Classics, Must Reads, Review

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire—A Review

A review of The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper, Princeton University Press, 417 pages (October 2017)

Why did the Roman Empire fall? The classic answer is given by Edward Gibbon (1737 — 1794), in chapter 38 of the third volume of The History of the Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire (1776 — 1789):

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

Kyle Harper, Senior Vice President and Provost of the University of Oklahoma, seeks to complement Gibbon’s account by emphasising the role of nature, and specifically climate change and infectious disease, in the fall of Rome in his provocative, exceptionally well-written book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire. Is Harper correct? Were plagues and climate events fatal for Rome?

Harper accepts the conventional view that Rome’s civilizational collapse began in the later second century AD, accelerated amidst chaos and bloodshed during the third century, and culminated in the humiliations of the fifth century, when Rome was famously sacked by barbarians, and the last, weak, insignificant Roman Emperor was pushed off the throne in AD 476.

The Fate of Rome does not neglect literary and archival sources, or archaeological evidence related to the fall of Rome; but Harper thinks historians have neglected “natural archives,” which is how he describes genome evidence from DNA, biological data (as found in bones and teeth of excavated ancient skeletons), tree rings, glaciers, marine sediments, and all other materials studied by environmental historians, geochemists, and other scientific researchers:

Most histories of Rome’s fall have been built on the giant, tacit assumption that the environment was a stable, inert backdrop to the story.

Harper goes to great lengths to correct this perceived misconception.

The Fate of Rome begins with the premise that the Roman state’s growth and relentless gains in strength and influence coincided with a period of optimal climate conditions between 200 BC and AD 150. The fall of Rome was hastened and exacerbated by a period Harper refers to as the “Late Antique Little Ice Age,” which lasted from AD 450 to 700. He also insists:

…the Romans built an interconnected, urbanized empire on the fringes of the tropics, with tendrils creeping across the known world. In an unintended conspiracy with nature, the Romans created a disease ecology that unleashed the latent power of pathogen evolution. The Romans were soon engulphed by the overwhelming force of what we would today call emerging infectious diseases. The end of Rome’s empire, then, is a story in which humanity and the environment cannot be separated.

According to this view, plagues helped fatally weaken, not just imperial institutions, but Roman society itself.

The city of Rome likely had a population of over a million by the time the Emperor Augustus died (August 19th, AD 14). Perhaps it was at its most splendid a few decades after the Great Fire of Rome (July AD 64) that destroyed two-thirds of the city. Building projects under the Emperors Trajan (who ruled AD 98 — 117) and Hadrian (who reigned until AD 138) culminated in the Pantheon, which was dedicated circa AD 126, and remains the most important single ancient monument in Rome. By the time Hadrian died, the city was far more beautiful than it had been during the Augustan era; the empire was prosperous, stable and secure. Harper estimates its population at this point in history at 75 million.

Rome’s imperial government was seriously threatened during the reign of Commodus (AD 180 — 193), the first in a century-long sequence of paranoid, thuggish emperors who tended to die violently. Under Commodus, the Praetorian Guard, the most elite unit of the imperial army, transformed from a combined security detail and intelligence service for the Emperor to a politicized menace to the state. It was all but impossible to control. The Praetorian Guard was finally defanged by the Emperor Diocletian in AD 296; but by then it had done irreversible damage to the empire.

Endless power struggles resulted in the period that historians refer to as the Crisis of the Third Century (AD 235 — 284), which combined multiple constitutional and economic crises. There was a financial collapse: Rome’s monetary system disintegrated. Meanwhile, the Roman Senate battled for control of the government with various provincial army officers. Eighteen emperors died violently. In the midst of this chaos, the empire’s borders all but dissolved on two fronts, resulting in invasion as well as loss of territory. Finally, there was a cultural crisis, as Rome’s traditional civic religion eroded, losing followers to unofficial religions. Manichees and Christians were seen as a serious threat to order because they did not obey the same gods as everybody else.

