What would be the best thing that time traveler can do if he is dropped in the distant past?

If a modern person is dropped in the year 1 AD (assume it's Roman Empire), without any supplies, but with all relevant knowledge, what would be his realistic first occupation, allowing him to move up in life?

Similar questions (in many variants) had been asked here before, but unfortunately there's no suitable answer, or even consensus about it. On one hand, many works of fiction display meteoric rise of such time traveler, who becomes an emperor, or at least someone very prominent. On the other hand, there are opinions pointing out to the traveler's inexperience, deducing that such traveler would be lucky to stay free and alive. I personally think they are both extreme.

For the purpose of this question (now we are getting to a "story set in the world", but to have the question answerable we need to set limits), time traveler is:

  1. Young, smart and healthy;
  2. Does not have any outstanding talents;
  3. Can study Latin (or any local language, beforehand) to become sufficiently conversant;
  4. Can study local situation well enough to avoid getting into trouble (law, crime, disease etc.);
  5. Can study and practice any occupation and skill to become proficient in it;
  6. Once in 1 AD, he somehow finds food and shelter and can safely contemplate his next move.

Assume that no one (let alone the Emperor) would believe in time traveler's stories - until he produces an invention that would be startling enough for the time. Alternatively, time traveler can get in a business of making something novel, but not exactly revolutionary, and build his reputation and wealth that way.

P.S. My question is different from Suitable jobs in Ancient Rome for time travelers, because in my case:

  1. Time traveler can create any kinds of time disturbances (introducing gunpowder, for example, is perfectly fine);
  2. Time traveler can not bring any material back from the present.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How can one become conversant in a dead language when what we know about its pronunciation is only fruit of speculation? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Oct 13 '19 at 9:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Maybe we can assume that our guesses on pronunciation are close enough that studying our version of Latin would be enough to be understand but might sound have a few odd pronunciations or sound like an odd accent. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Oct 13 '19 at 9:19
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Being a slave? Slaves had the potential to have some kind of career in the Roman empire, but I'm afrad that this is the only realistic option. Family was a big deal in the Roman empire and those famillies hated it when nobodys (Eques, much better than your guy) held any sort of important position. People sometimes think that humans in the past were stupid. They weren't. You can't drop someone from today into any place and they make a career. You can't learn the required skills from a book. Some people are just natural entrepreneurs, they might get someplace, but they rarely study a lot ... $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Oct 13 '19 at 9:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP I beg to argue here that barbarian in Roman empire would not be enslaved just because he's barbarian. A free man has to fall in debt to become slave. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 13 '19 at 17:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Alexander: If he doesn't have money he falls in debt... And first, I wasn't all that serious, and second, by 1 AD (as stipulated in the question) slavery for debt had gone out of fashion for quite a few centuries -- it had been abolished in the 4th century BCE. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Oct 13 '19 at 17:30

The first thing your time traveller will do is:
a) die of dysentery or some other water borne disease; or
b) be patient zero of a plague that wipes out a large proportion of the city he is in.

Assuming he manages to avoid the above, the best thing to do is become a healer. As long as he makes a name for himself, he will be allowed to join the temple of Apollo, and "the mysterious healer from distant lands" act will get him an exemption for much of his idiosyncrasies.

How would he become a healer, you ask, with no modern medical or lab equipment, or antibiotics and a pharmaceutical industry? Basic hygiene. 80% of Iron Age diseases can be cured or prevented through simple cleanliness. Tie it to the healing power of the sun god, and the temple will fall over themselves to accommodate him. Then introduce germ theory and simple antiseptics such as alcohol and soda. That's enough for a lifetime's work.

