Environmentalism in 100 A.D.

We’ve bounced from medieval England to ancient India in our series on environmental ideas throughout history.

colloseumImage by Frank Zweers

Today we travel back to one of mankind’s greatest civilizations, the Roman Empire.

The ancient Romans were a group with some serious environmental problems, as well as some ingenious solutions. As the largest and most advanced city the world had ever seen, they naturally came across some new environmental issues their forebears in Babylon or other ancient cities had never had to deal with.

One of Rome’s new and exciting environmental problems was severe pollution. We often think of pollution as a post-industrial phenomenon, but if you get enough people together in one place it’s going to be a problem no matter what age you’re in. Rome faced particular problems with air pollution, which they called “infamous air” or “heavy heaven”.

Most of this air pollution came from burning wood, either for heat or for use in craft workshops. Yet Rome’s legendary stink came from several other sources as well, including sewage and leather tanning workers. And much like their offspring in Naples today, the ancient Romans had problems with garbage disposal.

But while Rome faced some serious environmental problems, they also came up with some absolutely brilliant solutions. Justinian declared that water and air were public property for the benefit of all, and Rome’s public health programs were better than most of the empires that followed until modernity. The first Roman sewer was actually built in 500 B.C. by the Etruscans, and bigger and better sewers were constructed throughout the city and other parts of the empire as it grew. Plus, the famous Roman aqueducts brought loads of clean, fresh water to its parched citizens.

They also had some environmental thinkers that were well ahead of their time. One of the most famous and influential Romans of all time was Plutarch, the biographer, historian, and all around great thinker. He’s part of the “classical” education still today. Plutarch wrote about a wide variety of subjects, and managed to touch on quite a few environmental issues in his writing. Plutarch’s essays on animal intelligence, and “On the Eating of Animal Flesh” in particular, were centuries before their time. But his advocacy of vegetarianism was very influential, particularly to transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau.

Plutarch was also a champion of human rights in regards to the environment. Romans were some of the first to notice that working with large amounts of lead and mercury was not particularly advantageous to one’s health. That’s why they protected their citizenry by forcing slaves to do all the work in the lead mines and smelters. Plutarch, however, was a touch more compassionate. He felt it was cruel to force your average slave to harm their health by working with the metals. He suggested only criminal slaves be forced to work there, which would presumably assuage any lingering guilt.

Funnily enough, the Romans didn’t let their discovery of the ill effects of working with lead and mercury stop them from using the metals for all sorts of ridiculously hilarious purposes. You’d think that a society who noticed working in lead mines was dangerous might think eating lead was dangerous as well. Not so with the Romans. Aristocratic Romans decided that lead acetate, or sugar of lead, was the perfect way to sweeten old wine and a type of grape spread. Basically, they’d leave a big sheet of lead in a vat with wine or grape pulp and end up with a really sweet way to go insane and die.

Some people suggest that this is actually what caused the decline of the empire. Lead can cause all manner of problems, including sterility, gout, and general craziness. Those sorts of issues were found in quite a bit of the Roman aristocracy after 100 A.D. or so, so it’s entirely possible the Romans sweetened themselves to death with lead sugar. They also used lead cup and silverware to eat and drink their lead laced grape products, so it’s like a perfect storm of lead poisoning. They may have given us roads, concrete, and aqueducts, but a whole bunch of them still died crazy.

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