Some Differences in Life between the Ancient and Modern Worlds

Our world in the 21st century is vastly different than the world of the Bible. We need to step into their world to understand. 

Those who study antiquity would do well to consider life in earlier times compared to life in the West in the 21st century. The technological differences are staggering but other differences, including population and world view, are equally daunting.

In a time without cell phones, computers, telephones, automobiles, refrigerators, and all of the beeps, buzzes and noises of modern life, silence was common. In a time when the world’s population was less than 50 million, solitude was common. In a time when populations lived or died according to the size of their local annual harvest, austerity was the norm. This paper will mention only a few.


By design, man has always received information from the world outside of himself through his senses. However, in ancient times the senses of man were limited in what they could experience by the local environment. Today such limitations are far less.

Sense Ancient Modern
Sight Without photographs and with drawings and paintings rare, man’s visual input was limited to the sights of his immediate surroundings.With few written documents and little literacy, reading and analyzing documents was unusual. Technology allows almost anyone to have almost any type of visual input, regardless of their environment.With millions of documents on every conceivable subject available to most people in an instant, people can spend large percentages of their time on them.
Hearing The sounds of nature, the human voice, and the noises of a few manmade things such as the creak and groan oxcart and the crash of swords comprised the sounds available to be heard.The overall noise level, except near inherently noisy places such as waterfalls, was low. The only limit of sounds to which one can be exposed is the ability of the human ear.  One can listen to sounds from the deep sea or high atmosphere, sounds never experienced in person by anyone.The overall noise level is relatively high in the cities.  Since over 50% of humanity lives in cities, most people experience more sounds than their ancestors did.
Smell The smells accessible to man were those of the natural world immediately around them.Abraham, for example, probably never experienced the smells of cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves. Due to an increase in trade, the apostles may have. Smells are more limited than sights or sounds because it is more difficult to transmit chemicals over the internet than electrons.  Nonetheless, foods, flowers and other fragrant items can be transported across the globe in a matter of hours.
Taste As with smells, food could not travel far, so people experienced only what was local. As with smells, the only limit to tastes one can experience today is the limitations of the human body.
Touch Tactile stimuli are more or less the same throughout the world. Ancient man was far less protected from hot, cold, rough, smooth, and other such stimuli than we are today. Many of us spend our days in climate controlled houses, buildings and vehicles.

It is important to note that while the ancients had a smaller variety of stimuli to observe, they may have observed more deeply than we do today.


In antiquity, man was governed by the realities of nature in a way that few people living today can even imagine. Sundials, water clocks and other devices were used to tell time in the ancient world, but mechanical clocks were not invented until the early Renaissance. The rhythms of the seasons dictated schedules.

Time Period Ancient Modern
Day Artificial light, usually candles or lamps lit with olive oil, was expensive. Most people had little.  When the sun went down, they went to bed.  Commoners and slaves usually did hard physical labor; farming, hunting, gathering, or construction, and were exhausted when evening came.  David spent hours alone in the countryside with his sheep and Lincoln spent hours alone in the forest splitting wood. Today artificial light is cheap and work is less often hard physical labor.  Instead of being awake 12-14 hours per day like the ancients were, we are awake 16-18 hours per day, most of it filled with activity and sensation
Fortnight The phases of the moon and the movement of the stars were important for religious observances and for long distance navigation, especially nautical Navigation is done with timepieces, maps, charts, and radio and satellite navigation aids.  Celestial navigation is a vanishing art.
Year As largely agricultural people, the seasons dictated man’s activities.  Wars could not occur during the harvest until there were enough people to do both at the same time. Few in developed countries are one poor harvest away from starvation, so the seasons have far less impact on the lives of people.

The greatest force available to man in the ancient world was the pulling force of an ox or horse and the pushing force of the wind or water. Thus man’s ability to lift and move was limited (although as the builders of the pyramids demonstrated, impressive).


Man can walk about three to four miles per hour over moderate terrain, and camel and donkey caravans averaged about the same speed. The typical day’s journey was 25 to 30 miles although it was possible to go faster if the roads were good. Roads were made of dirt until the Roman era and trouble from highwaymen was common. Camels needed to spend up to two months in between long journeys to recuperate. Caravan routes followed established trails or roads between water points. Fodder had to be brought along, with roughly 30 loads of fodder for every 100 loads of merchandise. Each camel would carry loads of up to 300 lbs. Typical cargos were wool, cotton, tea, spices, precious stones, and manufactured goods. A caravan might include 150 camels, roughly eight files of 18 camels per file, for a total of 22.5 tons (45,000 lbs).

Water transportation was by rowing or sailing ships. Depending upon the winds and the current, triremes (ancient Greek ships with rows and sails) typically traveled six to seven miles per hour and travel up to 60 miles per day. Most ships would stay close to the shore and anchor at night to avoid running aground unless they were in very familiar seas. By 240 BC, the Greeks were using cargo ships which were each capable of carrying 500 tons (1,000,000 lbs). It is little wonder that sea trade was far cheaper than land trade.

By contrast, modern trucks can travel 400 miles in one day while carrying 24 tons (48,000 lbs – one twenty foot equivalent unit – TEU). Modern ultra large container vessels (ULCV) can carry up to 15,000 TEUs. Thus one modern ULCV can carry up to 15,000 truckloads of cargo.


Health was one of the greatest differences. As late as England in the 18th century, 25 women died for every 1000 babies born. According to estimates using data from the Roman Empire, about 300 of every 1000 newborns died before completing their first year. Abortion and infanticide, common practices, artificially elevate that number, but modern non-industrial societies sometimes have infant mortality rates of up to 200/1000. Average life expectancy was 25 years, but people who lived into adulthood probably made it to their 60s or 70s.

By contrast, modern life expectancy at birth is 75 to 80 years in the Western world and infant mortality is roughly three to five deaths per 1,000 births. Maternal mortality is roughly 10 deaths per 100,000 live births.


Libraries have been written on this topic, but students of history and historical documents such as the Bible should be aware of these important facts. A clearer understanding of the lives of our ancestors will help us better understand their thoughts, actions, and lives. It will also help us better identify the lessons of history and apply them to our world today.


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