Browse our Ancient World 2019 Catalog

Our new Ancient World catalog includes the fascinating untold story of how the ancients imagined robots and other forms of artificial life—and even invented real automated machines, a new account of the famous site and story of the last stand of a group of Jewish rebels who held out against the Roman Empire, a new translation that captures the gripping power of one of the greatest war stories ever told—Julius Caesar’s pitiless account of his brutal campaign to conquer Gaul.

If you plan on attending AIA/SCS 2018 in San Diego this weekend, stop by Booths 204/206 to see our full range of Ancient World titles and more.

 

Two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children—the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple—reportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This dramatic event, which took place on top of Masada, a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea, spawned a powerful story of Jewish resistance that came to symbolize the embattled modern State of Israel. The first extensive archaeological excavations of Masada began in the 1960s, and today the site draws visitors from around the world. And yet, because the mass suicide was recorded by only one ancient author—the Jewish historian Josephus—some scholars question if the event ever took place.

Featuring numerous illustrations, Masada is an engaging exploration of an ancient story that continues to grip the imagination today.

The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life—and grappling with still-unresolved ethical concerns about biotechne, “life through craft.” In this compelling, richly illustrated book, Adrienne Mayor tells the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements—and how these visions relate to and reflect the ancient invention of real animated machines.

A groundbreaking account of the earliest expressions of the timeless impulse to create artificial life, Gods and Robots reveals how some of today’s most advanced innovations in robotics and AI were foreshadowed in ancient myth—and how science has always been driven by imagination. This is mythology for the age of AI.

Imagine a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army—a vivid and dramatic propaganda piece that forces the reader to identify with the conquerors and that is designed, like the war itself, to fuel the limitless political ambitions of the author. Could such a campaign autobiography ever be a great work of literature—perhaps even one of the greatest? It would be easy to think not, but such a book exists—and it helped transform Julius Caesar from a politician on the make into the Caesar of legend. This remarkable new translation of Caesar’s famous but underappreciated War for Gaul captures, like never before in English, the gripping and powerfully concise style of the future emperor’s dispatches from the front lines in what are today France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

Illustrations from The Golden Rhinoceros by François-Xavier Fauvelle

FauvelleFrom the birth of Islam in the seventh century to the voyages of European exploration in the fifteenth, Africa was at the center of a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. It was an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa. A book that finally recognizes Africa’s important role in the Middle Ages, The Golden Rhinoceros also provides a window into the historian’s craft. Fauvelle carefully pieces together the written and archaeological evidence to tell an unforgettable story that is at once sensitive to Africa’s rich social diversity and alert to the trajectories that connected Africa with the wider Muslim and Christian worlds. The gallery below features a selection of original illustrations commissioned for the chapter openers of the book by artist Roland Sárkány. 

 

François-Xavier Fauvelle is senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and one of the world’s leading historians of ancient Africa. The author and editor of numerous books, he has conducted archaeological digs in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Morocco.

François-Xavier Fauvelle on The Golden Rhinoceros

FauvelleFrom the birth of Islam in the seventh century to the voyages of European exploration in the fifteenth, Africa was at the center of a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. It was an African golden age in which places like Ghana, Nubia, and Zimbabwe became the crossroads of civilizations, and where African royals, thinkers, and artists played celebrated roles in the globalized world of the Middle Ages. The Golden Rhinoceros brings this unsung era marvelously to life, taking readers from the Sahara and the Nile River Valley to the Ethiopian highlands and southern Africa.

How did this book come about?

This book came about for two reasons. The first is scholarly. As an historian and archaeologist, I have worked in several regions of Africa (the Horn of Africa, South Africa, and countries on both sides of the western Sahara) and have been lucky enough to visit archeological sites in other places. My research has made me understand that despite the profound cultural differences between these different regions there existed a point of convergence: their participation in a global system of exchange during the Middle Ages. This phenomenon had similar and synchronous effects on several African societies, particularly their participation in religious, economic, political and architectural “conversations” with other powers of the time, notably within the Islamic world. The second rationale behind this book is civic. French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar in 2007 where he claimed that “the African has not fully entered into history,” made me understand that there was a severe shortage of works on African history that were both serious and accessible. Some Africanist historians took it upon themselves to respond to this scandalous speech. For my part, what I found scandalous was not that this speech could be delivered, but that it was audible in our society, that there was room for it to be heard. For me, the blame lies with scholars rather than politicians. The Golden Rhinoceros attempts to address this by making what we know about medieval African history available to a large audience.

Is there a method to how you structured the book? 

I have always been very sensitive to the argument of American historian Hayden White. He believed that historians generally narrate history in a conservative way. In my opinion, one of the conservative ways of writing the history of ancient Africa is to write it so that it conceals the characteristics of African societies and the available documentation in order to imitate the history of medieval and modern Europe. I wrote The Golden Rhinoceros to respond to a particular challenge presented by ancient African history: the fragmentary character of the written and archaeological documentation. Thus, this book is organized into small chapters that seek to embrace the fragmentary nature of the documentation by opening “windows,” but without covering up the lacunas, without leading the reader to think it is possible to tell this history in a linear fashion. I have also sought to lay out two different levels of reading: each chapter is followed by a short bibliographic essay that tells another story, that of the documentation.

How did the experiences of ordinary Africans of the Middle Ages differ from their counterparts in Europe?

This is a difficult question to answer because the written sources, primarily Arabic, which were produced outside of African societies, tell us mostly about capital cities, political elites, diplomatic relations, and the buying and selling of luxury merchandise. I have focused the book on these aspects, as they allow us to better observe the agency of African societies. Nevertheless, this approach sometimes opens small windows onto the lives of ordinary people. Take for example this request which was formulated before Sultan Sulayman of Mâli in 1352: a Muslim cleric had come from a village and presented himself before the sultan.  He said that locusts had spoken to him, saying that God had sent them to destroy the harvest because of the oppression reigning in the land. We have here a window, very small but very illuminating, onto the political order and the language in which recriminations regarding power in the medieval kingdom of Mâli were expressed.

