Book Review: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire


by Kyle Harper

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 420. Illus., chron., maps, tables, diagr., appends., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 0691166838

Why Rome “Fell”

Prof. Harper (Oklahoma) offers an integrated, multi-disciplinary look at the proverbial “Fall of Rome”, throwing much new light on the principal trends in Roman history from the first through the sixth centuries.

Harper draws upon an impressive variety of sources, from the traditional – ancient writings. archaeological remains, linguistic analysis, and more – to the innovative, what he calls the “natural archives”, seeking evidence in DNA analyses, climatology, forensic anthropology, forestry, epidemiology, solar mechanics, volcanology, and many other fields. The result is a look at the fate of the Empire not only in terms of its political, social, cultural, and economic aspects, but also how it was benefited from or harmed by natural forces.

Harper finds the traditional explanations for the “decline and fall” too rooted in the events – political discord, usurpations, barbarian invasion – and argues that these were often sparked by changes in climate, which affected trade and agriculture, helped spread epidemic diseases, and sparked a massive decline in population. He shows how the rise of the empire occurred during a period – “the Roman Climate Optimum” (c. 200 BC-c. AD 150) – of remarkable climatic conditions, which favored agriculture, trade, and population growth. This was followed by a transitional period of erratic climatologic conditions (c. AD 150-450), with frequent poor harvests and plagues, which disrupted and destabilized the entire world – even to China and Peru -- and in Eurasia initiated the “Barbarian” migrations. There followed a period of general cooling – the “Late Antique Little Ice Age” (c. AD 450-c. 700), in which conditions worsened, the Western Empire disappeared, and the Eastern Empire was reduced to a rump state.

Harper’s analysis throws new light on matters as varied as changes in military pay, population crashes, the origins of the Christian persecutions, the rise of Islam, and more.

A volume in the Princeton series “History of the Ancient World”, The Fate of Rome is comparable to Fernand Braudel’s masterful work on the Mediterranean World in the sixteenth century, and absolutely essential for anyone seriously interested in the Roman Empire.


Note: The Fate of Rome is also available in several e-editions

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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