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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

The Science of Roman History Biology, Climate, and the Future of the Past

By: Walter Scheidel(Editor)
259 pages, 23 b/w illustrations, 3 maps, 7 tables
The Science of Roman History offers an academic snapshot in time of what new methods have to offer historians and archaeologists.
The Science of Roman History
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  • The Science of Roman History ISBN: 9780691195988 Paperback Sep 2019 Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • The Science of Roman History ISBN: 9780691162560 Hardback Apr 2018 Usually dispatched within 5 days
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About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

This groundbreaking book provides the first comprehensive look at how the latest advances in the sciences are transforming our understanding of ancient Roman history. Walter Scheidel brings together leading historians, anthropologists, and geneticists at the cutting edge of their fields, who explore novel types of evidence that enable us to reconstruct the realities of life in the Roman world.

Contributors discuss climate change and its impact on Roman history, and then cover botanical and animal remains, which cast new light on agricultural and dietary practices. They exploit the rich record of human skeletal material – both bones and teeth – which forms a bio-archive that has preserved vital information about health, nutritional status, diet, disease, working conditions, and migration. Complementing this discussion is an in-depth analysis of trends in human body height, a marker of general well-being. The Science of Roman History also assesses the contribution of genetics to our understanding of the past, demonstrating how ancient DNA is used to track infectious diseases, migration, and the spread of livestock and crops, while the DNA of modern populations helps us reconstruct ancient migrations, especially colonization.

Opening a path toward a genuine biohistory of Rome and the wider ancient world, The Science of Roman History offers an accessible introduction to the scientific methods being used in this exciting new area of research, as well as an up-to-date survey of recent findings and a tantalizing glimpse of what the future holds.


List of Illustrations and Tables vii
Notes on Contributors ix
Acknowledgments xiii
Maps xiv

Introduction 1
      Walter Scheidel
1 Reconstructing the Roman Climate 11
      Kyle Harper & Michael McCormick
2 Archaeobotany: The Archaeology of Human-Plant Interactions 53
      Marijke van der Veen
3 Zooarchaeology: Reconstructing the Natural and Cultural Worlds from Archaeological Faunal Remains 95
      Michael MacKinnon
4 Bones, Teeth, and History 123
      Alessandra Sperduti, Luca Bondioli, Oliver E Craig, Tracy Prowse, & Peter Garnsey
5 Human Growth and Stature 174
      Rebecca Gowland & Lauren Walther
6 Ancient DNA 205
      Noreen Tuross & Michael G Campana
7 Modern DNA and the Ancient Mediterranean 224
      Roy J King & Peter A Underhill

Index 249

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Snapshot of new methods in archaeology
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Oct 2019 Written for Paperback

    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.

    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 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 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 and The Tales Teeth Tell 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.

    Spectacularly, old bones can also yield DNA (so-called ancient DNA). Pioneer Svante Pääbo wrote of this in his book Neanderthal Man, but see also my reviews of Ancestors in Our Genome and the fantastic Who We Are and How We Got Here 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*.

    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 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.
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Walter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. He is the author or editor of seventeen previous books, including The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

By: Walter Scheidel(Editor)
259 pages, 23 b/w illustrations, 3 maps, 7 tables
The Science of Roman History offers an academic snapshot in time of what new methods have to offer historians and archaeologists.
Media reviews

"This is a fabulous introduction to a wide range of techniques, and provides numerous fascinating insights into life in the Roman period."
– Hella Eckardt, Current World Archaeology

"This book shows that the study of the ancient Roman world is no exception to the enormous contribution that science has long been making to our understanding of the ancient past."
New Testament Abstracts

"This interdisciplinary book brings together the latest scientific methodologies to better understand the history of Rome and the ancient world. There really isn't another book like this."
– Kristina Killgrove, University of West Florida

"This book makes a superb introduction to the subject."
– Peter Jones, Classics for All Reviews

"[This] is a volume not just useful but capable of simultaneous entertainment and inspiration."
– James Corke Webster, Greece and Rome

"[This] volume is an important contribution not only to the historiography of the Roman Empire but also to the broad spectrum of scientific disciplines attempting to understand the past in general."
– Tomáš Glomb, Journal of Cognitive Historiography

"This volume brings together many of the key players in these various fields. The writing is uniformly excellent and it is sufficiently well illustrated. It represents a good overview of the state of the field and provides a clear explanation of the various techniques and disciplines covered and their potential."
– Ben Russell, Journal of Greek Archaeology

"[The Science of Roman History] captivates the reader with its monumentality and ambition."
– Csaba Szabó, Journal of Ancient History and Archaeology

"The Science of Roman History is a very timely book. With state-of-the-art contributions by scholars who are leaders in their respective fields, it describes how the integration of natural and human archives is changing the entire historical enterprise. I highly recommend that all historians read this important contribution."
– J. G. Manning, author of The Last Pharaohs

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