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A Roman Anthropocene? The End of Nature in Pliny HN 36.1–3

James Taylor

Harvard University

In his seminal work of environmental criticism that proposed the concept of the Anthropocene without using the term itself, Bill McKibben speculated that, though previous ages felt capable of damaging parts of nature, there was no real sense that humanity could compromise the functioning of nature as a whole until modernity (McKibben 2006: 41). This paper interrogates McKibben’s claim by arguing that humanity’s capacity to damage nature to such a degree that its prior functioning is compromised is, in fact, articulated in the preface to thirty-sixth book of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

The paper demonstrates that within this preface (HN 36.1–3) Pliny reworks traditional diatribes against seafaring and luxury to bemoan the fact that the greedy quarrying of marble is deconstructing mountains. According to Pliny, mountains serve a structural function within nature, curbing and containing the violent flows of water and of peoples (cf. Murphy 2004: 153). The end result of this quarrying will, therefore, be a flattening of the earth, resulting in there being no barriers to the free movement of water or peoples over the earth. Indeed, Pliny’s citation of the displacement of the Cimbri by an inundation of the sea suggests that these two flows are intimately connected: humanity’s removal of the mountains that limit the flow of water will exacerbate the movement of peoples and end the present disposition of the earth’s physical and human geography. In an oddly familiar vein, Roman greed is unwittingly undermining the very foundations of life as they know it.

The paper then demonstrates that this catastrophic scenario, in which the earth is flattened, was previously ascribed to the operation of natural processes rather than human agency. In particular, erosion, if given enough time, was thought capable of levelling all the earth’s physical relief (Philo Aet. 118–9) or rendering it a flat, muddy expanse (LM 8 [Xen.] D22 = Hippol. Ref. 1.14.4–6). These catastrophizing narratives, however, made no room for the effects of human agency: the earth was careering towards its flat or muddy fate with no sense that the actions of humanity could alter that trajectory. By transferring responsibility for this chaotic transformation to humanity, Pliny articulates a radically different version of the earth’s geological history, in which human agency looms as large as nature itself.

The paper concludes by drawing suggestive parallels to other moments in imperial literature, in which human agency and natural processes become entangled with each other in the shaping of environments, and, by doing so, suggests the formation of a new ecological consciousness focused on humanity’s ability to disrupt natural processes. I close by considering to what extent this concept of a Roman Anthropocene is better understood as an equally self-flagellating and self-congratulatory expression of Roman power than as an earnest attempt to engage with the problem of environmental degradation, and whether this Roman discourse casts a worrying light on the popularity of the Anthropocene as an organizing concept of modern environmental scholarship.

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Natural History and Pliny's Natural History

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