BMCR 2001.09.27

Death and Disease in the Ancient City

, , Death and Disease in the Ancient City. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 194. $75.00.

This is an ambitious and stimulating collection of essays built around a strong central theme that is by no means as depressing as the title might suggest. The book articulates a keen sensitivity to topography, urban structures, and the nuts and bolts of everyday existence, as well as to ancient ideas about death and disease. This awareness of ancient cities as dirty and unhealthful places—in which the disposal of corpses posed an ongoing challenge—does not come automatically to modern scholars, who tend to forget how messy the glory of Greece and the greatness of Rome undoubtedly were. These interdisciplinary essays, most of which arose from a conference on pollution and the ancient city, combine the methods of archaeology and ancient history with an admixture of the history of medicine. Inscriptions and the material record are used to counterbalance the elite bias of literary evidence. The essays give a bit more weight and substance to the Roman world than to the Greek; they are cross-referenced and tied together by an integrative introduction; a unified bibliography and index are also provided. The list of contributors includes distinguished scholars from around the world, representing most often England but also Australia, Italy, and the United States. The volume is attractive and expensive; given the price, one might have wished for illustrations, mainly in the form of maps and plans.

The Greek portion of the volume builds on standard treatments of disease, death, and pollution by Mirko Grmek (1991), Donna Kurtz and John Boardman (1971), Robert Garland (1985), Ian Morris (1992), and Robert Parker (1983), among others. The strength of the first essay, by co-editor Eireann Marshall, lies in its specificity. It offers a case study of death and disease in the Greek colony of Cyrene—a refreshing alternative to, say, Athens. Marshall draws on a broad range of evidence, including the late 4th-century B.C. carthartic law that defined and regulated religious purity for the community. The dead at Cyrene were buried outside the walls to avoid religious pollution—except for Battus and other heroes whose tombs and cults were situated at the center of town. Marshall examines how the phenomenon of the hero cult in ancient Greece thus allowed the partial integration of death within the city.

The next two essays, by Roger Brock and Jennifer Clarke Kosak, adopt complementary approaches toward Greek notions of the city and disease. Brock focuses on Greek political discourse from Solon and Theognis through Demosthenes, exploring the image of stasis, or civil strife, as an illness. He argues that this metaphor is vague—lacking clinical details of aetiology, symptoms, and anatomy—but nonetheless meaningful. The focus, especially in Plato, is less on diagnosis than on treatment and cure, often through painful measures with highly moralistic overtones. Kosak in turn juxtaposes several genres, especially medical texts and tragedy, to determine whether ancient Greeks perceived the dangers posed by high population density. Hippocratic writers apparently did not; in tragedy, however, protective city walls could be blamed for concentrating human woes. Evidence from Euripides and Thucydides “does suggest that in the late fifth century BC, Athenian Greeks began to see the physical city as a dangerous place, where the disease of stasis found a breeding ground” (50).

James Longrigg’s essay contrasts Thucydides’ rational description of the plague at Athens with poetic descriptions of mythological plagues like the one sent by Apollo at the start of the Iliad. He notes that the experience of the plague did prompt improvements to the water supply: the digging of wells in the Piraeus. Other than that, however, few practical measures were taken, perhaps because most Athenians, still enmeshed in a mythological worldview, felt themselves under a religious pollution. The plague in fact seems to have encouraged the proliferation of fringe cults and a conservative backlash. The development of rational medicine in the 5th-century, then, failed to inspire effective efforts to counter epidemic disease.

That failure is further explained by Vivian Nutton, a noted medical historian. His essay bridges the Greek and Roman worlds and evaluates the contribution of ancient medical writers to the health of their contemporary urban communities; comparative material from late antiquity, the Enlightenment, and modernity help to cast the classical material into sharp relief. Nutton begins by observing that Greek and Roman writers in the Hippocratic tradition attribute disease to the overall natural environment rather than to infection from germs, vectors, or viruses. Their focus on air and water, however, does not always mislead them. Foul-smelling air, for example, is often considered malignant. Few practical countermeasures are suggested, though Plutarch records the medical use of smell against smell and Rufus of Ephesus explains how to filter impure drinking water. Greek and Roman sources of the first two centuries AD comment on the advantages of air movement. Nutton highlights the writings of Sabinus, who explains that a rectilinear town plan oriented with the cardinal directions allows the winds to sweep through a city on the plain; the city on the hill, in contrast, needs crooked streets for proper ventilation. Yet even so, these remarks, dating to the 2nd-century AD, fall short of a full recognition of urban pollution. Moreover, the typically low status of physicians in classical antiquity, Nutton says, severely limited their influence on public policy: “a healthy community was one made up of healthy individuals, and the doctor’s concern was with those individuals, not with any larger entity, like the city state or the republic” (72).

