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Under the Plane Tree: Cultivation in Ancient Urban Pollution

Kaja Tally-Schumacher

Cornell University

While the study of ancient climate change is still a relatively new field, some important data collected from ice-core samples, dendrodata, and archaeological remains point to some significant climatological patterns. These samples suggest that the period that coincided with great Roman imperial development and expansion (100 B.C.E. - 200 C.E.), the period which also saw a massive influx of newly imported, foreign plants, was also one marked by unusual climatological stability, warmer temperatures, and more stable solar activity. Conversely, while the period was marked by climatological stability, Roman mining and metallurgy greatly impacted local environment, air quality, and produced levels of lead and copper pollution unrivaled until the Industrial Revolution. In fact, some of these areas, like the Roman Wadi Faynan mines in Jordan, continue to affect human health today. Considering the effects of ancient pollution on urban living, including plant life, it is possible that previously overlooked descriptions or horticultural choices may in fact be evidence of a response to these developing problems.

Scholars have primarily interpreted gardens and specialized horticultural practices as indicative of identity construction, expressions of power and wealth, religious practice, or medicinal or economic value. Certainly, the great popularity of plane trees in Roman private and public gardens has traditionally been attributed to their Eastern origin, and thus erudite and elite association. Yet even in antiquity, authors commented on their great resilience and ability to accommodate any environment and gardener desires. While focusing on plane trees as expressions of cultus, we have overlooked how Romans reacted to the challenges of successful cultivation in polluted urban centers. Indeed, even today plane trees are known for their remarkable resilience and tolerance to urban pollution—a quality that makes them ideal urban trees.

Moreover, even the activities associated with caring for plane trees, such as watering with wine, have been dismissed by scholars as emblematic of ornamented, performative, and affected Eastern behavior, meant to express the opulent wastefulness of the elite. The horticultural value of ancient wine-watering practices has never been questioned and thus remains unexplored in relation to the ancient past. Yet recent viticulture scholarship has shown that wine, grape must, and the byproducts of wine production are in fact rich in nitrogen, a key component of fertilizer. Rather than dismiss wine-watering as an affectation of the elite, then, I argue that it is more helpful in the challenging context of urban cultivation to consider wine-watering as indicative of Roman innovations in soil science.

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