SYSK Selects: What was the most peaceful time in history?

© Gambarini Federico/dpa/Corbis

In this week's SYSK Select episode, there is a lot of debate about whether pre-agricultural humans existed in a more harmonious state than we do today. Did we slip out of Eden when we began to build large scale societies and pay the price for technological advancement by suffering increased violence? Or is it possible that the most peaceful time in history is right now?

Female Speaker: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from

Josh Clark: Hi and welcome to the podcast. I am Josh Clark, there's Charles W. Chuck Bryant, we're being very professional and this is stuff you should know.

Chuck Bryant: Are we?

Josh Clark: I just decided.

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

Josh Clark: Who says that?

Chuck Bryant: Me and John Lennon.

Josh Clark: Nice.

Chuck Bryant: And you know the followup, I think, to that line was that if it doesn't work out then kill somebody and then Yoko said, "You should take that part out."

Josh Clark: Thank God for Yoko.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah that's what I always say.

Josh Clark: Well I think that was nice little intro Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: I just made it up.

Josh Clark: That was off the cuff, clearly on the fly. Have you ever heard of the group Vision of Humanity?

Chuck Bryant: I have.

Josh Clark: I wonder where groups like this get their cash because this is kind of - I mean they make a social statement but how are they - are they selling ads on their annual report? What is going on here?

Chuck Bryant: I don't know, they might be an NGO. I guess.

Josh Clark: I mean I am sure they are.

Chuck Bryant: I think it's valuable research.

Josh Clark: 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. And it is fairly predictable the top and the bottom.

Chuck Bryant: Sort of.

Josh Clark: What were you surprised by? Did you look at 2012s?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. We'll go ahead and go over the top and bottom ten and then we'll talk about surprises. How does that sound?

Josh Clark: It sounds delicious.

Chuck Bryant: The number one most peaceful country was Iceland. And then you had Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Austria, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, and Switzerland are the top ten most peaceful countries.

Josh Clark: I could have guessed all of those, maybe not Austria.

Chuck Bryant: Oh yeah?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Oh dude, they're like super chill, very peaceful people. Anything in Western Europe basically is very peaceful these days.

Josh Clark: Yeah I mean Western Europe typically is very peaceful but -

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

Josh Clark: I am just a little - out of - okay I feel like I have to be surprised by one so I picked Austria.

Chuck Bryant: All right I was surprised by Slovenia.

Josh Clark: Yeah I don't know much about Slovenia.

Chuck Bryant: That's why I am surprised. So the worst is Somalia and then Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Republic of Congo.

Josh Clark: Here is where I was surprised.

Chuck Bryant: Russia, I was too.

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

Chuck Bryant: Yeah and slightly worse than North Korea. And then the Central African Republic and then Israel and Pakistan is the 10th worst.

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

Chuck Bryant: I was surprised by Russia.

Josh Clark: Yeah I was too.

Chuck Bryant: 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.

Josh Clark: Right. Oh yeah man if you want to change big time in this rating start or finish a civil war, 30 points right there one way or the other. So I think the United States tends to rank somewhere in the middle, usually in the '80s.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah we were 88 and the UK was 29 just to - that is another notable country or region.

Josh Clark: That is very notable. And you could 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. The UKs access to guns is far more restricted. The number of jailed inmates per 100,000 people, military capability, US has got that in aces.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah so does England though.

Josh Clark: Potential for terrorist acts. I take that to mean maybe being a target for it?

Chuck Bryant: That's what I took it as.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: And then some of the other indicators they use are the 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 bunker busters.

Josh Clark: That is the global peace index and again it is Vision of Humanity and NGOs annual data that they crunched together which is pretty sweet. That was just a little cheat sheet we were working off of but there is a whole publication that really goes into depth if you're interested. And they pretty much have a lock on what the most peaceful country in the world is but the question still remains what is the most peaceful time in history? A lot of people ask that. And there have been several candidates. Probably the most readily identified is the Pax Romana which means the Roman Peace.

Chuck Bryant: This gets a lot of press at least.

Josh Clark: 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.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah I'm sure.

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

Chuck Bryant: Yeah well they round it up to 100.

Josh Clark: Yeah 200 years. Thanks man.

Chuck Bryant: He put it at 27 BC as the beginning when Octavian who was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus the great nephew of the stabbed one, Julius Caesar. And he was like, "You know what I'm in office now and I know what we've always done is just conquer, conquer, conquer and spread the empire. We got enough junk now can we work on what we have and just quit conquering and work on our infrastructure and be more peaceful and getting along within our own land bounds."

Josh Clark: Right making our people happy. 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.

Chuck Bryant: Didn't they [inaudible].

