Kyle Harper, "The Fate Of Rome: Climate Disease & The End Of An Empire." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017
Dr. Robert Smith
Everyone knows how and why the Roman Empire fell, lead in the water pipes, sexual and moral dissolution among the ruling classes or poorly controlled immigration. Edward Gibbon’s thesis in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that the rise of Christianity undercut the Roman sense of civic duty, is simply wrong. Moreover, the Marxian interpretation that it was destroyed from within by a class struggle might have fit Mike Duncan’s book The Storm Before the Storm, but has no traction in this period. But does not that beg the question, what were the pressures that led to the collapse of the Pax of Rome across much of the world? Of course, any book that opens with T.S. Eliot’s warning from the poem “East Coker” simply must be given its due.
What does make the fall of the Roman Empire MUCH more fascinating is that there was no near-peer competitor of consequence. Rome was it, in terms of political entities. This is perhaps why Harper’s interpretation of the other historical record is both so fascinating and important. Harper’s thesis will be off putting to some, and infuriating to others who play the climate change card to advance certain political agendas. Harper states his grand vision,
Tropics? It sounds like AIDS and Ebola in this current century.
Harper neatly dissects a great deal of historical evidence to arrive not at an overarching conclusion, but at period type summations and their overall impact on the Roman Empire. What is surprising is that there is not a linear downward trend, but spikes up and down in terms of weather and climate, as well as truly different impacts on parts of the Empire. It is for this reason, a challenge to say any single event in this period led to the overall collapse. But a careful reading of Harper will indicate that his meticulous examination of certain manuscripts and scrolls does allow researchers to make more educated guesses on trends and the possible impacts those trends had on the long-term survivability on the Roman Empire.
Harper does not so much lightly tread between the current climate debate as get on with presenting facts to back up his hypothesizes and assumptions. Harper has a keen eye for the economic engine of the Roman World and what made it move, and the impact various changes to this model would cause. The reader would probably expect that, but Harper neatly examines it in a readable fashion that is both academic in tone and popular in style, making it accessible to a wider swath of readership. For unless the reader grew up in a farming family or a farming district, crop failure might seem like the most dull subject in the world, but Harpers writing makes the continuing plights and blights of this time both timely and fascinating in an era of globalization where both human, animal, and plant pathologies can move at the speed of air travel.
Anyone familiar with Zinsser’s Rats, Lice & History will see a kindred spirit at work, someone who understands that perhaps the great captains of history at times cannot overcome the great germs of history. Consider the Spanish Flu. Imperial Germany might have defeated France with Ludendorff’s spring offensive in 1918 if not for the deaths and illness plaguing the German Army as the Spanish Influenza stalked the exhausted, hungry, and disease-prone German soldiers, particularly the Strosstruppen. But consider such a cause and effect in a Roman Empire at peace with the Antonine Plague of 165 AD. Anywhere from two percent to a third of the Empire died. What is evident, as Harper notes, is silver mining for coinage fell off. In turn, this led to debasement of the coinage in circulation, l inflation, and uncollected taxes. Food prices soared, doubling in price.
At its height, Rome ruled 75 million people, one-fourth of the world’s population. By 650 AD, the same area now supported only half that population and Rome itself had dropped from near a million people to twenty thousand. Harper rightly notes the fall of the Roman Empire was the greatest regression in all of human history. Finally, the Justian Plagues of 541-43 AD and their recurrence, along with the Little Age Ice of this period led directly to the explosion of Islam. And with the Byzantine Empire in such a crisis, it could not defend its far imperial lands. Is it no wonder that religions that preached to the apocalypse and salvation such as Christianity and Islam expanded.
The maps, printed in washed out grey scale, are difficult to read. A little splash of color would have been benificial. Even the type of paper used in the book appeared low cost. It made the book feel a little cheaper in a sense that the extra cost and effort was not worth increasing the quality even though it would provide a friendlier reading experience. The Initial Timeline Table in the beginning of the book would have begged for more study with a splash of color. The font size used on the various maps is incredibly small and challenging to read—again, not a reader-friendly experience.
The Fate of Rome is a great companion to Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm. The contrast is great. as Readers see Rome begin its ascent to command the ancient world and the other books shows its long, slow descent and dissolution, into first two empires, and then struggling to live on as one in the East. The Fate of Rome, was for this reviewer, a rare type of history work. It is appealing because it challenged many assumptions and learned preconceptions of the Fall of the Roman Empire. How impactful is the book? For the time that the work was under review, this professor sent out fascinating snippets from it to fellow history friends and posted the same to students in graduate-level classes. The Fate of Rome is simply a must read for anyone wanting to understand truly the complex story that lies behind the fall of Rome and the Roman Empire in the West.