Other Natures: Environmental Encounters with Ancient Greek Ethnography

Clara Bosak-Schroeder, Other Natures: Environmental Encounters with Ancient Greek Ethnography (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020). 9780520343481.

Reviewed by Emily S. Wilson, Colorado State University, wilsones@colostate.edu.

A video from the exhibit “Restoring Earth” at the Field Museum in Chicago asks, “What can the past teach us about living with nature?” (170). Quite a bit, it turns out, as Bosak-Schroeder meticulously shows in this slim volume, which covers quite a lot of ground in 185 pages of text, 34 pages of notes, and 35 pages of bibliography. The book’s main goal is to examine environmental discourse within Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus: that is, the symbolic structure surrounding how people communicate that especially “governs how Greek authors describe human beings in relation to other species and larger ecosystems” (4). Specifically, Bosak-Schroeder examines how these two ancient authors describe and consider how humans shape the environment; how the environment, in turn, shapes humans and nomoi (specifically, how nomoi are based upon a specific type of consumption of and interaction with the world); and how humans live within the environment. This ancient mindset contrasts with how we modern humans perceive ourselves as separate, distinct, and displaced from the environment (so, e.g., how “nature” exists in distant, forested mountains that we only occasionally visit), a dissociation that goes hand in hand with the current climate catastrophe. One of this book’s goals, then, is to use the environmental discourse of these ancient ethnographers to consider how we might reorient our own relationship with the natural world and assume responsibility for protecting it. This book is divided into two separate sections: the first part considers the aforementioned environmental discourse of Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus through a series of thematic chapters, while the second part examines how ancient ethnographies can serve as didactic tools for fighting modern climate change and how natural history museums (the modern version of an ethnography) can empower their visitors to become environmental activists.

Chapter One, “Sources and Methods,” sets out the scope of Bosak-Schroeder’s approach toward Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, two ethnographers who chronologically bookend the independent Greek world (i.e., before Roman hegemony) and use the environment to interpret/explain the diaita/bioi/customs of different peoples. A strength of this book is Bosak-Schroeder’s borrowing of the methodology of Indigenous cosmovisions, “ways of knowing and making the human and more-than-human world,” which specifically acknowledge the fundamental interdependence of all creatures and their habitats, both living and non-living (28). While the ancient ethnographers did not have such a term and were highly anthropocentric—with emphasis, as always, upon the masculinity of ἄνθρωπος—they, too, assumed a basic interrelatedness between humans and their environment that mirrors these cosmovisions and the concomitant responsibility this entanglement brings. As such, Bosak-Schroeder hopes that these ancient texts can be fodder for current scholars of environmental humanities, ecocriticism, and other related fields of study, and she believes these ancient texts can be used as a “resource and a comparative databank with which to test out different ontologies, epistemologies, and ethics of the human and more-than-human world” (30).

Chapter Two, “Rulers and Rivers,” focuses on the “marvelous works” (erga) that both alter the physical environment and consume resources. This chapter asks when it is appropriate in Herodotus and Diodorus for erga to be carried out and whether there are limits (e.g., natural boundaries). Bosak-Schroeder first sets important groundwork for how erga appear in both Herodotus and Diodorus: both authors use the term to describe human projects that transform and/or cross environmental boundaries, the most famous of which is Xerxes’ bridging of the Hellespont. Bosak-Schroeder deftly shows, however, that there is little judgement on the part of either author about the interference and reshaping of the natural world that these erga generally necessitate; rather, they are described primarily to provoke thauma in the reader. Indeed, the most admired of these erga are those undertaken by a ruler to help his or her subjects, rendering the aforementioned bridging of the Hellespont an act of hubris not for its transgression of the waterway, but because of the selfish intentions behind Xerxes’ action.

Bosak-Schroeder then turns to rivers as actors on topography, demonstrating that Herodotus and Diodorus judged the erga of rivers—especially those of the Nile—on the same merits as those of human actors. This river is seen as a benefactor which both created and reshaped Egypt, but not as an omnipotent force; the Nile could err in judgment and action, providing more land for humans than it could possibly irrigate. This mistake required concomitant human erga: the construction of lakes, canals, and mounds to keep the river on a beneficial course. Therefore, this interconnected view of Egypt underscores that humans and the environment are both co-creaters of the world, and Bosak-Schroeder argues that when we see ourselves as builders of erga alongside rivers and other natural features, we can reimagine ourselves as allies.

