You are here

The Ancient Mediterranean Environment Between Science and History

April 2016 (120.2)

Book Review

The Ancient Mediterranean Environment Between Science and History

Edited by William V. Harris (Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 39). Pp. xxii + 332, figs. 57, tables 7. Brill, Leiden 2013. $145. ISBN 978-90-04-25343-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume contains some papers from the conference History and Environment in the Ancient Mediterranean, which was held 15–16 June 2011, at the American Academy and the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae in Rome. It contains 11 papers by 10 different authors on a wide variety of topics on environment and history.

The editor, Harris, sets the tone of the volume in his introduction. He notes quite rightly that the Mediterranean is a promising region for this type of research because “it uniquely combines extensive written records with an ocean of archaeological information, while also offering the results of numerous palynological and geological studies” (1).

In the first chapter, “Energy Consumption in the Roman World,” Malanima argues that energy before the industrial revolution was based in food, firewood, and fodder and concludes that these three, in the context of various climatic conditions, could not supply enough energy to sustain populations in the later empire.

The second contribution, “Fuelling Ancient Mediterranean Cities: A Framework for Charcoal Research,” by Veal, explores the uncommon topic of ancient charcoal and its ties to systems of wood supply. Veal uses the case of Pompeii as a research context for a detailed study of wood fuel supply.

In the next chapter, “What Climate Science, Ausonius, Nile Floods, Rye, and Thatch Tell Us About the Environmental History of the Roman Empire,” McCormick ties aspects of the past Roman climate to textual and archaeological data. He outlines cases that might supply contexts for intensive research. I present two of these. In an unusual analysis of Ausonius, he ties the Late Roman poet’s observations on drought in Roman Gaul to tree-ring analysis of the late fourth century C.E. in northeastern France. He also correlates low Nile flood levels between 155 and 299 C.E. with a possible dip in agricultural production. Since Egypt was a “bread basket” of the empire, this should have affected the supply of grain to some major cities in the empire.

In his contribution, “Megadroughts, ENSO, and the Invasion of Late-Roman Europe by the Huns and the Avars,” Cook ties the invasion of Europe by the Huns and Avars to evidence for aridification in Central Asia. He uses information from tree rings as well as ENSO (El Nino/Southern Oscillation) to supply his climatic context.

Manning provides the most detailed contribution in his chapter, “The Roman World and Climate: Context, Relevance of Climate Change, and Some Issues.” Manning’s scope is wide, covering many scales of analysis and time periods. His is basically a large picture that calls into question assumptions of culture-climate causation and the usefulness of several climatic data sets in historical research, providing a much-needed caveat to several of the other contributions in the volume.

Harris’ chapter, “Defining and Detecting Mediterranean Deforestation, 800 BCE to 700 CE,” treats the old question of ancient Mediterranean deforestation. He documents that there is evidence for generalized deforestation in this time period; he also concludes that the ties with any suggested cultural crisis are still tenuous.

Turning to the Near East, Kouki’s essay, “Problems of Relating Environmental History to Human Settlement in the Classical and Late Classical Periods: The Example of Southern Jordan,” treats the issues of settlement patterns and their possible correlation to climate conditions. She concludes that the waxing and waning of settlement spread in her region is not closely correlated with climatic conditions. She suggests that we need to understand the term “favorable climate” on scales that are greater than simply recording the annual amount of rainfall. Other issues, such as when precipitation arrives, are possibly just as important.

Ermolli, Romano, and Ruello provide the next contribution, “Human-Environment Interactions in the Southern Tyrrhenian Coastal Area: Hypotheses from Neapolis to Elea-Velia.” They report that at both of these Italian sites, climatic events and human neglect led to coast sedimentation and urban degradation in the late empire.

The next chapter, “Large-Scale Water Management Projects in Roman Central-Southern Italy,” by Keenan-Jones, takes a long historical view, from the empire to modernity. In his analysis, he points out the tension between the need for water in the large urban centers and the effect that changing the hydrological landscape to supply this water would have had on settlements upstream of the cities.

The last chapter, “The Mediterranean Environment in Ancient History: Perspectives and Prospects,” is a review of the previous contributions by Wilson, who was a respondent at the conference in Rome. Wilson mentions several problems with the current state of combining environmental and historical data in reconstructing the Roman empire. I will mention the more salient below.

All in all, this volume is a mixed bag. All the contributions represent earnest attempts to bring forth environmental data into the larger picture of the ancient Roman world, and several present useful data and important views on the ancient Roman environment. I have no problem recommending this collection on these points.

But there are several problems that plague the attempts. As Wilson observed, only a handful of the potential environment-history foci are represented here. Absent are views of the marine environment—a vital issue in the Mediterranean—and also views of pollution and natural disasters. Also absent are considerations of other types of energy production, such as water mills.

There are two additional problematic issues with several of these studies. The first concerns using environmental data from outside the region being studied; for example, the tree-ring evidence for drought in Central Asia is far removed from the original territories of the Huns and Avars. The second issue is underdeveloped interfacing between the environmental and historical data; for example, Kouki’s study of the relationship of settlement pattern to the environment does not at all take into account any larger context that could illustrate more deeply the relationship between populations and the environment in arid climates. Earlier work on the Kasserine Survey in Libya has demonstrated that the full interface between the environment and the population in arid sections of North Africa in the Roman empire has to take into account archaeological data, such as the use of dams and other means of water collection and storage, and, also importantly, has to take into account the historical data, such as the lex Hadriana and the lex Hadriana de rudibus agris, which may well have produced an increase in population by providing rent-free periods of land occupation, as noted by Wilson (264). Linking environmental science and historical data in the ancient Roman world has to involve more than one-to-one links between different data sets. The interface has to be located within the full ancient context. Only then will the true promise of this type of analysis in the Mediterranean, as noted by Harris, be fully realized.

David Small
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Lehigh University

Book Review of The Ancient Mediterranean Environment Between Science and History, edited by William V. Harris

Reviewed by David Small

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 2 (April 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1202.Small

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.