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

I would like readers to understand that African societies were not “tribes” frozen forever in their landscape; that their social organization changed over time; that they participated in global exchange; that they created institutions and cities; that they adopted and adapted forms of religion coming initially from the outside, such as Christianity and Islam. That’s the first take away. There is a second: It’s one thing to understand that African societies have a history, it’s another to realize that medieval African societies were the contemporaries of the Islamic, European, Indian or Chinese societies of the period, and that they participated in a larger conversation. It’s why I speak of a medieval Africa that should be seen as part of a global Middle Ages that contained other provinces. For me, from the point of view of an Africanist, the goal is not, in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, “to provincialize Europe,” but to conceive of a multi-provincial world in which Africa has its place. Finally, a third take away: I would like for The Golden Rhinoceros to contribute to putting our knowledge of the history of Africa into the current conversation about history; to have it participate in the shared conceptions of world civilizations; and to influence teaching and discussion on the historical trajectories of societies and the methods of the historical discipline.

What did Africa offer during the Middle Ages that other regions did not?

Several very strong singularities should be highlighted. One is that forms of centralized power and the accumulation of prestige, sophisticated systems of exchange, and a cultural and material finesse existed without being accompanied by the widespread use of writing (except in Ethiopia). Another is that although the regions of Africa under discussion were not conquered by Arab armies in the seventh century, many of their societies, in any case their elites, adopted Islam because it allowed them to access a political, commercial, juridical and intellectual language common to the whole Islamic world (the Maghreb, Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and Persia). These political elites, as in Mâli for example, invented ways for Islam and local religions to coexist. This coexistence is also found at the level of the linguistic, economic, and technological diversity of African societies: it’s a characteristic of the longue durée in African history, which distinguishes Africa from other regions of the world that became culturally homogeneous to a higher degree when they were integrated into centralized political formations. But far be it from me to promote an angelic vision of African history: we must not forget that several of these societies (the Ethiopian kingdoms, for example) raided their neighbors to export slaves to the Islamic world.

Why do you think the history of medieval Africa has been neglected?

This is a complex question. The Arab authors of the Middle Ages had no problem admiring the political sophistication of the African kingdoms (such as al-Bakrî, who wrote approvingly of Ghâna in the eleventh century) or investigating their history (such as Ibn Khaldûn did for Mâli at the end of the fourteenth century), although the Islamic societies to which they belonged imported massive numbers of black slaves from these regions. In contrast, the slave trade practiced by the Europeans and their American colonies was accompanied by a monstrous ideology that not only negated the humanity of the captives, but also the singularity, and thus the historicity, of their societies. This negation has stealthily managed to install itself in modern mentalities. It lives on in multiple forms, whether it’s coldly saying that Africans have no history, or shutting away African art behind museum showcases with “ethnic” labels which lead one to think that objects produced by Africans reflect unchanging African “souls.” History is a remedy against such beliefs.

François-Xavier Fauvelle is senior fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France, and one of the world’s leading historians of ancient Africa. The author and editor of numerous books, he has conducted archaeological digs in South Africa, Ethiopia, and Morocco.

A. A. Long on How to Be Free An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (according to Epictetus)

How-to-be-free-epictetus-ancient-romeHow to be Free is a book for every place and occasion. I can say this without any pride or self-promotion because the ideas of the book are not my own but those of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and they have stood the test of time. In fact his guide to life, which I translate and introduce here, is more relevant and needful today than at any period in its long and salutary history. I say this because the freedom that Epictetus promises and justifies—freedom to take charge of one’s own individual thoughts and actions—is under attack by market capitalism, commercial advertising, social media, and cyber aggression. By manipulating desires and infiltrating mindsets, these powerful forces are undermining autonomy and personal independence with disastrous results. They are a main cause of the anxiety and depression that oppresses so many people, through the fear of falling short in health, wealth, personal success, relationships, appearance, and status.

Epictetus counters the pressures of the external environment by making a deceptively simple distinction—between things that are up to us (call them U things) and things that are not up to us (call them N things). U things comprise our will and our motivations, our likes and dislikes, our actions and reactions, our feelings and emotions—in other words the essential person that each of us is. N things comprise everything else—the state of the world, the people around us, our work and income, even our bodies because our limbs and physical wellbeing are not absolutely under our direct control. This is a stark distinction. Its value is to highlight the notion that what we want or do not want, what matters or does not matter to us, depends primarily on our own individual decisions, and not what is done to us by others. On this view, it is we ourselves, and not outside forces, that ultimately determine our happiness and unhappiness and condition our reactions.

The freedom that this book seeks to promote has two sides: one side is freedom to act without constraint by external forces, whether people or media pressures or mistaken impressions that we have to react in certain ways; the other side is freedom from disabling emotions and anxieties that inhibit the full exercise of our will and mental capacity. Along with freedom Epictetus emphasizes self-sufficiency and competing with oneself to be as good as possible in facing the challenges of life. Read this book as you approach a cold shower. You will feel great when it is over, toned up and ready for anything.

A. A. Long is professor emeritus of classics and affiliated professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to LifeStoic Studies, and (with Margaret Graver) Seneca: Letters on Ethics. He lives in Kensington, California.

Jan Assmann on The Invention of Religion

ReligionThe Book of Exodus may be the most consequential story ever told. But its spectacular moments of heaven-sent plagues and parting seas overshadow its true significance, says Jan Assmann, a leading historian of ancient religion. The story of Moses guiding the enslaved children of Israel out of captivity to become God’s chosen people is the foundation of an entirely new idea of religion, one that lives on today in many of the world’s faiths. The Invention of Religion sheds new light on ancient scriptures to show how Exodus has shaped fundamental understandings of monotheistic practice and belief. It is a powerful account of how ideas of faith, revelation, and covenant, first introduced in Exodus, shaped Judaism and were later adopted by Christianity and Islam to form the bedrock of the world’s Abrahamic religions.

The title of your book is The Invention of Religion. How is this to be understood? Aren’t there many religions? And have they all been invented?

This is correct. Primal, tribal, and ancient religions go back to time immemorial. We may call them “primary religions.” They are based on experience and are equivalent to general culture; there is no way to conceive of them as an independent system based on rules and values of its own. In my book, I am dealing with “secondary religion” that does not go back to time immemorial but has a definite date in history when it was founded or “invented.” Religion in this new sense is not based on experience but revelation; it is set off from the older primary religion and therefore from general culture, forming a system of its own. The first secondary religion is Second Temple Judaism as it developed during the Babylonian Exile and as it was established around 520 BCE. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam followed its model, as does our concept of “religion.”