The Nile also brings up another important theme for Bosak-Schroeder: that of boundaries (physical and otherwise). She argues that these are not hard and fast, but are created by the perception of the world, the historia and erga in each ethnography, and their advantages or disadvantages toward humans. This allows, e.g., Herodotus to criticize the previous continental boundaries of Hecataeus or Anaximander. Here, I would have been interested in Bosak-Schroeder’s ideas concerning contemporary cartography, especially as Herodotus himself engages in the first description of a map and its use in his vignette of Aristagoras and Cleomenes (5.49.1–9). Boundaries that seem fixed on this map might be at variance with the more fluid boundaries that Bosak-Schroeder identifies in Herodotus’s account of the continents or his discussion of erga.

The third chapter, “Female Feck,” considers sex and gender, specifically of foreign women. Bosak-Schroeder argues that the power dynamics that relegate women to a position inferior to men are the same as those that demote animals as inferior to humans (and skirts close to the barbarian/Greek divide), and therefore are good tools for thinking through the environment (58). It is women who possess agency in their bodies and can shape and move the narrative forward, a characteristic that Bosak-Schroeder calls feck, which she defines as “a kind of effectiveness that fucks with the world” (69).1

This chapter’s main case study is Diodorus’s portrayal of the Assyrian queen Semiramis, whose feck is particularly showcased in the arena of warfare. Semiramis’s cunning in designing a garment that does not reveal the gender of the wearer allows the Assyrian army to be victorious against the Bactrians (she herself scales the walls in this garment, leading the army to victory). As queen, Semiramis wages war against India and matches the Indian war elephants with elephant eidōla of her own. Her elephant eidōla—oxhide shells of elephants animated by camels—enable her victory because they cause the Indian horses to spook at these unfamiliar-smelling things, rendering the cavalry unusable. Semiramis, however, had desensitized her own cavalry to these eidōla. The ergon of her fake elephants, like the building projects she undertook (as discussed in Chapter 2), are then judged on their effectiveness and their benefit to mankind, rather than on the product of a woman, underscoring Semiramis’s feck.

This chapter, though effectively and persuasively argued, feels at odds with the rest of the book. All of the other chapters consider the environment in terms of tangible and measurable changes and impacts that humans have, whether it be diet, the consumption of luxurious products, or the reshaping of the physical earth. Here, the connection exists primarily in the ancient Greek mindset, or relies on half-metaphors in Semiramis’s etymological connection to doves. Bosak-Schroeder argues that it is people with multiple marginal identities who can “uniquely prompt and effect social change, including environmental change” (57) and she places the materiality of feck in the bodies of women (69–70), but the greatest and longest-lasting impact on the earth that women have is bearing children, something that is skirted around in this chapter despite the examination of the body and sex. Creating a new type of beast out of camels and oxhides is an ephemeral action and concerns itself with the here and now of human existence on earth, rather than the more long-lasting changes to the earth entailed by mining for gold (Chapter Five) or digging canals alongside the Nile (Chapter Two).

Chapter Four, “Dietary Entanglements,” considers the diets of non-Greeks, especially as they relate to environmental determinism, ethnicity, bios/diaita, and social organization.2 Two extensive case studies take up the bulk of this chapter. The first is the encounter between the Persian king Cambyses and the Ethiopian king, in Herodotus’s text. When Cambyses conquered Egypt, he sent gifts of food and wine south to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian king had no need for these agricultural foodstuffs, as his people were fed a steady diet of pastoralist animal products, produced semi-miraculously via the Table of the Sun. As such, aside from the wine, the food was promptly rejected by the Ethiopian king as “shit” (89). Enraged, Cambyses sent his army to conquer Meroë, but they were poorly provisioned. This lack of foresight—or perhaps overconfidence, as Cambyses might have been banking on capturing the aforementioned Table—forced his army to resort to eating grass, their pack animals and, finally, each other, a grotesque twist on the pastoralist diet. The fate of Cambyses’ army, for Bosak-Schroeder, demonstrates the complex entanglement of bios with diet: a people cannot readily change their diet without severe consequences.

