Plato and Lucretius on Environmental Degradation


Study Questions

1)    What can you infer from these texts about the nature of Greek and Roman agriculture- what agricultural crops were cultivated, how did they work the soil, etc.?

2)    Based on this text, what long-term effects did Greek and Roman agriculture have upon the soil?

3)    How do you reconcile Lucretius’ gloomy statements about the present state of Roman agriculture with the fact that Rome was still an expanding power at the time, with the period of greatest glory still to come?


Plato, Critias [extract]


Plato was a famous Greek philosopher who lived between approximately 427-347 BC and who was a student of Socrates, who is regarded by some as the father of philosophy. Like Socrates, Plato was a social critic who contrasted the lax morals of the present day and was nostalgic about a remembered, golden past. This excerpt talks about the environmental changes he has seen in his native province of Attica, of which Athens was the capital city.


Now the country was inhabited in those days by various classes of citizens;— there were artisans, and there were husbandmen, and there was also a warrior class originally set apart by divine men. The latter dwelt by themselves, and had all things suitable for nurture and education; neither had any of them anything of their own, but they regarded all that they had as common property; nor did they claim to receive of the other citizens anything more than their necessary food… The land was the best in the world, and was therefore able in those days to support a vast army, raised from the surrounding people. Even the remnant of Attica which now exists may compare with any region in the world for the variety and excellence of its fruits and the suitableness of its pastures to every sort of animal, which proves what I am saying; but in those days the country was fair as now and yielded far more abundant produce. How shall I establish my words? and what part of it can be truly called a remnant of the land that then was? The whole country is only a long promontory extending far into the sea away from the rest of the continent, while the surrounding basin of the sea is everywhere deep in the neighborhood of the shore. Many great deluges [floods] have taken place during the nine thousand years, for that is the number of years which have elapsed since the time of which I am speaking; and during all this time and through so many changes, there has never been any considerable accumulation of the soil coming down from the mountains, as in other places, but the earth has fallen away all round and sunk out of sight. The consequence is, that in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left. But in the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, as they are termed by us, of Phelleus were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees [who get food from wildflowers on deforested slopes], not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle. Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea, but, having an abundant supply in all places, and receiving it into herself and treasuring it up in the close clay soil, it let off into the hollows the streams which it absorbed from the heights, providing everywhere abundant fountains and rivers, of which there may still be observed sacred memorials in places where fountains once existed; and this proves the truth of what I am saying.





Lucretius, On the Nature of Things [extract]


Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from 99 BC to 55 BC, when Rome was still expanding to become the dominant power of the Mediterranean. Little is known about the author, but is clear that he was a keen observer of agriculture and nature- though the main focus of the poem was to argue against the concept of an afterlife and the idea that the soul can exist independently of a body.


Mother Nature first gave us demonstrations of the way sowing might operate; the acorns fell under the oaks, bushes (or birds) dropped berries whose seeds in time became small shoots, a swarm new risen, and men learned the stranger craft of grafting, or of planting slips in the earth, tried cultivation of their little plots, found methods of improving wilder growth by patience and by gentleness, the way trainers succeed in taming other stock [domesticated animals]. They made the woods climb higher up the mountains, yielding the lowlands to be tilled and tended— With meadow, pool, and stream, with oats and wheat on the low plains—and higher on the hills vineyards to make men glad, and olive trees whose gray-green color marked the boundary up hill, down dale, so you could see all things. Charming, and all things different, all adorned— Sweet orchards, lovely hedgerows.




It is food that every creature needs, the food that mends, supports, renews, replenishes. But now nature can give no more, and income must be lest than outgo. So many things wither, die, made mean by loss, by blows, within, without, assailed, besieged, betrayed, till at long last food fails, and the great walls are battered in. In just this way the ramparts [walls] of the world, for all their might, will some day face assault, be stormed, collapse in ruin and in dust. It is happening already; our poor earth, worn out, exhausted, brings to birth no more great eons, titans, huge majestic beasts; only our own disgusting little days, Midges and gnats… the same earth who nourishes them now once brought forth… vineyards and shining harvests, pastures, arbors [orchards?] and all this now our very utmost toil we hardly care for, we wear down our strength, whether in oxen or in men, we dull the edges of our plowshares, and in return our fields turn mean and stingy, underfed. And so today the farmer shakes his head, more and more often sighing that his work, the labor of his hands, has come to naught [nothing]. When he compares the present to the past, the past was better, infinitely so…. All things, little by little, waste away as times erosion crumbles them to doom.