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I would like to know what would be the best strategy to survive and prosper in the roman empire for a time traveller?

Let's say that the time traveller is a 30-year-old Italian from the XXI century with no particular expertise (i.e., basic knowledge in sciences, history, ...) and a typical modern italian culture. He does not speak latin or greek and does not know much about roman empire history.

He falls in a space warp and arrives in Rome during the course of the 2nd century (roman empire apogee) with only his clothes. He has no hope to come back to the present time.

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closed as off-topic by JBH, sphennings, Renan, L.Dutch Jul 29 '18 at 4:26

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  • $\begingroup$ How long does he need to survive for? What does he bring with him? Is he going back from present day? $\endgroup$ – yobddigi Jul 28 '18 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @yobddigi I edited my question $\endgroup$ – user53220 Jul 28 '18 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/79366/… is very similar. Although it specifically wants jobs, and so "survival strategy" might open other possibilities. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 28 '18 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk Thanks. This post is super interesting. $\endgroup$ – user53220 Jul 28 '18 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ In my opinion, this is not an off-topic because of being story related question. We're not being asked to develop character or plot or anything like that. It's a "real world question" touching on survival strategies in a novel situation. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Jul 29 '18 at 21:58
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Average Guido will have very little hope of surviving in 2nd century AD Rome. He has no skills that would be useful to him in that time, no knowledge of the language (although he'd have a slight advantage over, say, Average Joe American in that regard) and no knowledge of the culture, history or politics of the time. So, can pretty much forget about ingratiating himself within the upper crust. His clothing will be useless and uninteresting: they'll be considered outlandish and barbaric. The contents of his pockets will not likely prove to be much better. If he has a cell phone, it'll be dead in a couple days and useless. A pocket knife might prove handy, and a pen might be marginally interesting to a particularly inquisitive mindset. His money will be meaningless and worthless to the locals.

Being a product of the 21st century Rome, he will have no chance to withstand the many dangers ancient Rome will face him with: he might be mugged or murdered or sold into slavery. If he eats the food he'll probably end up with salmonella. If he drinks the water, he'll probably end up with something nastier still. Even a skinned knee can prove fatal: there's no soap to speak of and no antibiotics. Medicine is rudimentary at best, outright quackery at second best.

Good Catholic that Guido undoubtedly is, I think his best overall bet for anything like long term survival will be to find a Christian community to hook up with. There's always the risk of martyrdom, but that's how times were, and it will be among the Christians that he will find people most like him in world view. They will actually help him, whereas society at large would really have no interest in an ignorant, skill-less stranger.

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    $\begingroup$ According to the Soap page of wikipedia "The use of soap for personal cleanliness became increasingly common in the 2nd century A.D." I doubt there will be much difference in the quality of the soap if you compare it with cheap handsoap. $\endgroup$ – Mixxiphoid Jul 28 '18 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ "Increasingly common" being the operative words here! Which means that most people won't have access to it. Without money he won't be able to buy any. He could try stealing it, but he may not even know what it looks like --- it won't come in little paper wrappers, that's for sure! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Jul 28 '18 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas - "sold into slavery". Someone who was already a slave could be sold by one slave owner to another one. And a parent could sell their child into slavery, and criminals and prisoners of war could be enslaved. So just where would the documents be that stated the future Italian was already someone's slave or that someone had authority to make him a slave? Any such documents would have to be forged by someone who wanted to sell him. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Jul 28 '18 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Thanks for this great answer. I wonder that, if he finally manages to survive and learn to speak Latin, he would have had a chance to interest the "scientists" of this time. I mean even if he has basic modern skills, he knows the Earth geography (but I guess America was unreachable for roman ships) or modern art (though I doubt that Picasso style would have been appreciated). He also knows that glasses and telescope exist... $\endgroup$ – user53220 Jul 28 '18 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding -- I wouldn't put it past an enterprising slave catcher to snatch up our (relatively healthy) but lost & bewildered Italian and sell him off on the side. In Rome, there's always a market for a slave! And sure, an appropriately sized coin fitting into the right sized palm, and a document can be "rediscovered". $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Jul 28 '18 at 23:23
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It's probably not going to work out for your "typical" Italian man. He won't have enough knowledge of 2nd century Roman culture to navigate successfully, and his understanding of 21st century Italian culture won't translate very well to a totally different setting. The wonders of modern science and culture are great, but a typical person probably won't know enough of the details to reproduce them in another setting. I agree with the difficulties as outlined by elemtilas, but see a couple of other options:

His best chances may lie in mathematics. And depending on what you count as typical knowledge, he may know mathematics well beyond what is available in the 2nd century but that would still be useful if he understands them well enough (basic statistics, or basic calculus and some real-world applications, or a bit of classical physics would be hugely interesting). He could potentially find work auditing records or something, but it's hard to imagine an opportunity for him to demonstrate this skill in a way that would persuade someone to give him a chance at such a job.

But if he could demonstrate it, it's not unimaginable that he could capture the interest of mathematicians and engineers of the time. A numeral system which would make calculations much easier to do and check would be interesting and valuable to professionals, though once learned (and it wouldn't take long) I don't know how much else he would have to offer. But if he thoroughly knows even high school level physics and calculus, he could carve out a more-than-decent place for himself.

