Some Differences in Life between the Ancient and Modern Worlds

Hieroglyphics in Ancient and Modern World

Life was vastly different for people in ancient times, and we must understand our ancestors’ conditions to appreciate their lives, comprehend their thinking, and learn from them. How did life vary between the ancient and modern worlds?

By Mark D. Harris

In a time without cell phones, computers, telephones, automobiles, refrigerators, and all the beeps, buzzes and noises of modern life, silence was common.  In a time when the world’s population was less than fifty 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 article 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.


Ancient – Without photographs and with drawings and paintings rare, man’s visual input was limited to the sights of his immediate surroundings. Few people had seen snow and jungles and mountains and forests and oceans because they rarely traveled more than a few dozen miles from home and those features are rarely co-located. Travelers could describe features to friends back home, but direct experience of varied sights was uncommon. With few written documents and little literacy, reading and analyzing documents was unusual.

People in Canaan had an advantage over many other ancient peoples in their visual experiences for two reasons. First, Canaan has snow and mountains (Mt. Hermon and vicinity), forests (Lebanon, Galilee, Jordan River basin), deserts (in the south around Beersheba, Negev), and the Mediterranean Sea. As nations go, Canaan is small (comparable in land mass to modern Slovenia or El Salvador), and residents of the land had only a few weeks travel from the deserts in the mountains in the north (Beersheba to Mount Hermon is just over two hundred miles by ancient routes). The distance from the Jordan River to the east, and Mediterranean Sea to the west is only sixty miles. Second, Canaan was a crossroads of trade between Mesopotamia, Arabia, Africa, Asia, and Europe. People could see traders from India bringing peacocks and elephants, those from Yemen bringing gold and spices, and those from Europe trading furs. Assyria and Egypt were mighty empires compared to puny Israel, but while average Assyrians may never have seen an ocean and average Egyptians may never have seen snow or mountains, ordinary Israelites could easily have experienced both. Few places in the world can boast of such geographic and climatic diversity in so small an area.

Modern – 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.


Ancient – The sounds of nature, the human voice, and the noises of a few manmade things such as the creak and groan of the oxcart and the clash of swords comprised the sounds available to be heard. The overall noise level, except near inherently noisy places such as waterfalls, was low. Conversation occurs at about sixty decibels (db) and the sound of a large waterfall such as Niagara might tip one hundred decibels. A human shout, such as what people might have heard in war, tops out about ninety db. Our ancestors would rarely have heard anything louder.

Modern – 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, with traffic hovering around eighty db and a jet takeoff hitting 140 db. Since over 50% of humanity lives in cities, most people experience more sounds than their ancestors did. Hearing damage from noise exposure was different in the ancient and modern worlds.


Ancient – 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.

Modern – 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.


Ancient – As with smells, food could not travel far, so people experienced only what was local or regional. Because Canaan was a land bridge for trade between the continents, Israelites would have had the chance to experience much more variety than those at the end of trade routes, such as the Ethiopians.

Roman diets, like all diets, were limited by what grew near or could be transported efficiently. Wealthy Romans could feast on spelt (wheat), barley, millet, and rye to make bread and porridge. Potatoes, found only in the New World, were out of reach. Plums, pomegranates, pears, figs, and apples abounded, but tomatoes, also a New World plant, were absent. Sesame and fennel spiced Roman palates, but only occasionally cinnamon and not likely nutmeg or cloves.

Vegetables included carrots, rutabagas, cabbage, asparagus, beets, leeks, mushrooms, and chickpeas, but no eggplant. Corn and coffee were no where to be found. Romans enjoyed a variety of meats such as duck, deer, pigeon, fish, pork, chicken, goat, and delicacies such as flamingo, camel heel, oak grubs, sow’s womb, and nightingale tongue.[1]

Date palms, common in the Indus River valley as early as the sixth millennium BC, were widespread in the ancient near east. Date palms produce an abundance of sweet fruit and resist spoilage. People eat the celery-like heart and drink wine fermented from the sap.[2]

Modern – As with smells, the only limit to tastes one can experience today is the limitations of the human body.


Ancient – Tactile stimuli are the same throughout the world.

Modern – 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.


Ancient – 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. Combat larger than small unit actions could not occur at night because commanders could not control bodies of troops. Land navigation depended upon the stars and landmarks because roads, until the famous Assyrian roads, with their regular waypoints, were generally narrow and could be easily missed.

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.

Modern – 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.


Ancient – The phases of the moon and the movement of the stars were important for religious observances and for long distance navigation, especially nautical.

Modern – Navigation is done with timepieces, maps, charts, and radio and satellite navigation aids.  Celestial navigation is a vanishing art.


Ancient – 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. The Gezer calendar of the thirteenth century BC illustrates the agricultural focus of the ancient Israelites.[3]

His two months are (olive) harvest

His two months are planting (grain)

His two months are late planting

His month is hoeing flax

His month is harvest of barley

His month is harvest and feasting

His two months are vine-tending

His month is summer fruit

Modern – 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 twenty-five to thirty miles although it was possible to go faster if the roads were good. With Roman roads, for example, horse-drawn mail carts could travel up to fifty miles per day.[4] Relay teams could carry a most urgent message up to 170 miles per day.

