt and Persia, Phanes switched sides. joined the army of King Cambyses II of Persia, and played an instrumental role in helping the Persians defeat his former employers and paymasters.
The war was supposedly instigated by the intrigues of a disgruntled Egyptian eye doctor, sent to the Persian court by Pharaoh Amasis when Persia’s king Cambyses asked for a physician to treat his sight. Angry at the Pharaoh for separating him from his family and sending him all the way to Persia, the doctor got his revenge by advising the Persian king to ask for Amasis’ favorite daughter. He knew that the request would put Amasis in a bind: accept and grow wretched at the loss of his daughter, or refuse, and offend Cambyses.
Pharaoh Amasis did not want to send his beloved daughter to Persia, especially because he knew that Cambyses did not want her as a wife, but as a mere concubine. However, he was also intimidated by Persia’s power: by then, ancient Egypt was in decline, and its military was no match for the Persians’. So Amasis fudged, and sent Cambyses the daughter of a former pharaoh. It backfired: soon as she reached Persia, the former princess told the Persian king that Amasis had tried to fob him off with somebody else’s daughter. Cambyses, who had been itching for an excuse to conquer Egypt, declared war.
Amasis chose that precarious time to offend Phanes, and the disgruntled Greek general set out to join the Persians. Amasis sent eunuch assassins to kill or capture Phanes before he reached Cambyses. However, after harrowing adventures, including an escape from captivity by getting his guards drunk, Phanes reached the Persians. He promptly advised Cambyses about the best invasion route into Egypt, through Arab tribal lands, bribing their chieftains into granting him safe passage with generous gifts.
Pharaoh Amasis had died by the time Cambyses invaded Egypt, and had been succeeded by his son, Pharaoh Psamtik III. Enraged at Phanes, Psamtik tricked the Greek general’s sons into meeting him, took them captive, and had them executed. He then had their blood drained and mixed with wine, which he quaffed down along with his subordinates.
Phanes got his revenge by leading the Persian army into Egypt, acting as Cambyses’ guide and military advisor. With the mercenary general’s assistance, the Persians defeated and captured Psamtik. Phanes then engineered the execution of his sons’ murderer by uncovering and informing Cambyses of a plot by the captive pharaoh to stir up a revolt.
Ephialtes son of Eurydemos, better known to history as Ephialtes of Traches, was a member of ancient Greece’s Malian tribe, after whom the Malian Gulf in the northwestern Aegean is named. When King Xerxes of Persia invaded Greece in the fifth century BC, Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by showing the Persians a path that allowed them to bypass and surround a Spartan force that had halted the invaders at Thermopylae.
The invasion came after decades of mounting tensions, spurred by Athens’ support during the reign of Persia’s King Darius I of a failed rebellion by his Ionian Greek subjects in Asia Minor. That led to a Persian punitive expedition against Athens, which was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In 480 BC, Darius’ son and successor, King Xerxes, gathered forces for a massive campaign to conquer and subdue Greece once and for all.
Faced with the approach of a vast Persian army, the Malians, at the northeastern juncture of the Greek Peninsula with the rest of the Balkans, were among the many Greeks who chose discretion over valor. They “Medised” – that is, submitted to and collaborated with the Persians against other Greeks. Along the Persian army’s route through Malian lands was a narrow pass known as Thermopylae, or “Hot Gates”, situated between mountains to the south and the cliff-lined shore of the Malian Gulf to the north.
Sparta’s King Leonidas led a small Spartan-led Greek force, that occupied and fortified the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians, forced to attack directly up the pass on a narrow front, had their numerical advantage neutralized. They were bested by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks, especially the elite core of superbly trained Spartans. For three days, the Persians launched futile attacks, but could not make the Greeks budge.
The Persians were stuck in front of the Thermopylae pass, until Ephialtes struck. He informed King Xerxes that he knew of a track through the mountains that bypassed Thermopylae, and reemerged to join the road behind the Greek position. In exchange for the promise of rich rewards, Ephialtes showed the Persians the way. Alerted that he was about to be outflanked, Sparta’s King Leonidas sent the rest of the Greeks away. He stayed behind with what remained of a 300-strong contingent of Spartans, who fought to the death until they were wiped out.
Ephialtes was reviled from the ancient era to the present, and his name came to mean “nightmare” in Greek. He never collected his reward: the Persian invasion collapsed when their fleet was defeated at Salamis later that year, and their army was crushed at Plataea the following year. Ephialtes fled, with a bounty on his head. He was killed ten years later over an unrelated matter, but the Spartans rewarded his killer anyhow.
