Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity. Environment and Culture

ed. by Graham Shipley and John Salmon. (Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancient Society 6) Routledge, London, 1996. xiv + 344 pp. Hb ISBN 0-415-10755-5.

reviewed by Mark Humphries

National University of Ireland

Books on ancient attitudes to nature, while not so uncommon as they used to be, are still something of a rarity.[1] That would be reason enough to welcome this volume. Yet we should be more grateful than just that. Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity is a marvellous book, demonstrating how there are crucial areas of the ancient experience that still await systematic exploration, and how this task can be approached most fruitfully through interdisciplinary research.

Many of the essays are devoted to elucidating ancient views of the environment as evinced in classical literature: Jim Roy examines the dramatic landscape; Robin Lane Fox traces élite attitudes to hunting from Homer to Polybios; Mary Beagon looks at the moral values attached to nature and landscape in Pliny's Historia Naturalis; and Gillian Clark considers how pagan philosophers and Christian fathers in late antiquity searched nature for signs of a divine plan for the universe. As Graham Shipley notes at the outset (pp. 7-8), however, the current consciousness of the natural environment in classical antiquity owes most to the work of archaeologists, particularly those involved in field survey.[2] Hence the more literary chapters in this volume are complemented by some excellent investigations of the archaeological evidence. Contributions by Lin Foxhall and Hamish Forbes look at the cultivation of marginal lands in Greece; this issue also addressed for the Roman world by Catherine Delano Smith and, on Roman use of water resources, Nicholas Purcell. David Mattingly provides a sophisticated analysis of the importance of the olive in antiquity, both economically and ecologically. Against a Christian literary tradition that portrays late Roman Italy as the land of the apocalypse, Neil Christie draws on archaeological evidence to show that while patterns of settlement and land use did experience some decline, they were also remarkably resilient.

Writing on environmental issues is, as Shipley remarks in his introductory essay, a peculiarly late-twentieth century concern (pp. 1-3). Yet this is also the curse of such studies: in an age when world leaders meet for Earth Summits, and when transport policies are formulated with an eye to atmospheric pollution, it is tempting to look to antiquity for precursors of either ecological consciousness or environmental vandalism. Shipley sagely warns that `before we blithely retroject modern ecological concerns onto ancient societies ... we need to try to understand those societies ... in their own terms' (pp. 12-13). The essays in this volume provide a timely antidote to facile `green history'. Two chapters in particular are worth noting. Oliver Rackham's essay on the palaeo-ecology of Greece is an instructive piece, arguing against the `pseudo-ecology' of those who see in the modern Greek landscape a pitiful remnant of an idealised ancient one, subsequently degraded and denuded by human activity.[3] This thesis was purveyed to a mass audience in David Attenborough's suggestively entitled television series and book The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man (1987). In her chapter on the `wilderness' in Roman Italy, Catherine Delano Smith challenges this interpretation, asserting that if there ever was an Eden in the Mediterranean, then its disappearance owed as much to the long drawn out processes of geomorphology as to human activity over a comparatively short time.

Taken as a whole, this volume provides a sophisticated framework within which to understand ecological concerns, both ancient and modern. The editors are to be congratulated for assembling a collection of such uniform interest and excellence (Graham Shipley deserves special praise also for the excellent indices). Likewise, we should thank the publisher for the magnificent production standards, not least the gorgeously clear plates. I end by hoping that this volume soon appears as an affordable paperback: not only will this make it accessible to a much wider audience, but also, should anyone scoff to you that ancient history is irrelevant, then you will be able to buy them a copy to show them how wrong they are.

[1] Recent distinguished contributions include M. Beagon, Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder (Oxford, 1992) and R. French, Ancient Natural History: Histories of Nature (London, 1994).
[2] For a lively (but now somewhat outdated) account of survey archaeology and the landscape, focusing on the southern Argolid in antiquity, see T. H. van Andel and C. Runnels, Beyond the Acropolis: A Rural Greek Past (Stanford, 1987).
[3] One of Rackham's favoured Aunt Sallies is the work of J. D. Hughes. Missing from his bibliography, however, is Hughes' recent popularising restatement of his views: Pan's Travail. Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (Baltimore and London, 1994; pb 1996).
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