The Greeks inherited a land covered by rich stands of oaks, pines, and other trees with thick, drought-resistant leaves . . . called a "sclerophyllous forest", in the jargon of plant ecologists. But, as the Greek population expanded, it progressively destroyed the forests for firewood, charcoal (needed in firing pottery and other industrial processes), and lumber. The great trees were often burned by accident, too . . . or as part of a military operation, or simply to create more open pastureland.
Soil erosion on the slopes of the rugged Greek hills helped prevent reforestation . . . as did grazing and browsing animals, which killed the seedlings before they could establish themselves. Especially prominent in the latter role were goats . . . the "horned locusts" that have destroyed so much of the vegetation of the Mediterranean region and other areas where they've been introduced. (In fact it's not unfair, today, to describe much of that territory as a "goatscape". )
The ancient Greeks took an essentially scientific view of their environment, and some Grecian writers saw that their land was deteriorating under human stewardship. Four centuries before Christ, Plato described Attica (the region around Athens), saying: "What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left." The description is even more apt today.
The Romans, in contrast, took a strictly utilitarian view of their environment: The land was there to be exploited by Homo Sapiens. The trend toward deforestation started in Greece and spread—during the Roman Empire—from the hills of Galilee in Palestine and the Taurus Mountains of Turkey in the east, to the mountains of Spain in the west. Various features of the Roman agricultural economy greatly encouraged this process . . . and their society had no counterbalancing conservation ethic.
Both the Egyptians and Greeks were determined hunters. They forced many larger animals (such as the lions in upper Egypt and in Greece) to extinction. But the Roman Empire had a far greater destructive impact on the fauna of the ancient world than did its predecessors. Not only were animals hunted for skins, feathers, and ivory . . . but multitudes were captured for use in "games".
Huge numbers of beasts were pitted against each other (and against human beings) in lethal combats. Titus, for example, had some 9,000 wild animals slaughtered during the three months' dedication of the Colosseum, and Trajan's conquest of Dacia (modern Romania) was celebrated by games in which 11,000 beasts were killed. When one considers that tens or even hundreds of lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalos, and so on must have died—or been killed—in transport or captivity for every one that lived to entertain the citizens, the probable scale of the Roman impact on wildlife staggers the imagination.
The Romans hit hard at their environment . . . but it struck back! Deforestation, the depletion of soils, and the exhaustion of mines were all factors in the fall of Rome's Empire. The Romans didn't finish the job, however. The last great plundering of Mediterranean forest resources occurred in the late Middle Ages, when the demand for timber for fuel and shipbuilding was very great. As a result, there's very little first-growth sclerophyllous forest left in the Mediterranean basin today . . . the best examples being in the Camargue of southern France and on the peninsula of Mt. Athos in Greece (protected by the famous monastery there).
... whole thing.