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This web site examines the history of ancient Rome from three perspectives: the invasion and occupation of Britain and its implications for the subsequent British Empire and Neoeuropes; the Roman relationship to plants; and what the Roman Empire can teach us about our own future sustainability. This third article is an exercise in Sustainability Analysis as applied to civilizations and societies.

Ancient Rome

The Forum Romanum – what remains today

The public meeting place at the heart of the ancient world: the hub of government and commercial activity.
One of the world’s most efficiently administered empires lasting for about 400 years during the Pax Romana.
The population of Augustan Rome was about 1 million, the largest city in the world.
Its population was not equalled until the 19th century when London became the British imperial hub.
View of the Forum facing North East from above the Portico Dii Consentes
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


The Roman Empire was the peak of social organization in antiquity, rising, by force of arms, to dominate the western world through a skillfully administered trading empire that lasted for more than 400 years.

Renowned for the brutality of its methods and its aggressive expansionist policies, Rome nevertheless maintained a 200 year Pax Romana, a time of sustained internal peace and stability. Many Roman emperors are remembered for their profligacy and corruption. However, during the period of ‘Five Good Emperors’ emphasis was given to responsible and efficient governance, tolerance, vibrant trade and commerce, and the desire to improve the welfare and education of all subjects. This occurred between 96 CE and 180 CE under consecutive emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Aurelius when Roman territory expanded to its maximum and there was general prosperity. Beginning with Augustus at the start of the Roman Empire, and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE, the Pax Romana showed how large polities can provide systems of law to resolve internal disputes, thus strengthening social organization by promoting the internal cohesion needed for its people to flourish.

The collapse of this empire in 410 CE also demonstrated that social complexity and sophistication is not sufficient in itself to resist decline.

Following Rome’s demise, Europe descended into prolonged religious warfare. The sophistication of social organization established by the Roman Empire would not be seen again until the European 18th century.

From Roman society we can learn valuable lessons about both flourishing and dysfunctional civilizations. There are two key questions posed here for both historians and sustainability science. What are the conditions that make for flourishing social organization, and what are the more likely circumstances that can erode this social organization.

This article uses the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to examine these two questions.

The history of Rome and its empire can be divided into four periods, the formative Regal period, the reign of seven kings (753-509 BCE) followed by two periods marking the height of Roman civilization, the Roman Republic (509-27 BCE) and the Roman Empire (27 BCE-300 CE), these periods of glory ending with a phase of decline in Late Antiquity (c. 300-600 CE).

The Roman ruins scattered across Europe today are a reminder of Roman resolve: they date mostly from the early Empire.

The Roman Empire, indicating its greatest extent at the time of Trajan’s death in 117 CE. Vassal states in pink.

About 60 million inhabitants occupied over 2 million square miles of imperial territory
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Tataryn – Accessed 13 September 2020

Sustainability principles

A previous article, listed five factors, the ‘five horsemen of the apocalypse’, noted by historian Ian Morris as correlated with the collapse of civilizations.

  • major population movement

  • interchange of disease pools

  • state failure and warfare

  • decreased trade and increased famine

  • climate change.

This website cannot resolve the mysteries of the rise and fall of civilizations, but it can offer a procedure for investigating those factors that are important for the sustainability of social organization.


It was earlier concluded that ‘social organization’ that social organization is largely determined by ‘the energy sources, capture, and use’.

It then becomes useful to distinguish two kinds of energy, biological energy and social energy. Biological energy (the energy that drives animal and human bodies) is sourced from the Sun via plant food. Some of this energy is transformed into social energy (the energy that powers social activity) via muscles and brains. The rate of social activity is increases by two main means: the use of new and more concentrated energy sources (e.g. fossil fuels and nuclear power), and by leveraging the use of existing sources with mental and physical tools (technology).

It is the abstraction of history into the two ideas of social organization and energy use that make the teeming complexity of long-term history manageable, that provides us with the most productive overview of long-term history before more obvious factors come into play.

Sustainability analysis therefore begins with the flows of biological and social energy. It then addresses more familiar historical factors by assessing the ways that these energy flows influence the environmental, social, and economic factors that are needed to maintain, and enhance, social organization.

Social organization

Social organization is not just the expenditure of energy in ‘getting things done’.[17] Organization requires the orderly co-ordination of community activity through a process of governance, the political process of decision-making and administration. This is the mechanism that integrates and co-ordinates the various activities needed to achieve social, economic, and environmental objectives.


Whatever we think of Roman values and the profligacy of many of its leaders, the 200 year Pax Romana, was a relatively peaceful period of internal economic prosperity and social security – a staggering feat of governance for an empire of over 60 million people spread over such a vast area of the world.

Important components of this imperial governance included transparent social structures (no matter how poorly administered) as systems of government, law, trade, transport, communication, education, and, in short, much of what is today regarded as the necessary adjuncts of complex societies.

The sophistication of Roman Society, as measured by the social organization index, would not be equalled until the European 18th century. The founding principles of Roman society are largely those of the West today.

One demonstration of the effectiveness of single polities is the way that, after the decline of Rome, Europe fractured into warring and squabbling religious factions that persisted in diluted form, to the present day.

Roman Law

Roman society was rigidly hierarchical, consisting of a few powerful and wealthy families. Less influential was a class of shopkeepers, artisans, and craftsmen, then an underclass of slaves (roughly one in every three people) who had no social or civil rights.

Roman slaves could be freed and accepted fully into Roman society, the freed slaves retaining their names and social connections. Freed slaves could marry other Roman citizens, and marriages of widows with freedmen were common (in contrast to later African slaves in the Caribbean and America).

