Book Review: Climate Change and the Fall of Rome

A review of Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 417 pp., maps, charts, illustrations.

At the end of the sixth century Pope Gregory, fearing the end of the world amidst unexplained plagues, rushed missionaries to the British Isles to save as many souls as possible in the short time remaining, and this, according to historian Kyle Harper, is what they encountered there:

. . . a land that the Romans would hardly have recognized. A fourth-century landscape dotted with Roman towns and prosperous farmsteads had been brutally erased. By the end of the fifth century, “there were no towns, no villas and no coins.” Peasants of the Roman countryside had dined off industrially produced table ware; now even those of privileged station returned to the days of hand-thrown pottery. We should not underestimate a regression so basic; it would be as though we gave up refrigerators and returned to ice boxes. In many ways the lifestyle of the early medieval elites compared poorly to middling persons of the late Roman Empire. The towns became shadows of their old selves. (p. 261)

What brought this “basic regression” about?

There have been many answers to such a question since the time of Edward Gibbon’s monumental work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (completed in 1789). Most of them emphasize politics, war, and religion. Kyle Harper’s sweeping and elegantly written book urges us to consider causes for the fall of the Roman Empire that were entirely beyond human control: climate change and plague. The sweep of centuries and of geography depicted in the paragraph quoted above is indeed fit material for the New Climate History. For climate does not explain a battle lost or won, a successful or failed coup, or a reform bill passed or voted down. Those might be explained by the whims of weather, but climate deals with generations or eras, periods of at least thirty years and, better yet, of centuries. The age-old question of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire fits the bill to a tee.

But it is surprisingly difficult to describe the history of the Roman Empire. If you examine closely the scene in Britain above, you will note the curious prominence of coins as a measure of civilization—equated with the significance of towns and great villas. That prominence reflects the evidentiary value of coins to ancient historians. Like the ruins of towns and villas, they are made of hard materials and survive. Words, written on more perishable materials, are simply not available for immense swaths of ancient history. Archaeology remains essential for understanding, but it is mute and imprecise.

Climate and disease history similarly depend on the scarce hard evidence available and are even more broad-brush in their results. For the historian such evidence is novel; historians were trained to use letters and diaries and newspapers but Harper has embraced new archives, “what might be called natural archives . . . [i]ce cores, cave stones, lake deposits, and marine sediments . . .[t]ree rings and glaciers . . . human bones . . and teeth” (p. 13). Studies of such materials by DNA and chemical analysis have yielded evidence that makes the fall of the Roman Empire—that old, old subject for historians–look quite new.

Of course, readers want to know the answer to the question of what caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Was it war, politics, religion, climate change, or epidemic? With the last two named factors it is impossible to say precisely where or when, as one might precisely identify the fatal field of some military defeat by invaders. Harper says that “The combination of plague and climate change sapped the strength of the empire” (p. 245). That may be a little vague for those wanting a dramatically definable moment of demise. What can be said with great emphasis, though, is that these factors made life miserable for the peoples on the Mediterranean, far more so than previously imagined. In other words, by asking the question about the role of those factors Harper has been led to neglected evidence that greatly changes our image of the mighty Romans. Their expansion of trade brought with it alien pandemics. Their colossal feats of building and transportation brought people together for the rapid spread of disease. And the empire’s climate luck, the era of fair Mediterranean weather called the Roman Climate Optimum, which underwrote agricultural surplus, ran out with the advent of what “is starting to be called the Late Antique Little Ice Age” (p. 245).

The book deals with much more than germs and droughts. There is much of great interest on economics, politics, and religion, all clearly described and analyzed. It takes a very good book to bring all these factors together, and The Fate of Rome is indeed a very, very good book.

Harper’s new vision of ancient history not only changes our image of the era but also alters the role of historians and the conclusions they draw about the nature of history. As Harper expresses it near the end of the book, “the supreme sway of climate and disease in this story relieves a little of the temptation to find the hidden flaws or fatal choices that spelled Rome’s demise. The fall of Rome’s empire was not the inexorable consequence of some intrinsic fault that only worked itself out in the fullness of time. Nor was it the unnecessary outcome of some false path that wiser steps might have circumvented” (p. 287). That allows, as he puts it, “humane sentiment” in the judgments of historians on the historical protagonists.

In other words, consideration of climate change and disease in the histories of empires before our own time adds the possibility of a higher sort of objectivity in the writing of history. If, at bottom climate and plagues ended empires, the emperors and generals and senators were not really at fault. Their mistakes, and history should still point them out, were not as fraught with consequence as they once seemed. It is more difficult to point the finger of shame and guilt. Historians should be able to assess their contingent actions more fairly and with greater balance, knowing, to give one example, that it required more than a single failed assault on a formidable defensive position to bring down an empire, nation, or civilization.

Mark E. Neely, Jr.

Member, State College chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby

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