A sweeping new history of how climate change and disease helped bring down the Roman Empire 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 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. Interweaving a grand historical narrative with cutting-edge climate science and genetic discoveries, Kyle Harper traces how the fate of Rome was decided not just by emperors, soldiers, and barbarians but also by volcanic eruptions, solar cycles, climate instability, and devastating viruses and bacteria. He takes readers from Rome's pinnacle in the second century, when the empire seemed an invincible superpower, to its unraveling by the seventh century, when Rome was politically fragmented and materially depleted. Harper describes how the Romans were resilient in the face of enormous environmental stress, until the besieged empire could no longer withstand the combined challenges of a little ice age and recurrent outbreaks of bubonic plague. 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, 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.
This is an exciting book that provides a fresh look at a perennial topic, the fall of the Roman Empire, in sparkling prose accessible to all economic historians. . . . Others interested in plagues will find time lines and stories to ground the biology in its Roman context. And anyone who is attempting to use the fall of the Roman Empire as an example in contemporary life should read this book before expounding one or another outmoded theory of the fall of the Roman Empire. ---Peter Temin, EH.net A work of remarkable erudition and synthesis, Harper's timely study offers a chilling warning from history of 'the awesome, uncanny power of nature'. ---P. D. Smith, The Guardian Drawing on cutting-edge research into ice cores, cave stones, lake deposits, and other sediments, Harper explores the influence of the changing climate on Rome's history. With a storyteller's flair, he describes how the climate's impact was by turns subtle and overwhelming, alternately constructive and destructive, but that the changing climate was ultimately a 'wild card' that transcended all the other rules of the game. . . . Harper reveals how the fate of Rome was decided not just by emperors, soldiers, and barbarians, but also by climate instability and pernicious disease. ---Lucia Marchini, World Archaeology Harper's focus is resolutely historical, dealing only glancingly with modern climate concerns. But the book's theme is essentially a timeless one: how big, complex societies handle strain and shocks from factors outside of their control. That gives it some relevance to the challenges we face today. . . . If the Fate of Rome proves anything, it's that nature always has the last laugh. ---Asher Elbein, Earther.com, One of The Federalist's Notable Books for 2017 A view of the fall of Rome from a different angle, looking beyond military and social collapse to man's relationship to the environment. There is much to absorb in this significant scholarly achievement, which effectively integrates natural, social, and humanistic sciences. * Kirkus * This is an important book . . . . [Harper] should be congratulated on his attempt to create closer connections between traditional visions of Roman imperial history and the emerging scientific evidence regarding past populations and their environments. ---Adam Izdebski, Environment and History One of The Times Literary Supplement's Books of the Year 2017 One of the Forbes.com Great Anthropology and History Books of 2017 (chosen by Kristina Killgrove) Beautifully and often wittily written, this is history that has some of the impact of a great work of dystopian science fiction. ---Tom Holland, BBC History Magazine One of Medium.com's Books of the Year 2017 Honorable Mention for the 2018 PROSE Award in Classics, Association of American Publishers Original and ambitious. . . . [Harper] provide[s] a panoramic sweep of the late Roman Empire as interpreted by one historian's incisive, intriguing, inquiring mind. ---James Romm, Wall Street Journal An excellent new book. . . . [Harper] has managed a prodigious scholarly output that uses date-driven, twenty-first-century methods to solve enduring problems of ancient history. ---Noel Lenski, Times Literary Supplement [Harper's] aim in The Fate of Rome, however, is to foreground one class of explanations that has hitherto been relatively neglected by historians: the influence of climate and disease. Such explanations are not new, but Harper brings to the table a large body of recent scientific research into the evolution of ancient diseases, disease ecology and historical climate variations. . . . The wealth of new detail Harper offers to support his general theses is the true strength of his book. ---Jeffrey Mazo, Survival Harper argues his case brilliantly, with deep scientific research into weather, geology and disease. ---Harry Mount, The Spectator The Fate of Rome is engaging and accessible for readers of all stripes. Historians will appreciate the fuller picture gained from incorporating nonhuman forces into our understanding of the past . . . . Its story will also resonate with those interested in climate change, empire, and science. ---John Bowlus, Energy Reporters The Fate of Rome is one of the most immediately readable histories of the year, always investing even the most well-known subjects with the vigor of fresh perspective. ---Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly This beautifully written book is ground-breaking stuff, both for its method and content, and one of the most important of the year. ---Adrian Spooner, Classics for All One of Strategy + Business's Best Business Books in Economics for 2018 Harper has produced a wonderful case study that demands a general rethinking of how we view the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. ---Williamson Murray, The Strategy Bridge Harper . . . has assembled compelling evidence that Rome died mainly from natural causes: pandemic diseases and a temperamental climate. . . . We know far more about both the causes of climate change and the ecology of germs than our ancient ancestors did. Perhaps we have a fighting chance of avoiding Rome's fate, if we heed the true lessons of its fall. ---Madeline Ostrander, Undark Magazine The Fate of Rome is the book every scholar wants to write once during his or her career. . . . In the end, The Fate of Rome is nothing short of monumental. . . . An important work need not be an excellent one-this is both. ---Carson Bay, H-Net Reviews An ambitious and convincing reappraisal of one of the most studied episodes of decline and fall in human history. ---Ellie Robins, Los Angeles Review of Books [A] sweeping retelling of the rise and fall of an empire, [that] was brought down as much by 'germs as by Germans.' ---Keith Johnson, Foreign Policy [T]he author takes pains not to descend into the kind of reductive or utterly contingent account of the Roman experience that eliminates human agency from the story. Instead Harper furnishes a richly detailed account of the environment in which-and with which-Romans and their enemies contended. ---W. Jeffrey Tatum, Quarterly Review of Biology Gibbon's is just one of myriad theories as to why Rome fell after a millennium of unprecedented (and never repeated) strength. [Harper] adds a fascinating theory to the corpus-one that could only be ventured at this particular point in history . . . because his thesis rests entirely on modern science. Harper, an able and often eloquent writer argues, Rome was brought down by two environmental components: pestilence and climate. And when these two worked in concert, things really got bad. ---Tony Jones, Christian Century Harper offers a striking reinterpretation with worrisome implications for the present day. . . . Today, we inhabit a global system with a very similar combination of climatologic disturbances, urbanization, less diverse diets, and globalization. Ancient history reveals the risks we run. ---Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Affairs I recommend The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper. Given all of the other threats we face we thankfully don't have to deal with the added dual challenges of climate change or new pandemics-right? ---William F. Wechsler, Atlantic Council One of Choice Reviews' Outstanding Academic Titles of 2018 The Fate of Rome should probably sit on shelves next to Gibbon's masterwork. In time, one feels, it will be seen every bit as much an essential text. ---Andrew Masterson, Cosmos Magazine A recent book makes a convincing case that we need to be more cognizant of the natural world's role in all this. The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of An Empire, by the University of Oklahoma's Kyle Harper, makes a strong argument for the role of plague and a shifting climate in the confluence of political, economic, and social processes that we label the fall of the Roman Empire. ---Patrick Wyman, Deadspin Ingenious, persuasive. . . . Lucidly argued. * Publishers Weekly * I read a lot of history in my spare time, and as best I can tell modern scholarship is telling us that Rome really was something special. What I learned from Peter Temin, and at greater length from Kyle Harper, was that Rome wasn't your ordinary pre-industrial economy. . . . Harper notes that Rome was held back in some ways by a heavy burden of disease, an unintentional byproduct of urbanization and trade that a society lacking the germ theory had no way to alleviate. But still, the Romans really did achieve remarkable things on the economic front. ---Paul Krugman, New York Times