If revelation is the distinctive feature of “secondary religion,” how do you explain that all religions know of ways by which the gods reveal their intentions to humankind, such as prodigies, oracles, dreams, etc.?

We must distinguish between occasional and singular revelations. Occasional revelations occur once in a while, refer to specific situations, and address specific recipients. Singular revelations occur once and for all time, encompass the entirety of human—individual, social, political—existence, and address a whole people or group of believers such as Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. Revelation in this sense is an act of foundation, establishing a “covenant“ between God and men. Whereas primary religions need rituals, attention, diligence in order not to miss the divine intimations and to interpret them correctly—and this is exactly what the Latin term religio means according to Cicero—religions of the new type need memory, codification, canonization of the revealed texts, and faith in the revealed truth, i.e. the covenant. For this reason, Lactance, a Christian, derived the word religio not from relegere, or “to diligently observe,” but from religari, or “to bind oneself.”

“Faith“ is another category that one would assume to be necessary for all religions, not only for Second Temple Judaism and the religions based on or following this model.

In a general sense, yes. But religion based on revelation requires faith in a specific and much stronger sense. Faith in the general, weak sense is based on experience and evidence, i.e. immanent, this-worldly truth. Faith in the new, strong sense is based on revealed truth, which is transcendent and extramundane. This is a truth that cannot be verified by experience and researched, but can only be attested by staying true to the covenant and its laws, even under conditions of suffering. The term “martyr” comes from Greek martys “witness” and means him who by his violent death testifies to the truth of God’s covenant. Faith, truthfulness, and loyalty mean the same (aemunah in Hebrew). This kind of faith does not exist in primary religions and is the exclusive innovation of Biblical monotheism in its post-exilic form of Second Temple Judaism.

The main topic of the book of Exodus, however, seems still to be the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (yitzi’at mitzra’im) and not “revelation” for which there is not even a word in Hebrew.

That “revelation” is the main topic of 2.Mose becomes clear by a careful thematic analysis of the book. The book comprises three parts. Part one (chapters 1-15a) contains God’s revelation to Moses in the Burning Bush, the 10 plagues, and the Miracle of the Sea, revealing his overwhelming power. Part 2 (chapters 15b-24) contains the revelation of the covenant and the closing ceremony. The last part (chapters 25-40) contains the revelation and construction of the Tabernacle, interrupted by the scene of the Golden Calf. Each of these parts contains scenes of revelation, which is thus shown to be the overarching theme. That there is no word for “revelation” in Hebrew is the reason why this new and revolutionary concept is unfolded in form of a lengthy narrative.

Being an Egyptologist, what brought you to venture into the field of Biblical studies and how does your approach as an outsider differ from that of professional Biblical scholars who wrote on the book of Exodus?

My “egyptological” approach to the Bible focuses on the triad of culture, identity, and memory that is typical of Cultural Studies, whereas the approach of Biblical Studies mostly focuses on textual criticism, the distinction of different layers of redaction and composition. According to the Bible, the Israelites fled from Egypt and not from any other country of the Ancient World. This fact alone constitutes a challenge for Egyptology. Egypt seems to stand for something that the Torah is opposing with particular vehemence. A closer reading of the book of Exodus reveals that it is not religion—the Egyptian cult—what is rejected, but the political system of sacral kingship, the king as god and the deification of the state. All the ancient oriental kingdoms share this idea in a greater or lesser degree, but Egypt is the most extreme realization of this idea. Egypt, therefore, represents the world which Israel was to exit—or to be liberated from—in order to enter a new paradigm for which Flavius Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” meaning “God is king” instead of “The king is god,” the principle of sacral kingship. This originally political idea gradually evolved into what we now understand as “religion.”

The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is commonly taken as a historical fact, unlike the events that you subsume under the concept “revelation“ and consequently interpret as religious imagination.

Egyptology tells us that there is no archaeological, epigraphical, or literary evidence of any Hebrew mass emigration from Egypt in the Late Bronze Age, the narrated time. The book of Exodus is not a historical account but a foundational myth, though replete with historical reminiscences and experiences such as the expulsion of the Hyksos, the oppression of Palestine by Egyptian colonization, the Solomonic oppression of his people through heavy corvée—leading to the separation of the Northern Tribes—and finally the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 and of the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians 597/87. What is decisive is not the narrated time—”What may really have happened in the 13th ct. BCE?”—but the various times of narration when this myth was first formed and became eventually codified and canonized as the foundational story of Second Temple Judaism. As a foundational myth, the Exodus belongs within the same sphere of religious imagination as the scenes of revelation.

And Moses? The name, Egyptologists tell us, is Egyptian. This seems to be historical evidence after all.

This is true, Moses (Moshe) is an Egyptian name, meaning “born of” like the Greek –genes. Hermogenes would be Thut-mose. There are many attempts at identifying Moses with Egyptian figures bearing the element –mose in their names, none of them convincing. Sigmund Freud made of Moses a follower of Akhenaten, the heretic king, who after this king’s death emigrated from Egypt to Canaan and took the Hebrews along, because Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult of the Sun (Aten) was persecuted and abolished in Egypt. Some even identify Moses with Akhenaten. All this is pure fancy. There is not the least link between Akenaten’s monotheism, which is just a new cosmology, deducing every life and existence from the sun, and the religion founded and proclaimed by Moses, that has nothing to do with cosmology but is based on the political idea of covenant, an alliance between God and his people. The ideas of revelation, covenant, and faith have no correspondents in Egypt nor in any other ancient religion.

In your book you characterize the new religion as a “monotheism of loyalty,” based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, and distinct from a “monotheism of truth,” based on the distinction between true and false, which is also typical of the new religion. How do these two forms of monotheism go together?

