The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate and the Future of the Past, ed. Walter Scheidel, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford 2018
Chapter 1. Reconstructing the Roman Climate 11
Kyle Harper & Michael McCormick
Chapter 2. Archeobotany: The Archeology of Human- Plant Interactions 53
Marijke van der Veen
Chapter 3. Zooarcheology: Reconstructing the Natural and Cultural Worlds from Archeological Faunal Remains 95
Chapter 4. Bones, Teeth, and History 123
Alessandra Sperduti, Luca Bondioli, Oliver E. Craig, Tracy Prowse, & Peter Garnsey
Chapter 5. Human Growth and Stature 174
Rebecca Gowland & Lauren Walther
Chapter 6. Ancient DNA 205
Noreen Tuross & Michael G. Campana
Chapter 7. Modern DNA and the Ancient Mediterranean 224
Roy J. King & Peter A. Underhill
Review for classicists © James Jope
(This review is followed by M. Eleanor Irwin's paper on the olive as an index of climate change.)
The anthology reviewed here surveys scientific methods which may revolutionize classical history in the future. The cover design juxtaposes an Ionic column with the helical structure of DNA
Chapter 1: climate change
Proxy findings are used to build overall climate patterns for the present geological epoch (Holocene). They show a period of comparatively stable warmth and moisture in the Mediterranean from approximately 200 BCE to 150 CE, known as the Roman Warm Period or Roman Climate Optimum, which favored the growth of the empire. Also local variations are attested: Egypt, for example, was affected more by the climate factors of the Indian Ocean than was the Mediterranean, so that its reliability as the imperial granary diminished after 156 CE.
Links with specific historical events are still speculative. The Huns who pushed the Goths into the empire may have been prodded by a drought in Central Asia. The science is young and there are many gaps, and comparative studies of archeological and written evidence will have to connect the dots. The authors do not seem to have much confidence in new insights from classical sources: They compare the “large and growing” archeological and paleoclimatological evidence with a “nearly static set of written records” (39).
Chapter 2: archeobotany
Although the only mention of ancient agricultural writings here is a warning to read them “in their temporal, cultural, and regional contexts, rather than as reliable guides to agriculture across the entire Greco-Roman world” (60), the author reports that the philosophy of paleobotanists has shifted from a deterministic view in which plant and soil properties shape human developments to a more sociocultural view in which both plants and people have agency. Thus, the potencies of spice plants coupled with the demand for luxury promoted long-distance trade. With this philosophy, the door is wide open for fresh investigations of ancient texts.
Chapter 3: faunal remains
The author warns against archeologists becoming too obsessed with scientific techniques, which he calls ‘processual’. ‘Postprocessual’ work includes scholarship. Some archeologists’ distaste for ‘theory’, he argues, is wrong because their own practice implies theoretical presuppositions. Questions of ethnic groups, social classes, etc. cannot be answered by scientific techniques. (114)
Chapters 4-5: bones and teeth, growth and statureThis section details anthropological methods working especially with bones and teeth, but it again sounds a note of caution by calling attention to conflicts and errors within anthropology related to these methods. Radiology, microscopy, isotopes, measurements and computerized multivariate statistical analyses can reveal sex, age at death, diseases, diet, etc. However, the ‘markers’ on bone used to trace certain diseases can be left by more than one disease. The criteria used to determine age at death, and stature have not been standardized. Thus, historians have inferred high stature for Romans—implying good health and diet-- based on findings which are disputed among anthropologists themselves. Growth estimates can be improved by focusing on infants; stature estimates by preferring full skeletal measurements over calculations from measurements of long bones. Nevertheless, the future of this science should go beyond identifying features of individuals and reconstruct general population traits.
Again in Chapter 4, the authors call for balancing scientific and traditional methods. For example, because oxygen isotopes depend on local weather, they can signal migration. But to investigate why people migrated, historical and literary evidence must be consulted.
Chapters 6-7: DNA ancient and modernStarting from modern DNA, mutations (genetic changes) can be traced and mapped with ‘molecular clocks’ to reconstruct human phylogenies (lines of descent). Ancient DNA is usually damaged and fragmented, but can still identify pathogens and human subgroups.
