The medieval era gets a lot of screen time, and for good reason. Medieval Europe has a kind of romantic appeal, with its knights and chivalry and castles, its lack of guns and bombs and cars and planes. It’s our collective nostalgic getaway. Fantasy, of course, revels in the Middle Ages; the “default” fantasy setting is England circa 1200, at the height of the era. But any kind of fiction can take us to medieval times. We have our Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, yes, but also our Vikings and The Last Kingdom, our Braveheart and Excalibur.
But what about earlier times? What about the days before the castles and cathedrals were built, before knights wrote their code of chivalry? What about the ancient era?
Defining the ancient
First, let’s define what we mean by “ancient”. We can consider the Middle Ages to end in 1453, with the fall of Constantinople; the refugees fleeing into Europe from that city sparked the Renaissance. The beginning of the era, however, is harder to characterize. That’s mostly because of the Dark Ages, those centuries where nothing much happened. (Except when it did.) Records are fairly scanty in the period before Charlemagne—before about 800—but I think we can all agree that the Roman Empire really was ancient. Thus, the year of its fall in the west, 476 AD, marks a good boundary between the ancient and the medieval.
So we’ll say ancient times ended in 476. When did they begin? That’s a difficult question that gets to the heart of anthropology. Suffice to say, the ancient era began with human civilization. Even if you’d prefer to subdivide (Bronze Age, Classical Era, etc.), its all ancient.
That leaves us with a grand sweep of history, possibly as much as ten thousand years! In our modern, fast-paced world, that seems like an eternity. Indeed, it is a long time, no matter how you look at it, and things changed remarkably from the beginning of the era to the end. Fifth-century Rome was nothing like Homer’s Athens, and neither really resembled Sargon’s Babylon from the eighth century BC, or Middle Kingdom Thebes a millennium before that, or the Stone Age settlement of Çatalhöyük. (Jericho has been occupied almost continuously since the beginning of the ancient era, and you can bet it went through a number of different looks through the ages.)
Writing an ancient-times work requires you to know the period. For the big names—Rome, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia—that’s relatively easy. These cultures all left a large body of written knowledge, in addition to easily excavated structures. We know a lot about how they lived, so a writer has more than enough to work with. Lesser-known peoples, such as the Etruscans, Harappans, or Picts, are much harder. Quite a few are only attested in a few sites, and those may be impossible to fully grasp. (On the other hand, that means no one can complain that you screwed up your history!)
The ancient world
Whichever part of Antiquity you choose as your setting, you’ll have to get to know the world. The hardest part is seeing what little you have to work with. Technology, for instance, is such an important part of our times that it’s hard enough to imagine the medieval world, with its lack of…well, everything we take for granted. And ancient times were even worse in that regard. At the earliest, we’re talking about days when the wheel was the height of invention. The reason the Iron Age is called the Iron Age is because it’s defined by the working of iron. For ancient smiths, that was awfully hard as it was; steel was literally impossible.
But the ancients (especially the Romans) made great advances in their own right. Rome, of course, invented concrete, while the Egyptians built the pyramids and the Greeks had all their grand wonders. China built a Great Wall that, like the Maginot Line, never really lived up to its promise. These cultures of old also developed early sciences (the Greeks were pretty good at geometry, as you probably know) and quite a few other things. Our modern legal system also owes a lot to the Roman one, filtered through the Middle Ages though it was.
One part of life rises above everything else in the ancient world: religion. Every ancient culture placed a heavy focus on matters of religion. In fact, it’s often hard to untangle religion from other fields, because it permeated life. Science, government, art, and literature were all tools used for religion’s purposes. And it’s not hard to see why. When the world is so much bigger than you, than anything you know, and when it’s so wild and untamed compared to ours, where can you find any form of safety? Religion was so important that most archaeological sites are practically assumed to be religious in nature until proven otherwise.
Besides the sacred, many other forces worked to shape the ancient world. Remember that we’re dealing with a time before modern industry, but also before the developments of the Middle Ages. People had to look to their basic needs first: food, water, shelter. Survival. Only once they were certain they could survive could they work to thrive. Most people didn’t make it that far, however. Subsistence farming was a way of life. So was hunting and gathering, a practice preserved in only a very few spots today. Only a select few rose above that. True, there were more “middle-class” people in the great cities, particularly towards the end of the era, but urban life was for the 1%.
Travel was hard. Communities were small. People could go their whole lives—much shorter than our own, on average—without leaving their homeland. But that was probably for the best, as danger lurked everywhere. Disease, predators (on two legs or four), war, famine—all these can be subsumed under the one word that best describes the foreign: uncertainty.
The city on the hill
Rome was the big exception to this. Romans made a habit of being worldly, urbane, sophisticated. Their empire, as horrible as we’d consider it today, was the apex of ancient civilization. It removed the uncertainties of life in the era, replacing them with the rule of law, with connections and bureaucracy and, well, government. Earlier cultures built roads to connect towns, but Rome took that to an extreme. Aqueducts existed long before the Appian was built, but we associate these creations with the Romans because they perfected the art through repeated practice.
A story set in Imperial (or even Republican) Rome will still have most of the same aspects as something from earlier Antiquity, but it can also show a different way of life, one which has much more in common with our own. That’s probably why it has some of the best representation in fiction, including:
- The HBO series Rome (naturally)
- Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, required reading for high-school English classes
- Spartacus, whether in its original movie form or the stylized TV series from a few years ago
- Ben-Hur, recently remade as a box-office flop
- Passion of the Christ, because the birth of Christianity came in a corner of the Roman Empire
By contrast, other ancient cultures show up less often in modern media. The Greeks get endless retellings of Alexander, the Iliad, and the wars against the Persians (e.g., 300). Ancient Egypt gets fanciful flicks like Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Scorpion King. Mesopotamia is almost totally limited to Biblical stories such as Noah. (In books, things are a little better, if only because you don’t have to spend money on costumes and set design.)
It’s entirely possible to write a story about the ancient world. It’ll take research and thought, as well as the capability to imagine a time so alien to anything we know. It’s been done before, though, and there are good stories to tell. Not just the Caesars and the Constantines, or Jesus or the Jews. Antiquity comprises an entire world far larger than our own, a world in the process of being formed.