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