Book review – The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past

One look at the title and you might be forgiven for quoting John Cleese. But rather than asking what the Romans can do for us, this book asks what we can do for the Romans. Walter Scheidel, who is a professor of humanities as well as classics and history, and a fellow in human biology, brings together a diverse cast of scientists. Their aim? To discuss what relatively young bioscientific disciplines can add to our picture of life in Ancient Rome as revealed so far by the more mature disciplines of history and archaeology. Which disciplines might these be? Prepare yourself for several mouthfuls as this book covers palaeoclimatology, archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, palaeopathology, population genetics, and the study of ancient DNA.

The Science of Roman History

The Science of Roman History: Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past”, edited by Walter Scheidel, published by Princeton University Press in April 2018 (hardback, 259 pages)

This book poses a challenge to its editor as above-mentioned fields are rapidly developing, relatively young, and, as typical with new disciplines, prone to hyperbole. Initial findings run the risk of being oversold before expectations are reined in, often causing scientists in other, more established disciplines to eye them up suspiciously. As such, the seven chapters in this book primarily discuss methodology, highlighting both potentials and pitfalls.

Perhaps appropriately Kyle Harper and Michael McCormick open the book with a chapter on palaeoclimatology: the reconstruction of past climates. I say appropriately as it was while reviewing Harper’s wonderful book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire that I first learned that this book was being written. The authors here give a crash course on the various proxies that are being used to reconstructing past climates, and what their shortcomings and limitations are. This includes data obtained from tree rings, ice cores, mineral deposits in caves, and sediment records in lakes. A tentative reconstruction of the Mediterranean climate for the period 200 BCE to 600 CE is given, though the authors are careful in their speculation as to what the human response might have been. Harper has developed his own ideas more fully in The Fate of Rome.

“[The archaeobotanical] record can tell us how food went from farm to fork”

The next two chapters focus on the plants and animals with which the Romans surrounded themselves, touching on the disciplines of archaeobotany and zooarchaeology. Marijke van der Veen focuses on food plants, as archaeological dig sites are often rich in plant remains. This record can tell us how food went from farm to fork and, importantly, provides details of the mundane but important daily chores of food production, preparation, and consumption. Something which written sources are often mute about. Michael MacKinnon similarly looks at animal remains in the archaeological record and how these can answer questions such as: Where did animals originate and end up? What did they eat? What animals do these bones even belong to? (Fragmentary bones alone are not always enough to determine identity, DNA analysis might be needed.) And animal remains can be used to buttress the chronology of other events.

The last four chapters, then, deal with human skeletal remains. From my reviews of Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins and The Tales Teeth Tell: Development, Evolution, Behavior I have learned what teeth can reveal about diet and disease, but bones can be used to answer many questions. Determining sex and age-at-death are two basic questions you would like to see answered when finding skeletal remains but is not straightforward, as a team of five authors here explains. Bones can furthermore reveal signs of disease (abovementioned palaeopathology), overall health and condition, diet, and workload or occupational tasks. The chapter on human growth and stature is possibly the only one that reports an analysis as the authors compare two different methods of determining a person’s stature from skeletal remains.

“Hopefully, even obstinate classicists and historians who […] sometimes distrust these novel methods might find this book an eye-opener.”

Spectacularly, old bones can also yield DNA (so-called ancient DNA). Pioneer Svante Pääbo wrote of this in his book Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, but see also my reviews of Ancestors in Our Genome: The New Science of Human Evolution and the fantastic Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past which look at human evolution and population genetics in the light of ancient DNA. This chapter is surprisingly brief, giving a canned history and some examples of how ancient DNA can be used in only ten pages. It also sounds cautionary notes throughout.

A final chapter looks at population genetics, which studies the genetic material of people alive today to see what it reveals about our recent evolutionary history and migration across the globe. Specific attention is given to mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA as these escape recombination at every generation and thus retain a record of their genetic ancestry for longer*.

“these disciplines can reveal much about the 99%, the silent majority of people not part of the rich and famous, for whom no other records survive.”

Although the various contributions in The Science of Roman History make for interesting reading and are accessible given the technical nature of the topics covered, I could not help but wonder who the intended audience is for this book. For the general reader, I worry that the methodological discussions might be too abstract. A synthesis of their respective fields is outside of the scope of this book, and though there are numerous references to primary literature, studies are often only mentioned. Killgrove’s upcoming book (under contract at the moment of writing this review) These Old Roman Bones: What Bioarchaeology Tells Us About Life in the Roman Empire might provide more narrative. For the specialist, on the other hand, this book might quickly become outdated as the pace of progress in these disciplines is astonishing. Scheidel acknowledges as much in his introduction, writing that we are “pushing against the limits of conventional formats of dissemination”, and suggesting a continuously updated electronic publication might be a better format than the printed book.

Ultimately, then, I think this book offers an academic snapshot in time that will be of interest to archaeologists, anthropologists, and geneticists eager to take a peek over the fence at how neighbouring disciplines are coming along. Hopefully, even obstinate classicists and historians who (or so this book makes it seem) sometimes distrust these novel methods might find this book an eye-opener. They will be pleased with the overall cautious tone and tempered expectations. One thing The Science of Roman History does convince you of is that these disciplines can reveal much about the 99%, the silent majority of people not part of the rich and famous, for whom no other records survive.

*If this sentence did not make sense – genetic recombination is the reason siblings are not facsimiles of each other. Both father and mother mix up their genetic material when they prepare sperm and egg cells so that each contains a unique mixture. This mixing process is great for producing genetically variable offspring, but it quickly erases information on ancestry. Mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal are excluded from this process.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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The Science of Roman History paperback, hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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