In the later phase of ancient history, two important processes of change transformed human roles within the natural world. One occurred in the sphere of attitudes to nature, and the other occurred in the sphere of human actions impacting the natural environment. The processes were simultaneous and influenced each other.
Human impacts on nature increased in scale in this period, which for Eurasia and North Africa is roughly the last eight centuries вс and the first eight centuries AD, due to an unsteady but general increase in human populations and the appearance of great empires which rose, conquered large territories and populations, flourished, declined, and fell. They had the ability to organize numbers of people in vast projects that transformed the landscape, such as irrigation schemes, road building, terracing of hillsides, mining, and logging.
Among the empires that occupied segments of the Earth’s surface were those of the New Babylonians and the Persians, Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic Successors, the Mauryans of India, the Qin and Han of China, the Carthaginians, Parthians, Sassanids, and Romans. The Romans will serve as the quintessential example of an ancient empire in the last section of this chapter, but there were a number of others whose population, technology, and resource use had impacts on the natural environment that resulted in damage and possibly also contributed to their downfall. Among the impacts that must be mentioned are deforestation, depletion of wildlife, overgrazing, soil erosion, salinization, additional forms of agricultural exhaustion, air and water pollution, noise pollution, and various other urban problems affecting health.
This age also saw the origin or reformation of several great systems of thought and rules of behavior. Indeed, the term “Axial Age” is often used for the early part of it because so many of these systems which so deeply formed and changed humanity’s worldviews appeared during that time, often as the result of the work of figures such as Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao Tsu, Pythagoras, Buddha, Mahavira, and the Jewish prophets. Some of these systems are religions or philosophies; others might best be described as ways of life that are generally accepted in societies. They were embraced by large numbers of people, and in some cases continued their influence through every subsequent period of human history down to the present. These systems had important effects on human behavior in regard to ecosystems, but to varying degrees. How far can we praise or blame these widely accepted and often contrasting systems for the maintenance or damage of a sustainable human relationship with the rest of the community of life?
The first section of this chapter discusses the partial failure of the Greek polis, Athens in particular, to adapt its economy to natural systems, although great philosophers of the fifth and fourth centuries вс considered the problem and offered advice. The second section