What was the most peaceful time in history? | Stuff You Should Know Podcast (Transcript)

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What was the most peaceful times in history? | Stuff You Should Know Podcast (Transcript)

Length: 32 mins

Josh Clark: Hi there, it's me Josh and for SYSK Selects this week, I've chosen What Was the Most Peaceful Time in History? which originally came out in March 2013.

There's a big discussion about Steven Pinker, and if this kind of thing floats your boat, check our Reality Denial, Steven Pinker's apologetics for Western imperial violence, which was a Public Intellectuals Project article; makes kind of a good companion piece to this episode. At any rate, enjoy it, it's a good one.

Welcome to Stuff You Should Know, from

JC: Hi and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark, there's Charles W. Chuck Bryant, we're being very professional, and this is Stuff You Should Know.

Charles W. Chuck Bryant: Are we?

JC: I just decided.

CB: You know, all we're saying, Josh, is give peace a chance.

JC: Who says that?

CB: Me and John Lennon.

JC: Nice.

CB: And you know, the follow-up, I think, to that line was,  "And if it doesn't work out, kill someone," but then, Yoko said,  "You should take that part out."

JC: Thank God for Yoko.

CB: Yeah, that's what I always say.

JC: Well, I think that was a nice little intro, Chuck.

CB: [Laughs] I just made it up.

JC: That was off the cuff?

CB: Clearly on the fly.

JC: Have you ever heard of the group Vision of Humanity?

CB: I have.

JC: I wonder where groups like this get their cash because this is kind ofÔøΩ I mean, they make a social statement but how are theyÔøΩ Are they selling ads on their annual report? What's going on here?

CB: I don't know. They may be an NGO, I guess.

JC: I mean I'm sure they are.

CB: I think it's valuable research.

JC: I agree because it brings into focus what we're going toward. I should say what they do is they use 23 different indicators and crunch some numbers from all over the world to determine what is the most peaceful countries on earth.

CB: Yeah.

JC: And it's fairly predictable, the top and the bottom.

CB: Sort of.

JC: What were you surprised by? Did you look up the 2012's?

CB: Yeah.

JC: Okay.

CB: We'll go ahead and go over the top and bottom 10, and then we'll talk about surprises.

JC: [Laughs] Okay.

CB: How does that sound?

JC: It sounds delicious.

CB: The number one most peaceful country was Iceland.

JC: Yeah.

CB: And then you got Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Austria, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, and Switzerland are the top 10 most peaceful countries.

JC: I could've guessed all those; maybe not Austria.

CB: Oh, yeah?

JC: Yeah.

CB: Oh, dude, they're super chill, very peaceful people.

JC: Got you.

CB: [Laughs] Anything in Western Europe, basically, is very peaceful these days.

JC: Yeah, I mean Western Europe, typically, is very peaceful.

CB: It's the most peaceful region, according to this list, in the world.

JC: I'm just a littleÔøΩ Okay.

CB: I find that ironic though.

JC: I feel like I have to be surprised by one.

CB: Okay.

JC: So I picked Austria.

CB: All right. I was surprised by, I'll go with Slovenia.

JC: Yeah, I don't know much about Slovenia.

CB: That's why I'm surprised.

JC: Yeah.

CB: So the worst is Somalia and then Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Republic of Congo.

JC: Here's where I was surprised.

CB: Russia. I was too.

JC: Russia is just slightly better than Congo as far as peaceful countries go.

CB: Yeah, and slightly worse than North Korea, then the Central African Republic, and then Israel and Pakistan is the tenth worst.

JC: I was also surprised by Israel and then once I thought about it, I was like,  "Man, that really stinks."

CB: Yeah, I was surprised by Russia.

JC: Yeah, I was too.

CB: And this one tends to fluctuate a little bit more depending on these little civil wars that crop up in some of these countries because a place like Syria had the biggest fall, they fell 30 places in a year, and then Sri Lanka rose 30 places because their civil war ended.

JC: Right. Oh, yeah, man, if you want to change big time in this rating, start or finish a civil war.

CB: [Laughs]

JC: 30 points, right there one way or the other. So yeah, I think the United States tends to rank pretty much somewhere in the middle, usually about the 80s.

CB: Yeah, we were 88 and the UK was 29. That's another notable.

JC: That is very notable.

CB: Country or region.

JC: And you can probably guess one of the reasons why the UK is higher than the United States is because, I think, one of the indicators has to do with access to guns, AKA ease of access to weapons of minor destruction.

CB: Yeah.

JC: UK's access to guns is far more restricted; number of jailed inmates per 100,000 people, military capability. Hey, US has got that in aces.

CB: Yeah, well, so does England, though.

JC: A potential for terrorist acts.

CB: Yeah.

JC: I take that to mean maybe being a target for it.

CB: That's what I took it as.

JC: Yeah.

CB: And then some of the other indicators they use are number of homicides per 100,000 people, how you get along with your neighbors country wise, number of deaths from organized conflict, respect for human rights, and number of heavy weapons. So not just guns and things but scud missiles and the like, bunker busters.

JC: That's the global peace index, and again, its Vision Of Humanity, an NGO's annual data that they crunch together, which is pretty sweet and there's just a little cheat sheet that we were working off of, but there's a whole publication that really goes into depth if you're interested. They pretty much have a lock on what the most peaceful country in the world is.

CB: Yeah.

JC: But the question still remains, what is the most peaceful time in history? A lot of people ask that.

CB: Yeah.

JC: And there's been several candidates, probably the most readily identified is the Pax Romana.

CB: Yeah.

JC: Which means the Roman Peace.

CB: This gets a lot of press at least.

JC: Yeah, thanks to an 18th century historian named Edward Gibbon, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pretty light reading.

CB: Yeah, I'm sure.

JC: And Gibbon was the first to really say,  "Hey, there was this thing called the Pax Romana," or he was the first one to popularly write about it and actually try to date this period. It was about 150 years and it startedÔøΩ Was it 180 years, I'm sorry.

CB: Yeah, well, they round it up to 200.

JC: Yeah, 200 years. Thanks man.

CB: He puts it at 27 BC is the beginning, when Octavian, who was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, the great nephew of the stabbed one, Julius Caesar.

JC: Right.

CB: And he was like,  "You know what? I'm in office now and I know what all we've always done is just conquer, conquer, conquer, conquer and spread the empire. We got enough junk now. Can we work on ourÔøΩ What we have and just quit conquering and work on our infrastructure and just being more peaceful and getting along within our own land bounds?"

JC: Right, making our people happy.

CB: Yeah.

JC: We've got a bunch of people, let's start focusing on them. And it actually had a really big impact. The popular rebellions dropped off pretty quickly in the Roman Empire.

CB: Didn't they end they point out?

JC: No, but I get the impression that they were a lot more frequent and widespread than they were during the Pax Romana.

CB: Yeah.

JC: There are these things called the Gates of Janice, and they were built by the second emperor of Rome. I can't remember his name.

CB: Yeah, I looked it up too; I can't remember.

JC: He built these things and left them open and while they were open, somebody noticed Rome was at peace. And then, another emperor, later on, closed them and Rome was at war. And these gates would stay open or closed for hundreds of years at a stretch, mostly open for hundreds of years at a stretch.

CB: Because they were always at war?

JC: Yeah. And they became the symbolic, I guess, kind of indicator of how Rome was doing right then as far as war and peace went.

CB: Yeah.

JC: And so during the Pax Romana, the Gates of Janice were ceremonially closed and stayed close for a couple of hundred years, which is a big deal.

CB: Yeah, It was opposite of how I thought it would be. I thought you would close them during times of war.

JC: I couldn't get to the bottom of what it really meant.

CB: I think it was more symbolic.

JC: It was definitely symbolic, but is it symbolic of Rome had troops out there that they needed to leave the gates open for?

CB: Maybe. That would make sense.

JC: Or if the gates were closed, Rome was focusing inward rather than outward?

CB: See, you thought much more about it. I just thought,  "If you're at war, man, you'd better close the gates." You know?

JC: Right, guys could come in.

CB: Exactly.

JC: There's also something called the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace, that was built during this time as well. And then the whole thing came to an end thanks to a guy named Commodus.

CB: Yeah, who was more into conquering.

JC: Yeah, he was Marcus Aurelius' son. And Marcus Aurelius was a really great general. We should say, during this time, during the Pax Romana, like you said, there were still some popular rebellions. There was one in Hispania, which is now modern-day Spain and Portugal. There was a border between the Roman Empire and Germania, which is modern-day Germania, and then also during the Pax Romana, Rome invaded England and subjugated it. So, depending on who you were, the Pax Romana could've been very violent and you may have come to a violent end. But if you look at the Roman Empire as a whole, this was a very peaceful time and Rome was pretty much running the world at the time, so this, you could say, was the most peaceful time in world history.

CB: I think compared to how Rome usually was, it was pretty peaceful.

JC: Yeah.

CB: But it wasn't, like you said, daisies and honey bees. [Laughs]

JC: [Laughs]

CB: I had no idea where I was going there.

JC: That was good, where you ended up, though.

CB: Yeah, daisies and honey bees.

JC: Yeah.

JC: you know a vomitorium?

CB: Yeah.

JC: It's a popular misconception.

CB: Oh, really? Is that not true?

JC: No, Romans actually didn't really use feathers to vomit up their meals. A vomitorium was a place of ingress and egress into a forum or a coliseum or something like that. It's basically the place where everybody walked in, they called it the vomitorium.

CB: So all those stories about eating excess, binging and purging are not true?

JC: As far as I know, the purging part is a misconception.

CB: Interesting.

JC: Yeah. They definitely went to excess, especially followers of Bacchus.

CB: Yeah, I mean can you believe thatÔøΩ Can you imagine?  "I'm just gonna eat so much lamb and beef and drink mead until I can't move and then I'll throw it all up and I'll do it all over again."

JC: Right. And it'll honor the god that I follow, which is why I follow this god.

CB:  "And then have sex with 18 people at once."

JC: [Laughs] Right.

CB: Ancient Rome, man. That place was a party.

JC: Roddy McDowell.

CB: Yeah, and Helen Mirren.

JC: Was she in that?

CB: Yeah, she was in it and naked quite a bit.

JC: Crazy. I never saw it.

CB: Caligula?

JC: Yeah.

CB: It's really not very good.

JC: Plot-wise?

CB: Well, it's just long and dull and you expect way more than you get as far as when I was a kid, Caligula was like the dirtiest thing ever.

JC: Oh, yeah.

CB: You know?

JC: Yeah.

CB: And then you watch it now, you're like,  "Oh, God. What a bore."

JC: Is that right?

CB: It's like Clash of the Titans without the good fighting

JC: Without pants.

CB: [Laughs] Yeah.

JC: You're jaded, Bryant.

CB: On Caligula?

JC: [Laughs] Yeah.

CB: I am. All right, so that is the Pax Romana. We've put it up for consideration and we're striking it down.

JC: That's the sound of it being stricken down.

CB: Up next, we have a time that you might not think was the most peaceful and that was the time of Genghis Khan.

JC: What!

CB: Genghis Khan who we have talked about murdering, what, like a million people?

JC: 1.8 million people.

CB: In an hour?

JC: In an hour. [Laughs] We put that one to rest.

CB: Yes, we did.

JC: But he did it. We should probably go over it real quick. The reason he was known for killing 1.8 million people in an hour is because, in just one particular city, Nishapur, he had his people sack it and then he went in and said,  "Cut everyone's head off and stacked it into a giant pyramid." Everybody's‚Äö√Ñ√§‚Äö√Ñ√Æ‚Äö√Ñ√§man, woman, child, baby, dog, you got your head cut off and stacked. That was Genghis Khan's orders.

CB: Genghis?

JC: That's how you say it.

CB: Okay.

JC: I saw the thing at Fernbank; they kept saying Genghis Khan, so that's how I'm saying it.

CB: Not Gengis?

JC: No.

CB: Okay.

JC: Genghis.

CB: Well, I'm gonna go with Genjis Khan. [Laughs] Genjis Kahan.

JC: Gengius.

CB: [Laughs] All right, so, sure, there was a lot of conquering of peoples. When you're bringing together the Mongol hordes, you got to do some killing, but apparently, once all the killing was accomplished, or not all of it but enough of it, he was like,  "You know what? I think now we really need to take care of folks and protect people."

JC: Kind of like when, who started the Pax Romana?

CB: The great nephew ofÔøΩ

JC: Octavian.

CB: Yeah, Octavius.

JC: Octavius, yeah. It was very much like,  "Okay, you're under our control now, which means you're now protected by our laws," which was good for a lot of people, especially the Mongol hordes that he basically brought under his kingdom I guess, kingship, whatever. And some of the innovations that Genghis Khan came up with were things like freedom of religion.

CB: What!

JC: Yeah, women's rights. He devised a postal system. Not the first, but he devised a postal system.

CB: Yeah, sort of like the Pony Express that we talked about. They had stations and horses and they would go from station to station delivering mail.

CB: And if you listen to the postal service episode, you'd know that that is something that is intended to create culture and spread information, share information easily. Kubla Khan, 200 years after Genghis Khan, he established a system of printing presses 200 years before Gutenberg.

CB: Cubla Khan, it's pronounced Cubla Khan. [Laughs]

JC: [Laughs] So there was a lot of really great innovations as far as promoting individual and human rights and they protected these things using really, really strict punishment, so much so that there is a very old legend that a womanÔøΩ Or a saying.

CB: I love this legend.

JC: that a woman could walk from one end of the Mongol Empire to the other, about a million square miles, holding a sack of gold and be just completely left alone.

CB: That's awesome.

JC: It is because there was a lot ofÔøΩ You were gonna be punished pretty severely, but a lot of people would point out, if the state doles out capital punishment or physical punishment pretty easy, pretty strictly, can you say that's very peaceful?

CB: Yeah, and can you say it's peaceful even though millions of people, potentially, were killed in order to establish that huge area of land, you know?

JC: Yeah.

CB: I mean I guess afterward maybe, but we're gonna say no on Genghis Khan.

JC: [Laughs] So no to the Pax Romana, no to Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire founded around 1200 AD. When then, Chuck?

CB: I am gonna put up a vote, along with our buddy Steven Pinker, that says,  "Right now, my friend, are the most peaceful times in world history."

JC: Man, that is crazy, Chuck, because think about it. There in the 20th century, we had two World Wars, countless civil wars, we've had genocides.

CB: Yup, terrorism.

JC: We've had a lot of lynchings.

CB: True.

JC: Lots of death, like violence. How can you call it peaceful?

CB: Homicide, patricide, matricide,

JC: Yeah.

CB: Brother and sister-cide.

JC: That's filicide.

CB: Is it?

JC: I think so.

CB: Okay. So, yeah, there's a lot of killing going on, but evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who I think we've talked about before, haven't we? He sounded really familiar.

JC: Yeah, we talked about him in the motion in art. He said that music is auditory cheesecake.

CB: That's right. He said,  "You know what? Things seem violent now for several reasons. One reason is because of media coverage, and you hear about everything and you're inundated with it." So it's gonnaÔøΩ if you watch the evening news, it's violence upon violence upon violence.

JC: Right.

CB: He says,  "If you go to the hunter-gatherer days, where you think they're all just out hunting and gathering, 20% to 60% of the men died at the hands of violence compared to 2% of men today dying at the hands of violence."

JC: Right, during the 20th century?

CB: Yeah.

JC: Even with all the wars, all the genocides?

CB: Yeah, a lot more people, a lot more dudes, of course, so take that into account. But compared to the Middle Ages and times like that, much, much more peaceful and less violent today.

JC: He makes the point that Hobbs, Thomas Hobbs, not Calvin Hobbs, which is what I want to say, that he was correct in that his whole idea that life was broodish, nasty and short before government. And that he points to times of anarchy or a failed state, like in Guinea, Bissau or Somalia, where you have huge escalation of violence. And he said,  "The rise of the state and the state monopoly on violence," which means the state is the only one that can execute somebody,  "has created this way for people to get redressed for wrongs against them and you can go to court."

CB: Yeah, and it's stable at least.

JC: And the government does it for you. You don't have to go kill that man and then he doesn't come kill your family and blah, blah, blah back and forth.

CB: Right.

JC: So that was one thing, one reason why we've gotten more peaceful.

CB: Yeah, he thinks technology, which makes a lot of sense, has a lot to do with it because we are connected now like we never have been in world history and connected to other countries and I think people — and this is me talking — I think people fear what they don't understand and there is a better understanding now than there ever has been so there's not as much fear and people, oftentimes, react from fear with violence.

JC: Yeah, and a guy named Peter Singer came up with this called the Expanding Circle. It initially started with your family and then clans, tribes, whatever, and as we got bigger and bigger and societies got bigger and bigger, this circle of who was okay in our book expanded more and more until it was one culture warring with one culture. But then, as we came to understand other cultures a little better, that circle got bigger and bigger until now, not only does it include basically all humans, but other species of animals as well like,  "They're okay, maybe we shouldn't killÔøΩ maybe we shouldn't eat octopi."

CB: Right.

JC: because they're intelligent and we know they're intelligent because we understand them a little more; we've gotten closer to them. We've been hugged by them.

CB: That's a good point. And he goes on, Pinker does, to talk about health care, it's sort of along the same lines. Not only are we better at saving people, but it also has given us more value about saving people and just the notion of saving human lives through medicine has increased or decreased violence, he thinks.

JC: That one kind of didn't quite click with me.

CB: Not super for me either.

JC: It seems like if you're gonna die at 30 or 35, that would make life evenÔøΩ With no chance of reviving you if you fell into a puddle.

CB: Yeah.

JC: That would make life more valuable in that sense. Whereas if people are walking around like,  "Well, a doctor could probably fix him if I hit him over the head with this lead pipe," it might make people are more prone to use a lead pipe on somebody.

CB: I don't know that lead pipe hitters think about that stuff.

JC: But think about this. Let's say we got to the point where you had a 99% chance of being fully revived and restored within a couple of days after being shot, that medicine advances to that point.

CB: Oh, I'd be shooting people all over the place. [Laughs]

JC: Exactly. So that's my point.

CB: Yeah.

JC: You know what I'm saying?

CB: Yeah.

JC: that seems counter-intuitive to me. I've been trying to wrap my mind around it and I'm also really worried that I've just given myself away as a complete sociopath somehow by not understanding that, you know?

CB: No, that one didn't hit home as much with me either.

JC: I also want to say, too, with the government monopoly on violence, yes, the government used to have a monopoly on violence in other ages as well, but that wasn'tÔøΩ that didn't have the companion of protecting individual and human rights like we have today to where it's not just like,  "Yeah, kill him for next to nothing." Pinker points out that, during the Middle Ages when violence peaked by his estimation, stuff that government would fine someone for it today you would be killed for.

CB: Yeah, that's a good point.

JC: Right.

CB: He also makes some good points about things like the United Nations, like the cooperation between countries these days is unparalleled; the EU sharing responsibility for international conflicts, like teaming up with other countries to go peace keep, I guess, or conquer, depending on which way you want to look at it.

JC: [Laughs] Right.

CB: Common currency and I guess it was a lot more violent back in the day when you had everyone trading different things.

JC: [Laughs] Sure.

CB: Common currency would sort of bind people together.

JC: Yeah, at the very least, different currencies maybe promote a sense of otherness too, you know.

CB: Yeah.

JC: In-group, out-group stuff. I took an anthropology class once; I don't know if I've talked about it before, it was the first one I ever took. It was great class. The instructor challenged the class to go a full day without using any in-group or out-group language like us, them, we, they.

CB: Wow, I'll bet that's tough.

JC: It's impossible.

CB: Yeah.

JC: You can't do it, but just paying attention to it, trying, just for a day, really kind of brings out how much you see other people and other groups as different and other.

CB: Right.

JC: And that's not necessarily a good thing.

CB: No, I would like to strive to be more open-minded and inclusive like that.

JC: I would say try that then.

CB: Yeah, I think everyone should, though.

JC: I agree.

CB: [Laughs] You got anything else?

JC: No. There's a pretty cool thing called Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence by Ethan Zuckerman. I can't remember the name of the site it was on, but if you search that, it'll bring it up. It's from 2007 and it sounds like Steven Pinker was preparing his notes for Angels of Our Better Nature, that book he came out with, where he argues what we've just talked about. That's a pretty cool little primer, a little brief run-down of it.

CB: Yeah, I love Pinker.

JC: And if you want to read this article, you should.

CB: [Laughs]

JC: You can type in  "peaceful history" in the search bar at and it will bring it up. And I said  "search bar" which means it's time for a word from our sponsor.

JC: It is time for listener mail.

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