Pandemics and climate change spelled the end for Rome
The role of these factors has never looked more relevant
I’ve been trying to get away from all the misery of the world with a nice relaxing book: Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome, about how the ancient world was destroyed by plague and climate change. It’s a laugh a minute.
In all seriousness, many people rave about the book and I can see why. The fall of Rome is probably the most debated subject in history, and one German classicist listed 210 different hypotheses to explain it; among the most famous reasons given are Christianity, the barbarians, low fertility, inflation, political instability and general exhaustion/decadence.
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The fall of the ancient world’s superpower has only become more popular in the 21st century as the obvious parallels with the United States become more obvious (see Aris Roussinos today); while to European conservatives worried about decadence and more fecund societies on their doorstep, the “it was the Germans” explanation seem disturbingly familiar.
Harper’s explanation is far more convincing: the empire was brought low by climate change and pandemics. The Romans were lucky with the weather for a long time but inevitably their luck ran out. As Harper put it, ‘the Romans built a giant, Mediterranean empire at a particular moment in the history of the climate known as the Holocene – a moment suspended on the edge of tremendous natural climate change’.
During this period: ‘Cities spilled beyond their accustomed limits. The settled landscape thickened. New fields were cut from the forests. Farms crept up the hillsides. Everything organic seemed to thrive in the sunshine of the Roman Empire’. Rome topped one million in the first century AD, a number that wasn’t equaled in the west until London at the start of the 19th century.
The great empire reached its extent during the Roman Climate Optimum from 200BC to AD150, but fortune would stop smiling and by 450AD Europe had entered the Late Antique Little Ice Age. By the time this cooling ended in 700 Rome was a village of goatherds and across the former western Empire illiterate Germans living in chaotic tribal kingdoms marvelled at monuments they believed to be the work of giants.
Starting in the second century, he writes, ‘the combination of Roman imperial ecology and pathogen evolution created a new kind of storm, the pandemic’. First in 165AD came the Antonine Plague, probably smallpox, followed in 249 by an unknown pathogen called the Plague of Cyprian. But the worst was yet to come, the pandemic of the mid-sixth century, which thanks to forensic evidence we now know to be the Bubonic Plague.
The smallest of these, the Antonine Plague, killed at least 7m people. In contrast, Harper points out, at Adrianopole, the worst military disaster in Roman history and seen as the beginning of the end, 20,000 Romans lost their lives. ‘Germs,’ he says, ‘are far deadlier than Germans’. The Plague of Justinian, in contrast, killed between 25 and 100 million, and coincided with the coldest decades ever known, caused by volcanic activity in the 530s. Chroniclers across the world talked of the sun not rising.
After this, ‘not only was the remnant of the Roman Empire reduced to a Byzantine rump state, but the survivors were left to inhabit a world with fewer people, less wealth, and perpetual strife among competing apocalyptic religions, including Christianity and Islam.’
The lesson, I suppose, is that contagious diseases are the most dangerous stress-tests of an empire, and it can prove fatal to those already weakened.
The book came out in 2017 but has sadly become more relevant. He reflects at one point: “the terrifying roster of emerging infectious diseases — HIV, Ebola, Lassa, West Nile, Nipah, SARS, MERS and now Zika, to name only a few of several hundred — shows that nature’s creative destruction is far from spent.” Tell us about it.
”Climate Change” is Password for Global Control of resources .The biggest danger to environment,are Environmentalists! see Michael Moore ”Planet of humans” Most biomass destroys Forests,Most ‘Green fuels# esp Ethanol destroy Food resources,crops. Climate MAY have warmed 0.3 degrees in last two hundred years. Population of Worlds coastlines much more than 150-300 years ago. Pandemic has shown Government Scientists models to be False & Same for weather. Meteorologists have Enough trouble getting accurate forecasts for 10 days time yet alone 100 years…
Do I detect here a tendency to make binary categorisations such as “these good sensible people” versus “those bad foolish ones”? Are such binary categorisations always justified by the associated reality?
