The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper

George Santayana an influential 20th century writer once wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Kyle Harper in The Fate of Rome, the riveting story of the decline and fall of Rome reveals a lesson for our present day. Despite the march of centuries and the breath-taking achievements of modern science, humanity may manipulate nature, but it cannot control it.

At its peak, the Roman Empire had a population of 75 million spread across 3 continents and controlled the entire Mediterranean Sea. Proud Roman citizens could be found as far east as the border of present-day Iran and as far west as the shores of the Atlantic in Portugal. Reaching from Scotland to the north to southernmost Egypt and Sudan in the south.

They built over 50,000 miles of hard surfaced highways extending from Britain to the Tigris-Euphrates river system in Iraq, from the Black Sea to Spain and from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Nile River across the breadth of north Africa. Hundreds of Roman ships traveled each year trading goods from the Red Sea south to Ethiopia, east to India and beyond to the Han Dynasty in China.

It was an urban civilization. Rome in the mid 2nd century had a population of over 1 million, unsurpassed in Europe until London (Roman Britain’s capital) reached the same in the 19th century. Cities like Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, Carthage in Tunisia, and Constantinople (modern Istanbul) the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire to name a few, had populations between 250,000-500,000.

But these very strengths, splendid cities linked by highways and bustling harbors stood waiting for lethal pathogens from Central Africa and the western highlands of China. Harper explains that recent advances in epidemiology such as gene sequencing techniques and DNA analysis from archaeological sites provide insight to the plagues that decimated the empire.

He details the effects of 3 major pandemics: the plague during Marcus Aurelius’s reign in the mid 2nd century that was likely smallpox. Then the Plague of Cyprian in the 250’s still mysterious but likely either an early severe influenza like the Spanish Flu of 1918 or a filovirus (which includes Marburg and Ebola in the family). And finally, the Justinian plague of the mid 6th century. It was the 1st appearance of the bubonic plague, less well known than the “Black Death” in the 14th century but just as deadly and with consequences arguably more profound.

If this was not enough, simultaneous climate change brought increased cooling with heavier rains to the north of the Mediterranean region and aridification in other areas such as North Africa where most of the grain for feeding Rome and other urban populations was grown, and the Middle East. Devastating famines became commonplace.

 It is not an understatement to say these ravages brought an end not only to an empire but civilization itself in much of the western world. In the late 6th or early 7th century, the population of Rome fell to no more than 20,000 souls and the standard of living once reached at the height of the empire in the 2nd century was not equaled again until the 19th. The fact that this all took place over several centuries makes one wonder not how the empire fell, but how it survived for so long.

Written by John G., Tech Center

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