In my book Moses the Egyptian (1997), I defined Biblical monotheism as based on the distinction of true and false, which I dubbed the “Mosaic Distinction” and described as an innovation that “secondary religions” introduced into the ancient world, where this distinction between true God and false gods, true religion and false religions, was totally alien. After a close reading of the Torah I realized that this distinction only occurs with the later prophets (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel and others), whereas the Torah, i.e. the books that are truly “Mosaic,” is about the distinction between loyalty and betrayal. This distinction is linked to the concept of a covenant between a “jealous” God, the liberator from Egyptian slavery, who requires absolute fidelity, and his Chosen People that has constantly to be admonished not to “murmur” and not to turn to other gods. The ideas of covenant, loyalty, and faith remain always, even in Christianity and Islam, the cantus firmus in the polyphony of the sacred scriptures and merge perfectly well with the idea of the One true God, the creator of heaven and earth, which is to be found in the prophetic scriptures. The first, particularist distinction concerns the chosen people whose gratitude and loyalty is requested for their liberator, and the second, universalist distinction concerns the idea of God the creator who cares for all human beings and all life on earth.

In some of your previous books you stated a connection between monotheism and violence as implied in the distinction between true and false in religion. Does this connection appear in a different light when the issue is not truth but loyalty?

All “secondary religions” are intolerant, because they arise in opposition to the primary religions before and around them. The “monotheism of truth,” therefore, is incompatible with religions excluded as “false.” This is a matter of logic and cognition. The “monotheism of loyalty,” on the other hand, based on the distinction between loyalty and betrayal, implies a form of violence that is mainly directed against members of the own group who are viewed as apostates or transgressors, as is shown by the “primal scene” of this form of violence, the scene of the Golden Calf. It is this form of violence with which we are mostly confronted today. It is only directed against outsiders if the distinction between inner and outer, apostates and strangers is blurred and all human beings are requested to enter the covenant and obey to its laws, as is the case with certain radical islamist and evangelist groups.

Then intolerance and violence are necessary implications of the Exodus tradition?

Nothing could be more alien to the theology of Exodus. The distinction between Israel and the “nations” (goyîm) that is drawn here has no violent and antagonistic implications. That the nations observe other laws and worship other gods is perfectly in order, because they are not called into the covenant. The only exception is made for the “Canaanites,” the indigenous population of the Promised Land, who must be expelled and exterminated and who are obviously no other that those Hebrews who do not live according to the laws of the covenant. These “Canaanites,” however, are but a symbol for the “primary religion” that Second Temple Judaism, especially the Puritan radicalism of the Deuteronomic tradition, is opposing. We must not forget, however, that it is not hatred and violence, but love that forms the center of the idea of covenant. The leading metaphor of the covenant is matrimonial love and the “megillah” (scroll) that is read during the feast of Passover is the Song of Songs, a collection of fervent love songs. God’s “jealousy” is part of his love.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

Seneca on How to Die

Romm“It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die,” preached Seneca, the famed Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome. In other words, it’s never too early to begin your preparations for departing this life. Seneca wrote eloquently on the universality of death, its importance as life’s final and most defining rite of passage, its part in purely natural processes and cycles, and its ability to liberate us. In How to Die, James Romm has selected and translated excerpts relating to death and dying from eight different works of ethical thought by Seneca—let it be your handy companion on your journey toward reconciling with the inevitable. Here are five tips from How to Die to ponder as you prepare for what may be the most important task you will ever undertake.

 

Prepare Yourself

“Perhaps you think it is useless to learn something that must only be used once; but this is the very reason we ought to rehearse.”

Have No Fear

“What’s to be feared in returning where you came from? He lives badly who does not know how to die well…. [D]ying fearfully, often, is itself a cause of death…. He who fears death will never do anything to help the living. But he who knows that this was decreed the moment he was conceived will live by principle.”

Have No Regrets

“We consider this earth, with its cities, peoples, and rivers, enclosed by a circle of sea, as a tiny dot, if it’s compared with all of time…. What difference does it make to extend [life], if the amount of added time is little more than nothing?”

Set Yourself Free

“Each of us ought to seek a life that wins approval from others, but a death, from himself.”

Become Part of the Whole

“There are fixed seasons by which all things progress; they must be born, grow, and perish…. There is nothing that does not grow old. Nature disperses these things, all to the same end, though after different intervals. Whatever is, will no longer be; it won’t die, but will be undone.”

Skull

Jörg Rüpke on Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion

In this ambitious and authoritative book, Jörg Rüpke provides a comprehensive and strikingly original narrative history of ancient Roman and Mediterranean religion over more than a millennium—from the late Bronze Age through the Roman imperial period and up to full-fledged Christianization. While focused primarily on the city of Rome, Pantheon fully integrates the many religious traditions found in the Mediterranean world, including Judaism and Christianity. This generously illustrated book is also distinguished by its unique emphasis on “lived religion,” a perspective that stresses how individuals’ experiences and practices transform religion into something different from its official form. The result is a radically new picture of both Roman religion and a crucial period in Western religion—one that influenced Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even the modern idea of “religion” itself. With its unprecedented scope and innovative approach, Pantheon is anunparalleled account of ancient Roman and Mediterranean religion.

In a world where religion is changing its face in rapid and unexpected ways, how is Roman religion, two millennia older, similar?
Rome was perhaps the largest city of the world before the modern period. The religious practices and beliefs of a million people from all over Europe, West Asia, North Africa and occasionally beyond were as varied as religion is in today’s megacities. It is interesting to see how Roman lawmakers and judges dealt with such a situation. And it is even more interesting to see how ‘normal’ citizens understood and used such a religious pluralism. Different gods at every corner, shrines on walls, polemical graffiti, people earning their living by selling religious goods and services, shaven heads or loud music—there is more to discover and learn than the solemnity of the emperor having a bull killed on the Capitoline hill.

Why did you invent a fictitious figure at the start of your history?
Religion is about people claiming to have religious experiences and valuing religious knowledge. There is no religion if everybody thinks that their neighbors addressing a divine being is just ridiculous. But religious experiences or knowledge cannot be simply decreed. To understand the unbelievable dynamics of ancient religion—the invention of statues and monumental temples, to think that gods would enjoy horse races or self-mutilation, etc.—a historian needs to get an idea of what went on in people’s head. We will never know, but we can imagine. Rhea is an avatar to tell us what a woman at the beginning of the Iron Age might have thought. As the basis for these thoughts are archaeological traces of deposits, meals, tombs, hearths, etc. I thought it would be more honest to invent such a speaker and her reflections instead of crediting an attested person without evidence that can be firmly ascribed to them.

