Plant commentary & sustainability analysis
The world’s largest ancient city of 1 million people was a masterpiece of civic organization reaching its zenith in the reign of Augustus in 31 BCE (the population remaining at this level for about 300-400 years) with 5-storey apartment blocks and gravity-fed fresh water aqueducts extending for 45 miles, falling into disrepair in about 500 CE. Cities with populations in the 100s of thousands at this time included Alexandria, Antioch, and Carthage.
It had taken 1800 years to move from village to such a city. London (Londinium) was essentially a Roman-founded city with an amphitheatre that could seat about 5000 in 50 CE, about one third of the London population at this time. And London was the first city to reach a population of 1 million in the modern era. Under Augustus there were 7000 firemen (vigils) and 20,000 police.Ostia was the main harbor but the artificial Portus was enlarged by Claudius and Trajan. A great sewer or drain, the cloaca maxima, still holds firm in places.
We see in the Roman Empire at its height a low-risk society which for about 200 years established relative political stability, the Pax Romana, impressive infrastructure including transport and communication systems for trade and the military, a tight social organisation with education for the wealthy, a legal system, and access to finance.
Rome itself paved streets, sewage disposal, water supply, fire protection, market institutions, a stable government, and a flourishing economy allowing specialization and efficiency. The standard of living and per capita GDP in ancient Rome was similar to that of early modern period of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.
Imperial need for land to feed its urbanised citizens and army as countryside was taken over under imperial administration that lead to the formation of manorial estates while in the cities themselves, especially Rome, came most of the problems of urban populations that we experience today.
At the time of the empire around 100 to 200 CE people in the western provinces had moved well beyond subsistence. After the ‘wars, enslavements, and massacres of the first millennium BCE there was an age of plenty …’ when ‘… more people were alive than ever before, and on the whole they lived longer, ate better, and had more things than ever before’… ‘Compared to earlier populations, Romans lived in a consumer paradise’.
A quantitative measure of social development devised by historian Ian Morris gives a high ranking to Roman social development: ‘archaeology makes it very clear that Romans ate more meat, built more cities, used more and bigger trading ships (etc.) than Europeans would do again until the 18th century’. Morris also estimates that at the height of the Roman Empire in the 1st century CE daily per capita energy consumption would have been about 31,000 calories.
Today the glories and achievements of the classical world are fading from our collective consciousness and play a mush smaller role in our thinking than they once did. We are ambivalent about this distant cultural legacy, no longer learning the ancient Greek and Latin languages and paying little attention to our heritage in their culture and history. We see a few visual cues as echoes of these times – historical quirks like the Capitol building in Washington, maybe a painting of the heroic First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte astride his rampant horse setting out to conquer the world in classical Roman fashion, or the bombastic imperial Victorian Neo-Classical architecture of the art gallery in Sydney, or Parliament House and old Museum in Melbourne … but most people know little and care less about the empires and values that such buildings embody.
For centuries in Europe an education in the classics signified a rounded cultural sensibility and was absolutely necessary for the English gentleman who assumed a social position, in classical manner, through a certain bearing through an aristocratic accent that was taken as a mark of urbanity and breeding. Now we have dead Latin, the basis of the English language, as a minor part of the educational curriculum like Greek and Roman history (see Why Latin?). Social snobbery of the Greek and Roman kind is now almost gone. We disapprove of the ancient Greek misogyny and pederasty, the Roman arrogance, militaristic politics and all the presumption of imperialism – most especially the insidious legacy of social and racial division.
And yet to read the Greek thinkers, playwrights and poets from two millennia ago is to confront a penetrating and humbling intellectual honesty that we can hardly match today: it is a legacy that must surely last for ever. And again, for all its failings and eventual decadence it is difficult to not be impressed by Roman imperial administration, the legal, engineering, architectural and economic genius that maintained a 200-year Pax Romanum across the world’s greatest empire to that time in a manner that would not be re-visited for over 1000 years. Our, albeit, circumspect respect is demonstrated by the grounding of Western culture in its tradition, it is what, for better or worse, we call ‘civilization’. If we truly wish to ‘know ourselves’, then we must first come to terms with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.
Environments in ancient times were only described at a very general level in terms of climatic factors and natural disasters. Negative impacts on nature through pollution and exhaustion of resources was criticised, mostly as an effect of opulence, but nature mostly viewed as a force to be overcome. Land and resource exploitation by the Greeks was increased and spread over a wider area under the Romans with the major sources of environmental impact being agriculture and urbanisation.
Among the influences were forest clearing, soil depletion, unbanisation of the countryside, exploitation of animals.
(Social stability depends on degrees of citizen control, benefits, choices, and freedoms. Morale – the respect, or sometimes pride, in their system of government, its . At least during the time of the Republic, Roman citizenship (Latin, civitas) conferred privileges of law, property ownership, and governance on free individuals.)