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Three Ways You Can Live Like Ancient Royalty, Starting Right Now

We live in our forefathers’ fantasy land.

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How can we focus on big, ambitious things, when we’re surrounded by a drumbeat of negative news and beliefs?

I think about this a lot... which is why I was struck by a note I recently received from a listener of my podcast. His name is Sam Kallen, and he wrote:

“In trying to find happiness and satisfaction in my own life, I have this thing I do where I try to live better than an ancient King. I appreciate air conditioning. I appreciate indoor plumbing. But most of this is guesswork, so I have a question: What are some things that I can do, that would have made ancient kings jealous?”

I LOVE this question.

It made me so curious: Truly, what can we do to live better than ancient royalty?

Some answers are obvious, of course: Cars, washing machines, the internet — none of this was available to the ancients. So I wanted to find deeper, more fundamental answers.

What about our lives today are as luxurious as ancient royalty?

I started calling historians, and I learned a lot. Here are three things that you can you do today — in fact, right now!! — that was once only available to ancient royalty?

1. Sit in a quiet room

Three Ways You Can Live Like Ancient Royalty, Starting Right Now

Photo credit: simonbradfield via Getty Images

Maybe you’re doing this as you read my words now. One thousand years ago, most people couldn’t have imagined it.

“In the middle ages, the vast majority of people would have lived in relatively cramped quarters,” says Andrew Rabin, a professor of English at the University of Louisville who researches the law and literature of early medieval England. “The idea that we today can have your own room or even your own bed is something that would be incomprehensible back then.”

Back then, the average person shared a bed with their family — and maybe whoever was passing through town. Every waking minute of their life, they'd likely be hearing (and smelling) other people.

Royalty had it better: They had space in their large castles, as well as access to perfume for the times when they were all inside a room together.

And today, our privacy today far exceeds what royalty had!

First of all, royalty's… well, intimate moments had to be observed by a member of the court. “They have to be able to demonstrate that this child was produced by this woman after insemination by this man,” Rabin says. “If you can't prove that, you cannot demonstrate the legitimacy of the heir to the throne.”

Also, royal bathrooms just emptied out of a hole on the side of a castle — meaning any passerby could look up and see that their royalty just took a big, royal dump. Not very private!

2. Wear whatever you want!

Three Ways You Can Live Like Ancient Royalty, Starting Right Now

Photo credit: duckycards via Getty Images

Purple was a "royal" color in the middle ages. Know why?

In part, the answer was cost: Tyrion purple was produced by crushing a certain kind of sea snail found in Lebanon, and that wasn’t cheap.

But more importantly, the answer was law: The middle ages were dominated by what were called sumptuary laws, which governed what people could wear. And purple was reserved for the boss.

These laws have an interesting history. When cities rose in the 11th and 12th centuries, they provided people with a new kind of anonymity. “If you come from a small town, everybody knows you,” Rabin says. “You come to the city and suddenly you have no background. You can be whoever you want.” That meant people could in theory reinvent themselves — a dangerous idea in a society where race, class, or religion was supposed to dictate your life.

Sumptuary laws kept people in their place: The poor had to dress like poor people, outsiders had to wear marks to identify them, and more. Clothing identified the group you belong to.

Today, of course, we dress very differently: We buy clothing based on what we want other people to know about us, not the other way around. And if we want to wear purple, no king can stop us.

3. Read this email

Three Ways You Can Live Like Ancient Royalty, Starting Right Now

Photo credit: ilbusca via Getty Images

You are reading this right now.

That was once a skill intentionally reserved for the upper class.

“The most exclusive thing in the ancient world is probably the ability to read and write, which would have been limited to 3% or less in ancient Egypt,” says Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture, and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA.

This had very real consequences. Across many cultures and many times, the average person had no access to the laws of their land or the thoughts of their leaders. They also had no ability to participate in that dialog. And their leaders liked it that way.

In fact, in the courts of England, Wales and Ireland during the middle ages, the law was conducted in a completely different language! It was called Law French, and it was so archaic that even lawyers eventually struggled to use it.

Today, we haven’t entirely solved the problem. The law, for example, is still written in a way that's difficult for the average person to follow. And more crucially, roughly one fifth of Americans are functionally illiterate.

But still, Cooney says, that means “80% of our population can participate in written texts and administrative texts. They can understand what's going on and be a part of society, and that grants power, and it grants pushback, and the ability to have some sort of say over your fate.”

And that is progress.

So, what have we learned?

In short: Today, as you selected your clothing, sat down in a place of your choosing, and then read the news and your email, you lived like the 1% of 1% of human history.

Sure, we have our own problems today. Every generation does. But let’s not also forget that we live in our forefathers’ fantasy land, and we have the ability now to make it even better. We get nowhere by dwelling on hopelessness. We move forward by seeing ourselves on a continuum — between all that was built, and all that’s yet to be.

There's lots more where this came from, by the way. This newsletter was based on research I did for the an episode of my podcast called “How To Live Like Ancient Royalty”. Listen for more ways to live like royalty... and if you can believe it, even more fun facts about ancient pooping.

You're all kings and queens!

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Cover credit: Getty Images / Yuri_Arcurs