Why you wouldn't survive life in ancient Greece

Of all the ancient civilizations, there's something particularly fascinating about ancient Greece. Maybe it's the fact that they had such an impact on the world today, helping shape everything from math and science to government and law. Or maybe it's the Greek myths. There's something awesome about a pantheon of gods and goddesses who are pretty much just normal, spiteful, occasionally terrible human beings, but with super powers. Whatever it is, ancient Greece is one of those times and places that might seem like not such a bad place to go, on the off chance time travel is invented and everyone gets to pick their own era to retire to. 

Life was simpler then, right? More straightforward. Honest. And speaking of honest, let's be completely that. Ancient Greece is one of those places that just doesn't seem as dirty and disease-ridden as, say, the Middle Ages. Streets were cleaner because people weren't just pooping in them (probably), attitudes were more refined, and it was a society conducive to allowing some of the world's great thinkers to just think. But just because that's how we imagine ancient Greece to be, that doesn't mean it's how it was. You probably wouldn't even survive daily life there, and here's why.

Medicine was based in belief instead of science

It's well-known that the Greeks did a lot to advance our idea of medicine, but those advancements? They didn't come until late.

It wasn't until around the 5th century BC that Greek physicians started looking at illness as something based in science, and before then, the state of the human body was at the whim of the gods. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the belief that sicknesses were handed out by the gods never completely left the field of Greek medicine, even after they started looking to more earthly causes and cures. 

So what did that mean for the patient? Some visited the shrines and temples of Asclepius (like the ruins of the one pictured above), and according to an article in the Chinese Medical Journal, they often participated in a healing ritual called temple sleep, or incubation. It's exactly what it sounds like — sleeping in the temple. In the morning, patients would tell a temple priest what they'd dreamed, and he would prescribe a cure (or declare them healed) based on that. 

While there were technically doctors, there were no actual requirements that needed to be met in order for someone to advertise their services as a physician … aside from, perhaps, the ability to say, "Poof, I'm a doctor!" People were probably better off giving the temple thing a shot.

Surgeons in ancient Greece didn't really know what they were doing

In 2008, the Associated Press picked up a story about a bone-chilling discovery made near Thessaloniki. An archaeological dig had uncovered a skull with a large hole, suggesting someone had tried to perform some kind of surgery. Given that there were no signs of healing, they guessed the patient died not long after. After all, surgery in ancient Greece was a last resort, because even though the Science Museum says the Greeks did have decent iron tools available, surgery was still iffy. 

The word "chirurgia" referred to the practice, and according to William Alexander Greenhill, MD, of Trinity College, Oxford, it essentially meant curing "by cutting and burning." For the most part, surgery was only used if a patient had been wounded, and even though Hippocrates was writing about surgery around 400 BC, there was a problem: The Greeks didn't really have the in-depth knowledge of anatomy needed to make surgeries successful. While Hippocrates did some of the basics, Omar Habbal of the Sultan Qaboos University says serious advances in Greek knowledge of anatomy only really started coming with Aristotle — and his anatomical work led him to declare that the thing that gave life to the body was the soul, so … 

Greenhill says the ancient doctors should be lauded for doing so much with so little basic knowledge, and literally no patient ever has said that of their doctor. Ever. What do patients actually say? "Please know where and what you're cutting into."

The ancient Greeks were big into bleeding

Anyone who headed to a doctor in ancient Greece — especially a doctor that came after the time of Hippocrates (pictured) and Galen — would probably be diagnosed according to humoral theory. And this wasn't just popular in ancient Greece. It was so important it would be used well into the 19th century. 

Basically, the theory said that there are four humors in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Those were associated with both the four seasons (spring, winter, summer, and autumn, respectively) and with the elements (air, water, fire, and earth, also respectively). When the humors were in balance, all was well. When they were out of balance, that's when problems started. According to the Science Museum, treatments were all about restoring balance. Being diagnosed with too much blood would mean a prescription of bloodletting, for example. There was a lot of purging going on in ancient Greece, a lot of laxatives, and, well, that's the general idea. 

Psychology Today says it was about maintaining balance, too, and that could be as weird as eating cold, wet vegetables to reduce black bile. The big problem was that a lot of the time, the treatment was exhausting. In fact, it could do more harm than good, making an already ill person too weak to fight off an infection or illness. Oops. 

Mysterious plagues were definitely a thing

Anyone who happened to be living in Athens in 430 BC had about a 25 percent chance of dying in a horrible, horrible way, and historians still aren't sure exactly what happened. 

