Archaeology / Book Review

Vol. 5, NO. 1 / December 2019

A Means to an End

Alberto Prieto

Letters to the Editors

In response to “A Means to an End

The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past
by Walter Scheidel (ed.)
Princeton University Press, 280 pp., $35.00.

From the seven essays presented in The Science of Roman History it seems that there has never been a better time to be a Roman historian. This is the rosy outlook described by Walter Scheidel and the array of historians, archaeologists, and scientists assembled for this volume. Complex and longstanding questions about the Roman era, such as the impact of slavery, wealth distribution, health and nutrition, and the costs of trade are now being reexamined using data-driven approaches. For the first time, the ancient Mediterranean climate can be reconstructed in detail, offering insights beyond the standard ancient literary sources and archaeological evidence. In short, it would seem that we are narrowing the multimillennial gap between ourselves and the Romans. These are claims that merit careful consideration.

In their opening chapter, entitled “Reconstructing the Roman Climate,” Kyle Harper and Michael McCormick promise a deeper understanding of the role played by climate in shaping Roman history. Their deployment of scientific data and historical reasoning is nonetheless surprisingly subjective, frequently undermining the conclusions they reach. The authors see stability in the main climate-forcing mechanisms, solar and volcanic activity, throughout the Roman era. Yet the four diagrams used to illustrate this point also depict numerous dramatic and often widely spaced peaks and troughs.1 Harper and McCormick correlate a peak that falls during the Imperial Crisis of the third century (235–284 CE), a period in which there were 25 emperors in just 50 years, to a hypothetical disruption of food supplies caused by a major volcanic event that occurred in 266 CE.2 In doing so, they do not adequately explain the correlation and downplay the well-documented political, military, economic, social, and moral causes of the crisis. This flirtation with something akin to environmental determinism is also evident in the concluding section. The authors call for “sophisticated thinking about exactly how climate can affect an ancient economy,” before immediately raising the familiar specter of food production.3 This leap in logic does not reflect sophisticated survival strategies involving land management practices and surplus harvests that have been documented by ethnographers.4

“Both climate change and social impact,” Harper and McCormick caution, “are complex and multidimensional phenomena that usually cannot be reduced to unilinear cause and effect.”5 At times, the authors struggle to follow their own advice. The Roman Warm Period (200 BCE–150 CE), an interval of generally warmer temperatures throughout the Mediterranean basin, is viewed as a factor that favored the formation of the Roman Empire during that period.6 This is not a causal connection. At best, it is merely an interesting coincidence. By contrast, the period of greatest political expansion and cultural efflorescence in the Etruscan era (ca. 700–250 BCE) coincided with a time of relatively cool temperatures in Tuscany.7 Climate datasets from around the Roman Empire do not reflect the level of uniformity implied by the authors. A detailed geological and geomorphological study of Ostia Antica, the harbor of ancient Rome, concluded that, “over the last 2,000 years, the most important progradation phases of the delta [first century BCE to second century CE] were produced by increases in sediment load caused by environmental changes, i.e., cool, moist climatic periods.”8 A generalized empire-wide model can never hope to capture the true complexity of environmental change. Historical questions are best formulated at the local and regional levels, where the climate data are most robust, and include archaeological data derived from field surveys and excavations.9

The second chapter is entitled “Archaeobotany: The Archaeology of Human-Plant Interactions,” and explores what can be learned from botanical remains recovered in archaeological excavations. Contributed by Marijke van der Veen, the strongest sections of this chapter examine the trade and distribution of foodstuffs and the relationship between food and identity.10 Both sections feature a selection of well-chosen examples. Although van der Veen correctly emphasizes that “both humans and plants have agency, and that both affect one another,” her examples mostly comprise lists of finds and exhibit a notable anthropological emphasis.11 She does not examine causal links between changes in the availability and desirability of specific foods and larger historical forces. Rather than simply noting that imperial quarry workers at Mons Claudianus and Mons Porphyrites in Egypt had a relatively rich and varied diet, it would be worthwhile to examine the means by which these foods were provided to people of presumably humble social origin and how this changed over time.12

Van der Veen’s chapter has some notable shortcomings. The ancient Roman agricultural texts, crucial evidence describing the types of plants cultivated at the time, are mentioned only to note their evidently limited applicability.13 Elsewhere, tobacco is erroneously listed among the Old-World plants introduced to the Americas for cultivation in plantations.14 There are also digressions of questionable value on modern issues, such as the effects of globalization and a high-sugar diet on health, and the description of the correct archaeological methods for collecting samples is misplaced in a volume targeted at historians. Perhaps the most glaring problem is that many of the examples chosen to illuminate the discipline of archaeobotany are not even Roman, either in chronology or location. This chapter is a long way from the detailed environmental reconstructions that have enriched our archaeological and historical understanding of the Greek and early Roman periods at Metaponto in southern Italy.15

