he climate—the long-term regional weather patterns—of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea had a significant influence on the lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Climate affected their diet by determining the foods they could grow each season. It affected the economy of ancient communities, which relied heavily on farming. It also affected architecture and the types of shelters that were built to protect the people from various weather conditions.
To learn about climate conditions of the past, scholars study ancient texts that describe the weather and the seasons. Physical evidence, such as tree rings, reveals climate patterns and changes over time. Although some climate changes have occurred in the Mediterranean region over the centuries, the region between 300 B.C. and A.D. 400 had much the same climate that it has today.
Temperatures and Rainfall. The Mediterranean region has two main seasons: cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Winter lasts roughly from October to May—a little longer in the northern and western areas and shorter in the southern and eastern areas. Although these months are considered the wet season, it does not rain all the time. Much of the precipitation occurs in sudden, heavy rainstorms, and many winter days are sunny and clear.
Rainfall varies from place to place within the Mediterranean region. Most rain comes from the west. This means that the western Mediterranean and the western slopes of hills and mountain ranges are wetter than the eastern Mediterranean and eastern slopes. Rome and Gibraltar, in the western part of the Mediterranean basin, each receive an average of 36 inches of rain annually. The cities of Athens and Alexandria, in the eastern Mediterranean basin, are drier. Athens receives an average of 16 inches of rain each year, and Alexandria receives about 8. However, rainfall can vary dramatically from year to year—some years much wetter than average and others much drier.
Winter temperatures are generally mild. In many Mediterranean cities, the coolest months average 25° (Fahrenheit) colder than the hottest months. Temperatures rarely fall to freezing levels except in the mountains. Snow is rare, falling perhaps once or twice each year in Athens and melting within a few hours. Yet, winter weather in the Mediterranean is not always pleasant. Storms often sweep across the sea and raise waves to dangerous heights. The ancient Greeks and Romans avoided sailing during this season.
Hilly and mountainous regions have considerably colder winters than the lowlands. Most of the higher mountains receive winter coatings of snow, but very few of them keep the snow through the summer. Snow from these peaks was prized by ancient Greeks and Romans who could afford to have it carried down from the mountains to cool their summer drinks.
The hot, dry summer season lasts from May to October. In most of the Mediterranean basin, the months between June and September are almost rainless. In ancient times, these were the months for sea voyages and military campaigns. Summer can be uncomfortably hot in some parts of the Mediterranean. For example, summer temperatures in Libya on the North African coast rise above 120°F. In most parts of the Mediterranean, however, occasional thundershowers break the summer heat and drought.
Winds and Weather. The Mediterranean is a windy region. Some of the major winds around the Mediterranean Sea are so prevalent they have their own names. One of these is the mistral—a cold, dry winter wind from the north that sweeps through southern France. The mistral can be violent and destructive, uprooting trees and carrying vehicles off the roads. Other cold winds from the north are the bora, which blows along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, and the gregale, which sweeps off the Balkan Peninsula across the Ionian Sea.
Hot, dusty winds sometimes blow across the Mediterranean in the other direction, sweeping north from the Sahara desert. In Italian, this wind is known as the sirocco. Passing through North Africa, the sirocco is intensely dry and hot and causes terrible sandstorms that coat every surface with dust. As the sirocco crosses the Mediterranean, it picks up moisture. Clouds form in the sirocco, and the rain that results is red from the dust carried in the wind. Siroccos are most common in spring.
Not all winds are destructive. During the summer, steady breezes from the north make sailing easy—at least in a southerly direction. These steady winds also help carry cooler northern air to Alexandria in Egypt, and allow sailing vessels to travel several hundreds of miles upstream on the Nile River.
Climate and Culture. Climate greatly influenced agriculture in ancient Greece and Rome. Olives were a popular food, and olive oil was an important trade product because the olive tree flourished in the region’s mild winters and dry summers.
Most of the Mediterranean region receives enough rainfall for farmers to grow grains, such as barley and winter wheat. These grains were staples of the Greek and Roman diet. However, because rainfall can vary widely from year to year, there were many years in which crops failed. The threat of grain shortages or famine was always present. It was the responsibility of the Roman government to store grain and distribute it to the people during food shortages.
Climate shaped ancient customs and habits, too. The mild temperatures and limited rainfall of the Mediterranean climate encourage outdoor activities. Ancient athletes, clad only in loincloths, competed in the sunny, open air, and students assembled outdoors for their classes. Open marketplaces and theaters, temples with outdoor altars, and houses with courtyards open to the sky all reflect the love the Greeks and Romans had for the outdoors. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Games, Greek; Games, Roman; Vegetation, Mediterranean.)
CLIMATE AND HISTORY
To study the dimate of the ancient world, some scientists use the growth rings in trees. Each ring represents a year in the tree's life. The width of each ring shows whether that particular year was warm or cold. Using samples from the oldest known trees, scientists have constructed a history of the Mediterranean for the past several thousand years. Tree rings for 218 B.C., for example, show that it was an unusually warm year. In that year, Hannibal of Carthage stunned Rome by bringing an army—and some elephants—across the high, snowy Alps. If the weather had been a few degrees colder, his bold venture might have failed.