Evolution in Greek and Roman thinking about human society

The philosophers of the ancient world were fascinated with the environment and how it affected the development of human society. Dr Georgy Kantor discusses the merits and problems of their thoughts – and whether any similar assumptions can be found in modern political thought.

Is my title paradoxical? Darwin’s theory of evolution was of course unknown to ancient Greece and Rome. While the descriptive biology of Aristotle and Theophrastus achieved much for its time, it certainly was not on the way to discovering the origin of species. Early philosophers (notably Xenophanes of Colophon) were interested in fossils, but more because they suggested that the sea once covered the land than for a systematic account of the emergence of life. Some more serious thinking in that direction was done, perhaps surprisingly for our age, by poets such as Lucretius (see the next article by my colleague, Dr Emma Greensmith, for more on that) and by late antique theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo. However, it was not discussed by ancient scientists and the notion that species did not change remained ‘fact’ for centuries to come.

And yet, thinking about change over time and the ways in which it is affected by the environment were at the heart of Graeco-Roman thinking about both nature and society. As a social historian, I am particularly interested in how ideas about the influence of climate and environment interacted with the Graeco-Roman understanding of human society. Looking at ancient texts which try to grapple with these problems can illuminate both the opportunities and the dangers of this way of thinking about humanity.

So, for instance, a famous text ascribed to Hippocrates, the father of ancient medicine, argued that understanding the environment and the climate will help a travelling physician to make secure epidemiological predictions on arrival to a new city. Hippocrates did not, of course, know the first thing about viruses as we understand them now:

‘And in particular, as the season and the year advances, he can tell what epidemic diseases will attack the city, either in summer or in winter, and what each individual will be in danger of experiencing from the change of regimen. For knowing the changes of the seasons, the risings and settings of the stars, how each of them takes place, he will be able to know beforehand what sort of a year is going to ensue. Having made these investigations, and knowing beforehand the seasons, such a one must be acquainted with each particular, and must succeed in the preservation of health, and be by no means unsuccessful in the practice of his art’ (On Airs, Waters and Places ch. 2, transl. C.D. Adams).

The author of the text was especially interested in the direction of winds that the city is exposed to, and there his thinking went beyond the potential epidemics to a whole range of issues, from the intellectual and emotional development of the locals to the rate of childbirth. Winds coming from the east were much better than those coming from the north, the south, and especially the west, the worst.

‘The persons of the inhabitants are, for the most part, well coloured and blooming, unless some disease counteract. The inhabitants have clear voices, and in temper and intellect are superior to those which are exposed to the north, and all the productions of the country in like manner are better. A city so situated resembles the spring as to moderation between heat and cold, and the diseases are few in number, and of a feeble kind, and bear a resemblance to the diseases which prevail in regions exposed to hot winds. The women there are very prolific, and have easy deliveries’ (On Airs, Waters and Places 5).

Going beyond that, he tried to distinguish between Europe and what he calls Asia (what we now call the Near East) and to describe how the difference in climate caused the differences both in the natural world and in human development and society. A third alternative was, for him, offered by the Scythian nomads in the steppes of what is now Ukraine and South Russia. ‘Asia’ and ‘Scythia’ are climatically similar, while Europe has more variable conditions; at the same time, ‘Scythia’ and Europe both have more severe environments than ‘Asia’. His conclusion was that the Asian climate is the best for health and ease of life (‘everything is produced much more beautiful and large in Asia’, On Airs, Waters and Places 12). At the same time, he made far-reaching claims about inhabitants of ‘Asia’ being ‘more gentle and affectionate’ and inhabitants of Europe and ‘Scythia’ being more capable of ‘endurance of suffering’.

This was one of the first attempts at human geography, trying to integrate the environment, human health, and society. However, at the same time, it obviously lent itself to extremely dangerous interpretations: it will not come as a surprise to you that the Hippocratic text has been extensively abused by modern racists. The historic Hippocrates, and other authors of texts ascribed to Hippocrates, must have considered themselves Asian under this concept of human geography, since they came from the island of Cos and the Cnidus peninsula on what is now opposite the Turkish mainland. They would not recognise themselves in the bile of modern racists. We need to be aware of such interpretations and of the possibility for ethnic stereotyping within the ‘Hippocratic’ analysis.