Civilisations flourish when climate becomes warmer and wetter, as outlined in the essay. The Holocene optimum, warmer than today, led to the development of civilisation itself; their declines marked by the change to a drier, cooler climate.
So why are we obsessing about the non problem of a world that’s more conducive to life on earth.
We’re being lied to on a grand scale; the climate’s getting better and better, crops are flourishing and global foliage cover increasing.
The real threat to civilisation is the foolish belief (and the consequent mad ideas) in so called climate change.
Surely the lesson of history is that despite everything nature has ‘thrown’ at us by way of “creative destruction “, we survive and move on?
After the so called Black Death, surviving peasants in Medieval England were better off materially than they had been for centuries.
The so called ‘Justinian Plague’ did not knock out the Roman Empire. On the contrary the same period saw a Justinian ‘Surge’ as he attempted to reconquer much that had been previously lost.
In fact the greatest catastrophe of this period for both the Roman Empire and its rival the Sassanian Empire, was the violent eruption of Islam out of the Arabian Desert in the mid seventh century. A truly catastrophic event for which “nature’s creative destruction” cannot be blamed.
The most dangerous enemy for mankind is, and will always be, other men. It was always thus.
Wind power. The confusion between capital cost and effectiveness continues. Even if wind turbines cost nothing, they are not effective without an airflow at the right speed. They cannot provide base load because of their unpredictable, erratic, variable, non-dispatchable output (ironically weather dependent) and so will always need parallel capacity provided by the only thing that works, fossil fuels and/or nuclear. When added to the cost of ‘free’ wind power, it is neither a competitive subsidy free energy source (if not subsidising wind, fossil fuel and nuclear will need subsidy) nor will it meet its supposed aim of reducing CO2 output… the obligatory religious ritual.
As for tall buildings. Most will agree that we cannot manufacture more land, so land like any resource is scarce. The miracle of free market capitalism is it turns scarcity into abundance which is why now, for example, we have more oil and gas and coal than we did a hundred years ago. So too tall buildings turn land scarcity into abundance and we have more living/work space than ever before.
Spreading low rise property around increases the need for utilities’ infrastructure, more roads more transportation, all of which requires more capital and other resources and the sin of more CO2 emissions. Yes that bucolic idyll. Cycling of walking everywhere. Just try it in a snow storm or during torrential rain. Bring back the horses, why not?
In reading distance between points of Human interaction increases time cost whether for leisure or work or shopping.
Many people, contrary to what others think or think people should want, do want to live in cities. The benefits of economy and convenience and the lifestyle.
And in the absence of air travel and skyscrapers, with populations spread all over the landscape, the Black Death made its way from China and wiped out half the population of Europe.
Trade off. We trade off the supposed speed of transmission of bugs with all the wonderful things we enjoy because of modernity. And the Planet can look after itself.
This writer has real potential but to really demonstrate it I would have preferred less multi syllable words (some invented) and an analysis of China’s weaknesses that is as thorough as his demolition of the USA.
Although China’s leaders are smarter than the average US president they are also fallible.
I’m surprised Chivers hasn’t popped up to tell us that farting Romans and their hearth fires caused runaway anthropogenic climate change. So they brought it all on their own heads.
The USA has not been a liberal democracy for a long time. It is every bit as mercantilist as China, and the rot began with Lincoln’s war to establish the right of the Federal Government to tax arbitrarily for the benefit of a few favoured industrialists.
Couple that with the fallacious equation of “the economy” with finance, and you have a recipe for an illiberal tyranny by favoured plutocrats who manipulate the financial system for their own benefit.
It is not a free market that imposes absurd rulebooks on the real economy (to the relative detriment of the smaller players) while manufacturing money freely to the benefit of the first recipients of the scrip at the expense of the rest who must supply real things to those first recipients.
Note how all our big enterprises are headed by political adepts and policy wonks, rather than people who understand the business and have real skin in the game. This is because what the government does now influences financial profitability far more than competition for customers in the market place. This is also the reason why quarterly financial results dominate over long-term thinking. No one who had built a business would put his life’s work in jeopardy to a single supplier at the end of an easily broken supply chain.
Money printing (and its equivalents) are the real “Trickle-Down”. There is the fundamental source of the growing inequality.
A lot of empires (from Rome to Spain) become sclerotic in just this way – politics, financial manipulation, and “divvying up the spoils”, overshadowing real enterprise.
If you like that you’ll love Epidemics and Society by Frank Snowden
Successive Mayors Ken,Boris and little Eu obsessed SadiQ have ruined london’s skyline with More ‘Techno’ Workers liable to be Working outside their offices, Office Space especially in the Capital will surely go down. Residential property demand will go up, Pandemic shows Need to boost Manufacturing, JCB,Rolls Royce,British steel should Worry the Government more than 50/50 kudos &criticism of SARS2 pandemic by mainstream media is nothing compared to getting to Grips with Overpopulation of UK (67.5million plus 1.4millegal)and Growing more food.
The virus is Government which has spread since the start of last Century, intruding into every aspect of the economy and society to become pandemic.
Government instead of upholding the rules of economic activity, provided in Common, Tort, Contract Law, has become regulator at the behest of interested parties that offer political/financial support, and which in turn encouraged the corporate capture of Government, as both a means of damage limitation by those being regulated and means to gain commercial advantage.
Mercantilism was one of the key reasons why the Colonists wanted independence, yet the US has reverted thanks to a coalition of vested interests, unions, professions, businesses. And it is where the votes and campaign contributions are.
Pernicious Government has treated society similarly with its intrusions and micromanagement, again with a coalition of vested interests from grudge and grievance groups, to environment ideology and misanthropist groups.
A redistributive taxation system has established a hierarchy of the needy, hands outstretched to grab cash, and the notion that everyone can live at the other’s expense.
Science has become the new religion upon whose High Priests the secular authorities can call to frighten the herd and justify their increasing control over it – it’s for your own good. Abstractions such as ‘the poor’, ‘the rich’, ‘fair’, ‘inequality’, ‘social justice’ are used to divide and rule, and damn any who dissent as being ‘wrong-thinkers’ and evil.
Government, previously inhabited by men and women from diverse backgrounds, who had actually worked in the productive, private sector, for whom government was about public service, is now colonised by those from well-off backgrounds, pupils at the same clutch of schools and colleges, subject to the same thinking, spent their entire time associated with politics or activism, who are largely unemployable elsewhere and for whom politics is a career in which their own interests and enrichment come first.
This is not just a US problem.
Look how easy it was for the entire political class simply to shove aside what are fundamental, irrefutable, inalienable, absolute rights as if such rights were discretionary, in their gift… excuse – a relatively benign micro-organism public ignorance of which and ‘the science’ was exploited to create fear and panic and ready the way.
They destroyed overnight, in concert, the very foundation of our once free societies, over one thousand years in the making, the antithesis to tyranny and protection against it. And they do not understand what they have done; clearly nor do the People.
But the People, willingly infantilised by the State, no longer self-reliant nor self-sufficient who expect Government to solve all their problems and sustain them, are to blame.
Maybe we have to crash and burn before we realise what we have done to ourselves and begin the long, difficult struggle to recover that for which our ancestors fought and died.
Clearly we need to start preparing for sars3. The tragic irony of sars2 is whether it was engineered in a lab or emerged from wild Nature, the devastation it has wrought shows we need to build far more resilience in our systems. The double irony being that German systems seem to be the best.
Thank you ðŸ˜Š
I was thinking again last night about neoliberalism and I guess the logic of maximum efficiency is theoretically sound but planning our societies around economies of scale does it seems, as your article highlights, leave us vulnerable to systemic shocks.
This seems to highlight the need for a better balance between resilience and efficiency so it will be interesting to see how the planning system might change in that regard.
This interesting paper seems to suggest some clues.
Point of order: If I have to be locked down in a city then I would greatly prefer a magnificent view to look at than my neighbours net curtains 40 feet away
And if we go on growing the population at this rate, then better high towers than felling trees and digging up green fields.
But if lockdowns are very rare – 1 in 200 years so far – and we deal with the effects of over population by giving long term incentives to shrink it, then no point to towers I agree, which are in any case financially inefficient to build and to operate.
