Classics, Antiquity and the Anthropocene: Some thoughts

Classics, Antiquity and the Anthropocene: Some thoughts

by Katherine Blouin

“We thought the Earth was dead but the Earth is not dead. And it is striking back at us in the most terrifying ways.”

-Amitav Ghosh on Climate Change, India Today Conclave, March 2, 2019

How do current conversations on the Anthropocene concern Classics and other Antiquity-related disciplines? And what do Classics have to contribute to the “shifting of consciousness” that pertains to the relationship between human beings and the Earth?

I’ve been aware of and preoccupied with the effects of human-driven climate changes since I was a child. I remember writing to my local councilor when I was 10 years old or so to ask for our city to implement recycling programs, and I used to send my pen pals letters wrapped in envelopes made with pages from a Sears catalogue. Thus, I naively thought, we could “save” forests, and maybe help “repair” the Ozone hole that threatened us all (remember that hole? well as it turns out, we actually did repair it). Fast-forward three decades and there I was, an environmental historian of Roman Egypt, watching the movie Anthropocene by myself on a rainy, cold Fall night. My mood was already somewhat melancholic due to a combination of damp weather, bad world news, and midterm exhaustion. The movie was excellent, but it turned out not to be the most uplifting plan I could have thought of. I left the theater so overwhelmed that I hardly slept that night. For its premise made the Ozone hole scare of my childhood look like it was nothing: The Earth we live on has now been thrown out of its habitual system as a result of human (in)actions. The human species has become so overpowering that it has caused the current, sixth mass extinction and has de facto suppressed the next ice age, which was due to take place in at most 50,000 years. No matter how many paper towel rolls we recycle or homemade envelope we make out of recycled paper, this shift cannot be stopped. It is, in many – though not all – ways, too late.

How does this manmade mess relate to Antiquity? Is there even a point to try to make that link, other than surf on the “trend” and, to paraphrase Philippe Leveau’s criticism of catastrophy- and collapse-driven scholarship on the Roman Empire, get funding for our research projects? To put it bluntly: What’s the point? This is the question I posed myself in preparation for the opening keynote I was invited to give at the graduate conference “Classics in the Anthropocene“, which took place at the UofT on April 19-20, 2019.

While a growing number of scholars of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East do think, speak, write and teach about ancient environmental, and at times climatic (hi)stories, not much is available out there that attempts to specifically reflect on the connections between Antiquity and the Anthropocene (one notable exception is Katie Kearns’ work on “Mediterranean archeology and environmental histories in the spotlight of the Anthropocene”, as well as that of Brooke Holmes, who gave the concluding keynote at the “Classics in the Anthropocene” conference). Why is that? The answer might partly reside in the sheer scale of both what the Anthropocene means, and what its implications for our disciplines are.

For both the Anthropocene and academia’s common relationships to ‘modernity’ show through a series of binaries. These are commonly used to articulate the present-day climate crisis and to structure knowledge (production and transmission) about the ancient past: Holocene/Anthropocene; pre-1500/post 1500; human/environment; culture/nature; rational/subjective; ‘West’/’East’; ‘North’/’South’; linear/non linear time. The organizing and legitimizing role played by these binaries within modern worldviews and geopolitics is well attested, and many public intellectuals – Dipesh Chakrabarty, Amitav Ghosh, Bruno Latour, and Naomi Klein to name a few – have justly pointed how limiting and detrimental they are to our understanding of the Anthropocene. Yet the chronological scopes of these discussion is, from an ancient historian’s point of view, strikingly limited, whereas very few voices within the realm of Antiquity-related studies have spoken about these issues. The time might be ripe for a substantial expansion of the voices we include in the conversation. One that is not only spatial and agential, but also chronological. In this post, I propose some reflections on this existential issue. I by no means have any claim to exhaustiveness. Rather, I hope that these gathered thoughts will spark more reflections about the Anthropocene within Antiquity-related fields, and vice versa.

Pre-1500 (geo)history matters

The pre-/post-1500 divide that is at the core of most history curricula worldwide amounts to a fetishized, self-serving chronological boundary between, on the one hand, an “advancing” modernity that starts with European imperial expansion, and, on the other hand, everything that came before. This bipartite organization of historical time feeds into a Eurocentric narrative whereby a future-oriented, modern “us” reigns supreme over a primitive and slower “prehistoric”, “ancient” or “medieval” otherness that is generally rendered through bundles of tropes. Whether they appear in general history books or in theoretically-informed scholarship, passing content regarding ancient “civilizations” or “times” do not suffice. Worst, they are counter-productive. What we need is true engagement of post-1500 scholars with pre-1500 material, and vice versa (though I would say Antiquity scholars are, overall, better at that already). Just like one cannot possibly claim to understand the history of 17th-c. Brazil, China or Egypt while ignoring the broader geopolitics of the day, so we cannot operate in periodical closed cups anymore. And this is all the more true when it comes to reflections about the Anthropocene.

