Honors Bachelor of Arts

Document Type


Faculty Advisor

Thesis Director: Dr. Shannon Byrne; HAB Course Director: Dr. Shannon Byrne




Though ecology is a relatively new field of study, the human relationship to nature has shifted and changed throughout history. In antiquity, it has been understood by scholarly consensus that there was a more general understanding of nature as a living force with spirit, for example the Roman animist concept of numen, and humanity being one with nature. In modernity, however, under the influence of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, nature is seen as completely separate from humanity and devoid of any value beyond the economic value of resources. Later philosophers such as Nietzsche lamented this shift, advocating for a return to ideas from antiquity. By contrasting ancient practices in farming and urban design with modern practices, as well as the literature produced by both periods, differences in outlook between ancients and moderns viewed nature become clear. This allows for a more accurate understanding of ecology in ancient Rome beyond a simple caricature of animist harmony.

Donald Worster, a leading historian in the development of environmental history in the twentieth century, sets out two different ecological paradigms: the arcadian and the imperial, which correspond to the ideas of antiquity and modernity, respectively. Arcadian ecology follows the ideals of antiquity, wherein nature had intrinsic value and divinity within it, as its Vergilian name implies.[1] However, the influence of Christianity diminished these ideals, and separated humanity from nature, since it proclaimed that humanity was the master or protector over nature with a special relation to God.[2] This separation from nature finally leads to the philosophy of Rene Descartes, who builds upon the already established Christian separation from nature to prescribe humanity’s mastery and possession over nature. Descartes’ philosophy cemented the imperial ecology within modernity, with its beliefs in nature having value only in the sense that it can be used as a resource, and that there is nothing divine, no soul or numen in nature. In a Cartesian sense, nature is only body, with no soul.[3]

With these two ecological paradigms established, I will begin with an overview of the modern imperial ecology that remains largely influential. Starting with the Cartesian theory that lies at the basis of this paradigm, I will trace Descartes’ influence through later ecological thinkers such as Frederic Clements as well as other city planners. This will lead into the specific study of American and British cities, particularly Chicago, to find that the imperial ecology is exemplified in their historical development.

With this foundation set, I will then contrast the ancient Roman city with Chicago and other modern cites, clarifying the contrast between the arcadian and imperial ecologies with the contrast between these cities and their practices. Though the arcadian view lacks a specific philosopher in the same way that the imperial has in Descartes, I will still study select literature of antiquity to find the deeper ideological underpinnings of arcadian ecology, specifically the Georgics and Eclogues of Vergil. Douglas Hoeg suggests that pre-modern societies developed narratives in an evolutionary way, as stories and religious practices that promoted more sustainable ways of living allowed those who practiced them to live longer and have more progeny, thus passing down the sustainable narratives.[1]Following this logic, I will find the arcadian narrative within Vergil to promote a more sustainable way of life, contrasted against the unsustainable issues of modernity. In short, Vergil may not be defining a new ecological paradigm, but he is reflecting one that was popular during his time. My comparisons between modernity and antiquity will then allow for the development of a more nuanced understanding of Roman ecology during the early empire, revealing that, although Romans still maintained a more animistic view of nature, their worldview was not wholly animistic, as Romans in both city and country struggled with similar issues in nature as have people in modern times.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.



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