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.
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.