One notable problem with pointing to European colonial Empires as the root of our current climate crisis is that by doing so, one also unduly inflates the levels of novelties brought about by modern European Empires. Let me give you an example: In his wonderful book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh reflects on the historical relationship between the Anthropocene and European imperialism and colonialism. Focusing more particularly on the foundation of coastal settlements by British imperial officials, he highlights how several of these foundations were positioned in “risky” settings:

“But haven’t people always liked to live by the water?

Not really; through much of human history, people regarded the ocean with great wariness. Even when they made their living from the sea, through fishing or trade, they generally did not build large settlements on the water’s edge: the great old port cities of Europe, like London, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Lisbon and Hamburg, are all protected from the open ocean by bays, estuaries, or deltaic river systems. The same is true of old Asian ports: Cochin, Surat, Tamluk, Dhaka, Mrauk-U, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, and Malacca are all cases in point. It is as if, before the early modern era, there had existed a general acceptance that provision had to be made for the unpredictable furies of the ocean – tsunamis, storm surges, and the like.

An element of that caution seems to have lingered even after the age of European global expansion began in the sixteenth century: it was not until the seventeenth century that colonial cities began to rise on seafronts around the world” (p.37)

Being an ancient environmental historian, this passage triggered two immediate responses in me: First, as I wrote in the margin of my copy of the book, “this is nothing new”. Indeed, the very idea of founding and maintaining a city on a strategic location despite the fact that it presents serious hydrological risks – and be it located by the sea, in a delta, by a river or by any other types of (shifting) water body – is by no means a modern phenomenon. Ancient examples, including imperial and colonial foundations, do abound: just think of Gades, Carthage, Puteoli, Leptis Magna, Alexandria (picture 1), Thonis-Herakleion (picture 2) and Tyre (for a longer list, see the Ancient Ports – Ports antiques project).


1. Alexandria’s maritime harbour: “Jondet’s map compared to Google Earth’s picture (20/1/2015) showing the main north breakwater of the ancient Pharos port” Source: Ancient Ports – Ports antiques

2. Reconstitution of Thonis-Herakleion Credits: Yann Bernard, © Franck Goddio / Hilti Foundation

What archaeological and literary evidence tell us is that the authorities, economic agents and locals who lived, traded in, and ruled these cities were very aware of the risks that came with these locations, yet knowingly taking these risks because of the outgrowing benefits that were perceived to come with the said location. As a general rule of thumb, it seems that the more potential benefits came with a location, the more open (and resilient) to risk a settlement was, and still is. This is compellingly exemplified in the Roman period by the case of the Rhone Delta (picture 3).


3. “Ancient coastline near Marius’ canal” Image: Ancient Ports – Ports antiques; from Provansal et al, 2003

A series of multidisciplinary studies in this area by French geoarchaeologists and historians since the 1990s has led to a completely renewed understanding of sites such as Arles (ancient Arelate), the nearby Barbegal mills, and Marius’ canal (picture 3), as well as to a ground-breaking reassessment of the ways in which ancient Mediterranean societies interacted with “attraction and risk” (there are many relevant publications; see for instance Leveau’s 2004 article on Arles and the Rhone and Cécile Alline’s 2007 study on “Roman Cities and Floods”).

Second, when it comes to settlements located by a body of water, we ought to adopt a broader hydrological approach that takes into account all intersecting waterscapes. Take the case of ancient Rome: As Ghosh rightfully points out, the city was not located by the sea, but by the Tiber river. This can be interpreted as a defensive mechanism: a fluvial foundation offers protection from sea-borne floods, erosion and salinization, as well as from invaders, for instance. But it can also, at the same time, proceed from proactive and opportunistic (to refer to Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s seminal The Corrupting Sea) considerations: Better control of fluvial traffic (including coming from the sea), access to fresh water, better defensive potential. Now a Tiberine location did not come without its own potential risks either: the marshy lowlands between the city’s seven hills were originally marshy, and so had to be drained (thanks to Etruscan expertise), and the Tiber was prone to floods and its course could shift. Further, the case of ancient Rome cannot be disconnected from that of Ostia, its deltaic fluvial harbor, and of Portus, its maritime harbor, whose foundation in the early Principate followed the silting up of Ostia between the 1st c. BCE and the 1st c. CE (since the early 2000s, the site of Portus is the subject of a multidisciplinary research project led by Simon Keay from the University of Southampton).


