BMCR 2005.06.03

Luoghi, Corpi, Costumi. Determinismo ambientale ed etnografia antica

, Luoghi, corpi, costumi : determinismo ambientale ed etnografia antica. Terre, acque, montagne ; 5. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 2003. 161 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8884981085 €20.50 (pb).

F. Borca is an Italian scholar who has published since 1996 a number of studies about ancient ethnography and ancient descriptions of landscapes.1 This book, published in 2003, is supposed to be an attempt to investigate the question of environmental determinism in ancient ethnography. The reader soon realizes, however, that it is mainly a study of the Hippocratic treatise Airs, Waters, Places, a choice which the author justifies by recalling that this work is, with Herodotus’ Histories, the base on which our knowledge of ancient ethnography is founded (p. 11). This is undeniable, but the title chosen by Borca for his book is much too general! Even if other ancient authors like Herodotus or Tacitus are quoted and analyzed, the book is not the systematic investigation the reader is entitled to expect but a paraphrase of Airs, Waters, Places. Here and there, it establishes (interesting) links between the Hippocratic treatise and other ancient authors. As for the study of the treatise itself, it presents hardly anything new and is based mainly on the French edition, translation and commentary published by J. Jouanna in the Collection des Universités de France (Budé) in 1996.

Borca’s work contains five chapters, a bibliography and an index of names. Each of the chapters deals with a section of the Hippocratic treatise.

There is no introduction. In the first lines of the first chapter, entitled “Airs, Waters, Places”, the author raises the central question of his work: in the Greek and Roman perceptions of the world and of the peoples which inhabit it, did the environmental conditions exert an influence on physical characteristics of human beings, on their way of life, on their culture? He then begins to study the Hippocratic treatise.

Chapter One deals with the first part of the treatise (ch. 1-12). The author is interested in human health and diseases and in the relation that can be established between the physical condition of the human beings and their environment. Borca sets forth the six factors which, according to Hippocrates, a physician must observe when he arrives in a new city (the seasons, the winds, the properties of the waters, the orientation of the city, the soil, the mode of life of its inhabitants) and explains the theories developed by the author about them. The main interest of his study lies in the parallels he establishes between the Hippocratic treatise and other ancient authors, even if, as far as Greek authors are concerned, most of these parallels had already been drawn by Jouanna. Borca shows that, even if Herodotus was convinced of the influence of environmental conditions on human beings, he admitted the role of human action also. For example, Herodotus claims in Book 2 of the Stories that the Egyptians and the Libyans are the healthiest of all peoples because their seasons are uniform throughout the year (2, 77, 3), but in Book 4 he explains their good health by their practice of the cauterization (4, 187). The idea that the place determines the character of the people which inhabit it is still found in Plato ( Laws 747d-e) and in Roman authors like Vitruvius, Varro. Columella, Celsus and Pliny the Elder were interested in the influence of waters.

In chapter 2, “Identity and differences”, Borca begins to deal with the second part of the Hippocratic treatise, i.e. its ethnographic part (ch. 12-24), in which Hippocrates aims to list and explain the differences between inhabitants of Europe and Asia. Like Jouanna, Borca reasserts first the original unity of the treatise, which was called into question by a few historians: the theoretical frame of the two parts, i.e. the link between the geographical and climatic conditions of a region and the physical and cultural characteristics of its inhabitants, is definitely the same. Borca then studies ch. 12-15 of the treatise, which are devoted first to a description of the (good) climate of Asia (ch. 12) and to its consequences on the character of the Asiatics (soft and cowardly), and then to the characteristics of two asiatic peoples, the Longheads and the dwellers of the Phasis (ch. 14-15). In this part of the treatise there was a description of Libyans and Egyptians which is now lost. Borca tries to reconstitute the passage with the help of other texts (p. 54-56). Even if in all these chapters the central idea is that of climatic determinism on human beings ( phusis), Borca (after Jouanna) maintains that the author of the treatise was also able to recognize the role played by the custom ( nomos), as made clear by the example of the Longheads whose heads are not natural but remodelled at birth by human intervention (p. 57-59). Herodotus, as shown in the discourse of Cyrus which takes place at the end of the Histories (9, 122, 3-4), thought like Hippocrates that the inhabitants of Asia were too soft because they lived in a too favourable climate. Nevertheless, he showed a greater interest than Hippocrates in cultural factors and made a far less systematic use of the climatic theory than him. The chapter ends with the Hippocratic description of the dwellers of the Phasis, whose physical appearance and bad health are determined by their living among marshes and drinking bad water. Borca notes that such attention to water is still present in fragments of Onesicritus and Megasthenes (p. 63) and in Strabo, Pompeius Trogus or Plutarch. As a conclusion, he sheds light on the fact that people living in marshy places are usually described by Greeks and Romans in a very negative way, as if they were living on the margins of civilization, and supports his claim with quotations — this was actually the subject of an earlier article.2

