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“The Fate of Rome”: Kyle Harper’s New Book

January 21, 2018

The book focuses on a period later than my own competence, and so later than the stated focus of this blog site, but Kyle Harper’s most recent tome is just so good that I have to mention it:  The Fate of Rome:  Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017).  The publisher’s online catalog entry here.

Many scholars have opined about how and why the Roman Empire finally collapsed, but Harper’s book offers some additional reasons that comprise a significantly creative view of matters.  Essentially, he argues that changes in the climate in “late antiquity,” and also the effects of disease, climaxing in the pandemic of plague in the reign of Justinian, tipped the balance toward collapse of the Empire.

A Roman historian, in this book Harper has broadened the usual data covered to include masses of information on climate-history across the entire Roman period, recent archaeological analysis that includes DNA analysis of the human remains in various grave sites, detailed description of the various pathogens that afflicted the Roman world, with particularly detailed information on the bacterium that drove the Justinian pandemic.

Climate historians characterize the period ca. 250 BC – AD 150 as the “Roman Climate Optimum,” a time when the climate permitted agricultural and human flourishing on a grand scale.  The period ca. AD 150- 450 is the “Late Roman Transitional Period,” a time of greater fluctuation in the climate.  Then, AD 450- 700 is the time of the “Late Antique Little Ice Age,” caused by lower solar activity, greater volcanic activity, and consequent shifts in winds aloft and so rainfall, and also much cooler temperature (including at least one year of no summer, due to volcanic ash in the air worldwide).

There is simply too much in the book to do justice to it in a blog posting, and, as already indicated, I’m out of my comfort and expertise zone in assessing the case that Harper makes.  But, for what it’s worth, I found it fascinating, at points riveting or harrowing (in his description of the effects of plagues).

But, also, Harper writes so well!  In this quite serious study, he livens the narrative appropriately, as in his references to the bubonic plague germ as a heartless killer.  As well, he has a knack for the bon mot, as in his discussion of Justinian’s marriage to Theodora (a woman of a certain notoriety):  “It would be as though a sitting president married a Kardashian” (203)!

As to historical significance of the events that he discusses, note, for example, Harper’s statement:  “Materially and imaginatively, the ascent of Islam would have been inconceivable without the upheavals of nature” (249).

Highly recommended!

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3 Comments
  1. Mike Koncsics permalink

    David Keys’ “Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization ” (1999) is similar in theme (quick climatic change) though broader in scope (worldwide cultural changes).

  2. Rodney Stark points to the importance of plagues in the growth of Christianity (e.g. 3rd Century AD). He points that whilst pagan health carers tended to try and leave, Christians stayed and tried to help. Even basic health care like hydration changed the mortality rates significantly, so the Christian population wasn’t thinned out as much, and the pagans who were cared for by Christians were grateful, helping a sea change in attitudes to Christianty from negative to mixed/positive.

    These events were incredibly significant in the shaping of history

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    This sounds like a very interesting book.

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