How do Judaism and Christianity figure in your book?
I tell the story of nearly a millennium, from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE to the middle of the fourth century CE. From the Roman point of view, Jews show up in the second half of that period only, people calling themselves “Christians” even later, and Muslims are beyond the horizon. Apart from occasional troubleshooting in Judaea or Alexandria, it was only at the very end of antiquity that Jews and in particular Christians are important on a large scale. Before that they were simply a small minority. I tried to balance this. In terms of pages they are overrepresented. In terms of their significance they are massively underrepresented.

What is your favorite god from this large ancient pantheon?
I write about ancient religion, I don’t participate in it! But this was fascinating: ancient polytheism is not about large number of gods or a clear division of labor. It was about empowering (nearly) everybody to arrange and sometimes create their own divine helpers and addressees. If I pray at the end of an interview to Mercury with his quick tongue, to violent Mars and to Silvanus, lord of the endless woods, the interviewer should be careful…

PantheonJörg Rüpke is vice-director and permanent fellow in religious studies at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Sociological Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany, and has been a visiting professor at the Collège de France, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. His many books include On Roman Religion and From Jupiter to Christ.

Browse Our 2018 Ancient World Catalog

Our new Ancient World catalog includes a major new history of archaeology—its sites, its discoveries, its practices, a unique anthology presenting the largest collection of legends and folktales from Ancient Greek and Roman life, an examination of the environmental factors that lead to the collapse of Rome’s power, and a new economic history of the Ancient Mediterranean world to name but a few of the many great titles published this year or forthcoming early next.

If you plan on attending AIA/SCS 2018 in Boston this weekend, stop by Booth 103 to see our full range of Ancient World titles and more.

Written by Eric Cline, an archaeologist with more than thirty seasons of excavation experience, Three Stones Make a Wall traces the history of archaeology from an amateur pursuit to the cutting-edge science it is today by taking the reader on a tour of major archaeological sites and discoveries, from Pompeii to Petra, Troy to the Terracotta Warriors, and Mycenae to Megiddo and Masada. Cline brings to life the personalities behind these digs, including Heinrich Schliemann, the former businessman who excavated Troy, and Mary Leakey, whose discoveries advanced our understanding of human origins. The discovery of the peoples and civilizations of the past is presented in vivid detail, from the Hittites and Minoans to the Inca, Aztec, and Moche. Along the way, the book addresses the questions archaeologists are asked most often: How do you know where to dig? How are excavations actually done? How do you know how old something is? Who gets to keep what is found?

Taking readers from the pioneering digs of the eighteenth century to the exciting new discoveries being made today, this is a lively and essential introduction to the story of archaeology.

This unique anthology presents the largest collection of these tales ever assembled. Featuring nearly four hundred stories in authoritative and highly readable translations, this is the first book to offer a representative selection of the entire range of traditional classical storytelling.

Here is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. This 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.

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 and 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.

William A. P. Childs on Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C.

Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C. analyzes the broad character of art produced during this period, providing in-depth analysis of and commentary on many of its most notable examples of sculpture and painting. Taking into consideration developments in style and subject matter, and elucidating political, religious, and intellectual context, William A. P. Childs argues that Greek art in this era was a natural outgrowth of the high classical period and focused on developing the rudiments of individual expression that became the hallmark of the classical in the fifth century. Read on to learn more about fourth century B.C. Greek art:

Why the fourth century?

The fourth century BCE has been neglected in scholarly treatises with a  few recent exceptions: Blanch Brown, Anticlassicism in Greek Sculpture of the Fourth Century B.C.; Monographs on Archaeology and the Fine Arts sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and the College Art Association of America 26 (New York, 1976); and Brunilde Ridgway, Fourth-Century Styles in Greek Sculpture, Wisconsin Studies in Classics (Madison, WI, 1997).

One reason is simply that taste has been antithetical to the character of the century. Thus literary critics disparaged the wild reassessments of mythology by Euripides at the end of the fifth century as well as his supposedly colloquial language, and treated the sophists as morally dishonest.

Socially the century was marked by continuous warfare and the rise of  a new, rich elite. Individuals were as important, or more important, than society/community; artists were thought to have individual styles that reflected their personal vision. This was thought to debase the grandness of the high classic and replace it with cheap sensationalism and pluralism that defied straight-forward categorization.

The age-old hostility to Persia was revived, it seems largely for political reasons, while Persian artistic influence permeated much of the ornaments of the new, wealthy elite: mosaics, rich cloth, and metal work. At the same time Persia was constantly meddling in Greek affaires, which produced a certain hypocritical political atmosphere.

And, finally, Philip of Macedon brought the whole democratic adventure of the fifth century to a close with the establishment of monarchy as the default political system, and Alexander brought the East into the new Hellenic or Hellenistic culture out of which Roman culture was to arise.

Clearly most of the past criticism is true; it is our response that has totally changed, one assumes, because our own period is in many respects very similar to the character of the fourth century.

What is the character of the art of the fourth century?

On the surface there is little change from the high classical style of the fifth century—the subject of art is primarily religion in the form of votive reliefs and statues dedicated in sanctuaries. The art of vase-painting in Athens undergoes a slow decline in quality with notable exceptions, though it comes to an end as the century closes.

Though the function of art remains the same as previously, the physical appearance changes and changes again. At the end of the fifth century and into the first quarter of the fourth there is a nervous, linear style with strong erotic overtones. After about 370 the preference is for solidity and quiet poses. But what becomes apparent on closer examination is that there are multiple contemporary variations of the dominant stylistic structures. This has led to some difficulty in assigning convincing dates to individual works, though this is exaggerated. It is widely thought that the different stylistic variations are due to individual artists asserting their personal visions and interpretations of the human condition.

