A Source Book in Geography

Author: Hippocrates  | Date: 1934

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Hippocrates of CoS: An Early Environmentalist

Hippocrates on the effects of the environment

He who arrives in a strange city must observe its site, how it lies with respect to the winds and the sunrise, for the effects are not the same when it is oriented to the north or to the south, toward the rising or the setting sun. All of this information must be acquired, as well as notions on the water supply, as to whether the people use marshy and soft water, or hard water from high and rocky places, or brackish and contaminated water. The soil, too, must be considered; whether it is bare and lacking water, or wooded and well watered; whether it is low lying and hot, or cold and frigid. The eating habits of the people, too, must be considered, what do they partake of most: are they drunkards and gluttons given to indolence or are they hard working, eating more than drinking . . .

Let us assume that a city is so situated as to be exposed to hot winds, which I will place [originating from directions] between winter sunrise and winter sunset; that these winds are typical of the locality, but that the city is protected from the northerly winds. In such a place waters will be plentiful yet somewhat brackish, coming from shallow sources, and therefore warm in the summer, cold in winter . . .

But cities that have the opposite exposure, being sheltered from the warm, southerly winds and exposed to the cold winds, those originating from directions between the summer sunrise and summer sunset, display the following characteristics . . . the waters are cold and hard, and difficult to soften. Men in these places must be robust and slender . . .

As for cities facing in the direction between summer sunrise and winter sunrise (northeast to southeast), and those facing the opposite way (northwest to southwest), this is their nature. Those facing the rising sun are naturally more healthy than those facing north and those facing south, even though the distance between them be only a single stadium. First of all, in these places heat and cold are moderate; further, those waters having their source toward sunrise are necessarily clear, fragrant, soft and pleasant, since the sun upon rising and shining upon them disperses the morning vapors. The people in these places have a better and more florid complexion, unless counteracted by a disease. Their voices are clear, and in temper and intellect they are clearly superior to those living in northern lands; in fact all that grows there is of a superior quality. A city so situated enjoys a spring-like climate because of the moderate heat and cold that prevails there. Diseases are fewer and less virulent, and resemble those found in cities exposed to hot winds. Women are very fertile and deliver their children easily . . .

On Scythia

What is called the Scythian desert is a plain, with numerous meadows, rather high-lying, and reasonably well-watered, for there are large rivers into which the waters of the plain are drained.

There live in that country the Scythians, called nomads, because they do not have houses but live in wagons. The smallest of these have four wheels, others have six. These wagons are covered with felt and built in the manner of houses: some have but a single room, others as many as three. They are so strongly built that they resist rain, snow, and winds. The wagons are drawn by oxen, some by a pair, others by three, and these oxen do not have horns due to the cold climate of the land that prohibits their growth.

The women live in the wagons, while the men ride horses, driving their sheep, cattle and horses. They stay in one place as long as there is enough grazing for their livestock, when that fails, they move on to another district. They eat boiled meat and drink mares’ milk, and consume a dish called hippace, a cheese made from mares’ milk.

On Asia

Asia differs widely from Europe with regard to natural conditions of things in general—of the wild products of the earth, and of mankind; for all things are much finer and bigger when they are produced in Asia. In Asia the country is civilized and its inhabitants in their different nations are milder and more patient of toil. The cause of this is temperature of the seasons—Asia lies towards the east midway between the two risings of the sun, and is situated farther from the cold (than Europe is). Increase and cultivation are produced above all when no condition violently predominates but a universal balance holds sway. Not that like conditions hold good throughout all Asia. All the territory which lies midway between heat and cold is the most productive in fruits and trees, has the clearest climate, and is endowed with the best waters both from the sky and from the earth . . . [no extremes of cold or heat, drought or flood, or of snow] . . . There is naturally in that region an abundance of things in season, both crops from hand-sown seeds, and all the wild plants which the earth itself sends up and of which mankind enjoys the fruits by reclamation and culture and by transplantation for his supply and use; the cattle that are bred there naturally flourish better than anywhere else; there they breed most plenteously and are the finest when reared; the inhabitants are naturally well nourished, handsomest in form and tallest in stature, and in form and stature one from another differ least of men. It is likely that this region approaches nearest to the conditions of springtime with regard to the moderate temperature of its seasons and the nature of its products. But manliness, hardiness, will to work, and courageous spirit could not be well engendered under such conditions of nature, [A good deal, especially about Egypt and Libya, is lost here.] Pleasure is inevitably master there, Hence it is that many forms are exhibited amongst the wild animals. Such then are my opinions about the conditions of the Egyptians and the Libyans. But with regard to the regions situated on the right of the summer rising of the sun as far as Lake Maeotis (this is the boundary between Europe and Asia) the facts are as follows. These nations differ from each other more than those I have already described because of the changes in their seasons and the nature of their territory. Like conditions would hold good for the earth and for mankind. For where the seasons suffer very great and very frequent changes, there the ground also is very wild and very uneven, and there you will find mountains most numerous and most thickly wooded; plains also and meadows. But where the seasons do not alter greatly, there the ground is most level . . . There are differences in the seasons which cause changes in the nature of man’s physical shape, and if the seasons differ greatly from each other, then there are produced more differences in men’s forms accordingly . . .

