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The Fate of Rome

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, by Kyle Harper. Princeton University Press, 2017. 418 pages. ★★★★★

This book is an extraordinary piece of scholarship. It’s also a demanding and dense read. Kyle Harper retells the story of Rome, adding new findings that were not available until relatively recently. We owe these new findings to the work of archeologists and to scientists working to understand the history of diseases (especially plagues and pandemics) and the history of earth’s climate.

Earlier histories tried to understand the fall of Rome solely from a political perspective. But Harper shows that plague after plague was an important part of the story. We also know now that the rise of Rome occurred during a “climate optimum” in the Mediterranean. But the optimum didn’t last. Volcanoes are part of the story, too, as well as solar output and Atlantic currents. By the time of the last emperor, a little ice age had set in.

Harper agrees with Bryan Ward-Perkins, whose book I reviewed some years ago, that the fall of Rome was not a rational and smooth “transformation,” an idea that was fashionable with some academics for a while. Rather, as Ward-Perkins argues, the fall of Rome was a catastrophe from which Europe did not recover for centuries. Harper’s book is much longer and more detailed than Ward-Perkins’, and Harper’s account is more about a series of catastrophes and recoveries rather than a final fall. Rome was very resilient, and time and again the empire recovered from plague, famine, and war. But ultimately Rome collapsed, first in the west and then in the east. The only winner was the church, which was able to partly fill the vacuum left by Rome.

In many ways, this book is a companion to the last book I reviewed here, James C. Scott’s Against the Grain. Both books contain details that put a lot of light on how the ancients lived — not just the powerful, but also the little people — slaves, soldiers, traders, bureaucrats, travelers, seamen. The book looks toward Asia, and the importance of Roman trade with India via the Red Sea. And the book looks north and east, to Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Huns. Some of this detail is so colorful that I long for stories. There is so much history to be mined by novelists and screenwriters. Yet again and again our storytellers write the same old suburban dramas. Why don’t we take a hint from Shakespeare? How many of Shakespeare’s plays were set in Shakespeare’s here and now?

Books like this, I think, are important references to keep on the shelf for years to come. I’m tempted to buy the Kindle edition in addition to the hardback, so that the book would be searchable. If I have a complaint about this book, it’s the quality of the maps. The maps are in black and white. The maps are rudimentary, and they are terrible. Get yourself some good maps of the ancient world before you read this book. In addition to the history, you’ll also learn a lot of geography.


  1. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    Another lesson of history…thank you.
    What about Britain, how did they lose there punch?

    Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry…

    As Roman influence, Roman trade, etc., petered out in England, England became considerably poorer and more insular, with a dropoff in wealth and technology. However, without Roman troops to defend England as a Roman province, England became vulnerable to the Saxon invasions. So the Anglo-Saxon period in England begins soon after the Roman period ends, in the late 5th Century.

    Cornwall and Wales were less affected by the Saxon invasions, which mostly came on England’s east coast on the North Sea.

    The church had a toehold in England, though, and continued to spread — a legacy of Rome. The church was well established in England by A.D. 700. For reference, Tolkien and other scholars believed that Beowulf dates from the 8th Century.

    There are several British readers of this blog, and if they see these comments, they will surely know more about this history than I do.

    Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

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