The literary sources, almost all of Roman date, do state that the famous artists, sculptors and painters, of the fourth century developed very individual styles that with training could be recognized in the works still extant. Since there are almost no original Greek statues preserved and no original panel paintings, it is difficult to evaluate these claims convincingly. But, since there are quite distinct groups of works that share broad stylistic similarities and these similarities agree to a large extent with the stylistic observations in the literary sources, it is at least possible to suggest that these styles are connected in some way with particular, named artists of the fourth century. However, rather than attributing works to the named artists, it seems wiser simply to identify the style and recognize that it conveys a particular character of the figure portrayed. This appears also applicable to vase-paintings that may reflect the styles of different panel painters. There are therefore Praxitelian and Skopaic sculptures and Parrhasian and Zeuxian paintings. Style conveys content.

The variety of styles as expressive tools indicates that there is a variety of content. A corollary of this fact is that the artist is presenting works that must be read by the viewer and therefore do not primarily represent social norms but are particular interpretations of both traditional and novel subjects: Aphrodite bathes, a satyr rests peacefully in the woods, and athletes clean themselves. In brief, the heroic and the divine are humanized and humans gain a psychological depth  that allows portraits to suggest character.

Was the cultural response to these developments purely negative as most modern commentaries suggest?

The question of the reception of art and poetry in the Greek world particularly of the archaic and classical periods has occupied scholars for at least the last two hundred years. It has been amply documented that artisans and people we consider artists were generally repudiated by the people composing the preserved texts of literature and historical commentary. For example, Plato is generally considered a conservative Philistine. Most modern commentators are appalled by his criticism of poetry and the plastic arts in all forms. Yet the English romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries thought Plato a kindred spirit. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the negative assessment of Plato’s relation to poetry and art became authoritative.  However one wishes to assess Plato’s own appreciation of poetry and art, it is eminently clear that he had an intimate knowledge of contemporary art. Equally his criticism of people who praise art indicates that precisely what he criticizes is what Athenian society expected and praised. It does not require a large leap to surmise that Plato is the first art critic with a sophisticated approach though somewhat disorganized. His student, Aristotle, had the organization and perhaps a more nuanced view of art, but it is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that Aristotle was not as sensitive to art as was his teacher.

The fact of the matter is that from Homer on, the descriptions of objects, though very rare, are uniformly very appreciative. For Homer the wonder of life-likeness is paramount, a quality that endures down to the fourth century despite the changing styles and patent abstractions before the fourth century. At least in the fourth century artists also became wealthy and must have managed large workshops.  So the modern view that artisans/artists were considered inferior members of society appears to be a social evaluation by the wealthy and leisured.

In the fourth century BCE Greek artists embark on on an inquiry into individual expression of  profound insights into the human condition as well as social values. It is the conscious recognition of the varied expressive values of style that creates the modern concept of aesthetics and the artist.

ChildsWilliam A.P. Childs is professor emeritus of classical art and archaeology at Princeton University.

Josephine Quinn: The Phoenicians never existed

The Phoenicians traveled the Mediterranean long before the Greeks and Romans, trading, establishing settlements, and refining the art of navigation. But who these legendary sailors really were has long remained a mystery. In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn makes the startling claim that the “Phoenicians” never actually existed. Taking readers from the ancient world to today, this monumental book argues that the notion of these sailors as a coherent people with a shared identity, history, and culture is a product of modern nationalist ideologies—and a notion very much at odds with the ancient sources. Read on to learn more about the Phoenicians.

Who were the Phoenicians?

The Phoenicians were the merchants and long-distance mariners of the ancient Mediterranean. They came from a string of city-states on the coast of the Levant including the ports of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Beirut, all in modern Lebanon, and spoke very similar dialects of a language very similar to Hebrew. Their hinterland was mountainous and land connections were difficult even between these neighboring cities themselves, so the Phoenicians were very much people of the sea. They had a particular genius for science and navigation, and as early as the ninth or tenth century BCE, their ships were sailing the full length of the Mediterranean and out through the straits of Gibraltar to do business on the Atlantic coast of Spain, attracted by the precious metals of the west. Levantine migrants and traders began to settle in the Western Mediterranean at least a century before Greeks followed suit, founding new towns in Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and North Africa. Their biggest Western colony was at Carthage in modern Tunisia, a city which eventually eclipsed the homeland in importance, and under its brilliant general Hannibal vied with Rome for control of the Mediterranean: when Carthage was eventually destroyed by Roman troops in 146 BCE, it was said to be the wealthiest city in the world.

But doesn’t your book suggest that the Phoenicians didn’t even exist?

Not quite! The people we call Phoenician certainly existed as individuals, and they often have fascinating stories, from the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba, who married not one but two warring African kings, to the philosopher Zeno of Kition on Cyprus, who moved to Athens and founded the Stoic school of philosophy. But one of the really intriguing things about them is how little we know about how they saw themselves—and my starting point in this book is that we have no evidence that they saw themselves as a distinct people or as we might say, ethnic group.

“Phoenician” is what the Greeks called these people, but we don’t find anyone using that label to describe themselves before late antiquity, and although scholars have sometimes argued that they called themselves “Canaanite,” a local term, one of the things I show in my book is how weak the evidence for that hypothesis really is. Of course, to say that they didn’t think of themselves as a distinct people just because we don’t have any evidence for them describing themselves as such is an argument from silence, and it could be disproved at any moment with the discovery of a new inscription. But in the meantime, my core argument is when we don’t know whether people thought of themselves as a collective, we shouldn’t simply assume that they did on the basis of ancient or modern parallels, or because ethnic identity seems “natural.”

So how did the Phoenicians see themselves?

This is the question I’m most interested in. Although there is no surviving Phoenician literature that might help us understand the way these people saw the world, Phoenician inscriptions reveal all sorts of interesting and sometimes surprising things that people wanted to record for posterity. They certainly saw themselves as belonging to their own cities, like the Greeks: they were “Byblians,” or “Sidonians,” or “Sons of Tyre.” But one of the things that I suggest in my book is that in inscriptions they present themselves first and foremost in terms of family: where a Greek inscription might give someone’s own name and that of their father, a Phoenician one will often go back several generations—16 or 17 in some cases. And then Phoenician-speaking migrants develop new practices of identification, including regional ones. We see particularly close relationships developing between neighboring settlements in the diaspora, and between people who are from the same part of the homeland. But we also see new, Western identities developing—‘Sardinian,’ for instance—which bring together Phoenicians, Greeks, and the local population.

