I’ve come across a large number of questions on Quora asking how people in ancient times managed to survive during the winter without modern central heating. It seems that many people are just outright baffled by the very idea of people living through the cold of winter without central heating.
The answer to the question of how people survived is fairly straightforward, although there are a few surprises. For instance, some people may not have known this, but there are still people living in relatively cold environments today without central heating. Also, even more surprisingly, some wealthy aristocrats in ancient Rome actually did have a kind of early form of central heating system in their villas.
Contemporary people living without central heating in cold environments
Believe it or not, there are still people today who live in cold climates without modern central heating. For instance, I’m from a town in northern Indiana. In January and February, the temperatures can often get well below freezing.
I graduated from high school a couple years ago. During my senior year of high school, I had a friend who told me about how her father’s house didn’t have any central heating or air conditioning at all. She told me that, in the winter, her bedroom would often be twenty degrees Fahrenheit or colder, with ice all over the window.
I was quite astonished to hear this at the time because, although I had already known that many people in town did not have air conditioning, I had assumed that everyone in Indiana at least had heating. I asked her how she and her father kept warm in the winter without central heating.
She said that her father’s house had been built back in the nineteenth century before heating or air conditioning were invented. She said that her father didn’t have a lot of money and it was much cheaper and easier for them to simply make do without heating or air conditioning than it would have been for them to have had those things installed.
She told me that they had a small gas heater that they kept in the living room downstairs that could generate enough heat for the room, but that was the only heating they had. They tried to keep doors in the house open so the heat could spread throughout the house. She also mentioned that they always used “lots of blankets” during the winter.
How people in ancient times made it through the winter
People in ancient times coped with cold temperatures in a similar way to how my friend from high school did it. They didn’t have gas space heaters, but, during the winter, they would almost always keep a fire blazing on the hearth. On especially cold days, people could gather around the hearth for warmth. It was also common for people in ancient times to use blankets and furs for warmth. The colder it was, the more blankets they used.
People who lived in areas that got especially cold during the winter, such as northern Europe, normally built their homes with thick, well-insulated walls to keep in as much warmth as possible. They knew that winters were cold, so they built their homes accordingly.
People in ancient times also adjusted their clothes according to the weather. This may come as a surprise to many people, but even people in ancient Greece and Rome didn’t just wear short tunics all year round. Greece may be warmer than, say, Norway, but it can still get quite chilly in Greece during the winter. The average low temperature for the city of Athens, Greece in the month of January is 7 °C (44.6 °F).
During the winter, many people in ancient Greece probably wore a kind of long cloak made from a single large rectangular piece of heavy woolen fabric known as a himation. Some ancient Greek depictions of people in mourning sometimes show them totally wrapped in their himatia as though all bundled up in their blankets. Depictions of Achilleus mourning for Patroklos in particular often show him bundled up in his himation in this manner. It is easy to imagine that people might have done this for warmth on exceptionally cold days as well.
ABOVE: Tondo from an Attic red-figure kylix dated to c. 500 BC depicting Achilleus seated on the chair wrapped tightly in a himation. He’s actually in mourning for Patroklos, but you could imagine someone wrapping themselves up in a cloak like this on an exceptionally cold day for warmth.
Ancient Roman central heating
In the Roman Empire, some buildings, such as bathhouses and villas belonging to extremely wealthy aristocrats, did have an early form of central heating system, known as a hypocaust. Hypocausts may have been originally invented by the Greeks, but they only became more commonly used during the time of the Roman Empire.
A hypocaust operated on a fairly simple mechanism; basically, heat from a wood furnace was conducted through empty spaces underneath the floor of the building and into rooms through pipes in the walls, which were known as “caliducts.”
The hypocaust, however, was an extremely rare and expensive system that was never available to the majority of people in the Roman Empire. The vast majority of people who lived in the Roman Empire lived in buildings without hypocausts.
After the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, hypocausts generally fell out of use in most parts of western Europe for about a thousand years. The technology was never really lost, but, in most places, the system ceased to be used. Hypocaust-like systems continued to be used in the eastern Empire, in the Arab world, and in parts of Spain.
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