Josh Clark: No but I get the impression that they were a lot more frequent and wide spread during the Pax Romana. There were these things called the Gates of Janice and they were built by the second emperor of Rome, I can't remember his name.

Chuck Bryant: I looked it up too and can't remember.

Josh Clark: He built these things and left them open and while they were open somebody noticed that 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.

Chuck Bryant: Because they were always at war.

Josh Clark: Yeah and they became a symbolic indicator of how Rome was doing right then as far as war and peace went. And so during the Pax Romana the Gates of Janice were ceremonially closed and stayed closed for a couple hundred years.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah it was the opposite of how I thought it would be I thought you would close them during times of war but it -

Josh Clark: I couldn't get the bottom -

Chuck Bryant: It was symbolic.

Josh Clark: It was definitely symbolic. But is it symbolic or Rome had troops out there that they needed to leave the gates open for?

Chuck Bryant: Maybe. That would make sense.

Josh Clark: Or the gates were closed, Rome was focusing inward rather than outward.

Chuck Bryant: See you thought much more about it. I just thought if you're at war man you better close the gates. Josh Clark: Right, guys could come in.

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: There is also something called the Ara Pacis, the Alter 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.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah he was more into conquering.

Josh Clark: 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 have been very violent, it 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 you could say this was the most peaceful time in world history.

Chuck Bryant: I think compared to how Rome usually was it was pretty peaceful but it wasn't all, like you said, daisies and honey bees. I had no idea where I was going with that.

Josh Clark: Did you - that was good where you ended up thought.

Chuck Bryant: Daisies and honey bees.

Josh Clark: Did you know - you know the vomitorium?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: It's a popular misconception.

Chuck Bryant: Oh really, is that not true?

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

Chuck Bryant: So all those stories of eating to excess and binging and purging are not true?

Josh Clark; As far as I know the purging part is a misconception.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: Yeah they definitely went to excess especially followers of Bacchus.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah can you believe - can you imagine, I am just going to eat so much lamb and beef and drink mead until I can't move and I'll throw it all up and do it all over again.

Josh Clark: Right and it will honor the God that I follow which is why I follow this God.

Chuck Bryant: And have sex with 18 people at once. Ancient Rome, man, that place was a party.

Josh Clark: Ronnie McDowell huh?

Chuck Bryant: And Helen Mirren a young -

Josh Clark: Was she in that?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah she was in it and naked quite a bit.

Josh Clark: Crazy I never saw it.

Chuck Bryant: Caligula?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: It's really not very good. It's long.

Josh Clark: Plot wise?

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

Josh Clark: Oh yeah.

Chuck Bryant: And then you watch it now and you're like, "Oh God what a bore."

Josh Clark: Is that right?

Chuck Bryant: It's like Clash of the Titans without the good fighting.

Josh Clark: Without pants.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: You're jaded Bryant.

Chuck Bryant: On Caligula I am. All right so that is the Pax Romana. We put it up for consideration and we're striking it down.

Josh Clark: That's the sound of it been stricken down.

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

Josh Clark: What?

Chuck Bryant: Genghis Khan who we've talked about murdering like a million people.

Josh Clark: 1.8 million people in an hour. We put that one to rest.

Chuck Bryant: Yes we did but -

Josh Clark: 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 stack it into a giant pyramid." Everybody, man, woman, child, baby, dog you got your head cut off and stacked. That was Genghis Khan's order.

Chuck Bryant: Genghis?

Josh Clark: That's how you say it. I saw the thing at Firmbank, they kept saying Genghis Khan so that's how I am saying it.

Chuck Bryant: Not Genghis?

Josh Clark: No. Genghis.

Chuck Bryant: Okay well I'm going to go with Genghis Khan.

Josh Clark: Jin juice Khan?

Chuck Bryant: So sure there was a lot of conquering of peoples when you're bringing together the Mongol hordes you have 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 I think now we really need to take care of folks and protect people."

Josh Clark: Yeah kind of like when - who started the Pax Romana?

Chuck Bryant: The great nephew of -

Josh Clark: Octavia.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah Octavias.

Josh Clark: Or Octavias, yeah. It was very much like, "Okay you're under 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.

Chuck Bryant: What?

Josh Clark: Yeah. Women's rights. He devised a postal system, not the first but he devised a postal system.

Chuck Bryant: 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.

Josh Clark: And if you listen to the postal service episode you 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 Guttenberg.

Chuck Bryant: A Subla Khan is pronounced -

Josh Clark: So there was a lot of really great innovations as far as promoting individual and human rights and they protected these things using really strict punishment. So much so that there is a legend -

Chuck Bryant: I love this legend.

