In the summer of 2002, I went a little mad. The previous fall, I had taught composition at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. My second session met two days after September 11; displaced from my lower Manhattan apartment, subways disasterized, I walked to class from a friend’s home fifty-five blocks away, unsure if anyone would even show up. They did. Throughout the next few months I lived an itinerant existence, staying with friends, exes, and friends of friends, and organizing my home’s rehabilitation while working through comma splices, word order, and what my Russian student called “problem of definite article” with first-years who spoke seven languages and commuted to school from four boroughs. My reward for this effort was a laughable paycheck, an overwhelming sense of insufficiency, and the chance to audit a class. Thus it was that in June, as I and the city settled into an uneasy truce with normality, I bought a copy of Wheelock’s Latin Grammar and a fat pack of index cards. I had decided I had to learn Latin.
Astonishingly, I had a companion. My friend Sarah, a professor at Fordham, shared my mania. The course was taught at Fordham’s campus in the Bronx, which meant that twice a week Sarah and I boarded the “Ram Van” at the Lincoln Center campus on the Upper West Side. We then spent the next thirty to forty minutes shuffling flashcards and muddling our way through declensions as the apparently shock-absorber-less minibus careered up the Hudson and across the Cross-Bronx Expressway to the throbbing syncopations of Hot 97, a blasé student driver dodging gnarled traffic without ever loosening her grip on her cell phone. At the end of the trip, slightly nauseated, we spilled out of the van clutching our notes and staggered into that three-hour chalkfest for surly grad students known as the Summer Language Intensive.
What was driving this madness? Sarah could manufacture a plea of scholarly necessity, but for me, learning Latin was sheer self-indulgence. All I could offer by way of reason was that I wanted to read the Aeneid. That June, Hamid Karzai was elected head of Afghanistan’s interim government. In July, the U.S. bombed a wedding party near Kandahar, killing at least twenty civilians. Plans for an invasion of Iraq were solidifying. The Australian Institute of Marine Science announced that global warming was threatening the Great Barrier Reef. More evidence emerged that the polar ice caps were melting. At some point, I picked up a newspaper and saw Ozzy Osbourne referred to as “America’s reigning paterfamilias.” What was I doing, I wondered, studying a dead language when all around me the world was dying anew?
The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Aeneid, is loss. The poem’s main man, Aeneas, loses homeland, family, self—everything that could stand in the way of his fate. The city of Troy loses its future: its howling fall is a figure for that nightmare of loss called history. People lose, cultures lose, and in the end, the earth loses, too, for the Aeneid’s dark undercurrent is the loss of the natural world demanded by empire—the conspicuous consumption of woods, water, and wild animals that underwrites our own imperium no less than that of Rome.
Virgil began writing the Aeneid in 29 B.C.E., about 700 years after his model, Homer, is thought to have composed the Iliad. The interval wasn’t long enough to lighten his predecessor’s shadow. “Homer is a world; Virgil a style,” fusty Professor Van Doren famously decreed. The critical tradition concurs: Virgil is emasculated Homer. After the raw exhilaration of the Iliad—Achilles raging in his tent, Hector grimly donning his helmet despite his wife’s tears, King Priam clasping the knees of his son’s killer—what glory can be found in Virgil’s artful knockoff? Homer’s heroes were snorting, raging men: imperious Agamemnon, oxlike Ajax, crafty Odysseus—they put Aeneas, that corporate drone, to shame. Reading Homer, one shivers on the windswept plains of Troy, grows giddy on slaughtered rams and wine. Reading Virgil, one nods in thoughtful appreciation. After Homer, it’s like moving from the Parthenon to Palladio: where is its passion, its heart?
Let such dismissals die here. In an era of CNN, cyberspace, and Fear Factor, Homer has passed from our grasp. We may read him in college surveys, we may drop his name at cocktail parties, but we hear him no more. Not so Virgil. The Middle Ages changed the spelling of Publius Vergilius Maro’s clan-name to make him vir—“the man”—and he is the man for us. The poet of war, of conquest, and of art, Virgil wrote our epic, the epic of empire. Imperium sine fine, as Zeus promises the Romans: empire without end. Empire so endless it can create itself through consuming and consume the very means of its creation.
Virgil should matter to us more than ever, for it’s in him our own age finds its purest, most unflinching mirror.