Roman law is now the basis for modern Western legal systems: it originated as the Twelve Tables in the 5th century BCE, developing during the Republic up to the early Roman Empire as common law. The classic period of Roman law arose during the early Roman Empire and was strongly linked to the economy. Roman lawyers or jurists were like modern judges interpreting the law and its application. Roman law was used throughout the early Empire and mixed with local laws as, in the provinces, there were Roman governors and other administrators.

Legislation included protection for crops and trees.


The outcomes of social activity depend on the scale of the social group. Large populations dispersed over a wide area present difficulties for communication, transport and therefore coordinatuion and governance. Conversely, large populations can also take advantage of the efficiencies of scale. It is these efficiencies of scale that likely led to the adoption of agrarian over hunter-gatherer modes of existence.


Population of the empire in 14 CE at the time the death of Augustus is estimated at between 44-60 M with a GDP of 490-850 kg wheat per capita and still around 60 million in 117 CE, including about 150,000 troops. The population of cosmopolitan Rome itself at this time was about 1 million, the largest city in the world with a population that would not be exceeded until the British Victorian era when London became the hub of the British Empire.

The population of Rome around 600-500 BCE was around 40,000 citizens. At the formation of the Republic in 509 BCE this had grown to about 50,000 and, with the formation of an Empire at the end of the Republic in 27 BCE, it had grown to about 1 million citizens.


During Roman times there was an increase in both the numbers and size of towns and cities in N and W Europe and especially Britain.Wealthy patricians owned ‘retreats’ on the Palatine and other surrounding hills. From the time of Tiberius in 14-37 CE there was also the imperial palace.

Common people and craftsmen lived on the Aventine hill and lower-lying areas of the Subura. Private homes of rich citizens, the domuswas built in a spacious style, with a high standard of comfort and culture; ideally, it was equipped with a bathroom, ‘flush toilets’ – albeit flushed by an underfloor channel – and heating’. The less wealthy lived in housing blocks called insulae, there being an estimated 47,000 (about 26 for each domus).[8]

Although the importance of hygiene was appreciated, waste was always a problem with waste pits in houses and neighbourhoods and on the outskirts of the city. There was dirt in the streets, smoke from industry, and unpleasant smells from rotting organic matter and the cremation sites. There were the usual urban problems of congestion. noise, smoke, crime, grime and the smells and disease resulting from pollution and problems with waste disposal.

The wealthy periodically left the city for their luxury villas (villa suburbana), sometimes in the surrounding country but mostly along the coast, on the margins of lakes and rivers or in the beautiful hills, either daily or for holidays at their country retreats popular as centres for socialising. Historian Strabo grumbled about the luxury development going on in Augustan times, the Gulf of Naples looked like a single coastal city. A prominent ancient historian estimated that the Italian peninsula was about 30 percent urbanized in the early Roman Empire.[9]

Admiration and respect for Greek culture was manifest through the construction of Greek-like gymnasia complete with Greek sculptures, Roman historian Cicero naming one of his ‘the Academy’. There were hippodromes and Emperor Hadrian’s villa included an academy, palaestra, library, thermal baths, statues and sculptures of nymphs, waterfalls, and a grotto. Larger villas with park-like gardens that sported fountains, pools, grottoes, pavilions, and sculptures, combined horticulture , architecture, engineering and art in a celebration of opulence that included fish ponds, aviaries and animal enclosures echoing the Persian paradeisos. The luxuria of the wealthy was a familiar gripe of the chroniclers of these times like Horace and Varro.

Familiar urban problems of waste disposal, smoke and smells, congestion, problems with waste disposal, pollution and urban crime were met with a garbage disposal system and the building of sewers.

The Coliseum was opened in 80 CE with 60,000 people enjoying 100 days of entertainment one year after the devastating eruption of Vesuvius and gaining support for the emperor. Roman concrete of tufa and porcelana would make buildings that would last two millennia, set under water. Eleven gravity-fed imperial aqueducts were built over a period of 500 years.

Collective learning

Collective learning – the accumulated cultural wisdom passed from one generation to the next – is a major way of leveraging biological energy to social ends, since cultural experience facilitates the achievement of social goals.

Cultural wisdom can be passed on through families, workplaces, and other social institutions, or through a formal education system. The more complex the society, the more there is to learn about social organization itself, especially the practical day-to-day activities of governance as public administration, economics, and law. Historically, large well-governed polities have dominated the smaller ones.


Ancient Greece had provided a formal public education, at least for its potential leaders. During the early Republic Roman education, exclusively male, was within the home. The oldest living male in a household (paterfamilias) had complete control of all family members until he died, the next oldest male succeeding on his death, and therefore the form of education would vary within families. A tuition-based system arose during the late Republic and Empire when some group tuition began. Fathers taught sons honour, obedience and respect for religion, the law, authority, family, and truthfulness. Physical education was an important factor with emphasis on preparation for the military.

A thorough education was expected of any Roman who wished to enter public life. Roman respect for the Greek intellect meant that private tutors were often Greek slaves or freedmen. Following Greek tradition public education was for the male leaders of the future and, being costly, was restricted to the wealthy. Between 300 and 200 BCE there was some adoption of the Greek system with three levels of education: up to the age of 11 or 12 was primary school (ludus) for reading, writing and arithmetic. Writing was taught using a stylus and erasable wax tablet. From 12-15 years old boys attended grammar school (grammaticus) where Latin and Greek grammar and literature were taught with perhaps some history, geography or philosophy. When 15 the young men attended secondary school (rhetoric) which was a final preparation for public life improving their writing skills and developing skills in public speaking. At the age of 16 males ‘graduated’ into the general community and allowed to wear adult dress, a white woollen toga. Learning was frequently carried out in an atmosphere of fear with regular whippings and beatings. There are obvious similarities between this system and the classical education long provided in English boarding schools.

