Wednesday, February 25, 2015


J. Donald Hughes, Environmental Problems of the Greeks and Romans: Ecology in the Ancient Mediterranean (second edition; first published 1994). Ancient society and history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 306. ISBN 9781421412115. $27.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Danielle M. La Londe, Centre College (

Version at BMCR home site

Given that the environmental history of the Mediterranean basin has received much scholarly attention in the twenty years since the publication of J. Donald Hughes' Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, a second edition of this important work is certainly warranted.1 Hughes states that the purpose of this second edition is to incorporate his new research since the book was published and to account for new publications (viii). Three new chapters have been added, (Ch. 9, "War and the Environment;" Ch. 12, "Natural Disasters;" and Ch. 13, "Changing Climates"), and Chapters Two, Five, Six, Eight, Eleven, and Fourteen have new sections or material (described below), and new bibliography has been incorporated into the footnotes. Since the main argument and much of the content is unchanged and has been previously reviewed,2 I shall briefly summarize the chapters, focusing on the expanded and revised material.

Hughes argues that the failure of the ancient Greeks and Romans to maintain a balance with the natural environment and the resulting damage caused by human activities were of such a scale that the ecosystem could no longer support human communities, making them susceptible to collapse (182, 229-235). To reach this conclusion, Hughes begins with four introductory chapters, and then the bulk of the chapters (Chapters 5-13) survey different types of interactions between human communities and the natural environment of the Mediterranean basin.

The introductory chapters are largely unchanged. Chapter One ("Introduction: Ecology in the Greek and Roman World") explains the main purpose of the book and defines for the reader important concepts and methodologies to which Hughes will return throughout. Chapter Two ("The Environment: Life, Land, and Sea in the Mediterranean") describes the major features of the Mediterranean ecosystem in classical antiquity: climate, the Mediterranean sea, the land, and plants and animals. Hughes has expanded his discussion of the rocks and soil to include a more detailed discussion of the various types of soils that can be found in different regions of the Mediterranean, such as the Black Sea, southern France, and Spain. He has also expanded his discussion of plants to account for the different regions, such as mountain ranges and islands. These are both welcome additions as they make clear how diverse the Mediterranean landscapes and ecosystems are. Chapters Three ("Ecological Crises in Earlier Societies") and Four ("Concepts of the Natural World") remain unchanged from the first edition. Three gives a brief overview of the environmental history of the Mediterranean basin leading up to classical antiquity, and Four provides an overview of the various ways ancient Greeks and Romans thought about, understood, and worshipped nature.

After the overview and background given by Chapters One through Four, Chapter Five ("Deforestation, Overgrazing, and Erosion") brings the reader to the main focus of the book: how the ancient Greeks and Romans changed their natural environment and how this affected their societies. This chapter is significantly revised to incorporate recent research by Hughes and others that bolsters his assertion that deforestation, along with the resulting soil erosion, was the most damaging activity of the ancients with regard to the natural environment. Hughes provides compelling evidence drawn from multiple fields of study, such as archaeological surveys and analyses of pollen, charcoal, and ice cores. Hughes' discussion is clear and understandable to a non-specialist. His discussions of climate change, malaria, and the effects of military activities from the first edition have been condensed and the main substance of these sections has been incorporated into the new chapters on these topics (Ch. 13, "Changing Climate," Ch. 12 "Natural Disasters," Ch. 9 "War and the Environment").

Chapter Six ("Wildlife Depletion and Loss of Habitat") is largely the same with a new section "Introduction of Exotic Species" that addresses the question of whether or not any species introduced by man gained a foothold in the Mediterranean ecosystem. Except for the domesticated species, such as cats, dogs, horses, and herd animals, for which historical and archaeological records provide evidence, Hughes can only speculate about which species may have taken hold (parrots, pigeons, fish), and provides anecdotes from Pliny the Elder of Romans trying to introduce fish and oysters to Italy.

Chapter Seven ("Agricultural Decline," the first edition's Chapter Eight) is unchanged. Hughes argues that agricultural production began to decline in the third century CE as a result of factors such as falling population, soil exhaustion, and poor erosion control.

Chapter Eight ("Industrial Technology and Environmental Damage," Chapter Seven in the first edition) explores the environmental impact of industrial processes, such as mining, quarrying, metallurgy and ceramic production. A new, lengthy section on Athens' famous silver mines at Laurion has been incorporated into the otherwise basically unchanged chapter. Hughes' discussion of the mines is a welcome addition to the chapter as it provides an interesting case study of how accounting for the mines' environmental impact through analysis of evidence from multiple fields of study enriches our understanding of their historical importance.

Chapter Nine ("War and the Environment") is the first of three new chapters. In this chapter, Hughes considers the impact of war and militarization on the Mediterranean ecosystem through examples of both unintentional and intentional environmental damage caused by war and other military activities. Hughes concludes by asserting that man can be in balance with nature only during times of peace.

Chapter Ten ("Urban Problems"), largely unchanged from the first edition's Chapter Nine, looks at how cities impacted the ecosystem and what the urban environment itself would have been like, addressing issues such as noise pollution and waste disposal.

Chapter Eleven ("Paradises and Parks, Gardens and Groves," the first edition's Chapter Ten) has a new section entitled "Biodiversity in the Groves." Here, using primarily written accounts of flora and fauna in sacred groves, Hughes argues that they unintentionally functioned like the American park system in preserving pockets of biodiversity.

