Mediterranean peoples: Vitruvius on the effects of climate (first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Vitruvius on the effects of climate (first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 30, 2023,

Ancient author: Vitruvius, On Architecture 6.1-12 (link; link to Latin)

Comments: At the beginning of his discussion of house design, the Roman engineer and archtitect Vitruvius notes the importance of climate for building design and then goes on a somewhat detailed theoretical digression on the relationship between climate, the zodiac, and the nature of peoples in different regions of the Mediterranean.  The discussion reflects the medical theory of the four humours which is intimately connected with climate and environment (about which also go to this link). The imperialistic point of all this becomes clear when Vitruvius asserts that the Roman people live in the best climate and region and therefore are rightly the rulers of the world.

Source of the translation: H. Milford, Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914), public domain, adapted by Harland.


Book 6

[Impact of region, climate, and astrological information on house design]

1 (1) If our designs for private houses are to be correct, we must at the outset take note of the countries and climates (inclinatio) in which they are built. One style of house seems appropriate to build in Egypt, another in Spain, a different kind in Pontos [Black Sea region], one still different in Rome, and so on with lands and countries of other characteristics. This is because one part of the earth is directly under the sun’s course and another is far away from it, while another lies midway between these two. Accordingly, as the position of the heaven with regard to a given tract on the earth leads naturally to different characteristics, owing to the inclination of the circle of the zodiac and the course of the sun, it is obvious that designs for houses should similarly conform to the nature of the country and to diversities of climate.

(2) In the north, houses should be entirely roofed over and sheltered as much as possible, not in the open, though having a warm exposure. But on the other hand, where the force of the sun is great in the southern countries that suffer from heat, houses must be built more in the open and with a northern or northeastern exposure. In this way, we may amend by practical skill what nature, if left to herself, would damage. In other situations, also, we must make modifications to correspond to the position of the heaven and its effects on climate.

[Digression on the effects on peoples in connection with the four humours]

(3) These effects are noticeable and discernible not only in things in nature, but they also are observable in the limbs and bodies of entire descent groups (gentes). In places on which the sun supplies its heat in moderation, it keeps human bodies in their proper condition, and where its path is very close at hand, it parches them up and burns out and takes away the proportion of moisture which they should possess. But, on the other hand, in the cold regions that are far away from the south, the moisture is not drawn out by hot weather, but the atmosphere is full of dampness which diffuses moisture into the system, and makes the frame larger and the pitch of the voice deeper. This is also the reason why the descent groups that are bred in the north are very tall and have fair complexions, straight red hair, grey eyes, and a great deal of blood, owing to the abundance of moisture and the coolness of the atmosphere.

(4) On the contrary, those that are nearest to the southern half of the axis, and that lie directly under the sun’s course, are shorter with a dark complexion, curly hair, black eyes, strong legs, and only a little blood due to the impact of the sun. So also this lack of blood makes them overly timid to confront the sword, but they can endure great heat and fevers without timidity, because their frames are bred up in the raging heat. Therefore, men that are born in the north are rendered overly timid and weak by fever, but their excess blood enables them to confront the sword without timidity.

[Effects on voices of peoples]

(5) The pitch of the voice is likewise different and varying in quality with different peoples, for the following reasons. The terminating points east and west on the level of the earth, where the upper and lower parts of the heaven are divided, seem to lie in a naturally balanced circle which mathematicians call “the horizon.” Keeping this idea clearly in mind, if we imagine a line drawn from the northern side of the circumference (N) to the side which lies above the southern half of the axis (S), and from here another line obliquely up to the pivot at the summit, beyond the stars composing the Great Bear (the pole star P), we shall doubtless see that we have in the heaven a triangular figure like the musical instrument which the Greeks call the “sambuke.”