Josh Clark: Or saying 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 just be completely left alone.

Chuck Bryant: That's awesome.

Josh Clark: It is because there was a lot of - you were going to be punished pretty severely. But a lot of people will point out that if the state dolls out capital punishment or physical punishment pretty easy, pretty strictly than can you say that is pretty peaceful?

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

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: I guess afterward maybe but we're going to say no to Genghis Khan?

Josh Clark: So no to the Pax Romana. No to Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire founded around 1,200 AD. When then Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: I am going to put up a vote along with our buddy Steven Pinker that says right now, my friend, are the most peaceful times in world history.

Josh Clark: Man that is crazy Chuck because think about it. During the 20th Century we had two world wars, countless civil wars, we've had genocides.

Chuck Bryant: Yep, terrorism.

Josh Clark: We've had a lot of lynchings, lots and lots of death and violence. How can you call it peace?

Chuck Bryant: Homicide, patricide, matricide, brother and sister-cide.

Josh Clark: It's filicide.

Chuck Bryant: Is it. Okay. So yeah there is a lot of killing going on but evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker who I think we've talked about before. It sounded really familiar.

Josh Clark: Yeah we talked about him in emotion and art. He said that music is auditory cheesecake.

Chuck Bryant: He said what what things seem violent now for several reasons. One reason is because of media coverage and you hear about everything and you're inundated by it. So if you watch news it is violence upon violence upon violence. He says if you go to the hunter gatherer days where you think they are all just out hunting and gathering, 20 to 60 percent of the men died at the hands of violence compared to 2 percent of men today dying at the hands of violence.

Josh Clark: During the 20th Century? Even with all the wars and all the genocides?

Chuck Bryant: 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.

Josh Clark: He makes the point that Hobbes, Thomas Hobbes - not Calvin Hobbes which is what I always wants to say - that he was correct in the idea that life was brutish, nasty, and short before government. And he points to times of anarchy or a failed state like in Guinea Bissau or Somalia where you have huge escalations of violence. And he said the rise of the state and the state monopoly on violence which means the state is the only one who can execute somebody has created this way for people to get redress for wrongs against them. You can go to court.

Chuck Bryant: And it's stable at least.

Josh Clark: 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 bla bla bla back and forth. So that was one thing, one reason why we've gotten more peaceful.

Chuck Bryant: 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 then there ever has been. So there is not as much fear and people often times react from fear with violence.

Josh Clark: Yeah and what a guy named Peter Singer came up with is 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 the circle of who was okay in our book expanded more and more until it was like 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 eat octopi because their 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.

Chuck Bryant: That's a good point. And he goes on to - Pinker does - to talk about healthcare sort of along those 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 has decreased violence.

Josh Clark: That one didn't quite click with me.

Chuck Bryant: Not super for me either.

Josh Clark: It seems like if you're going to die at 30 or 35 that would make life even - with no chance of reviving you if you fell in a puddle, that would make life more valuable in that sense. Whereas if people are walking around, "Well a doctor could probably fix him if I hit him over the head with this lead pipe" it might make people a little more prone to use a lead pipe on somebody.

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

Josh Clark: Well think about this. Let's say we got to the point where you had a 99 percent chance of being fully revived and restored within a couple of days of being shot - that medicine advances to that point.

Chuck Bryant: Oh I would be shooting people all over the place.

Josh Clark: Exactly so that's my point, you know what I'm saying? That seems counterintuitive to me and I've been trying to wrap my mind around it. I am also worried that I have given myself away as a complete sociopath somehow by not understanding that.

Chuck Bryant: No. That one didn't hit as home as much with me either.

Josh Clark: 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 it didn't have the companion of protecting individual and human rights like we have today, to where it's not just like kill him for next to nothing. Like Pinker points out that during the middle ages when violence peaked by his estimation, stuff that a government would find someone for today you would be killed for.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah that's a good point. He also makes some good points about the United Nations like the cooperation between countries these days is unparalleled. The EU sharing responsibility for international conflict like teaming up with other countries to go peace keep, I guess, or conquer depending on which way you want to look at it. Common currency, I guess it was a lot more violent back in the day when you had everyone trading different things. Common currency would sort of bind people together.

Josh Clark: Yeah at the very least differing currencies might promote a sense of otherness, too, you know?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: 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. Great class and the instructor challenged the class to go a full day without using any in group or out group language like us, them, we, they.

Chuck Bryant: Wow I bet that's tough.

Josh Clark: It's impossible. 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 in other groups as different or other and that is not necessarily a good thing.

Chuck Bryant: No I would like to strive to be more open minded and inclusive like that.

