Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.08.07

J. Donald Hughes, Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 277. $39.95. ISBN 0-8018-4655-2.

Reviewed by John McMahon, Le Moyne College.

Pan's Travail by J. Donald Hughes stands as a significant contribution to understanding the relationship between Classical Civilization in the Mediterranean Basin and its contemporary natural environment during the period from 800 BC to 600 A D. Noting the limitations of current knowledge about the ancient environmental situation and citing a lack of acknowledgement of that situation, Hughes shows that the ancients themselves were aware of the problems in the environment and commented upon them. Thus establishing a rationale for an ecologically based re-examination of Greek and Roman history, he surveys the four major factors (cultural attitudes toward nature, knowledge of nature, appropriate technology, and social organization) that determined how human activity led to environmental degradation and the resultant negative effects on the societal and economic underpinnings of Classical Civilization. Indeed, the author's stated purpose (xi) is to "explore the process and scope of that mistreatment and also explore how nature exacted revenge." Conceived, as the author explains (xii), as a more specifically focussed examination of the environmental impact of ancient civilizations upon the natural ecological balance which he began in an earlier work,1 the book incorporates much of Hughes's ongoing investigations published in journals and essay collections from disciplines as diverse as religion, forestry, archaeology, and environmental studies proper (246). By emphasizing the treatment of the environment by humans and the technologies involved rather than only the attitudes of the ancients to their environment, and by drawing on a wide array of source material, Hughes provides valuable new insights into ways of approaching Greek and Roman cultures.

While those already familiar with Classical Mediterranean civilizations may stand to gain the most from a work of this kind, Hughes has written primarily for a general audience. Thus he has divided up each chapter into subtopics arranged under individual headings, and except in the first chapter, has provided a conclusion summarizing the important points. A complement to the overall organization of the book is Hughes's effective (but somewhat predictable) method of initially describing a given situation, then citing evidence for his interpretation, and concluding with a simple assessment of the result.2 While he maintains a restrained and detached tone throughout the work, and while for the most part his prose is straightforward and spare, this economy of expression belies a genuine concern for modern environmental problems, and a certain didactic element is clearly present.3

Chapter One ("Introduction: Ecology in the Greek and Roman Worlds") gives a brief overview of the recent efforts to evaluate classical history in the Mediterranean from an ecological standpoint. Hughes concludes that the processes resulting in the present environmentally degraded landscape were set in motion by economic, military, and religious factors at work in ancient Greek and Roman societies; these have since been exacerbated by stresses to the ecosystem during medieval and modern times. By introducing Thucydides' assessment (4.108) that the fall of Amphipolis caused alarm among the Athenians because it meant the loss of timber resources, he presents his basic premise that an understanding of ecological factors is indispensable to understanding historical events.4 Hughes also examines the relatively recent (1866) origins of the term "ecology" and advances his working definition of the word. The chapter concludes with a preview of upcoming chapters and a very brief discussion of the sources of evidence for the environmental history of ancient times, including literary and subliterary material, archaeological findings and surveys, and modern scientific investigations into the condition of the ancient environment.

In Chapter Two ("The Environment: Life, Land, and Sea in the Mediterranean Region") Hughes defines the Mediterranean Basin as both a biogeographical region and as an ecosystem which, while containing smaller and distinct communities of flora and fauna, shares "enough common characteristics to make it a useful unit of study." (9) The bulk of the chapter is devoted to a careful detailing of the region's specific climatic, geographical, and biological conditions. In all three sections the emphasis is almost exclusively scientific with appropriate reference made to ancient testimony. What engages the reader here is the amount and breadth of information presented by Hughes. For example, the geographical description of the Mediterranean Sea itself and of the variety of landforms associated with it (12-15) is particularly valuable, presenting the kind of scientific information essential to issues in the rest of the book. The treatments of floral and faunal communities (16-22) are remarkable as well for their depiction of the richness of the natural landscape in ancient times. Hughes concludes that ecological balance is a resilient and flexible affair adaptable to change, but that alteration of that balance beyond certain limits can ultimately have dire results.

Chapter Three ("Ecological Crises in Earlier Societies") follows naturally from such observations. In tracing the relationship between humans and the natural world in the Mediterranean up to the time of Greece and Rome, Hughes establishes the importance of tradition in Palaeolithic times as a force that encouraged respect for and conservation of resources. Ecological crises rooted in overhunting, the domestication of animals, and the use of fire occurred nonetheless, but in general hunters and gatherers of the Palaeolithic succeeded in maintaining a balance with ecosystems. The increase of human numbers and the change to agriculture and pastoralism in the Neolithic led to more serious problems including soil depletion, desertification, and erosion, though pasturing animals did replenish nutrients in grazing areas in the form of manure. Interestingly, Hughes reports (30), human health degenerated despite the technological advances. The urban cultures that developed in the Fertile Crescent made further demands upon natural systems and adopted a confrontational approach to nature, in which the sense of order and organization of the city itself was (is) an alternative to the perceived chaos of a wilderness suited only for subjugation and ordering by man. The results of this approach led ultimately to the degradation of the water supply, a decline in agricultural fertility, and the fragmentation of Sumerian civilization (35). Hughes sees Egypt as more successful in integrating urbanization with its dependence on ecologically sound agricultural practice in part because of the regularity of the region's environmental cycles, Egyptian society's sacred view of nature, and the perceived divine character of science and knowledge. Nevertheless, population pressures, famine, deforestation, and habitat destruction (with the eventual depletion of wildlife) occurred.