(6) So, under the space which is nearest to the pivot at the bottom, off the southern portions of the line of the axis, are found peoples (nationes) that – due to the low altitude of the heaven above them – have shrill and very high-pitched voices, like the string nearest to the angle in the musical instrument. Next in order come other peoples as far as the middle of Greece, with lower elevations of the voice. From this middle point they go on in regular order up to the extreme north, where, under high altitudes, the vocal utterance of the inhabitants is, under natural laws, produced in heavier tones. So it is obvious that the system of the universe as a whole is, on account of the inclination of the heaven, composed in a most perfect harmony through the temporary power of the sun.

(7) The peoples, therefore, that lie midway between the pivots at the southern and the northern extremities of the axis, converse in a voice of middle pitch, like the notes in the middle of a musical scale. But, as we proceed towards the north, the distances to the heaven become greater, and so the peoples there, whose vocal utterance is reduced by the moisture to the hypatē [highest of the three strings but lowest in pitch] and to the proslambanomenon [the note A in music] are naturally obliged to speak in heavier tones. In the same way, as we proceed from the middle point to the south, the voices of the peoples there correspond in extreme height of pitch and in shrillness to the paranetē [second last string with the second highest pitch] and netē [the last string with the highest pitch].

[Instructions for an experiment to test relative pitches]

(8) That it is a fact that things are made heavier from being in places naturally moist and higher pitched from places that are hot may be proved from the following experiment: Take two cups which have been baked in the same oven for an equal time, which are of equal weight and which give the same note when struck. Dip one of them into water and, after taking it out of water, strike them both. This done, there will be a great difference in their notes, and the cups can no longer be equal in weight. It is like this with men. Although they are born in the same general form and under the same all-embracing heaven, in some of them (because of the heat in their country) the voice strikes the air on a high note, while in others (because of an abundance of moisture) the quality of tones produced is very heavy.

[Effects on characters and intelligence of peoples]

(9) Further, it is owing to the rarity of the atmosphere that southern peoples, with their sharp intelligence due to the heat, are very free and swift in the devising of schemes, while northern peoples, being enveloped in a dense atmosphere and chilled by moisture from the obstructing air, have only a sluggish intelligence. We can see this in the case of snakes. Their movements are most active in hot weather, when they have got rid of the chill due to moisture, whereas at the winter solstice and in winter weather, they are chilled by the change of temperature and made inactive and motionless. It is therefore no wonder that man’s intelligence is made sharper by warm air and duller by cold.

(10) However, although southern peoples have the sharpest wits and are infinitely clever in forming schemes, the moment it comes to displaying courage, they give up because all manliness of spirit is sucked out of them by the sun. On the other hand, men born in cold countries are in fact readier to meet the shock of arms with great courage and without timidity, but their wits are so slow that they will rush to the charge inconsiderately and inexpertly, in this way defeating their own devices. With this being nature’s arrangement of the universe and all these peoples being allotted temperaments which are lacking in due moderation, the truly perfect territory, situated under the middle of the heaven, and having on each side the entire extent of the world and its countries, is that which is occupied by the Roman people.

(11) In fact, the descent groups of Italy are the most perfectly constituted in both respects: in bodily form and in mental activity to correspond to their courage. Exactly as the planet Jupiter is itself temperate, its course lying midway between Mars, which is very hot, and Saturn, which is very cold, so Italy, lying between the north and the south, is a combination of what is found on each side, and her preeminence is well regulated and indisputable. So by her wisdom she breaks the courageous onsets of the barbarians, and by her strength of hand stops the devices of the southerners. So it was the divine intelligence that set the city of the Roman people in a extraordinary and temperate country, in order that it might acquire the right to command the whole world.

(12) Now if it is a fact that regions differ from one another, and are of various classes according to climate, so that the very peoples born in them naturally differ in mental and physical conformation and qualities, then we cannot hesitate to make our houses suitable in plan to the peculiarities of peoples and descent groups, since we have the expert guidance of nature herself ready to our hand. I have now set forth the peculiar characteristics of localities, so far as I could note them, in the most summary way, and have stated how we should make our houses conform to the physical qualities of peoples, with due regard to the course of the sun and to climate. Next I will treat the symmetrical proportions of the different styles of houses, both as wholes and in their separate parts. . .

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