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In many ways, the Roman empire is an amazing success story. For almost 300 years (from c.50 BCE until c.235 CE), the economy seems to have been booming not just in Italy, but across Rome's provinces, supported by a period of prolonged internal peace for most of the provinces. Starting in the first century BCE/CE, we see countless towns and cities being founded, re-founded, embellished and monumentalised, at an unprecedented scale. At the same time, at least from the Augustan period onwards, thousands of Roman-style villas - luxurious elite residences - were built and the elites across the empire engage in a very conspicious lifestyle which required additional resources - luxury objects, silk, exotic food, etc. - that had to be transported over huge distances.
Already in the first century CE, it is obvious that the Roman empire has become a closely interconnected world, almost a 'global' economy, where basic goods and food stuff were moved over hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres.
This development required enormous resources, not just financial, but also know-how and logistical, as well as a guaranteed food supply to feed an ever increasing population, not only for the empire's larger cities, like Rome, Milan, Tarragona, Antioch or Lyon, but for hundreds of cities, small towns, vici, hamlets, villas and countless military sites.
On one hand, we need to understand how this was achieved in Roman times. Though many assume that the Romans had no 'economic policy', based on Finley's Ancient Economy, it is clear that there was an official interest in improving mobility: road construction, building of ports, exploitation of river transport and building of canals. But was it possible to provide a more 'efficient' agriculture to feed everyone? How many more quarries were opened up for all these buildings, private and public? To understand all this, we need data, primarily based on archaeological evidence (scroll down for bibliography; you can also check the Oxford Roman Economy Project homepage).
How sustainable was the Roman Empire?
But just how sustainable was the Roman empire? Were natural resources exploited beyond repair? Was the fall of the Roman empire a self-made crisis?
This was the theme of a student exhibition that my second-year students and I organised in January 2017 in Lampeter's University Library. And the students, all fifty of them, did some amazing independent research, each investigating their own project within the main themes: water pollution, deforestation, air pollution, supplying the cities, slavery, and so on.
Student Exhibition on Sustainability and Pollution in the Roman World, Lampeter Library
In Roman times, we can identify a number of significant changes to the environment and the landscape. This seems to be a contradiction since people in the Roman world generally venerated deities associated with nature, particularly with springs, rivers, mountains, etc. And yet, the scale of change is incredible.
Pollution is another aspect of Rome's environmental impact. A number of aspects need to be explored:
Demographic Change & Food Supply
With an ever-increasing population in the 1st to 3rd century AD, due to prolonged peace within the empire's boundaries, the question arises whether it was possible to feed the population of the Roman Empire. More land was used for agriculture than ever before - not to mention the introduction of new plants in many provinces; centuriation played an important role in making marshy river plains suitable. But not all the land was suitable for agriculture; this meant that food had to be transported over long distances. This, of course, created a rather fragile economy which, certainly during the 3rd century CE, had to focus more and more on predominantly supplying Rome and the army (the annonae).
General Reading on environmental problems in the ancient world
Thommen, Lukas. An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome, translated by Philip Hill. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Shipley, Graham & John Salmon, Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity. London, Routledge 1996.
Hughes, J. Donald, Pan's travail : environmental problems of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Hughes, J. Donald: Environmental problems of the Greeks and Romans: ecology in the ancient Mediterranean, Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2014.
Fedeli, P., La natura violata. Ecologia e mondo romano. Palermo 1990.
Wilson, Andrew I. - Approaches to quantifying Roman trade. Quantifying the Roman economy : 213-249.
Salmeri, Giovanni. - Central power intervention and the economy of the provinces in the Roman empire : the case of Pontus and Bithynia. Patterns in the economy of Roman Asia Minor : 187-206.
Holleran, Claire. - Migration and the urban economy of Rome. Demography and the Graeco-Roman world : 155-180.
Levick, Barbara Mary. - The Roman economy : trade in Asia Minor and the niche market. G&R 2004 Ser. 2 51 (2) : 180-198.
Ballet, P., ed., La ville et ses déchets dans le monde romain. Rebuts et recyclages. Montagnac 2003.
Hughes, J.D., How the ancients viewed deforestation. Journal of Field Archaeology 10, 1983, 437-43.
Hanson, William S. - Forest clearance and the Roman army. Britannia 27, 1996, 354-358.
Dumayne, Lisa. - The effect of the Roman occupation on the environment of Hadrian's wall : a pollen diagram from Fozy Moss, Northumbria. Britannia 25, 1994, 217-224.
Garnsey, Peter: Famine and food supply in the Graeco-Roman world : responses to risk and crisis, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1988.
Vögler, G. - Öko-Griechen und grüne Römer. Zurich 1997.
Groot, Maaike: Animals in ritual and economy in a Roman frontier community : excavations in Tiel-Passewaaij. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2008 (Amsterdam archaeological studies ; 12).
Ortloff, Charles R.: Water engineering in the ancient world : archaeological and climate perspectives on societies of ancient South America, the Middle East, and South-East Asia. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009
Drasch, G. A., Lead burden in prehistorical, historical and modern bones, The Science of Total Environment 24, 1982, 199-231.
Nriagu, J. O., Lead and lead poisoning in Antiquity, New York 1983.
Roman toilets : their archaeology and cultural history, ed. by Gemma C. M. Jansen, Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow and Eric M. Moormann ; with contrib. by Jesús Acero Pérez et alii. Leuven : Peeters, 2011.
Hong, S. et alii, Greenland Ice Evidence of Hemispheric Lead Pollution two millennia ago by Greek and Roman civilisations, Science 265, 1994, 1841-3.
Wertime, T. A., The Furnace vs. the Goat. The Pyrotechnologic Industries and Mediterranean Deforestation in Antiquity, Journal of Field Archaeolgy 10/4, 1983, 445-52.
Kooistra, L.I: Could the local population of the Lower Rhine delta supply the Roman army? Part 1: The archaeological and historical framework, 2013. In: Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries. (2013) S. 5.
Morizot, Pierre. - Impact de l'armée romaine sur l'économie de l'Afrique. In: The Roman army and the economy : 345-374.