The prolific Italian classicist Federico Borca explores the question of how some towns and cities came to be situated in or near swamps even though these were in general detested for their stagnant waters, foul smells, persistent dampness, and unpleasant insects, snakes, and so forth. “The city and the marsh, poles apart in the ideal ancient landscape, could nevertheless coexist in practice, and sometimes even with considerable benefits for the inhabitants” (78). Ravenna is a prime example. This city in the marshes, which employed alder stakes in its building foundations, was regarded as a healthy place, as were certain other marsh towns beside the sea that thrived from trade and enjoyed defensive advantages. One wishes that Borca had included a few remarks about the marshlands of the city of Rome, a topic he covered in a 1995 article published in Italian. Instead, he ends with a rhetorical flourish in which the ideal habitat of bees and men are compared.

The last four essays in the volume approach death in Rome from different angles with some unavoidable overlap. These pieces respond to classic treatments by Jocelyn Toynbee (1971) and Keith Hopkins (1983), as well as to more recent work by Harriet Flower (1996) and others, but their emphasis on the nitty-gritty and the lower classes is distinctive and ground-breaking.

John R. Patterson offers a thought-provoking exploration of the boundaries and social topography of Rome—a difficult task because these changed as the city expanded over time. He focuses on the space that lay outside Servian walls but was later encompassed by the Aurelian walls. This ambiguous zone included impressive aristocratic tombs, modest columbaria, offensive public burial pits and crematoria, hazardous tile-factories, caged animals destined for the games, urban rubbish, and market gardens. Public monuments studded the Via Appia and the Via Flaminia, yet unappealing activities took place there. Patterson concludes: “Despite attempts by the elite at ostentation and display here, the poor and marginalized of Rome were so numerous and pervasive as to subvert attempts at grandeur” (103).

Valerie M. Hope, a co-editor, reveals how the lot of the dead at Rome reflects and extends their lot during life, sometimes dramatically. Capital punishment could include not only a protracted death offered up as a public spectacle, but also the mutilation of the corpse—a fate that could await high-ranking individuals accused of treason as well as low-born criminals. The Gemonian Steps, or Stairs of Mourning, received the exposed corpses of traitors and the like within view of the Forum. Corpses of the disgraced might be dragged through the streets and thrown in the Tiber. Decapitated heads could be displayed on the rostra. The treatment of Romans who took their own lives was ambivalent; some were honored, others not, depending on the motive for the suicide as well as the means. The medical examination of corpses, including dissection, sometimes occurred, and magic was a further motive for tampering with graves. The interaction of the living and the dead was reflected in the organization of the cemetery, which abutted public thoroughfares. Inevitably, some graves were violated; people planning for death might attempt to ward off interference, but the fate of the corpse depended on the living, who “always held the upper hand” (126).

John Bodel’s richly argued essay focuses on the practical implications of death among the lower classes in Rome and the marginalization of the executioners and funerary workers who had to deal with it. Bodel begins with some salutary math suggesting that there were probably at least 1,500 unclaimed corpses in Rome each year. Some scholars may find this estimate too high, but comparative material from more recent and better documented cities, such as Moscow and New York, supports his point that the removal of such corpses posed an ongoing problem. Until the Augustan period, they were apparently dumped in mass burial pits like those mentioned by Varro and Horace. Indeed, about 75 mass burial vaults found on the Esquiline in the late 19th-century could have held 550-800 bodies each. Pits left open until filled were a public nuisance; Bodel argues that after Maecenas closed the Esquiline pits and built over them, paupers and the unclaimed dead were cremated in mass crematoria that by law had to be at least two miles outside the city. In his examination of undertakers, Bodel once again brings in fascinating comparative material, this time from contemporary rural Cantonese, Hindu society, and Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. He examines the range of specialization within the funerary trade at Rome and notes that undertakers, because their work was offensive and unclean, were increasingly relegated to the edge of the city. Yet executioners were the real outcasts because, among other things, they took on the religious pollution of those they executed.

Taking an anthropological view of pollution as his starting point, Hugh Lindsay discusses religious fear of the dead, the social impact of death-pollution, the rituals of transition, and legislation pertaining to the location of graves at Rome. He blends literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence to support his contention that religious pollution and hygienic considerations were rather equally balanced motives in the treatment of corpses in Rome during the period under scrutiny, from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. This essay is a fitting end to the collection, which balances throughout the intangible and tangible implications of death and disease in the ancient city. In retrospect, the second half—on death in Rome—raises questions largely ignored in the first half—devoted mainly to metaphorical and actual disease in Greece, especially Athens. One might also have wished for greater geographical and chronological range rather than so heavy an emphasis on Athens and Rome at their height. This volume points the way, perhaps, for work on farflung Hellenistic cities, at least where the inscriptions of Asia Minor or the papyri of Egypt permit.