Stability returned under Diocletian, who came to power in AD 284, and was the first emperor to resign the office voluntarily, on May 1st, AD 305. He split the administration between four emperors; two senior and two junior. This worked only as long as he was in control. After another unstable period, Constantine the Great became sole emperor in AD 324, and moved the empire’s administrative capital to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople and dedicated on May 11th, AD 330. Constantine died in AD 337; the dynasty he established became extinct when Julian the Apostate died in June AD 363.

The last Roman Emperor to rule the entire empire was Theodosius I, who reigned from May 15th, AD 392 to January 17th, AD 395. His dynasty lasted almost until the fall of the western half of the empire. But by the time of his installation the empire had lost prestige and confidence in the wake of the army’s catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Goths in the Battle of Adrianople (August 9th, AD 378). The Romans lost 20,000 men—two-thirds of their forces. According to some accounts, the Emperor Valens died in battle alongside his men; another version suggests that he was burned to death while trying to escape. After Adrianople, there was no hope of recovery.

Harper begins The Fate of Rome with a description of Rome as it advertised itself in AD 400. Contemporary inventories record: 28 libraries, 19 aqueducts, two circuses, 37 gates, 423 neighborhoods, 46,602 blocks of flats, 1,790 grand houses, 290 granaries, 856 public baths, 1,352 cisterns, 254 bakeries, 46 brothels, and 144 public latrines. The population is estimated at 700,000 or so. This figure diminished rapidly after August 24th, AD 410, when Rome was sacked by an army of Goths.

The traditional date of Rome’s fall is September 4th, AD 476, when the 16-year-old Emperor Romulus Augustus, the son of a former secretary to Attila the Hun, was forced to abdicate the throne by a barbarian warlord, and dismissed to spend the rest of his days at a seaside villa near Naples. His date of death is not recorded; he was too unimportant to fear assassination. At this point, the city of Rome’s population was still as high as 400,000.

Rome was invaded and sacked a few times over the centuries; more and more of it was abandoned; by the 10th century it was a suburb to nowhere surrounded by malarial swamps, and may have had only 9,000 inhabitants. Most of the economy was related to religious pilgrimages; the city was controlled by gangsters and petty warlords. What was left amidst the ruins was sacked again in AD 1084 by an army that outnumbered residents by as much as three to one.

In The Fate of Rome, Harper focusses on four major events that contributed to the empire’s destruction: three were plagues; the fourth was a sudden change in climate that completely destabilized what was left of the eastern empire after the western half disintegrated. Harper notes that pestilence of one sort or another was relatively commonplace; he counts nine epidemics in the city of Rome between 43 BC and AD 148. Most were likely outbreaks of malaria. The best-known ancient victim of this disease is Saint Monica of Hippo (AD 322 — 387), whose son Saint Augustine describes her final illness in book nine of the Confessions (AD 397/398).

Roman aqueducts were feats of engineering: The multiple arches of the Pont du Gard in Roman Gaul (modern-day southern France).

The Romans were formidable engineers: The Aqua Virgo aqueduct in Rome, constructed in 19 BC, continues to function today. Rome’s sewer system was highly sophisticated, as was the plumbing required for public baths and public toilets; but waste disposal was not necessarily hygienic. Perhaps the biggest killers in Roman cities were diarrhoea and dysentery. Also, the Romans’ efficient networks of transportation, commerce, and communication could sometimes facilitate the spread of disease: Harper suggests that the ease and speed of travel throughout the empire may have contributed to the spread of leprosy and tuberculosis.

The first pandemic that Harper discusses is the Antonine Plague (AD 165 — 180), named after the Nerva-Antonine dynasty that began with the accession of Nerva to the imperial throne (AD 96) and ended with the murder of Commodus by his personal trainer Narcissus (New Year’s Eve AD 192). This plague is also known as the Plague of Galen, because it was described at some length by Galen of Pergamum (AD 129 — 216), who served for a time as personal physician to Commodus, and is the most important medical scientist of antiquity.