Girls of wealthy families were educated at home with emphasis on efficient household management – but there were some other subjects like music and sewing.

In general literacy rates were quite high, possibly even higher than was the case in eighteenth-century England.


The period 800-500 BCE, known as the Axial Age, had been a time of global introspection as Confucians, Daoists, Buddhists, Jainists, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Pre-Socratic philosophers explored ideas about the material and spiritual worlds – about justice, politics, morality, religion and science.People like Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Zoroaster, Hahavira (Jainism), Jesus Christ and the Jewish prophets, Zoroaster, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. Rome was no exception, the early polytheistic pantheon of gods eventually replaced by monotheistic Christianity.

In more directly practical ways, Romans are remembered for their many inventions and refinements to existing social systems including: newspapers (Acta Diurna), cement & concrete, aqueducts, apartments, arches, paved highways, Julian calendar, Roman numerals, sewers (Rome’s Cloaca Maxima), bound books (codex/codices), postal service, welfare, medicinal tools & techniques, grid-based cities, military weaponry, equipment, and techniques, laws.


Previous articles concluded that the complexity of social organization realized by any society is limited by the energy supply. Our object is to investigate how effectively the Romans exploited their energy sources to achieve their social goals and this can be assessed by following the flows of energy through society as follows:

Plant food (agriculture) provides biological metabolic energy to man and beast. A proportion of biological energy is used to achieve social goals. This is that energy used for human and animal muscle as guided by the energy used to power the mind.

Social energy can be leveraged (used more efficiently) by using physical and mental tools. Physical tools we call technology (from the use of stone, bronze, and iron to the machinery of transport, communication, engineering, and manufacture). The mental tools needed to innovate and operate this technology are part of cultural collective learning.

  • Plants/food – agriculture + animal domestication           =      human muscle + animal muscle
  • Leveraged energy (physical & mental tools)   =      technology (transport, communication, engineering, manufacture) + collective learning + innovation

  • additional sources of energy = Fire, wind, water 

Underlying all activity was the biological food energy derived from the cultivated plants of agriculture which powered the two major sources of social energy: human muscle and animal muscle (also used as a food source). This biologically-derived social energy was then leveraged by technology (physical tools) and creative imagination (mental tools).

Around one in three Romans were slaves and it was their muscle that was used to construct the long-lasting monumental architecture that we associate with the Roman Empire. Animals, especially horses, were used for transport and work in the fields.

Fire was needed for the furnaces of metal production and blacksmiths, while water currents and wind were needed to propel the Roman navy.

From the first century BCE Romans used waterwheels both to grind grain and to drive bellows for the metal furnaces. A large French waterwheel in Barbegal built c. 100 CE generated about 30 kw, about the same as 100 oxen but most mills could generate the power of about 10 men turning wheels with their feet.[16]

Food & agriculture

Agriculture provides the food that supplies the biological energy underpinning all social activity. Biological energy is then leveraged by technology and collective learning to social ends. Large societies with more sophisticated technology and collective learning have tended to dominate those with less.


Romans generally ate three meals a day, breakfast (ientaculum), lunch (prandium) and supper, the evening meal (cena). Of these the breakfast and lunch were mostly fairly light and cold while the evening meal was the main cooked meal and in the wealthier classes involved a dedicated room, the triclinium (dining room). Here adults reclined and children sat during the meal which often involved entertaining guests, the meal prepared and presented by domestic servants. The idea of a special evening ‘dining room’ seems to have persisted in western society until relatively recent times. Meals were sometimes more like banquets with an assortment of wines, a series of toasts and elaborate rituals that included offerings to the house gods. For entertainment there was music, dance and games.

Guests were treated to luxury foods and delicacies that had been transported long distances across the empire: fish sauce from Spain, sausage from Gaul, spices from the East, lemons and pomegranates from Africa, dates from the Middle East, plums from Damascus, and oysters from the North Sea. This was a kind of aristocratic Mediterranean cuisine although traditional foods were preferred in the provinces. wine and water, often mixed, were the major drinks with wine available in many varieties and qualities. Beer, though available and drunk in Egypt, was regarded with disdain as the preferred beverage of peasants.[1]

Peasant Romans were mainly vegetarian, though not by choice as meat was generally too expensive. Cereals included Emmer wheat (Triticum tricoccoides) but there was also a dark Brown barley bread or a mash of water, oil and barley; occasionally wheat was used to make a light bread. Vegetables eaten were mostly cabbage, garlic, beets and onions, and the legumes included beans, lentils, and a pea mash sometimes bolstered with bacon, cheese, eggs, or marinated fish. Eating was often in taverns. Citizens in the state capital had an official entitlement of cereals while the peasantry was self-sufficient.

Farmers could avoid tax by donating surplus crops to the government and these helped feed the legions and permitted free grain distribution to citizens in Rome. The growing population of Rome and its dependence on grain hand-outs increased the need to find more arable land through further conquest of places like Egypt, Sicily and North Africa (and later northern Europe) where grain was processed and shipped to the port of Ostia outside Rome ready for distribution. Wheat markets were mostly private concerns, merchants and traders making use of agents, maritime loans and a strong legal system.

There was a lesser trade in luxury goods from Europe, Asia, and Africa which included silks from China and the Far East, cotton and spices from India, ivory and wild animals from Africa, metals from Spain and Britain, amber from Germany and slaves from everywhere.

