Ecology: Historical Perspectives:



The Hellenic Roots of Ecological Ethics


by O. Georgiadou

Department for Civil Protection of Greece

Athens, Greece


and S.A. Paipetis, Professor Emeritus

Department of Mechanical Engineering & Aeronautics, University of Patras

Patras, Greece



This paper presents the views on nature prevailing in the Greek antiquity, which expressed the infinite respect of the Greeks towards nature. This was depicted in the works of the great philosophers of the time, especially of the pre-Socratics, but also by their actual attitude towards environmental threats along with the establishment of laws protecting the environment, tens of centuries before our era.


Sybaris, an ancient Greek city in Southern Italy, 2700 years ago, was erected and operated under strict ecological rules that could be used as a model for modern cities plagued by endless environmental problems.



Our planet is in danger. The dramatic changes in the environment, caused by human activities, are disastrous. Looking for somebody responsible for this situation, a relentless answer appears: The human nature lies at the base of these trials of life on the planet. And this is most clearly depicted in the Orphic Cosmogony [1, 2]:


Hera, Zeus’s consort, full of hate for Dionysus, her husband’s exogenous son, urged the Titans to kill him, after which, they dismembered and devoured him raw. Zeus became furious over this hideous deed and burnt the Titans out by his thunderbolts. But from the ashes of the Titans, our own race of mortals was born, a race mixed and ill-favoured, both Dionysian and Titanic.


Humans, elusive forms, deeply ignorant of their own nature, without circumspection to watch when evil moves around them, with no vigilance to detect danger before it comes too close, unable to take advantage and make use of good, even when they possess it, they remain constantly vain, paranoiac and frivolous.


Because the nature of humans is dual: From the ashes of the Titans they have inherited the earthly element, attachment, ignorance and pugnacity. But form the limbs of heavenly Dionysus, which they devoured, the Titans acquired spontaneously a heavenly and immortal nature, e.g. the ability to become themselves true gods.


No better account on the true nature of the animal with the big brain, destroyer of his environment and eventually of himself can be given.


Greek Philosophers on Nature

The relation of man with nature appears to be the favourite theme of Hellenic philosophers and not only, according to the following examples.


Theophrastus [3], a disciple of Aristotle, authored On the History of Plants and On the Causes of Plants, where a harmonic relationship is shown to exist between plants and the place they grow.


On the stability concept of nature, Simplicious wrote in his book To the Nature [4]. The matrix, out of which things are born is the same as the one into which they decompose, as it is necessary to occur, because they get punished and restored mutually for the injustice, according to the order of time. This phrase, attributed to Anaximander, suggests that everything is subject to the law of dynamic equilibrium, because, for new organisms to be born, older organisms must die, since all entities are born from the same matrix (e.g. the same matter).

In Plato’s Timaeus one reads: Truly the world has been fashioned in such a way that feeds himself with what is destroyed from himself.


Hippocrates, in On Airs, Waters and Places [5] notes that the health of people as well as their disposition and creativity is formed according to their natural environment, but also by factors such as quality of water, nutrition and the climate.


As a rule, the ancient Greek philosophers rejected the anthropocentric principle, e.g. that the nature was created to serve man, in fact, suggesting exactly the opposite. The whole of the ecosystem is a living organism, an unbroken chain, a totality, as science tends already to accept nowadays.


As opposed to the three monotheistic religions, the ancient Greek religion was never anthropocentric. The nature was deified, a whole containing mortals, gods and semi-gods, animals, plants, mountains and woods.


In many places of ancient Greece, festivities were conducted to worship nature and the change of seasons [6]. It was a usual practice to ban logging, fishing and hunting in and around sacred places, such as groves, temples, fountains and altars, since the deity living in the place was inherent in all of the entities of its natural environment.


The ancient Greeks used to attach deep philosophical and religious meaning to the environment and the way of living in it, believing that any deviation disturbing the natural order, was a hubris [7], and Nemesis was soon to follow.


At this point, one must refer to the myth of deluge, which can be found in practically all of the ancient peoples, according which one or more deities punished people’s disobedience by sending a flood to destroy them. This myth became known through the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, the Hindu story of Manu, the Hellenic myth of Deucalion’s deluge and the story of Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh Epic.


Nowadays, with the glaciers melting, ocean water level rising to critical limits and extreme weather phenomena becoming all the more frequent, one may wonder whether the ancient deluge is just one out of recurring disasters, caused not by the wrath of gods, but of the maltreatment of nature by man, as it happens nowadays.


Ancient Greek Cities

In the ancient Greek cities, especially in Athens, people used to take good care of public health and of the protection of the environment. Resolutions were binding cheesemakers and tanners to keep their workshops outside the city walls and, in case of violations, substantial fines were imposed.


Public works, such as for irrigation and sewerage, were constructed with full respect to the environment. Town planning for residential areas as well as strict delimitation of cultivated land prove that this was not just a matter of good administration, but also a way to establish among the citizens the conviction that the city should live in harmony with nature.


Exorbitance against nature may lead to terrible consequences, as Plato suggests in Timaeus and Critias in the myth of Atlantis, a city whose citizens grew vain and arrogant and came into conflict with gods, the nature and eventually with themselves. In the ancient world, attempts to subjugate nature was unthinkable of, a straightforward insult to the gods.


Many Greek philosophers have written books “on nature”, in which adopted some basic principles, such as the unity of nature, a fundamental principle of ecology, its influence on human behaviour and its acceptance as an example for measure in the human society.