Augustus Caesar developed the first Roman mail service, including the cursus publicus for official communication such as military orders and political instructions. The two branches of the cursus publicus included the cursus velox (faster shipping, up to 1500 lbs, usually by cart), and the cursus clabularis (open wagon course) which used oxen to transport heavier loads.[5]. Rome built 47,000 miles of post roads and maintained relay stations to facilitate movement. Each station had a stationmaster, a veterinarian, an accountant, grooms, and mail carriers. Relay station duties included quartering animals, transferring cargo, providing resupply, and offering shelter.

Private letters were excluded from the cursus publicus and carried by servants or by travelers such as merchantmen.  Phoebe appears to have carried Paul’s letter to Rome (Romans 16:1), Epaphroditus to Philippi (Philippians 2:25), and Tychichus and Onesimus to Colossae (Colossians 4:7-9).

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 one hundred 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 eighteen 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 sixty 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 five hundred tons (1,000,000 lbs).  It is little wonder that sea trade was far cheaper than land trade.

By contrast, modern trucks can travel four hundred miles in one day while carrying twenty-four tons (48,000 lbs).  Modern ultra large container vessels (ULCV) can carry up to 15,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).  Each TEU represents approximately twenty-four tons (48,000 lbs).  Thus, one modern ULCV can carry roughly 360,000 lbs. of load.


Health was one of the greatest differences between ancient and modern times.  As late as England in the 18th century, twenty-five women died for every 1000 babies born.  According to estimates using data from the Roman Empire, about three hundred 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 twenty-five years, but people who lived into adulthood probably made it to their sixties or seventies.

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 ten deaths per 100,000 live births.

Social Organization

Societies in the ancient near east, and really in the entire ancient world, were based on families and lineage. The most basic level was bet ab or “house of the father.” The bet ab included the nuclear and extended family, up to three generations, with the oldest male (who was still capable) being the paterfamilias. He was the leader of the family, which in Israel could include sons, grandsons, unmarried daughters, wives, children, daughters-in-law, aunts, uncles, widows, orphans, servants, geurim (non-kin included in the family protective network), and sometimes Levites who worked for the family as a priest (Judges 17-18).[6] The paterfamilias was responsible for the protection and well-being of the family, and the family in turn owed loyalty and obedience to him.

Family relationships in the bet ab were organized around agrarian activities, and 98% of ancient peoples engaged in or at least were familiar with such activities. Work lasted from sunup to sun down and everyone had chores to do.

The second level was the level of the king, often known as the tribal chieftain. He was the leader of the entire ethnic group, which included those who, by birth (Israel, 12 tribes), marriage (Ruth) and allegiance (the proselytes of the New Testament), considered themselves to be a part of it. Similar to the father in the household group, the king owed his position to his family connections. Wise kings took pains to cultivate such connections, as they conferred legitimacy and loyalty. One reason that Solomon married so many women is that he wished to establish family links to the surrounding nations to enhance and trade and security in Israel. In exchange for allegiance to the king, members of society expected the king to protect them. The house of David or the house of Omri were examples of the bet ab referring to a kingdom rather than a single family.

The third level was that of the deity. In Israel, YHWH was the ultimate patriarchal figure. In Assyria, Babylon, and Canaan, Asher, Marduk, and Baal took on that role. Ancient religions were affiliated with ancient people, and proselytizing would have been seen as pointless, if not disloyal to one’s kin group. God intended the ancient Hebrew faith to be missionary, but the Israelites themselves largely rejected it. The experiences of the Prophet Jonah are a good example. People performed religious duties to honor their god, and in return expected fertility, protection, and an overall good life.

In the modern day, the State has taken over many of the functions of the family in society. To some extent, this is inevitable, as no family has the range of resources necessary to cope with modern complexities. Also to an extent, it has always been that way, as even in the Bronze Age only governments had the resources to build cities and fortresses. Today, however, the State has assumed power hitherto reserved almost exclusively to the family. Care for elders was once a family affair, as was the training of children. Individual economic prosperity was achieved by hard work, and often with the help of kinsmen, rather than being a government duty.


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.

Related Articles

  1. Calendars of the Ancient Near East
  2. Some Differences Between Oral Societies in the Ancient Near East and Modern Literary Societies
  3. Timekeeping in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East


[1] Philip J. King, Lawrence E. Stager, Life in the Ancient World: Crafts, Society, and Daily Practice, Biblical Archeological Society, Washington DC, 2013

[2] Outside the kitchen, date palm fronds were lashed together to make the walls of ancient huts. Dates were used as wages and as trade goods. Plants reach full productivity after thirty years and produce fruit until they are well over a century old.

[3]   Philip J. King, Lawrence E. Stager, Life in the Ancient World: Crafts, Society, and Daily Practice, Biblical Archeological Society, Washington DC, 2013

[4]   Philip J. King, Lawrence E. Stager, Life in the Ancient World: Crafts, Society, and Daily Practice, Biblical Archeological Society, Washington DC, 2013

[5]   Philip J. King, Lawrence E. Stager, Life in the Ancient World: Crafts, Society, and Daily Practice, Biblical Archeological Society, Washington DC, 2013

[6] Philip J. King, Lawrence E. Stager, Life in the Ancient World: Crafts, Society, and Daily Practice, Biblical Archeological Society, Washington DC, 2013

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