Here are the basics (via the University of Hawaii). It was during the Peloponnesian War, and Athens was under siege when an illness broke out. It lasted for around five years, and the death toll was catastrophic. Most of what historians know about the plague comes from the writings of the Athenian general Thucydides, but what he describes isn't anything clearly recognizable as one particular plague or illness, but for a while, it was believed to be either smallpox or typhus. Victims suffered from fevers, bloody and swollen throats and tongues, and finally a violent diarrhea that drained the last of the life out of many victims. 

In 2006, Scientific American reported on a study where DNA collected from the teeth of ancient Athenians swiftly buried in a mass grave suggested it was typhoid fever. Not everyone is convinced, though, and according to The Atlantic, some historians claimed that study's methodology and testing were flawed. One of the most recent suggestions is that it was actually an outbreak of Ebola. Whatever it was, though, it killed a lot of people in a very, very bad way.

Pacifists definitely wouldn't have survived in Ancient Greece

War is human nature, and the ancient Greeks were no exception. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, they were frequently at war with other city-states and with other peoples. In the earliest days of ancient Greece, advancing armies would be made up entirely of private citizens, and not only were they tasked with fighting, they had to supply their own weapons and equipment. 

Their gear was rarely the best, and in many cases, farmers were pulled off their farms to fight, and — if they survived — they were sent back to their farms at the end. Sometimes they were paid, but it was more to cover expenses than get ahead in the world. There was nothing in the way of organization, insignias, or defining features to conveniently illustrate who was fighting for whom.

The organization of these citizen armies varied. Take Athens, for example. What citizens were expected to do depended on their wealth and social status, says the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The citizens not quite at the top of the pecking order but pretty darn close were the horsemen, because they were wealthy enough to keep horses. The next group were the hoplites, because they could afford the 70-odd pounds of armor and weapons they needed to supply and carry, while the poorest class acted as the grunts, the pawns, and the oarsmen. The richest were the officers, and things haven't changed that much after all.

Life in Sparta would break most mortals

Sparta has a reputation as the most militaristic of the Greek city-states, and at the height of their power — around 404 BC — Sparta was so confident in their military might that their city didn't have walls. They didn't need them. They had Spartans.

Figuring out what's real and what's fiction is tough when it comes to Sparta because, LiveScience says, a lot of what historians know comes not from them but their enemies. We do know Sparta was very fertile, and not having to worry too much about food gave them the chance to focus on other things, like fighting and poetry. Their bloody-minded militaristic nature started when they decided they were going to turn neighbors into slaves, and that freed up the actual Spartans to fight more. 

Boys were trained from the age of 7 to 20, when they were given little food, clothing, and supplies, and were expected to be resistant to things like hunger and cold. They were instructed to steal if they needed more than they got, and if they weren't up to it, they were killed — usually as infants. The only time they got a break from training, says National Geographic, is when they were at war. But given that they were walking insane distances, hauling 20 days' worth of provisions, and sleeping on the bare ground with only a cape, it wasn't really a break.

Cosmetics were often deadly

When it comes to ancient people and cosmetics, your first thought might be of the Egyptians and their distinctive, kohl-based look. But according to the BBC, the ancient Greeks liked to look pretty, too. They took a different, minimalist approach, and the ideal look was of healthy skin where the makeup wasn't obvious. But while they weren't using much, what they were using was often made from lead and mercury. 

Those sorts of powders were used well into the 19th century, and according to University College London, that's when women were using so much that the effects became very clear much, much faster: blackened skin, baldness, and even damage to teeth. NBC News says it was both men and women in ancient Greece who took to wearing lead face cream, and it was believed to help keep the complexion clear and improve the skin's condition. It absolutely didn't do either of those things.

You wouldn't survive the rampaging sea pirates

Around 1177 BC, something super weird happened, says Eric Cline of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University (via Haaretz). Civilizations fell, including the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and early Greek civilizations like the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Cities were sacked and burned, trade routes were abandoned, and the whole thing seems to have been summed up best by Hammurabi in a letter: "Behold, the enemy's ships came; my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country."

So who did this evil stuff? No one's really sure, but a whole bunch of people from a whole bunch of interconnected civilizations met a bad end at the hands of a group of raiders history only remembers as the Sea Peoples. 

Egyptian records tell tales of a mysterious people who laid waste to the entire area, and it seems as though they first showed up alongside the Hittites. Strangely, no one recorded who they were or where they came from, and according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, that simply means that at the time, everyone knew exactly who they were. After fighting in Egypt and the Mediterranean for centuries, after destroying entire cities and settlements and then moving on, these mysterious pirates fell from Egyptian history in 1178 BC. Would you have survived if their warships came calling on your village? Probably not.

