BMCR 1999.09.20

The Environment and the Classical World

Patricia Jeskins, The environment and the classical world. Classical world series. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1998. viii, 91 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9781853995477 £8.95.

The Environment and the Classical World by Patricia Jeskins (hereafter J.) is the latest in the Classical World Series from Bristol Press. Designed specifically to assist students in comprehending the variety of effects that the natural world had on Greek and Roman civilization, this brief volume does not attempt to replace earlier or more comprehensive treatments of the subject. Rather, it pulls together the content of previous scholarship and makes it available to a secondary school or undergraduate audience. (viii) In doing so, the book becomes a valuable tool for both student and instructor to use in exploring the ways that the physical world of the Mediterranean prompted the ancients “to learn how to overcome its difficulties, tolerate its hardships and capitalise on its beneficence.” (1)

The work consists of seven well organized chapters, the first of which serves as a very brief introduction to the work as a whole. Here J. explains her approach by suggesting that the physical conditions of the ancient environment dominated human existence to a much greater extent than in modern times. She also emphasizes that her main focus is on Greece and Italy and their respective cultural spheres although information about the Mediterranean in general is included when appropriate. Lastly, while advising her readers that sweeping generalizations about climate and geography can be misleading and that the physical factors that affected the societies and cultures of Greece and Rome were not entirely similar, she does assume a certain uniformity of influences overall in this regard.

Chapter Two (“Geography, Climate and Resources”) describes the physical features of the Mediterranean basin as a geographical and geological whole. Individual aspects of topography are systematically treated under a variety of headings: differences in latitude, geology, mountains and valleys, and the sea, among others. In many instances well known authors are adduced as evidence of the ancients’ awareness and appreciation of such things as springs (Hor. Od. 3.13; Ovid Met. 3.407 ff.), rivers (Hor. Od. 4.9, and coastal topography (Verg. Aen. 1.159 ff.). Climatic conditions also figure prominently, and the most important consideration is J.’s discussion of the seasonal wet and dry cycle of the Mediterranean basin. The chapter concludes with a treatment of the essential natural resources of the region, nicely organized into sections on minerals (rocks, metals and ores, water), vegetation, animals, and “marine resources.” In regard to these J. stresses that because of need or desire certain of these resources had eventually to be imported as original supplies became depleted.

Chapter Three (“Political Life”) builds very nicely on the general observations posited in the previous pages. J. begins with the observation that for the Greeks the rugged topography of the interior prevented easy communication and travel overland. As a result, sites for settlement were chosen primarily from the maritime point of view. The causes of Greek colonization also are given attention, the chief being political unrest, population growth, and resultant food shortages. (By contrast, writes J., the inland settlement of the Italian peninsula was facilitated by more fertile and less difficult topography.) Concerns for the ownership and distribution of land in any settlement was at the very heart of the organization of the polis, the underlying strength of which stemmed ultimately from the ideal of self-sufficiency. Climate, too, played a major role in the development of the governmental apparatus of the Athenian democracy since the ability of groups to meet in large outdoor gatherings was conducive to participation. A brief mention of Roman Republican development closes the chapter and again emphasizes the importance of climate in the formation of open air political institutions.

In the next chapter, “Community and Social Life,” the reader is treated to a comprehensive account of how both the public and domestic worlds of the Greeks and Romans were influenced by the environmental factors already discussed. The important role of the mild Mediterranean climate is also well documented in the accounts of sacrificial practices and especially of the great religious festivals. Topography, too, was responsible for the siting of centers of worship and the festivals attached to them (Olympia, for example), while agriculturally oriented celebrations were a feature of both Greek and Roman cultures. In this section J.’s brief explanation of the agricultural functions of Roman gods and the festivals in their honor is especially lucid. (32) The public aspect of the chapter concludes with a discussion of the ways in which climatic conditions and the variety and availability of building materials determined both the form and the function of architecture. In Greece the early use of timber lead to shortages as demand increased for shipbuilding; but even when local stone had replaced wood in the construction of temples and the like, the traditional appearance was retained, with metopes and fluted columns designed to recall the earlier use of timber in such edifices. The Romans were more blessed with available resources, and, coupled with a better technology, they exhibited a tendency toward a more monumental building style.

A detailed discussion of the domestic consequences of topography and climate makes up the remainder of the chapter and at the outset emphasizes the personal self-sufficiency of the Mediterranean peoples in food and clothing production, again largely a result of a mild climate. J.’s treatment of houses makes up the bulk of this section (37-41), featuring careful descriptions of Greek city and country houses, the Roman atrium house, the villa, and the climatic adaptations of each. Garden design in Roman domestic architecture is briefly mentioned as well the role of the urban insulae. Passages from Cicero, Statius, Martial, Juvenal, and Tacitus afford literary support; archaeological evidence comes from Priene, Pompeii, and Ostia. A brief sketch of the round of daily life concludes the chapter.

Chapter Five (“Economic Life”) is the longest in the book (43-60). It applies J.’s basic premises about topography and climate to the three major areas of ancient economic activity: agriculture, crafts and industry, and trade. Again, the idea of self-sufficiency and personal independence predominates, and J. also points out the close connection between “land ownership and citizenship and so status and political power.” (45) The lengthy discussion of agriculture is divided into several subsections on the uses of terrain, soil, water, and climate; crops; stock raising; and tools and technology. Appropriate citations from the technical writers (Theophrastus, Columella, Varro) as well as from Homer, Hesiod, and Vergil supplement the descriptions.