Josh Clark: I would say try that then.

Chuck Bryant: I think everyone should though.

Josh Clark: I agree.

Chuck Bryant: You got anything else?

Josh Clark: No there is a pretty cool thing called Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence by Ethan Zuckerman. I can't remember the site it was on but if you search that it will 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 just talked about. It's a cool little primer, a brief rundown of it.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah I love Pinker.

Josh Clark: And if you want to read this article you should. You can type in peaceful history in the search bar of and it will bring it up. And I said search bar which means it is time for a word from our sponsor. Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: When we get the whole team together, you, me, Jerry, Casey, that guy who hangs outside, out front, we get the whole team together we get stuff done, you know?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah totally man. But it is becoming increasingly difficult in these days of telecommuting and busy schedules to get us all together in one place. And fortunately for us we can use Go To Meeting with HDFaces.

Josh Clark: Yeah we can get the whole team together online at once, see each other whenever we need to no matter how far away everybody is.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah you just click on the link there and you fire up your webcam and with Go To Meeting you can share the same screen, we can share the same documents with each other like you can work on stuff if I give you permission. And it is really a great way to video conference.

Josh Clark: Yeah and with built in HD video conferencing it makes online meetings just like being in the same room.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah and you can do it on your iPad if you're not into laptops or desktops fire it up on your tablet.

Josh Clark: Yeah or your smartphone even, it's pretty cool. And we've actually done this before and we're pretty impressed with Go To Meeting. It's got all the gee whiz factors we are looking for.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah it is so impressive that we have an offer for you. You can try Go To Meeting free for 30 days. Don't wait folks, go to, click the try it free button and then use the promo code stuff. That is s-t-u-f-f on that try it free button at

Josh Clark: It is time for listener mail.

Chuck Bryant: Okay we're going to call this more on condoms in New York because you just can't get enough of that. In one of our podcasts we talked about the fact that you find condoms just laying around in the street in New York and it's kind of like where are those coming from? And we had one dude write in that worked for the ferry I think that all that stuff gets washed out down there. And what do they call them?

Josh Clark: Coney Island White Snakes or something. Coney Island White Fish?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah I think White Fish. So this guy Aaron listened to that and he has a theory here.

"About New Yorkers, generally we tend to engage in otherwise private behavior in public. For many of us privacy is hard to come by but remember this was the birthplace [inaudible] with whole families living in one room. Unfortunately for some this remains a reality. For most people, however, even living with one's family in separate rooms or roommates in a cramped apartment means little privacy. Going outside doesn't help, it might in the suburbs but here in New York there are always people walking around everywhere all the time. Once in a while I will see if I can find a place where there is no one around and no one can see me and it's pretty tough.

So people adapt to this reality by blocking out reality so to speak, pretending that no one is around. That is why New York has a reputation for having a lot of crazy people because a lot of us talk and sing and laugh and gesture to ourselves. I believe this goes on all across the country it's just that everyone else does it behind closed doors."

I like what he is saying here. I totally agree.

"So while some people merely talk to themselves in public a few people engage in more vulgar behavior from picking one's nose all the way to having sex. Not only have I witnessed three separate acts of public sex in my youth I engaged in public sex three times. All of these acts witnessed and engaged in public parks and all except one occurred during the day time. Personally I remember trying to minimize the chance of being seen, somewhat, but not too hard.

If someone saw they would be unlikely A) to know me or my girlfriend or B) do anything but ignore it and keep on walking which is the great thing about New York. You can really do anything and be completely ignored because nobody wants any part of that. So that is exactly what I did guys as a witness. I hope this helps explain why your chances of stepping on a used condom while out on a stroll is higher in New York City than anywhere else in the country. It is certainly the wrong way to dispose of condoms for sure and that is because we are a bunch of self-centered, selfish people for whom littering is a way of life. Please don't judge us for our public sex, Aaron."

I like Aaron.

Josh Clark: Thanks Aaron, what a level headed approach to explaining things.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah I like that sort of arm chair psychology about stuff like that.

Josh Clark: Yeah that was arm chair Dr. Ruth, you know? That's all I've got about that one.

Chuck Bryant: Good for you Aaron.

Josh Clark: If you want to explain something that we've talked about and couldn't quite get to the bottom to, we're always happy to cross all our Ts and dot all our Is, if you will, you can Tweet to us at syskpodcast. You can join us on And you can send us an email at But wait, you should first also join us on our website. Our website Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah lots of cool stuff there.

Josh Clark: It's called

Female Speaker: For more on this and thousands of other topics visit

[End of Audio]

Duration: 28 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: pacifism, peace