There are very few periods of history that are devoid of war, famine, disease and crime. Any period in history prior to 1944, for instance, is going to be pre-antibiotics – and a world without antibiotics is a world where you could die of an ear infection, a cut finger, appendicitis or a bad cough. Mortality rates were astronomically high in the 19th century, particularly in industrialised cities like like London, York, Manchester and Liverpool. Hygiene standards were poor as people didn’t understand germ theory. That didn’t come in till the 1860s, so there’s faeces in the drinking water.
There were huge outbreaks of the likes of cholera and typhoid in a lot of these big cities, only 150, 170 years ago. Plus great cities throughout history have had crime and plagues – like the Black Death of the mid-1300s, which wiped out a third of the population of Europe within a year. And there’s always going to be war…
Take the 17th Century for instance. It’s a period of history with much going for it – beautiful architecture, Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, the foundation of modern materialist philosophy, great artists – but it has two of most unbelievably violent wars, the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, and the English Civil Wars here in Britain, where a massive proportion of the population were killed and cities ravaged.
So I’ve always said as a historian, I am very happy where I am, thanks! I’ve always thought that now is actually the absolute greatest time to be alive. But in our post-Brexit, post-Donald Trump world, I am slightly changing my mind.
I’m now thinking the 1960s sound fun, because there’s Jimi Hendrix, television exists, there are decent movies, there’s the contraceptive pill and antibiotics. I could probably have a decent time back then. Okay, the Vietnam War is pretty crap but there was a lot to be enjoyed. My parents were alive at the time and they certainly seemed to have enjoyed it.
So any time pre-antibiotics, there were huge risks to your health. But the Harappan civilisation is a surprising beacon of progressiveness some 3,500-4,000 years ago.
The Harappans were an ancient Indus civilisation in what is now Pakistan. They were really very interesting. They appear to have been largely egalitarian, there are no weapons, the cities have no defensive walls. There’s no evidence of warfare in the material archaeology left behind. There’s limited evidence of what they believed, their language and culture. Maybe if we had their poetry it would be full of war songs. But there are no walls – and the Bronze Age was a time of great empire, of Egypt and Mesopotamia and enormous city states that were conquering, destroying and burning others.
And they lasted for a long time, the Harappans. They were a very advanced civilisation and hugely advanced in the technology of plumbing and infrastructure. The standard of citywide plumbing in Harappan culture in the Bronze Age was not matched anywhere else in the world until the 1870s. That’s boggling.
You could say the Romans were better. They certainly built bigger and more impressive sewers and water systems – but they didn’t reach everyone. There wasn’t running water going to every house in Rome. Pretty much all the Harappan houses have drainage channels and water going into the homes, they all have access to toilets and there are wells very frequently dotted around the cities. This society seemed to revere washing and hygiene. Ordinary people had access to water and toilets, which is hugely important – to this day in modern India, more people have access to a mobile phone than they do to a toilet. It’s a real issue still in that part of the world, and it wasn’t an issue back in the Bronze Age.
We don’t know why the Harappan civilisation collapsed. It could have been environmental pressure or maybe it was conquered when their enemies realised, “hang on, they’ve got no walls! We can have them!” But they were the dominant culture in India for 1,000 years or more.
So, in terms of safety and hygiene – and if you’re a socialist like me with some leftwing principles and you want a place in history where the disparity in power and wealth between the richest and poorest was at its least profound – then you might want to go back to ancient India. There, there seemed to be a society that was largely egalitarian, seemingly without violence and where pretty much everyone had access to running water and good hygiene. The Harappans lasted a good 1,000 years so clearly they were doing something right.
So maybe that was the absolute greatest time to be alive. Although you’d need a time machine to say for sure…
Greg Jenner’s new book is A Million Years In A Day – A Curious History of Daily Life From The Stone Age To The Phone Age.
It really comes down to what you define great and where exactly you'd want to live. Living during the golden age of the Roman Empire could be absolutely marvelous, but not if you're one of the countries that is ocuppied by it, right?
In my opinion, the best times are:
Mesopotamia XX-VII century BCE
India XXV-IV century BCE
China I-II century AD
Egypt until II century BCE
Greece VI-IV century BCE
Rome II century BCE - II century AD
France, England, Russia, Prussia XVIII-XIX