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How Forests and Trees Civilised Us

Sinden Jason

Why the 21st Century will be the ‘Wood-Age’
Part 2: How Forests and Timber Civilised Us

Sinden Jason

This is Part 2 of guest series of blogs leading up to the 2016 ICF National Conference in which Tilhill Forestry’s Investment and Property Director Jason Sinden MICFor looks at developments in the timber supply chain that have created a new ‘Wood-Age’. In Part 1, we discovered how our brains and bodies were shaped by forests and trees and how this relationship enabled us to colonise the planet. Here, he looks at how forests and trees civilised us.

These days, pretty much everyone has heard of the mysterious civilisation which farmed trees in the Amazon rain-forest, or how the Mayan civilisation collapsed due to deforestation. However, the most influential civilisation of all was the Roman Civilisation, which lasted over 1,200 years.

The Roman Empire under Trajan has now been broken into 53 different countries. 

1 roman empire

To achieve this vast empire, the Romans needed what we would call today “a cluster of technologies”. My contention is that without wood, the empire, and civilisation as we know it would not be possible.

Military technologies

The Romans relied heavily on ‘shock’ infantry for their land conquests. These soldiers were equipped with throwing spears (a pilum), a shield (scutum), sword (gladius) and armour.

The shaft of the pilum was made of wood, with an iron tip and normally thrown like a javelin. The curved shield was made of three-layer plywood, covered with canvas and leather, with an iron boss. This wood-based composite structure meant that the shield was light-weight, tough and provided excellent protection. The gladius was a short, iron sword designed primarily for stabbing.

Used by well-trained and organised infantry, these weapons formed a fearsome combination, allowing for impressive land victories.

However, to supply armies with enough iron, the Romans needed to organise mineral extraction on a scale which was not surpassed until the industrial age.

The Romans developed water-wheels for mineral extraction, processing and for sawmills. This timber-based technology was not surpassed until the industrial age.

2 water wheel

Making iron required a lot of wood as a fuel and as a source of carbon and research has shown that the Romans developed woodland management techniques to achieve this. Indeed, it is estimated that they needed to cut 165,000 acres of coppice annually just to produce the iron they needed.

The Romans developed coppice management in areas such as the Forest of Dean to make charcoal as a source of fuel and carbon for iron manufacture.

3 forest

To conquer fortified cities, the Romans developed siege warfare. This, together with good logistics enabled them to further expand their range.

To cross the Danube, Trajan built a 1,100m wooden arch bridge in just two years. Apparently this over-awed the natives so much that many allied themselves with the Romans, allowing them to add the province of Dacia.

Trajans bridge over the Danube was around the same length as the modern Erskine bridge

4 trajans bridge

The Romans developed a range of wooden siege engines to enable them to conquer walled cities

5 wooden seige engines


The Roman empire was centred around the Mediterranean and its conquest required a formidable navy. These sophisticated vessels were built using fir, pine, cedar and oak connected using mortice and tenon joints, and manned by a crew of around 200.

Millions of trees were felled to build and maintain an effective navy, establishing the Mediterranean as a ‘Roman Pond’. Millions more were used to build a merchant fleet.

6 merchant fleets

Once the Romans controlled the Mediterranean, their wooden merchant fleet allowed trade on an unprecedented scale- a forerunner of our global trade. Indeed regions became increasingly specialised. For example, grain came from Egypt, olives from Tunisia, wine from Spain with tin and lead from Britain and spices from India. Hence individual provinces became dependent on each other for key items- in an increasingly ‘globalised’ trading pattern.

To facilitate this trade, the Roman empire allowed free trade and introduced a single currency. Weights and measures were standardised.

This secure supply of raw materials allowed Rome itself to grow to a population of around one million. Never before had so many people lived in one place and this allowed Rome to develop sophisticated culture, technology and organisation. Most buildings were built of wood, which also provided 90% of the fuel for cooking, heating and industry.

Public planning, taxation, plumbing and public water supply, central heating, sewage and sanitation systems, civil servants, police, the fire-brigade and even same sex marriages were all the result.

However, by Pliny’s time, Italy was almost completely stripped of its woodland cover and industries such as mining, metal smelting and charcoal manufacture moved out of Italy. Timber was imported.

Pliny recognised the damage and devoted Chapters XII to XVI of his work Natural History entirely to trees.

“…the trees and forests were supposed to be the supreme gift bestowed by her on man. These first provided him with food, their foliage carpeted his cave and their bark served him for aliment.”
(Pliny, Natural History)

Eventually, this deforestation contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire, as described below;

In the 2011 environmental book Life Without Oil by Steve Hallett, the author argues that the collapse of the Roman Empire may have been linked to a peak wood scenario in the Mediterranean basin. He suggests that, as wood had to be hauled from ever further away, the law of diminishing returns undermined the economic performance of Roman industry, leaving Rome vulnerable to the other, well documented problems of invasion and internal division. They discuss this as cautionary tale comparing it to contemporary society’s potential fate under a post-peak oil scenario.

The Roman Empire was built on wood and this allowed them to develop civilisation as we know it. However, their failure to adequately manage their forests meant that they could not sustain this society, which eventually collapsed.

Part 1: How Forests and Trees Civilised Us

Part 3: Building Our Future Out of Wood


The views and comments are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any particular organisation. Jason Sinden MICFor is a professional member of the Institute of Chartered Foresters and a Director of Tilhill Forestry Ltd. Further information is available from;

Jason Sinden (LinkedIn)

Tilhill Forestry

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