Ancient Greece ended in drought, famine, and starvation

All good things must come to an end, and that includes civilization. At about the same time the Sea Peoples were killing and burning entire cities, something else was going on. For a long time, it was as mysterious as these people themselves. Something had to set them on their murderous rampage, after all, and according to research done by archaeologists at the University of Paul Sabatier-Toulouse (via LiveScience), that thing was a mega-drought that lasted around 300 years.

And things were bad. Harbors turned into salty lakes, crops failed, and famine started claiming lives. Starvation kicked off mass migrations, which in turn led to bloody conflicts. Ancient Greece was dependent on agriculture, after all, and agriculture is vulnerable to climate change, says Sci-News.com. And here's the kicker. People didn't record it because it happened so slowly over such a long period of time that they probably didn't even realize it was happening. Sure, kings did — they wrote about the events as they were happening — but the everyday man and woman? Not so much. They were dying, slowly, across generations, and that is a terrifying fall.

Justice was based on personal outrage

Making other people mad just happens, and most of the time, people deal with it and move on with their lives. And of course, if laws are broken, there's an appropriate form of recourse that doesn't usually involve going in front of a judge and shouting about the person you're mad at until everyone else in the room hates them, too. 

But that's exactly what justice looked like during a portion of the history of Athens. According to Punishment in Ancient Athens, anger was at the heart of why someone was punished by society. Anyone was able to bring charges against anyone else, and about 96 percent of surviving court documents feature cases which revolved around how much one person hated another. Laws defined just how much anger was an appropriate response to certain actions, and once parties were in court, it was the prosecutor's job to make the jury feel just as angry about something so that punishment could be handed out and justice would be served. 

And that led to a sort of eye-for-an-eye system of justice, and just imagine if today's system was based on the same thing.

The laws of ancient Greece were incredibly brutal

In 7th century BC, Athens made the rather poor life choice of asking an aristocrat named Draco to draft a new set of laws. He's the reason particularly harsh laws are said to be "Draconian," and while historians don't know too much about who he actually was, they do know he had a mean streak a mile wide. 

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the laws were meant to take away the rather arbitrary methods of dispensing justice that had been popular until then. Victims had been given the rights of retribution, and the Greeks were starting to realize that probably wasn't a good idea. So, enter Draco — who wrote his series of rules to favor the wealthy and the landowners, because of course he did. And he made "death" the punishment for a lot of things, says Plutarch.

Loitering? Death! Stole some fruit? Death! Sacrilegious behavior? Death! Murdered someone? Death. And so on, and so on.

Not feeling great? Better get pregnant!

There was a lot about the human body that was a complete mystery in ancient Greece, but they also firmly believed that they knew at least one thing for sure: Many of the ailments that women suffered from were caused when the womb decided to go on a walkabout and head off to some other part of the body. 

It was called the "wandering womb," and some physicians even believed that the womb was an entirely separate creature that lived inside a woman. (That honestly explains a lot of things.) Wired says the Greeks believed it could be coaxed back into place using pleasant smells applied to the you-know-where, and bad smells applied to whatever part of the body it had wandered into. 

Pregnancy was often prescribed as a way to put the womb in its place and keep women healthy. We know now that there's plenty of medical conditions where pregnancy is dangerous (like kidney disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, says the National Institute of Child Health), and in the ancient world, pregnancy and delivery were extra dangerous. But according to Women in Antiquity, a pregnancy was prescribed for everything from fever and insomnia to chronic back pain, and if there's anything that's going to help cure chronic back pain, it's carrying around something the size of a watermelon for a few months.

Malaria made life miserable

Malaria is a serious illness spread by mosquitoes, and according to the World Health Organization, even symptoms that start out as mild can quickly progress and, without treatment, will often end with death. 

The mystery over how it was transmitted was only really cracked around the turn of the 20th century, but Scientific American says the first descriptions of the illness are from ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. Even back then, people made the connection between the illness and wet areas favored by mosquitoes, according to interpretations published in the University of Chicago Press Journals. Historians believe that after the disease was introduced in the 5th century, it played a huge part in impacting the culture and was one of the driving factors behind the "sentimentalism in art, pessimism in philosophy, and decay in morality." They even credit the consequences of malaria as giving Rome the foothold it needed to rise to power over Greece. But is that true? Who knows, but if you'd been there to catch it, you wouldn't have been around to find out.