Patricia Jeskins, The Environment and the Classical World. London: Duckworth & Bristol Classical Press, 1998. Pp. vii + 91. ISBN 1-85399- 547-9. UKú8.95.
Richard J. Evans
Department of Classics,
University of South Africa, Pretoria.
This is a fine volume, slim in size perhaps, but attractively packed full with good ideas for the teaching place. Truly a book every educator should possess in his or her bookcase in preparation for the new millennium as equipment to deal with changing attitudes to Classics, and changing emphases in Classics courses whether they be predominantly language, literature or civilisation.
Environmental issues loom large in contemporary society wherever that may be in the world; and these issues have necessarily influenced the way in which Classics is taught and how Classics is being received. For, if the Greeks and the Romans did not espouse 'good environment' they cannot be relevant to today's audience. However, as all classicists knew anyway, and non-classicists probably suspected, the Greeks and the Romans had been there, done that. It is just a matter of focusing the abundant material at hand in order to deliver the goods. And this is precisely what Jeskins has done in this study. Expect no apologia for any perceived inadequacies of the people of the classical world on environmental issues, this positive message is all about humankind's struggle or happy co-existence with the harsh or sublime climate, depending on your point of view, of the Mediterranean Basin.
After a brief preface (p. viii) and Chapter 1 ('Introduction', pp. 1f.), Jeskins begins her study (Chapter 2, 'Geography, Climate and Resources', pp. 3-18), with a climatic, geographical, and topographical background (much too brief for this reader!), but which is sufficient for the classroom. If any further details are needed, just refer to 'Suggestions for Further Study' (pp. 86f.), 'Suggestions for Further Reading' (pp. 88-91), or the maps (pp. 82-85). Politics was never far off in the Greco-Roman world, but Jeskins (Chapter 3, 'Political Life', pp. 19-27), puts an entertaining and novel slant on gatherings and assemblies, placing them in the context of storms and earthquakes (pp. 25-27) which terminated, often prematurely, the mass participation of adult males in the public life of their poleis. In Chapter 4 ('Community and Social Life', pp. 28-42), Jeskins well illustrates the 'California life-style' of the Greeks and Romans (very familiar to South African readers too!) with religious festivals, like political debates, conducted outside the temple buildings. Games and entertainment generally took place out-of-doors, though velaria ('awnings') were allowed (p. 32), and living at home was also mostly al fresco. The winter was short, and so endured either with Stoic patience before a charcoal brazier or in Epicurean indulgence at Saturnalia. Trade, industry and agriculture feature next (Chapter 5, 'Economic life', pp. 43-60). Justifiably, this is one of the longer chapters with discussion of how the terrain was used in farming (p. 45-47); how soil types, irrigation and the influence of the seasons all affected rural life (p. 47-50); which crops were planted, and livestock reared; which tools were most effective (p. 50-54); and from which agricultural base industrial and commercial life resulted. In 'Travel and Communications' (Chapter 6, pp. 61-68), Jeskins deals essentially with sea and road transport, the former a commoner feature of the Hellenic world, the latter of the Roman empire. Finally, warfare (Chapter 7, 'Warfare', pp. 69-81) and how the environment -- really topography and weather -- influenced how a campaign was fought, a battle lost or won whether on dry land, on the beach or on the open sea.
No work is perfect; and there is room for criticism and comment even in this book. First of all, inexplicably there is no index and, therefore, a disincentive to use the book for reference. This reader does not understand how a publishing company can produce books in this technological age minus an index. It was not that difficult an exercise to complete even before the advent of computers -- still dimly remembered, and is a great deal easier now! Jeskins has some misapprehensions which should be duly noted. It is a common mistake to conceive of Greek history as being an inexorable path to enlightened democracy. That was never the case. On occasion, and then not that frequently, democracy was practised in various poleis but it is incorrect to declare that 'aristocracies in many Greek cities were replaced by tyrannies and then, in most cases, by democracies' (p. 24), since this progession, much beloved by ancient writers, was a paradigm seldom observed in practice. Jeskins refers to an unnamed Roman law which she attributes to the second century BC (p. 43) which 'prohibited senators from owning ships of over a certain tonnage', but a little further research would have yielded the lex Claudia of 218 BC as, for example, Broughton 1.238,[] or Livy (21.63.3) would have confirmed. The 'landlubber Roman' and 'the more adventurous Greek mariner' (p. 61) is perhaps an instance of perpetuating rather traditional perceptions which the facts belie. The Greeks certainly colonised in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, but the Romans easily explored as far afield; and the Roman fleets -- both naval and commercial -- tamed the seas in a way unthought of by the Greeks of the early Classical Period. And Jeskins ought to know that Pompey did not eradicate piracy from the Mediterranean region in 66 BC (pp. 65, 74), but that this menace to stability, trade and commerce in antiquity was only exterminated by Augustus through the policy of maintaining permanent fleets at Misenum and Ravenna. Consequently, the Early Principate was one of those very rare spells before the twentieth century when the sea-lanes of the Mediterranean were pest-free. In respect of Roman trade, take note of some repetition which should have been avoided (pp. 59, 64).
The numerous line drawings are excellent, the bromide prints taken from the author's original photographs are informative but, as with all such prints, they tend to have that faded look about them. The charts (pp. 20, 44) which are presented for use with the chapters could have been better placed and explained in the text to which they are supposed to refer, and mention of the 'olive-line' could perhaps have been reinforced with mention on a map (p. 51). Still all this is small fry compared with the overall pleasure and enjoyment the reading of this book gave me -- a delight which, no doubt, will be shared by a far greater audience.
[] T.R.S. Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic (New York 1951-1986).