4. Map of Ostia and its delta. Source: J.Ph. Goiran et al. (2012), “Port antique d’Ostie

In many ways, Ostia and Rome formed a coherent unit, and one could also argue that this unit included many other, more distant harbors, from Puteoli to Carthage to Alexandria. Just like the modern examples provided by Ghosh, the fate of these ancient cities-harbors is inseparable from imperial geopolitics, and this is how their relationship to the environmental uncanny must be understood.

Ghosh’s thesis thus overestimates the novelties brought about by “modernity”, and minimizes the numerous continuities known by pre-1500 scholars. This is by no means an isolated case. Rather, it is the norm: I bet you that should the list of ‘novelties’ brought about by the British Empire be submitted to socio-economic historians of the ancient world, the list would be reduced by a great, great deal. As I’ve written above, this truncated, modernity-focused approach to the Anthropocene illustrates the widespread, systemic lack of conversation between scholars of Antiquity – and everything pre-1500 for that matter – and the rest of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Think of Edward Said’s limited discussion of ancient Greek sources in Orientalism, which might be the weakest part of his book. If he, and so many scholars, even within Classics, cannot relate to anything ancient beyond the hegemonic, Eurocentric “Classical” canon, who can? For general knowledge about Antiquity remains abysmal not only within wider audiences, but also among most Humanists and Social Scientists, including those with a “Classical” training. Likewise, the quasi absence of Antiquity from public discourses and media tends to confine whatever is covered in the media to Eurocentric or Orientalist tropes, which, although they are increasingly challenged by scholarly voices, remain more often than not misinterpreted and instrumentalized for racist, fascist and/or neocolonial ends. Think for instance of Jordan Peterson’s appalling use of Babylonian myths, as evidenced by Emily Pothast, or of the appropriation of Greco-Roman Antiquity by hate groups that the online project Pharos and Donna Zuckerberg’s latest monograph document.

Let me give you another example from The Great Derangement:

“Before the advent of the carbon-intensive technology, the populations of the “old world” were not divided by vast gaps in technology. For millennia, trade connections were close enough to ensure that innovations in thoughts and techniques were transmitted quite rapidly over long distances. Even “deep”, long-term historical processes sometimes unfolded at roughly the same time in places far removed from each other. The vernacularization of languages is an example of one such: as Sheldon Pollock has shown, this process began almost simultaneously in Europe and in the Indian subcontinent. The stimulus may also have been the same in both instances, consisting of the forces set in motion by the Islamic expansion.” (p.94)

I very much would like to be provided with specific examples, be they from Pollock’s book or from elsewhere. Second, did the vernacularization of languages really came about following the Islamic expansion in Europe and Asia? The papyrologist in me must ask: What about Greek koine? What about Alexandrian Greek, which was even the subject of a monograph by Jean-Luc Fournet? What about, more generally, the thousands upon thousands of ancient documentary papyri, ostraca, tablets and graffiti, whose geographical scope ranges, beyond Egypt where most of the finds come from, from Britain to Afghanistan? These are actual ancient documents written by actual ancient people, with all the mistakes and vernacular variations it implies. As such, they document many processes of/comparable to vernacularization that date from way before the Islamic expansion that are otherwise almost impossible to detect in traditional (read literary) “Classical” sources. While it may just be that this statement needs some clarification and nuance, my informed guess is that it true engagement with pre-Islamic everyday writings in the Mediterranean and Near East would greatly benefit such discussions, and lead to a complication and chronological adjustment of this model.

What does it mean to say that “modernity” is the compounded outcome of everything that came before, Antiquity-included? How does “modernity” color our reading of Antiquity? Why? What is thus left out? And can we do better? I like to think so.

Risk, agency, and history beyond the human

“One of the main puzzles of Western history is not that “there are people who still believe in animism”, but the rather naive belief that many still have in a de-animated world of mere stuff; just at the moment when they themselves multiply the agencies with which they are more deeply entangled every day. The more we move in geostory, the more this belief seems difficult to understand”.

-Bruno Latour (2014), “Agency at the Time of the Anthopocene”

“[T]he reemergence of voices like [Max] Scheler’s within the ecological and environmental movement (as well as within anticolonialist discourses) signals the insufficiency, if not inadequacy, of the liberal tradition in dealing with the crises in the natural habitat, and hence with the self as being itself the seat of the problem. That is to say, the required changes are wide and deep, going into the very values of the modern subject and no less into the very technologies of the self that can reconstitute not only a new conception of rationality but also, and equally importantly, certain types of ethical formation.”