Around Rome itself mining provided stone for the buildings and monuments, while marble came from Greece and northern Italy. Gold and silver used to mint coins and for jewellery were mined in Spain while iron, lead and tin came from Britain. In most centres of population there were workshops dealing in pottery, glassware, weapons, tools, jewellery and textiles.


Societies and civilizations, like organisms, burn energy in the process of growth, expansion, and maturation. Organically, when growth ceases and maturation has occurred, then senescence and decline follow. This too has occurred with civilizations although the organic analogy may not be useful.

For our purposes, growth is related, on the one hand, to the development of infrastructure by engineering and construction and, on the other, to industrial production through mining and manufacture.


Romans displayed a sentimental affection for their farming origins. In the early days agriculture was practised on small estates cultivated and owned by subsistence farmers who only grew enough to feed their own families. However, as the empire became increasingly militarised and involved in more wars the imperial expansion around the Mediterranean in c. 250 BCE demanded more revenue and that was gleaned from taxation.

Carthage was stripped of trees and the land made over to agriculture and with a demand for metals like gold, iron, tin, lead and silver with known supplies Spain and northern Europe imperial expansion into these regions soon followed. Arable land to the north of the Alps was surveyed and parcelled out for agriculture as a system of manorial estates in a manner that resembled later imperial land grabs in the American west, Australia, Africa, Argentina and elsewhere. Roman production was highly efficient but possibly less resilient, geared to state demands and urban markets.

As had occurred in Greece many peasants fell into debt from taxation and other expenses, surrendering their land to the major landholders although some small freeholdings remained throughout the Roman period. Takeover of small concerns produced the new agricultural unit, the latifundia, a huge estate owned by a single owner and operated by many slaves. Throughout the empire a massive surveying program divided up the land, developed its infrastructure, introduced new and improved technology and changed landscapes.

Economy of scale lead to ever larger estates an ideal size reckoned as 50-80 ha though they were occasionally much larger. Estates were managed by foremen who employed craftsmen and labourers, ensuring that it was a money-making enterprise. Cato describes his property thus: olives 60 ha, 5000 trees yielding 30,000 bushels and needing 1 foreman and 11 slaves; vineyard 25 ha with presses, granary and threshing floor needing 1 foreman and 16 slaves; grass and oakland for herds, sheep and oxen with cereals cultivated by tenants. A central residential manorial house, the villa urbana was associated with stables, storehouses and various workshops, but there was also a labourers’ house, the villa rusticana.[2]

Farms employed a 2-field crop rotation, which later increased to 3 fields although output was low when compared to today and slave labour was employed. A year of cropping would be followed by a fallow year for pasture and cattle. Manuring was with dung, ash and compost. Viticulture was profitable and olive plantations needed less work than the cereals. There were also fruit and vegetables, bee-keeping and forestry. Pigs were sometimes kept in the woods, the oak woods providing the pigs with a seasonal supply of acorns. In the provinces it was cereals (wheat, barley, spelt) that were mainly grown with fruit and vegetables but there were grapes, celery, beetroot and fruits included apples, pears, cherries, plums and nuts.[6] New crops were dispersed through Europe.

Domestic animals included sheep, poultry and cattle, some goats, and some farmers herded their cattle to take advantage of summer and winter grazing grounds.

Some of the West’s earliest and most extensive literature on agriculture was produced in the period 200 BCE to 100 CE.

From 146 BCE the demand for food, especially bread, meant that North Africa (today’s Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria) were taken over for the staple crops of wheat, barley and olives.

Transport, trade, & communication

Transport, trade and communication channels leverage biological energy by providing a network for arterial flows of resources, both goods and ideas.

Roman trade, like that of the Greeks, was based mainly on shipping that used the ports dotted around the Mediterranean coast. Trade routes included roads, rivers and canals that criss-crossed land and sea, the roads especially useful for the Roman troops and their supplies.

Trade routes

The Atlantic trade route was now largely replaced by a direct route from northern Gaul to the Thames and London. Historian Strabo records four main shipping lanes from the mouths of the Loire, Rhine, Seine and Gironde the exported goods being mostly grain, cattle, silver, gold, iron, some lead, hides, slaves and dogs and imported luxuries of jewellery, wine, salt, amber, glassware, pottery and manufactured products. Control of sea lanes was the source of some dispute.[7]

Romans engineered hard-surfaced highways throughout Europe as an integral part of a web of land and sea trade routes. Rome itself was constructed of an elaborate imperial-style classical architecture emulated in various reincarnations to the present day, but especially noticeable in the early days of the British colonies.


By the first century BCE Rome had conquered the entire Mediterranean coastline and 90% of the imperial population lived within 10 miles of the Mediterranean Sea. Water transport cheap, the seas mostly under the security of the Roman navy, and the populations grew and thrived accordingly.[3]

Piracy having been eliminated by the impressive navy constructed under Augustus.

Sea trade was through the port of Ostia and, about 3 km away, the newly-discovered quays of Portus, a lost harbour. There was an explosion of trade in 100-104 CE when 60,000 troops were sent to Dacia (Romania) to subdue the chieftain Decabilis in 106 CE by constructing a massive bridge to take the troops across the Danube. [More than half of Rome’s food came from Carthage c. 146 BCE.]


Rome was aware of how roads overcome space while providing political, economic and military opportunities – but Romans were not the first. Assyrians in the Near East had, in the 8th and 7th centuries created a wide road network that was further extended across the wide empire of the Achaemenid Persians. Etruscans of the 5th century in Marzabotto had a rectilinear street system with drains along the sides of the roads.