The Aeneid begins at an end, with Troy fallen. We get the story second hand, in Book II. Aeneas has landed in Carthage and entranced Dido. Wined and dined by the lovestruck queen, he fans the flames of her passion by recounting the story of Ilium’s horrific final days and his own heart-pounding escape. As he talks, the poem offers up some of its most vivid narrative: a city aflame, its women wailing as its men are slaughtered in the streets, its aged king dragged from the temple altar, slipping in his own son’s blood, to be speared by the pitiless son of Achilles.1
How did this come to pass? As Aeneas tells it:
Broken in war and thwarted by the fates, the Danaan chiefs, now that so many years were gliding by, build by Pallas’ divine art a horse of mountainous bulk, and interweave its ribs with planks of fir.2
Intexunt abiete costas: weave its ribs with fir. Elsewhere Virgil calls the horse roboribus textis, oak-built, pinea, pine, and trabibus contextus acernis, made from planks of maple. He is describing a form of construction any ancient would have recognized: the Greco-Roman art of shipbuilding. Like the horse, ancient ships were composed of an interior skeleton of hardwood like maple, covered by planking of fir or pine. Abiete is the ablative form of abies, white fir, a tree highly valued for shipbuilding because it grows tall and straight, and is soft and fairly water-resistant. The horse is a landgoing warship; the armed troops crouched inside it complete the image.
Later in the poem we hear an echo of the Trojan horse when Virgil tells us how the goddess Cybele gave Aeneas a forest to build his fleet. Cybele describes the forest as nigranti picea trabibusque obscurus acernis, shadowy with spruce and dusky maple trunks. But the repeated phrase links the fleet and the horse again. Why does Virgil want us to see a connection between the Greeks’ appalling gift and the ships that launched an empire? Critical tradition holds that the seeds of Rome lie in the ashes of Troy. Troy not in flames, Rome cannot come to be: death brings new birth. But births bring death, too. Cybele’s speech reminds us that, like the Trojan horse, like Rome itself, the fleet was born of the deaths of trees.
I never studied Latin in Michigan, where I did much of my growing up. But something about the Aeneid seemed familiar to me the first time I read it. The poem is thick with tree imagery. But the trees are always obstructions. In Thrace, the first place Aeneas stops, he breaks a bough and the tree bleeds: the land is polluted with an ages-old murder. In Crete, where he goes next, a pestilence withers the crops and trees. In Carthage, he and Dido tryst in the forest until Jupiter orders him to naviget, set sail. He’s in such a hurry to get out of town that his men don’t have time to hew oars—they row away with logs and boughs.
He visits the Sybil for advice and enters the land of the dead. His price of admission is a golden bough. The spaces between the world of the dead and the world of the living are filled with gloomy woods. Fortified by what he learns in Hades, he finally lands in Italy, where he fights and subdues a forest people, the Laurentes. Their king, Latinus, carries a dead bough as a sceptre, and their hero Turnus aims to defeat Aeneas with traps set in the “treacherous woods.”
In the final showdown between Aeneas and Turnus, Aeneas lobs a spear at his opponent, and it lodges in the stump of a tree the Trojans chopped down. Aeneas goes to pull it out, but Turnus—at this point weaponless—prays to Faunus to hold it fast, and the woodland god complies. As Aeneas stands there struggling with his stuck spear, Turnus’s goddess sister runs out and gives him a sword.
In my head, this scene is always played on my grandfather’s back forty, where a few stubborn stumps dotted the tree line that divided his property from ours. It was this ongoing sense of forests as something that has been overcome, I realized one day, that made the Aeneid feel like home.
Michigan, unlike Massachusetts or Rhode Island, was not founded on an abstraction. Nor was it, like New Amsterdam, a frenzied and cosmopolitan company town where the Old World gleefully exploited the abundance of the New. Rather, it was the beginning of abundance not as bounty but as birthright, exploitation not as opportunity but as self-definition. It was the birth of the American imperium, the beginning of a new empire that made despoiling the environment not simply an unfortunate side effect of culture, but its defining feature.
The Michigan Territory came into American hands in 1794, when a federation of Native American tribes was defeated by freshly minted American troops, pushing the borders of the new nation into the Northwest Territory. That battle, fought near a pile of wood brought down by a storm, was known as the Battle of Fallen Timbers. It would be forty years later, in 1837, as Michigan became a state, that the promise of that name would begin to be fulfilled. The westward expansion was underway, fast-growing railroads needed wood for bridges and ties, and cities like Chicago were expanding like crazy. Michigan’s wilderness was dotted with huge stands of white pine—a tree valued, like the ancient’s abies, because it was soft, stable, and straight, making smooth planks and hearty masts.3
The first sawmill was built at the mouth of the Muskegon River, and the process of deforesting Michigan began in earnest. By the end of the nineteenth century, Michigan’s forests would be gone.
