Geography and North-South Disparities

November 19, 2011

Books like Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Botany of Desire, and discoveries like the impact of infectious disease on IQ and climate shifts on the fall of Rome, have shown what a huge role geography and environment play in shaping development and the course of history. Stanford economist Thomas Sowell describes this phenomenon at work in modern Italy, showing how socioeconomic and other disparities between North and South that are often attributed to behavioral or biological factors actually have deep roots in the lay of the land.

Arable land is both scarce and scattered in southern Italy, leading to many isolated settlements — contributing in turn to the linguistic and other cultural differences. Moreover, there are very few long navigable rivers to facilitate trade and communication. Such modern means of travel or communication as broadcasting, railroads, and airlines were of course not yet in existence, or were not yet significant in southern Italy, when the massive immigration to America was taking place. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, however, geographical isolation was still extreme in some southern Italians villages.


The climate and terrain of southern Italy contributed to its poverty. While the temperatures are relatively mild, rainfall is both low and concentrated in only a few months. The growing season is dry — "drought may endure for six months or more." When the rains finally come, they are torrential, causing erosion. The dryness during the growing season in turn limits the use of fertilizers. The impermeability of much of the hilly soil facilitates rapid water runoff when it does rain, and the deforestation of southern Italy's once heavily wooded areas adds to both erosion and the collection of water in stagnant pools, breeding malaria. Italy has been the most malarial country in Europe, and southern Italy more so than the rest of the country. In addition to the direct suffering and death caused by malaria, disease also exacted an economic toll. Because the most fertile lowlands were also the most malarial, peasants and agricultural workers lived up on hillsides in order to be away from the malaria-bearing mosquitoes at night, when they bite. This in turn meant that much of the day was spent going to and from home and work — often miles apart — instead of actually working.

While much of southern Italy is hilly and mountainous, the highlands are at just the wrong height for agricultural purposes. They are too high and rugged to be good cropland and too low to collect snow, which would melt and give a slow, steady runoff of water during the spring. In addition to lacking these advantages common in some other European countries, Italy also does not have its sod broken up by nature through successive freezes and thaws during the winter. The southern Italian farmer must perform the vital function of breaking up the soil entirely by his own efforts and that of his animals pulling the plow.

Italy's natural deficiencies are both agricultural and industrial. About three quarters of the land area of Italy consists of mountains and hills. Only about half of the land is arable, and most of that is in northern Italy. In the south, the mountains "reach so close to the sea that arable land is limited to mountain villages, high plateaus, or coastal plains" — the latter being generally "very narrow." Italy is also lacking in both the quantity and quality of coal and iron ore needed for producing iron and steel — a mainstay of modern industry.

History has added to the problems created by nature. Southern Italy was long a battleground for contending empires and dynasties, which fought back and forth across the Italian peninsula for centuries, going back at least as far as the Roman Empire. For two centuries during the Middle Ages, invasions were "frequent and almost annual." At various times, southern Italy was conquered by a variety of foreigners, including the Lombards, the Arabs, and the Normans. Massacres, pillage, rape, and enslavement were the common fate of the population.


Northern Italy has been better treated by both nature and man. The rain falls in the spring and summer, when it is needed for agriculture. It has "several rivers, whose waters are kept at a relatively steady level by melting Alpine snows," and those "provide considerable water and power for agriculture and industry." In addition, northern Italy has "a system of irrigation that has been nowhere excelled and rarely approached" — at least during the era of massive immigration to America. Northern Italian agriculture has been described as "luxuriant under cultivation," yielding "a notable variety of crops." Deforestation and other natural and man-made evils of the south were less prevalent in the north.

Thomas Sowell. Ethnic America: A History. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Related: Resources and Industry in the North

Hair Dye and Wigs in Ancient Rome

November 10, 2011

When Nordicists aren't trying to claim Ancient Romans as their own, they say that the Romans dyed their hair blonde, or wore blonde wigs made from Germanic hair, because they envied the physical and moral attributes of "superior" Northern Europeans. But that narcissistic fantasy couldn't be further from the truth. Hair coloring was indeed popular in ancient Roman society (as it also is in modern British society), but its history, functions and significance were much more complicated.

In her reference book Encyclopedia of Hair, Victoria Sherrow explains that blonde hair in Rome was linked with prostitution at first, and obtained from slaves:

In ancient Rome, blond hair was initially considered to be a symbol of a prostitute, and these women were required to bleach their hair blond or wear blond wigs. After slave girls were acquired from Scandinavia and Germany, noblewomen began to wear more wigs made from their hair, and the stigma attached to blond hair diminished. Women also began dying their hair lighter shades using infusions made from saffron flowers. Unfortunately, some dyes and bleaches caused such severe damage to the hair that people resorted to wearing wigs. People also wore false hairpieces to augment their own hair or create special effects.