Harper concludes that the Antonine Plague was an outbreak of smallpox. There is evidence that this pestilence may have spread throughout the Roman Empire; estimates of the death toll range from 1.5 million to a scarcely credible 25 million. Harper guesses around six million. The precise figure would be easier to pin down if the 72nd volume of Dio Cassius’s Roman History survived. Dio Cassius (AD 155 — 325) describes another plague in volume 73 of his work (LXXIII.xiii.3 — 4) that took place in AD 191, and killed two thousand Romans a day at its height. He describes this as the single worst plague he had seen in his lifetime.

For whatever reason, Harper refers to this passage of Dio Cassius only in a footnote. He also neglects to spell out the Antonine Plague’s most disastrous political consequence: on January 23rd, AD 169, it killed the Roman junior co-emperor Lucius Verus, whom the Emperor Marcus Aurelius had been grooming as a successor. Instead, Marcus Aurelius’s only surviving son Commodus ended up succeeding him. Commodus, a cruel, cowardly, simple-minded megalomaniac, can be said to have single-handedly precipitated the empire’s decline.

The second pandemic that Harper highlights in The Fate of Rome is the relatively little-known Cyprianic Plague. Students of early Christianity will be familiar with this from a treatise by Saint Cyprian of Carthage (AD 200 — 258), a bishop and martyr who is also one of the most important Latin writers of the third century. The plague that Saint Cyprian describes broke out in Carthage not long after the city of Rome celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of its foundation on April 21st, AD 248.

The Roman Empire had been in crisis since March 19th, AD 235, when the Emperor Severus Alexander was assassinated along with his mother. Over 70 years would pass before another Roman emperor died peacefully in his bed. The two third-century emperors who allegedly died of natural causes were said to have been felled by pestilence while on campaigns, though one of them may in fact have been poisoned. There was an increasing crisis of legitimacy from the 230s and 240s onwards, as the army and Senate began to put forward competing emperors, while refusing to recognize the authority of other claimants to the throne.

Roman money was devaluating rapidly. Emperors debased the currency so that they could buy the loyalty of their soldiers; this led to hyperinflation throughout the empire. Infrastructure and administration began to crumble; in many provinces it became virtually impossible to collect taxes. Meanwhile, the Romans were losing control of their frontiers; in AD 260 an invading force from the upper Danube region almost reached the suburbs of Rome itself. The empire was effectively splitting into three parts.

Harper claims that the Crisis of the Third Century was made even worse by a widespread outbreak of infectious disease. We know that the Emperor Claudius Gothicus died from pestilence at Sirmium in AD 270; Harper thinks it possible that he too was a victim of the Cyprianic Plague.

Harper brought this plague to widespread attention in his article “Pandemics and Passages to Late Antiquity: Rethinking the Plague of c. 249 — 270 Described by Cyprian” (Journal of Roman Archaeology 28, 2015, pp. 223 — 260). This remains the most comprehensive collection of literary and archaeological material related to this plague; though Harper’s account in The Fate of Rome lays out most of the evidence clearly enough.

Harper suggests that the Cyprianic Plague was a viral hemorrhagic fever that originated in Ethiopia, concluding that it must have been a filovirus with a very high fatality rate (over 50 percent). The best-known filovirus is Ebola, which spreads through contact with bodily fluids; the corpses of victims remain highly infectious. Harper calculates that the population of Alexandria alone fell from half a million to slightly over 300,000 as a result of this plague—190,000 people either died or fled the city. It seems peculiar that an Ebola-like pandemic on this scale should have gone largely unnoticed until now, particularly if, as Harper claims, it spread all over the Roman Empire.

The Fate of Rome focusses more on disease than climate change; though Harper devotes considerable attention to food shortages during the fourth and fifth centuries, and what they might indicate about changing conditions throughout the empire. He dwells at some length on the Cappadocian famine of AD 368/369 (described by Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea) and the “general famine” of AD 383 that led to a once-famous dispute between the pagan senator Symmachus and Saint Ambrose of Milan. These food shortages are known only because they left some mark in literary history. But for Harper they further support his case that the Romans were increasingly unable to cope with sudden changes in their environment.

