Еhe environment of the Mediterranean region had a major impact on virtually every aspect of the lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The climate of the region, the plants and animals that shared their lands, and the geography and geology of the area all helped determine how the Greeks and Romans lived and how their civilizations developed.
The many lands that surround the Mediterranean are amazingly similar in their geography and climate. Mountain ranges are located near the coast throughout most of the Mediterranean, separating the coastal regions from the inland areas, producing a climate that is generally cool and rainy during the winter and hot and dry in the summer. The temperature is relatively constant, in some places varying only about 25 degrees Fahrenheit between the warmest and coolest months. This moderate climate makes outdoor living attractive, and the Greeks and Romans participated in many outdoor activities—plays, athletic events, and gatherings in the agora* or in the forum*.
Because of difficulties in crossing the mountains, the coastal Greeks and Romans mainly interacted with other peoples who lived on the coast of the Mediterranean and less frequently with the cultures that existed inland on the other side of the mountain ranges. Almost all major cities and towns were on or near the coast, and travel and transport were far easier and quicker by water than over land. This promoted a shared culture among the many ancient Mediterranean civilizations. The rough terrain also shaped the economic life. Farming was restricted to river valleys, coastal plains, and mountain plateaus, and crop production was frequently difficult. Rivers often flooded, carrying much of the rich soil of the valleys and plains down to the sea. This caused a buildup of fine mineral particles called silt, turning the fertile fields by the coast into swampy marshes and breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
The great forests that once grew in the Mediterranean region were valuable assets to the Greeks and Romans. Wood was the main fuel used for cooking, for heating, and for refining metals. It was also used for construction, for shipbuilding, and for making furniture, chariots, and weapons of war. Because of the limited amount of farmland, many forests were cleared for farms and pastures. Since trees hold soil in place, the loss of these forests increased the rate of erosion and ultimately reduced the fertility of the land. Overgrazing, especially by sheep, also destroyed the grasses in many areas, leading to further erosion.
The Greeks and Romans were surrounded by many species of plants and animals. The Greek scientist Theophrastus counted more than 600 different species of plants. In addition to trees, plants in the Mediterranean region included numerous species of wildflowers and hardy shrubs that were able to survive the long, dry summers. The variety of wild animals found in the Mediterranean area is even greater than that of plants, and many were hunted or used in Roman entertainments. Herds of bison and deer were common, and wild counterparts of domesticated animals, such as sheep, goats, and cattle, also roamed the land. Snakes, which play an important role in mythology, were found everywhere, as were birds, which were used in divination* ceremonies and kept as pets.
The Mediterranean region also holds rich deposits of metals and minerals, such as gold, silver, copper, and tin. The Greeks, and especially the Romans, mined these extensively. While mining and refining metals provided much of the wealth of these cultures, it also brought problems. Long-term daily exposure to heavy metals, such as mercury, arsenic, and lead, may result in sterility, low birth rates, physical weakness, and reduced intellectual capabilities. The Romans used mercury to refine gold, and arsenic to make dyes and medicines. They ate from utensils, dishes, and cooking pots that commonly contained lead, or silver with a high lead content, and their water supply was conducted through lead pipes or through aqueducts* sealed with lead. It is likely that large numbers of people in the Roman Empire, at least, suffered from varying degrees of environmental poisoning.
While the Greeks and Romans understood and effectively exploited their environment, many of their actions may have helped hasten the collapse of their civilizations. Depletion of the natural forests and erosion of the soil made it difficult for the land to support the great numbers of people it once did. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Climate, Mediterranean; Forestry; Geography and Geology, Mediterranean; Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Mediterranean Sea; Vegetation, Mediterranean.)
* agora in ancient Greece, the public square or marketplace
* forum in ancient Rome, the public square or marketplace, often used for public assemblies and judicial proceedings
* divination art or practice of foretelling the future
* aqueduct channel, often including bridges and tunnels, that brings water from a distant source to where it is needed