Roads, built by army troops, were supply lines for armies and traders, and for a rapid messenger service although bulk goods were still mainly transported by river or sea. This was an elaborate system, the cursus publicus of Augustus, that was a transport line in which local people were paid to provide carts, donkeys, mules and draught animals, with horses not so common. Oxen pulling wagons were slow, but the faster horses needed lighter loads although caravans of camels and donkeys were also used although most cargoes were transported by sea. Along the roads were inns and changing stations providing fresh animals and repairs. Distances were indicated on ‘milestones’ (militaria). Roman roads were a remarkable engineering achievement and many were used well into the Middle Ages and others underlie current major European arterial roads.

With new lands of north-western Europe opened up to Roman farming crops could be used to feed the cities of Italy and Greece and taxation of the new lands supported Rome’s vast army of up to about 350,000 soldiers.[4] More propitious times facilitated improvement to harbours and infrastructure, the armies and legal system.

Roman road construction began in 312 BCE with the Appian Way (via Appia) out of Rome eventually producing a network of roads across its empire to eventually extend over a staggering 80-100,000 km and including the Alps.[11] Streets in cities were paved but also sometimes the country roads, constructed on a reinforced base and with edgings.

Wealthy Roman citizens would make educational tours through the empire, a precursor no doubt of the ‘grand tours’ of later European aristocrats.

Engineering & construction

Romans excelled at urban planning, monumental masonry, and the construction of infrastructure. Of special note are the invention of concrete and the famous Roman arch so useful in temples, baths, aqueducts and theatres.

Hydraulic engineering reached new heights with both horizontal and vertical water wheels for grain mills, saw mills and grain pounders. Hydraulic mining techniques used water to sluice while crushing and sorting ores and these devices would not be bettered until the nineteenth century. Sophisticated bilge pumps were used in both ships and mines employing a valve and piston mechanisms similar to that used today.

Mining & manufacture

Most of the significant components of the steam engine had been invented and were already available in various forms. It was the harvester combined with soft grains and aqueducts that facilitated the mass production of flour to feed the masses with a broad variety of breads and cakes. Tougher ploughs were used that penetrated more deeply into the soil making the cultivation of more land possible while two-handed scythes and harvesting machines made the cutting of cereals more efficient, and better axes tree-clearing for pasture much quicker.

For Romans, precious metals were captured during imperial expansion but agricultural surplus was limited.

World production of lead, estimated from Greenland ice cores, peaked in the 1st century AD, and strongly declined thereafter and would and world production would only surpass Roman levels in the middle of the 18th century. Use of sophisticated hydraulic systems, especially hushing, meant that base and precious metals were extracted on a scale that would not be matched until the Industrial Revolution. Smelting and forging used mostly charcoal which was twice as efficient as wood although coal was also mined and the major coalfields of Britain had all been tapped and traded along the North Seacoast by about 150 CE. Archaeological evidence from shipwrecks and other sources suggests that sea trade reached a maximum through the Greek Hellenistic (c. 323-146 BCE) and Roman Imperial periods (30 BCE-300 CE).[15]

Roman demand on building materials resulted in transport over great distances included natural rock, marble (Italy, Greece, Asia Minor, Numidia), granite and porphyry (Egypt).

Iron was needed in quantity (38 tons to equip a legion) and by about 150 BCE some 125 tons of silver were in circulation as coins. Lead was mined from in Britain. Iberian peninsula was the source of copper, gold and tin. Mining became much more elaborate, the shafts up to 250 m deep with sophisticated drainage, scoop wheels and Archimedean screw pumps.

Economic domain

Ancient Rome had an agrarian economy that used slave labour and, like the ancient Greek economy, was based around the staples of grains, olives (olive oil), and grapes (wine). There was access to cheap slave labour, safe trade routes, a relatively liquid supply-demand mechanism, a single currency and a sharply increasing population which acted as a good sink of growing demand. Rome had a market-based competitive and capitalistic economy open to free trade at the height of the empire. Though there was some regulation and duty taxes Rome had free trade and there was competition from imported goods. The flourishing middle classes created a demand for literature and luxury goods which were sourced from around the world. Starting as an agricultural economy it moved gradually towards industry and services, some industries reaching levels of productivity that would not be reached again until the Victorian age and the British empire as a kind of ?mercantile economy.

The early Empire worked on a cash basis; there was no public borrowing. The Romans were not Protestants. Labor and capital were relatively well-developed in ancient Rome, which in turn encouraged specialization and efficiency. Markets worked well with public authorities who provided local public services in cities and a functional rule of law across most of the Empire.

Inflation was less than 1 percent in the first and second centuries CE, but prices doubled after the Antonine plague of the late second century and doubled again soon after.

Polanyi (1977) proposed three ways of organising economies: reciprocity, redistribution and exchange. Reciprocity is an informal system in which people aim toward a rough balance between the goods and services they give and receive, with relative values determined by social obligations and traditions that change only slowly. Redistribution as a system in which goods are collected by a central authority and distributed by virtue of custom, law or ad hoc decision. Exchange is the set of economic transactions in which people voluntarily exchange goods and services either in barter or for money. This scheme corresponds aspects of individual behaviour – customary behavior for reciprocity, command behaviour for redistribution, and instrumental behavior for market exchanges. Using these criteria some impression of social conditions can be discerned from both individual and group behaviour.