  • $\begingroup$ The healer would be judged by his ability to heal, not prevent diseases (epidemiology statistic did not exist back then), but +1 nevertheless. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 13 '19 at 16:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Alexander Being able to prevent, or at least significantly reduce, infections in wounds is a big deal. $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Oct 13 '19 at 19:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Alexander If the time traveller attaches themselves to an army, and most of the wounded fighters treated by them tend to survive, people will notice. $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Oct 15 '19 at 3:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Arkenstein XII - this is actually a very good idea (assuming army would hire him as a healer). $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 15 '19 at 6:45
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Upon further thinking, I realized that time traveler may have a better chance at success by being an apothecary rather than doctor. He can distill a moonshine and sell it to doctors as "Magical Wound Cure". $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 15 '19 at 19:29


Your traveler is startlingly beautiful by standards of the ancient world. No pockmarks from childhood smallpox. No chronic deformities. Perfect teeth and a ready smile. Excellent haircut, soft blond hair, smooth skin and a little bit of cosmetic surgery. Your traveler is in good shape from working out in a gym yet has soft hands. Also your time traveler comes from an enlightened and socially liberal age, and has the benefit of multiple prior sex partners, wide reading and watching on the internet, and an open mind.

In modern Western culture these do not qualify as special abilities. You can sit down for dinner in midtown Manhattan and several such people will be in the room with you; you may be one yourself. But such a person would be an attractive and unusual trinket for a wealthy Roman. This quality (the blond hair alone!) would be immediately obvious to the point where a patrician with the correct tastes might stop on the street to inquire about your traveler. Once established in a household, and your traveler's abilities become known, it will be an upward trajectory thru successively richer and more powerful patrons.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This answer is legit :) $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 13 '19 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ Who said the TT was white, let alone blonde? And unless they are female, this path might be easier in Greece, than in Rome, what with stoicism and martial virtues. $\endgroup$ – nzaman Oct 14 '19 at 13:48

Does your time traveler remember any basic algebra from high school, such as the Cartesian plane and solving simple equations? If so, then congratulations. Your traveler is armed with the mathematical equivalent of a nuclear weapon for Roman times.

He can solve with ease problems that would have baffled the great Archimedes or Euclid. As soon as he can share these futuristic theories with the right scientific authority, he will be set for life.

Now all he has to do is to figure out a way to communicate with the locals. The ideal start would be to get a job working as a clerk or assistant for a merchant. Being literate (if only in a foreign language) might help to convince people that you can learn to calculate money quickly. A person from modern times is unlikely become a very talented farmer or gladiator, so a job like accounting is probably the best way to perform competently and get ahead. If this is too ambitious, then he'll have to settle for finding some menial labor somewhere to buy time until he can converse reasonably in Latin.

After learning Latin, all he has to do is to approach a leading scholar/philosopher in Rome with what he knows about algebra. Be careful to pick one who won't try to steal his ideas. Once word goes out of this new theory, he will hailed throughout Rome as the greatest scientific mind of the day. He should have no problems finding a wealthy patron to support him forever. He may even interest Augustus.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, time traveler has time to prepare for his trip, learning any language (as much as it possible in 21st century) and scientific facts. So the solution is to find a prominent 1st century scientist and offer services. +1 $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 13 '19 at 18:21

Not a complete answer but I think the most is gained not by learning a complete trade, but learning the most advanced technology at the time and building further on that.

I can develop a new type of orthesis for example, and I dont have to know the exact way to extrude the metals, create the plastics or operate the 3D printers. I am required to have enough knowledge to know what would fail, such as that with injection molding I have to keep a certain angle in the mold so that the mold doesnt suck a vacuum and damage the mold or product in the process (amongst other things).

To take a page from wpokdljnlnmn (really?) you wouldnt learn how to extrude the wires, do the metallurgy or how to build the watermills but you would learn to draw improvements and explain the smiths, carpenters and whatnot how they can perform their more advanced tasks. In some cases trial and error on the smith's part or someone else is necessary to get it correctly but as long as you pay them they will have no problem with it. Rely on the skills already there and teach them to start a small industry. It allows you to combine multiple professions instead of trying to compete with one profession against the ancient world.

