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The Fate of Rome

Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

By Kyle Harper
13-minute read
Audio available
The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

Over the years, countless historians have theorized about the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome (2017) tells this story from a slightly different angle, taking into consideration new information about the climate and epidemiological events that played a major role in the prosperity and downfall of one of the largest empires in history.

  • Roman history enthusiasts
  • Environmentalists and others interested in climate change
  • Anyone curious about the causes of the Roman Empire’s fall

Kyle Harper is a scholar of Roman history who currently serves as Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma, where he is also Senior Vice President and Provost. He has written two other award-winning books: Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425, and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality.

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The Fate of Rome

Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

By Kyle Harper
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper
Synopsis

Over the years, countless historians have theorized about the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome (2017) tells this story from a slightly different angle, taking into consideration new information about the climate and epidemiological events that played a major role in the prosperity and downfall of one of the largest empires in history.

Key idea 1 of 8

An unusually favorable climate contributed to the Roman Empire’s prosperity.

Life in the Roman Empire, even when that empire was flourishing, was rough. Infant mortality rates were high. Life expectancy, in general, was only around 25 years. There were no motorized vehicles or telecommunications devices, so travel and communication were incredibly slow. 

Despite these limitations, the Romans were able to form a unified empire that stretched across Western Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. As the empire and the cities within it expanded and the population exploded, the Romans were forced to extract more and more resources from the surrounding environment. Yet they never experienced a major food shortage, nor were they forced to farm on hard or difficult soil in desperation. 

Why? Well, in part, the Romans got lucky: they happened to be living in a particularly hospitable moment in Earth’s climate history.

The key message here is: An unusually favorable climate contributed to the Roman Empire’s prosperity.

By the second century AD, the Roman Empire had slowed its expansion and achieved widespread peace across its vast territory. For the most part, conditions were very good: economic productivity was high, there was enough food for everyone, and wages were growing even for the most unskilled laborers.

Rome’s expansion and flourishing were linked to a climate regime known as Roman Climate Optimum, or RCO. Characterized by a stable, warm, and wet climate, the RCO began in the last two centuries BC and stretched into the first two centuries AD.

During the RCO, the sun warmed the earth more than usual – temperatures during the first century AD were even higher than those in the last 150 years of our own era. At the same time, volcanic activity was almost absent. This meant that the period saw none of the lower temperatures caused when volcanic ash blocks the sun.

These conditions were huge boons for the Roman Empire. Thanks to the warm and wet climate, farmers could cultivate wheat and olives on mountains – territory where they could never grow today! North Africa was exceptionally fertile, providing grain for huge swaths of the empire. By contrast, today, that region is a major importer rather than an exporter of grain.

Climate conditions helped Rome to prosper. But that prosperity came at a cost: the Roman Empire’s large number of trade routes and high connectedness created a perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases.

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