How the Ancient Romans Dealt with Anxiety

 

The New Year is a time when people look to start afresh, improve themselves, and take stock of their lives. Keeping a diary has always been a popular resolution but this year journaling is all the rage.

Seemingly out of nowhere, wellness and lifestyle coaches are promoting journaling to their clients as a form of self-care. The marketplace is cluttered with products for the perpetually busy, fitness fanatics, and gratitude seekers. Diaries aren’t just for keeping track of the events of one’s day anymore, but why do we do it? Why journal? Is it just a record of the things we achieved or does it do something more profound?

As it turns out, journaling is an ancient practice. There are, of course, different kinds of diaries, even thousands of years ago. There were travelogues like that written by early Christian female pilgrim Egeria. There were prison memoirs, like the one the Christian martyr Perpetua kept before her execution in the arena in Carthage in 203 CE. And there were ‘wellness journals,’ like the dream journal / medical tourism diary that the orator Aelius Aristides kept in his Sacred Tales.

Texts like this were highly unusual: it was rare for people to commit their inner journey and personal experiences to paper and in solitude. More regularly the process of reviewing one’s day and taking stock of one’s actions took place via dialogue, through letter writing with a friend, and in mental review. It’s a recognizable practice as early as Plato, who wrote that we should examine ourselves with great attention and that before we can become valuable members of society (as politicians, for example) we must, “before all else…attend to ourselves.”

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