Infectious disease and famine became increasingly common throughout both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire. Isaac of Antioch, a classical Syriac author, appears to have thought that Constantinople was saved from an invasion by Attila the Hun in AD 447 because the barbarian forces were worn down by fever and diarrhea before they could come anywhere near the city. Harper suggests that Attila’s invasion of Italy in AD 452 was cut short by the threat of malaria as well as famine.

The imperial administration became chronically unable to meet its obligations. Poor Romans received free rations of bread, olive oil, and pork, in addition to heavily-subsidized wine. The empire could not survive without its large, expensive army; though there was less and less revenue to pay for it. Soldiers were also increasingly difficult to recruit. Large numbers of men joined the clergy, not because they had vocations to the priesthood, but because they did not want to work. At least the Church could still afford to feed people. For lazier members of wealthier families, the increasingly bloated civil service seemed a better option than the military or the Church.

Infrastructure was disintegrating; so was internal security. The empire was menaced, not only by Huns, but by Goth refugees from the Huns as well. Numerous Goths settled in Roman territory, then began to attack imperial forces after they were mistreated by corrupt local officials. After the Gothic War (AD 376 — 382), the western half of the Roman Empire limped along for almost a century, steadily losing territory to enemies and authority to the popes. The eastern half based at Constantinople seemed more resilient; then it was struck by a plague—the most devastating single event described by Harper in The Fate of Rome.

The Emperor Justinian the Great ruled over the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire) between AD 527 and 565. According to chroniclers, the year AD 536 was bitterly cold; the sun was partly obscured by haze for a year and a half; temperatures cooled throughout the empire for almost a decade, leading to crop failures and famines in some parts of the empire. The Monophysite bishop John of Ephesus (AD 507 — 588) complained that weather conditions allowed no fruit to ripen properly; wine was particularly sour. This was known as the “Year Without Summer.” Harper describes this as the beginning of the Late Antique Little Ice Age.

This period of low temperatures and weak sun all over Europe was likely the result of a volcanic eruption that spewed ash into the atmosphere. The winter of AD 540 — 541 was particularly frigid; though it wasn’t nearly as disruptive as the plague that broke out in Constantinople at the end of February. During its initial phase, the Plague of Justinian was said by John of Ephesus to have killed over a quarter of a million people in Constantinople in four months—half of the city. The Emperor Justinian caught the disease, but survived.

Literary sources likely exaggerate the number of deaths, and are unreliable in many respects; though unquestionably the Plague of Justinian had far-reaching effects. This was not the bubonic plague, but it appears to have been related, and was probably carried by rats aboard ships to ports all around the Mediterranean. Around this time the Byzantine Empire entered a period that some historians refer to as the Byzantine Dark Age. Within a few decades, the population of Constantinople had shrunk from 500,000 to scarcely 100,000.

The Fate of Rome is undeniably impressive. Harper has familiarized himself with a wide range of scientific and economic data as well as the more traditional literary and archaeological materials necessary for this study. Nobody can read this book without learning a great deal. As a popular historian, Harper puts other classicists to shame: He understands better than any of his professional colleagues how to communicate with a general audience. Yet The Fate of Rome is ultimately not convincing. Harper comes nowhere near to proving his case that environmental factors had more than a modest effect on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Harper overstates the effect of climate change and disease on institutions and society. He writes old-fashioned narrative history well; but his analysis is often surprisingly crude, and some reviewers have accused him of “environmental determinism.” This, alas, seems fair. He presents a wealth of interesting and valuable information, without successfully incorporating it into his overall argument. Some of the best-written, most memorable passages in the book are ultimately irrelevant to the story he is trying to tell.