The early Roman Empire was marked by market forces especially as compared to the medieval economy that would follow. Large-scale production and movements of resources in the early Roman Empire were dominated by markets. This mode of organization promoted the exploitation of comparative advantage, helped by political stability, personal security, and widespread education. It also promoted a modest rate of economic growth that resulted in the prosperity of the early Roman Empire, which was not to be equalled in the West for almost two millennia thereafter

Unlike the medieval period, the early Roman empire appears to have had well-functioning labour and capital market. Rural laborers were paid by either piece rates or daily wages while miners and galley crews were paid wages. Craftsmen sold their goods or handed them over to patrons in return for long-term economic and social support.

Finance, taxation, coinage

The Latin word for money, pecunia, is derived from pecus-sheep betraying the farming origins of the economy. The first market was the Forum Boarium on the banks of the Tiber, mostly a meat market but there were also bankers and money lenders.

Money changers and bankers, the argentarius, are known from at least the 4th Century BCE setting up stalls in markets and trading centres at a time when the Aes Rude, an ingot of bronze, was overtaken by proper coinage. Later money held as a deposit was used to make loans involving interest payments and usury , the charging of excessively high interest rates (‘enforcers’ would ensure loans were repaid) was quite common although excessively high rates were made illegal and met with fines. The argentarius employed a nummularius (money counter) who maintained an accounting ledger of loans and receipts and which could be used as evidence in the law courts.

With expansion of the Early Empire at the time of Emperor Augustus came an increasing trade in foods: from North Africa there were olives and cereals; Spain, wine and oil; Sicily and Egypt, cereals. At this time more than 150,000 tons of grain would have been delivered to Rome each year.[10]

The wealthy and corporations (like workers guilds) pooled their money to invest in trade, farming, financing the state’s military campaigns, and infrastructure construction. The ‘state’, centred on the Emperor used taxation to finance for military campaigns, disaster aid, social aid for the poor as rations of food and wine, public games, entertainment and infrastructure and so on.

Monetary loans with interest were common in Roman society. Merchants typically were at the centre of European capital markets before the Industrial Revolution, and they appear to have played a key role in ancient finance as well. For example, loans were used extensively to finance maritime trade in classical Athens, and maritime loans were also frequent in Rome.

The economy was supported by an elaborate taxation system needed to maintain a vast military presence. Nero (54-68 CE) began the process of debasing the silver denarius that would continue its inflationary effect into Rome’s collapse.[12] Towards the end of the empire marginal lands were lost to cultivation and the peasantry sought security in wealthy landowners. Eventually the beleaguered garrisons, many in the Rhine region, made up mostly of Gallic troops, could not be paid and turned against the Emperor. In a period of uncertainty, a changing climate and imperial decline both rural and urban populations fell, sometimes to pre-imperial levels.[13] When Vandals crossed the Mediterranean and took Carthage in 439 CE, a major food supply route was sealed off.

Diocletian, Emperor from 284 to 305 CE, produced Rome’s first governmental budget with a taxation system that involved a remarkable census of all imperial people and lands, not only every province but cities, households and fields. Heavy taxation produced extensive borrowing or farms and, through debt, being subsumed under wealthier landowners.

Merchants became wealthy importing goods which were exchanged not only through barter but also using the highly effective coinage system. Coins were minted and circulated under strict rules for weights, sizes, value and metal composition as part of an Imperial system using coins carefully crafted in brass, bronze, copper, silver and gold.

The monetary system of Rome was based on the silver denarius, which later became the penny of the medieval period, surviving symbolically into the twentieth century as the abbreviation ‘d’ used for the English penny. Sesterces were the general unit of imperial currency. One silver denarius = four bronze sesterces = four copper asses and linked to Greek currency through a fixed exchange rate.

Roman coinage the early Aes weighed a full 330grams and reduced to something more than 10% of this (40grams) at the height of the second Punic war in less than a hundred years.


Fresh water for the city of Rome came from wells and the Tiber with the aqueducts from the 4th century BCE becoming longer and more elaborate, four being built at the time of the Republic bringing water from the surrounding hills into the city where it was stored in reservoirs then distributed through clay and lead pipes to the residents, mostly through public wells. By the 6th century BCE a large central sewer had been built that drained into the Tiber. Sewage ditches were moderately effective but backed up when the Tiber flooded, caused a constant stench and was the source of frequent epidemics. There were officials in charge of the system with the state accepting responsibility for the aqueducts and supplying water to the citizens without charge. Occasionally supplies were continued to private homes but these needed the approval of the people’s assembly. Between c. 40 BCE and 20 BCE two more aqueducts were built.

Drainage ditches and irrigation channels on the farms were a matter of legal contract. Property owners living near water were expected to make it freely available as a public asset, especially for fishing and boats.

Use of lead pipes undoubtedly caused a degree of lead poisoning.

Raw materials

The 61 million people of the Roman Empire created a huge demand for resources.

Timber was needed for fuel, construction, mining and metal processing such that by the time of Emperor Augustus much of the Mediterranean basin had been deforested. Grain was needed to supply the military and the free hand-outs that had been granted to citizens in Rome.

The demand for wood and cereals was no doubt a factor of Roman expansion into new territories.

Meanwhile in Rome itself the populace confronted most of the environmental problems of urban populations that we experience today.Both Greek and Roman empires were primarily agrarian, fuelling their communities via solar energy embodied in agricultural crops, forest trees, and domesticated animals. Wood (and charcoal) was used in the production of metals.

Environmental domain


Empires like these were able to mobilise people and resources on a scale that had never been seen before as the overall population increased, albeit intermittently as each empire waxed and waned.

