Ancient Palaeolithic societies were mostly animistic: nature was inhabited by spirits and humans too had spirits that might pass into an afterlife beyond death and sometimes moving from one person or place to another as in transmigration, reincarnation or resurrection. This was a world that demanded sacrifice, ritual and appeasement especially of those spirits and forces that controlled the seasons, weather, and the supply of food and water. To this spirit world were later added the polytheistic pantheon of gods of urban societies and later monotheistic religions.
There was no consistent attitude towards nature in the classical world. We see in the Greco-Roman tradition an environmental pluralism that is reminiscent of the range of attitudes to nature that we see today – from rapacious exploitation to religious veneration, from fear of its power over human fortunes on the one hand to an overwhelming desire to subjugate its wildness to human use. There is the vegetarianism and respect for the sanctity of all life we see in the Greek Pythagorean school, later taken up by Roman historian Seneca, contrasting with the mass slaughter of animals, gladiatorial fights, and ‘Christians to the lions’ public entertainment in Rome’s vast public arenas.
We know that in the Greek world there existed at least two narratives of human history. From the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700 BCE) history is perceived as a process of decline. Humans originally existed in an ideal state of nature, a paradise or Eden, subsequent deterioration being a consequence of a corrupt relationship with nature (this is very similar to the Biblical story of Genesis). Life then becomes progressively preoccupied with toil and misfortune. This account was also reminiscent of a general Near-eastern belief in four declining eras starting with a golden age of plenty and followed by the silver, bronze and iron ages. Culture was not something to praise, on the contrary it was a mark of human degeneration.
In contrast, philosophers like Plato and Protagoras maintained that through culture humans were set on a path of progress, escaping from an original violent and sinful condition that was at the mercy of nature and moving into a state of communal living, or civilization, where justice could prevail and where technology and a moral life became possible. Later indignant Roman voices like that of Seneca and Pliny the Elder railed against the extravagances of luxury and the self-indulgent Roman aristocracy and human folly when dealing with nature. These two themes – humans as originally either innocents or violent savages, and human culture as either progress or corruption, have echoed through history to the present day (see Human nature).
For the Greeks ‘Mother Earth’ was celebrated through the goddess Demeter and clearly open landscapes and groves, bays and rivers were admired for their beauty in the same way as we admire them today. Country life was sometimes romanticised in pastoral poetry, but so too were the terrors of the forest and the conviction that nature gods, like petulant humans, needed constant propitiation and appeasement (see Plant lore 1 and Plant lore 2) Personification of nature was pervasive so, for example, damage to land caused by agriculture was sometimes judged a form of rape. Rituals and sacraments were a routine part of daily life, needed to gain favour and forgiveness, protect harvests and so on. Ritual offerings were a part of both Greek and Roman life but celebrated especially during celebratory public feast days.
Greek philosophical analysis ranged astonishingly widely through the full field of human intellectual endeavour, setting the critical foundations for much of the West’s subsequent social, scientific, and religious thought. The Romans, without rancour, gave full acknowledgement to this, deferring to the contribution and strength of Greek intellectual life. It is not possible to cover the full scope of Greek environmental and biological thought here except to point out the profound contribution of the pre-Socratic philosophers (the doctrine of Earth, Air, fire and Water as the source of all things on Earth was derived from pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (c. 490 – 430 BCE) and influential through the Medieval Era) and the staggering philosophical, logical, scientific, political, social, and psychological insights of the West’s pre-eminent thinkers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the plant science of Theophrastus unparallelled anywhere else in the world.
Among the many influences flowing from these remarkable men would be Plato’s idea of a transcendental realm taken up by St Augustine as part of Christian theology, followed by the later integration into Christianity by St Thomas Aquinas of Aristotelian ideas like that of teleology, the idea of purpose both of the whole of the world (God’s Creation) but also its animal, plant and inorganic constituents (see Purpose). In naturalistic philosophy there was the atomism of Democritus, the biology of Aristotle, the medicine of Hippocrates, the adumbration of the theory of evolution by Empedocles, the contributions to mathematics by Pythagoras and geometry by Euclid, the theory of a heliocentric cosmos proposed by Aristarchos, the initiation of plant science by Theophrastus and so much more. Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE) drew connections between environments, vegetation, weather, climate and temperament, most notably in his On Airs, Waters and Places.
In Theophrastus we see someone critical of the unscientific practices of the herbalists of his day, the rhizotomi, whose remedies he saw as based more on superstition with no basis in the evidence of experience and in Epicurus we have the man who is said to have introduced the garden to Athens and, in defiance of the strict attitude of his times, promoted religious skepticism, treated women and slaves as equals, and believed that by providing explanations of physical processes that did not entail mysterious supernatural forces it was possible to free people from their debilitating fears – of nature, death, and superstitious belief.
Pythagoras, had a reverence for the universe unlike that of many of his countrymen. He regarded living things as sacred, was a vegetarian, and believed the Earth to be a single organism. Plato believed that, like humans, the Earth was endowed with a soul and reason. For many thinkers like Empedocles life was a continuous cycling, not only of days and seasons but of matter too, nothing was created out of nothing.
Thommen describes how Ovid and Pliny the Elder give graphic descriptions of ‘Mother Earth’s entrails and veins torn out, from greed and to satisfy the demand for luxury, so that the ground shook and trembled’ and they also pleaded that ‘only the renewable products of the earth’s surface should be used’.
Romans conflated many of their gods with those of the Greeks. On the Roman calendar were special feast days that celebrated nature’s bounty: Fordicidia for Earth Mother Tellus; Cerialia for the corn goddess Ceres; Vinalia for Jupiter and Venus. Ambarvalia for the goddess of farming Dea Di; Ludi Florales for the goddess of plants Flora; Vertumnalia for Vertumnus and Pomona, for the blessing of fruit.
Romans, like the Greeks (and, for that matter, Australians) perceived themselves as farmers, showing gratitude to the gods for the fruits of the earth but also production itself. There was an acknowledgement of human vulnerability in the face of nature, as expressed by poet Lucretius, but also a triumphant celebration of the taming of the land and its submission to cultivation as expressed by Cicero, Virgil and Statius.
Though there is little evidence of Roman interest in the science of plants themselves, interest in the science of their utility was skilfully summarised in works on agriculture written by Cato, Varro and Columella (see Roman gardens).