stress353

You hear that, dude?

Last week, I posted a piece about mental health that touched on the stresses modern humans have to put up with, then referenced some of the pressures with which our forebears dealt.

Just to refresh your memory: "Consider ... slavery, genocide, constant armed conflict, socially condoned peadophilia and rape, starvation, crushing poverty, exploitation, beatings, human and animal sacrifice ... the list goes on".

The more I thought about it, the more embarrassed I felt for modern humanity, particularly us privileged westerners who've got to check in with our shrinks to discuss how stressed we are working 38 hours a week, dealing with marriage and kids and weight gain.

Stressful?

Consider if you will, the good people of Baghdad in 1258, when a Mongol army encircled what Professor Steven Dutch describes as "one of the most brilliant intellectual centers in the world".

The citizens of Baghdad were no idiots, they had heard what the Mongols had done to various Persian cities and the tales of what they'd inflicted on the peoples of eastern Europe and Russia.

That is: kill every man, woman and child in the cities that defied them, and often in the ones that surrendered.

In a translation by John Woods of a letter the Mongol commander Halugu Khan sent to the Caliph of Baghdad, Halugu said:

When I lead my army against Baghdad in anger, whether you hide in heaven or in earth I will bring you down from the spinning spheres; I will toss you in the air like a lion. I will leave no one alive in your realm; I will burn your city, your land, your self.

If you wish to spare yourself and your venerable family, give heed to my advice with the ear of intelligence. If you do not, you will see what God has willed.

On January 29, 1258, the populace of Baghdad would have known what was coming.

In his excellent five-part Hardcore History podcast The Wrath of the Khans, Dan Carlin describes how once the Mongol army had bested the Caliph's troops outside the city walls, they set about chopping down the date palms lining the waterways and canals.

Can you imagine sitting behind those walls, listening to the sound of thousands of axes as those giant, majestic trees toppled from the skyline?

The wood from these trees was used to construct the many complicated siege engines and catapaults the Mongols had perfected thanks to the thousands of Chinese engineers they'd captured in earlier wars.

In early February, the bombardment began, with many of the trees used as missiles, thrown roots-and-all over the walls of Baghdad, crushing homes, mosques and people.

Hoping for mercy, the Caliph bargained for his peoples' lives and was told they'd be spared. Then, as soon as the city garrison surrendered, his remaining soldiers were divided amongst the Mongol troops, who beheaded them all.

The Mongol host then marched into the city and killed everyone. Estimates of the number of people murdered range from 80,000 to two million, with a commonly accepted figure being around 600,000.

It is said, the river Tigris ran black from the tens of thousands of rare books flung into the water from the Grand Library of Baghdad.

Obviously, this is a pretty horrific example - and Carlin does a hair-raising job of bringing it to life in his podcasts - but there are thousands of other examples from history where people huddled inside the walls of cities waiting to die or be enslaved.

The threat of this was pretty much standard during most of human history.

And we get jumpy about car alarms and house parties?

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond tells the story of the Moriori people who used to live on the Chatham Islands, about 800kms east of New Zealand.

Thanks to an Australian seal-hunting ship that visited New Zealand in the early 1830s, the Maoris, who'd forgotten all about their brethren Moriori, heard tales of the Chathams where there was "an abundance of sea and shellfish ... the inhabitants are very numerous, but they do not understand how to fight, and have no weapons," writes Diamond.

"Sweet," thought the Maori, and off they sailed, armed with guns, clubs and axes, arriving November 19, 1835. The Moriori, explains Diamond, "had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully" so they didn't put up a fight.

Writes Diamond: "Over the course of the next few days, they killed hundreds of Moriori, cooked and ate many of the bodies, and enslaved all the others, killing most of them too over the next few years as it suited their whim.

"A Moriori survivor recalled: '[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep... [We] were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed - men, women and children indiscriminately'."

Reckon those surviving Moriori slaves could have done with a sit-down with a counsellor?

In his book Rome Inc, business writer Stanley Bing makes the argument that in the good ole' days, if another state or people declared war on you, you not only knew what was coming, but you often had to wait months or years for it to arrive.

Consider Rome in 86BC during the consulship of Lucius Cornelius Cinna and later Carbo, Scipio and Norbanus. While these men ostensibly ruled Rome (and killed plenty of opponents) arguably the most powerful man in the world - and their mortal enemy - was the Roman general Sulla.

Sulla, however, was busy fighting the First Mithridatic War with a large army of Roman veterans in parts of what is now Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

But he was coming back and every person in Rome knew it.

More than that, Sulla had already broken one of the most sacred rules of Rome a couple of years earlier, when he'd marched troops on the city and slaughtered his foes.

However, as soon as Sulla again left Rome to fight Mithridates, his house had was destroyed by his rivals, his supporters murdered and his family forced to flee.

The 2nd Century AD historian, Appian, in his work The Civil Wars writes: "Rome were terrified because they had a fair idea of Sulla's character and had fresh in their imaginations his previous assault and capture of the city; also they reflected on the decrees they had passed against him, and they saw his house razed to the ground, his property forfeit and his friends put to death."

In another of his podcasts on the fall of Republican Rome, Dan Carlin posits that for about three or four years, your average Roman didn't know which way to jump. Should I curry favour with Cinna, Scipio and Norbanus and save my neck now? But what about when Sulla gets back into town and starts making lists of who cooperated with whom?

Makes office politics seem a little pissweak, no? Stressful? Much?

Writes Appian: "Many unexplained attacks of panic were experienced all over Italy, both individually and collectively, and people remembered ancient, more terrifying prophecies, and there were many portents: a mule foaled, a pregnant woman gave birth to a viper instead of a baby, and the god caused a great earthquake and knocked down some temples in Rome - and remember the Romans attach great weight to such things."

I know it's hard to pull your head out of today's worries - but the thing is, these people were exactly like us. They worked and ate and loved and drank and had sex and did poops in the morning.

And no doubt they also stressed over crop failures or how many pieces of silver they had in the jar and about the smell coming from their neighbour's cesspit.

But I have to think they'd get a chuckle out of people today who freak out about things like traffic jams or their steak being overdone or a report being printed in the wrong font.

Anxiety and stress are no doubt part of the human make-up - it keeps us on our toes, stops us getting eaten by wild animals or slaughtered by neighbouring tribesman - but I do reckon it's helpful to put our "stresses" into some perspective.

London during The Blitz was stressful.

Australia today? Not so much.

If in doubt, close your eyes, lean back and think of Baghdad.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.