New technologies and the scale of administrations and work forces allowed the construction of massive cities and monuments while the countryside in many parts was more carefully surveyed for farming, progressively criss-crossed by official road networks, and opened up to irrigation. Demand for wood was taking an increasing toll on forests across the world. Land parcelling across the empire crossed by a network of roads led to careful administration and exploitation of the land.

Forestry & horticulture

After the appropriation of land north of the Alps intensive agriculture was now practised in an imperial lifestyle that included urban settlements and manor houses as land was distributed or leased out in surveyed parcels to Roman citizens. In organised Roman tradition the farms practiced animal husbandry with orchards, pastures, wheat fields and vineyards. Figs, spices and oils were accessed through ports and the new impressive network of Roman roads. Northern forests were a plentiful source of timber and pottery workshops were deliberately located in Gaul where they could take advantage of forests like those of the Vosges Mountains in northern Germany . Reafforestation was sometimes undertaken.

Trees & timber

Forests (silva) were at the same time places with a protected sacred grove (lucus) while being dark and mysterious realms concealing dangerous animals and barbarians and at the same time a place of great beauty (locus amoenus) and the source of valuable timber. Attached to an estate they were called a nemus. Sacred trees and sacred groves were a part of Roman culture that had survived from prehistoric times. Pliny the Elder notes that the Chestnut-oak was dedicated to Jove, the bay to Apollo, olive to Minerva, myrtle to Venus, poplar to Hercules ‘we use the tree to furrow the seas and bring the lands nearer together…’(see Plant lore 1 and Plant lore 2)

Roman industry across Europe used timber not only as a domestic fuel but as a fuel for cremations, heating public baths, smelting metal, bricks, pottery, construction of houses and ships. In processes like smelting the wood was used in the much more efficient form of charcoal. Wood was needed especially for mining and fuel possibly about 5400 ha being felled per year.

There was an acknowledgement that clear-felling could lead to flooding and certain forests were protected by law and there was some reafforestation. In De Re Rustica Columella (4-70 CE) promoted coppicing of oak and chestnut to promote regrowth and in a short treatise De Arboribus (On Trees) discusses tree cultivation and maintenance that included pruning, grafting and pest control.

Rome’s first navy, built for the First Punic War (264-241 BCE) was made from oaks and firs harvested on the Tiber from Etruria, Umbria and Latium with some other wood sourced from the Sila Forest in newly conquered southern Italy but from the Late Republican period timber, as pine and cypress and cedar, was imported from the Black Sea and Caucasus regions while in northern Europe German forests of oak and beech were periodically felled.


Roman animal husbandry included selective breeding and the introduction of animals to new regions. Animals first introduced north of the Alps included peacocks, mules, donkeys, pheasants and cats. Breeding produced larger horses and stronger oxen. Following ancient tradition the wealthy used animals for food, recreation and exotic animals for public display. Roman estates had game enclosures (theriotropheia) for hunting, mostly deer and wild boar, but there were also zoo-like aviaries and fish ponds on the grander estates.

Although animal were revered and cared for, they were also subject to intense bating and cruelty, being widely used for public entertainment and sport, exhibited in processions, held in cages, and paraded in circus displays, and part of the gladiatorial combat so popular in the massive public arenas. Exotic animals were especially prized and Roman entertainment demanded lions, elephants, hippopotamuses, giraffes, crocodiles, rhinoceros, panthers, leopards, snakes, monkeys, bears, tigers, bulls and more, often used in mock hunts and animal spectaculars that generally ended in slaughter. Taking animals from the wild for entertainment threatened natural populations of elephants in Libya, lions in Thessaly, and hippopotamus taken from swamps in the Nile. One famous event was the ‘Millennium Games’ a grand animal circus and slaughter that was held in 248 CE to celebrate the thousandth year of the founding of Rome.[7]

A small element of Roman society as exemplified by the Neo-Pythagoreans, Plutarch and Porphyrius held all life, including animal life, as sacred or demanding respect. These groups were vegetarians who despised the needless cruelty. Later, Christianity discouraged the long-held tradition of animal sacrifice, reading of entrails and the like.


For mining see under economics. Although mining would have produced slag heaps, quarries, mineshafts and pollution of air and water these impacts would have been mostly local and temporary although it is possibly in the Roman period that we first see human activity impacting on the planet at a global scale through deforestation but perhaps more strikingly through the deposits of lead that appear in the Greenland icecap at the peak of the Roman Empire.

Natural disasters & events

Rome was victim to fire, disease, volcanic activity and climate change.

With wood a major construction material and open fires common there were many large fires in Rome especially towards the end of the Republic, the greatest conflagration being the nine-day fire that began on the night of 18-19 July in 64 CE in the reign of Emperor Nero (blame was attributed to both Nero and the despised Christians but the true cause is unknown) but there was also a massive blaze in 50 BCE. Emperor Augustus set up a fire brigade in 23 BCE.

Volcanic activity also affected Roman life causing famine in the East. Eruption of Vesuvius in the Gulf of Naples in 79 CE buried not only Pompeii and Herculaneum but Roman villa sites Oplontis, Boscoreale and Stabiae. The volcanic eruption of Pompeii reduced the supply of goods, especially wine, increasing prices and encouraging farmers to convert land from grain to wine. Following close on its heels was the plague that occurred at the time of Emperor Titus in 80 CE.

Climate change, the Roman Warm period, occurred between the 1st century BCE to 1st Century CE which allowed a wider range of food plants to be acclimatised and grown in Italy. Agricultural provinces like Campania with cities such as Pompeii greatly benefited from the combination of military expansion (access to new markets and cultivars) with slight increases in average temperature.

