Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.04.24

Eckart Olshausen, Holger Sonnabend, Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur historischen Geographie des Altertums 6, 1996: Naturkatastrophen in der antiken Welt. Geographica Historica 10.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.  Pp. 485.  ISBN 3-515-07252-7 (pb).  DM/SFr 198.  



Reviewed by Robert Lamberton, Washington University, St. Louis (rdlamber@artsci.wustl.edu)
Word count: 1454 words

This polyglot collection of 38 papers (plus one abstract) delivers in published form work presented in 1996 at the sixth meeting of the Stuttgart Colloquium on the Historical Geography of Antiquity, on the theme of "Natural Catastrophes in the Ancient World." This collection is the most recent in the series the Colloquium, founded in 1980, has produced on this and on related topics.

The most striking thing about these papers and the enterprise they represent is their interdisciplinary diversity. The Colloquium brings together philologists and ancient historians with archaeologists, geologists (including vulcanologists), and sociologists concerned with the growing field of disaster studies. Some of the most challenging of the papers are concerned specifically with the interaction of contemporary research on Greco-Roman antiquity with contemporary research in the natural and social sciences, and Gerhard Waldherr, in particular, in his thoughtful paper "Altertumswissenschaften und moderne Katastrophenforschung," insists on the contribution that students of Greco-Roman antiquity can make to disaster studies. His indignation that the current United Nations "International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction" was designed with no contribution from historians is good to hear, and his assertion that the exceptionally well documented cultures we study can contribute substantially to ongoing research of practical application in such areas is exciting.

Of the scholars represented, 24 work or worked in Germany, 5 in Italy, 2 each in Great Britain, Austria, and the Netherlands, and one each in the United States, France, Russia, and Switzerland. The bulk of the papers are published in German (31), the remainder in English (3), Italian (3) and French (1). The organizers emphasized three "theme complexes": 1) the discussion and reconstruction of a selection of regional examples of natural disasters that have been much studied or are the subjects of controversy, e.g. the destruction of Minoan culture; 2) the immediate, middle- and long-range consequences, social, economic, and political, of natural disasters; 3) the interaction of ancient man with natural disasters: interpretations, reactions, preventive measures (p. 7). The actual sequence of the papers seems quite random -- perhaps it simply reproduces the program of the conference -- but a "systematic index" (pp. 471-473) makes clear the remarkable methodological and disciplinary diversity of the collection by dividing the papers up among the categories "Philosophie/Mentalitätsgeschichte" (4 papers), "Methode" (8), "Literatur" (10), "Religion" (2), "Geologie/Geographie" (7), "Sozialgeschichte" (7), and "Historische Einzelfälle" (11).

Clearly these cubbyholes could have been designed in various ways. For the sake of brevity, I think that by using my own rather messier but more traditional categories (and by leaving some articles aside as sui generis), I may be better able to convey something of the nature of the volume and its strengths.

First of all, I would call roughly 12 of these papers historical, in that they utilize various tools, including texts, with the primary goal of recovering facts or plausible narratives about the past. There is a considerable range of method here. Among the more traditional, I was particularly impressed by Engelbert Winter's "Strukturelle Mechanismen kaiserlicher Hilfsmassnahmen nach Naturkatastrophen," while some, including Herbert Grassl's "Heuschreckenplagen in der Antike" read like encyclopedia articles, helpfully assembling a great deal of information with a minimum of interpretation. Particularly striking for its methodology is Eberhard Ruschenbusch's "Missernten bei Getreide in den Jahren 1921-1938 in Griechenland als Modell für die Antike" (cf. his 1988 ZPE article, ZPE 72, 141ff. where he presented the same data). His notion that records for pre-artificial-fertilizer Greek grain yields from the 1920's can throw light on ancient farming is persuasive. Even more impressive is John Bintliff's "Catastrophe, Chaos and Complexity: The Death, Decay, and Rebirth of Towns from Antiquity to Today," where chaos theory provides the tools for a challenging account of the enterprise of urbanism, particularly at its beginnings.