Timber was the oil of the ancient world. As fuel, it was essential to domestic life from the Neolithic period onward for the production of heat, light, and cooking: scholars estimate that each household required one to two tons of wood per year. In Pan’s Travail, his study of environmental problems in the ancient world, scholar Donald Hughes estimates that fuel needs accounted for 90 percent of Greek and Roman wood use. Not only did wood fire the hearth, but it was necessary to the pyrotechnic arts that drove the production of culture: ceramics, metallurgy, smelting, limestone kilning.
But access to wood also underwrote political power. In the ancient Mediterranean world, that meant sea power. The construction and maintenance of a naval fleet required staggering amounts of timber. In the fifth century B.C.E., as naval warfare was stepping up and the maintenance of a navy had become a political necessity, ancient records tell us Athens kept 200 to 300 warships on hand. These were huge triremes, each about 110 feet long, their hulls requiring what one scholar estimates at 2,700 to 3,500 square feet of 1 1⁄2– to 2-inch boards. They were powered by three banks of rowers grappling 170 fifteen-foot oars. At one point, Athens was recorded to have 300,000 oars in stock. Each one was fashioned from a single tree.
The Athenians denuded their own forests by the sixth century B.C.E., mostly through agricultural clear-cutting. Thereafter, they pursued a foreign policy that, among other things, guaranteed them access to trees. Colonies were established with timber needs in mind. Thucydides informs us that the Athenians first went to Italy in search of wood for triremes, and that they were upset by the capture of Amphipolis largely because it meant they lost access to its stores of timber. They weren’t alone. Sparta demanded timber from its tributaries. Thrace was valued by the Persians for its forests, and when Xerxes invaded Greece, as an additional precaution, he torched their woods. In Egypt, the Ptolemies focused on maintaining influence over the timber-producing regions of Lebanon, Cilicia, and Cyprus. When Antony made himself ruler in Egypt, he gifted Cleopatra with Cilicia so she could bolster her fleet. Darling, you shouldn’t have.
The Roman empire arose in a world where wood was essential to domestic and civic life, and where access to forests drove trade, diplomacy, and warfare. Roman laws supported the timber trade through tax incentives, leases, and privileges, because timber was essential for building cities and for waging war. The Apennine forest along the Tiber River was cut down, historians tell us, to build Rome’s fleet for the Punic Wars.
It’s no mistake that, in the fourth century B.C.E., when the Romans struck their first coins, they carried an image of a ship. Or that in Latin poetry, a ship is often referred to metonymically as pinus, the pine.
Like the Greek and Italian peninsulas, Michigan’s lower peninsula was deforested quickly. Between 1847 and 1907, Michigan chopped down and floated out timber worth a billion dollars more than all the gold given up by California in those same years. By the 1870s, the timber barons were packing up and leaving, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the lumber trade was pretty much finished. The forests were gone. What would the hardy lumberjacks who had built the state do now?
In 1901, something happened in Texas that changed Michigan’s course. Drillers on a farm in Beaumont struck oil, the famous gusher “Spindletop.” Overnight, U.S. oil production doubled. With sudden access to cheap petroleum, the car could become a household necessity. The fledging automobile industry became a gold mine. Oldsmobile, then the only auto manufacturer in Detroit, was soon joined by Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, and the Motor City was born. From that point on, Michigan’s fortunes rose and fell with the fortunes of an industry that changed the face and soul of America.
Last summer, I spent a month in South Haven, a Lake Michigan town that had a brief life as a lumber port before becoming a popular stopover for Great Lakes pleasure steamboats. Poking around in
a sleepy local bookshop, I found a high-school-libraryish book called Michigan: A Bicentennial History. The author, Bruce Catton, writes in an easy conversational style with just a whiff of vendetta—like a popular professor who has a second martini and begins telling you the salacious backstories to his undergraduate lectures. Catton claims it was no mistake the auto industry took hold in Michigan. The lumber industry had created the conditions that made the Motor City possible. In the first place, there was capital in the region—not just the existing carriage factories, machine shops, and foundries that could be turned to new use, but the money behind them all. Add to that a large pool of skilled but docile immigrant laborers and a ruthless tradition of monopoly capitalism founded first and foremost on resource expenditure, and you have a skill set that would build cars as effectively as it had denuded the forests.
In Book VII of the Aeneid, Aeneas finally makes landfall on the Italian coast. Virgil has him sail into the harbor at Ostia, twenty miles down the Tiber from Rome. There he sees a “mighty forest.” By Virgil’s own time, this forest was already myth. By the first century B.C.E., all the land around the Tiber, upstream to the Apennines, had been deforested, causing massive erosion that backed up the Tiber and periodically flooded Rome. Silting of the harbor at Ostia was also an ongoing erosion-caused problem: a century before the birth of Virgil, the Roman fleet had to be relocated to Naples. But Rome needed a harbor for commercial traffic, particularly as the empire expanded and its capitol became import-dependent. By Virgil’s own time, fixing the port was an ongoing political imperative. Emperors Augustus and Tiberius were unable to solve it; it wasn’t until Claudius that a new harbor was dug two miles north of the river mouth, encircled with two long arms to prevent further silting. Its long-term success can be measured by the fact that the railroad to Fiumicino now runs right over it.
