BMCR 2019.10.21

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire. The Princeton history of the ancient world

, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire. The Princeton history of the ancient world. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. xii, 417. ISBN 9780691166834. $35.00.

The Fate of Rome is the first book of its kind. No other monograph has so infused Late Antiquity with state-of-the-art paleoscience or highlighted the place of climate and disease in the story of Rome’s fall. It is Harper’s third book in seven years and despite being his first environmental history and a synthesis it is ambitious and bold.

Harper seeks to revise our understanding of Rome’s slow death. In 293 pages packed with 42 figures, 26 maps, 15 tables and one ‘box’, he covers five hundred years—from the ‘halcyon days’ of the second century to about 650 by which point the empire was ‘reduced to a Byzantine rump state’—and the entirety of the empire. Other matters, from smallpox contact rates in Pakistan to ‘jagged’ Pleistocene climate oscillations, are touched upon as well. A short timeline opens the book and an 18-page Justinianic Plague appendix closes it out.

In the first chapter, Harper charts Rome’s rise from ‘a humble agglomeration of wooden huts’ through to the late Republic, when ‘grand Shakespearean characters bestride the stage of history’, before reaching the Pax Romana. The demographic and economic achievements of the early Principate are laid out in fuller detail in Chapter 2. The emphasis on this ‘Roman miracle’ is crucial for his thesis. Had city growth not been so miraculous, the empire not swelled to 75 million and a ‘great conveyor belt of connectivity’ not come into being, the ‘microbial mass murders’ of late antiquity would have accomplished far less. The Roman Climatic Optimum (RCO), which Harper writes was warm, humid and stable enough to enable Rome’s development from Scipio Africanus to Marcus Aurelius, also appears in the second chapter.

Things take a first turn for the worse in Chapter 3. Harper introduces the reader to the myriad of endemic diseases that helped define Roman demography. He then considers the Antonine Plague, which alongside frontier wars and the fizzling out of the RCO, ‘clipped’ the Roman Peace ‘in its bloom’. The Third-Century Crisis, the Cyprianic Plague, and a climate period identified as the ‘Late Roman Transition’ (LRT) are the subjects of Chapter 4. The next chapter addresses the ‘new Golden Age’ of the long fourth century, before turning to the Huns, and the east’s durability and the west’s vulnerability in the fifth century. Neither climate nor disease cause the west’s demise, but nature is again an enabler. Chapter 6 looks at Justinian and his plague. This pandemic gets more attention than the Antonine or Cyprianic plagues. Harper argues it was more drawn out, pervasive and devastating. We also know much more about it. The Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA), economic shrinkage, the decline of Byzantium and the emergence of Islam feature in Chapter 7.

This is not a purely academic work. Although published by a university press and branded with the praise of trail-blazing late antique and environmental historians, The Fate of Rome is a trade book. The chapter titles (eyebrow-raising and obscure, like ‘The Happiest Age’ and ‘Nature’s Triumph’), endnotes, figure captions (uninformative as they are) and language with which the book is written, communicate clearly that this is a work meant for popular readership. This is important to keep in mind. History books intended for mass consumption often package their findings simply and lean towards sensationalism. In these regards, The Fate of Rome is no exception.

Harper superimposes his innovations onto a surprisingly traditional account of Late Antiquity. The Fate of Rome moves chronologically, adopts ‘familiar theories’ and takes leads from Gibbon. It showcases imperial high-culture, elite churchmen and the moneyed aristocracy. Soldiers’ pay and frontier problems feature often, as do emperor origin stories. It is a work in which the third- century crisis shakes the empire to its core and the Xiongnu and the Huns are one and the same people. In The Fate of Rome, the length of an emperor’s reign is a measure of stability and the gravity of a pandemic correlates with the quantity of textual evidence we have for it.

The argument is not monocausal, but the telling of Rome’s demise here can be reductionist and deterministic. How the mortality events Harper highlights are constructed and how they drove cultural and political change are unexplored. Had they been, readers might better grasp why it is that only Rome appears to suffer the three pandemics, to benefit from the RCO or to struggle during the LALIA. Harper draws attention to many variables at play over Rome’s multicentury fall and he admirably underscores the oft-neglected fact that Rome’s end ‘is a story in which humanity and the environment cannot be separated’. Yet, in telling the empire’s death as an ‘environmental drama’ changes in disease landscapes and climate repeatedly steal the show and ultimately trump all. Rome’s decline ‘was the triumph of nature over human ambitions’; ‘the great killers of the Roman Empire were spawns of nature’; ‘the trajectory of the empire’s history was redirected from without, by the forces of nature’. Plagues and climate change serve as the ‘decisive turns’ Rome takes in passing from the high empire to the Middle Ages. Nature may not kill Rome here, but it had a lot to do with it.

The environment matters so much because Harper argues it claimed innumerable lives. Direct evidence for empire-wide depopulation can be hard to muster, but few deny that human numbers dropped in Late Antiquity. In The Fate of Rome, this demographic erosion is neither questioned nor proven, but it is positioned, as it has been before, as underpinning the great cultural, political and socioeconomic shifts of the period.

What are questioned are the drivers of depopulation. Harper argues that historians have been off the mark in looking for major losses in migration and war. The number of dead left on battlefields was always in the grand scheme of things minuscule. ‘Germs are far deadlier than Germans’, Harper observes. Few will be pleased with that turn of phrase and not everyone will agree that the protagonists of this book collectively caused tens of millions of deaths, but disease, not barbarians, undeniably had the greater capacity to ‘waste’ Romans.

