BMCR 2020.12.14

Other natures: environmental encounters with ancient Greek ethnography

, Other natures: environmental encounters with ancient Greek ethnography. Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. Pp. xiii, 270.. ISBN 9780520343481 $95.00.


“Ecology” is one of those words made out of Greek parts that Plato or Aristotle would probably not have understood. Coined (in German) in the 19th century to reflect a newly Darwin-inflected understanding of the fit between living things and the environments in which they live, “ecology” extends the meaning of oikos in the direction of an inclusivity that goes beyond its ancient usage. Yet more and more scholars are arguing that the concept behind the word was a salient one for the Ancient Greek mind.

Till now, these arguments have mostly been rooted in the growing field of ecocriticism. Timothy Morton, for instance—an important ecological critic but an outsider to the field—sees the juridico-theatrical notion of miasma as an ecological category; in an intriguing article, William Brockliss has applied Morton’s theory differently to highlight the (dark) ecological dimensions of the advice given by Hesiod in Works and Days. Other recent publications by scholars like Timothy Saunders and Rebecca Armstrong have embraced ecocriticism as an “umbrella” under which their own ecologically-inflected interests can huddle.[1]

Clara Bosak-Schroeder’s Other Natures is attentive to this kind of work, but sets off in a new direction. Inspired by recent trends in anthropology, she searches ancient literature not for a concept anticipating ecology as such, but for ecologies, plural, the particular modes of interaction that unite particular human populations with their environment in a complex whole. The field of Bosak-Schroeder’s investigation is historiography, in particular the Histories of Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus’ Library. What she finds there are the “other natures” of the book’s title, ethnographic descriptions (sometimes surprisingly rich) of the means by which various non-Greek peoples get along with the non-Greek worlds of which they form a part.

We could call these ecologies culture-inflected, except that, as Bosak-Schroeder points out, humans and their culture are also part of nature; in the texts that she studies, it is importantly not just culture that varies from place to place but also, and primarily, nature itself. The Greek word that captures this variation and the different human ecologies to which it gives rise is bios, in the sense of Dicaearchus’ Bios Hellados—a lost work whose subject matter was the development of the Greek way of life through time. In the opening chapter of Other Natures, Bosak-Schroeder makes a convincing case that bios in the sense of lifestyle also denotes the kind of geographically- and ethnically-variable ecologies she discusses in the remainder of the book. So both the word and the concept are there.

The aim of the book is to show the importance of that concept for understanding ethnographical discussions in Greek historiography, which it does over six chapters; the seventh chapter is a coda to this argument that uses Greek ethnographic practices to reflect on the ways that modern museums articulate humankind’s place in nature. Readers of Herodotus and Diodorus will find the new perspective on offer here illuminating, and I hope it will inspire similar studies of other ancient historians. As Bosak-Schroeder shows, some ethnographic digressions are really better understood as ecological case-studies.

Much of what I’ve discussed so far is laid out in chapter 1, “Sources and Methods,” which discusses those two things but also sets the book’s argument in motion. Look here, too, for the philological work grounding Bosak-Schroeder’s belief in a Greek ecology, for which not just bios but also peristasis and diaita can function as keywords. The most important theoretical claim of this chapter (and a leitmotif of the whole book) is that humans are part of nature, rather than outside observers or simple inhabitants of it.

Chapter two, “Rulers and Rivers,” validates this claim by taking a second look at an old chestnut of Herodotean studies, the idea that the Histories describe the boundaries between continents or regions and then narrate their transgression. Bodies of water (from the Halys River to the Mediterranean Sea) play an important role as boundaries between these regions, but these aqueous borders turn out to be susceptible to human manipulation—take Cyrus disrupting the flow of the Euphrates, for example, or Xerxes’ bridging of the Hellespont. These classic examples seem to belong to a family of tropes connoting imperial hubris.[2] However, Bosak-Schroeder juxtaposes them with the case of Egypt, where rulers manipulate rivers for the benefit of their subjects, not just to enhance their own dignity. This leads to a discussion of Diodorus Siculus’ more explicitly ecological treatment of the same subject. The later historian and anthologist turns out to be more interested than Herodotus in depicting Egypt (and other regions) as the result of human/nonhuman collaboration, a point of contrast that resurfaces throughout the book.

Chapter three, “Female Feck,” extends a similar line of analysis to categories of gender and, eventually, species. The dividing lines separating these get transgressed and remade outside of Greece, an aspect of Herodotean ethnography that scholars have long appreciated.[3] What Other Natures adds to this analysis is an account of agency without intentionality (the titular “feck”) that enables us to see humans as elements in an ecology rather than its willful masters. An exemplary case for feckfulness in Herodotus would be Mandane, daughter of Astyages and mother of Cyrus, who creates the Achaemenid Empire without meaning to do so. Feck gets gendered female, then, because women in Herodotus and Diodorus often lack scope for more intentional forms of action. Yet feck turns out to be a useful concept for understanding how humans of any gender are shaped by, and may unintentionally transform, a nature from which they are not separate.