The third chapter, “Zooarchaeology: Reconstructing the Natural and Cultural Worlds from Archaeological Faunal Remains,” examines the types of information that can be gleaned from animal bones recovered in archaeological excavations. Some of the issues associated with the previous chapter can also be seen here. In particular, many of the examples used are not exclusively Roman. Common perceptions among classicists are satirized in several places: “oh, [theory] is too complex for me” and “classical archaeology is a place to avoid science.”16 These statements have no place in an academic article. Archaeology is, in fact, much more interdisciplinary in nature than the author, Michael MacKinnon, acknowledges. In places, his contribution is too broad: the introduction and beginning of each section are essentially a primer for aspiring zooarchaeologists and there is little, if any, discussion about how historians can use the data effectively. Elsewhere, the chapter is too specific: the discussion of 14C dating is far too detailed for the target audience and the examples provided often stray far from historical issues and questions.

The fifth chapter, “Human Growth and Stature” by Rebecca Gowland and Lauren Walther, begins promisingly with a useful discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the competing methods for measuring stature—anatomical versus mathematical.17 The authors also make a compelling argument for paying closer attention to the remains of children, which contain more abundant and useful data on living conditions than those of adults.18 In the concluding section, Gowland and Walther helpfully point out what they describe as a “parsimonious uniformitarianism” that dominates the field of bioarchaeology: a tendency to indiscriminately apply techniques developed using sample sets with specific morphological features to other sample sets. Their recommendations for future improvements include providing a greater accounting for the highly mobile nature of the Roman imperial population.19 Gowland and Walther’s invocation of generic stress as a factor that could have significantly inhibited physical growth in antiquity is problematic, representing a shift away from their area of experience in natural science toward medicine.20 In all, their contribution is heavy on methodological considerations, providing a good overview for archaeologists as well as highlighting the enormous complexity of the field. There is some discussion of Roman datasets, but nothing about how the data and conclusions fit within Roman history.

The sixth and seventh chapters, “Ancient DNA” and “Modern DNA and the Ancient Mediterranean,” examine the potential of archaeogenetics as a new source of information about ancient history. In common with the other chapters, these contributions do little to elucidate the connection between science and history. Although well written, the sections in Chapter 7 explaining the methods in use are likely too technical for historians.21 The section in Chapter 6 describing the history of ancient-DNA research seems superfluous and takes up space that could have been more productively used examining historical questions.22 Although the following section discusses DNA and historical research in relation to the origin of the Etruscans,23 the Romans are again conspicuously absent from contributions notionally dedicated to their history.24 Other examples mentioned include Egyptian mummies, Native Americans, and the prehistoric peoples of Europe and the Near East.25 Passages on the genetic signatures of the peoples of the Roman Empire, diseases, and plants are so short as to appear afterthoughts.26

The fourth chapter, “Bones, Teeth, and History” by Alessandra Sperduti, Luca Bondioli, Oliver Craig, Tracy Prowse, and Peter Garnsey, deserves special mention as the contribution that comes closest to fulfilling the promise implied in the book’s title.27 Historians are mildly chastised for failing to consult human skeletal data because these “have no obvious relevance as a source of information for politics, political institutions, political thought, government, law, religion, warfare: in brief, for the traditional concerns of ancient historians.”28 The authors note:

The challenge awaiting historians is to provide contextualization [for human skeletal remains], to put the results of scientific analysis into a historical setting, and to bring other evidence to bear—while being fully conscious of the limitations of that other evidence.29

While the incorporation of scientific data into historical research is, of course, desirable, the authors also recognize the potential issues associated with an overzealous approach.30 The examples used to illustrate the points are all appropriate and this contribution is perhaps the most successful in demonstrating the relevance of science to the study of Roman history.

“The enlargement of historical knowledge,” R. G. Collingwood remarked, “comes about mainly through finding how to use as evidence this or that kind of perceived fact which historians have hitherto thought useless to them.”31 This has been convincingly demonstrated by geologists and geomorphologists, such as Dora Crouch. In her study of the relationship between Greco-Roman cities and their geological settings, Crouch writes that, “the best history does not deal with the facts, events, or processes separately but with their interconnectedness.”32 The Science of Roman History pays little attention to interconnections and will not inspire many Roman historians to engage with biological, anthropological, and climate data. Nor will historians learn much from the book. The examples discussed are, for the most part, focused on ahistorical aspects of daily life that will seem more familiar to archaeologists.