Popular anthropologist Desmond Morris describes in an amusing passage how blonde hair lost its prostitution stigma, how and why it gained in popularity, and what it represented (hint: not high morals):

Roman prostitutes were carefully organized. They were licensed, taxed, and actually required by law to wear blonde hair. The third wife of the Emperor Claudius, the wild nymphomaniac Messalina, was so excited by the idea of sudden, brutal sex with strangers that she would sneak out at night clad in a whore's wig and prowl the city. So violent was her lovemaking that it is rumoured she frequently dislodged her blonde hairpiece, returning to the royal precincts in all too recognizable condition.

Other Roman ladies of fashion were soon imitating her, and the lawmakers were impotent to stem the trend. Their blonde-wig-whoring law was ruined, but the element of wickedness and abandon by now associated with blondness was to survive down the centuries, repeatedly re-surfacing as an opposing strand in contrast to the image of fair-haired virginal innocence.

Prior to that (and probably long after as well), Romans were much more likely to use dark colored dyes, often to hide gray hair and restore their natural color. Victoria Sherrow explains again:

Hair dyes were popular in ancient Rome, and historians have found more than 100 different recipes that the Romans used for bleaching or dying hair. Early Romans preferred dark hair, and at one time, blond hair was the mark of a prostitute. Light hair became fashionable after Greek culture reached Italy and the Roman legionnaires began bringing back fair-haired slaves from Gaul. Women, and some men, applied bleaching agents to their hair and then exposed it to the sun to achieve a golden or red color. Wealthier people could afford to sprinkle actual gold dust on their hair to create a blond look, as did the ancient Phoenicians. Another way to achieve a lighter shade was to cover the hair with flower pollen and the crushed petals of yellow-colored flowers. When harsh bleaching agents caused hair loss, Roman women resorted to wigs made from the hair of blond slaves.

To color gray hair, the Romans used a mixture made from ashes, boiled walnut shells, and earthworms. Another recipe for dark hair dye combined boiled walnut shells, charred eggs, leeks, leeches, and other ingredients. They also discovered that lead-coated combs dipped in vinegar would leave a dark residue on the hair. The color deepened over time as repeated use of a comb left more lead salts on the hair.

Indeed, according to archaeologist Elizabeth Bartman, Romans also imported black hair from India, while their use of blonde hair had political significance. Unlike the Indian hair, which was acquired through trade, Germanic hair became a symbol of Rome's subjugation of barbarians:

Ample literary sources document women's (as well as men's) use of wigs and hairpieces, and the extensive vocabulary they employ suggests a wide range of options. Capillamentum, corymbium, galerum and τρίχωμα are favorite, but by no means the only, terms attested. Most wigs in antiquity were made of human hair and fashioned with a level of beauty and craftsmanship largely unobtainable today. (In modern times synthetic hair has replaced natural human hair in all but the most expensive wigs.) Although no Roman wigs have survived, evidence from pharaonic Egypt attests to the high quality of ancient hairpieces. The blond hair of Germans and jet black of Indians was preferred for artificial attachments, but it is unclear whether their desirability stemmed from their color or texture. While black Indian hair, documented in a late source, was no doubt obtained through trade, the blond hair of Germans was one of the spoils of war, at least in the early Imperial period. Both Ovid and Martial refer to "captured" hair (captivos crines), making an explicit link between the commodification of hair and Roman power.

Bartman also stresses the artificiality and extravagance of popular hairstyles, which would often combine light and dark shades. This indicates an ornamental function rather than an attempt to look like a natural Northern European blonde — something that would have been looked down on:

Notwithstanding its implications of Roman conquest, a blond braid interwoven into the dark tresses of a Mediterranean crown presumably announced the fictive nature of the coiffure rather emphatically. This unabashed flaunting of artificial locks contrasts with the generally negative image of wig wearing conveyed by many of the literary sources.

...Roman female coiffures bespeak human intervention. When looking at sculptural rendering today, we frame our discussion of cultus largely in terms of the shape and construction of Roman coiffures, but we should recall that artificial color provided by dye, bleach, or powder, and the sheen acquired by gel or pomade, also advertised the hairdressers' effort. By contrast, we today favor the so-called natural look in female hairdressing; whether styled in an Afro or Princess Diana bob, contemporary women's hair professes to be close to its natural state. [...] To the ancients, however, "natural" was a term of opprobrium, suggesting a lack of civilization and social control — a state close to beasts and barbarians. So Paola Virgili and others have appropriately linked the notion of cultus, implying refinement and civilization, to the elaborate coiffures of imperial Roman women.


  1. Victoria Sherrow. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.
  2. Desmond Morris. The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body. New York: Macmillan, 2007.
  3. Elizabeth Bartman. "Hair and the Artifice of Roman Female Adornment". Am J Archaeol, 2001.