The same interest in ‘the question why’ inspired Hippocrates’ older contemporary, Herodotus, known as ‘the father of history’. It interested him in biology: in book 4 section 29 of his Histories, when talking about the effect of cold in Scythia, he formulates what is now known in biology as Allen’s rule, that bodily appendages of animals are smaller in colder climates. It interested Herodotus in human society, when thinking of the relative merits of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and their emergence in different parts of the world. It interested him in what gradually became the main theme of his work: explaining the great war between the Persian empire and the Greeks, the defining conflict of that age.

And yet, while he was certainly searching for environmental explanations, his answers can be remarkably different from those you find in the Hippocratic medical treatise. For instance, Herodotus did not go for any crude, generalised divisions between ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’, even though he spends some time defining the boundary between the two. His Greeks are different from his Thracians, his Egyptians from his Persians, his Indians from his Babylonians. He was remarkably accepting of the difference of law and custom in different countries, and certainly did not think that the Greeks (however much he admired their resistance to the Persian invasion) were either blameless in the conflict or the only courageous ones. Unsurprisingly, later authors trying to assert Greek superiority attempted to accuse him of malicious misrepresentations, ‘fake news’ as one former President might say, which for us serves to emphasise Herodotus’ sensitivity towards other cultures.

The themes set by Herodotus were reflected upon by philosophers, historians and geographers for centuries to come. Polybius, the great Greek historian of the rise of Roman power, who was writing in the second century BC, attempts to explain the success of Rome by the excellence of its political and social system. In doing so, he constructs perhaps the most comprehensive outline of the rise and decay of particular forms of constitutionalism. This proved extremely influential in the modern age, when it affected the thinking of the Founding Fathers, who wrote the American Constitution. He explains that political society emerges in the response of human communities to natural disasters: ‘floods, epidemics, and failure of crops’ (Polybius, Histories, book 6 chapter 8). Even later, Strabo from Amaseia, in the most comprehensive geographical work to survive from antiquity, tries to explain the success of Rome by the geographical position and environment of Italy, including its ‘abundant supply of fuel, and of food both for men and beast, and the excellence of its fruits’ (Strabo, Geography, book VI chapter 4).

These ideas have proved influential in and beyond Western European thought. It would be good to consider upon what kind of assumptions about human society they rely. For instance, did ancient historical and geographical authors assume conquest and imperialism were normal? Or, did they assume leisure and prosperity always brought moral corruption? Although these discussions seem distant from us today, such unspoken assumptions may still unconsciously exist in much modern thought. The problem of what role natural sciences should play in understanding social developments is as relevant now as it was then, as our global society adapts to the threats of climate change and pandemics.

Dr Georgy Kantor, Tutorial Fellow in Ancient History

Further Material

Primary Texts

Out-of-copyright (and so rather old-fashioned in their feel) translations are available online for Herodotus, Hippocrates and Polybius in Greek and Roman Materials collection of the Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/collections, and for Strabo on the Lacus Curtius website http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Strabo/home.html. Strabo is best read with this interactive map: http://awmc.unc.edu/awmc/applications/strabo/.

All of these texts are fully translated in the Loeb Classical Library, and there are good modern translations of Herodotus with notes from Penguin and from Oxford World’s Classics.

Secondary Reading

Start with your own thinking about the ancient texts you read and read around them for more that might interest you. For in-depth analysis and further context, you might wish to look at (some of them more heavy-going than others):

Lisl Walsh, ‘Hippocrates, Racism, and the Translation of Greco-Roman Thought’ – a useful piece on the misuse (and mistranslation) of Hippocrates by modern racists.

Alison Bashford and Sarah W. Tracy, ‘Modern Airs, Waters and Places’ – discusses the influence of Hippocrates on modern science.

James Romm, Herodotus (Yale University Press 1998), especially chapters 5, ‘The downfall of the Greatness’, and 6, ‘The Structure of the Earth’.

Frank Walbank, ‘Polybius and the Roman State’

Katherine Clarke, ‘In Search of the Author of Strabo’s Geography’, and ‘Strabo and the Mediterranean’