Can You Imagine?

In some ways, the ancient world seems so remarkably similar to ours. Marcus Aurelius has a passage in Meditations pepping himself up to get out of bed early in the morning. His name was Marcus–maybe your name is Marcus today. People liked sports then, they fell in love, they liked eating olives. There’s a passage in Seneca’s Letters where he talks about getting impatient as he waits for his table before dinner, and then sits frustrated as they stick him with a bad one.

So when we hear that the ancients were parents, we think that they were just like us. And they were. There’s another passage in Letters From a Stoic where he talks about a kid making a sandcastle at the beach. But all these similarities can obscure just how terrible the ancient world was, and how lucky we are.

As Anthony Everitt writes in his biography of the Emperor Hadrian, “one of the consequences of the high rate of infant mortality [in the ancient world] was that upper-class parents took care not to become too attached to their children until they were reasonably confident that they would live.” He goes on to explain that infants often didn’t get a full name until their 9th or 10th day alive–that first week or so being particularly perilous and survival so uncertain. Even many centuries later, it wasn’t uncommon for families to give two male sons the same name, expecting–quite morbidly–that only one would carry it all the way to adulthood.

Can you imagine that? It’s literally unimaginable. But that’s the point. It’s unimaginable because we have it so good comparatively. The worst days of our recent pandemic don’t even compare. Nor do the worst days of even the most frustrating modern lives. So let’s count ourselves lucky. Let’s count our blessings. Let’s hold our loved one’s tight and be glad we’re alive now instead of then, glad that we (and those we love) can be pretty confident we’ll stay alive, unlike them.

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