10. Were Woolly Mammoths Around When the Pyramids Were Built?
Woolly mammoths flourished during the Pleistocene epoch. The extinct ancient pachyderms were roughly the size of modern African elephants, with males reaching shoulder heights greater than 11 feet, and weighing in at around 6 tons. Females reached nearly 10 feet at the shoulders, weighed around 4 tons, and calved newborns that weighed roughly 200 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 short ears and tail, 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. Were they still around when the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid?
9. Woolly Mammoths Survived the End of the Ice Age
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 vanish 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.
Most woolly mammoths were hunted by humans into extinction. They disappeared from the continental mainland of Eurasia and North America between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago. The last mainland population, in the Kyttyk Peninsula in Siberia, 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 about 2000 BC, roughly 4000 years ago. That was well into the era of human civilization and recorded human history, and centuries after the Great Pyramid of Giza, whose construction concluded around 2560 BC, had been built.
The ancient Egyptians’ construction of 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, plus fiction and film in the modern era, further cemented the perception that ancient Egyptians used slave labor for their great building projects. Despite graffiti inside the Great Pyramids suggesting paid laborers, made by the workers who built the monuments, the notion that slaves built the pyramids became entrenched in the popular imagination. That notion is wrong.
The idea that the Great Pyramids were built by slaves remained widespread until Egyptologists discovered the city of the pyramids’ builders in 1977, and excavations demonstrated that the builders 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.
The builders hailed from poor families from all over Egypt, and were not only paid for their work, but were so respected for their labor 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. Such honors would never have been extended to slaves.
5. Fewer Years Separate Us from Cleopatra Than Separate Her From the Building of the Pyramids
Ancient Egypt’s civilization lasted for a seriously long time, from before when the Great Pyramids were built, 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 Great 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 about 460 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.
Ancient China’s Chin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC) was a megalomaniac who wanted to live forever. In a catastrophic twist, his megalomania ended up killing him, instead. The founder of the imperial Chin Dynasty, Shi Huang was king of the Chinese state of Chin during the Warring States Period. He ascended the throne as a child, and soon as he became a teenager, he wrested power from the regents who had governed during his minority.
Shi Huang consolidated his power by massacring palace plotters who sought to usurp his prerogatives, then went on the warpath. He pushed back the northern barbarians, conquered all neighboring Chinese states, and consolidated them under his rule. He capped that off by declaring himself the first emperor of a unified China.
Chin Shi Huang set out to unify his newly conquered empire by standardizing the currency, weights, and measures. He also introduced a system of government known as Legalism, which was based on strict laws and harsh punishments. He ended the feudalism that had led to the centuries of warfare that gave the Warring States Period its name, and replaced it with a centralized bureaucratic government in which advancement was based on merit.
To keep the nobility in check, Shi Huang kept those he favored in the capital. There, he controlled them with pensions and fancy titles, and transformed them from an uncontrollable warrior class into dependents and tame courtiers. Then, abolishing all aristocratic titles and ranks, except for those created and bestowed by him, he had the rest of the nobility killed or put to work.
Chin Shi Huang had everybody working. With unchecked power and the resources of an entire empire to draw upon, he grew megalomaniacal. He launched huge projects with massive amounts of forced labor, such as 700,000 workers toiling on his tomb for 30 years. The famous Terracotta Warriors site, discovered in the 1970s and now open to tourism with its thousands of life size statues, is but a fraction of his gigantic tomb complex. The rest is yet to be unearthed.
Millions more labored to dig canals, level hills, make roads, and build Shi Huang over 700 palaces. The biggest project of all was the Great Wall of China. It did double duty: keeping out the northern barbarians, and keeping in the Chinese seeking to flee Shi Huang’s heavy taxation and oppressive rule.
Another manifestation of Chin Shi Huang’s megalomania was his pursuit of immortality drugs. He lavishly funded searches for a “Life Elixir”, including an expedition with hundreds of ships that sailed off into the Pacific in search of a mythical “Land of the Immortals”. It was never heard from again. He also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to inventing the Life Elixir, but their R&D was hobbled by a lack of funding – a problem which Shi Huang generously put to rights.
One of those charlatans gave the emperor daily mercury pills. Swallowing mercury every day, the emperor gradually poisoned himself and gradually grew insane. He became a recluse who concealed himself from all but his closest courtiers, listened constantly to songs about “Pure Beings”, ordered 400 scholars buried alive, and had his son and heir banished. Rather than prolong his life, Shi Huang shortened it in his pursuit of immortality and died of mercury poisoning at the relatively young age of 49.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading