Senses and History, Part Three: Hearing

The sounds we hear these days are unique to the computer era in many cases. At the grocery store, when someone’s credit card purchase is approved, the particular beep the card reader makes is instantly recognizable and so grating on the ear that if the person doesn’t pull out their card, you are tempted to do so for them.

A day shopping in Regency London was no less quiet, but the noises you would hear were the voices of the vendors calling out their wares, the haggling of the shoppers, the animals either on sale or used to bring the goods to market. Children, no doubt, were as rambunctious and noisy then as they can be today. And the traffic passed with the sounds of carriage wheels on cobblestones and the snap of a whip.

London in 1800 had around 1 million people living there. Rome at the end of the first century BC had that same population, and between the times no other civilizations met that mark. Rome depended completely on shopkeepers for their goods, unlike many Londoners who kept a few chickens and grew a few herbs and such. Rome had a reputation for being a retail center of the world at that time. The goods available went from poor street hawkers trying to stay alive to the grand macellum where food was auctioned off. Rather like a Nordie’s for comestibles, other items were also sold there, songbirds being notable for the sounds they would have added to the crowd.

Roman citizens with money could also arrange for merchants to bring goods to them, directly to their homes. Not being shy, the merchants also would show up when special quality items at a good price could be had. Not everyone liked this forward behavior.

In the last few decades, we have seen the damage done to the ears of concert goers by the super loud amplified music presented. Also, anyone who works in a factory where machinery makes a lot of noise, or who likes to relax at a firing range, needs to have ear protection for use. London was at the start of the Industrial Revolution. No one thought about damage to hearing in the factories. No soldiers who fought against Napoleon were given ear protections.

Luckily, the concerts and dances that entertained the Regency crowds stayed at a simple level of what the instrument and singer could produce. Romans, too, were limited this way for music but also had the open coliseum where gladiators fought, with the ring of metal on shield sounded regularly.

We share a lot of leisure time activities with Rome and London in these time periods. Horseback riding, hunting, wrestling, boxing, running, fishing, and board games. In London, swimming was not so much in vogue as these days and in Ancient Rome. Ball games are strong in modern times and were strong in Rome, but cricket was just being introduced to England from India.


The sounds of horses trotting along a path is rarely heard now but was constant and comforting in London and Rome. Music has been revered in all three places and times, while water sports were absent from London. But in the English countryside, perhaps women were allowed to take a dip now and then. Many men did learn to swim, but it was not widespread. I wonder if they knew how blessed they were to not ever hear “Marco!” followed by “Polo!”

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back on Sunday with Taste. At least, I hope it will be tasteful.

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