BMCR 2013.02.03

An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome (first published 2009; revised edition)

, , An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome (first published 2009; revised edition). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xi, 186. ISBN 9780521174657 $29.99 (pb).


For scholars with little knowledge of the ancient environment, Thommen’s book offers an accessible introduction. This slender volume, however, really belongs in the classroom where its focus on “the foundations which determined the relationship between humankind and nature in Graeco-Roman antiquity” and discussion of the specific ways in which the Greeks and Romans intervened in their environment through “farming and food procurement, forest cover and timber construction, the destruction of nature in war, horticulture, hydraulic construction, [and] mining and urban problems” (15) will introduce students to the basic issues that engage scholars of the ancient environment. Thommen’s dispassionate style and objective presentation of the evidence also make this short work an excellent jumping off point for more sophisticated and potentially controversial discussions of a subject that will resonate with students who are concerned about the contemporary environment and will have to cope with and devise solutions to the problems that have resulted from both ancient and modern interventions into nature.

Relying primarily on literary evidence (well-documented within the text itself and collected in a very helpful “List of Sources” section at the end of the book), Thommen devotes short chapters, in separate Greek and Roman sections to “The geographic space,” People and nature,” “Agriculture,” “Forests and timber,” “Gardens,” “Animals,” “Food,” “Fire and water,” “Earthquakes and volcanoes,” and “Mining.” To the Roman half of the book Thommen adds a chapter on “Urban problems and rural villa construction,” and he concludes with a chapter on “The environment in Roman Britain” (a new chapter within this “somewhat expanded” revised edition), in which he demonstrates the importance of local studies, especially when exploring the environmental history of the Roman empire. By focusing first on Greece, then on Rome, Thommen intends the reader to compare and contrast Greek and Roman attitudes and practices and draw his/her own conclusions about the effects of culture on an individual’s engagement with his/her environment.

Each chapter combines basic cultural information with facts concerning the natural environment supporting Greek and Roman practices. Let us take food, for example. First of all, in both the Greek and Roman parts of the book, Thommen places the chapter on food immediately after the chapter on animals, which enables the reader to begin to see the interconnections between the various topics that compose the environmental history of a region. In the chapter on food in Greece, Thommen begins by discussing the basic Greek diet citing a passage from the Corpus Hippocraticum on food and the health of the male body before turning to the issue of famines and food shortages. Thommen then considers the tradition of the symposion and the quality and quantity of the Spartan diet (citing Plutarch, Lyc. 12) before concluding with a discussion of the symbolic value of food concentrating on beans and fish from the Pythagoreans to the early Christians.

Similarly, in the chapter on food in Rome, Thommen begins with a discussion of the basic diet of the Romans and the three parts of the cena before moving on to wine production and the luxury items transported across the empire ( garum, Spanish sausages, spices, dates, plums, and North Sea oysters). Thommen then discusses the mostly vegetarian diet of common Romans, the likely caloric intake of Roman soldiers according to Polybius (6.39), and the restaurant facilities available in the towns and cities of the empire. Thommen notes that while the transportation of food across the Roman empire contributed to the spread of a Mediterranean cuisine, it also likely had “damaging environmental effects, at least locally.” He cites, for example, the “gigantic, ever growing – and stinking – mountain of shards on the bank of the Tiber south of Rome – today’s Monte Testaccio” (99).

Through no fault of Thommen’s, but owing to a greater abundance of literary evidence, the second section of the book on the Roman world is the richer and more detailed of the two parts. The two chapters on “Fire and water” and “Earthquakes and volcanoes” are, I believe, the best of the book, most successfully integrating the cultural with the environmental aspects of life in the Roman world. Thommen begins the chapter “Fire and water” with a brief discussion of the religious significance of fire in ancient Rome, mentioning both the Volcanalia celebrated annually in August in honor of the god of fire, Volcanus, and the privileges and responsibilities of the Vestal Virgins. He then turns to Rome’s pragmatic and “rational” approach to fire with a short history of firefighting at Rome from the republican period through Augustus’ cohorts to Nero’s famous fire of 64 AD.

The water section of this chapter provides a useful overview of the development of a system of aqueducts and sewers while also addressing the issue of water access as honor, that is, how having one’s private home connected to the water supply was a privilege granted to individuals who had distinguished themselves in some way, first, by the people’s assembly, later, by the emperor. Throughout the chapter, we learn of the significant destruction caused by fire (deaths, property damage, etc.) and water (floods, epidemics, and lead poisoning). The chapter on “Earthquakes and volcanoes” focuses mainly on the eruption of Vesuvius, but we also learn how religious views affected contemporary interpretations of the natural disaster: Martial and Statius attributed the eruption of Vesuvius to the gods, the Oracula Sibyllina, Jewish prophetic literature, to Titus, “because of his destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, calling the eruption divine retribution for his crimes against the Jewish people” (119). About earthquakes, we learn that, as the empire grew, the Romans had more often to contend with the aftermath of these disasters and that providing aid to affected areas contributed to an emperor’s social capital: “since no comprehensive prevention was possible, emperors could repeatedly portray themselves as rescuers in time of need, and give propagandistic proof of their beneficence” (115).

Overall, Thommen’s is a conservative survey of the environment of the ancient Greek and Roman world based on such facts as can be culled from the literary evidence. He makes no suggestion that the Greeks and Romans were enlightened environmentalists. Instead, he asserts that the Greeks and Romans alike held two opposing views simultaneously regarding the natural world and their place within it. Nature had both a gentle and a fearful side; and human beings in Greece and Rome felt themselves to be both victims of its destructive force and in possession of the intellectual powers necessary to manipulate and control nature through agriculture and animal husbandry as well as prayers and sacrifices (29-32).

Although individual Romans, in particular, were aware of the negative effects humans were having on the environment and were critical of “such ecologically harmful behaviour as destructive mining, clear-cutting of mountain forests, the extermination of plants, or the building of large manors and rural villas, which blocked the lakesides,” material and economic advantage, as Thommen notes, more often than not took precedent over concerns about long-term environmental damage (77). Thommen also exercises considerable caution when interpreting the available literary evidence. He is careful to point out, for example, that often what appear to be critiques based on concern for the environment are actually critiques more concerned with the moral behavior of human beings—, greed, for example, or the excessive pursuit of luxury.

Among works on the ancient environment available in English, Thommen’s book is most similar to, and suffers in comparison with, J. D. Hughes’ Pan’s Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (Baltimore, 1994). While covering much of the same territory as Thommen, Hughes’ book is far more comprehensive and a better read overall. However, what might be perceived as the weaknesses of Thommen’s study could be turned to advantage in the classroom. Thommen’s textbook-like approach to the ancient environment will quickly bring undergraduate students up to speed on the lay of the land and provide the student with enough background to begin to discuss how the ancients responded and failed to respond adequately to natural disasters and how their interventions into the environment also brought long-term damage to the region. Thommen’s bibliography, which is organized by section within a chapter as well as by chapter will be of interest to both students and scholars of the ancient environment; it includes a number of selections in French, German, and Italian that give a good sense of current research on the ancient environment.

While we are still in need of an introductory volume on ancient environmental studies that takes greater advantage of the evidence of archaeology and art history and more recent discoveries made by scientists and historians working together, An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome makes good use of the available literary evidence and is a dependable introduction to the field.