An Environment-Friendly City

An example of a Greek city, taking exceptional care for the environment, was Sybaris, an ancient colony in the fertile plane of Leucania, between the rivers Sybaris and Krathis at a short distance from the gulf of Taranta in Magna Graecia (Figure 1). It was built in 720 BC by Achaians from Eliki and Ions from Troezen.


Αποτέλεσμα εικόνας για Magna Grecia


Figure 1: Magna Graecia.


Swiftly wealth acquired and abundant riches made the name of Sybarite synonymous to soft and voluptuous.


Archbishop Eustathius [8] of Thessalonica tells the following about the Sybarites. «…πρῶτοι γάρ, φασί, Συβαρῖται καὶ τὰς ψοφούσας τέχνας ἐξώρισαν τῆς πόλεως, οἷον χαλκέων, τεκτόνων καὶ ὁμοίων, ὅπως αὐτοῖς εἶεν ὕπνοι πανταχόθεν ἀθόρυβοι». (…Sybarites were the first to remove from the city the “polluting arts”, e.g. coppersmiths, stone masons etc. so that no noises disturb the peace of sleeping citizens).


Moreover, to minimize pollutions, they were working on a rotation basis. 28 centuries ago, the Sybarites were aware of the threats of environmental pollution, not only by suspended particulate matter, but also by noise pollution, and imposed strict measures for the protection of people.


Finally, no chariots and carriages were allowed on the paved streets at specific hours, to keep the city as quite as possible.


In the year 510 BC, the Crotonians [9], won the war against Sybaris and, within one single night, flattened the city.


To compare with current situation, in the year 8000 BC, at the dawn of agriculture, Earth’s population did not exceed 5 million, to reach 200 million by the year 1 AD. A parabolic interpolation leads to a rough estimate of 80 million for the year 3000 BC, certainly infinitesimal as compared to the terrific 9.8 billion expected in 2050 AD. Drastic birth control on a global basis could be a remedy, however, for a number of reasons, it cannot be applied without risking the essence of our civilization.


The effects of this increasing rate has been catalytic: Global warming, climate change, deforestation, plant and animal extinction are some of the great threats against life on the planet and must be dealt with most urgently in view of the possible collapse of the ecosystem in the near future.


Review and Conclusion

The image emerging out of the Greek mythology is a nature “full of gods”, a sort of a game where mortal men and immortal gods as well as all creatures are members of a whole, in which even the stars are included. In general, deification of nature in the ancient Greek religion was substantially contributing to the respect and protection of the environment and to the proper relations of man with the rest of the ecosystem.


The numerous examples here presented indicate that the ancient Greeks had a deep respect for nature, which they considered to be their mother and nurse. Every element in nature, e.g. river, lake, mountain, even trees had its own spirit and by respecting it, people respected the corresponding element as well, eventually protecting it from people’s maltreatment. It is sad that, on some occasions, members of the priesthood of the Greek Orthodox Church, interpret this admirable attitude towards nature as idolatry. Nature is not created to cover current needs of insatiable humans, the latter are supposed to serve and protect nature. This was the common view of practically all of the Greek philosophers but also of lay people, who used to apply these principles in their cities as well as to all of their transactions with the environment.


The modern world is once more encountering problems of existential importance, which can hardly wait any more. As always, once more, it is worth turning to ancient Greece for counselling and support. Provided that it is not already too late.




1.     The title of the present corresponds to the second half of the title of an International Conference, title “The Dramatic Changes on The Planet and the Hellenic Roots of Ecological Ethics” (2018) University of Patras Greece 17-20.


2.     Edmonds RG (2011) Orphic Mythology. Wiley Online Library.


3.     Theophrastus (1916) Enquiry into Plants. Loeb Classical Library.


4.     Fleet B (2014) Simplicius on Aristotle Physics 2 Bloomsburry Academic.


5.     Stevenson DC The Internet Classics Archive by, Web Atomics. World Wide Web presentation is copyright.


6.     Mariolakos D (2017) See for example Ilia’s, The Moleia of Nestani: A Most Ancient Ceremony Dedicated to Water and the Environment: A Geo-Mythological Approach, Proc. Int. Conf. “Ancient Greek and Contemporary World”, Univ. of Patras Editions.


7.     In its ancient Greek context, it typically describes behavior that defies the norms of behavior or challenges the gods, and which in turn brings about the downfall, or Nemesis, of the perpetrator of hubris.


8.     Eustathius of Thessalonica a Greek scholar and Archbishop of Thessalonica, most noted for his contemporary account of the sack of Thessalonica by the Normans, for his orations and for his commentaries on Homer, which incorporate many remarks by much earlier researchers.


9.     Crotone is a city and commune in Calabria. Founded c. 710 BC as the Achaean colony of Croton (Ancient Greek: Κρότων, Latin: Crotona), it was known as Cotrone from the Middle Ages until when its name was changed to the current one. In 1992, it became the capital of the newly established Province of Crotone.


The author may be contacted via: S.A. Paipetis, Department of Mechanical Engineering & Aeronautics, University of Patras, Greece. Tel: +306944338027; Email:



A Note on Membership in the BWW Society-Institute for Positive Global Solutions: Standard Membership requires an academic level of at least Associate Professor (or the equivalent in non-academic fields); Fellowship Status is reserved for Full Professors or equivalent.

Membership Registration Link »