Question any 21st century Americans about changes to the natural environment, and you will receive as many different answers as individuals asked. It should not surprise us that the trajectory of Romans recognizing and commenting on their changing natural environment is similarly inconsistent and owes as much to literary, socio-political, and cultural factors as it does to climatological ones. Those climate changes are coming into ever sharper focus as scientists publish geochemical analyses of Mediterranean environmental proxies. While evidence for environmental change in the Roman world is plentiful, Roman interpretations are few and lack consensus. Agronomic authors present a range of responses to the problem of environmental change. This paper situates their positions within the contexts of genre and generic conventions, the individual literary projects at stake, and the shifting socio-political currents of the second century B.C.E. – first century C.E. Taking authorial statements together with evidence for actual climatological changes and their effects on Roman farming practices, we examine the nuances and discrepancies of Roman responses – both rhetorical and practical – to their changing climate.
In general, the Roman agronomists view the vicissitudes of climate as obstacles not insurmountable to those with the proper scientific knowledge and practical experience. In the first century B.C.E., Marcus Terentius Varro enumerates the risks and difficulties posed by climate and soil (Rust. 1.4.4). Writing in the first century C.E., Lucius Junius Columella acknowledges previous authors who described changes in climate (Rust. 1.1.4-5), citing in particular Hipparchus and Saserna. However, Columella does not meaningfully engage with their arguments, assigning the responsibility of determining the veracity of their claims to the astrologers rather than the farmers. For reasons both rhetorical and philosophical, he blames negligent farmers for any perceived changes in the earth’s productive potential (1.praef.1-3).
Gaius Plinius Secundus, also writing in the first century C.E., offers another perspective. Unlike more strictly agronomic authors, Pliny’s interests lie less in teachable skills than in a large-scale enquiry into nature (praef. 13). With the radically broad scope of his encyclopedia, Pliny’s work permits a variety of explanations in the interest of breadth. He remarks upon differences in the agrarian calendars provided by earlier authors such as Hesiod, suggestive of differences not only in geography but also in climate across time (Nat. 11.5.13). Throughout his massive and multivalent work, Pliny alternates between Stoic rhetorical presentations of Nature as unchanging, immortal, and entire, and clear-eyed observations that tell a different story. Romans’ environment was changeable, whether by human hands or forces inexplicable (Nat. 17.3.30), and they did well to take notice.
The variety of Roman responses to environmental changes reflect the differing concerns held by specific parties. For authors interested in asserting the superiority of Roman farming techniques or the productive potential of Italian soil, climate change acts as an obstacle to be overcome, a means to explain changes in cultural attitudes towards farming, or as a testing ground for the dedication of Roman farmers. Nevertheless, the pronouncements of ancient authors have long been taken at face value for the purposes of reconstructing agricultural landscapes of the Roman world. This paper concludes with a brief case study that sets the authorial perspectives discussed against archaeological evidence for the cultivation of marginal lands in southern Italy and Sicily, which suggests adaptability to changing conditions. Like residents of the modern world, who can take philosophical or political stances on the question of climate change yet still must operate within changed environmental circumstances, Romans had a wide range of potential responses to these phenomena, each grounded in the circumstances required of them.
Responses to Environmental Change in the Roman World