The section on crafts and industry systematically describes those manufacturing activities that were essential to support the agricultural basis of the community. Pottery production, metallurgy, timber harvesting, and masonry and stonework were perhaps the most affected by local environments since all “depended vitally on availability of raw materials … and almost all kinds of craft required a water supply.” (54) The final section of this lengthy chapter is devoted to trade. J. adopts a more narrative style in describing the relationship of commerce to the natural world. Thus the trade in salt and metal is seen as the earliest model for populations to acquire goods that they lacked, while the expansion of cities eventually prompted the importation of grain as the extent of cultivated land and overall fertility decreased. This latter aspect resulted in both military and political changes.

Travel and communications are the focus of the relatively brief Chapter Six. At the outset J. enumerates the reasons that the ancients traveled: exile, political flight, economic hardship, commerce, religious belief, and public and private duty. The influence of climate and geography on maritime travel was great, as was the limited technology available at the time. The perils of travel outside of the normal sailing season (March to October) were enough to curtail most maritime travel. Travel by land was also made more difficult by rugged interior terrain and by considerations of weather. With the traveler restricted to foot or dependent on animal power and exposed to the elements, travel during poor weather must have been very arduous in any season. In Greece roads were not often a priority as the absence of good access from the interior served as a security measure against invasion. Yet paved roads did exist, especially near cities or religious centers. In Italy the topography was kinder, particularly on the coastal plain and to the north, while river valleys provided some access. J. gives a brief but lucid account of the ways Roman expansion was enabled by these factors and by the engineering skill of the Romans. She also adds some very useful information on the literary record about travel, citing Horace Sat. 1.5.

J. begins the final chapter (“Warfare”) with two familiar passages (Thuc. 1.18, Verg. Aen. 6.851-3) to illustrate the Greek and the Roman approach to warfare: the incessant warring of the former and the imperial and administrative propensities of the latter. Nevertheless, the natural environment was the essential determinant in the success or failure of wartime efforts and campaigns. Relying on accounts from a variety of ancient writers, especially Vegetius and Frontinus, J. surveys the importance of topography and climate on both land based and maritime military tactics and points out that, like sailing, there were open and closed seasons for waging war although much could be gained by not following this pattern, as in the case of Philip of Macedon (77). The chapter closes with a discussion of the importance of supplies in military campaigns. As Vegetius (3.3) observes, keeping adequate and secure supplies was essential in maintaining the strength of one’s forces. Since starvation was the primary strategy to defeat the enemy, the deliberate destruction of crops was often used as both an offensive and defensive tactic. Interestingly, J. points out that some important crops, like olive groves, were usually spared in the case of attack, most likely because of fear of retaliation in the future. (80-81)

Charts, maps, line drawings, and photos appear throughout the text proper; there are three reference maps at the end as well. For the most part these twenty-two graphics complement the text nicely although several of the maps are quite small. The two charts, designed to supplement the material in Chapters Three through Six and keyed to the specific section of J.’s text give a clear visual picture of the relationship of climate, geography, and resources to Greco-Roman societies. The book concludes with a brief section on “Suggestions for Further Study” (86-87) with questions meant to prompt students to look beyond the text itself and with a bibliography (“Suggestions for Further Reading”), also keyed to individual chapters. There is no index.

As an introduction to the ways in which the natural world dictated the development of Greek and Roman society this little book succeeds admirably. The organization of material is outstanding, and the presentation clear, unambiguous, and easy to read. The logical arrangement of individual topics within each chapter facilitates sequential classroom discussion should the book be used as a text. It may also serve the instructor simply as reference material on specific points related to any lesson in literature, history, or the like. The multitude of citations from a variety of sources does much to direct the reader to pertinent passages both literary and otherwise, and many of these citations are ones which are familiar to both student and instructor alike. There is also a good balance of information between the Greek and Roman cultural spheres, so that by making comparisons subtler distinctions may be drawn.

Overall, J. keeps closely to her stated purpose of demonstrating the influence of the environment on humans, and does not, for the most part, dwell upon the great effect that humans had on their natural surroundings. True, the discussion of timber supplies (15-16) makes mention of deforestation unavoidable, but J. does not treat the relationship of humans to the natural world in the modern sense of seeing it as a relentlessly destructive process.1 On the other hand, the ancients’ concern for the welfare of future generations, today generally promoted as economic sustainability, is made quite plain in the discussion of the planting of olive groves. (50)

There are, nevertheless, a few aspects of the book that might be improved. First, while J.’s listing of works for further reading is adequate, it should also include other important books published in the last decade that have treated much of the same material.2 Since the text itself ends quite abruptly after the final chapter, a brief summary or concluding overview of the work would serve the interests of student readers. A general index and/or a citation index would make the work much more valuable for student use or for quick reference by an instructor. Similarly, bibliographical information about current editions and translations of ancient authors cited would be helpful to those desiring to look further into specific primary works. Lastly, J. also makes use of a variety of sources as evidence with little discrimination between the historical, the literary, and the technical. For the most part this approach is relatively benign, especially when the passages cited are those with which students might be familiar and when they lend an added dimension to classroom discussion of particular authors. It is also true that the book is not necessarily intended for the professional researcher or literary critic. Nevertheless, a brief word by J. about the potential pitfalls of using literary (i.e. poetic) imagery as evidence for her commentary would be in order.


1. Her comments about the devastating effects of “the modern curse of light pollution” on our view the heavens (63) are, however, sadly accurate.

2. For example, J. Donald Hughes. Pan’s Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (Baltimore: 1994) or R. Sallares. The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World (Ithaca: 1991). Likewise, for colonization surely A. J. Graham’s Colony and Mother City in Ancient Greece, 2nd ed. (Chicago: 1983) merits inclusion as does R. Meiggs’s Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Oxford: 1982; repr. 1984) for wood and its use. On agricultural topics S. Isager and J. E. Skydsgaard’s Ancient Greek Agriculture: An Introduction (London: 1992) would be a worthwhile addition.