Tracing phylogeny is complicated by the circumstance that in every generation, the genetic materials from the two parents undergo ‘recombination’; i.e., they are paired in a way which produces a unique set of individual traits. Two types of DNA do not recombine: Mitochondrial DNA, which is located apart from the ‘chromosomes’ carrying the genes (and actually originated from external organisms which were incorporated by the cells of our ancestor species), is passed down only through the maternal line. And the Y (male sex) chromosome is inherited paternally. Chapter 7 uses Y chromosomes to construct a phylogeny of mankind which is consistent, e.g., with what we know about Neanderthals.
Both types of DNA can be processed more cheaply and quickly now that the initial method used in the 1990s (polymerase chain reaction) has been succeeded by ‘whole-genome sequencing’. Hence we can expect this science to expand.
Specific findings noted by the authors are interesting in relation to possibilities of philological study which remain unnoticed by the authors. Comparison of modern Tuscan and ancient Etruscan genes shows that they are not related, and that the Etruscans were more closely related to Near Eastern peoples. The authors call for further genetic research, but do not mention the obvious path of correlating this finding with the Near Eastern affinities suggested by linguists. Horses grew in size during the Empire, but the genetic evidence does not resolve whether this was achieved through breeding, nurture, or imports; the authors call for more sequencing, but do not discuss any breeding data from ancient agricultural texts. If there are none, the argument ex silentio would still be relevant.
Some classicists may find this book a difficult read. The explanatory prose can be opaque, as in
“leveraging the hierarchy of time-calibrated nested modern haplogroups and glimpses of ancient uniparental and autosomal DNA” (238)or
“This predisposition with respect to the lack of random mating creates subdivision such that metapopulations comprised of various subpopulations often get established” (226)…where ‘metapopulations’ is not defined. Neither are ‘eukaryote’, ‘allele’ and occasional other terms. Nevertheless, I recommend this book because its content may be critical for twenty-first century scholarship.
I have posted below, with the author’s permission, an exemplary illustration of what a classicist can contribute. This paper by M. Eleanor Irwin was prepared for the 2018 annual meeting of the Classical Association of Canada. The full text appears here for the first time. Notice how it discusses the Roman writers “in their temporal, cultural, and regional contexts, rather than as reliable guides to agriculture across the entire Greco-Roman world” and “not only how Roman society was affected by environmental forces but also how it responded”.
The olive as an indicator of climate change in the Roman agricultural writersM. Eleanor Irwin
© M. Eleanor Irwin
submitted to the 2018 annual meeting of the Classical Association of Canada
Introduction: the Roman Warm period
We are very much aware of climate change and its effect on us but we may not realize that there were periods of climate change in the past, one of which has a potential interest for Classicists. It is generally agreed by climate scientists that between about 100 BCE and 200 CE there was a period of relatively higher temperatures, first named “the Roman Warm Period” in a 1995 University of Michigan dissertation by W.P. Patterson, also known as the Roman Optimum Period. Climatologists have raised the possibility of a causal connection between this stable climate, the rise of the Roman empire and in particular the period of peace and stability in the 2nd century CE. In this paper I will be looking for awareness of climate change in the agricultural writing of Varro, Vergil, Pliny and Columella during the Roman Warm period and comparing what Cato wrote before and Palladius after this period.
A good place for a Classicist to begin is with Neumann’s 1985 article which surveys climate change in the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age and assembles supporting evidence in Classical authors (mostly Greek) for changes in temperature and rainfall levels. For a survey of climate change in the Roman empire from 100 BCE to 600 CE I recommend the 2012 article by McCormick et al. “Climate Change during and after the Roman Empire: Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence.” This article is a good introduction to the ways climatologists measure climate variations:
Greenland ice cores, fluctuations in solar radiation, speleothems [stalactites and stalagmites] from Austria and Turkey, tree-ring series from central Europe and Asia, Austrian and other Alpine glacier movements, varve records [sediment layers] from European and western Asian lakes, and written and archeological records.
Roman agricultural writers
Mediterranean climate and the olive
The ancients recognized nearness to the sea as important for growing olives. Theophrastus (HP 6.2.4) noted that the olive flourished no further than 300 stades from the sea (about 54 kilometres) and if it was found further inland – he specifies “more than five days' journey from the sea” - they were unfruitful (HP 4.4.1,5). The ancestor of these olive trees was the wild olive native to the Mediterranean, thought to have been domesticated first in the Levant with a possible second location for domestication in Spain (Zohary et al. 2012, 119, 121). The wild olive was distinguished from its domesticated relative in the way it reproduced. The wild olive grows by sexual reproduction from seed, the domesticated olive by vegetative reproduction, with new plants established from suckers or cuttings, often grafted on to wild olives (Zohary et al. 2012, 117). Theophrastus was not sure whether a wild olive could be tamed or a domesticated olive could turn wild; if it happened, it was uncommon (HP 2.2.12; 2.3.1).
