BMCR 2022.01.18

Nachhaltigkeit in der Antike: Diskurse, Praktiken, Perspektiven

, , , Nachhaltigkeit in der Antike: Diskurse, Praktiken, Perspektiven. Geographica Historica, 42. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2020. Pp. 265. ISBN 9783515127332 €50,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a collection of papers about sustainability, deriving from an Augsburg colloquium in the winter semester of 2016/17. Nachhaltigkeit is the German word for “permanence” or “persistence”, now mostly used for “sustainability” in an ecological sense. The subject is obviously of great topicality. It appears to be quite popular in German scholarship[1]—while English-language publications tend to be more focused on broader environmental issues and on pollution. The editors stress emphatically that this volume’s purpose is not to simply apply our concept of sustainability to the ancient world and thus create a hierarchy of less or more sustainable societies or practices, but to take “sustainability” as a heuristic tool in order to analyze the ways in which ancient communities approached the finite nature of their resources—both in discourse (Diskurse) and in practical action (Praktiken). This will also force us to reflect upon the concept of sustainability itself (Perspektive). To approach sustainability in this way could result in an exciting book, but the present collection does not quite earn that sobriquet. Expectations raised by the succinct but excellent introduction are not quite met by the individual papers.

Of the eleven papers, one is concerned with the intellectual antecedents of the modern concept. Jens Soentgen traces its roots back to ususfructus in Roman law. Usufruct implies usus and fructus, using some property and deriving profit from it, but not abusus, its alienation (only when one has full ownership of something one can alienate it). Consequently, preservation (or even amelioration) of the property is an obligation. Soentgen argues convincingly that both the discussions by Roman jurists and the subsequent development of ususfructus in the post-antique world can help us to rethink sustainability for the environmental issues of our day. But that does not mean that ususfructus in the ancient world implied some ideology of sustainability that went beyond the individual case.

Six papers arrive at largely negative conclusions. Their authors seem to depart from a modern definition of sustainability that is never made explicit (except, rather perfunctorily, by Georg Weber). In the introduction Nachhaltigkeit is defined as shorthand for the interaction between humans and their environment with respect to a balanced and maintainable use of finite resources (p. 11). It is that kind of sustainability that the authors fail to find in ancient society, either in discourse or in practice.

Georg Weber looks at magic papyri and dream books. In the papyri we find, in recipes for magic potions and the like, quite a lot of economizing: reuse of ingredients, stuff put to alternative uses, avoidance of waste. This is all for purely practical purposes; nowhere is sustainability “im ökologischen Sinne” (p. 175), “in an ecological sense”, made explicit. Weber argues that in Artemidorus’ Oneirokritika we find several instances where a concern for sustainability “can be surmised” (p. 175), but one may doubt whether this lives up to any definition of sustainability at all.

Thommen goes through a whole catalogue of resources (metal, stone, soil, wood, water, animals) but concludes that, although there was a growing appreciation of the natural world as something distinct from human society, and although there certainly was a general awareness that man impacted this natural world, and at times quite negatively, this never developed into an ecological understanding. The general idea was that resources would be replenished naturally, which up to a point is true as far as plants, animals and water are concerned. However, resources that are obviously finite were also supposed to re-grow in some mysterious manner. Thommen considers that a real paradigm change occurred only in the second half of the 20th century.

Christophe Chandezon discusses ancient sources where goats are singled out as a destructive force. Medieval sources show the same criticism, and the frequent admonition that woodlands have to be protected from the ravages of goats. This might look like a sensitivity towards sustainability. However, goats are a very valuable resource for poor farmers, whose voice is not heard in our sources. It is the producers of cash crops in the ancient world who fear damage to their groves and vineyards, and the medieval upper class who want their hunting grounds untouched, who have left us their biased accounts of goat-herding—a bias still echoed today. In fact, these accounts are not about nature preservation or sustainability: they are about privilege and reining in the lower classes, and their goats too.

Lars Mielke re-studies two passages in Columella’s De re rustica that have been read as an indictment of “land-grabbing”. One should not acquire ever larger estates—for ideological, ‘moral’ reasons. Mielke shows that the argument is in fact an economic one. Columella is profit-oriented throughout and speaks of economies of scale: what size is the right one for maximizing one’s profit. Mielke admits that Columella considers the responsibilities of the farmer or landlord as well as the profitability of his enterprise, but deftly shows how Columella at this point gets tangled up in contradictions. In sum total, the supposedly moralistic advice of Columella, which could be interpreted as involving some notion of sustainability, is in fact largely hard-nosed economy.

Janet DeLaine studies tubulation (the use of tubuli, hollow tiles), and glazed or double-glazed windows, in Roman bathing establishments. Both will have done something to increase fuel efficiency: DeLaine presents us with some interesting calculations. But except for a few very large cities, there was probably no shortage of fuel. It was not concern about depleted resources that drove the technological improvements that made the firing of the baths more efficient. The improved “thermal economy” (p. 78) meant above all that the bathing experience could be made more pleasurable—without becoming unsustainable.

Clement Voigts addresses a more promising subject: the reuse of building materials, especially expensive marble, and labor-intensive elements such as columns and capitals. Reuse was always common, but became ever more common in late antiquity when, apparently, depots were put in place where building materials were brought together for redistribution. In his interesting paper, Voigts concludes that the intention was most likely to save money, and the practice was not inspired by ideas about finite resources or striving for a circular economy.

In two papers, the authors show themselves more willing to recognize sustainability in ancient discourse and/or practice. All depends on their definition of sustainability, which again remains implicit but seems too limited or too wide. Christopher Schliephake discusses sustainability in myth, the contest between Athena and Poseidon being his test case. Athena won the contest by presenting mankind with the olive tree. In Athens, olive trees were protected by law. Public servants called gnomones travelled round Attica to keep an eye on the olive groves. According to Schliephake this is about sustainability. Maybe that is saying a bit much: the conservation of trees, and a particular kind of tree at that, is just a small part of sustainability. The olive’s place in myth, religious life and Athens’ self-image in general seems to me the corollary of its economic importance.

Natascha Sojc contributes a paper on the extra-urban sanctuary of S. Anna at Akragas and the “sacred rubbish” in deposits there. She argues that not every object used on ritual occasions will have been discarded: some were preserved for future use, inside or outside the sanctuary. She also considers that what remained at the sanctuary was not truly “rubbish” but a functioning element of the sacred place, its presence indeed helping to make it a sacred place. In the terminology of an object’s biography, we are dealing with an extended lifespan, not limited to single use. Her analysis is thorough and interesting, but I fail to see what sustainability has got to do with it, unless every biography of an object beyond first use would count as such. That would mean that we can find sustainability almost everywhere. At most, it could be a step towards sustainability.

That leaves two papers whose authors deal with water supply. Here, a good case can be made for sustainability. Water supply is an instance where the scarcity of the resource must have been obvious, especially for those who lived in (semi-)arid areas. Wasting water or not being prepared for a drought could be fatal. Ingmar Unkel has a paper on what he calls archaeohydrology: water technology in a wider hydrological, ecological and socio-cultural context. His test cases are the Maya, Nasca and Mycenaeans, societies that took care to adapt their technology and their whole organization to the (limited) amount of water available. When looking at the Mycenaean heartland, the Argolid, however, Unkel, appears to obfuscate the sustainability issue. The Argolid has the lowest annual rainfall in the whole of the Peloponnese, and the Mycenaeans adapted to that. But Unkel then points out that the Argolid has some of the most abundant springs in southern Greece, which leaves me wondering how worried about a sustainable water supply they actually were. Generally speaking, the ancient world seems more concerned with maximizing the supply than with limiting the demand. However, the water supply may be the one example where we see policies employed that, at least in particular instances, illustrate an awareness perhaps of finitude, certainly of scarcity. This was not seen, however, as part of a larger ecological problematic.

Mark Locicero analyses the water supply of Ostia and highlights its complexity: the Ostians (and Romans in general) do not deal with water, but with waters. On the one hand there is the awareness of this multiplicity of waters, on the other the idea of resilience. Locicero sees these as instances of sustainability: but he specifies “ancient sustainability” (p. 69), specific Roman water supply strategies seen within a Roman world view. That is, as I will argue below and as the editors had promised us, the way to go—except that the oxymoron “ancient sustainability” had better be avoided, as the concept of sustainability is modern and has no ancient counterpart. Also, in this instance, the diversity or plurality of water sources, even if it may contribute to resilience, is not there for the purpose of reaching or maintaining resilience.

The editors wanted to look at the ancient world with sustainability as a heuristic tool. The outcome of that exercise is that, by a majority of votes, sustainability as understood nowadays did not exist. In discourse, it is absent. What might look like a plea for sustainability, could result from other motivations (Mielke, Chandezon). We do find its mirror image: the idea that resources are not finite (Thommen). As far as practice is concerned, we are confronted with several examples of behavior that is intended to preserve, reuse, and so on (Voigts, Sojc, Weber). Here at most some element of sustainability is present, even if the motivation is a different one. Otherwise, there are things that are easily misread as relating to sustainability (Schliephake, DeLaine, possibly even Unkel and Locicero) but are in fact something different—although obviously one should not neglect that such behaviors could result in the preservation of resources or delay their depletion: a kind of accidental or coincidental move towards sustainability.

In its largely negative conclusions, we are brought back to the blame game that the editors said they wanted to avoid: the ancients lack the awareness of resources being depleted which we moderns have. If sometimes they did the right thing, they did it unwittingly. Of course, none of the authors puts it this way (and Locicero explicitly rejects it), but if they, and the editors, had really been true to the use of sustainability as a heuristic tool, one would have expected more contributions like Thommen’s, asking what was actually thought about resources and their possible finitude, with time factored in: how one thinks that one’s acts impact future generations (an approach the introduction suggests, p. 15). Also, reuse should have been a central theme; after all, sustainability is in large part about recycling and a circular economy. A consumer society, in which an awful lot of things are thrown away instead of repaired, modified and reused, is a very recent phenomenon. The Greco-Roman world, with a large percentage of the population living on a precarious minimum income, was definitely a repair and recycling society. Several recent publications show a strong and growing interest in exactly this subject.[2] Gregor Weber hints at some aspects of this (p. 175), such as the use of night soil as dung, and the second-hand clothes trade. These are the things that could have been elaborated upon.

Also, the editors wanted the volume to contribute to contemporary debate. The absence of ancient discourse about sustainability will hamper efforts at such cross-pollination. Locicero, in too short a paragraph, tries to lift his argument to a higher level and look at his Ostia test case in the light of multi- or interdisciplinary approaches to urban water supply in general. It looks like he is again showing the way to go. If there is anything that this collection of papers tells us about the ancient world and about its relevance to the present, it is that already there we find patterns of thought and behavior that have ultimately led to the environmental crisis of today. But that is something we already knew. We would like to know what exactly those patterns of thought and behavior were. This book points us in the right direction, but does not carry through its self-defined mission. Hopefully, it will inspire others who will try to push the boundaries.

Authors and titles

Einleitung (Christopher Schliephake / Natascha Sojc / Gregor Weber)
Nachwachsende und erschöpfte Ressourcen. Zum Problem des ‚Umdenkens‘ und der ‘Ökologie’ in der Antike (Lukas Thommen)
Archäohydrologie und Nachhaltigkeit. Der Einfluss des Wasserdargebots auf frühe Gesellschaften (Ingmar Unkel)
Waters Waters Everywhere. Sustainability and Water Supply Strategies in the Roman Harbour City of Ostia, Italy (Mark A. Locicero)
Strategies and Technologies of Environmental Manipulation in the Roman World. The Thermal Economy of Baths (Janet DeLaine)
Nachhaltigkeit oder Sparsamkeit? Verwendung und Wiederverwendung von Marmorbauteilen im kaiserzeitlichen Rom (Clemens Voigts)
Beseitigung, Verwahrung oder Kreislauf? Zum stofflichen Potenzial deponierter Materialien in antiken griechischen Heiligtümern. Das Beispiel des extraurbanen Heiligtums S. Anna bei Agrigent (Sizilien) (Natascha Sojc)
‘Nachhaltigkeit’ in Kult und Mythos—Athenas Olivenbaum auf der Akropolis (Christopher Schliephake)
Nachhaltigkeit und Ressourcenschonung. Handlungs-, Deutungs- und Wissenskategorien in den Zauberpapyri und in Artemidors Oneirokritika (Gregor Weber)
La dent funeste des chèvres et la plume acerbe des historiens. Discours de la durabilité, naguère et aujourd’hui (Christophe Chandezon)
Moralisieren gegen Landgrabbing. Zum Verhältnis von Rhetorik und ‘Nachhaltigkeit’ bei Columella (1,3,8–13) (Lars Mielke)
Nachhaltigkeitsdenken in der Romantik und in der Antike (Jens Soentgen)
Die Autorinnen und Autoren


[1] Lukas Thommen, Nachhaltigkeit in der Antike? Begriffsgeschichtliche Überlegungen zum Umweltverhalten der Griechen und Römer, in: B. Hermann, Beiträge zum Göttinger Umwelthistorischen Kolloquium 2010-2011, Göttingen 2011, 9-24; Eckart Olshausen and Vera Sauer (eds), Die Schätze der Erde – Natürliche Ressourcen in der antiken Welt. Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie des Altertums 10, 2008, Stuttgart 2012; Arnd Reitemeier, Ansgar Schanbacher and Tanja Susanne Scheer (eds), Nachhaltigkeit in der Geschichte. Argumente – Ressourcen – Zwänge, Göttingen 2019 (3 chapters on the ancient world); Mario Rempe, Antike Siedlungstopographie und nachhaltiger Umgang mit Ressourcen im griechischen Sizilien, Rahden/Westf. 2021.

[2] British Museum Newsletter Scientific Research 6 (2020): “Reuse, recycling and repair; Chloë N. Duckworth and Andrew Wilson, Recycling and Reuse in the Roman Economy, Oxford 2020; Allison Emmerson, Life and Death in the Roman Suburb, Oxford 2021(re-evaluating landfill outside Pompeii’s walls as recycling enterprises).