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Four Greco-Roman Perspectives on Humans and the Environment

Those who do not study ancient literature are often surprised to learn that people have been writing about human impacts on the environment for millennia. The topic appears in a variety of genres of Greek and Latin literature, including historical treatises, tragedy and comedy, philosophical dialogues, and pastoral poetry. For the following checklist, I have selected four passages—two Greek and two Roman—to give an idea of how ancient people describe interactions between humans and nature that result in changes in the appearance and functionality of a landscape. Each of the works has its own rich body of scholarship that has developed over centuries or even millennia; I present the quotations with minimal commentary in order to allow for the most open interpretation.

1. Sophocles’ Antigone

(ca. 496-406 BCE)

Numberless wonders
terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man—
that great wonder crossing the heaving gray sea,
driven on by the blasts of winter
on through breakers crashing left and right,
holds his steady course
and the oldest of the gods he wears away—
the Earth, the immortal, the inexhaustible—
as his plows go back and forth, year in, year out
with the breed of stallions turning up the furrows.1

These lines come at the beginning of a speech in which the Chorus of the play describes how human beings, the greatest “wonder” of the world, have learned to take control of their environment. Fagles’s translation of “terrible wonders” in the second line captures the double sense of the Greek ta deina: this is the dino– part of the word dinosaur, a “terrible (or wonderful) lizard.” Thus from the beginning of the passage the Chorus characterizes humanity as something marvelous but also frightening.

They go on to explain all the ways in which humankind has mastered the natural world: we have figured out how to cross the sea in ships and we “wear away” the supposedly inexhaustible Earth with our plows. In subsequent lines (not included above), the Chorus points out that humans set snares for birds and catch beasts in nets and have figured out how to tame some of them and make them work for us. We also use language, create laws, and build shelters to protect ourselves from harsh weather. These all seem like impressive feats, but the Chorus’ conclusion reveals their ambivalence about these uniquely human endeavors:

Man the master, ingenious past all measure
past all dreams, the skills within his grasp—
he forges on, now to destruction
now again to greatness.

Fresco from a villa at Boscoreale, ca. 50-40 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art (03.14.13a–g). Photo by the author.

Fresco from a villa at Boscoreale, ca. 50-40 BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art (03.14.13a–g). Photo by the author.

2. Plato’s Critias

(ca. 429-347 BCE)

… compared to the land it once was, Attica of today is like the skeleton revealed by a wasting disease, once all the rich topsoil has been eroded and only the thin body of the land remains. But in that age [9,000 years ago] our land was undiminished and had high hills with soil upon them; what we now call the Rocky Barrens were covered with deep rich soil. And in the mountains there were dense forests of which there still survives clear evidence…. There can still be found intact rafters cut from trees that were felled and brought down to be used for the greatest building projects.2

The title character in this philosophical dialogue—an Athenian by the name of Critias—describes how the landscape of Attica (i.e., the region around Athens) has changed over the previous 9,000 years. He makes an analogy between the appearance and health of the land and a human body struck by disease. Drawing on observations of building materials he sees in local architecture, he concludes that the mountains in the area used to support rich soil and dense forests.

It’s not exactly clear to me that the speaker believes human action (i.e., deforestation) to be the cause of this erosion—in the preceding paragraph he talks about a succession of great floods that swept soil into the sea—but others do read the passage this way. Prominent classicist J. Donald Hughes, for example, calls this passage “one of the most perceptive analyses in ancient times of human impact on the Earth.”3

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece. Photo by the author.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece. Photo by the author.

3. Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura)

(ca. 99-55 BCE)

As for planting and grafting, the original pattern for these operations was provided by creative nature herself, since fallen berries and acorns in due time produced swarms of seedlings beneath the trees; and this gave people the idea of entrusting slips to branches and of planting young saplings in the earth all over the countryside. Then they kept on experimenting with new methods of cultivating the little plot of land they loved, and saw wild fruits improve in the ground in response to their kindly care and coaxing. And day by day they forced the forests to retreat farther and farther up the mountains and surrender the parts below to cultivation, so that on hills and plains they might have meadows, ponds, streams, crops, and exuberant vines, and so that the distinctive gray-green zone of olives might run between, spreading over down and dale and plain. They created landscapes such as we see today—landscapes rich in delightful variety, attractively dotted with sweet fruit trees and enclosed with luxuriant plantations.4

In the fifth book of this philosophical poem (which this translator has decided to render as prose), Lucretius describes the early stages of human development in the distant past. Nature herself as creatrix provided the inspiration for the first agricultural endeavors (i.e., planting and grafting). Eventually, as Lucretius explains, human experimentation led to the domestication of wild plant species and the retreat of forests as people carved out more and more space for the cultivation of gardens, vineyards, olive groves, and orchards.

Fresco from a villa at Boscotrecase, last decade of the first century BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art (20.192.17). Photo by the author.

Fresco from a villa at Boscotrecase, last decade of the first century BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art (20.192.17). Photo by the author.

4. Cicero’s  On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum)

(106-43 BCE)

Total dominion over the produce of the earth lies in our hands. We put plains and mountains to good use; rivers and lakes belong to us; we sow cereals and plant trees; we irrigate our lands to fertilize them. We fortify river-banks, and straighten or divert the courses of rivers. In short, by the work of our hands we strive to create a sort of second nature within the world of nature.5

This passage appears in a philosophical dialogue in which Cicero and his friends debate the nature of the gods. The speaker is a figure named Balbus, representing the Stoic worldview. According to Stoicism, the earth was created for the sake of humans and the gods. Here Balbus, like the Chorus in the passage above from Antigone, describes human achievements in agriculture and their impact on the land. Whereas the Chorus was ambivalent in their assessment of these actions, Balbus extols humanity’s ability to create a “second nature” of their own within the natural world.

Featured Image: Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct in southern France. Photo by Craig Dietz. 

Adrienne Hagen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies specializing in ancient conceptions of humanity and the natural world. Website. Contact

End
  1. Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Literature, 1984), lines 332-40. 

  2. Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1997), 111b-c. 

  3. Environmental Problems of the Greeks and Romans (John’s Hopkins University Press, 2014), 64. 

  4. Titus Lucretius Carus, On the Nature of Things, trans. Martin Ferguson Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), 5.1361-78. 

  5. Marcus Tullius Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, trans. P.G. Walsh (New York: Clarendon Press, 1997), 2.152. 

2 Comments

  1. Bravo! A great collection of classical writings from works that inspired the European Enlightenment. It was not always positive, was it, when the wonder’s of man’s (sic) exploitation of the earth are held up for admiration in and of themselves? “Mastering” nature and “domination over” the earth were classical goods that, carried out to their fullest, have been evils now, so detrimental to our lovely planet. A tragic irony?

    • Adrienne Hagen

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Annis! My larger research interests include tracking down the exceptional voices from antiquity that criticize the idea that domination of nature is a goal of human life, but these are few and far between in the extant record. Still, it comforts me to know that even then there were people trying to speak out about of the abuse of nature (and the related exploitation of the people who were used to extract resources, especially in agriculture and mining operations).

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