The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End….

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by Neil Godfrey

Kyle Harper

I’ve finally caught up with a radio/online interview with the author of The Fate of Rome: climate, disease and the end of an empire, Kyle Harper, on Late Night Live.

Advances in studies of genetics and climate history have opened new vistas of understanding what was happening in our past.

Some horrific data emerges: life expectancy at birth was somewhere in the 20s. One third of newborns died in their first year. Upper classes were not much better off overall though they had more pleasant surroundings while surviving.

Nutrition was not the problem so much as disease. There was no concept of germs, of course.

Public toilets did little for public health. They were not covered and acted more like storm culverts than healthy waste disposal systems. Without toilet paper a sponge on a stick was the common tool of all members of a household. And then there was all the animal waste.

I learned in high school that the average Roman was quite short compared with us. That in some ways sounded almost cute back then. Kyle Harper tells us that people in the Roman empire were shorter than both their pre-empire ancestors and post-empire descendants. Roads and cities were disease bearers.

And then the climate changed seriously. Volcanic eruptions were so frequent that the planet cooled significantly but then reduced solar output compounded the cooling. Diseases like Ebola were carried in from the Tibetan region.

I’m reminded of another work I read a few years ago, Justinian’s Flea, by William Rosen. That flea carries a large measure of responsibility for the collapse of the Byzantine empire before the onslaught of Persian and Arab “conquests”. I use inverted commas because there is very little to “conquer” when a population is so drastically reduced in so short a time.

I have now begun reading Kyle Harper’s book since listening to the author’s discussion on Late Night Live with Philip Adams. So far it is presenting an even more horrific picture of “life” in Roman times. Sobering.



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14 thoughts on “The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End….”

  1. Damn, you are right. Thanks. I should have checked the documentation and not relied on memory of an interview.

    Here is what Kyle Harper writes in conclusion of a detailed study:

    . . . If there was an immediate effect of the sharp climate anomaly, it might be the hidden ecological trigger that led the plague bacterium to disperse in the years just following the spasm of volcanic activity. Whether the ice stirred contemporary human migrations in central Asia is unclear: drought events are more consequential than temperature anomalies. In sum, the cool years in the 530s and 540s did not elicit immediate social collapse or state failure in the Roman world. Rather, these harsh years quietly added stress to an imperial order already stretched by massive warfare and imminently to become the victim of Y. pestis.

    The cooling in the 530s and 540s might have been sharp but transient. Instead the volcanic furor was overlaid by a longer and deeper decline in solar output. The sun’s inconstant dynamo plummeted toward lower levels of energy output. Following a modest peak of solar activity around AD 500, a steep decline set in, reaching a low in the late seventh century. The beryllium isotope record measures solar energy output, independent of volcanic blocking. This tells us that at precisely the same moment when volcanoes layered the stratosphere with reflective aerosols, the sun began to eject less heat toward earth. 19

    The decline in solar output was deeper and more enduring than the volcanic forcing. A grand solar minimum, centered in the late seventh century, was the greatest plunge in energy received from the sun during the last 2,000 years. It was lower even than the famous Maunder minimum of the seventeenth century. One fitting measure of the profoundly colder times is found in the advance of Alpine glaciers. The glaciers swept down the mountain valleys. In the early seventh century, Alpine glaciers reached their first millennium maximum. The sun’s diminishing output ensured that the cold spell was not a momentary shock, but an enduring background to the final scenes of the ancient world. The conjunction of natural variability, volcanic activity, and diminishing solar irradiance made the Late Antique Little Ice Age a distinct phase of Holocene climate. 20

    The coldest period stretched across a century and a half, from the middle of the 530s to the 680s. But even a global climate organization as sharply pronounced as the Late Antique Little Ice Age varied locally in its impacts. While temperature changes tend to be spatially coherent— it was colder nearly everywhere— moisture regimes are sensitive to regional and local climate mechanisms. The turn toward a more negative regime in the North Atlantic Oscillation index, which commenced before the triggers of volcanic forcing and lower insolation, was continued and perhaps even accentuated in the strongest period of the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The storm tracks pointed south, across southern Europe. In the Late Antique Little Ice Age, globally colder temperatures overlaid a phase of low pressure gradients in the North Atlantic, with intricate consequences across the northern hemisphere.