Otherwise... farming. It's the kind of position that doesn't require a ton of skill with language, knowledge of culture or current events, or anything like that. There is a good chance that he would end up farming as a slave, or else as a very low-status non-citizen. But he could eventually pick up the language well enough to get by, at least, and he could build some kind of life for himself.

EDIT

After discussion in comments I've removed a section about Arabic numerals being an advantage over the Greek system used at the time.

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    $\begingroup$ "Roman" numerals were never ever used for computation. (The actual system we call "Roman numerals" was invented towards the end of the Middle Ages.) They were used only for writing numerical values in text. In the antiquity people did not calculate in writing -- writing materials were prohibitively expensive; they used abacuses for calculation. For mathematical tables, accounting and other such purposes they used Greek numerals. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 28 '18 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ If he has even the basics of bookkeeping, he has a valuable skill -- to someone who understands the problems that double-entry bookkeeping and accrual accounting solve. $\endgroup$ – Jasper Jul 29 '18 at 3:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I was commenting on the value of the Arabic numeral system in general, which seems superior to the Greek numerals as well as "Roman" (and for similar reasons). It really does make mathematics, especially beyond basic arithmetic, easier. Good note on the contemporary notation and usage, though! $\endgroup$ – Upper_Case Jul 30 '18 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Upper_Case: The point is that in the antiquity they did not calculate in writing. Before the introduction of cheap paper (somewhere around the 12th or 13th century) nobody calculated in writing, because it would have been too expensive. During the early Renaissance there was somewhat of a competition between abacists (who calculated with the abacus) and algorists (who calculated on paper with Arabic numerals); as we all know, the algorists won, but this was a late phenomenon, post-medieval. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 30 '18 at 8:37
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP My point is that the math available to someone who can calculate in writing is an advantage (again, especially for math beyond arithmetic), whether or not it's done on paper, and that advantage is compounded by a better numeric system. Using a slate and chalk, or even scratching in the mud, would be adequate for this. Most of the point of a time-warp setup is that later discoveries can be exploited before their actual discovery. $\endgroup$ – Upper_Case Jul 30 '18 at 12:44
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You might read the excellent Household Gods by Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr where a woman from modern LA finds herself in late 2nd century Carnutum. They're both SF writers and both historians and in this one the fantasy element is just enough to get her there and give her the language -- the rest is realistic. @elemtilas says it well.

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Since elemtilas mentioned disease in his answer, I should point out that it was possible to live a long time in ancient times. In fact Pliny the Elder mentioned a number of people who claimed to be well over 100 years old in a Roman census, and an actress whose career started as a child and lasted for 90 years or something.

But it should be noticed that disease germs would mutate and evolve a lot in 1,900 years. So the 2nd century Romans would be resistant and partially immune to 2nd century germs, and the future Italian would be resistant and partially immune to 21st century germs. Thus he could get sick and die in 2nd century Rome and he could spread terrible plagues in 2nd century Rome.

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    $\begingroup$ This seems like a response to an answer more than to the question. It's a good start for that though, maybe just expand it? $\endgroup$ – Aethenosity Jul 28 '18 at 16:29
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It depends on what you mean by "prosper". Your character will be extremely tall and strong by the standards of the time, due to better nutrition in childhood. Maybe also quite fat. He will not have any money, land, or property except a few trinkets that could be valuable to trade (a pocket knife, glasses, sunglasses, maybe a watch). He won't speak the language. He would be in a similar situation perhaps to many foreigners who arrived in the empire at that time.

The first couple of years would be rough. He might have to beg a few meals, but I guess that pretty soon someone would notice his size and potential as a laborer. As a farmer, builder, or apprentice to an artisan he would earn his room and board, and more importantly learn the language. Completely immersed in the culture, if he's not an idiot he should be speaking quite fluently within two years.

Then I think the real fun begins. Even if he has "no particular expertise" he will every day be noticing things that could be improved upon, like the design of houses (no chimneys!) and the way the fields are planted. If you are willing to have him change history in this story, he could introduce simple inventions like the flush toilet or the printing press and become wealthy indeed. If not, he could still prosper as, say, a carpenter or blacksmith. His products would have better designs than the competition (drawing on his knowledge of modern day tools and furniture) so he would attract plenty of business, make money, obtain a wife and family. What more could you want?

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  • $\begingroup$ flush toilets? what an appalling suggestion to a Roman - a constant flowing stream of water below the seats is much better. And the printing press is of limited use without cheap paper (so many innovations rely upon a wide base of previous developments). And of course products like tooling and furniture are extremely context dependent, so may not be of much use. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jul 30 '18 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ Well then, maybe he can become a chariot maker, and invent the cupholder. $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Jul 31 '18 at 12:54
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Your guy can read and write, though not with usual tools of that time. He may not understand latin, but he knows the alphabet. Italian is close enough that he can probably decipher a lot of the content, if only phonetically. Give him a month and he'll be a useful scribe, and most likely a great accountant, using the arithmetic techniques taught in high school today.

Medicine in those times was usually really atrocious, even an average 21st century man probably would be able to teach a lot of things about infections to physicians of that time, or even how the body works at a basic level.

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  • $\begingroup$ Alas, he would immediately be declared an uneducated idiot. I doubt he would do well in a debate with Galen - he doesn't even properly understand the 4 humors! Good luck convincing them that your strange theories have merit. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jul 30 '18 at 16:00

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