  • $\begingroup$ This is very reasonable, but does not immediately address the bigger problem: time traveler does not have much money or other resources. It he somehow has it, then yes, he can skip the "occupation" step and proceed with "running a start-up company". $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 13 '19 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander your "start-up" can be selling a few simpler improvements to earn money. There were also contests held sometimes, like mathematical constests to solve a particular problem. With your standardized mathematical skills that wont be available for years you could earn some prizes to get started on more difficult stuff $\endgroup$ – Demigan Oct 14 '19 at 5:25
  • $\begingroup$ the name was just a key mash. $\endgroup$ – meaninglessname Oct 14 '19 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Demigan sure, but what can be specifically picked for early Roman Empire? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 15 '19 at 2:02
  • $\begingroup$ Concrete recipies, Roman concrete was good but we have many better recipies. Ways to find, extract and create construction aluminium. Perhaps you know an early/pre-roman treasure. Advanced knowledge of what certain additives and cooling times have for effects on various metals, paid for after tests. Pasteurization, extracting certain things like raw penicillin, chemical recipies for fireworks... the list is huge. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Oct 15 '19 at 7:27

Since you mention "local situation", they should memorize the closest spots easily accessible gold or other valuables will eventually be discovered.

The resultant haul could fund a comfortable lifestyle and expeditions to larger lodes farther away.

Eventual job title: Emperor

This idea came from an earlier post.


The traveler has first to take care of immediate matters and then proceed to the long-term issues:

1) build hunting tools from local materials naturally available (wood, stone, resin, etc...)

2) knowing edible plants in the forest,

3) Farming: find a plot of land that is neither inhabited nor owned. Back then it was easier to find.

4) speaking the local language,

5) trading what he hunted or farmed with other things (bartering) and selling some to get some local currency

6) build a toothbrush from wood and bristles

7) mingle with the local society, knowing the customs and beliefs

8) attain grouping areas (forums) whre he/she has the chance to speak and influence, get acquainted with other influential people who may find his opinions helpful and may be eager to hire his services.


Set up as an accountant, using positional numbers and double-entry bookkeeping. The only physical plant required is writing materials, which were available. The Roman empire was interested in financial controls, so faster, more flexible arithmetic and a better bookkeeping system would be valuable.



I would say build something like a steam engine. I am aware of how hard is to build one, but I think a turbine engine would be easier to make than a piston engine and would be conceivably revolutionary. of course before this the person would need to be rich enough to build this, and that could be accomplished by running a normal business of the time.


Another fairly simple thing would be electricity. this would also require the creation of wire. copper was used, although, as far as I can tell, wire making wasn't invented until much later. once you have copper wire and iron magnets, which were used then, you could make a simple moter. this moter could be made larger and could be attached to a water or windmill, which were used then. this would also require wealth.


in this person's education, I am assuming that they will have been taught some things which are completely unknown to the people of this time. for example, you may know mathematical principles largely unknown to these people e.g how to use pi, and how to calculate it to some accuracy, or some chemistry unknown to them e.g the idea of elements. both of these could allow you to acquire great fame as a scholar or philosopher. this does not require the wealth of the other two to start it off.


-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wire -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_metallurgy -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ancient_watermills

  • $\begingroup$ If turbine engines were easier to make than piston engines, why would Watt and friends start from the hardest one? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Oct 13 '19 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ it's just that it seems to require less precision in the creation. you don't need as much precision in making a turbine as you do a piston since one requires that oh so hard to make air-tight yet still moveable seal of a piston. $\endgroup$ – meaninglessname Oct 13 '19 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ @wpokdljnlnmn turbines require a lot of precision, and require some complex tooling to manufacture. Piston engines on the other hand can have their highest-precision parts made on a lathe, which is the easiest machine tool to get precision out of. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Oct 13 '19 at 14:13


Basic chemistry knowledge means you can develop gun powder and any emperor is interested in military power. Medical training (or even basic first aid) means you can save millions of lives. Geography means you can find new lands for trade and conquer.


Knowing the outcomes of sporting events would allow you to amass a fortune. Sure we don't know the outcomes today but unless this is the first time traveller, it's easy to find out.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.