Ch. 3 (“Ethnocentrism”), is devoted to ch. 16 of the treatise, in which the author describes the psychic and moral characteristics of Asiatic peoples (ch. 16) and advances two reasons to account for their lack of energy and courage at war. The first is the uniformity of the seasons in Asia. The second is that the inhabitants of Asia are ruled by a king. Borca notes that the characteristics of Asiatic peoples are thus explained at the same time by their phusis and by their nomoi. Borca then asks whether one can consider that the author of the treatise gave scientific foundations to the idea of the superiority of Greeks over Asiatic barbarians (p. 77). His answer is negative. Borca argues that the treatise does not express the idea of a racial difference between Greeks and barbarians, but, on the contrary, the idea that a Greek subjected to the same conditions as an Asiatic would present the same characteristics (cf. ch. 16, 5). Borca fails to convince when he claims that in the treatise no group is considered as either superior or inferior to another (p. 79). It is true that the author never explicitly opposes Greeks and Asiatics; however, it is also true that the Asiatics are given negative characteristics, like cowardice and softness, that must be very clearly understood as marks of inferiority in comparison with the Greeks. The treatise was surely written after the Persian Wars, and Borca accepts the traditional date of ca. 430; it is quite naturally seen as an attempt to explain the Greek victory over the Persians.3 It was read by other Greek authors as giving a rational basis to their sense of superiority. However, Borca convincingly argues that later thinkers did use the determinist theory developed in the treatise to assert and explain the superiority of the Greeks to the others. Borca quotes Plato and Aristotle, according to whom the central position of Greece gave its inhabitants an absolute superiority in the moral and intellectual field (p. 79-82). One can see the political implications of such an affirmation coming from the man who was the teacher of Alexander the Great! These implications are clearer still in the Roman context. Vitruvius ( On Architecture) after giving a derogatory description of the different peoples living in the inhabited world, draws the conclusion that, thanks to the geographical position of Italy and its excellent climate, the Romans are the most balanced people and are naturally designed by Providence to dominate the whole world (p. 87). This is in my view the best part of Borca’s book because it really deals with the issue of determinism in ancient ethnography.

Ch. 4 (“From Hippocrates’ Scythia to Tacitus’ Germania”) is devoted to the famous geographical and ethnographic description of Scythia and Scythians which covers ch. 18-22 of the treatise. After summing up the Hippocratic image of the Scythians, Borca sheds light on the fact that Roman descriptions of Germania and northern territories are closely related to it (p. 93-96). He quotes and analyzes authors like Vergil, Florus, Pliny the Elder. This is an interesting study — inspired by one of Borca’s articles on Germanic landscape in ancient literature — but does not really fit in a general work about determinism in ancient ethnography. Borca stresses the differences between Hippocrates and Herodotus. Where Hippocrates is interested in the consequences entailed by the natural conditions of Scythia on the health and physical aspect of the Scythians, Herodotus investigates rather the link between these natural conditions and the military tactics of the Scythians. As for the tactics, Borca notices that they inspired Roman descriptions of the Germans at war.

The last chapter (“Men and Landscapes”) deals with ch. 23-24 of the treatise, in which the author reasserts the central idea of his work: Europe and Asia have different climates and landscapes, and this difference entails important consequences for the character and shape of their inhabitants. Europeans are courageous, Asiatics are cowardly and idle. Hippocrates then gives a typology of the different kinds of landscapes which one can find in the world. After recalling this typology, Borca dwells on one of the landscapes, the mountainous one. He studies the image of a certain number of mountain peoples in Graeco-Roman literature: e.g. the Samnites in Livy or the Arcadians in Polybius and Strabo. He lingers on the Ligurians (p. 130-140), summing up an article he published in 1999,4 as announced in the foreword of the book. This is a rich study, but once again, one questions the unity of the book. At the end of the chapter, Borca shows that the Romans were convinced of the influence exerted on human beings by their environment but thought also that culture was able to counterbalance disadvantageous natural conditions. This allowed them, again, to justify their universal domination. There is no general conclusion to the work which ends quite abruptly.

This book, largely a paraphrase of Airs, Waters, Places, establishes parallels between the Hippocratic treatise and other Greek and Roman texts but lacks the synthetic approach the reader could expect. Nevertheless, the case studies which are developed about German landscapes or Ligurians, even if they are not enough to justify the general title of the book, are rich and instructive. One can even think that they are more interesting than the commentary on the treatise, which offers little new information.


1. See for example “Per uno studio del paesaggio germanico nella letteratura greco-latina”, Aufidus 32, 1997, p. 41-59 ; “La ‘corporum magnitudo’ dei Germani ; considerazioni tra etnograpfia e fisiognomica”, Quaderni del Dipartimento di Filologia, Linguistica e Tradizione Classica. Università di Torino, 1997, p. 99-120.

2. “Towns and Marshes in the Ancient World”, in V. M. Hope and E. Marshall (ed.), Death and diseases in the Ancient City, London-New York, 2000, p. 74-84.

3. See J. Jouanna, “Les causes de la défaite des Barbares chez Eschyle, Hérodote et Hippocrate”, Ktema 6, 1981, p. 3-15.

4. “I Liguri nell’etnografia antica”, Intemelion 5, 1999, p. 7-28.