The Ancient Contribution to Climate Change

For World Mother Earth Day

Thursday 22 April 2021

Just like us, the Greeks and Romans were adept at exploiting the environment for their own ends, and their place in fuelling (pun intended) some of today’s problems should not be ignored. Of course, air pollution, for example, did not occur on anything like the scale it did before fossil fuels were burnt in colossal quantities, but that did not mean that their actions did not have consequences for the environment and climate of the lands around them.

The destruction of forests to make way for farmland and cities, or even as part of a military operation (by the scorched earth policy, for example. Anne and Paul Ehrlich have written an excellent article on this subject, which I will reference below. They describe how farming and grazing, along with soil erosion prevented reforestation of these areas. The forests and their benefits were effectively gone.

The Romans had, one might say, an actively aggressive utilitarian (defined in the sense of purely practical or useful, rather than the philosophical meaning) attitude to the environment. In his sixth book (6.42), the Greek historian Polybius, who was detained in Rome, describes the way the Romans build their military camps. Contrasting the Greeks and Romans in their approach, he notes that the Greeks place greater emphasis on natural defences, whereas the Romans prefer the arduous toil of shaping the terrain to fit the plan of their camp. The reason for this is the familiarity of the layout. But it also shows that the Romans thought nothing of reshaping the environment to their own ends, rather than fitting in with it.

The Ehrlich article demonstrates the Romans’ impact on the environment very lucidly. It was no just deforestation, but the slaughter of animals from all over the empire for the blood-stained entertainments of the Colosseum. Another action that made a significant impact was the relentless exploitation of the silver mines. The exhaustion of these resources not only hastened the decline of the empire, the environmental consequences also cannot be overestimated. In his geographical excursus, book thirty-four of his history, Polybius noted that the Spanish mines were producing 25,000 drachmae a day for the benefit of Rome. The consequences were perceptible in a two-mile deep ice cap from Greenland, and Spain was not the only Roman metal extraction area that contributed. Articles are below.

So, I hope with this article, I have shown just how ancient a problem the trashing of the environment is. We are human, the bigger picture, namely the wider affect on others, is not the easy or even expedient option. Narrow, blinkered aims lead Greeks, Romans, and also the Mesopotamians and Egyptians into actions with wider environmental consequences (see the Ehrlich article). Could they at least claim ignorance, not having the scientific illumination of the consequences, Greenhouse gases? Possibly. The Romans less so, because of their level of aggression in exploiting their environment and that of their subjects for their own ends (one might add the exploitation of the silver mines at Laureion by the Athenians).

Now, however, we ARE armed with the necessary knowledge.

Further reading

Ehrlich, P and A,

Browne, M. W.,

Edmonson, J. C.,

(Mining in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond: Continuity or Disruption?)

Hillman, A. L., Abbott, M. B., Valero-Garces, BL., Morellon, M., Barreiro-Lostres, F., Bain, D. J.,

(Lead pollution resulting from Roman gold extraction in northwestern Spain)

Lipuma, L.,

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