As regards the people in Phasis, the country is marshy, hot, humid, and well wooded. The rainfall there is during all seasons abundant and violent; the inhabitants pass their life in the marshes; and their dwellings made of wood and reeds are constructed in the water. They walk but little, that is to say, to town and market, and otherwise make journeys by water up and down in dug-out boats, for they have many canals. As for drink, they use waters that are warm and stagnant and tainted through the sun’s influence, and increased constantly by rainfall, the Phasis itself being the most stagnant of all rivers and the gentlest in its flow. The fruits that are yielded for them are all sickly and soft and unripe because of the superabundance of damp; wherefore they do not grow mellow. Much mist from the water covers the land. It is surely from these reasons that the Phasians have forms diverse from the rest of mankind. In stature they are tall, and in bulk very fat; no joint or vein shows through their flesh. Their complexion is sallow, as though they were in the grip of jaundice. Their voices are the huskiest of all human voices, because the air they breathe is not clear, but foggy and wet. As regards hardiness they are physically and by nature somewhat lazy. Their seasons do not vary very much either towards stifling heat or cold. Their winds are mostly from the south save for a single local breeze; this sometimes blows violently and hot and is difficult to face . . . The north wind does not appear often; when it does blow it is feeble and faint . . . As for the faintheartedness and unmanliness of the inhabitants (sc. of Asia), in that the Asiatics are less warlike than the Europeans, and milder in character, the seasons are the chief cause of this, because they make little change either towards heat or cold, but are very similar. There are no sudden shocks of fear to assail their minds, nor any violent change to affect the body . . . The Asiatic race seems to be unvaliant because of its institutions also. For most nations of Asia are ruled by kings . . .

In Europe there is a Scythian nation which dwells round Lake Maeotis (Sea of Azov) and is different from all other nations. They are called the Sauromatae . . .

