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.

A peek inside The Atlas of Ancient Rome

The highly anticipated English-language edition of The Atlas of Ancient Rome is now available. Eager for a sneak peek inside? Check out the trailer below, and be sure to visit the new website for an interview with the editor, Andrea Carandini, as well as additional information on this definitive illustrated reference book of Rome from its origins to the sixth century AD.

 

The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City, Edited by Andrea Carandini from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

See inside The Atlas of Ancient Rome

CarandiniThe Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Andrea Carandini, is a gorgeous, authoritative archeological survey of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period. Transport yourself to antiquity with full-color maps, drawings, photos, and 3D reconstructions of the Eternal City, featuring descriptions of the fourteen regions of Rome and the urban history of each in unprecedented detail. Included are profiles and reconstructions of more than 500 major monuments and works of art, such as the Sanctuary of Vesta, the domus Augusti, and the Mausoleum of Augustus. This two-volume, slipcased edition examines the city’s topography and political-administrative divisions, trade and economic production, and social landscape and infrastructure using the most current archaeological findings and the latest mapping technologies. Take a look at a sampling of some of the detailed images from the book.

An interview with Andrea Carandini, editor of The Atlas of Ancient Rome

We’re thrilled to announce that The Atlas of Ancient Rome is will be available for purchase next week. Take a moment to watch this interview with the volume editor, Andrea Carandini, in which he discusses why Rome merits its own Atlas, the appeal of the book as an object, and what makes this project unique. And be sure to check out the microsite for more information on this gorgeous tour through centuries of Roman history.

 

An interview with Andrea Carandini, editor of The Atlas of Ancient Rome

We’re thrilled to announce that The Atlas of Ancient Rome is now available for purchase. Take a moment to watch this interview with the volume editor, Andrea Carandini, in which he discusses why Rome merits its own Atlas, the appeal of the book as an object, and what makes this project unique. And be sure to check out the microsite for more information on this gorgeous tour through centuries of Roman history.

An Interview of Andrea Carandini Author of Atlas of Ancient Rome from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Coming soon: The Atlas of Ancient Rome

CarandiniThe Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Andrea Carandini, is a gorgeous, authoritative archeological survey of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period. Transport yourself to antiquity with full-color maps, drawings, photos, and 3D reconstructions of the Eternal City, featuring descriptions of the fourteen regions of Rome and the urban history of each in unprecedented detail. Included are profiles and reconstructions of more than 500 major monuments and works of art, such as the Sanctuary of Vesta, the domus Augusti, and the Mausoleum of Augustus. This two-volume, slipcased edition examines the city’s topography and political-administrative divisions, trade and economic production, and social landscape and infrastructure using the most current archaeological findings and the latest mapping technologies. Take a look at a sampling of some of the detailed images from the book here, and be sure to mark your calendar for when this book becomes available in February 2017.

Emperor Nero and the “unteachability of mankind”

the emperor nero barrett jacketAncient Rome has long been a source of fascination and enjoys a significant presence in popular culture, though in film and fiction, the life depicted is often highly romanticized. In their new book The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources, Anthony Barrett, Elaine Fantham, and John Yardley use source material to examine the life of one of Rome’s more notorious and extravagant figures: murderer, tyrant, and likely madman Emperor Nero. The book offers a comprehensive history of Nero’s personal life in the context of historical events that happened during his rule, such as the great fire of Rome. The three authors recently answered some questions on the enduring allure of Rome and in Nero.

There seems to be considerable popular interest in ancient Rome at the moment. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: This is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Interest in antiquity does seem to have waned during the middle ages, but it enjoyed a vigorous revival with the renaissance, beginning on the fifteenth century, and that interest has never died away. That said, we do seem to be particularly fascinated by the ancient world at the moment. It may be that modern life, so utterly dependent on machines and technology, where so many of our daily transactions are conducted through the computer, without human contact, has created a void, and a general attachment to the past, when life seemed so much more interesting and romantic, is one of the things that we use to fill it. Within the general area of antiquity, the Romans have particular appeal, for the West at least, perhaps because their empire represents the first manifestation of a global superpower, governed by people who are in many respects so different from us, yet, in their ambitions and their motivations, are strikingly similar to us. There are in addition two fortuitous factors. One is that the traditional birth of Christ occurred at the time of the birth of the Roman empire. The over-towering place of the Christ story in the thought of the West has by association kept the Roman empire in our consciousness. Also, at a mundane level, Rome just lends itself well to film and television, with its rich use of imagery and symbols to convey the phenomenon of power. As a consequence, some of the most popular cinematic spectacles, from Quo Vadis, to Spartacus, to Ben Hur, to Gladiator have Rome as their setting and inspiration.

There is a general fascination with Roman Emperors, but Nero seems to attract more attention than most. Why do you think that is?

