What have the Romans ever done for us?
Lessons in sustainability from two thousand years ago.
A Roman archetype
“Apart from better sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health … what have the Romans ever done for us?” Reg did not mention “sustainability” in Life of Brian. No surprise: it wasn’t much of a buzz word when Monty Python filmed in 1979.
The Romans would not have been familiar with the word “sustainability” as it is used today. After all, it is a reaction to industrial modernity and the consumption economy. Rome did not articulate its challenges in terms of sustainability, climate change, or resource crises.
But the underlying political issues related to sustainability — how to manage deterioration of finite resources, who suffers when there is not enough, or what best system can govern limited resources to meet people’s needs — were familiar to Roman commentators. There is one area where modern sustainability and ancient sensibilities converge: land-use.
The principal economic and political problem of antiquity was that agriculture should deliver reliable food supply. Roman land owners in particular worried about the state of agriculture, insufficient rain or drainage, the deterioration of soils, and the effect these would have on production. Those concerns are not that different from the ones we have today.
The solutions they pursued in the face of these challenges were also not dissimilar to those proposed by sustainability advocates today — soil regeneration, better tilling practices, careful diversification of the crops, awareness of and integration with the surrounding ecosystem, and so forth — so much so that, were Life of Brian filmed today, one might wonder whether Reg or Xerxes would have added sustainability to the list.
To be clear, Rome did not face the same challenges we face. Roman experiences of changes in climate and resource exhaustion pale in comparison to what might be ahead. Nor was Roman vulnerability remotely equivalent to ours: thanks to industrialization, human agency is far greater today than it has ever been (although it is also true that the 21st century poor are probably as vulnerable as most citizens of imperial Rome were in the first century CE).
And yet, the parallel between modern sustainability and Roman concerns is not just an antiquarian interest. What makes the Roman approach to their particular challenges relevant to our predicament is that Rome’s institutional DNA is everywhere today.
Three quarters of the world’s countries claim to be republics (most are not democratic, but, there again, neither was Rome), the legacy of the most durable republican project in world history. Even more significant is Rome’s impact on the world’s legal systems: practically all of them — even Anglo-Saxon common law, ostentatiously separate from Napoleonic civil law — owe their structure and practice to the glossators of the Codex Iuris Civilis.
Roman experience runs through the institutions of modern life. So, understanding how they thought of their own sustainability challenges, absent all the neurosis of modern society, may help us understand how to interpret what we face and understand our response to it.
The sustainability problem with modern agriculture
To understand the relevance of Roman experience, one must first appreciate the challenges it is supposed to illuminate. The strongest analogy is in agriculture so that is where we should start.
Today, sustainability in agriculture essentially revolves around three issues. First, land use will be crucial in the fight against climate change. Terrestrial landscapes contain three times the stock of carbon of the atmosphere. Of that carbon, 80 percent is in soils, two thirds of which is organic matter and thus highly susceptible to land use practices. This enormous stock of carbon is of great consequence. In fact, since the industrial revolution, while fossil fuel combustion contributed two thirds of the increase in CO2, one third came from the organic carbon lost from soils because of degradation and changes in land use.
Second, agriculture feeds the world. The Sustainable Development Goals aimed to end world hunger by 2030. Alas, over 800 million people are undernourished, almost two billion are food insecure. Despite being capable of doing so, the food system is not close to meeting the needs of humanity. The toxic mix of food insecurity and social strain can be destructive, even incendiary, as conflicts in Syria and the Horn of Africa demonstrate.
Third, while the impact of the agricultural sector on the planet is overwhelming. People often marvel at constructions like the Great Wall of China, said to be visible from space. But agriculture is by far the most egregious trace of human presence on Earth: a citizen of the moon would only need a pair of binoculars to look at the blue marble and see the changes wrought by land use. Agriculture is the principal driver of biodiversity loss, with severe impacts on the ability of ecosystems to provide services people depend on.
The magnitude of all these urgent, existential problems would have been unfathomable in antiquity. In truth, they would have been unimaginable even a century ago. But while antiquity is an inadequate analogy for the physical challenges of modernity, the solutions people gravitate towards do find powerful analogues in the past.
According to many civil society organizations, the thorny nexus of climate, food, and biodiversity points to various forms of regenerative agriculture. This is a much talked about collection of techniques, from reduced or no tillage planting to cover crops to restore soil, mostly recovered from pre-industrial practices, which, if adopted at scale, should restore soils, sequester carbon, increase the long-term productivity of farms, and create a greater balance with the natural world.
What has Rome to say about these approaches to agriculture? We know that Roman agriculturalists worried about land exhaustion, soil conditions, and productivity. Is there an analogy with the way in which the Romans thought of solutions to these problems?
As it turns out, one of the most important insights that comes from reading Roman literature on the subject is this: any version of sustainable agriculture implies a theory of society and a particular rural identity, different from what produced commercial monocultures, and intensive farming.
A sustainable approach to farming has, inevitably, an almost aesthetic quality to it. One cannot help but see in it the yearning for a beautiful, pastoral idyll, supposed to inspire a new relationship with nature. In these terms, the parallel with Rome is striking.
Of bees and trees
Virgil is the most widely read Roman source on the agrarian idyll, even today. The Georgics in particular are a farmer’s Almanac. Despite the instructions on bee-keeping or ploughing, Virgil’s four books were not really meant to be a technical manual, but were designed to capture a certain intensity of feeling towards the rural landscape.
The Georgics were an aesthetic response to a troubled time in Roman history. Caesar’s meteoric rise during the civil wars had come to an end in 44 BCE, bringing the republic down with it. During the second Triumvirate, Octavian expropriated Italian lands to settle military veterans, including Virgil’s own properties. As the republic careened towards its end, Virgil moved to Rome to write under the protection of Maecenas.