-Wael B. Hallaq (2018) Restating Orientalism. A Critique of Modern Knowledge, 256

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the ancient history and the Anthropocene collide. One important way in which they do so, as I hope to have shown, is through the notion of ‘risk’ (understood as the produce of a hazard and a vulnerability), a concept which is very akin to what Ghosh calls the ‘uncanny’. Ancient environmental ‘crises’ might have unfolded before the time of the Anthropocene, but they did impact, and they were dealt with by, human societies through religious, cultural, economic, and political mechanisms. Now if one takes aside technological advances and the intricacies of each particular historico-cultural contexts, these human responses to risk/uncanniness share several, fundamental features. In a way, they form a thread that not only runs throughout human history, but also transcends it. I introduced the cases of Rome and of the Rhone Delta above through a socio-economic angle, but we could also very well look at these examples through the lens of foundational narratives. In this regard, ancient stories – whether we call them myth or not – have a lot to teach us about how our species approached the uncertainties of the world. Take for instance Livy‘s famous account of the founding myth of Rome:

“But the Fates had, I believe, already decreed the origin of this great city and the foundation of the mightiest empire under heaven. The Vestal was forcibly violated and gave birth to twins. She named Mars as their father, either because she really believed it, or because the fault might appear less heinous if a deity were the cause of it. But neither gods nor men sheltered her or her babes from the king‘s cruelty; the priestess was thrown into prison, the boys were ordered to be thrown into the river. By a heaven-sent chance it happened that the Tiber was then overflowing its banks, and stretches of standing water prevented any approach to the main channel. Those who were carrying the children expected that this stagnant water would be sufficient to drown them, so under the impression that they were carrying out the king’s orders they exposed the boys at the nearest point of the overflow, where the Ficus Ruminalis (said to have been formerly called Romularis) now stands. The locality was then a wild solitude. The tradition goes on to say that after the floating cradle in which the boys had been exposed had been left by the retreating water on dry land, a thirsty she-wolf from the surrounding hills, attracted by the crying of the children, came to them, gave them her teats to suck and was so gentle towards them that the king’s flock-master found her licking the boys with her tongue. According to the story his name was Faustulus. He took the children to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to bring up. Some writers think that Larentia, from her unchaste life, had got the nickname of `She-wolf’ amongst the shepherds, and that this was the origin of the marvellous story.” (Livy, The History of Rome Book 1.4, Roberts 1912 transl., my bold)

I could have quoted so many other ancient narratives, so many stories that would qualify as “mythical” or “religious” in the western sense of the word, be it the Gilgamesh epic, the Heliopolitan creation myth (picture 5), the Odyssey, the Vedas, the Bible, etc.

COMPASS Title: Vignette from the Book of the Dead of Nesitanebtashru;Book of the Dead5. The Greenfield Papyrus (EA10554,87) = Book of the Dead of Nestanebetisheru, sheet 87: Geb (Earth), Nut (Sky) and Shou (Air), Deir el-Bahari, Egypt, c.950-930 BCE Image: The British Museum

I picked this passage because this is one of my favorite stories to teach; one that strikingly involves a diverse, intersectional array of (non-)human agents: the Fates, the Vestal priestress, Mars, the king, the cradle bearers, the Tiber, the she-Wolf, Faustulus, Larentia. The description of the landscape, and its intersection with the role of sexualized female protagonists (a raped priestress of Vesta, goddess of the Hearth; a breastfeeding she-wolf; a possibly promiscuous “wife”), are infused with societally-anchored, sacred meanings that I don’t have space to expand on here. But the one crucial element of this story I want to emphasize here is the role of the flooding Tiber.


6. Altar to Mars and Venus, Ostia, reign of Trajan, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Image: Wikimedia

It is the river in flood who saved the twins. More, it is the timing of the boys’ cradle’s exposition on the edges of the river’s high waters, and of its ensuing landing on dry land as the flood receded, that saved them, allowing for the she-wolf to reach, and nurse, them. In that regard, the 2nd c. CE altar to Mars and Venus found in Ostia and now at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (picture 6) offers a powerful visual complement to Livy’s narrative: Portrayed, as it was the custom by then, as a lounging, bearded man and positioned at the bottom right corner of the scene, the Tiber looks over the twins as they suckle onto the breasts of the she-wolf.  One could thus argue that the flooding Tiber is the main character of the story; it is he who ultimately saves the life of the twins. It is, metaphorically and literally, Rome’s navel. The very hydric risk Rome was to be wary of throughout its history was also the very actor thanks to which its founder was kept alive. While Livy’s own narration does indicates that this story was already subject to different interpretation in Antiquity, to label it as an ancient “myths” might well be too limiting and anachronistic.

