The Fate of Rome: Cli­mate, Dis­ease and the End of an Em­pire by KYLE HARPER

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — AN­DREW MASTER­SON

Prince­ton Univer­sity Press ( 2017) RRP $ 35.00 “EX­PLA­NA­TIONS FOR the fall of Rome have never been lack­ing,” writes Kyle Harper early on in this mag­is­te­rial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the end of the most pow­er­ful civil­i­sa­tion in the pre-in­dus­trial world. “There is a traf­fic jam of con­tend­ing the­o­ries. A Ger­man clas­si­cist cat­a­logued 210 hy­pothe­ses on of­fer.”

Now there are 211 – al­though this one is go­ing to take some beat­ing.

Harper is pro­fes­sor of clas­sics and let­ters at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa. His pre­vi­ous books have cov­ered slav­ery and sex­ual moral­ity in the Ro­man world. In this one, how­ever, he joins his ex­ten­sive knowl­edge of Ro­man-era texts, and the more re­cent schol­ar­ship that builds upon them, with equally im­pres­sive for­ays into cli­mate and epi­demi­ol­ogy.

Bugs and chang­ing weather pat­terns, he as­serts, were ma­jor in­flu­ences on the early suc­cess and later fail­ure of Rome. On the mat­ter of cli­mate change, he is on pretty firm ground, able to de­ploy ev­i­dence to posit a for­tu­itous pe­riod known as the Ro­man Cli­mate Op­ti­mum that un­der­pinned what Ed­ward Gib­bon termed “Rome’s hap­pi­est age” (Gib­bon, nat­u­rally, is a fre­quent ref­er­ence), fol­lowed by less stable con­di­tions around the time of the sack­ing of Rome it­self and, later, the de­cline of the em­pire in the east.

On the mat­ter of the in­flu­ence of pathogens, he is some­times on more spec­u­la­tive ground – DNA ev­i­dence of plagues not­with­stand­ing – and re­lies on per­haps con­tentious in­ter­pre­ta­tions of pas­sages from Ro­man writ­ers. The to­tal­ity of his ar­gu­ment, how­ever, is per­sua­sive, and his ap­proach el­e­gant and elo­quent. “Bi­o­log­i­cal change was even more force­ful than the phys­i­cal cli­mate in de­cid­ing the fate of Rome,” he writes. “Of course, the two were not, and are not, un­con­nected.”

In the course of the book – heav­ily armed with maps, graphs, end­notes, ap­pen­dices and a bib­li­og­ra­phy – Harper uses cli­mate and dis­ease data to fi­nesse the two lead­ing the­o­ries of Rome’s demise: “in­her­ently un­sus­tain­able me­chan­ics of the im­pe­rial sys­tem and the gath­er­ing ex­ter­nal pres­sures along the fron­tiers of em­pire”.

Both have much merit – and ac­quire more with cli­mate and pathogens added. In so do­ing, Harper re­sets other favoured causes for the end of em­pire, di­min­ish­ing some in the process. “The coming of the Huns,” he notes, “did not, by it­self, spell the doom of the western em­pire.” The Huns did not con­quer much; the en­tire Asian steppe “shifted its weight”.

The Fate of Rome should prob­a­bly sit on shelves next to Gib­bon’s mas­ter­work. In time, one feels, it will be seen ev­ery bit as much an es­sen­tial text.

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