The imagined agrarian world of the Georgics — the farm, working the land — was remarkable for what it was not: war. In classical literature, and especially in the Greek canon that inspired Virgil, the calendar of agriculture would give the cadence to the time when the hoplite would leave the atrocities of war behind and return home.
Virgil’s model for the Georgics was the eighth century BCE almanac Work and Days, a work Hesiod intended to be as much about farming as about morality. Eighth century Greece had also emerged from its dark ages facing a crisis of resources. Hesiod told a moral tale for the model citizen in turbulent times, and there is no question that Virgil’s time was turbulent. This was important: the ideal agrarian life was not simply a more productive one, but more peaceful too.
So when reading of agriculture in Roman literature, one must keep in mind the context. Italy during the late republic (second and first century BCE) was a highly urbanized society: close to a million people lived in the city of Rome itself and about thirty percent of the population was urban. It was also a highly unequal society: wealth concentration was endemic. As a result, the agricultural landscape was far from idyllic. It was one of vast estates, absentee landowners, and commercial production. Virgil did not just offer an almanac of technical instruction. He was delivering a critique of society.
One might think that this was poetic license, but in truth if one reads the Roman experts of the time — the equivalent of the sustainability experts who advocate for particular solutions today — one finds that, such a critique runs through all of their writing.
Marcus Terentius Varro, a prominent first century BCE author, spoke of land as having to be “salubrious.” While salubriousness — good soil and climate — was a function of nature, Varro was keen to point out that difficult conditions could be alleviated by clever investment of the owner. And there was something of a land ethic in his prescriptions.
The longing for the small, for farming integrated in a life with the land, belonged to the privileged senatorial class, inspired by Cato the Censor to see agrarianism as an answer to the corruption of urban mores, a fiction harkening back to the mythical virtue of Cincinnatus.
This land ethic persisted as the republic transitioned into the empire. In the first century CE, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, a friend of Seneca, produced De Re Rustica, the most comprehensive Roman treatise on agriculture known to us. Much of De Re Rustica is concerned with technical recommendations on how to conduct a farming operation. Columella emphasized the value of reading the “ancients” going back to Hesiod.
His work was drawn from Cato and Varro, as well as from his own practical experience. Much like those arguing for regenerative agriculture today, he was particularly concerned with the quality of soil. He encouraged diversification, and argued against monocultures, concerning himself with adapting ploughing techniques to soil conditions.
But his work was also a direct reference to the moralizing writing of Virgil. Most of De Re Rustica is prose, except for his tenth book, composed, in hexameter imitating none other than Virgil himself. Alarmingly, it includes what a recent commentator described as “the erotics of lettuce” and a section “in praise of cabbage.” Nonetheless, it was an attempt at reminding the reader of the Virgilian and pastoral root of his opus.
Just like today one might look around and find an abundance of opinions on how to ensure agriculture is sustainable, so did the Romans have ample literature on how to manage the land. But the Roman concerns for the sustainability of agriculture was not simply instruction on how to do things better. It was a particular vision of society, an ethical instruction of how to reconnect with the land.
Agriculture was not just an economic activity. It was politically salient.
Why it matters
What to make of this Roman agrarian literature with respect to our predicament today? Above all, it tells us that, if sustainable land use practices are central to the future of the planet, the political weight of agriculture will increase. Rural identity will matter more. In truth this should not be news, although an excessive emphasis on technical solutions sometimes obfuscates this point. The saliency of agriculture has always left weighty political legacies.
One obvious example comes from America. The whole world has just emerged from its most recent electoral saga. And most people have heard of the large (and growing) discrepancy between the demographics of the vote and the system of the electoral college. In this system, a state like Wyoming, with 3 electoral votes and half a million people, has far more per capita political weight than, say, California, with its 55 electoral votes — less than twenty times Wyoming — but a population of almost forty million people, eighty times Wyoming.
This architecture makes no sense if thought through the lens of enfranchising a republic of people. But the United States is a territorial sovereign with a history of expansion and conquest. The distribution of power on the landscape is important, a legacy of the nineteenth century efforts to create a federation that would support domestic migration towards its vast western territories. In fact, as it turns out, land-use mattered enough to be constitutionally salient. Rural identity was driving politics.
Similarly, it is no coincidence that the European Union, the political project of supranational integration that emerged out of the ruins of the Second World War, spends half of its budget on a Common Agricultural Policy. This makes no sense, if one looks at the budget from a modern industrial perspective.
But seventy years ago, Hitler’s army blitzed through the European landscape, conquering Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and much of France, reaching Paris in less than six weeks. So, it should come as no surprise that money would be spent to ensure prosperous people live on the landscape in a continent fragmented into sovereign nations and with a perplexing tendency to produce aspiring emperors.
In the Roman state, the landscape was the heart of the economy. It was politically salient. What the literature from the time tells us is that concerns for its sustainability are inextricable from identity. It is with this in mind that one should examine the recent rise of the farm and the land-use to the heart of the sustainability agenda. If the landscape is at the heart of the sustainable transition, then it will have to be politically salient.
The lesson of antiquity does not reside in the rediscovery of ancient practice, or long-forgotten technical solutions. It resides in its politics. Calls for a return to sustainable farming echo those that rang two thousand years ago. Then as now, a powerful society wrestled with the limits of its landscape. Then as now, people felt the pull of the farm in an urbanizing, unequal, complex society.
Then as now, if we are going to see adoption in agriculture of sustainable practices at a significant scale, we have to recognize that the implied transformation of the landscape will represent a profound critique of modernity that contains a set of specific aesthetic and moral choices. Whether society as a whole endorses those choices will determine whether that sustainability agenda will succeed.