Ecological Lessons From History: Friends, Romans, Don’t Breathe In

How in tune were our ancestors with being good stewards of the planet?

Things were better in the old days. People were more in tune with the natural world, the air was cleaner, the land less harassed by our demands upon it. The world was, in short, greener. We’ve all heard it before – but is it true? Of course it is – except when you start looking at the details. Don’t go putting our ancestors up on a pedestal of eco-friendly excellence before you know a little more history.

This week, we go back to Ancient Rome, take a deep breath – and splutter.

Get enough people in one place and air quality is going to take a dive. Get them living in one place and your real problems start. While it’s true that cities of 2,000 years ago lacked the intense urbanization that today crams people together and on top of each other in ways inconceivable to the ancient world, they also lacked our relatively cleaner energy-producing ways. Such was the case with Rome, a city housing not only wood-burning domestic buildings (including an estimated 800+ heated bath-houses) but many craft working industries. Statesman Seneca, the tutor of Emperor Nero, wrote of “the stink, soot and heavy air” hanging over the city, popularly known as gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”). With air quality came the smells – the stink of garbage, of unrestricted industry (including leather tanning, a process often involving urine) and of poorly treated sewage.

How much have we ecologically evolved over the years?

How did the Romans tackle the problem? Like they tackled most of their other problems – with legislation and construction projects. The sewage designs first laid down by the pre-Roman Etruscan people in 500BC were expanded. The Empire’s Justinian Code laid down the first riparian rights – the legal process of allocation and access to water supplies – and defined both water and air as finite public property to be maintained for the benefit of all. New industrial laws pushed certain crafts to areas where they couldn’t pollute domestic air supplies (including, in one law, the cheesemakers – not so blessed in Roman times, it seems). To take the pressure off the sewage-fouled Tiber, the Romans built extensive aqueduct systems to bring freshwater into the capital.

It’s not known how well this alleviated problems in Rome, but it seems indoor pollution remained an issue right across Italy: the inside of the average Roman building became blackened with soot as time went on, as noted by poet Horatius, and recent analysis of skeletons of people buried by the eruption of Vesuvius show signs of anthracosis. Whether you stayed indoors or outdoors to get your 20,000 liters of air a day, life as an ancient Roman appears to have been hard on the lungs.

Images: kevinpoh and Rilind Hoxha.

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.