Article is rather too long. Perhaps we are now, thanks to the virus and the Ugly American and his supporters, in a perfect storm. The widespread riots in the US are a harbinger The Americans who voted for he Ugly American knew what he was like, belligerent, racist and greedy sociopath. Will America now implode under his leadership, or rather lack of leadership? And please, the cliche that the US President is the ‘most powerful man in the world’ is Hollywood stuff!
The widespread riots contain, as usual, those on the left. Those who like to divide people up into special interest groups based on nonsense like colour or sexuality are also those on the left. Most people just want to be left alone to get on with people regardless of what they look like or who they sleep with.
The Byzantine Empire a rump state? Excuse me?
1,123 years of the Eastern Roman Theocracy/Empire — Christian Basilea Rhomaion — was far, far more remarkable and well… attractive than the old pagan polity in so many duscussions anyone might enter into. Konstantinoupolis: The crossroads of the world, Theotokos’ own City on earth. Rump State?
That barstool Gibbon and his dismal legacy, again. “Rump State”?
What was so “attractive” about it?
No Olympic Games, no Panhellenic Festivals, no Amphitheaters, no Gladiators, no real ‘Games’ and much restricted bathing in comparison to the ‘good old days’.
And all for what? A monotheistic necro-cult, and everlasting salvation!
Fortunately, as you know, the Circus remained open.
Dives in omnia.
So, it was global cooling that did for the Romans. Why, then, are we spending trillions in an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to avoid a bit of mild warming?
Because it is the greatest confidence trick since the
Resurrection, and that includes Covid-19,or Chinese Death Flu as I prefer to call it.
because warming is OBAB (Only Bad and Always Bad).
15% Greening found by NASA – somehow bad.
immense rise in ability to feed the world – somehow bad
huge declines in poverty – Only Bad.
That’s because of PAB – People Are Bad.
Didn’t you get the UN directive about this?
Or do you (gasp) doubt:
Those So Wise They Should Never be Doubted?
Shame on you for being a bad liberal – you’re not allowed to protest and loot tonight.
The West would have been spared some of the post-1945 conflicts if it had learnt that many nations do not want liberal democracy and its economic and financial presumptions. None more so than China because of its history, culture and context.
The United States is indeed an empire in decline, and I like Michael Lind’s picture of its future printed in the Tablet and quoted in the article. Furthermore China is positioning itself to fill the imperial vacuum.
Martin Jacques is very insightful on all this in his book “When China Rules the World”.
My God! Too many Brits have The USA and the Anthropomorphic Climate Change charade living rent free in their addled brains.
This essay (and that book) appears to be based on the false premise that the Roman Empire was a great civilisation. If people in university history departments had been a bit more competent they would have recognised the better understanding presented by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History, that empires (“Universal States” as he calls them) are not civilisations per se, but only the conspicuous symptoms of civilisations which are already failed and decadent. In this case, the Roman Empire was the Universal State of the Hellenic civilisation.
The real lesson for our times is the incompetence at the top of decadent civilisations such as our own. A pre-decadent civilisation is characterised by an elite of genuinely talented people (see 18th-19th centuries, this really isn’t rocket science!) who inspire respect with their charm. A decadent civilisation is characterised by an “elite” of genuinely sh**tty people (naming no names, do I really need to???) who impose their commands by force. Spot the difference.
And when you have whole nations governed by complete and utter “Boris”es, it is no surprise that they cannot cope with the same sorts of environmental stresses which enable civilisations to get started in the first place at an earlier stage in the process. For instance the devastating formation of the Sahara Desert forcing survivors to cope with the horrors of the untamed Nile Valley jungle, with gigantic floods and an abundance of friendly crocodiles and snakes. Wishing you were here folks.
Oh please not Arnold Toynbee!
He who supped with Hitler, was both Zionist and Antisemite as he saw fit,; Believed and proselytised all sorts of mythological rubbish.
A brilliant Wykehamist, who should have gone to New College, but in the event was ruined by Balliol.
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