In chapter four, “Dietary Entanglements,” Bosak-Schroeder applies this framework to ethnographic accounts from Herodotus and Diodorus to demonstrate the ecological sense of terms like bios and diaita. We see that food mediates between humans and everything else, shaping cultural activity. Herodotus’ makrobioi Ethiopians display a utopian version of this dynamic: since the “table of the sun” provides for their dietary needs, their social life is maximally simple (and they are able to resist the blandishments of Persian luxury). The fish-eaters of Diodorus Siculus, who live in harmony with seals and who feed their dead to the fishes that they eat, are utopian in a different and less anthropocentric way.

This entanglement of diet and ecology means that one people cannot simply borrow the lifestyle of another—at least not without further consequences. But neither (as Cyrus explains at the end of the Histories) can one simply occupy someone else’s land and remain what one was. Bosak-Schroeder turns to this second question in chapter 5, “Resisting Luxury,” which argues that the “hard country/soft country” distinction made by Cyrus actually registers a differential distribution of natural resources. On this understanding, “luxury” names a kind of attempted detachment from nature, the conversion of its resources into wealth and exchange goods. The opposite of that is autarky, a desideratum for both Herodotus and Diodorus. But autarky is an ecological ideal—especially for Diodorus, whose fish-eaters once again lead the list of examples. One achieves autarky by entering into a maximally complete and harmonious relationship with nonhuman nature. By such means, even a “soft” country—for instance, Diodorus’ India—may become unconquerable.

This brings us to the book’s second section, “Present Concerns,” which, as one might expect, looks to Herodotus and Diodorus for guidance in our current ecological crisis. A pessimistic lesson might be drawn: if ecological relations are matters of nature-culture, outside our direct control, then there is nothing we can do to transform them. Bosak-Schroeder resists this conclusion by emphasizing collective action and by citing the example of Tnephachthus, a pharaoh whom Diodorus describes as adapting Egypt to an Arabian lifestyle of parsimony and simplicity. What makes a difference is collective action: in Herodotus and Diodorus alike, rulers are usually the ones who organize ecologically meaningful action. But the persistent memory of figures like Xerxes and Alexander the great gives reason to doubt that rulers will act from ecological considerations. Bosak-Schroeder thus concludes by inviting us to adopt the ecological self-consciousness of Herodotus’ Amazons, a collective that speaks with an awareness of bioi in refusing to join a Scythian society with which its own ecology would be incompatible.

The final chapter of the book, “Transformation in the Natural History Museum,” stands apart from the rest of the volume. The shift to modernity and museum theory is jarring, and Bosak-Schroeder could have been more explicit about explaining the salience of ancient ethnography to the museum exhibits she describes (or vice-versa!). Nonetheless, the readings presented are incisive, and one can see in Bosak-Schroeder’s chronological account of natural history exhibitions a recapitulation of the journey on which Other Natures has tried to lead us—from a sense of nature (and non-Western people) as resources, there for the taking, to a view of ecology as something that contains us, to the understanding that we humans may not, after all, be the center of the world.

The book is well-supplied with apparatus, including an index locorum. Typos are rare and do not interfere with sense. Readers may find it difficult at times to follow the flow of the argument owing to an abundance of examples, and the final chapter in particular suffers from a lack of cross-reference to the remainder of the volume. However, it will be evident from what I’ve already said that I see this book as offering a new and important lens through which to interpret ancient historiography and ethnography. Its ecological sensibility is distinct from that of previous work on this topic, whether in a positivistic vein (like J. Donald Hughes’ Pan’s Travails) or in the footsteps of contemporary ecocriticism (like the work mentioned at the opening of this review). Anyone working on ancient ethnography or trying to interpret particular ethnographic accounts will want to read Other Natures for the light it sheds on those scholarly problems. Others will want to read it too, for the innovative model it presents of using modern ecological concerns to reinterpret ancient evidence.


[1] Morton, T. (2016), Dark Ecology. New York: Columbia University Press, 63-64; Brockliss, W. (2018), “‘Dark Ecology’ and the Works and Days,” Helios, 45(1), 1-36; Saunders, T. (2008), Bucolic Ecology: Virgil’s Eclogues and the Environmental Literary Tradition. London: Duckworth; Armstrong, R. (2019), Vergil’s Green Thoughts: Plants, Humans, and the Divine. Oxford University Press. The figure of the “umbrella” is borrowed from Armstrong (2019) 18.

[2] As discussed, for example, in Immerwahr, H. R. (1954), “Historical Action in Herodotus” TAPA 85, 16-45.

[3] The sensus communis is expressed, e.g., at Blok, J. (2002), “Women in Herodotus’ Histories” in Brill’s Companion to Herodotus, 226-227.