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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

The Fate of Rome Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire

By: Kyle Harper(Author)
419 pages, 20 b/w photos, 27 b/w illustrations, 26 b/w maps, 16 tables
What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, they have given Kyle Harper reason to write this excellent book.
The Fate of Rome
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  • The Fate of Rome ISBN: 9780691192062 Paperback Mar 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • The Fate of Rome ISBN: 9780691166834 Hardback Oct 2017 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Selected version: £37.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

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
Timeline xii

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

Acknowledgments 295
Appendixes 299
Notes 317
Bibliography 351
Index 413

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Excellent piece of environmental history
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 12 Nov 2019 Written for Paperback

    Somewhere in chapter 2, Kyle Harper remarks how historians have become unintentional beneficiaries of ongoing climate change, as scientists turn to palaeoclimatic records such as ice cores, tree rings, and sediments to understand fluctuations in earth's climate. This bonanza of data allows historians a new way to look at past events. And thus was born the discipline of environmental history, which emphasizes the active role the natural environment can have on human affairs. In The Fate of Rome, Kyle Harper looks at one of those defining moments in human history, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and the role of climate change and pandemics.

    The first thing you'll notice is that this is a chunky book. The narrative runs just short of 300 pages, but this is padded out with almost 100 pages of notes and references. Why this apparatus is so extensive becomes clear when reading the book; coverage is both thorough and nuanced, acknowledging the many different opinions of and interpretations by historians. Harper is not out to overthrow the established narrative, but rather to explain what knowledge of past climate change can add to the story as we know it.

    This book covers the period of 200 BC to AD 700. The first 350 years of these saw the Roman Empire at its maximum reach and prosperity. Effectively, the Romans got lucky and had a silent ally. Dubbed the Roman Climate Optimum, it was a period in which all the mechanisms that influence earth's climate over varying timescales (orbital, solar and volcanic), colluded to produce a warm, wet and stable climate, rather different from today. This is something to keep in mind when reconstructing life at the time or trying to understand archaeological findings. For example, it allowed agriculture in areas that nowadays are unsuitable, as shown by remnants of wine presses found at high elevations.

    But things were not to stay this way. Having both a dense population and road network, the Roman Empire proved to be an ideal staging ground for the first pandemic, a mortality event known as the Antonine Plague of AD 165. Before introducing it, Harper does an excellent job explaining that, despite what we might think, the Romans lived with a constant background level of disease and mortality. Malaria was rife in Rome for example. But this plague was a pandemic of different proportions, and through the analysis of ancient DNA from human remains, most evidence points to smallpox as the culprit. Add questionable medical practices and the lack of germ theory, and you'll understand how this epidemic swept through the Roman Empire, killing an estimated 7-8 million people (10-20% of the population).

    The Antonine plague was a heavy blow and marks a turning point, as the climate slowly started changing. The net effect of several interacting factors had been an anomalously long period of climate stability, keeping drought at bay. But with changes, the longer-term cycle of aridification started impacting the empire. This Roman Transitional Period (AD 150-450), as Harper calls it, saw yet another plague, the Plague of Cyprian, of which we still do not know the identity. In its wake followed chaos and death, with the empire fragmenting, and its imperial war machine, securing the frontiers, revolting. Incursions by barbarian hordes followed. Subsequent emperors just about managed to hold the fragments together.

    Harper puts forward the interesting idea, which is gaining acceptance more widely, that a changing climate in Asia drove the nomadic Huns westwards from the Eurasian steppe, displacing other tribes, which in turn rocked up at the doorstep of an already weakened Roman Empire. In AD 410 this led to the unbelievable finally happening. After a decade-long rampage, an army of Visigoths sacked Rome. Though the city was spared pillage and large-scale destruction, this massive defeat resonated through the empire. The western half disintegrated in the following decades, with power shifting to the new capital of Constantinople in the east.

    The period from AD 450-700 is known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age and saw a drop in temperatures. Increased volcanic activity in AD 530-540 led to some of the coldest decades for millennia. It also was the harbinger of a new pandemic: bubonic plague. The bacterium Yersinia pestis is best known for the Black Death in the Middle Ages, but for 200 years it caused repeated and severe outbreaks of plague throughout the remains of the empire, causing more famine, chaos and instability, routinely killing off 50-60% of victims, and leaving no room for any meaningful recovery. Bit by bit, the imperial network disintegrated, leaving isolated pockets to fend for themselves, disconnected from trade routes and the protection of the Roman army. Constantinople, too, fell, as a new religion, Islam, was aggressively expanding its influence in the Middle East.

    Though this was a period of depopulation, it's important to keep in mind that the Romans did not just vanish. Instead they went through a period of tremendous transformation, returning back to levels of technology and material culture not seen in centuries, with many imported goods no longer making their way to Europe.

    Not surprisingly, Harper ends with a reflection on what we today can learn from this story. The Roman Empire flourished for almost a millennium. The Industrial Revolution happened nary two centuries ago. Already, there are clear signs our climate is once again changing, and new microbes are evolving in the wild, with Ebola and Zika being examples of recent threats. For all our technological prowess, Harper warns we would do well to remember that we are not outside the sphere of influence of our climate. The only constant is change.

    My knowledge of the Roman Empire is quite limited, coloured by what I picked up from many an Asterix & Obelix album and Latin lessons in high school. Beyond the broad outline above, Harper covers many more details in his book, and the environmental lens he trains on this historical period makes for an absolutely fascinating read. I had to look up the occasional term in a dictionary (e.g. apotropaic: an adjective describing something though to have the quality to ward off evil or bad luck), but I nevertheless found the book very readable. My only gripe, nothing to do with the author, is that the 26 thematic maps in the book are printed in greyscale, often on half a page. This makes many details both hard to read and hard to tell apart from each other. Princeton University Press made this one of the lead titles in their Autumn 2017 catalogue, so I was surprised they didn't put these maps in a colour plate section. That complaint aside, this is a great book that I can heartily recommend if you have even the slightest interest in ancient history.
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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.

By: Kyle Harper(Author)
419 pages, 20 b/w photos, 27 b/w illustrations, 26 b/w maps, 16 tables
What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, they have given Kyle Harper reason to write this excellent book.
Media reviews

- One of’s Books of the Year 2017
- One of The Times Literary Supplement’s Books of the Year 2017
- One of the “Great Anthropology and History Books of 2017” (chosen by Kristina Killgrove)
- One of The Federalist’s Notable Books for 2017
- Honorable Mention for the 2018 PROSE Award in Classics, Association of American Publishers
- One of Strategy + Business's Best Business Books in Economics for 2018
- One of Choice Reviews' Outstanding Academic Titles of 2018

"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

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