Conservation Biology

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I will ‘cross the Rubicon’ and address this topic almost entirely from what I have learned from the documentary “What the Ancients did for us: The Romans” produced by the Open University and the BBC, without backing my views with scientific papers… since finding accessible articles one this topic has been extremely difficult!

I never liked history much at school and I must admit that my perception of who the Romans where has been greatly biased by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. My minds picture of Julius Caesar has been formed and cemented by Uderzo and so too the legions of Roman soldiers…

So what did the Romans do for us and what impact did they have on the environment? They had the best organized armies the world has ever seen. These armies marched on well built, mostly perfectly straight roads that spread all over the empire and usually led back to Rome, hence the proverb ‘all roads lead to Rome’. These roads covered some 80,000 kilometres and many of these roads have survived until today.

They had to overcome the hurdle of feeding their huge armies of paid soldiers and so devised tools for mass production. They came up with donkey driven grinding stones and kneading machines to produce bread on a big scale. They must have cultivated huge stretches of land to produce enough wheat and other grains, grapes and other fruit and vegetables to feed the growing population. They must have kept a lot of domesticated animals too.

They also perfected the art of glass blowing (which probably dated back to Syria 100 BC) and turned it into a mass production tool, blowing glass into moulds. They thus transformed the use of glass from luxury to everyday items. They were also the first to produce colourless glass (Jackson 2005) and glass sheeting, which they used for windows. They even invented double glazing to prevent the heat from escaping in their bath houses.

They had brilliant architects and engineers that designed aqueducts that supplied Rome with water. They built sewers to carry away the used and dirty water (they are even said to have had flush toilets… albeit many of them in one public room, where people sat and are said to have had lengthy conversations??)

They used simple but very effective a-framed cranes to build their multi-storey magnificent buildings. They used ball bearings to reduce friction and even designed a water-powered multiple saw that could cut through stone, to produce for example sheets of marble used to decorate wall panels. They even came up with a “recipe” for concrete, for which the Pantheon in Rome serves as an example. The entire dome is made from concrete, the upper half mixed with pumice instead of heavier gravel to lighten the structure.

They entertained the masses in macabre ways in what they termed circuses. Gladiator fights, prisoners being torn apart by animals and soldiers killing animals as a form of entertainment (so much for canned lion hunting…) The Colosseum is probably the most famous structure that survived through the centuries, where the masses were entertained. Chariot races where held on race tracks that could seat thousands of people… They certainly took occupying and entertaining the citizens serious!

Rome started off as a town on the banks of the Tiber River around 753 BC. Since ‘Rome wasn’t built in one day’ it took some 800 years before it had become the centre of the largest empire the world had ever seen. The Roman Empire stretched all around the Mediterranean Sea up to the Atlantic coastline of Spain in the west, including Britain in the north, Egypt in the south and up to the shoreline of the Caspian Sea in the east.

What made them so mighty? Their discipline, determination and respect for the law (or was it fear or simply ‘do as the Romans do’) gave them the edge over the Greeks. They absorbed the best of Greek culture and passed it on to the Western World. Music, theatre, mathematics, philosophy, ethics, democracy are all seen to have come from the ancient Greeks. Plato, Pythagoras, Hypocrites, Archimedes and many others have shaped so many ideas and theories that have become an integral part of science and the modern world.

How did they impact the environment? They must have used huge amounts of natural resources… just think of all those legions that had to be equipped with metal helmets, upper body armour, weapons, sandals. Metal had to be mined, leather tanned, wood cut (Williams 2002), fabric woven. For the mechanised weapons of warfare more wood, metal and leather was needed. They quarried stone for their buildings and roads, ploughed more fields to feed the growing populations. They built ships (more wood) to conquer and trade. They even built the first pleasure boats, complete with onboard bathing houses and reception rooms!

Their bath houses must have used huge amounts of water. Wood and possibly coal was used to heat the water and also to produce the hot air that circulated beneath the floors in their under floor heating systems. They used gold, silver, bronze, tin, lead for decorative articles in their buildings and many everyday articles were made of metal too. As their glass industry grew bigger, they needed more sand… They must have polluted the air with their many fires and the water with their ritual baths that included lavish use of oils.

The rich lived in luxury and opulence… and as we all know by now, the higher your standard of living, the bigger is your ecological footprint! So although I do not have the papers to prove this, the Romans must have had a huge impact on their environment. Williams (2002) has devoted almost an entire chapter to the land degradation the Romans had caused in the Mediterranean through deforestation and urbanization. (I read that in a book review, but haven’t been able to get hold of the book itself… YET!) That might just explain why their empire became so big, because they had to go further and further to get to the resources they needed to sustain their way of life…


Jackson CM. 2005. Making colourless glass in the Roman period. Archaeometry 47(4):763–780.

Williams M. 2002. Deforesting the earth: from prehistory to global crisis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (Part one; Chapter 5)

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Karen Marais
BCB Hons NISL student
University of the Western Cape
Private Bag X17