The next largest category, containing roughly 9 articles, is historiographic, ranging from pure Quellenforschung (e.g. Giacomo Manganaro, "Antioco - Tucidide - Timeo e il vulcanismo etneo") to articles documenting and analysing the treatment of natural disasters in a number of ancient authors (e.g. Ruth Stepper, "Die Darstellung von Naturkatastrophen bei Herodot" and Pedro Barceló, "Die Darstellung von Naturkatastrophen in der spätantiken Literatur"). Holger Sonnabend explores three instances of the theme of tyrannical hubris and natural disasters in "Hybris und Katastrophe, Die Gewaltherrscher und die Natur," and two interesting studies (Michael Zahrnt, "Alexander an der Küste Pamphyliens. Zum literarisch-propagandischen Umgang mit Naturgewalten" and Sergei Saprykin, "Naturkatastrophen und Naturerscheinungen in der Ideologie des Mithridates Eupator") work through the historiography of their subjects to recover the official propaganda of the rulers in question and their appointed chroniclers.

Of three literary studies whose emphasis is not on historical texts, the most surprising is Heinz Warnecke's "Erdbeben in der Odyssee. Ein historisch-geographischer Beitrag zur Neuinterpretation des homerischen Epos" where the curious will be told, but perhaps not convinced, that the unstable geology of the Ionian islands explains why Homer pitted Odysseus against Poseidon and that Homer connected volcanic activity (the Cyclopes) with earthquakes and Poseidon, only to have that correct prephilosophical stab in the dark submerged by Anaxagoras' wacky pneuma theory, when that theory was in turn embraced by Aristotle. Two further articles explore the relationship of myths to earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Five articles focus on natural disasters and archaeology. Three of these combine to present a devastating account of the interpretive failures of influential archaeologists who have leaned heavily on natural catastrophes to explain cultural and socioeconomic change in prehistory and later (Bruno Helly, "La sismicité est-elle un objet d'étude pour les archéologues?," Eberhard Zangger, "Naturkatastrophen in der ägäischen Bronzezeit. Forschungsgeschichte, Signifikanz und Beurteilungskriterien," and Hans Lohmann, "Die Santorin-Katastrophe - ein archäologischer Mythos?"). All three richly repay careful reading, far beyond the easy self-satisfaction of reveling in the debunking of the claims of the very famous, from Evans to Blegen, Iakovitis, and Marinatos. Helly, who is perhaps the wittiest of the debunkers, sets a paradoxical goal for archaeologists who would understand the true relationship of seismic activity to their sites: banaliser le tremblement de terre (p. 184) -- that is, work toward an understanding of the impact of the constant, minor seismic activity of unstable regions like the southern Balkans on the archaeological record, while avoiding the temptation to invoke (extraordinarily rare) seismic catastrophes to explain destructions that have other, perhaps more plausible explanations. Zangger's message is similar: earthquakes and volcanoes seem seldom, if ever, to have had long-term impact on human societies. Lohmann, finally, traces the interesting story of the demotion of the Late Minoan eruption of Thera from Krakatoa-magnitude "Big-Bang" and destroyer of Minoan civilization (Marinatos) to a moderate eruption of limited and local impact. He goes on to point out that those who would now use the undeniable association of Thera ash with LM 1A pottery, combined with a huge spike in the acidity of Greenland ice cores that seems to coincide with a widespread tree-ring phenomenon in the third quarter of the 17th c. bce, to "correct" the chronologies of eastern Mediterranean prehistory by nearly a century, are still thinking "Big-Bang" -- and Lohmann doubts that either ice cores or tree rings can convincingly be argued to reflect, much less to date, the LM Thera eruption.

The only remaining category of substance (4 papers) consists of papers describing geological and vulcanological phenomena, either in and for themselves (the late Friedrich Sauerwein's "Erdbeben im Mittelmeergebiet als Folge plattentektonischer Vorgänge") or in the service of reconstructing the past (e.g. Holger Riedel, "Der Landschaftswandel des Dalyan-Deltas seit der Antike," where the evidence of cores documenting sedimentation and pollen deposition in this region of the south coast of Turkey is used to throw light on the history of its settlement).

There are many lessons to be learned from this collection of papers, but the most important is certainly this: if humanists, social scientists, and natural scientists are ever to establish a foundation of mutual respect that might serve as a basis for collaboration, the major prerequisite for such an endeavor is colloquia of the sort represented here. Such challenging and crossing of traditional methodological and disciplinary boundaries entails enormous risks, not least the risk of embarrassment. This was clearly a conference in which none (or virtually none) of the participants was capable of passing professional judgment on all of the papers presented. The result is an uneven collection, some of it pedestrian. But the risks are manifestly worth taking, because the crucially important dialogue they open up is impossible without them. The sparse representation of these volumes in the libraries of American research institutions is no doubt a reflection of the comparative insignificance of Geography in the American academy, compared with Europe. The volume under review demonstrates clearly that there is a cost involved and that we are indeed at risk of missing important work.

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