If you hate your job, blame the Agricultural Revolution

Hunter-gatherers probably had more spare time than you.

Did humans domesticate wheat, or did wheat domesticate us?

Credit: SAM PANTHAKY via Getty Images
  • For the species Homo sapiens, the Agricultural Revolution was a good deal, allowing the population to grow and culture to advance. But was it a good deal for individuals?
  • Hunter-gatherers likely led lives requiring far less daily work than farmers, leading one anthropologist to call them the "original affluent society."
  • The transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers may have occurred as a kind of trap in which the possibility of surplus during good years created population increases that had to be maintained.

Global warming is on track to drive lots of changes in the future. At the darkest end of the spectrum of possibilities is no future at all. That doesn't mean that humanity goes extinct, but it does mean the big project of civilization we've been working on since the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago might collapse. Given that scary possibility, it's an opportune moment to look at that project with a critical eye. Yes, we have accomplished so much since we first domesticated ourselves by farming (e.g., villages, cities, empires, law, science, etc.). But is modern life worth it?

In other words, was the Agricultural Revolution a good idea?

For context, Homo sapiens appeared as a separated species about 300,000 years ago. During our entire tenure, the Earth has been undergoing a series of Ice Ages, long periods of intense glaciation where the planet was cold and dry (there is a lot of water in ice), followed by shorter interglacial periods that were warm and moist. Throughout most of those 300 millennia, human beings existed as bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was only after the ice melted at the beginning of the current interglacial period (a geologic epoch called the Holocene) that we humans invented a new way of being human: farming. It was indeed a revolution, changing every aspect of being human, from how many people we might see in our lifetimes to how we spent those lifetimes.

agricultural revolution Credit: Public Domain via Wikipedia

The usual way the Agricultural Revolution gets characterized is a glorious triumph. Consider this telling of the tale.

Humans once subsisted by hunting and gathering, foraging for available food wherever it could be found. These early peoples necessarily moved frequently, as food sources changed, became scarce or moved in the case of animals. This left little time to pursue anything other than survival and a peripatetic lifestyle. Human society changed dramatically … when agriculture began… With a settled lifestyle, other pursuits flourished, essentially beginning modern civilization.

Hooray! Thanks to farming we could invent museums and concert halls and sports stadiums and then go visit them with all our free time.

The problem with this narrative, according to some writers and scholars like Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari is that while the Agricultural Revolution may have been good for the species by turning surplus food into exponential population growth, it was terrible for individuals, that is, you and me.

Hunter-gatherers worked about five hours per day

Consider this. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once estimated that the average hunter-gatherer spent about five hours a day working at, well, hunting and gathering. That's because nature was actually pretty plentiful. It didn't take that long to gather what was needed. (Gathering was actually a much more important food source than hunting.) The rest of the day was probably spent hanging out and gossiping as people are wont to do. If nature locally stopped being abundant, the tribe just moved on. Also, hunter-gatherers appear to have lived in remarkably horizontal societies in terms of power and wealth. No one was super-rich and no one was super-poor. Goods were distributed relatively equally, which is why Sahlins called hunter-gatherers the "original affluent society."

Stationary farmers, on the other hand, had to work long, backbreaking days. They literally had to tear up the ground to plant seeds and then tear it up again digging irrigation trenches that brought water to those seeds. And if it doesn't rain enough, everyone starves. If it rains too much, everyone starves. And on top of it all, the societies that emerge from farming end up being wildly hierarchical with all kinds of kings and emperors and dudes-on-top who somehow end up with the vast majority of surplus wealth generated by all the backbreaking, tearing-up-the-ground work.

A woman harvesting wheat.Credit: Yann Forget via Wikipedia

Did we domesticate wheat, or did wheat domesticate us?

So how did this happen? How did the change occur, and why did anyone volunteer for the switch? One possibility is that it was a trap.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari sees human beings getting domesticated in a long process that closed doors behind it. During periods of good climate, some hunter-gatherers began staying near wild wheat outcroppings to harvest the cereal. Processing the grains inadvertently spread the plant around, producing more wheat next season. More wheat led to people staying longer each season. Eventually, seasonal camps became villages with granaries that led to surpluses, which in turn let people have a few more children.

So farming required far more work, but it allowed for more children. In good times, this cycle worked out fine and populations rose. But four or five generations later, the climate shifted a little, and now those hungry mouths require even more fields to be cleared and irrigation ditches to be dug. The reliance on a single food source, rather than multiple sources, also leaves more prone to famine and disease. But by the time anyone gets around to thinking, "Maybe this farming thing was a bad idea," it's too late. There's no living memory of another way of life. The trap has been sprung. We had gotten caught by our own desire for the "luxury" of owning some surplus food. For some anthropologists like Samual Bowles, it was the idea of ownership itself that trapped us.

Of course, if you could ask the species Homo sapiens if this was a good deal, like the wild wheat plants of yore, the answer would be a definitive yes! So many more people. So much advancement in technology and so many peaks reached in culture. But for you and me as individuals, in terms of how we get to spend our days or our entire lives, maybe the answer is not so clear. Yes, I do love my modern medicine and video games and air travel. But living in a world of deep connections with nature and with others that included a lot of time not working for a boss, that sounds nice too.

    So, what do you think? Was the trade-off worth it? Or was it a trap?

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    These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

    1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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    • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
    • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
    • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

    We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

    While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

    1. Caligula

    Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

    While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

    Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

    Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

    He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

    Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

    He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

    In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

    2. Nero

    Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

    He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

    He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

    He died by suicide.

    Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

    3. Commodus

    Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

    Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

    The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

    4. Elagabalus

    Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

    His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

    He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

    5. Vitellius

    Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

    Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

    He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

    Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

    6. Caracalla

    Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

    He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

    Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

    One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

    Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

    7. Tiberius

    As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

    He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

    "Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

    Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

    There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

    After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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