Review – The Science of Roman History: biology, climate, and the future of the past

2 mins read
Walter Scheidel (ed.)
Princeton University Press, £27
ISBN 978-1400889730
Review KK

The Science of Roman History is an innovative book, bringing together many different areas of archaeological science to comment on the Roman Empire. It is an enormous undertaking to synthesise over 500 years of human history, spanning regions as far apart as the Levant and the British Isles, and obviously many nuances must be abridged or omitted. Nonetheless, the editor and contributors make a valiant effort to create a foundation on which to build and are ultimately successful in creating a baseline of knowledge.

In his introduction, Scheidel is refreshingly open about what we can and cannot expect from this type of research. Most importantly, though, he does not shy away from stressing the need to continue to integrate archaeological science with more humanities-based approaches, while acknowledging the hurdles that still need to be jumped to successfully bridge the two.

In the seven subsequent chapters, a comprehensive range of archaeological science methodologies, focusing primarily on the human body and the surrounding biosphere, is discussed. Starting with the climate and how fluctuations in it may have affected Roman dominance, it then logically flows to archaeobotany in the second chapter, considering agriculture and its influence on the economy of the Empire. It then moves to zooarchaeology in the third chapter, highlighting animal domestication, but also the impact of other animals, such as rodents. The next two chapters focus on the human body, particularly emphasising diet and health, while the last two chapters focus on genetics: the first exploring ancient DNA, both human and pathological, and the last discussing modern DNA and what it can tell us about past migrations.

While each chapter examines previous research in its respective field, making it a useful resource, the chapters also, more notably, discuss where the discipline can grow from here and flag up new areas that still need to be explored. Overall, this is a well-constructed volume that would be a useful resource for anyone interested in the Roman period.

This review appeared in CA 344.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.