By Kayla Zacharias
Despite many recent proposed start dates for the Anthropocene ranging from the Industrial Revolution to the 1950s, it is well known that humans have been drastically altering the landscapes around them for thousands of years – and not with their bare hands. The axe was used commonly during Paleolithic times and it is still used today. It once allowed the people of Ancient Rome to clear land for agriculture, fuel, and military use, but deforestation and misuse of resources precipitated the Empire’s decline.
When the axe was first used in Africa nearly 2 million years ago, it looked more like a rock than the axes we use today. Though they seem like very elementary tools compared to today’s technology, they were complex tools for the time, allowing early humans to change their environments in ways they never would have been able to otherwise. The hand-axe was likely one of the first tools ever used by man. It was probably used for very elementary purposes, such as pulling up roots or crushing things. In order for man to start completing more complex tasks, he needed more advanced tools. The hammer and the axe became essential tools that helped people gather food and create shelter. In “The Evolution of the Axe from Prehistoric to Roman times,” author H. Coghlan says that when we consider what conditions would prompt the invention of the axe, “the answer is clearly timber”. Desire for timber, coupled with the assistance of the axe, eventually led to widespread deforestation.
Deforestation has become an extreme marker of human influence on the global landscape, in ancient and modern societies alike. Today, agriculture is the largest driver of deforestation, and the same was true in the Roman Empire from around 500 BCE to 500 CE. The way humans have treated the natural world since the beginning of the Common Era has caused extreme changes to our climate, and we are now experiencing droughts, severe storms, acidifying oceans, rising sea levels, increased temperatures and more. Mistreatment of the environment contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, and it could easily lead to the end of our society as well.
In A Companion to Global Environmental History, Hughes cites the removal of vegetative land cover by deforestation (with the axe) and overgrazing, accelerated erosion and silt deposition, impairment of agriculture by soil depletion, changes in water supply and drainage patterns, communicable diseases and climatic changes among many others as environmental factors that could contribute to the decline of ancient civilizations. Similarly, Hughes argues that multiple factors led to the fall of the Roman Empire. “One of these was mistreatment of the natural environment, including overexploitation of natural resources such as forests and soils, and failure to find sustainable ways to interact with the ecosystems of Italy and the Mediterranean. Environmental factors were important causes of the decay of Roman economy and society, though not the only causes, and the most important of environmental failures resulted from human activities.”
The Romans made a conscious choice to interact with the land the way they did; their resource management was not inevitable. People were not destined to cut down trees; they created tools to do so because timber was useful to them. There was disagreement about how to properly use their resources, though. Some believed that a decline in the earth’s health and production of resources was a natural phenomenon; the planet was getting older, after all. Others believed the earth’s resources were being diminished as a punishment for greedy consumption and carelessness. Had more people, or more powerful people, believed that environmental degradation was caused by negligence, the fall of the Roman Empire might have come about differently (or not at all).
Debates about the way natural resources should be used are still taking place today. Christophe Bonneuil popularized four “grand narratives” of the Anthropocene that illustrate the ways in which different groups of people interpret their relationships with the environment. However, in contrast to recent ideas about the Anthropocene, the Romans likely did not see themselves as the driving force of environmental change. One of Bonneuil’s narratives can be effective in helping us interpret the correlations between human/environment relationships in modern and ancient times. The eco-catastrophic narrative, for example, illustrates the consequences of unsustainable resource-use; Humans get “devoured by the earth they betrayed.” This narrative says humans realize they have reached the planets’ finitude, which is likely not how the Romans would view their relationship with the environment, although they were clearly aware they had reached some limits.
Based on the tools we know they had at the time, it was likely that much of the deforestation in the empire was done with the axe, which was arguably one of the most devastating consequences of the Romans’ treatment of the land. The Roman people cut down timber for many reasons: fuel, construction, military use, farming, grazing animals and more. These activities were all very important to ancient Romans, but it is clear that the empire’s rulers were more concerned about expansion, sustaining a growing population and military dominance than the health of the land.
Roman society was based heavily in agriculture – which they had to clear a lot of land for. Population decline was a serious concern for many because fewer children meant fewer farm workers. Rulers established laws to help solve this problem, such as making marriage and having children mandatory. However, for these measures to be successful, the empire needed adequate food sources to feed these new children. The population of the Roman Empire boomed in the first century CE, and much of the land on the Italian peninsula was cleared for planting crops and animal husbandry. The grazing of these animals made it especially difficult for the soil to recover, and contributed to erosion, destroying the landscape even further.
The people of ancient Rome used resources in a way that was unsustainable for the natural environment and for them, and they used the axe to do it. Environmental degradation directly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, which calls to question the way that we consume resources (renewable and nonrenewable) in the modern world today. Feeding the global population is still a concern, but so is the physical degradation of the land around us and the changes we’ve made to the composition of gases in the atmosphere that led to climate change. It is within the realm of possibility that the changes that come with climate change will eventually lead to the fall of society as we know it. Thus, the Anthropocene is not only an age of humans consuming the earth’s resources, but consuming them in an unsustainable way. If humans had been using resources more viably throughout the Common Era, we might never have entered the Anthropocene in the first place.
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Bonneuil, Christophe. The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis. Routledge, 2015.
Coghlan, H. H. “The Evolution of the Axe from Prehistoric to Roman Times.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 1943. Accessed April 19, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/info/2844356.
Hughes, J. Donald. “The Ancient World” from A Companion to Global Environmental History. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
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“The Role of Deforestation in the Fall of Rome.” H2g2: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. December 14, 2009. Accessed April 20, 2016. http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A2184473.