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Where Even the Gods Were Powerless

Pollution was a problem even back in antiquity – and lack of awareness wasn’t the issue then, either.

Apr 14, 2015

Wandmalerei mit Kraftausdrücken: „Cacator / cave malu“ (dt. „Scheißer, hüte dich vor Ärger“) warnt eine antike Göttin den nackten hockenden Mann an einem Gebäude in Pompeji.
A strong warning in an ancient mural on a building in Pompeii: A goddess admonishes the naked man shown squatting, “Cacator / cave malum.” Image Credit: Quelle: Neapel, Museo Nazionale, Inv. 112285, L 106

Chemical waste, vehicle exhaust, soil poisoned by fracking: Nowadays, industrial progress since the 19th century is considered the main cause of pollution. But were people 1,000 or 2,000 years ago more environmentally conscious in their actions because there was no industry in the modern sense? Did they live in harmony with nature, as idyllic depictions in ancient and medieval literature would seem to suggest?

“Definitely not,” says Gian Franco Chiai; “quite the opposite, in fact.” Chiai, who has a doctorate in ancient history and in languages and literature, is working with his colleague Orietta Cordovana, who is based in Edinburgh, to study pollution in antiquity. The two scholars are investigating, for example, what kinds of pollution existed between the 8th century B.C. and the Middle Ages, and whether people were aware of their role in degrading the natural environment. In his research based on literary and epigraphic sources, Chiai has found a wealth of materials: inscriptions as well as scholarly and medical treatises that, while known, had previously only been analyzed from other points of view.

Contaminated Water Was Already a Problem in Ancient Rome

Large quantities of ancient waste also offered insight. “At a Roman settlement in the German state of Hesse, for example, an old well was found – filled with multiple strata of centuries-old waste,” Chiai reports. “Wood, remains of weapons, leather, human and animal waste, and much more. The water from this well must have been highly contaminated.” Based on the historical sources, Chiai concludes that contaminated water was a major problem in most cities and towns in the former Roman Empire.

“Clean drinking water could be rare and precious,” Chiai says, “so contaminating it would have even more serious consequences.” This is also shown by laboratory analyses of ancient waste, which is otherwise not of much interest to scholars. Armies that camped in a certain location for a longer period were especially responsible for contributing to water contamination in the ancient world: “Roman camps were home to thousands of men, all of whom had to see to their daily bodily needs. In addition, horses and other animals had to be fed, cleaned, and cared for every day,” Chiai explains. “Most military camps were placed along rivers, and the purity of the river water must not have been a top priority,” he adds.

The fact that contaminated water and soil can adversely affect people’s well-being and quality of life was certainly known to people in the ancient world – but they did not generally act on the knowledge. Inscriptions on wells and fountains prohibited people from washing clothing or watering animals there, but they did it anyway. The same general attitude prevailed in other areas as well. “For a long time, it was common to use lead vessels although people knew the metal was toxic and the human organism should avoid contact with it,” Chiai points out.

Human excrement seems to have been a frequent source of pollution in the water and landscape in and around settlements in the ancient world. An inscription on one of the gates to the Greek city of Ephesus warned, for example, that the wrath of the city’s patron goddess, Artemis, would fall on anyone who answered the call of nature there. “Many of the inscriptions are quite explicit on this point,” Chiai says, using clear words to get the message across loud and clear. “No shitting or pissing here!” was stated on the city gate.

A similar example is found in an inscription on the triumphal arch of Thigibba, in present-day Tunisia: “If someone urinates here, this person will incur the wrath of the god Mars.” Threatening the vengeance of the gods was a popular method – but only a moderately effective one, Chiai thinks. People lacked the necessary technical knowledge to find solutions to secure the common good. And yet, he points out, “The problems were recognized and talked about.”

People Died of a Kind of Lung Cancer Even in Ancient Egypt

Chiai has also concluded from recent analyses of ancient Egyptian mummies that there may already have been significant air pollution in certain places there. Isabella Andorlini of the University of Parma analyzed the mummy findings in connection with ancient medical papyri. The result? These people likely died of a kind of lung cancer and tuberculosis. Possibly, Chiai says, because they lived near workshops where toxic substances were used to produce linen and other textiles. “Ancient Greek medical treatises already made a connection between illnesses and pollution,” Chiai says.

So have we learned anything from our predecessors? Chai has a definitive answer there, too: No. “Even back in antiquity, people did not deliberately want to harm the natural environment – but they polluted it anyway. Unfortunately, we are making the same mistakes they did.” While there are now ways to separate drinking water and wastewater and keep cities relatively clean, humans produce more trash, exhaust, and chemical waste than ever before.

It was also important to Chiai and his colleagues to develop a research network. To this end, the researchers organized an international conference on the topic “The Environment in Antiquity” last year, with support from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Topoi cluster of excellence in ancient studies, an interdisciplinary research alliance hosted by Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. There are also plans for a monograph that will compile and analyze the results of research so far. The support from the Thyssen Foundation has run out in the meantime.

Gian Franco Chiai now has new plans: He intends to dedicate himself to studying environmental and climate disasters in antiquity, if possible with support from the Environmental Policy Research Centre at Freie Universität. He is currently writing a grant proposal. And perhaps this will make it possible, in the long run, to learn from the mistakes of people in the ancient world and use that knowledge for the future.

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