Moses Finley offered a cogent definition of history as a “systematic account over a long enough period of time not only to establish relationships, connections, causes and consequences but also to show how change occurs and to suggest why.”33 Measured against any of these criteria, The Science of Roman History falls short. It might have been better conceived as a series of case studies employing data from Roman-era locations to demonstrate the types of questions that can be addressed at the local, regional, or empire-wide level. In his introduction, Scheidel notes that, “[n]o matter how comprehensive the coverage of a survey of this kind, the rapid progress of scientific research ensures that before long it will seem dated.”34 As a result of its shortcomings, the book is already dated.

The importance and validity of the methods and results described in The Science of Roman History are assumed throughout, even if they are not justified or applied properly. This brings to mind an anecdote recounted by General George Patton in his memoir War as I Knew It. In early May 1945, troops under Patton’s command captured the Imperial Spanish Riding Academy of Vienna, which had been evacuated to a chateau in St. Martin im Innkreis in upper Austria. Upon his arrival in St. Martin, an exhibition was organized for Patton, a lifelong horseman. He watched avidly as the riders and their bright white Lipizzaner stallions performed a series of dazzling and complicated maneuvers:

Originally the gyrations taught the horses were of military importance. … With the passing years and changes in the art of war, the purpose of this form of equitation was forgotten, and the movements were taught as of value in themselves. … people began, as in many other arts, to glorify the means rather than the end which the means were supposed to produce.35

It was an astute observation, and also one with some relevance for the book under review. The social and physical sciences can and should be treated as a means for reconstructing Roman history, but not at the cost of becoming an end unto themselves.


  1. The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past, ed. Walter Scheidel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 18–21. 
  2. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 35. 
  3. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 39. 
  4. See, for example, Hamish Forbes, “Surplus, Storage and Status in a Rural Greek Community,” World Archaeology 49, no. 1 (2017): 8–25. 
  5. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 12. 
  6. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 24–25. 
  7. Ingela Wiman, “Etruscan Environments,” in The Etruscan World, ed. Jean MacIntosh Turfa (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 18–19. 
  8. Carlo Giraudi, Cristiana Tata, and Lidia Paroli, “Late Holocene Evolution of Tiber River Delta and Geoarchaeology of Claudius and Trajan Harbor, Rome,” Geoarchaeology: An International Journal 24, no. 3 (2009): 371–82. 
  9. Such an approach has been applied successfully to southern Italy since the 1970s by the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin
  10. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 60–65, 69–70. 
  11. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 74. 
  12. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 63. 
  13. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 60. 
  14. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 75. 
  15. Joseph Coleman Carter and Keith Swift, ed., The Chora of Metaponto 7: The Greek Sanctuary at Pantanello (Austin: University of Texas Press and Packard Humanities Institute, 2018). 
  16. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 114–15. 
  17. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 177–81. 
  18. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 186–88, 192–93. 
  19. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 193–94. 
  20. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 186. 
  21. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 205–07, 225–35. 
  22. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 207–09. 
  23. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 209–10. 
  24. As Scheidel notes in his introduction:
    Most relevant work on ancient and especially modern DNA deals with earlier periods of human history. Rather than elucidating specific issues of Roman Studies, it gives us a sense of the potential of this research to reshape our understanding of ancient societies in the coming years.
    Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 9. 
  25. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 211–12, 235–41. 
  26. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 212–14. 
  27. This is doubtless due to the presence among the authors of Peter Garnsey, an ancient historian whose long career has demonstrated a productive approach to the incorporation of science in history. His influence is detectable in the two early programmatic statements reproduced here, brandishing brutal honesty and intellectual rigor, and clearly designed to galvanize the book’s intended audience. 
  28. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 123. 
  29. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 124. 
  30. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 125. 
  31. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946), 247. 
  32. Dora Crouch, Geology and Settlement: Greco-Roman Patterns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 18. 
  33. Moses Finley, Ancient History: Evidence and Models (New York: Elisabeth Sifton/Viking Penguin, 1986), 5–6. 
  34. Scheidel, Science of Roman History, 9. 
  35. General George Patton, Jr., War as I Knew It (New York: Bantam Books, 1979), 310–11. 

Alberto Prieto is a scholar of the ancient world based in Rome, Italy.

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