And I think we can get further by looking at the evidence for cultural practices that Phoenician speakers share—or don’t share. So child sacrifice rituals seem to be limited to a small number of Western settlements around Carthage, but the cult of the god Melqart, the chief civic deity of Tyre, is practiced by people of Levantine origin all over the Mediterranean. And on my interpretation, Melqart’s broad popularity is quite a late development—in the fifth or fourth century BCE—which would suggest that a sense of connectivity between Phoenician-speakers in the diaspora got stronger the longer people had been away from their homeland. But at the same time, the cult reached out to other Mediterranean populations, since Melqart was celebrated by Greeks (and later Romans) as the equivalent of their own god Herakles.

Politics played a part in the construction of identities as well, and this is particularly apparent in one episode where an attempt seems to have been made to impose the notion of ‘being Phoenician’ on other people. By the late fifth century BCE Carthage was the dominant power in the western Mediterranean, controlling trade routes and access to ports, taxing defeated enemies, and beginning to acquire overseas territory as well, at the expense of other Levantine diaspora settlements. And at pretty much exactly this time they begin to mint coinage, and their very first coins have an image of a palm tree—or, in Greek, a phoinix, which is also the Greek word for Phoenician. It’s hard to resist the impression that celebrating a common ‘Phoenician’ heritage or identity put a useful political spin on the realities of Carthaginian imperial control.

If there’s so little evidence for genuine Phoenician identity in the ancient world, where does the modern idea of “the Phoenicians” come from?

The name itself comes from the Greeks, as we’ve already said, but they didn’t use it to delineate a specific ethnic or cultural group: for them, “Phoenician” was often a pretty vague and general term for traders and sailors from the Levant, there wasn’t a lot of cultural or ethnic content to it. You don’t get the same kind of detailed ethnographic descriptions of Phoenicians as you do of, for instance, Egyptians and Greeks. And the Romans followed suit: in fact, their particular focus on Carthage meant that the Latin words for “Phoenician”—poenus and punicus—were often used to mean ‘North African’ in general.

It wasn’t until the modern period that the idea of the Phoenicians as a coherent ethnic group fully emerged, in late nineteenth century European histories of Phoenicia that relied heavily on new and specifically European ideas about nationalism and natural cultures. This is when we first find them described as a racial group, with an “ethnic character.” And these notions were picked up enthusiastically in early twentieth century Lebanon, where the idea that the Lebanese had formed a coherent nation since antiquity was an important plank of the intellectual justification for a new Lebanese state after the collapse of the Ottoman empire—another story I tell in the book.

A more recent example of this comes from Anthony D. Smith’s wonderful 1988 book, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, which argues that although true nations are a modern phenomenon, they have precursors in ancient and medieval ethno-cultural communities. Among his ancient examples are what he sees as ‘pan-Phoenician sentiments’ based on a common heritage of religion, language, art and literature, political institutions, dress and, forms of recreation. But my argument is that in the case of the Phoenicians at least we are not dealing with the ancient ethnic origins of modern nations, but the modern nationalist origins of an ancient ethnicity.

Is there any truth to the stories that the ancient Phoenicians reached America?

I’m afraid not! It’s an old idea: in the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe argued, not long after he published Robinson Crusoe, that the Carthaginians must have colonized America on the basis of the similarities he saw between them and the indigenous Americans, in particular in relation to “their idolatrous Customs, Sacrificings, Conjurings, and other barbarous usages in the Worship of their Gods.” But the only real evidence that has ever been proposed for this theory, an inscription “found” in Brazil in 1872, was immediately diagnosed by specialists as a fake.

The idea that Phoenicians got to Britain, and perhaps even Ireland, makes more sense. Cornish tin could certainly have been one attraction. There’s no strong evidence though for Phoenician settlement on either island, though the possibility captivated local intellectuals in the early modern period. One of the chapters I most enjoyed writing in this book is about the way that scholars in England concocted fantasies of Phoenician origins for their homeland, in part as a way of differentiating their own maritime power from the more territorial, and so “Roman,” French empire—at the same time as the Irish constructed a Phoenician past of their own that highlighted the similarity of their predicament under Britain’s imperial yoke to that of noble Carthage oppressed by brutal Rome.

These are of course just earlier stages in the same nationalist ‘invention of the Phoenicians’ that came to fruition in the nineteenth century histories we’ve already discussed: stories about Phoenicians helped the British and the Irish articulate their own national identities, which in turn further articulated the idea of the Phoenicians themselves.

Why did you write this book?

One reason was I really wanted to write a book about the ancient Mediterranean that wasn’t limited to Greece and Rome—though plenty of Greeks and Romans snuck in! But there’s another reason as well: “identity” has been such a popular academic topic in recent decades, and I wanted to explore its limits and even limitations as an approach to the ancient world. There are lots of reasons to think that a focus on ethnic identity, and even self-identity more generally, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and that our ideas about the strength and prevalence of ancient ethnic sentiments might be skewed by a few dramatic but unusual examples in places like Israel and perhaps Greece. I wanted to look at a less well-known but perhaps more typical group, to see what happens if we investigate them not as “a people,” but simply as people.

 

QuinnJosephine Quinn is associate professor of ancient history at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College. She is the coeditor of The Hellenistic West andThe Punic Mediterranean.

 

A peek inside The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

HarperHere 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. 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 and endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature’s violence. Check out the trailer to learn more.

 

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.

Kyle Harper on The Fate of Rome

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 by Kyle Harper 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. The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history’s greatest civilizations encountered and 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. Recently we interviewed Kyle Harper about his new book:

What is the fall of the Roman Empire?

The fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most dramatic episodes of political dissolution in the history of civilization—the long process that saw the fragmentation and disappearance of central Roman authority around the Mediterranean. In the second century, the Roman Empire was the world’s dominant superpower. One in four people on earth lived inside its borders. There was peace and prosperity on a scale never before seen. Five centuries later, Germanic kingdoms had conquered most of the west, and the Islamic caliphate was triumphant in most of the east. Population fell by maybe half, and there was less wealth, less trade, cruder institutions, and technological regression. The “fall of the empire” is a shorthand for all of the events and processes that led an empire that seemed invincible in the second century into a state of disintegration by A.D. 650.