Those of us who are not meteorologists, epidemiologists, biochemists, economists, or other such experts will be unable to evaluate Harper’s grasp of these disciplines. Though a great deal of complex information is clearly swept into the footnotes; the main body of the text tends to avoid scholarly controversies, and alternate readings of the evidence. Harper’s division of Roman history into three climate-related phases is elegant—too elegant; and it does not necessarily cohere with the available literary or historical evidence.

Some of Harper’s conclusions seem self-evidently questionable. His account of the Cyprianic plague relies on fragile evidence. Undoubtedly there was a plague in Alexandria around AD 250; though the exact date is disputed. There was also a pestilence at Carthage, as Saint Cyprian vividly describes. But an Ebola-like international pandemic that resulted in the death or flight of almost 200,000 people from the city of Alexandria alone ought to have left more of a mark, both in contemporary accounts and in modern historical studies. Particularly if, as Harper claims, it spread all over the Roman Empire, and contributed to the Crisis of the Third Century. If the story told in The Fate of Rome is true, why has nobody noticed this before?

Harper’s 2015 article “Pandemics and Passages to Late Antiquity” deserves close attention. The archaeological evidence that he describes to support his claim of an Ebola-like international pandemic does not in fact prove his case. The two mass graves that he describes are not obviously associated with one another. One, in Rome, may predate the Cyprianic Plague by at least a decade; the other, in Egyptian Thebes, is not necessarily a mass grave, and cannot securely be dated to the period between AD 248 and 270. There are contradictory archaeological reports for this site—an inconvenient fact that is avoided in the footnotes. Nothing really links the Roman graves to the Theban ones, except insofar as they were used to bury corpses.

Harper’s use of literary evidence is also questionable in many parts of his book. His translations and summaries are not incorrect, but some passages seem to have been rendered tendentiously into English in support of the preferred narrative. This is purely a matter of nuance, of course. More seriously, Harper is often insensitive to questions of context, genre and style that relate to his sources, particularly where Greek-language materials are concerned. Byzantine literature can be exceedingly difficult to interpret, even where the language is superficially straightforward; Harper is not always cautious in handling these sources.

The principal source for the Cyprianic Plague is Saint Cyprian’s De Mortalitate, a consolatory text likely written in the wake of a local epidemic around AD 252. The passage describing the disease that struck Carthage is not long; it is impossible to provide more than a vague, tentative diagnosis on the basis of this evidence, for hemorrhagic fever or any other condition. A similar caution should apply to Harper’s (more plausible) claim that the Antonine Plague was a smallpox pandemic.

Whatever the Cyprianic Plague was, it does not appear to have lingered for more than a season. Saint Cyprian’s career is exceptionally well-documented: He served as bishop of Carthage for less than a decade before he was martyred in AD 258. He spent much of this period in hiding or exile, and was forced to administer his diocese through writing letters or issuing tracts. Except for some lines in De Mortalitate, and an even shorter passage in another apologetic tract, the epidemic of AD 252 does not show up in his work. Pontius, Saint Cyprian’s friend and biographer, does not describe anything that sounds like an empire-wide pandemic; nor does Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260/265 — 339/340), author of the first full-length history of Christianity.

There definitely was a Plague of Cyprian; it may have even been an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever as Harper claims. But there is little reason to believe that it spread beyond Carthage. Localized pestilences were relatively commonplace at this point in history, as Harper himself makes clear. A pandemic is not in evidence here. The Fate of Rome features more than one attention-grabbing conclusion that does not match the data and material that Harper has collected. The graphs and visual aids throughout this book are sometimes patently misleading.

Harper simply has not made the case that climate change or pandemics of infectious disease had much to do with the fall of the Roman Empire. The sheer ambition of The Fall of Rome is energizing, and the book is a pleasure to read. But Harper ought to have immersed himself more fully in conventional sources (ancient texts, coins, archaeological evidence), and thought harder about historians’ traditional concerns (law, politics, diplomacy, defense, trade, commerce, currencies, infrastructure, institutions, religion, culture) before attempting to master the basic principles of epidemiology and climate science. Gibbon’s fundamental conclusions about the end of Rome, as expounded over the course of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, remain unchallenged.


Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic. He is completing a book entitled The Consecrated Gangsters: A Layman’s Guide to Catholic Church Scandals.


  1. An interesting article about what sounds like an interesting book. I still prefer Tainter’s explanation, especially since it looks at what’s in common with other collapses - systems built on systems where the cost ends up exceeding the benefits of that system, so that it’s abandoned, and when enough of an empire’s systems are abandoned, no more empire!

    And there is of course Greer’s explanation, which puts the emphasis more on the resource side of things, rather than the systems designed to access and use those resources, but gives us fundamentally the same result: a crisis followed by a drop to a lower level of complexity and resource consumption, followed by a small recovery with big promises of future prosperity, but ultimately not achieving the former level, but plateauing for a time, followed by another crisis, and so on.

    In either case, the lesson for members of an empire is: is it really worth the bother? Will people be willing to work and pay for systems which don’t benefit them? In Greer’s formulation, we can at least decide to use less resources; in Tainter’s explanation, we inevitably develop excessive complexity in systems, and any attempts to reduce it are basically doomed. Which one I believe in most strongly depends on my mood on the day :slight_smile:

  2. I found a couple of sources to support an alternate theseis for the fall of Rome:

    The first presents a picture of Roman State with systemic costs which far outstripped revenue. No society can long endure if spending outstrips revenue, especially if it has to rely on an exceptionally narrow segment of the population for most of it’s tax base.

    But the larger problem is agricultural collapse, caused by over-farming. They simply didn’t have the techniques that modern farming has at it’s disposal, or indeed the knowledge that frequent tillage is one of the primary causes of soil erosion.

    In particular, if we look at the second source, recognise that meat is a byproduct of abundant arable farming and represents stored wealth for less developed cultures, then we can intuit a collapse in agricultural capacity beginning in the fourth century. Add to that a rich class, able to outbid the masses for land use diverted from staples to feed their appetite for meat, and we can see that a poor diet for the broader segment of society was likely.

    In this scenario, it is likely that the waves of diseases described in the article, met with a population which was uniquely susceptible to disease through poor nutrition. Otherwise, why didn’t the various periodic raiding and invading cultures, suffer a similar fate? What we are actually seeing here is the Malthusian trap that was a feature of human societies before the advent of the modern age. In this instance, it was the collapse of the food supply that lead to the squeeze on population. Disease was merely a biologically convenient mechanism to achieve this ancient rule.

  3. That most obviously supports Tainter’s model (the systems of civilisation no longer gave enough benefits for their costs) but also Greer’s (for civilisation you need a lot of cheap surplus energy).

    I think this is the blind men touching the elephant - each is seeing part of the same thing. A wave of epidemics, for example, will create stress on any system (eg California’s governor referring to it as a “nation-state”, showing the federated system under stress), and will reduce the amount of cheap labour available (poor people will tend to suffer more casualties from an epidemic because of more difficult living conditions), which is the most basic form of cheap energy.

  4. «The fall of Rome was hastened and exacerbated by a period Harper refers to as the “Late Antique Little Ice Age,” which lasted from AD 450 to 700»

    It’s OK, if you want to explain why in the «fifth century …Rome was famously sacked by barbarians, and the last, weak, insignificant Roman Emperor was pushed off the throne in AD 476.»
    It’s not OK, if you believe to Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL. According to their data the researchers refer to the period from 536 to around 660 CE for the first time as the “Late Antique Little Ice Age” (LALIA)

  5. In line with Gibbon, I would say that christianity is the land mine of the Roman civilisation. The whole system was based on slavery and the fresh supply of new slaves by warfare (as was the plantation agriculture of the Southern US states), and this means inequality, the citizens profiting from the rightless. Comes christianity, and with it equality and the eternal soul for all of us, whether free or not. That’s the end of the (socioeconomic) system based on inequality. The emperors (until Constantin) understood this danger very well, and did their very best to undermine this new movement, but in vain… at last. A new system had to be based on feodality and yeomanry, SMALL, independent cities (Stadtluft macht frei) , free, individual farming and trading, monchs and nuns with their libraries, beginning science and education for all. Completely different, no more slaves (at least, not in Europe, and as long as also christian), it still would take some time to incorporate the whole world in this equality message.