Chapter Four ("Concepts of the Natural World") surveys the complex pattern of ideas about and attitudes toward nature among the Greeks and Romans. Relying on primary literary sources Hughes demonstrates how "various ethical systems either provided strong motives for conservation, or left humans free to exploit the environment." (45) Thus he first (46-56) examines the Classical view of nature from a religious perspective, including the highly refined tenets of Orphism and Pythagoreanism, comparing them to some current ecological models (54-56). A brief treatment of the aesthetics and enjoyment of natural beauty among the Greeks and Romans (56-58) follows. The remainder of the chapter treats the "scientific" models of nature developed by philosophers, the ecological perspective of ancient writers, and ancient theories of the influence of environment on human society. In this regard Hughes contends that while for the most part the ancients viewed human impact upon the environment in a positive light, and despite religious, philosophical, and scientific concerns, "the natural environment incurred considerable damage at the hands of the Greeks and Romans." (70-72).

The causes, technologies, and impact of forest removal are the subjects of Chapter Five ("Deforestation, Overgrazing, and Erosion"). Hughes details the reasons for wood consumption among the ancients, with fuel leading the list by far (up to 90% of total consumption). Lumber for building was also a major article of trade among the ancients, and circumstances similar to those today existed whereby "it was a recurrent policy of governments to encourage private exploitation of forests by leasing the right to cut trees on public land, which was a source of revenue, or by sale or grant of public forestland to private entrepreneurs or consortiums." (87) Shipbuilding and military exploitation, linked closely to political and economic forces, also contributed to deforestation. Overgrazing of previously disturbed forestland was (and still is) a significant cause of environmental degradation contributing to flooding, erosion, and siltation of waterways. Hughes also discusses the processes of deforestation and reforestation, citing palaeobotanical evidence that social and political stresses resulting in population movements greatly determined whether forests were able to regenerate themselves. On the positive side, there is ample evidence that both private and public efforts were made to mitigate the effects of forest loss to the point of state regulation of forest harvesting on private land.

Chapter Six ("Wildlife Depletion: Hunting, Fishing, and the Arena") demonstrates how wildlife in Greco-Roman times suffered a reduction in numbers (and in some cases extinction) as a result of both "habitat alteration and killing for various purposes." (111) Beginning with the concept of divine protection for animals and proceeding through the technology and uses of hunting (subsistence, commerce, sport, and entertainment) and the extent and effects of domestication, Hughes concludes that the destruction of habitat had "the most damaging effect on all forms of wildlife." (107)

The role of machinery in exacerbating ecological degradation is the subject of Chapter Seven ("Industrial Technology and Environmental Damage"). Hughes here emphasizes that many of the admired engineering achievements of the Greeks and Romans also directly or indirectly caused severe and lasting negative effects on the environment. His historical summary of the basic technological advances also makes it clear how slow and unsteady were both the invention and the acceptance of mechanical innovation. The author details the extractive industries of mining and quarrying, noting how such activities polluted air, soil, and water and left scars on both the land and the workers (116-124). Metallurgy and the ceramic industry in particular demanded large amounts of wood and charcoal as fuel, worsening deforestation and causing the Romans especially to seek new sources for metals and glass in areas like Northern Europe where fuel supplies were still plentiful. Hughes also points to the increase in airborne lead pollution from the second century B.C. onward documented from Greenland ice samples (125-128). The testimony from Pliny, Vitruvius and others makes for especially lively reading.

Chapter Eight ("Agricultural Decline") documents the methods and the impact of farming practices on the ecological balance. Hughes ascribes the eventual loss of productivity in the region to a number of factors, not the least of which were a taxation system that relied predominantly on agriculture for revenues, thereby promoting depletion of the land and its fertility, and those socio-economic forces that led to the privileging of large profit-oriented ranching estates over smaller self-sustaining agricultural units. These latter were substantially better suited to the topography of the region and in the long run upset the natural balance much less than the former.

Urban problems come under scrutiny in Chapter Nine with much of the material familiar territory to readers of Horace, Martial, and Juvenal. Nevertheless, Hughes goes beyond the litany of complaints to emphasize site selection and city planning (or lack thereof) as important factors in the environmental quality of urban life. His brief outline (154-155) of how the ancients viewed urban and rural landscapes ("according to the ways in which they were used, or not used, by human beings") reveals an anthropocentric ethic still much in evidence today. And while the descriptions of urban problems ranging from noise pollution to burial of the dead and rural nostalgia are fascinating reading, Hughes's most important observation appears in the chapter's conclusion where he rejects current sociological models of the city in favor of seeing the urban landscape "as a series of ecological relationships." (167)

Chapter Ten ("Groves and Gardens, Parks and Paradises") examines the issue of the restriction of natural places for religious, aesthetic, or economic purposes. Hughes contends that despite the motivation for such protection, this was a positive development. The regulation and protection of designated sacred space, preserves, and parkland was difficult, however, because private self-interest often circumvented prohibitions. And the delimitation of sacred space as hallowed ground, moreover, "by implication unhallowed the land outside" (176), thereby providing for unrestricted and destructive overuse of unprotected land.

The final chapter ("Environmental Problems as Factors in the Decline of the Greek and Roman Civilizations") serves as a summation of the previous chapters by examining as an integrated whole those circumstances of ecological imbalance that led to the decay of Classical Civilization. Hughes identifies two types of environmental factors implicated in the decline of ancient political, social, and economic systems: those external to mankind (non-anthropogenic) and those which originate with the activities of mankind (anthropogenic). Of the former the author cites climatic change and epidemic disease, although human activities worsened the effects of both by interfering with natural conditions.

Yet neither climate change nor disease alone can account in any significant way for the widespread deterioration of conditions that led to the end of Classical Civilization, and Hughes clearly regards the anthropogenic factors as the more significant. With this as his working thesis, he carefully reiterates the salient points of the previous chapters and emphasizes the cumulative effect of such deterioration on people and resources. He then outlines the four factors that determine how well a society can successfully integrate itself into the natural balance: the attitude toward nature and resources and the actions that result from that attitude; the knowledge that a society possesses about the workings of nature and the implications of its actions in the natural world; the development and use of an appropriate technology; and a social organization that can encourage positive interaction with the natural world and can control activity destructive to the natural balance and, ultimately, to the society itself. Unfortunately, Hughes concludes, Greco-Roman civilization failed to reconcile its attitudes and activities with the Mediterranean ecosystem, and ecological deterioration "was the result of the unwise actions of the Greeks and Romans themselves, unwitting as they may have been." (199)

Hughes's book, although of more specifically ecological focus than similar treatments of other historical periods,5 in re-analyzing and re-organizing information often already familiar to classicists and historians, introduces an ecological paradigm as its unifying element to the study of the Classical World. For this alone it is a valuable tool in looking at Greco-Roman society anew and as a starting point for further research. In addition, its organization and clarity of expression and the self-contained nature of individual chapters make it a good candidate for the undergraduate classroom either as a reading list work in culture courses or as the basic text in a course specifically concerned with ecological matters in the Mediterranean Basin.

Despite these positive aspects, however, the work is flawed in a number of ways. For one, although Hughes is writing for a general audience, he still might have provided more accurate citation of primary sources. For instance, at least one example to support the claim that Pausanias "gives the impression that over much of Greece, sacred groves were isolated forests in a generally denuded landscape" (176) would be appropriate. Similarly, some conclusions would be strengthened if better documented, as in the case of inscriptional evidence of penalties imposed for hunting in sacred groves (94) or the contention that "the conversion of arable land into pasturage was punishable by Roman law" (146). In places more precision is in order: Augustus's protective firewall (behind the Temple of Mars Ultor) was not simply "around the forum" (158) but rather around the Forum Augusti; and Theocritus was a native of Sicily not Cos (155). Some editorial matters need attention as well. In the footnotes the phrase numen inest is incorrectly assigned to Vergil Aen. 8.351-52 (230, n. 2), and the final citation of Chapter 11 (#46) has no corresponding endnote (197, 233). There is an agreement error ("a society ... they possess") on page 196.

A number of general improvements can be suggested to make this useful work even more so. For example, although he does concede a socially stratified awareness of and concern for the impact of human activity on the environment for the existing written record (70), Hughes's introductory discussion of literary evidence (6) makes no mention of the relative appropriateness of the various sources he cites; for a general audience this would be especially helpful. Similarly, a citation index would make the book more readily useful as a reference work for those working in other fields. The inclusion of Linnaean names for the plants and animals, most notably those discussed in Chapter Two's extensive treatment of flora and fauna, would give those interested (like myself) a much more specific picture of the regional variations involved. In this sense, too, a glossary of terms would facilitate understanding scientific or ecological terms. Perhaps a second edition will address these matters, but for now Pan's Travail is worthwhile and thought-provoking reading.


  • [1] J. D. Hughes, Ecology in Ancient Civilizations (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975).
  • [2] Exemplary are Ch. 10's discussions of the management, leasing, and reforestation of sacred groves (175-176).
  • [3] E. g., Chapter 8, p. 147: "But one may ask whether the present energy budget of Mediterranean agriculture is sustainable, with its high inputs of chemical fertilizers and insecticides and high outputs of air, water, and soil pollution." Chapter 9, p. 168 (of exploitation of resources): "The same forces are at work in analogous ways in the modern world, and societies are unfortunately relying on attitudes derived from ancient antecedents that have already demonstrated their failure."
  • [4] Page 5: "Environmental history ... gives perspective to the more traditional concerns of historians: war, diplomacy, politics, law, economics, technology, science, philosophy, art and literature."
  • [5] E.g., Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980).