The Fate of Rome: climate, disease, and the end of an empire
Princeton University Press, £27.95
Review by: Nadia Durrani
By AD 650, the Roman Empire was but a shadow of its former self. Many have explored the reasons for its demise, but no one has yet considered the joint contribution of climate change and disease. In his latest must-read book, Kyle Harper, Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma, sets out to do just this.
Drawing on cutting-edge research into ice cores, cave stones, lake deposits, and other sediments, Harper explores the influence of the changing climate on Rome’s history. With a storyteller’s flair, he describes how the climate’s impact was by turns subtle and overwhelming, alternately constructive and destructive, but that the changing climate was ultimately a ‘wild card’ that transcended all the other rules of the game. He explains how it constantly reshaped the demographic and agrarian foundations of life, on which the more elaborate structures of state and society depended. But he adds yet more to the picture by exploring the ongoing scientific work on ancient human bones. In unravelling these two complex sets of data, Harper reveals how the fate of Rome was decided not just by emperors, soldiers, and barbarians, but also by climate instability and pernicious disease.