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Here is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome's power – a story of nature's triumph over human ambition.
Interweaving a grand historical narrative with cutting-edge climate science and genetic discoveries, Kyle Harper traces how the fate of Rome was decided not just by emperors, soldiers, and barbarians but also by volcanic eruptions, solar cycles, climate instability, and devastating viruses and bacteria. He takes readers from Rome's pinnacle in the second century, when the empire seemed an invincible superpower, to its unraveling by the seventh century, when Rome was politically fragmented and materially depleted. Harper describes how the Romans were resilient in the face of enormous environmental stress, until the besieged empire could no longer withstand the combined challenges of a "little ice age" and recurrent outbreaks of bubonic plague.
A poignant reflection on humanity's intimate relationship with the environment, The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history's greatest civilizations encountered, endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature's violence. The example of Rome is a timely reminder that climate change and germ evolution have shaped the world we inhabit – in ways that are surprising and profound.
List of Maps xi
Prologue: Nature’s Triumph 1
1 Environment and Empire 6
2 The Happiest Age 23
3 Apollo’s Revenge 65
4 The Old Age of the World 119
5 Fortune’s Rapid Wheel 160
6 The Wine-Press of Wrath 199
7 Judgment Day 246
Epilogue: Humanity’s Triumph? 288
Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.
"Beautifully and often wittily written, this is history that has some of the impact of a great work of dystopian science fiction."
– Tom Holland, BBC History Magazine
"Original and ambitious [...] A panoramic sweep of the late Roman Empire as interpreted by one historian's incisive, intriguing, inquiring mind."
– James Romm, Wall Street Journal
"Rome, argues Kyle Harper in his sweeping retelling of the rise and fall of an empire, was brought down as much by 'germs as by Germans.'"
– Keith Johnson, Foreign Policy
"Harper offers a striking reinterpretation with worrisome implications for the present day."
– Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Affairs
"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."
– Andrew Masterson, Cosmos
"Ingenious, persuasive [...] Lucidly argued."
– Publishers Weekly
"A view of the fall of Rome from a different angle, looking beyond military and social collapse to man's relationship to the environment. There is much to absorb in this significant scholarly achievement, which effectively integrates natural, social, and humanistic sciences."
– Kirkus (Starred review)
"This is the story of a great civilization's long struggle with invisible enemies. In the empire's heyday, in 160 CE, splendid cities, linked by famous roads and bustling harbors, stand waiting for the lethal pathogens of Central Africa and the highlands of Tibet. Yet, under the flickering light of a variable sun, beneath skies alternately veiled in volcanic dust or cruelly rainless, this remarkable agglomeration of human beings held firm. Harper's account of how the inhabitants of the empire and their neighbors adjusted to these disasters is as humane as his account of the risks they faced is chilling. Brilliantly written, at once majestic and compassionate, this is truly great history."
– Peter Brown, author of Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD
"In this riveting history, Kyle Harper shows that disease and environmental conditions were not just instrumental in the final collapse of the Roman Empire but were serious problems for centuries before the fall. Harper's compelling and cautionary tale documents the deadly plagues, fevers, and other pestilences that ravaged the population time and again, resulting in far more deaths than ever caused by enemy forces. One wonders – like Edward Gibbon – how the empire managed to last as long as it did."
– Eric H. Cline, author of 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
"Learned, lively, and up-to-date, this is far and away the best account of the ecological and environmental dimensions of the history of the Roman Empire."
– J. R. McNeill, author of Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World
"This brilliant, original, and stimulating book puts nature at the center of a topic of major importance – the fall of the Roman Empire – for the first time. Harper's argument is compelling and thoroughly documented, his presentation lively and robust."
– Peter Garnsey, coauthor of The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture
"Kyle Harper's extraordinary new account of the fall of Rome is a gripping and terrifying story of the interaction between human behavior and systems, pathogens and climate change. The Roman Empire was a remarkable connector of people and things – in towns and cities, through voluntary and enforced migration, and through networks of trade across oceans and continents – but this very connectedness fostered infectious diseases that debilitated its population. Though the protagonists of Harper's book are nonhuman, their effects on human lives and societies are nonetheless devastating."
– Emma Dench, author of Romulus' Asylum: Roman Identities from the Age of Alexander to the Age of Hadrian
"Kyle Harper is a Gibbon for the twenty-first century. In this very important book, he reveals the great lesson that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire can teach our own age: that humanity can manipulate nature, but never defeat it. Sic transit gloria mundi."
– Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules – for Now
"The Fate of Rome is a genuine milestone in the study of the Roman world – exciting, innovative, even revolutionary. Drawing on a wide range of scientific evidence, from ancient climate to DNA records, and skillfully merging it with more conventional historical sources, Kyle Harper firmly guides Roman history into the twenty-first century."
– Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century