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D -59: The Roman Climatic Optimum

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

When people talk about North Africa, they mostly think of it as desert, tourist resorts with sandy beaches and decade long and never ending civil wars. Am going to talk about the latter in another blog. Today is about desert and arid lands. As many of you know, this perception is not entirely correct. The climatic conditions in northern Tunisia and Algeria are comparable to Sicily or Calabria. Tunisia is actually one of the biggest olive oil producers in the world. Le Pain Quotidien, Alain Coumont’s brasserie chain, imports all its olive oil from Tunisia. And it is good! But what is true is that North Africa today is rather arid.

Google Map view of North Africa - showing mostly desert. We sail in week 4 from Sardinia to Tunisia to Sicily

We learnt yesterday why the Phoenicians sailed west, attracted by tin and silver. But why did they establish so many colonies on the shores of North Africa, in an arid environment? And what did these colonies trade with each other? We can also ask why did the Romans rebuild Carthage after they destroyed it in 146 BC and how could it become one of Rome’s most flourishing provinces? Or how did Carthage mobilise enough resources during the three Punic wars to resist the Roman might for more than 150 years?

Many of the towns we will visit in weeks 3 and 4 are desolate places today and it is difficult to imagine that they were once flourishing urban centres and part of a sophisticated trade network. Most of them disappeared with the end of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. But did they disappear because of the end of the Roman Empire or with the end of the Empire?

Thanks to today’s debate on climate change, we are now much closer to an answer.

Phoenician settlements in the Western Mediterranean which around 500 BC became part of Carthage

Historians were often puzzled by archeological findings that show wine being cultivated in England during Roman time, date trees planted in Greece, olive trees growing in the provinces of northern Gaul (France) and by mosaics showing a fauna in North Africa which is now extinct. Also, countless samples of tree rings from Roman times and old ice cores from Greenland's glaciers show warmer and wetter weather conditions

Magerius Mosaic from a Roman villa in modern Tunisia depicting animals now only found in the tropics

Assume you guessed the answer by now. The climate was different. Climate researchers call it the Roman Climatic Optimum which gave the Roman Empire its opening in history and also led to its demise when the climate changed again. Europe was as warm and wet as we experience it today but the Mediterranean was wetter. We all know what the Israelis achieved when starting to irrigate the Negev desert. They turned it into an orchard - when you travel through the Negev today, it is almost inconceivable that this was a bare desert only 80 years ago.

The same was true for North Africa. With higher precipitations than today, it was almost a Garden of Eden. Where there is rocky desert today, there were wide grass steppes with the fauna as seen in the Mosaic above. The hills were forested and the now empty creeks were vivid little rivers that empties into the Mediterranean. The sediments attracted fish and all along the North African coast Garum (the fish sauce the Romans loved so much) was produced. The Romans counted the province of Africa (roughly the territory of today’s Tunisia) as one of their three bread baskets - only rivalled by Sicily and - of course - out paced by Egypt. It was also - with Anatolia - the main producer of olive oil which was so dominant in daily Roman life.

Climate chart showing the Roman Climatic Optimum which lasted from 150 BC to around 250 AD

When the Phoenicians arrived in North Africa they quickly realised the potential of this untouched landscape, the same way American settlers did when they moved beyond the Appalachians. Steppes were converted into large wheat and barley fields, forests replaced by giant olive tree plantations as in today's Pulia (The heel of Italy) and vegetables grown on a large scale (Both Phoenicians and Romans loved pickled veggies during the winter). Have not found any evidence of wine cultivation yet but am pretty sure that the Phoenicians brought grapes to North Africa since they originate from today's Kurdish region. 

In a nutshell, North Africa was rich and always a net food exporter. The many cities the Phoenicians founded became the trading places to staple, exchange and ship these goods to their final destination. The Phoenicians knew how to make money with trading tin and silver. But they also understood that we all need food and that the agribusiness is a profitable undertaking.

If anybody is interested in reading more about this fascinating period when our climate was different, order the magnificient book from Professor Kyle Harper. He wrote about climate history during the Roman Empire. The results of his research and data compilation are fascinating. And it teaches us an important lesson for today: our climate is not stable and never was. We human being are simple the latest factor who influence it.

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