Describing his vanished arcadia, Virgil is doing more than imagining the pre-Roman Latium; he is restating the point he makes with Aeneas’s fleet: for Rome to live, the forest must die. Aeneas lands in a woodland paradise, and he must destroy it to fulfill his destiny. With the raising of his own moenia—the city walls he is repeatedly promised throughout the poem—the forest is doomed.
It’s not simply a matter of clearing trees. Aeneas must finish off an entire way of life. It’s very clear that the Latins are forest people. Their king, Latinus, is the son of Faunus, the woodland god. In the midst of his palace stands a sacred laurel that gives his people the name Laurentes. Latinus visits the forest to consult his ancestors. His Queen, Amata, goaded by Juno, flees into the woods with her daughter to conduct Bacchic rites. After he subdues these people, Aeneas will dutifully marry into their tribe and take their language as his own. But he will not take on their woodsy ways. The Romans knew that as a culture, they were inimical to the forest.
The woods are lovely, but they are forbidding to humans—dark and deep and littered with obstructions. Walking there is tricky. The floor is a slippery carpet of leaves and needles and brush that disguises danger spots. Obstacles skew our trajectory and subvert our sense of direction. Time-honored modes of navigation become difficult: our lodestone, the sun, is reduced to a flicker on leaves; topographical features are obscured. And the forest impedes our gangly forms. Creepers and brambles bedevil plodding feet. Cobwebs and burrs cling; thorns and thickets scratch. How much friendlier to soft soles and bare legs and elbows is an open sweep of savannah, or the easy slope of a beach!
The difficulty’s more than physical. Humans tend to fear death, but the forest is rife with it. The floor is a carpet of decomposing biomatter. Liminal life-forms flourish—fungi, lichen, ticks—and treachery abounds: poisonous mushrooms, predators crouched in trees, stingers and biters darting out from dead logs and underbrush. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about the forest is its absolute indifference to humanity. Most of the earth’s flora and fauna live in forests, and they thrive on our absence. People are interlopers here. It’s a self-sustaining ecosystem that at best tolerates man. Consider the traditional rock piles left to mark trails in the forest. A human was here, they pipe bravely, in the midst of all that disinterest. Someone with opposable thumbs and a will to remake the world has passed this way.
Since at least the time of Gilgamesh, the forest has embodied the opposite of civilization. Forests are dark, tangled, endless, barbaric, and feminine—cyclical, fertile, ungoverned. Civilization is light, linear, finite, ordered, and male. It marches in straight lines. The Romans, like many states, wrote laws giving land title to those who would clear it of forest. And, like many other peoples, they saw themselves as distinct from their forebears who grubbed about the tree trunks gobbling acorns and bugs. Hence the story of Romulus and Remus, nurtured by a wolf but emerging from the forest gloom to found Rome. Ancient origin tales often include the moment when man leaves the woods and starts to farm. Vitruvious, Pliny, and Ovid all tell stories of agriculture’s rise; sometimes leaving the forest heralds the beginning of a golden age, sometimes, as in Ovid, its end.
When Virgil was a child, a young man was making his name by subduing the Gauls—a loose assortment of Germanic, French, and Celtic tribes closely identified with the forests of Northern Europe. Religiously and militarily, these were tree-people. Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul is filled with accounts of battles where the Gauls launch skirmishes from hiding places in the forest or melt into the forbidding woods, defying the ability of closely ordered Roman legions to follow.4
In having his hero defeat a woodland people and subdue their forest, Virgil nods to the Julius family’s claim to be descended from Aeneas. Aeneas’s son Ascanius—later called Iulus to cement the link—kicks off the war in the second half by shooting a tame stag in the woods, signaling the end of woodland innocence. So too, Julius Caesar’s military preeminence was established by his role as forest-people—and forest—subduer, just as his later position as dictator perpetuo was upheld by his vigorous urbanization and big building projects necessitating the clearing of trees.
Palynological records—gleaned from analyzing and dating pollen grains lodged in soil deposits—confirm that wherever the Roman army went, deforestation sped up. A Roman legionary’s basic kit included, in addition to weapons, a spade, a hatchet, and a saw, because tree-clearance was part of waging war. The Romans were not the first to chop down the trees. But they turned it into something more—a ritual of sovereignty.
The Conquest of Gaul shows that clear-cutting was defensive—like the Americans in Vietnam, Roman troops feared the forest as a source of sneak attacks. But it was also offensive. Attacking a protected spit or headland, the Romans would build dikes to block water from the shoals and offer them easy access to the land. If a river needed crossing they scorned boats and quickly built a bridge. Planning an offense on Britain, Caesar had six hundred transport ships and twenty-eight warships built in Gaul over one winter, using imported Spanish wood. Besieging a city, the Romans would build terraces, mantlets, and towers surrounding the garrison’s walls. These works were more than just ways in—they were spectacular displays of the power not just to build, but to consume. One Gaulish tribe, the Suessiones, simply surrendered as soon as they saw Caesar’s siege works; another, the Atuatuci, ridiculed the puny Romans until they saw a siege tower coming at them, then begged for terms, assuming such handiwork could only be divinely aided.
As the empire hits its stride, a trope enters historians’ accounts: the desecration of a sacred grove. Plutarch’s Lives describes how Sulla, besieging the Athenians, ran out of timber for his siege works. At that point, the profligate triumvir “laid hands upon the sacred groves and ravaged the Academy, which was the most wooded of the city’s suburbs, as well as the Lyceum.” In The Civil War, Lucan tells a similar story about Julius Caesar, who, during the siege of Massalia, ordered his soldiers to chop down a sacred grove. When they hesitated, he grabbed the axe himself, crying out “Believe me that I am guilty of sacrilege, and thenceforth none of you need fear to cut down the trees.”
There’s a nervousness in Roman texts about all this desecration, a sense that, like Saruman inciting the Ents in Tolkien, mindless tree-wasters will stir up an ancient retributive spirit. But there’s also a grim acceptance. After all, this is what empire does.
Browse the shelves of any bookstore, and you’ll find dozens of books casting today’s political conditions in terms of ancient Rome. At Manhattan’s Coliseum Books in May, I found Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s Imperial Crusades, Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, and Arundhati Roy’s An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire. Lewis Lapham’s Theater of War carried the tagline “In Which the Republic Becomes an Empire.” There was also Rashid Khalidi’s Resurrecting Empire, Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire, Michael C. Ruppert’s Crossing the Rubicon, and, for historical perspective, a sexy-looking new history of Julius Caesar’s civil war called, dramatically, Rubicon.
And then there’s the popular angle. Last year brought us not one but two television miniseries exploring Rome’s transition to empire, one called Rome and one titled, simply, Empire. In the last five years Hollywood has rediscovered the sword and sandal drama: we’ve had Gladiator, Troy, Alexander, and of course the two most recent Star Wars films, in which a high-minded democratic republic allows fear and corruption and dudes with bad skin to turn it into a repressive, torture-loving, planet-wasting Empire.
While in Michigan, I drove up to a popular vacation spot: the Silver Lake sand dunes. Silver Lake is a clear blue half circle, its eastern side perfectly rounded, its western side a wavery line, so that it looks like a half-eaten cookie. It’s one and a half miles inland from Lake Michigan. The area in between is a vast expanse of sand dunes—almost 2,000 acres of them.
Like all of Michigan’s dunes, the area is considered a natural phenomenon. “Tour and observe the natural ecology of the magnificent Silver Lake Sand Dunes” reads the back of a postcard I bought. But the Silver Lake dunes—like all of Michigan’s dunes—are not “natural” at all. They are man-made, the result of deforestation. Silver Lake’s dunes were birthed by a single man, timber baron Charles Mears. Mears logged the area’s white pines, building a sawmill and carving channels to help float the logs out. Many were sent to rebuild Chicago following the Great Fire of 1871. Shortly thereafter, Mears had denuded the area completely, and with no trees to stabilize the sandy soil, the dunes quickly formed.
Today a community of motor lodges, cabins, and ice cream stands has grown up around the dunes. From May to October, campers and cars with trailers line the two-lane road in. Many tow dune buggies, because the most popular activity on the dunes is driving. If you don’t have a buggy, you can rent one from a variety of concessions. Or, for the less adventurous, there are guided dune buggy tours, on large Jeep vehicles that seat up to twenty vacationers. As you drive, you weave in and out among gnarled hulks of dune wood—the sandblasted trunks of the missing pines. Afterward, you might get back in your own car and go get an ice cream in downtown Mears, named in honor of the father of all this fun.
The Silver Lake sand dunes are alive, still traveling with the wind at the rate of ten to twenty feet a year. Some local residents spend thousands of dollars on sand removal, trying to keep their homes or summer cabins from being swallowed by sand. The dunes are slowly winning. Tour operators gleefully relate that the dunes have engulfed seven cabins so far, and an eighth is fighting a losing battle. Silver Lake, too, is doomed. Its odd, asymmetrical shape is due to the fact that, little by little, the dunes are filling it in. The western shoreline undulates in and out, and beneath the shockingly clear water, you can see the sand spilling its way in. Experts reckon that in 150 years, the lake will be gone. None of this impedes the buoyant vacation economy. Tour guides on the dune rides stop the Jeep at the best vantage point so riders can photograph each other against the backdrop of the vanishing lake.
The ancients were well aware of the ecological damage they did. As early as the fourth century B.C.E., Plato notes in the Critias that erosion has caused “all the richer and softer parts of the soil” in Athens to vanish. He connects this fact to the disappearance of trees:
But in the primitive state of the country its mountains were high hills covered with soil… and there was an abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain… not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from the trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses….
With the trees in place, he observes, the citizens could then “reap the benefit of the annual rainfall,” because the wooded soil was able to absorb water to feed the springs.
A couple centuries later, Theophrastus notes that good shipbuilding timber grows in a relatively small area in Greece. He even points out that deforestation can cause climate change: after Philippi’s woods were cleared, the waters there began to dry up and the weather got warmer.
By the time of Augustus and Virgil, the ill effects of deforestation were clear. Vitruvius notes that deforestation leads to interference in the water supply. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder informs us that the sources of valuable timber have been depleted, and that mountainsides denuded of trees and topsoil give rise to floods. “There is one thing at which I cannot sufficiently wonder,” he writes: “that of some trees the very memory has perished, and even the names recorded by authors have passed out of knowledge.”
The damage was not limited to the Greek and Italian peninsulas. The ecology of the entire Mediterranean basin was reshaped by deforestation, much of it begun before the Romans, but always hurried along once they arrived. It’s hard to know the full extent of it. Ancient texts are full of references to vanished forests. Livy assures us that Italy’s forest once surpassed Germany’s; Diodorus bemoans the absent forests of Sicily and Spain. Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, writing the most comprehensive Roman agricultural treatise, blames the soil’s frequently noted exhaustion on agricultural clearcutting. Pliny tells us that even Egypt was once forested with giant trees. That isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. The fossil record and pollen analyses suggest that the Nile River delta and parts of the valley once supported rich and varied plant life including woods. These woods were critical stays against erosion, and their clearing silted Egypt’s harbors and hastened desertification.
What we now consider the natural desert ecology of northern Africa is in part the result of ancient human activity. Evidence can be found for Neolithic human settlements in far greater numbers than the region could support now, and after its conquest in the Third Punic War (146 B.C.E.), Egypt was considered “the granary of Rome.” The extensive network of wells and irrigation works built by the Romans to keep the grain supply coming only contributed to the decline. Now several of northern Africa’s most flourishing metropolises, including Carthage and Leptis Magna in modern-day Libya, are empty ruins, their roads and theaters and aqueducts buried by drifting sand. Carthago delenda est.
Deforestation was a real problem for the Romans, and they knew it. But they did nothing. Why, one has to wonder, would a civilization march open-eyed into the trap of destroying the very resources that made it possible? What kind of doublethink is it that acknowledges destructiveness, then goes on to make it central to its own identity?
An empire is a political economy centered on the extraction and consumption of natural resources. The hallmarks of empire—the use of force, garrisoning, intervention in sovereign states—exist to secure the empire’s access to the ecological resources of its client states. “External military involvements,” Simon Dalby wrote in Global Environmental Politics two years ago, “are triggered by fear of disruptions of essential supplies to the metropoles. At least supplies essential to a particular mode of urban living dedicated to spectacular forms of consumption.”
Spectacular forms of consumption. A siege works. A Trojan horse. A fleet. Imagine you’re an Iron Age Briton, painting yourself blue and foraging for berries, when Julius Caesar sails into town with 800 ships. Where did he get all those trees? Caesar’s fleet stood not just for his ability to subdue the locals, but for the Roman empire itself, for the cosmopolitan city back home that imported, by some estimates, more than 300,000 tons of grain a year, as well as oil, wine, olives, and other goods for its one million luxury-loving citizens. Through blatant, even wasteful, displays of consumption, the Romans enacted their divine right to help themselves to the resources of others. Environmental destruction wasn’t simply a side effect of dominance. It was a way of life that made them who they were.
Deforestation was not the disaster for Michigan it was for the ancient world. After the trees were cleared, Michiganians were surprised to find that even more than half the state made for pretty pathetic farmland. Farms were abandoned, and the railroads built for the lumber industry dwindled and died. Now about half of Michigan is forest again, and a more sustainable timber industry exists. But from Detroit’s command center, the auto industry still sets the tone of empire. Like the early timber industry, it has taken up the charge of gleeful, spectacular consumption of a limited resource.
The history of the auto industry is a history of deception, fraud, and aggression in the service of making the worst product possible while eliminating any alternatives. The conviction of GM and its cronies in the 1940s for conspiring to corner the market in inefficient, polluting diesel buses by buying up perfectly good streetcar lines and tearing out the tracks is just one of many ways in which automakers have lobbied, conspired and bullied to avoid building cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars—even as the technology to do so exists. Fuel economy hit a peak in 1987/’88 and has been in decline ever since, while vehicle weights and power have increased. And as even ExxonMobil quietly stops denying that world oil production is peaking fast, sales of light trucks—gas-guzzling SUVs, vans, and pickups—have increased to half the American market. The vehicles we drive now account for 40 percent of U.S. oil consumption and 20 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions. This way of life is, as Dick Cheney so diplomatically put it, not negotiable.
If timber was the oil of the ancient world, the SUV is today’s trireme, a mode of transport as much about boldly claiming our right to the environmental assets of others as it is about getting from A to B.
Like the Romans, we enact this right in warfare. Consider, for instance, the Humvee. There are somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 Humvees in use in Iraq (precise figures are difficult to track down), each one getting, at best, 11 miles to the gallon. For the purposes of protecting troops from insurgents’ roadside bombs and land mines, the Humvee has proved woefully inadequate. In December of 2004, Scripps Howard News Service reported that Humvees were involved in 1 in 5 troop deaths thus far. But instead of replacing them, the Army announced a $4 billion plan to armor all its vehicles. However, even up-armored Humvees don’t offer the protection of an armored security vehicle, as the Army readily admits. Furthermore, the armored Humvees are heavier, which means they guzzle even more fuel, which means there must be more supply conveys for the 1.7 million gallons of fuel the Army uses daily, which means there are more potential targets for insurgents’ improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, now the No. 1 cause of troop deaths in Iraq.
How big a problem is this? In March 2005, U.S. Army troops mistakenly shot and killed Italian secret agent Nicola Calipari. The Army’s classified report on the killing was mistakenly posted on the internet with the censoring unsaved, and was downloaded and reported on by numerous news agencies. One thing the Army had chosen to black out: the numbers. Between November 1, 2004, and March 12, 2005, the night in question, there were 2,400 insurgent attacks in Baghdad alone against coalition forces. That’s more than eighteen a day. On “Route Irish,” the twelve kilometers of road along South Baghdad where the unfortunate Mr. Calipari met his end, there were 135—slightly more than one a day—including thirty-four explosive devices, nineteen roadside explosions, fourteen rocket-propelled grenades, seven indirect fire attacks, three hand grenades, and nine attacks involving some combination of the above. The report tells us, rather blandly, that “soldiers in 1st Cavalry Division and 3d Infantry Division have come to refer to Route Irish as ‘IED Alley.’”
Humvees stay on the road not for their effectiveness but for their high symbolic value, a value reflected not only in Washington’s determination to keep them in service, but also in the insurgents’ equally powerful eagerness to destroy them—and be photographed with their twisted, charred remains. Meanwhile, on the home front, sales of the gas-guzzling civilian version jumped 35.4 percent in the first half of 2005, all of it protected by its truck status from “gas-guzzler” taxes. In fact, the Bush administration’s 2003 extension of a tax loophole for heavy-duty vehicles makes each Hummer buyer subject to a tax deduction of up to $100,000. This year, GM is upping Hummer production to 100,000 units per year.
On the Fourth of July, 2005, I decided to reread the Aeneid. South Haven, Michigan, where I was renting an apartment in an old pipe organ factory, is a decidedly un-Hamptonish slice of middle America at play. But the third coast is beautiful there, with Lake Michigan stretching to the horizon, sometimes frothy with whitecaps, other times as calm as a pond. I took my Loeb Classics parallel text to the beach and set myself up on a towel.
The opening storm. Venus’s anxiety for her son. Aeneas sneaking into Carthage and seducing the doomed queen. Games, funerals, the underworld, the fake miniature Troy set up by Helenus and Andromache in Greece. Finally, Aeneas’s arrival in Latium, skirmishes in the woods, the madness of Queen Amata, the slow journey up the Tiber to meet with King Evander. The battle, waged for five books, and the final, heartbreaking defeat of Turnus. Behind all of it, the debates of the gods, and Aeneas’s unshakeable conviction that whatever he does is right because he is founding a new world order.
The sun beat down. Near me, a one-legged seagull skittered through the sand, foraging for Doritos and scraps of hot dog buns. Football-shaped men issued from the parking lot toting hibachis, radios, American flags. Imperium sine fine. From my beach towel I could see before me an inflatable yellow sea monster with green polka dots bobbing on the water, and behind me, in the dune grasses, a crumpled Bud Lite can. Jet skis and powerboats whizzed across the horizon. In Michigan, gas prices often take a jump on Friday because that’s when all the motorboat owners fill up for their weekend’s fun.
All oil, wherever in the world it changes hands, is traded in U.S. dollars. So the empire asserts its primary right to the earth’s most fought-over resource. The ancient timber trade would have been conducted in denarii, Rome’s currency: although local forms of money persisted, especially in Gaul and Egypt, from the second century B.C.E. on, the Roman empire imposed its own currency on its tributaries.
Take a U.S. dollar out of your wallet and look at the Great Seal. It reads Annuit coeptis: novus ordo seclorum. The official U.S. State Department translation is “God has favored our undertakings: a new order of the ages.” Proposed by Charles Thompson in 1782, both lines are adaptations from Virgil.
The Roman imperium was not the world’s first, or even its largest. But the Romans codified the rituals and rationale of Western empire. They established an imperial mode that used garrisoning by a professionalized military, took tribute as a right, put on big shows of sovereignty, and advanced cultural assimilation through trade while officially respecting local cultures. On a more abstract level, they popularized the idea of empire as fate. The Romans ruled their world because it was their destiny to do so: the gods had granted them empire without end.
In the Aeneid’s final book, Turnus and Aeneas agree to settle their dispute over Aeneas’s presence in single combat. A council is called and the enemy leaders swear a pact to abide by the fight’s outcome. King Latinus, vowing to accept Aeneas as son-in-law should he win, swears that nothing will change his mind,“‘just as this sceptre’ (for by chance in his hand he held his sceptre) ‘shall never sprout with light foliage into branch or shade, now that, once hewn in the forest from the lowest stem, it is bereft of its mother, and beneath the steel has shed its leaves and twigs; once a tree, now the craftsman’s hand has cased it in fine bronze and given it to the elders of Latium to bear.’”
Political authority is grounded in the destruction of nature. Nothing can bring the dead tree back to life again, nor, Latinus seems to realize, can anything rescue his own sylvan world. The epic ends with the death of Turnus, but centuries of readers have noticed the victory rings a bit hollow. The poem ends not with empire’s bright future, but with death’s loss: “His limbs grew slack and chill and with a moan his life fled resentfully to the Shades below.” Goodbye to Turnus. Goodbye to so much. The bleak tone gives rise to the ongoing debate: did Virgil secretly regret the losses imposed by empire’s drive, or did he see them as inevitable by-products—the eggs that got cracked for four centuries of daily omelettes? Our answer to that question says more about us than about the poem. Each age invents Virgil for its own ends.
“American leaders now like to compare themselves to imperial Romans,” Chalmers Johnson writes in The Sorrows of Empire, “even though they do not know much Roman history.” But why should they want to make the comparison at all? Rome fell, and though theories for it abound—civic decadence, military overextension, barbarian incursions, massive lead poisoning, Christianity, environmental degradation—no one ever denies that the fall should serve as a morality tale for the future. Yet it’s the rise that haunts us: the gladiators! the aqueducts! the mobs in the streets and the oratory in the Senate! Across the wreckage of history we strain to see our own faces in that shadowy mirror. The seeds of America lie in the ashes of Rome.
Once, when I was teaching the Aeneid at Princeton, a stocky, well-groomed young man—the kind Princeton is so good at producing—raised his hand and asked a question that floored me with its simplicity. “Why would the Romans want to associate themselves with the Trojans,” he asked, “when the Trojans lost the war?” I had no answer. Why indeed? Why, unless your very identity is founded on loss, would you seek your historical antecedent in history’s losers?
Tradition holds that on his deathbed, Virgil demanded that the great poem of empire be burned, that it go up in smoke like so many of the trees whose deaths he’d mourned so well. His wish was not honored. It didn’t need to be. In writing how the gods granted the Romans imperium sine fine, in the very act of declaring its perpetuity, he wrote its end. We would honor the man today by hearing his poem’s mournful subtext, by watching how he unwrites it in the writing. There’s still time for us. The destruction we are wreaking is on a scale that even the Romans, who ravaged animal populations, laid waste to countless cities, desertified swaths of northern Africa, and deforested much of Europe, could never have imagined. What they would recognize is the arrogance, the willed blindness, the overweening sense of god-given right Virgil paints so well. Perhaps, somewhere in the afterworld, he is shaking his head. Or perhaps, like so much in this world, he is simply gone, and his name, having lost its given name, its family name, and its spelling, is—like the tree names regretted by Pliny—already halfway to being forgotten.