What caused the empire to fall?

Historians have offered more than 200 answers, and obviously there was no single cause. But I argue that we have to allow environmental change—climate change and pathogen evolution—a dominant role. Human societies are deeply dependent upon their physical and biological environments, and these environments are radically unstable. The earth’s climate system has experienced significant climate change, even in the relatively stable epoch we know as the Holocene. And the biological environment—the set of organisms we share the planet with—has been wildly in flux, in ways that have redirected the course of human history. The empire was an intricate machine that depended on demographic and economic foundations, which fueled the army and the fiscal system. The Romans built their empire—unbeknownst to them—under unusually favorable climatic conditions. In a sense, their luck started to run out in the middle of the second century, with a sequence of climate change and new kinds of disease. Of course, these challenges did not spell the end of the empire. But the new reality became a part of the ongoing struggle to maintain their political dominance. Ultimately, the catastrophic pandemics that Rome suffered undermined the stability of the imperial machine.

How does new evidence change our answers to old questions?

Historians are the great unintended beneficiaries of at least two exciting new kinds of information about the past coming from the natural sciences. First, paleoclimate data. The need to understand global warming, and the earth’s climate system in general, has produced a treasure trove of new insights into the climate experienced by our ancestors. Two, genomic data. Thanks to the affordability of genome sequencing, we are learning a stunning amount about the story of the great killers of the past. The history of the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, has really started to come into focus. It is a relatively young pathogen that evolved in central Asia and caused three great historical pandemics, the first of which afflicted the later Roman Empire in the reign of Justinian. This pandemic was probably as devastating as the medieval Black Death, carrying off something like half of the entire population. And, now, its genetic traces have been found in graves of the sixth century. What is most exciting, however, is the consilience—the leaping together—of new kinds of evidence and more traditional historical sources. I hasten to add that we historians are constantly finding new texts and documents and producing better understanding of old texts and documents. The ongoing, humanistic study of the Roman Empire is just as important as the thrilling scientific evidence. The pieces are starting to fit together.

How did diseases affect the course of Roman history?

All underdeveloped societies bore a heavy burden of infectious disease. Most deaths in the Roman world were caused by infectious disease. And the very success of the Roman Empire, paradoxically, exacerbated the endemic disease burden. The Romans were unhealthy. The dense urban habitats were unsanitary environments where low-level gastroenteric diseases were rampant. The transformation of the physical landscape facilitated the spread of mosquito-borne pathogens like malaria. The interconnection of the empire created a unified ‘disease pool’ where chronic diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy spread further than ever before. But, above all, the empire—and its massive trade contacts beyond the borders—opened the gate for newly evolved diseases, like smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, and possibly others—to enter the Roman world. The evolution of new, acute, directly communicable diseases created disease events—what are properly called pandemics—of a magnitude that had never been seen before. Three pandemics in particular—the Antonine Plague, the Plague of Cyprian, and above all the Justinianic Plague—shook the foundations of the Roman Empire.

Does the argument that “the environment did it” reduce the role of human factors?

There is simply no compelling way to describe the fall of the Roman Empire without an enormous allowance for human factors. The Empire was a human creation. Its fate was shaped by human choices and human structures. But I argue that we can actually understand the human element more deeply, and more sympathetically, with a deeper knowledge of the environmental dimensions of Roman history. The Romans were far from helpless victims of environmental catastrophe. They harnessed the power of the environment. They reshaped the disease ecology of the empire, with unintended consequences. They were resilient in the face of stress and strain. But we should not shy away from recognizing the power of nature. The physical and biological environment is an integral part of human life. There is really no separating human and natural factors in the story of Roman civilization.

What lessons can we learn from the fall of the Roman Empire?

The Romans have always captivated the imagination. The empire they built was truly extraordinary, in its scale and longevity and in the ways that its precocious development presaged modernity. And the dissolution of this empire has always been a poignant theme for reflecting on how even the greatest and most powerful of human constructions are ultimately transient. To be sure, our world is very different from the ancient world. We live long lives thanks to germ theory, public health, and antibiotic pharmaceuticals. Anthropogenic climate change is a greater risk than solar variability or volcanic winters. Still, we learn from the past because history is a humanistic discipline. We study the past and in the process emerge with a deeper, richer sense of what it means to be human. I hope that The Fate of Rome leaves its readers with a new sensibility toward the relationship between humanity and the environment. We care about the Romans because their civilization seemed to break free of some of the constraints that nature had imposed. But nature is cunning. Germs evolve. Surprises and paradox lurk in the heart of progress. The deep power of evolution can change the world in a mere moment. I hope the book sensitizes us to the awesome power of nature at all scales, from the microscopic to the global.

How did you decide to write a book on Rome and the environment?

I’ve wanted to write this book for a long time. I’ve been very fortunate to be around extremely creative people, including Michael McCormick, who was one of the first historians to insist that people in a traditionally humanistic field should pay attention to things like climate science, archaeological genetics, and bioanthropology. But only in the last couple of years has it even become possible to start pulling all the evidence together. The sequencing of the ancient genome of Yersinia pestis, for instance, is a watershed, as is the much clearer definition of the “late antique little ice age” achieved from tree rings and ice cores. All of this has happened in the last few years, and for those of us studying Roman history, it’s unbelievably fortunate. I think my book is the first to try to tie all this together with a robust model of how the Roman Empire actually worked, and what’s exciting is that over the next decade there will be lots of new evidence and plenty of revision to the story that I tell.

I also am lucky to be a Provost at the same time I’ve been working on this book. It means that I get to interact with atmospheric scientists, anthropologists, ecologists, microbiologists, and so on, on a daily basis. I have very generous colleagues who have helped me trespass across other disciplines. In turn, I hope my book shows why history is so valuable and so essential to other fields. Historians have a part to play in helping us understand everything from the landscape of global health to the chemistry of the atmosphere. In short, just as the natural sciences can help us understand human history better, so too can a deeper knowledge of the history of our species help us understand the natural world.

HarperKyle 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.