AB & EF & JY: That is a undoubtedly true. Basically, people find villains engrossing. We may admire Mother Teresa or Saint Francis of Assisi, but for most of us the Jack the Rippers and Vlad the Impalers of this world are far more compelling and entertaining characters. Nero has a special reputation for villainy, and a number of factors have come together to foster that reputation. Perhaps first and foremost, he appears in the Christian tradition as the Antichrist, the first emperor to persecute the Christians after their supposed role in the Great Fire. And he is traditionally blamed for the martyrdoms of the two earliest great champions of the Christian cause, Saints Peter and Paul. We also have reasonably detailed accounts of Nero from three ancient authors, Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio, which ensures a rich store of anecdotes. These anecdotes may be of highly dubious validity, but that does not prevent them from being vastly entertaining. Additionally, Nero was not only cruel, other emperors were no less so, but he disgraced himself in Roman eyes by his public performances on the stage and on the racecourse, providing yet another store of irresistible anecdotes. Finally, there is the simple chance fact that a combination of larger-than-life historical events, which have provided themes for generations of writers and artists over the centuries, occurred during his reign: the murder of his mother, the Great Fire of Rome, the rebellion of Boudica, his melodramatic yet tawdry suicide. Caligula, with a similarly villainous reputation, for similar sorts of reasons, comes a close second, but Nero gets the top billing.

There is a popular belief that Nero was mad. Is that your conclusion too?

AB & EF & JY: Defining and identifying madness is a difficult process, and the tag of ‘mad’ is used loosely to cover anything from wacky eccentricity to severe mental illness. Assessing someone’s psychological state is a great challenge; it is striking that experts who testify in court proceedings after lengthy one-on-one interviews and full access to the patient’s clinical history are often met with scepticism, even ridicule. Thus one has to be even more wary about trying to assess the mental state of someone who lived two thousand years ago and whose conduct is known from incomplete records, produced well after the fact by writers who are hostile to their subject and as often as not relish the prospect of telling the lewdest and most outrageous anecdotes they can amass. It would be dangerous to make broad statements about Nero’s mental health. His conduct does seem to be outrageous at times, but we have to remember that he was only sixteen when he was thrust overnight into a position of enormous power, surrounded by fawning toadies willing to applaud his each and every act. It is probably little wonder that he behaved at times like a spoilt teenager.

There is perhaps one troublesome pattern detectable throughout his adult life that does seem to point to something disturbing. Nero seems to have had a tendency to fall under the spell of powerful women, and his ultimate response to their dominance was invariably a violent one, thus he murdered his mother Agrippina and he reputedly kicked to death his wife Poppaea. He also had a supposed proclivity for look-alikes of these powerful women, using courtesans and actresses (essentially powerless females) to impersonate them. The stories might be fabrications, of course, but the fact that they form a repeated pattern gives them an aura of authenticity. Perhaps something of interest there for the psychologists.

Academics who write about ancient history seem to be more interested in the sources than in the actual events. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: No history, of any period, can be a perfectly accurate record of events. The instant we report on the past our reports are contaminated by the social and intellectual baggage that as historians we carry into the discussion. But for the history of much of the world in recent centuries we do have a considerable body of archives and material records that makes possible a fairly reliable reconstruction of past events. As a broad principle the further back we go, the more tenuous the records. This does not always hold true: we have, for instance, fairly detailed accounts of the Rome in the last century BC, but have very sketchy information about the early middle ages from the fifth century AD on. But as a general broad principle, the historian of a period of history separated from our own is going to face enormous difficulties. The records are in most cases lost or fragmentary, and the contemporary accounts make no pretence of the principled search for the truth that we expect of modern historians. Consequently it is often difficult for the students of ancient history to reconstruct even a reliable outline of events, let alone identify broad historical development. It is admittedly the case that for the Julio-Claudian period we are relatively fortunate, and can draw on the accounts of a number of ancient writers. Yet the material that they have preserved is often inconsistent and even contradictory, and at times reaches levels of absurdity that beggar belief. For much of Nero’s reign we would be hard put to say in which city he was present at any given time, in whose company he passed his time, how he spent the large part of his day. As a consequence as historians we have to spend much time and effort in an attempt simply to work out what was happening. The narrative of past events can be a stimulating and exciting one, but first of all we must work out how to put a reliable version of that narrative together.

What is the main thing that Nero can teach us today?

AB & EF & JY: It is always risky to draw close analogies between events that happen in widely separated periods that have different social and political contexts. That said, it is possible to discern some identifiable common themes that seem to run throughout human history. Perhaps the main thing that Nero teaches us, ironically, is what Churchill called the confirmed unteachability of mankind. In AD 37 the Roman world, including its governing classes, embraced with gusto a youthful and almost totally unknown emperor who had no proven talent for government and virtually no experience of it. His qualifications seem to have consisted exclusively of a general affability and good family connections. This youthful emperor was Caligula, and his subsequent reign was a disaster. Less that 20 years later, in AD 54, Rome went through almost the same scenario, when an even younger and even less experienced Nero was enthusiastically greeted as the new emperor, because of those very same personal qualities, family connections and an amiable manner. It is unsurprising that the net result was quite similar, but it does seem surprising, even astonishing, that Romans had not learned at all from their previous experience. But, as Churchill seemed to have perceived, that reason may derive from a basic flaw in our make-up. The concept of ‘never again’ has a brief shelf-life in the store of human experience.

Anthony A. Barrett is professor emeritus of classics at the University of British Columbia. His books include Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome. Elaine Fantham is the Giger Professor of Latin, emerita, at Princeton University. Her books includeRoman Literary Culture: From Plautus to Macrobius. John C. Yardley is professor emeritus of classics at the University of Ottawa. His books include Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation. All three recently collaborated on The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources.