Would you *actually* survive in ancient Rome?

I very briefly mentioned this topic a while back, in my blog about the 10,000BC reality TV show. However, since I keep seeing this kind of thing everywhere, I felt it was time to be explicit about how these quizzes should be set out.

In their current form, these BuzzFeed-style games are a way to generate some quick and easy content which satisfies the basic curiosity of their audience, without providing much in the way of hard-hitting home truths. It’s something to post on Facebook and say ‘Look, I could survive as an ancient Greek! Could you?’ Great, but could you? As much as I love seeing portrayals of ancient Greek culture, I suspect that if I were time-transported into ancient Athens, I’d probably end up a slave within my first week.


I’d like to see a new, and far more brutal approach to these quizzes. Don’t undersell how hard it is to live in any given era. Sure, some of the challenges may be easy to overcome with your modern knowledge, but fewer than you think, and there will be far more difficulties to replace them.

Here’s my rundown of the kind of questions that should be featured in this type of quiz:

  • Are you male or female? This undoubtedly has an impact on whether you survive. Human selection tends to favour men, natural selection tends to favour women. The exact mix differs slightly from culture to culture.
  • How old are you? Massively important. Children and the elderly tend to lower life expectancies. This is increasingly true if you’re just going to get transported back in time with no family to support you.
  • How fluent are you in the lingo? If you can’t speak the language you’re going to really struggle to make yourself understood.
  • Good at making friends? You’re going to need them.
  • The entrepreneurial type? On top of the need to make friends, you’ll need a quick income. That ‘Atlantis’ stuff just isn’t going to happen.
  • How good are you in a brawl? I’m not saying you’ll end up in one, I’m just saying that as someone who is already on the fringes of society, you’ll need to defend yourself.
  • What about if we give the other guys a weapon? Oh yeah, if the people in charge are using any kind of armed thugs to maintain control, you’ll need to be able to handle that.
  • Can you lie through your teeth? Even if you can speak the language, you’ll need a plausible explanation for how you know things. For every yokel who believes you are sent from heaven, there will be a cynic who thinks you’re there to take advantage.
  • How much have you actually studied this era of history? I get that you will want to take advantage of your knowledge of history to put yourself in a position of power (all paradoxes aside) but do you actually remember any events where your knowledge would be helpful?
  • How much of a fussy eater are you? Your gluten-free diet is going out the window. And, frankly, you’ll be lucky to get the choice to be vegetarian.
  • If you plan on taking advantage of a technology, do you know how it works? Anyone who saw my reality TV blog will know where I’m going with this. For just one example, we live in a digital age, and most of us have no idea how computers work, so we’re already at a disadvantage.

Vikings Longboat

I have deliberately weighted this quiz against the reader. Surviving in any age is a challenge, so being transported to a different one would be a massive struggle. ‘Would you survive…’ quizzes should be more rigorous, so that the achievement feels more worthwhile. Only then can you honestly educate your audience about the reality of living in that time period. And then it will *really* be something to post to Facebook.

Costumes in historical media: how much do they matter?

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

Does costume matter in historical media? Quite possibly, but you can get too hung up on the details. Last week the Telegraph made this very point when it queried the wardrobe of the BBC’s War and Peace six-parter.

War and Peace cast

Outfits are perhaps one of the most important parts of any historical drama. Certainly more important than the scenery, they ground the story by convincing you that the characters themselves accept the truth of the situation they are in.

Witcher Soldiers

No-one in their right minds would dress like this today. The fact that a character in the film/game/show/whatever is, and is acting like it’s totally normal, reinforces the historical setting.

We don’t even need to push it that far. Most people are a bit rusty when it comes to the history of clothing. They won’t know which exact dyes, fabrics and fashions were popular at each particular setting. And it’s likely that media studios count on this in order to cut corners.

On the other hand, could also push this idea to it’s logical conclusion, and argue that costume can convince us to accept a counter-factual story, when we know that the reality would be different.

300 Soldiers Outfits

I have previously blogged about how the Spartans of ‘300’ would, in reality, have worn much more armour. In Frank Miller’s original comic book, the boys in red were full-frontal naked – in reflection of the way Greeks depicted their heroes. The tiny brown thongs were likely introduced to get the film past modern movie censors.

One of the more pertinent points made by the Telegraph was that historical media often reflects the era it was produced, as much as the time it is set. This might be through production values, design, or fashion. I swear mullets have ruined several films for me…


The experts are always going to be frustrated by costumes in historical media. This is because they will notice tiny details that are all wrong. And there will always be tiny details.

That said, if anyone else tries to dress Victorian ladies in purple KKK robes, I am going to be very upset.