    BTW: this equality yes or no could well play a role in the future, new hegemonial socioeconomic global system. Just only read Harari’s SAPIENS to guess more about it!

  6. I disagree with the thesis above, although I think Greer is closest. Tainter is describing the how, not the why, in my opinion.

    I think you had an interaction of two factors that destroyed Rome in the west.

    One, too much of a wealth discrepancy relative to surrounding nations. The citizens of Rome proper literally lived off welfare- the grain dole and free entertainment. The cities of the empire had vast wealth and economic opportunity, with stable legal protections for citizens, relative to the areas outside the Empire that the “marauding hordes” came from. I’ve found in my life that you can’t maintain too much of a human system discrepancy- in my case, I hit a hard limit in improving my toolsets too far past the surrounding toolsets; I received pushback from applying higher standards that didn’t apply “over there.” Rome, even in its economic decline, was too much of a step up for the surrounding peoples to not emigrate en masse. In contrast, a large portion of the Roman base was essentially useless as anything other than a parasitic consumer- no skills for the state to call on.

    Two, a tax structure that simultaneously destroyed the middle class and disincentized the lower classes. Primarily equites- the middle class- paid taxes. The Senatorial ranks were exempted, but were expected to provide spectacles and other social goods to their clients out of their own purse. The working poor received welfare, enough to live on. The equites therefore carried most of the tax burden (only citizens could be taxed, but only citizens had certain rights). This becomes convoluted and evolves throughout the empire’s history, but as I recall it was either Elagabulus or Caracalla that extended the Roman franchise to all Italians. I think, but it has been many years, that it was also Caracalla that abolished the ability for equites to buy a Senatorial rank.

    Originally, service in the Roman army came in two types. If you were a citizen, on completion of 25 years of service you received 10 years pay as a bonus. This was enough to elevate you to equites and give yourself a start as a shopkeeper, say. Your children could build on it. If you weren’t a citizen, at 25 years of service you and your family became citizens.

    Provide a disincentive for military service, provide a disincentive for aspirational social mobility, and simultaneously have such a land of plenty that the ravening poor and downtrodden want to come in for you system and you only have the military as a tool to keep them out, you will eventually teeter and collapse. Much like an old man with a weak heart, it’s more a question of what shock will do it.

    Now, as to the article, I have no objection to adding the end of the Roman Optimate as one of the shocks that afflicted the sick old man that Rome had become. The Antonine Plague was devastating to the tax base, this is non-controversial; the Cypraic Plague to the grain supply. Left out, I note, is the depletion of the Italian soil- Roma Mater’s original value as a city was her control of the best Italian farmland. No reason, really, to dispute any of the elements in the book as factors as to why Rome fell in the West in 476 instead of some other year. Then again, so was the massive trade deficit with China, the ongoing wars with Parthia, or the fact that the East-West division was more militarily useful than economically viable (thank you for that, Diocletian).

    I will say there is one lesson that modern nations could still learn from Rome that’s not salutatory- and that is drafting your peacetime army into action as a Civilian Conservation Corps. The American power grid, for example, is an out-of-date mess. If peacetime soldiers had been gradually upgrading it, project would have finished decades ago for no more than the price of materials (already paying them).

    I’ll probably pick this up and give it a read. Even if I disagree, it sounds like a serious effort to integrate a non-narrative view of history and instead look for causal systemic factors, no matter how deterministic the author may intend to present them. Always worth hearing an erudite argument. The biggest issue, of course, is explaining how environmental or disease factors would devastate the Western Empire more than the Eastern.

  7. This book seems to follow the standard academic process of claiming that a certain until-now-ignored factor caused the fall of the Roman empire. The problem is that often such scholarship serves as a mirror, to wit, a way for the author to say that what he despises of fears about his society surely is the “real reason” Rome collapsed.

    We thus get thinly disguised circular reasoning: I am terribly worried about X because history shows it caused the collapse of the Roman empire. But how do you know X caused the collapse of the Roman empire? Because I am terribly worried about X, so I looked at all the evidence I could possibly find to prove this.

    Hence we have Gibbon, who despised religion, blaming it for the collpase; Victorians blaming the shocking immorality of the Roman leaders (and homosexuality in particular); Marxists blaming economic inequality; and many others - including, now, environmentalists blaming climate change.

  8. I still think the best question is why it lasted as long as it did.

  9. It serves them right that they collpased; after all, what have the Romans ever done for us?

    Still, the climate change was nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, which is in fact a reason it was ignored in historical analysis, as it tends to concentrate on what people do.

  10. Perhaps there is too much “single causism” in this book. By 400 CE, the Roman Empire was an over-extended mess. Christianity made inroads by making slave and master equal. Disease made inroads by killing off productive societal units. The climate made impacts by reducing the available calories.

    All these worked together. If it is required that one thing (one single cause) be found, that would be silly. Most big things are composed of many causes. We need to focus on what factors played a role, not on whether this single factor (disease, corruption, climate, religious changes in society, external threats, lack of communication, excessive wars, poor societal incentives) was the single cause of the end of the empire.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this. After a few days ruminating, I think my answer is hermit crabs.

    Rome offered infrastructure and a cushy lifestyle enabled by infrastructure far ahead of its neighbors- even Shapur II turned his Roman POWs into a construction corps to build up his empire.

    No-one wanted to destroy Roman institutions or enough of what the Romans built, until perhaps Attila, to really go after the Romans. They wanted to displace the Romans in the glittering shell of their plumbing and sewers and water supplies; not eliminate them. I would even argue that some of the more sophisticated groups that over-ran Rome, like the Visigoths- made a serious effort to maintain a “preserve” of Romans so they could keep producing those engineers and architects through whatever alchemy let Rome develop them.

    Scary implications for the end game of modern woke.

  12. You realize that that makes Pornhub part of the senatorial class, right?

  13. There’s certainly a lot of exploitation of the participants. And some people enjoy watching the degradation of others. This is, unfortunately, part of human nature.

    I’ve twice found myself at a dog fight, once in Hong Kong, once in NZ. Watched a big Maori lad put a sack over the dog’s head and punch it repeatedly to stir it up. Watched Chinese businessmen get looks of - well, lust - as the dogs fought. It’s not pleasant. Let’s just say that if nobody wanted to watch it, it wouldn’t have to be banned.

    It puts all this social media stuff in perspective. Bread and circuses. I believe in most periods the circuses came from private funds, but the bread came from public funds. Come to think of it, it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s many billionaires - Senatorial class - supporting a UBI. They’ve already supplied the circuses, they just want someone else to supply the bread. :slight_smile:

    And this is why we have to study history!

  14. Slavery is not something shameful, at least, as long as it happened in your history, because everybody once did it for some reason. Today I learned from the Polish jouralist Kapuscinski that the freed African Americans that started a new free state in Liberia in the 1830s, simpy continued the system of slavery there,but now with their savage brothers from inland, in the bush. Until the UN forced them to stop with it in the 1920s. Kapuscinski on this: nobody can free himself from the institute of slavery, mentally, neither culturally, and if forced by so called civilised nations to do so, it costs a lot of time and efforts.

  15. You don’t often hear about the one million white people abducted to the coast of North Africa and enslaved prior to the rise of the West. Likewise, we don’t hear a lot these days about the Janissaries and the role of stolen White boys in filling their ranks.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

54 more replies


Comments have moved to our forum