Vesuvius looms over the ruins of Pompeii
In the second century, the Roman Empire was the world’s dominant superpower, with one in four people on the globe living inside its boundaries. Over the next five centuries, this historic political formation fell apart.
Countless theories have claimed to explain the momentous collapse of a seemingly invincible empire, but in recent years, dramatic new evidence from the natural sciences has cast fresh light on the powerful role of the environment in determining its political fortunes.
Drawing on 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 discusses how the Romans managed to be 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.
Harper examines how the Roman Empire prepared the way for the singularly lethal bacterium Yersinia pestis to wreak havoc from the Near East to the Atlantic. Through plague, the germ redrew the political map of the world, cementing the supremacy of Germanic kingdoms in Europe and opening the path for Islam to triumph in the Near East.
Harper argues that an examination of the role that climate change and germ evolution played in the demise of one of history’s most famous civilizations offers a key to better understanding humanity’s relationship with the natural environment—and the similar perils of the world we inhabit.
Harper is a professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. His book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton Press) is available for sale and signing.
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