Judeans, Africans, and Germans: Columella on the limits of environmental theory (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judeans, Africans, and Germans: Columella on the limits of environmental theory (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 7, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=9303.

Ancient author: Columella, On Agriculture, or De re rustica 8 (link).

Comments: In the midst of his discussion of agriculture and what plants may flourish where, Columella goes on a digression that reveals the degree to which he holds to an environmental theory of peoplehood. While still holding to the theory (e.g. Libyans and Africans are more fertile due to a warm climate), Columella nonetheless puts forward significant anomalies and qualifications regarding the impact of the environment on peoples and suggests that nature has made things equitable or balanced. In the process, he refers to the stereotype that generally speaking Germans are large but qualifies this with an example of an individual Judean who was even larger, for instance. This may be seen to contrast somewhat to the use of such environmental theories of peoplehood to assert the superiority of people in specific regions (like Italy or Greece).  And yet, Columella’s conclusion that Italy can produce plants from all over the place and is most responsive to nature still suggests where his allegiances lie.


Therefore, Publius Silvinus, if we will look at nature through the keener eyes of the mind, so to speak, we will find that she has established a balanced law of fertility for all green things and even for human beings and other living creatures. Nature has not granted special endowments on some peoples (nationes) or regions as to completely deny similar gifts to others. To some descent groups (genes) she has granted the gift of producing numerous offspring: for example, the Egyptians and Africans, with whom the birth of twins is common and almost an annual occurrence. But she has also willed for the Italian descent group (genus) that there should be women of extraordinary fertility: Alban women of the Curiatian family, mothers of triplets. She has honoured Germania with armies of exceedingly tall men; but she has not wholly deprived other peoples of men of exceptional stature. For Cicero bears witness that there was once a Roman citizen, Naevius Pollio,​ who was a foot taller than the tallest of other men. Recently we ourselves might have seen, among the exhibits of the procession at the games in the Circus, a man of the Judean descent group who was larger than the tallest German.

I pass to cattle. Mevania​ is famous for its herds of tall cattle, Liguria for small; but an ox of low stature is seen now and then in Mevania, and a bull of towering proportions in Liguria. India is said to amaze people by the hugeness of its wild animals; yet who will deny that beasts of equally vast size are bred in this land, when we consider that elephants are brought out from within our own walls?

But I return to various kinds of crops. They say that Mysia and Libya produce enormous quantities of grain, but that the fields of Apulia and Campania are not lacking in rich crops; that mount Tmolos [in Phrygia] and Korykos​ [in Cilicia] are considered famous for the saffron-flower, and Judea and Arabia for their precious scents. But they say that our own community is not destitute of such plants, for in many sections of the city we see at one time cassia putting forth its leaves, again the frankincense plant, and gardens blooming with myrrh and saffron. (5) Surely these examples remind us that Italy is most responsive to care bestowed by mankind, in that she has learned to produce the fruits of almost the entire world when her farmers have applied themselves to the task. Therefore our doubts should be lessened as to that fruit which is a native, as it were, belonging to and born of our soil. For there is no doubt that, of all the vines that the earth sustains, those of the Massic, Surrentine, Alban, and Caecuban lands hold first place in the excellence of their wine.


Source of the translation: H.B. Ash, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella: On Agriculture, volume 1, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1941), public domain (author passed away in 1944), adapted by Harland.

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