The second case study is Diodorus’s ethnography of the Egyptians. According to Diodorus, they had two diets: the pharaonic diet was simple yet highly regulated, and consisted of two types of meat and moderate amounts of wine;3 all other Egyptians had no such restrictions, but their diets were primarily foraged from the riverbank. The truly luxurious foods (and the most sickening and unhealthy) came from agriculture and were reserved for Egypt’s sacred animals. This food system was not initially practiced in Egypt; the Egyptians initially consumed agricultural products and fell sick. Later, they successfully shifted to their current system, which allowed for a “new version of agricultural bios, [in which] sacred animals are key actors, eating the food that would make humans sick and entwining human and animal flourishing with the political and religious systems in which they act” (105). That the Egyptians fed cultivated food to animals also underscores the importance with which they held these sacred animals as vital partners in maintaining a healthy Egyptian bios. This is an excellent illustration of how these ancient ethnographers considered the effects of diet on the environment and on life, and how they thought through ethnicity via nourishment of the body. While neither Bosak-Schroeder nor the ethnographers explicitly state how diet has an impact upon the Earth, it is clear that the health of a society can be loosely tracked via the health of the world as well, and I had this in the back of my mind as I read this chapter.

Chapter Five, “Resisting Luxury,” focuses upon the consumptive aspect of luxury. While not considered inherently bad by the Greeks, it could spiral out of control and create pleonexia, or rapacious greed for more. Problematically, as Bosak-Schroeder argues, this luxury has disparate effects on the individual as compared to whole communities and their rulers. For the individual, corruption by luxury can be counteracted by cultivating virtue, discretion, and humility, which is taken on as a private endeavor. For communities, however, pleonexia is too widespread and deeply embedded among too many individuals to be combated as a personal struggle.

The link between wealth and happiness is famously illustrated in Herodotus’s Croesus and Solon encounter, but this ethnographer also tracks the happiness of lands. Bosak-Schroeder argues that the happiest of lands for Herodotus are those that are largely self-sufficient and do not participate in trade or conquest, because this type of contact can spur a type of community-wide longing for the luxurious products of others. This can be problematic because human fortunes are cyclical, and a pleonexic community that enjoys luxury acquired through war can quickly be conquered by those greedy for the same luxuries.

Herodotus offers no solutions to this pleonexic problem, but Diodorus offers a way to combat luxury and greed on a community level: by creating alliances with the plants and animals of that community’s own environment. India, he notes, is a typical “soft land” in that it abounds in food, people, cities, and general prosperity. However, Indians are not a “soft people,” and they keep greed at bay by ordering their attention and social organization around land management and care. In this society, everyone, no matter their social class, is tasked with keeping the land fertile and protected. Moreover, they utilize the land to protect themselves from outside pleonexic invaders by raising and training war elephants, thereby warding off potential invasion. Therefore, as Bosak-Schroeder points out, the luxury that generally results in the removal of resources from the land (e.g., gold, precious stones, exotic and expensive foodstuffs) is counteracted here through a focus on cultivating, caring for, and allying with the land, plants, and animals. This focus on keeping the land soft allows the Indians to, conversely, keep themselves hard.

Chapter Six, “After the Encounter,” begins the second part of this book, which moves to the modern day and explores how the themes and lessons examined in previous chapters can be applied to the current environmental catastrophe, a reflection of Bosak-Schroeder’s belief that readers of these ancient ethnographies should engage with and question the texts (something the ancient authors themselves were not able to do). Both Herodotus and Diodorus center their ethnographies on the well-being of humans, and Bosak-Schroeder takes this up, using this anthropocentric worldview to think through the perceived superiority of humans and to place a responsibility for our natural world on us. Her suggestions are generally all tried and true. For example, she notes that we should take lessons from the Egyptians, who depend upon and include animals in their societies (Chapter Four); it would behoove us to do the same, incorporating those who have the least power—non-humans and the poor—into society, and protecting them to benefit all of humankind through granting personhood to animals, promoting local eating, or even adopting veganism. It is also the greed of leaders that fuels pleonexia across a society (Chapter Five), and she suggests that we should hold our own leaders responsible for limiting consumption and taking bold steps to protect the environment. I thoroughly appreciated the intent of this chapter, though I also found myself wishing for more: more advice, more plans of action, more ways in which to become a better ally of our planet. I believe this longing, however, reflects my own anxieties about the planet, the seeming inertia of Western society, and our future more than it reveals any failing of Bosak-Schroeder’s excellent scholarship.