This brief example poses the question of the limitations of current forms of historiographical writings and methodologies used by scholars working on Antiquity. Let’s be real: What is valued as “rationality” in western scholarship is nothing but a harnessed, period-specific type of subjectivity that goes back to the Enlightenment. Now given that Enlightenment scholars were themselves nourished by a particular set of (elitist, hegemonic, male, literary) representations of Antiquity, we find ourselves confined to a circular reasoning that excludes many voices from the equation, and thus provide a too limited set of epistemological models. As the quote from Wael B. Hallaq in the opening of that section argues, this issue calls for a critique and an expansion of the narrow notion of the “self” as it is currently shaped in most neoliberal, so-called “western” societies.

What does it mean to recognize that beyond the pro-Augustus undertone of Livy’s work, his testimony also documents indigenous forms of knowledge? How does our grasp of that story change if we step back from the western, “rational”, anthropocentric tradition and acknowledge that Mars, the Tiber and the she-wolf are active protagonists endowed with agency? More broadly: What if we understand ancient “myths” as Indigenous stories that both produce, process, and transmit knowledge? What if we accept more widely that, in line with Bruno Latour’s reflection quoted above, different “geostorical” paradigms have always existed, including alongside the modernist, Eurocentric tradition? What if we get rid of the idea, often implied, whereby Judaeo-Christian monotheism is more sophisticated, and “advanced” than other “religious” systems/traditions? How would that impact our understanding of the scene depicted in picture 7 for instance? What would indigenized Classics and Antiquity-related knowledge look like? In that regard, Classicists and other Antiquity-related scholars and teachers have a lot to contribute. And to (un)learn.


7. Isis nursing Horus-Harpokrates in the Nile Delta’s marshes; mammisi of Philae, Ptolemaic period

As a graphic saying from Québec says, some people only smell shit once their nose is immersed in it. The Anthropocene is one of those scenarios. The current climate crisis is taking place on such an broad, ungraspable scale that it forces us to rethink the way modern States, corporations, and consumerist societies interact with, see, and live on this planet. By the same token, it confronts us to the not only limited, but in many ways detrimental nature of the ways in which knowledge is produced in the European, “western” tradition. As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes:

“what scientists have said about climate change challenges not only the ideas about the human that usually sustain the discipline of history but also the analytic strategies that postcolonial and postimperial historians have deployed in the last two decades in response to the postwar scenario of decolonization and globalization” ((2008), « The Climate of History: Four Theses », 198)

The implications of such a realization are profound: they pertain not only to the way research is conducted, but also to how curricula are built, programs designed, disciplinary barriers – including the subjective divide between Nature and Culture – (de)constructed. We need to expand, diversify and indigenize the way we look at the world. And to do so, we need to let in more voices, more perspectives, more traditionally marginalized and indigenous outlooks on the Earth, on time, on space. It is not a matter of excluding or completely discrediting current, hegemonic voices, but rather of fostering polyphonic discussions involving a broader range of positionalities, agency webs, and subjectivities. It is, in sum, a matter of making the way we approach the Earth, and our place in it, more in tune with and receptive to what the Earth, and our species, look like. I thus agree with this Heather Davis and Zoe Todd when they write:

“We call here for those studying and storying the Anthropocene to tend to the ruptures and cleavages between land and flesh, story and law, human and more-than-human. Rather than positioning the salvation of Man – the liberation of humanity from the horrors of the Anthropocene – in the technics and technologies of the noösphere, we call here for a tending once again to relations, to kin, to life, longing, and care.” (p.775)

This call is in line with Katie Kearn’s plea regarding the study of past human-environment relationships by archaeologist, which might as well apply to all scholars working on ancient history:

“Attending more substantively to the study of past human environment relationships requires the reempowering of “land” in landscape and to include investigations not only on the instrumentality of politically charged and socially constructed spaces and places but also on things such as trees, soils, or pollen that participate in expected and imagined conditions or ecological challenges in flux.” (p.4)

The Anthropocene and its possible antidotes are, in a way deeper fashion than is generally assumed, shaped by complex and multilayered webs of historical dynamics, some of which can be traced back to Antiquity. Moreover, modern imperialism, colonialism, and neoliberalism suppose self-fashioning mechanisms that rely notably on highly curated readings of ancient ‘Greek’ and ‘Roman’ hegemonies. As long as we don’t come to terms with the full length, depth, and multifaceted tapestry of (geo)history, our grasp of what the Anthropocene means and our ability to imagine potent approaches to what Ghosh aptly calls “the unthinkable” will be severely hindered. We owe it to ourselves, and to the Earth, to do better.


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