Chapter Twelve ("Natural Disasters") is the second new chapter. It covers epidemics and the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The epidemics section includes revised and expanded discussions of malaria and the fifth-century plague at Athens, for which Hughes speculatively offers typhoid fever as the most likely candidate. His discussions of both the plague at Athens and the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius are detailed case studies that effectively incorporate written sources (Thucydides and Pliny the Younger, respectively) and scientific data.

In chapter Thirteen ("Changing Climates"), the third new chapter, Hughes draws upon significant recent research on climate change and discusses the various ways scientists have been gathering data to help reconstruct ancient climate patterns, in particular by examining ice cores and tree rings. Hughes also suggests that human activities, especially deforestation, could have caused climate change.

Chapter Fourteen ("Environmental Problems as Factors in the Decline of Greek and Roman Civilization") summarizes the ways that the Greeks and Romans caused significant environmental damage, especially through deforestation and poor agricultural practices, and that this damage eventually inhibited them from thriving. Hughes concludes by briefly discussing several factors that he sees as the reasons for classical antiquity's failure to maintain a sustainable balance with the Mediterranean ecosystem (treatment of women, cultural attitudes, scientific knowledge, appropriate technology, governmental policies, the economy, slavery, frequent wars). One can see in his list of factors the implicit warning that if we do not account for these factors in the modern world and find a balance with nature, we shall no longer be able to thrive in our environment.

Hughes' aims of offering an overview of the environmental history of the Mediterranean basin targeted at a general reader or non-specialist and arguing that a major factor of the collapse of classical antiquity was the environmental damage caused by ancient Greeks and Romans are at odds with each other. Hughes succeeds for the most part in his first aim but his necessarily selective and summary discussions of the evidence and his insistence that deforestation — along with the attendant consequences of erosion and climate change — was the primary culprit preclude the detailed and persuasive analysis necessary to support his second aim. As Hughes writes in his preface, "the study of past effects of environmental forces on human societies, and the impact of human activities on the environment, gives needed perspective to the dilemmas of the contemporary world" (ix), and simplifying the complexities of this relationship and how difficult it is to disentangle the causes and effects of these feedback loops between human activity and natural environment renders the lessons of history less useful than they could otherwise be. Rather, leaving these complexities unresolved and showing how current research is beginning to tackle various problems would demonstrate for the reader that there is in fact no one overarching problem the solution of which would establish a sustainable balance within our own ecosystem. Rather, only by accounting for and teasing out the complexities of specific environmental problems will we be able to develop sustainable solutions.

Minor revisions to the text for the sake of clarity are made throughout to positive effect. In addition, the main section titles are now in boldface and the subsection titles in italics and precede rather than begin the paragraph. As a result, the chapters are much more navigable, and considering the impressive breadth of topics covered, the ability easily to locate a section is key to making good use of the book. Images of the landscapes and cultural objects under discussion have been added throughout, giving the reader added context for the discussion. References to the images as numbered figures within the body of the text would have been helpful.

As mentioned by reviewers of the first edition, a citations index and more consistent footnoting of ancient sources would have been useful revisions.3 In the more data-driven discussions (deforestation, climate change), some graphs, tables, or some other such visual display of the data would have aided the reader in following Hughes' analyses. Editorial errors mentioned by earlier reviewers have not been corrected4 and some new errors have crept in. The formatting of block quotations is inconsistent: poetry is offset either as poetry (125) or prose without marked line breaks (145), and a passage of Plato's Critias has been put into stanzas (140-141); the footnotes of a paragraph on p. 162 of the first edition are missing from pp. 198-99 of the second edition; and there are at least two instances of repeated sentences (78 and 81, 162 and 199).

Despite these issues, Hughes deserves great praise for updating a valuable overview of the problems ancient Greeks and Romans caused and faced within the natural environment of the Mediterranean basin. His work gives the undergraduate or non-specialist in particular a new view of the ancient world that will enrich her or his understanding of classical antiquity and highlight how much research is waiting to be undertaken. I imagine this book being most useful in a course on comparative environmental history, the ecology of the ancient Mediterranean, or concepts of nature in classical antiquity, where the new case-studies such as the mines or the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius would be particularly useful.To those already familiar with classical antiquity it also has a great deal to offer.


1.   For example, Lukas Thommen, An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome (Cambridge, 2012), BMCR2013.02.03; Brian Campbell, Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome (Chapel Hill, 2012), BMCR 2013.05.34; Robert Sallares, Malaria and Rome (Oxford, 2002); A. T. Grove and Oliver Rackham, The Nature of Mediterranean Europe, An Ecological History (New Haven, 2001); Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea (Oxford, 2000).
2.   John McMahon, BMCR 94.08.07; William H. Stiebing, Jr., Environmental History Review, 18 (1994) 89-91; Susan E. Alcock, AHR 100 (1995) 501-502; A. Trevor Hodge, Phoenix 49 (1995) 187-188; Mark A. Lelle, Forest & Conservation History 39 (1995) 41-42; D. L. Simms, Technology and Culture 36 (1995) 396-397; Mary Beagon, JRS 86 (1996) 190-191; Stephen T. Newmyer , IJCT 3 (1996) 240-242.
3.   McMahon, BMCR 94.08.07.
4.   The oversights and editorial errors referred to by McMahon, BMCR 94.08.07 remain.

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