In most ancient cultures, the survival of an individual beyond their first year was quite an achievement.
The annual celebration of birthdays, however, was comparatively rare, with many societies choosing instead to commemorate key moments in an individual’s life – such as the moment of birth itself, marriage or becoming an adult. In the fifth century BC, Greek historian Herodotus noted the extremely curious (to his eyes, at least) Persian tradition of birthday feasting in which the wealthy dined on baked camel, cow and donkey.
It wasn’t until the start of the first century AD that the Roman custom of celebrating the birthday of friends, family and the reigning emperor with gifts – and the rather excessive consumption of wine – became popular and widely practised throughout the Empire. So extravagant and degenerate did these birthday parties become that, in the fourth century, early Christian communities tried to have them outlawed.
This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine