The Romans Mediterranean 500 bce to 500 ce

The Romans were even less environmentally aware than the Greeks and showed scant concern for the ecological consequences of their activities. Like the Christian civilization that succeeded them, the Romans evinced a possessive view of our planet: it was the property of Homo, to be exploited for human purposes.89 At the height of its power the Roman Empire was vast, stretching from the deserts of Africa to the borders of northern England. Over a quarter of the world's population lived under the rule of the Caesars. During the Roman Empire, too, deforestation caused by the Roman agricultural system spread from the hills of Galilee to the Taurus Mountains of Turkey to the Sierra Nevada of Spain.90 The imperialism of Roman institutional culture prefigured the contemporary era of mass extinction. The study of Roman writings combined with scientific investigations of deposits of silt from erosion and ancient grains of pollen has led many social historians to conclude that environmental factors were important causes of the decay of Roman economy and society. The results of environmental deterioration are evident in the landscape; impressive Roman ruins are often surrounded by desolate environments.91 Roman intellectuals variously took note of the degradations of their environment. Seneca, for example, remarked:

If we evaluate the benefits of nature by the depravity of those who misuse them, there is nothing we have received that does not hurt us. You will find nothing, even of obvious usefulness, such that it does not change over into its opposite through man's fault.92

Pliny the Elder, too, noted that human beings sometimes abused "Mother Earth," but he and most Romans saw the abuse simply as a failure of intelligent husbandry.93 This attitude still dominates Western thinking about land use and management.

In Chapter 1, I indicated that late Paleolithic and early Neolithic peoples were determined hunters of big game, responsible for the extinction of large animals such as the lions of Greece and the pygmy hippos of Upper Egypt. But the Romans far outdid their predecessors in hunting for meat, skins, feathers, and ivory.94 In addition, the Romans captured countless animals for use in gladiatorial games. They ransacked their empire for bears, lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, hippos, and other live animals to be tormented and killed in public arenas until there were no more to be found.95 The scale of these brutal entertainments, pitting animals against one another and against humans, is hard to grasp from a distance of two millennia. Emperor Titus dedicated the Colosseum with a three-month series of gladiatorial games in which 9,000 beasts were killed. The celebration of Emperor Trajan's conquest of Dacia (modern Romania) involved games in which 11,000 wild animals were slaughtered.96

However, these numbers indicate only a fraction of the real extent of the destruction. The poor conditions of capture, transport, and housing of these animals must have meant that for every animal that died entertaining the masses, dozens or even hundreds of others must have perished before reaching the arena. The Roman Empire was probably responsible for the greatest annihilation of large animals since the Pleistocene megafauna mass extinction.97 Already in the first century ce, the empire had exhausted ivory supplies in northern Africa, having decimated local populations of elephants. Regions as remote as southeast Asia supplied ivory to the Romans.98 While there is no clear evidence that any species of large animals was wiped out by the Romans, numerous populations were destroyed or decimated, and the ranges of many species were therefore severely destroyed or decimated.99

These extinctions also affected agriculture in unsuspected ways. B.D. Shaw, an expert on Roman North African history, observes:

The tens of thousands of animals purposefully hunted down for the gladiatorial games in the arena were, of course, a small proportion of the total that yielded to more mundane processes such as the systematic destruction of their habitat by the expansion of agricultural settlement. With each species that is extirpated, the closer the ecosystem verges upon collapse, so by hunting and capturing animals for slaughter in the arena, the Romans were weakening their economies in the long run.100

Non-agricultural industry in the Roman Empire was minuscule by contemporary standards, but it nonetheless resulted over time in an astonishingly widespread environmental legacy. The physical evidence of industry in antiquity is still visible in the Mediterranean landscape, such as the scars of ancient mining and quarrying. The demands on forests for timber and fuel for mining, smelting, metallurgy, and firing of ceramics, were a particularly destructive force in Roman antiquity, translating not merely in large-scale patterns of deforestation in the Mediterranean basin, but producing fantastic pre-modern patterns of pollution.101 Lead pollution has been one of the best-documented instances of eco-toxic pollution in pre-industrial times -although it should be noted that the Romans were by no means the first people exposed to this predicament.102 Analysis of the Greenland ice core shows a dramatic increase in lead levels between 500 BCE and 300 CE. These measurements reflect tropospheric pollution of the Northern Hemisphere caused by Greek and Roman lead and silver mining and smelting activities long before the Industrial Revolution.103 These traces of lead in the Greenland ice core have provided scientific evidence that mining and smelting of lead first peaked during the Greco-Roman civilization before rising again in more recent times.

In addition, Mediterranean rivers were polluted by sewage, which seeped into the ground water and made drinking water unsafe, especially in Roman cities. The Roman Cloaca Maxima, or "main drain," discharged pollutants into the Tiber River that threatened not only those living downstream but the city itself - especially when the river flooded and untreated sewage spilled into the streets.104 Typically, toilet and garbage pails were emptied out of windows, rotting into sludge so deep that, in places like Pompeii, stepping-stones were provided for pedestrians. Such wastes attracted vermin and provided breeding grounds for epidemics, such as the severe plagues during the reigns of emperors Marcus Aurelius and Justinian.105

Why did the Romans fail to maintain a sustainable balance with the Mediterranean ecosystem within which they lived? Hughes argues that the main reason lies in the general Roman attitude toward the natural world.106 In the early days of the Republic, Romans considered nature to be the sacred space of the gods. They avoided actions that would anger their deities, such as killing deer in temple precincts, and tried to please the gods by planting trees. These practices contained some ecological wisdom, but, as the Republic grew, Roman religious practice tended to deteriorate into empty rituals that lost their intimate connections to natural processes. In the name of economic expediency, prominent citizens like Cato the Elder advised the gods through prayers before cutting down trees or turning sacred groves into agricultural farmland.107

During the days of the empire, Stoic and Epicurean philosophy prevailed, at least among the upper classes. Adherents of these views rejected the traditional gods as explanations for the world, even if they continued to make offerings on the official altars of the state. Rome had conquered the world and subdued the peoples of the Mediterranean. These thinkers did ask some questions that today would be termed ecological, but their answers were based on the doctrines of the particular schools to which they belonged, and were of limited application to practical environmental problems. It was simpler utilizing, for most part, human and animal power and, to some extent, non-polluting water power. However, even simple technologies dependent on wood and charcoal for energy often result in loss of biodiversity. Ironically, the technological achievements of the Romans that we admire most are usually the ones that were the most damaging to the environment.108

As in the case of Greek civilization, frequent warfare constituted a major threat to the environment. The well-known Pax Romana may have lasted for almost 200 years, but it was not uninterrupted and it did not end wars on the frontiers. The military anarchy of the third century ce followed close on its heels, with 50 years of warfare that left no province untouched. Taxes for military expenditures were collected mainly from farmers, and reduced their ability to invest in the production of crops. Military campaigns devastated the countryside, slaughtered farmers and their families, and requisitioned or destroyed crops and buildings. Army agents conscripted farmers, who often spent years fighting instead of caring for the land, inevitably neglecting terraces and irrigation works.109 Roman generals frequently used deliberate "environmental warfare" that destroyed the enemy's natural resources and food supplies.110

Following a common socio-cultural pattern in other stratified civilizations that emerged in the wake of the Neolithic revolutions, Roman society prominently exhibited status- and prestige-driven patterns of conspicuous consumption. The lavish lifestyle of the upper classes was reflected in their fondness for food, both as gourmets (persons given to eating "fine" food) and as gourmands (persons whoeat excessively). The Roman socialruling stratum developed a reputation for overeating, debauchery, and overindulgence.111

But with the over-expansion of the Roman Empire, problems with regard to the quantity and reliability of food supplies arose. Rome was predominately a grain-based empire, sustained largely by slave labor. Subject to diverse social-military, ecological, and climatic stresses, the main Roman grain supply areas moved over time from Egypt to Sicily, and then from Sicily to Morocco. Indeed, grain was so precious that Roman military camps were full of specially built granaries. They were well-constructed buildings with ample ventilation.

Growing food imports caused economic crises and contributed to the strains which led to the eventual decline of the Roman Empire. The import of spices and luxury articles from India and the colonies, for example, was very costly and was partly financed by the export of wine. Although Rome shipped large quantities of wine to India, they were not enough to settle the balance of payments. The remainder had to be paid in gold and silver. The outflow of gold to India resulted in a severe economic crisis. Roman emperors could no longer finance the customary free distribution of food. Unable to pay its soldiers, Rome was no longer capable of stopping the "barbarian incursions" in the north. Ultimately, the overextended and financially strapped empire collapsed.

Just as the Mesopotamians paid a high price for their inability to adjust cultural and social achievements to the existing ecological framework, so the Romans suffered for their shortsighted exploitation of the environment. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire was the consequence of a combination of factors including intra-social forms of exploitation (slavery); military and fiscal overextension; environmental degradation, including soil erosion and deforestation; and foreign invasions. All these variables contributed to the eventual eclipse of the empire.112

Based on exploitative and stratified social-ecological relations, Rome failed to adapt its economy to the environment in sustainable ways and placed an insupportable demand on the available natural resources. Thus, Rome failed to maintain the balance with nature that is necessary to the prosperity of a human community. The empire depleted the lands of the ancient Mediterranean world, and in so doing it undermined its own ability to survive.113 The Romans left succeeding civilizations a chilling monument to their ecological folly: the fertile wetlands of North Africa that once supplied the empire's granaries had turned into deserts.114

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