It is widely held that the domesticated olive was introduced to Italy and Sicily by Greek and Phoenician colonists from the second half of the eighth century. The colonists looked for sites with fertile fields where they could plant crops to feed themselves, the three most important crops being grain, grapevines and olive trees (Dunbabin 1948). The success of oleiculture in Sicily and south Italy is evident from exports. Diodorus (13.81.4) recorded that Akragas in Sicily was exporting olive oil to Carthage before the war with Hannibal and the Athenian poet Amphis was acquainted with the olive oil of Thuria (in Athenaeus 30b, 67b). Italian farmers were growing olives as a cash crop from the mid 3rd century BCE. Pliny (HN 15. 1-3) measured olive production by contrasting prices in 249 BCE (10 asses for 12 pounds) with prices in 74 BCE (one as for 10 pounds). He also noted that olive oil was exported to the provinces 22 years later in 52 BCE, an indication that more olive oil was produced than could be used domestically.
The olive does not demand much work to grow as Vergil said, even if he was exaggerating (G. 2.420). The trees need good drainage and will not do well in swampy land. They were often planted on a slope, facing south or north depending on the circumstances – facing south to take advantage of the sun for as long as possible each day or facing north to provide shade for some time each day.
The praise of Italy
Vergil picks up the theme (G. 2. 136-76). Spring is incessant (assiduum) and summer extends to months where it doesn't belong (alienis mensibus). Italy bears “teeming fruit”, “Bacchus’ juice”, “olive-trees and pleasing herds.” He makes the astounding claim that in this wonderful climate twice each year herds give birth and trees bear fruit. This was certainly not generally true though occasional examples were known.
Pliny indulged in praise of Italy twice: near the beginning of his Natural History in book 3 (39-42) and at the end in book 37 (201-2). In book 3 he rhapsodized on the fresh and healthful climate, the fertile fields, the sunny hill sides. In book 37 (201-2) he proclaimed that there was no country so beautiful; the climate is healthful and mild. In an echo of Varro, Pliny says that the land occupies the most favourable position, because it lies midway between East and West.
In contrast, Columella began his work with an indication that all was not well in agriculture (R.R. preface). The soil and the climate were blamed for poor harvests although he believed that knowledge of farming and hard work with an appropriate amount of fertilizer would enable production equal to the past. He advised farmers to inform themselves about what crops were suitable for their region and also to pay attention to weather signs. He lamented a decline of productivity in Italy, that land owners were using land for meadows and pasture or timber in place of vines and orchards (Columella 3.3.1). Columella (3.3.4 cf. Varro 1.44.2) attributed this to carelessness: people planted the worst kind of cuttings, did not nourish i.e. fertilize vines, and were careless about cultivating.
Neither Cato writing before the Roman Warm Period nor Palladius writing after made such claims for the Italian climate. For Cato, a farm will be successful if the landowner manages resources, including human resources, well. Palladius had farms on Sardinia and in Italy near Rome; in a number of places he contrasted the time of year when certain tasks should be done in cold regions and hot regions with an indication that he himself had farmed in such extremes (3. 25. 27, 4.10.15 and 8.3.2). The easiest way to get started with oleiculture was to find olive trees in woodlands or uninhabited places, cut the roots in cubit lengths and set them out in a nursery or orchard (3.18.6). One imagines an olive tree deep in a woods or in a field near an old abandoned farm house. Olives were long lived and remarkably resilient so such olive trees must have been neglected for a long time.
Roman references to climate change
regions which before could not keep safe any shoot of the vine or olive which had been planted because of the constant violence of winter, are now rich with generous olive harvests and the vintage of Bacchus, now that the earlier coldness has been mitigated and become temperate (Columella 1.1.5).Saserna believed that he was observing the effects of climate change predicted by Hipparchus and that olives and vines were growing in his lifetime where they had not grown before. Columella placed him between Cato who died in 149 BCE and Varro (b. 116 BCE) whose work on agriculture was written in 37 BCE. This presumably milder climate will have occurred between the second half of the 2nd century BCE to the first half of the 1st century and fits with the Roman Warm period.