Harper’s attention to disease ecology, his willingness to use diagnoses and his disassembly of the idea Rome suffered a ‘Malthusian meltdown’ are very noteworthy, but it is his interdisciplinarity which impresses most. Marrying archeometrics, bioarchaeology, evolutionary biology, paleoclimatology and paleogenetics with the usual stuff of history is difficult. The book’s readability is likewise remarkable. A series of disjointed subchapters and subsections The Fate of Rome is not. The free-flowing narrative does come at a cost, however. The Fate of Rome reads so well in part because Harper does not get caught up in the methods others have employed to generate their data or the uncertainties that should guide our interpretation of them. Harper also tends to skim over scholarly debates. Caveats do not clutter the prose; few claims are couched in ‘maybes’; there are no counter arguments.

None of this is surprising given the work’s intended readership. What is striking is how Harper constructs mass mortality events. Whether scholarship makes it into the text, is tucked away in the notes or omitted, seems to depend on whether it fits the book’s thesis. Harper engages almost exclusively with scholarship that allows him to implicate dramatic environmental change into the course of late antiquity.1

A few examples. The Antonine Plague is hotly debated. Some argue it wiped out 25 percent of the empire’s population, others 1 percent. Readers get no real sense of the debate. Minimalists are buried in endnotes and in the text one encounters ‘a great pestilence’ that killed 10 percent in some regions, possibly 20 in others. The dating of two key letters of Dionysius of Alexandria is likewise contested. Accepting the weakest proposal (249/50 CE) allows Harper to argue that the Cyprianic Plague originated in Africa, emerged in the context of a pronounced drought, spread northwestward at a rapid rate and was a viral hemorrhagic fever. In underlining the severity of the Third-Century Crisis and fixing it to 250-270, Harper skirts a major debate and leads readers to believe that the Cyprianic Plague shocked the Roman world. The Hun-Xiongnu linkage, advanced in 1757 and upheld on linguistic grounds without good support from archeology or history, allows Harper to cast the Huns as climate refugees fleeing a mid-fourth-century megadrought on the Tibetan Plateau. The Huns very well may have been a thousand miles or more west of that drought.

Some might find Harper’s usage of Aristides’ Orationes, Ptolemy’s Geographia or Tertullian’s De anima positivistic. Others will be perplexed by the suggestion that scholars are in possession of a complete record of Tiber floods or that written sources are dense enough to reveal where plague was and was not in the sixth through eighth centuries. A few specialists will be uncomfortable reconstructing Nile flood trends via accounts of phenomena that may or may not have been associated with the flow of that river. Some might question why the LALIA, a period of summer cooling spanning 536-660, is sometimes cast as a year-round deep freeze lasting two-and-a-half centuries. Considering evidence for warm winters in parts of Europe then, the LALIA appears unduly catastrophic. Paleoclimatologists may find the sweeping claims about the RCO, LRT and LALIA problematic. Readers do not get a sense of the fact that climate proxies, high-resolution or not, remain few for antiquity. The generalizations about ‘global’ climate changes are untenable. 2

Lesser quibbles. There is no evidence for the Cyprianic Plague in Oxyrhynchus. The Third Plague Pandemic commenced decades before 1894. Leprosy is not especially ‘deadly’. The Mongols expanded outward in a period of humid conditions, not drought, as implied when setting up the Huns. That the 539/40 eruption produced a ‘gripping volcanic winter’ is unclear, as tropical eruptions seem to cause warm winters in Europe. Keeping with volcanoes, the claim Toba itself triggered ‘a millennium of winter’ has been debunked multiple times over the last twenty years.3

The Fate of Rome looks far beyond the archeology and history that for decades have informed accounts of the late Roman world. This is its major contribution. It also blends a vast quantity of research into an engageable thesis that is pursued in a clear-cut way. It is an easy sell to undergraduates. The prose might lure Generation Z’ers and Millennials to late antique history. In The Fate of Rome, the Justinianic Plague ‘saturates Constantinople with corpses’, Theodora is ‘a Kardashian’, the Huns are ‘freelancers’, a pagan temple is ‘as chic as a Beverly Hills rehab clinic’, smallpox is a ‘glamorous superkiller’ and ‘brute facts’ are given explanations ‘as objective as an electricity bill’. At the same time, Harper tends to be uncritical of the work he builds on and to engage only with scholarship that fits his thesis. Although the science that makes The Fate of Rome exciting will age, as Harper commendably stresses, the author’s bold claims are certain to encourage new research that will fill out and nuance our understanding of the environment’s involvement in Rome’s fate.


1. This reviewer took part in a survey of The Fate of Rome in History Compass 16 (2018), e12506-08. Support for observations made here is found there. Harper responded in e12520.

2. Ulf Büntgen et al, “Cooling and Societal Change during the Late Antique Little Ice Age from 536 to around 660 AD” Nature Geoscience 9 (2016), 231-236; Dana Riechelmann and Marjolein Gouw-Bouman, “A Review of Climate Reconstructions from Terrestrial Climate Archives Covering the First Millennium AD in Northwestern Europe” Quaternary Research 91 (2019), 111-31; Inga Labuhn et al, “Climatic Changes and their Impacts in the Mediterranean during the First Millennium AD” Late Antique Archaeology (2018) 13, 247-70.

3. Carol Benedict, Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China (Standford, 1996); Neil Pederson et al, “Pluvials, Droughts, the Mongol Empire, and Modern Mongolia” PNAS 111 (2014), 4375-79; Erich Fischer et al, “European Climate Response to Tropical Volcanic Eruptions over the Last Half Millennium” Geophysical Research Letters 34 (2007), L05707; Clive Oppenheimer, “Limited Global Change due to the Largest Known Quaternary Eruption, Toba ~74 kyr BY?” Quaternary Science Reviews 21 (2002), 1593-1609; Christine Lane et al, “Ash from the Toba Supereruption in Lake Malawi Shows No Volcanic Winter in East Africa at 75 ka” PNAS 110 (2013), 8025-29.