The last chapter, “Transformation in the Natural History Museum,” examines the most accessible and popular of our own modern “ethnographies”: the natural history museum. Bosak-Schroeder spends most of this chapter thinking through specific exhibitions at the Field Museum in Chicago, especially in terms of the Indigenous cosmovisions that she has introduced previously. This focus allows Bosak-Schroeder to track various exhibits’ ability to underscore the entangled nature of humanity with the Earth’s plants, animals, and environments. She shows how exhibits that date to the early 1990s do not situate the visitor within dioramas, and therefore encourage passivity toward environmental action despite accompanying placards encouraging it. More recent exhibits do this work much more competently and precisely, including the children’s exhibit “Underground Adventures,” which uses large sculptures and funhouse mirrors to “shrink” the visitor down to size and depict the world through the multifaceted eyes of creatures in the soil. The exhibit “Restoring Earth” centers Indigenous voices, many female, in a narrative exploring how different people consider their place in the environment and the concomitant responsibility which that brings, especially the responsibility of pursuing a lifestyle that lessens one’s impact upon the Earth. I found this chapter particularly interesting in thinking through how museums can draw attention to our complicated relationship with nature on a large scale—for millions of visitors—especially as it connects to Chapter Six, which suggests that, ultimately, our success in this endeavor will be a community effort.

The book can be used as an effective teaching tool for advanced undergraduates or graduate students and, thanks to the two clearly articulated parts of the book, can also be split. The first part, a philology-focused examination of Herodotus and Diodorus, would, I imagine, be most useful for graduate students in Classics or related programs. The second part would be excellent for undergraduates (though Chapter Six would need to be supplemented with passages in translation, as Bosak-Schroeder references their earlier arguments in more general terms). The last chapter is more widely accessible, and I imagine it being used by anthropology, ecohumanities, museum studies, or Classics students. The passages Bosak-Schroeder gives are all accompanied by translations, which makes them accessible to most anyone, and her writing is clear and direct, breaking down complex topics, insights, and analyses into manageable units that can be taught thematically or as a whole, over the course of a semester.

One of the most important contributions of this book, aside from the rigorous scholarship on environmental discourses and the introduction of Indigenous cosmovisions to this field, is that it demonstrates the relevance of Classics to the modern world; at a time when anxiety about the closure of Classics programs and climate change is a facet of daily life, this book’s timing is vital. Another strength of this book is that it invites conversations and reflections about the modern world and encourages a dialogue in the classroom that focuses on different societies and communities of people—combating climate change itself will be a community endeavor and its success tied not just to the individual but to groups of people working to make the world a better place.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–12)
1. Sources and Methods (15–31)
2. Rulers and Rivers (32–56)
3. Female Feck (57–83)
4. Dietary Entanglements (84–105)
5. Resisting Luxury (106–30)
6. After the Encounter (133–50)
7. Transformation in the Natural History Museum (151–85))


[1] The classic example is Candaules’ wife, who upends the Lydian monarchy after her husband secreted Gyges in their bedchamber to see her naked body.

[2] The three dietary categories that Bosak-Schroeder identifies are farmers, nomadic pastoralists, and hunter-gatherers. It is only the farmers that can enjoy the benefits of cities, literature, temple-based religion, etc. (86).

[3] Bosak-Schroeder zeroes in on the “simplicity” (haplos) of this, arguing for this term rather than other manuscripts which give “delicate” (hapalos) (100).


1. You briefly touch on Herodotus’s description of the continental boundaries in Chapter One vis-à-vis his discussion of maps of Anaximander and Hecataeus, and I was wondering how you position these boundaries in the roughly contemporary cartographical project of the oikoumene. You discuss how humans articulate the world through a series of flexible boundaries, yet Herodotus’s description of Aristagoras’s map is people living in specific places and bordering specific people and land (which to me seems like a boundary more fixed than how you read the rest of Herodotus). Might you elaborate on these maps, the contemporary cartographical push, and how you see them interacting with the ideas of boundaries and erga in your chapter (so, e.g., I have always wondered whether the canal of Xerxes ever appeared on any Greek maps)?

This is an excellent point I had considered not at all—thank you! You’re right that cartographic thinking “maps” the world in a more fixed way than other modes of describing space, including the narrative sections I focus on. (For more on these different modes, I recommend readers look to Dilke’s 1985 Greek and Roman Maps [Ithaca: Cornell University Press] and Purves’s 2010 Space and Time in Ancient Greek Literature [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]). But I think both flexible and fixed conceptions of space could have existed simultaneously, as I would argue they do in Herodotus’s own text. Maps express boundaries at a moment in time but don’t preclude the possibility of different boundaries at different times. Nor is it obvious to me how many boundaries have been drawn in the scene you mention (Hdt. 5.49). When Aristagoras points out various peoples on his map, have their national boundaries been inscribed, or is he using outlines of land and water as reference points? I can’t find evidence of canals and earthworks appearing on Greek maps, but I would like to believe they could have been included. Perhaps Rhea’s readers will have other citations for us to chase. 🙂

2. As I read through your book, I found myself constantly thinking about how I could use this book in the classroom to discuss the current environmental crisis. Since our students have always lived in a world where global warming has existed, how might you consider using your book to discuss their fears, to enable environmental activism (rather than giving into environmental despair), and to bridge potential generational gaps between teacher and student (the last part of this question is in direct reference to the links of time, generations, and the environment that ancient ethnographers utilize)?

Ancient environmental thought is a great vehicle for defamiliarizing the ancient world by way of the modern and vice versa. In my own classes I try hard—with sometimes mixed success—to unpack words like “nature,” “environment,” and “natural” that underpin so much of our environmental politics. Ancient texts allow us to see these ideas (and others we don’t have) in formation and to begin to imagine different ways of constructing our relationship to life on earth. The texts of Other Natures are also very helpful for distinguishing anthropocentrism from bad environmental ethics. Contemporary environmental justice projects start by assuming that nonhuman and marginalized human lives are of equal value with more privileged humans. Ancient Greek authors don’t do this—they continually center human interests above nonhuman—but they are still anxious about the consequences of different environmental behaviors and attuned to interdependencies between species. I find this fact comforting. It implies to me that people, including our students, don’t have to embrace radical environmentalism to become better environmental actors

3. Your last chapter on museum exhibits and how they have the ability to empower viewers to become actors in the climate crisis was particularly compelling in light of your observation that the Natural History Museum is our modern version of an ethnographic treatise. Given that natural history museums can also house cultural objects from the ancient Mediterranean world (I’m thinking especially of the Egyptian hall at the Field Museum, which you use so heavily in Chapter Seven), do you think that exhibits focused on Classical Antiquity could also make arguments about current environmental activism? Or should those exhibits instead be focusing on rectifying other problem associated with the field of “Classics” (such as those you outline, including white supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism)? Do you believe that exhibits on the natural world alone are uniquely poised to compel us towards being environmental stewards?

It’s easy for environmental concerns and conversations to get siloed off from justice questions generally, but these issues are all interconnected. So yes, I do really want to see exhibits of ancient Mediterranean culture address environmental thought and behavior, and for curators to consider displaying material from the natural world alongside human-made artifacts (e.g., ancient plant and animal remains, modern examples of the same species, etc.). Curators and museum educators have to pick their focus, of course, but I think this approach could in fact enhance projects that explore race, colonialism, etc. Evoking the specific environmental contexts of ancient Mediterranean cultures would disrupt pernicious narratives of a continuous (white) “western” classical heritage. It would also be a way to draw STEM people into cultural exhibits and increase interdisciplinary collaborations.

Thank you so much for these answers, which were helpful in illuminating (especially) what you consider the larger purpose of your book and the role of Classics in our modern world more generally. I would like to express my warmest congratulations, too, on writing one of the most illuminating and thought-provoking books I’ve read on the ancient world in quite some time, and I very much look forward to your next project!

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