How we understand Fenestella depends on how the references to Italy, Spain and Africa are taken. The evidence of paleobotany demonstrates that Fenestella was wrong: olives had been cultivated in Spain from the 7th century BCE (Buxó 2008) and in Africa – specifically around Carthage --from the 6th century BCE (Lebreton et al. 2015). Breton (2009) argues that wild native olives in France near Marseille and in Africa from Morocco to Tunisia had been domesticated, though the Greeks and Phoenicians may have introduced other domesticated olives. I suggest that Fenestella was thinking of the intentional establishment of olive orchards by the Romans “across the Alps” and “the middle of Spain and Gaul”, quite possibly ignoring what was growing there.
Fenestella’s stipulation of a specific year (580 BCE) indicates that something changed and it has been suggested that it was the inclusion of Minerva in the Capitoline triad (cf. Varro ant. diu. fr. 18). It would be natural to think that olives, the tree sacred to Athena, would have been introduced in that year in Minerva’s honour.
If I am right that Fenestella was implying a distinction between the coastal areas of Sicily and Italy and central Italy, between the coast of Spain and Gaul and the interior, and between Italy and the land on the other side of the Alps, then his statement that olives did not grow in the 6th century BCE in Italy, Spain and Africa would mean that they did not grow in the interior.
Expansion and contraction of olive culture in the Mediaeval and Little Ice Age
Advice on growing the olive
Varro, in contrast, assumed that his readership would know what equipment was needed for processing olives and how grafting was done and did not need lengthy descriptions. He gave brief advice on the kind of soil preferred (Rust. 64), when to plant and prune and the harvest (Rust. 78-9). Vergil was born in Mantua in the north of Italy which was not famous for olive growing and as a result he was rather dismissive of olive culture (G. 2.420).
Columella was concerned that land owners were using land for meadows and pasture or timber in place of vines and orchards (R.R. 3.3.1). He remained convinced that fruit trees and vines could be grown successfully and in books 3 to 5 gave detailed and painstaking instructions for planting, cultivating, grafting and pruning.
Pliny read widely – or had work read to him – and gathered relevant material from past writers. His 15th book on fruit trees and vines is less how to grow olives than interesting things to know about them.
An intriguing reference to establishing an olive orchard is found in Palladius (3.18.6). The quick and easy way of growing olives was to dig up olive roots from forests or abandoned lands, cut them into lengths and plant them. Olives were notorious for their long life and their ability to sprout from apparently dead wood. It appears that the owners had stopped caring for their olive orchards (and vineyards). There are other references to an agrarian recession from the second century on, possibly as the Roman Warm period came to an end (White 1970, 31). We should also bear in mind that climate change does not affect temperature only; there may be too much or too little rain, causing flooding or drought and wreaking havoc on crops.
They were domesticated from a native wild olive as early as the Neolithic era, were grown as a crop in the Greek Mediterranean in the Bronze Age and were brought to the west by Phoenician and Greek colonists where they bore fruit in settlements near the sea, in Sicily, south Italy, and the coasts of Spain, Gaul and north Africa.
Climate change between 100 BCE and 200 CE, the Roman Warm period, supported an expansion of olive growing to the north (on the other side of the Alps) and further inland (in the middle of Spain and Gaul). In addition to these references, passages in praise of Italy and its ideal climate may also reflect a change. In Columella’s time, farming was less successful than it had been, as he believed, because of poor techniques and insufficient fertilizer, and olive orchards were being replaced by meadows, pastures and timber stands which required less intensive work. By the fourth century CE olive trees could be found abandoned or surrounded by forests. In addition to a loss of agricultural skill, this giving up of olive orchards and other crops may be the result of cooler temperatures as the Roman Warm period came to an end.
M. E. Irwin email@example.com
Texts and translations of the Roman agricultural writersAsh, H. B. 1977. Columella, De Re Rustica v. 1. London and Cambridge MA: Heinemann and Harvard University Press
Brehaut, Ernest. 1933. Cato the Censor on Farming. New York: Columbia University Press. New York.
Dalby, Andrew. Cato On Farming. De agricultura. A modern translation with commentary. 1998. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books.
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