As for the similarity in form of the rest of the Scythians one to another, while differing from others, the same reasoning holds good as we gave about the Egyptians, except that the latter are oppressed by heat, the former by cold. The so-called ’Scythians’ Desert’ is a plain covered with meadows, bare of trees, and moderately watered, for there are big rivers which drain away in channels the water from the plains. Here also live the Scythians, who are called Pastoral because they have no dwellinghouses, but dwell in wagons . . . With regard to their seasons and physique, and the fact that the Scythian race differs widely from the rest of mankind, and yet preserves similarity within itself like the Egyptian, and is not prolific at all; and that its territory breeds the rarest and smallest animals, here are the reasons—the country lies right under the Bears and the Rhipaean mountains whence the north wind blows; the sun is only at its nearest when at last it reaches the summer solstice, and then only is warm for a short time; and not to any extent do the clear fair winds, that blow from the hot regions, reach so far, except rarely and with feeble force. But from the north there blow constant cold winds that come from snow and ice and abundant water. Nowhere do mountains cease, and under the above conditions they are hardly habitable. Thick fog covers the plains in daytime, and the people live in damp and wet. Thus winter is there always, and summer for a few days, and very slight at that. For the plains are elevated and bare; they are not crowned with circles of mountains . . . The remainder of the European race differs individual from individual, in stature and form, because of the changes in the seasons in that these are great and frequent. There occur in turn violent heat-waves, hard winters, abundant rainfalls, and in turn long lasting droughts, and winds also. From these arise the many changes of all kinds . . . That is why the bodily forms of the Europeans vary more, I think, than those of the Asiatics, and their statures offer very great variations among themselves in every city . . . With regard to character the same reasoning holds good. Savagery, unsociability, and high-spiritedness are engendered in such a nature. For the occurrence of sudden shocks of fear, frequently assailing the mind, implants savagery and dulls the sense of gentleness and civilization. That is why I think the inhabitants of Europe are nobler in spirit than the inhabitants of Asia. For in a climate that is always unvarying in itself indolence is inherent, and, in a changing climate, hardiness in body and soul . . . But there are also in Europe tribes which differ one from another in stature, shape, and manliness . . . People who inhabit a country which is mountainous, rough, high, and watery, and where the changes which they experience in the seasons vary greatly, naturally possess a physical form which is large and well-fitted by nature for hardiness and manliness. Savagery too and brute ferocity are possessed by such natures most of all. But those who inhabit regions which are depressed, covered with meadows, and stiflingly hot, and experience a greater share of warm than of cold winds, and use warm waters, could not well be large or straight as a rod, but are bred with a tendency to be broad and fleshy, black-haired too, and swarthy rather than pale. They suffer from excess of phlegm rather than of bile. Manliness and hardiness would not alike be inherent in their souls, though the additional effect of institutions might produce this. Again, if we suppose there are rivers in the country, all those who drain away the stagnant water and the rain-water from the land will naturally be healthy and clear-skinned. But if there should be no rivers, and they drink spring-water, stagnant water, and water out of marshes, such people must of necessity be physically rather pot-bellied and splenetic. Those again who dwell in a country which is lofty, level, windy, and watery, will possess large forms individually alike; but their mentality will be rather unmanly and mild. Again, those who inhabit light, waterless, and bare regions, and where the changes in the seasons are not well tempered, in such a country their forms will naturally be slender, well strung, and blond rather than dark, and in their manners and passions they will be self-willed and self-opinionated. For where the changes in the seasons are most frequent and differ most widely one from another, there you will find the greatest difference in physique, manners, and natures alike. These then (sc. those caused by variations in seasons) are the greatest variations in man’s nature. Next in importance comes the effect of the country in which a man is reared, and of the waters he uses. For you will find that for the most part both the physical and moral characteristics of mankind follow the nature of his country. For where the soil is rich, soft, and wet, and keeps its water very near the surface, so that it is warm in summer, and is well situated with regard to the seasons, there the inhabitants also are fleshy and have invisible joints; they are flabby, and not hardy, and mostly cowards at heart. Indolence and drowsiness are to he seen in them. With regard to arts and crafts they are obese and gross, and not clever. But where the soil is bare, open, and rough, nipped by winter and burnt by the sun, then you will see men who are slender, thin, well-jointed, well strung and sturdy. In such a nature as theirs you will see activity, cleverness, and wideawake spirit, and morals and passions which are self-willed and self-opinionated and partake of savagery rather than gentleness, and are keen and more intelligent than others with regard to arts and crafts, and are brave with regard to warfare. You will find too that all the other things produced in the soil follow on the nature of the soil.

The first selection is from Hippocrates, On Airs, Waters, and Places, Littré’s edition and French translation of the Greek text (London, 1881); editor’s translation. The selection on Asia is from the same work by Hippocrates and is taken from E. H. Warmington, Greek Geography, The Library of Greek Thought Series (New York, 1934), pp. 54–59. Published in the United States by E. P. Dutton and reprinted by their permission.


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Chicago: Hippocrates, "Hippocrates on the Effects of the Environment," A Source Book in Geography, ed. E. H. Warmington in A Source Book in Geography, ed. George Kish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 45–50. Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=IW5RIZGHU2NIX3C.

MLA: Hippocrates. "Hippocrates on the Effects of the Environment." A Source Book in Geography, edited by E. H. Warmington, in A Source Book in Geography, edited by George Kish, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1978, pp. 45–50. Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=IW5RIZGHU2NIX3C.

Harvard: Hippocrates, 'Hippocrates on the Effects of the Environment' in A Source Book in Geography, ed. . cited in 1978, A Source Book in Geography, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.45–50. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=IW5RIZGHU2NIX3C.