Social domain

Decline & fall

Reasons for the decline and fall of this civilization are still debated but, in the complex mix of factors can be included: the rise of Christianity and Islam; decadence during the rule of several later highly autocratic emperors; financial problems including inflation and a debased currency as the western empire consumed luxury eastern goods but produced relatively little resulting in a trade imbalance and easterly flow of wealth; problems with the effective administration of such a widespread empire; rebellion in the military of the mid- to late-third century and, in these latter years, the inclusion of many ‘foreign’ soldiers; dwindling of the supply of slaves as cheap labour; decreased literacy; general instability in the provinces as citizens sought the security of cities, especially Rome.

The Roman advance across western Europe had been largely confined to a region to the south of the Rhine and in the fifth century CE the northern Germanic peoples (mostly Ostragoths, Visigoths, Sueves, Vandals, Burgundians and Franks) launched successful attacks, the last Western emperor being deposed in 476 BCE.[6]In 410 CE Rome was besieged and looted by an army of Visigoths under Alaric. Then in 439 Carthage, one of Rome’s main food supplies, was sacked by Vandals who proceeded to sack Rome in 455. The last emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the Goth Odoacer in 476 CE his assumption as King of Italy marking the conclusion of the Western Roman Empire.

Whatever the ultimate causes of Rome’s demise the empire was now united under Christianity until the Great Schism of 1054 which saw the formation of eastern and western religious blocs, the western Catholic Church and the eastern Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople (Istanbul), which clung on until it was taken by Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.

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. 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’.[5]

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.[14]

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.)

Key points

  • Greek and Roman environmental, socio-political and economic ideas and practices have had a major influence on those of today, especially as they passed from Roman Britain into the traditions of the Neo-Europes, notably Australia and America.Environmental – when compared to today environmental impacts were relatively small and reversible. Demand for resources, especially wood and agricultural products, resulting in imperial expansion into new territories and conversion of land into intensive agriculture.
    • Small farms were absorbed to become grand estates or latifundia using: metal ploughs; crop rotation; manuring; the introduction, selective breeding and redistribution of domestic animals and plants including new crops and domestic animals; viticulture; apiary. Rome as the largest city in the world to that time presented problems of hygiene with smoke, waste disposal, disease, pollution, fires and excessive traffic as well as crime
      • Zoos, hunting
        • From 200 CE cremation became more popular presumably as a consequence of the expanding and unhealthy subterranean catacombs
          • Olive oil was used for lamps and as a body wash that was scraped off

          Commentary & sustainability analysis

          The fall of the Roman Empire has been attributed to multiple reasons:

          1. The incursion of barbarian tribes into Roman lands leading to the sack of Rome itself in 410 CE.
          2. Internal corruption, weak leadership, and civil conflict
          3. The military depletion of financial resources with inflation and increasing debt
          4. Division of empire into east and west under Diocletian presenting administrative difficulties and divided loyalties of the many foreign mercenaries
          5. The advent of Christianity under Constantine which replaced patriotic values with those focused on other-worldly matters

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          individual      ->        global


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          : ENVIRONMENT :

          impact of population (urbanization)technology



          Date of origin

          Base state   -       human muscle

          Hand tools        -     3.5 M BP
          Mental tools     -     3.5 M BP



          Fire                     -     1.7-2 M BP
          Animal muscle -     12000 BP
          Wind & water   -  ...  5000 BP ...
          Coal                    -      1600 ...
          Gas                     -      1820 ...
          Oil                       -      1860 ...
          Electricity           -      1880 ...
          Nuclear              -      1950 ...


          The energy derived from the Sun, stored in plant tissue during photosynthesis, then used (as food) to power the bodies of living organisms. Most biological energy drives internal metabolic processes within organisms but some is transformed directly into social energy via muscles and brains.

          The food energy needed to sustain an individual human body has remained about the same throughout history (though physically active people require more calories) at about 12,500 kJ. while the human body has an energy generating capacity (at basal metabolic rate) of around 80 watts (about 20 watts of this being used by the brain), about the same as an incandescent light bulb). To derive a physical 'feel' for what this means, a 100 watt light bulb works 1.25 times harder than our body, that is, 1.25 H-e or 1.25 human equivalents.


          The energy that powers the social activity that may be directed towards the maintenance or enhancement of social organization.

          The energy of human social activity is derived partly from the biological energy that powers human bodies, and partly from external sources like water, wind, animal muscle, fire and more recently, fossil fuels, nuclear fuels etc.

          Historically, the proportion of social energy derived from human bodies has decreased over time to become negligeable today. Fossil fuels provided a concentrated, abundant, and cheap source of social energy that facilitated growth in populations and economies. The use of this energy has been leveraged by the increasing efficiency of technology as both material and mental tools.

          Media gallery
          This selection of videos adds some information on Roman engineering and roads as well as speculation about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

          Why did the Roman Empire fall?

          FloridaPASS program – 2016 – 4:47

          The Fall of Rome Explained

          The Life Guide – 13:44

          Fall of The Roman Empire … in the 15th Century

          CrashCourse World History – 2012 – 12:43

          Roman roads

          maggiohanoverpark – 2013 – 1:38

          The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) – Senate scene

          Jonathan Yip – 2016 – 10:19

          Roman Engineering

          CrashCourse History of Science – 2016 – 12:28

          Ancient Rome History – Roman Government and Senate

          Historyden -2014 – 11:01


          Governance – the political process of decision-making and administration: the mechanism that integrates and co-ordinates the various                  activities needed to achieve social, economic, and environmental objectives.
          Population – the number of people supported or controlled by a governing body: summation of all the individual units of society and resource consumption.

          First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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