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Living Backwards: Roman Attitudes toward the Environment

Victoria Pagán

University of Florida

Between 1960 and 1970, the population of the state of Florida increased by 78%, the largest percent increase in the history of the state, due directly to the commercialization of air-conditioning that guarantees a comfortable climate year-round: “Houses facing every part of the sky may have a wintery summer, a summery winter, and not with its normal changes is a year passed.” These are not the words of a Florida real-estate agent. This is an excerpt of a controversia recorded by Seneca the Elder (Con. 5.5). Pliny the Elder likewise observes that “Some drink snow, others ice, and they turn the hardship of mountains into pleasures for the appetite. Coldness is preserved for summer months and ideas devised so that snow stay cold for the unseasonable months. … Mankind wants nothing to be as nature likes to have it” (Nat. 19.55-56).

Seneca the Younger would call this “living backwards” (retro uiuunt, Ep. 122.18). Instead, he argues that the best character is cultivated by those who live in harmony with nature (Ep. 122.19): “And so, Lucilius, we should keep the course that nature has prescribed and not deviate from it; for when we follow nature everything is easy and unobstructed, but when we struggle against nature, we live in no other way than like those who row against the current.”

Lucullus, famous for his luxuriant lifestyle which earned him the nickname “Xerxes in a Toga,” had country homes in Tusculum with extensive observatories, banquet halls, and peristyle gardens. When Pompey visited, he chided Lucullus for building a house that was well situated for the summer, but uninhabitable in winter. Lucullus laughed and replied (Plut. Luc. 39.4): “Do you think I have less sense than storks and cranes, and do not change residences according to the seasons?” Yet such compliance with nature certainly did not dictate the construction of the horti Luculliani or his villas on the bay of Naples with hills suspended over vast tunnels and dwellings built into the sea.

With their pervasive moralizing discourse, such Roman sources naturalize the alignment and misalignment of thought and action, such that living backwards becomes an inescapable function of the human condition. Attention to such enduring themes will not solve today’s problems, but as authors steeped in the enabling fictions of a socio-political system on which they depended, our Roman sources are unable to divest themselves of those fictions, or fundamentally unsettle their categories, and in this respect, we have more to learn from them than we may wish to acknowledge.

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Responses to Environmental Change in the Roman World

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