    Harper, Kyle. The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (The Princeton History of the Ancient World) (pp. 254-255). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

  2. Phillip Adams on Late Night Live always made me feel more connected to the outside world when I lived in Australia.
    I can’t think of anyone in the UK who can match him. (Apart from Melvyn Brag on In Our Time?)

    Adams can interview anyone – politicians, historians, scientists, philosophers, directors, authors, critics…

  3. Hi Neil,

    Off topic question: Have you commented somewhere on Richard Bauckham’s claim that based on the study of first century Palestinian Jewish name-use (onomastics), the Gospel authors use of Jewish names in their writings was consistent with the frequency of Palestinian Jewish names in other first century Palestinian Jewish literature, supporting the conservative Christian claim that their stories are historically accurate?

    1. Response #1: James Bond stories were set in real places with real people in their background. Their setting also lends support to those stories also being “historically accurate”. Lots of data can “lend support” to various hypotheses, often to contradictory hypotheses. So we are warned against confirmation bias. (So the authors used names that were drawn from that time period to create a story set in that time period? Or the same names were common in the time of the author. These scenarios make as much sense as saying the names support the historicity of the people.

      Response #2: Bauckham’s source is Ilan, Tal (2002). Lexicon of Jewish names in late antiquity. Part I Palestine 330 BCE – 200 CE. Ilan’s list covers the span of names and their extent of popularity over a 500 year span, not just “the first century”. Bauckham presents a discussion of how and why he justifies making some adjustments to Ilan’s findings but his results are essentially the same as we read in Ilan’s list anyway.

      No-one suggests the gospels were written after 200 CE so there is nothing significant about the gospel names by and large coinciding with popular Palestinian names up to 200 CE.

      Here is Ilan’s list of most popular male names in Palestine for the 500 year span:

      Here is part of Bauckham’s list:

      1. I was thinking the exact same thing watching a Bond marathon in December……not only that but some Bond fan sites sound a lot like Christian denominational debates. Some claim that Bond really died in Spectre…..that Bond isnt his real name to make for a consistant Canon ……..

  4. Thanks for the info.

    What really intrigues me about this is this issue: If Mark was a Gentile Christian, living in Rome, having never stepped foot in Palestine, why would the name use in his stories in the Gospel of Mark be consistent with Ilan’s list of name usage specific to first century PALESTINE? Bauckham points out that the most common names in Palestine at the time were not the same as those in the diaspora (Rome would of course be included in the diaspora).

    If Bauckham is correct, isn’t this evidence towards the veracity of the stories and makes less credible that Mark invented the names (and by inference, the stories)?

    1. We don’t know if “Mark” was a gentile living in Rome. He explains Jewish customs to his readers so was he a Jew? Many scholars disagree with the Roman provenance and believe Syria or closer to Palestine is more likely as his location.

      But even Diaspora Jews had contacts with Palestinian Jews. Many of them sent material support to Palestine. Mark certainly knew at least something of the geography of Palestine and temple practices.

      The knowledge of Palestinian names can just as validly be used to argue in support of Mark writing nearer Palestine than Rome, or of his having contacts with Palestinian affairs while in Rome. He knew about the fall of Jerusalem and presumably heard stories of the leaders of the Jewish war who happened to have prominently among them persons named Simon, John, James and others.

      In other words there is so much we don’t know about the author or circumstances of the writing of the gospel that one can find any number of possibilities to latch on to and claim they are “likely” and therefore “support our thesis” that gives a very specific time and setting for the gospel. It is called confirmation bias and only serves to alert us to the bias of the scholar. It is not valid historical method.

      Bauckham’s ideas appeal to many “believers” and we see evidence of their biases being supported when they claim even more than Bauckham himself does. They read Bauckham’s arguments as support for ideas they want to be true. (Example, you began by saying that Bauckham’s argument refers to “first century” names — which of course makes his argument more specific than it really is. 🙂 )

    2. Just two more points:

      Bauckham points to evidence indicating Jewish Diaspora names were commonly very different from those in Palestine. That fact alone was surely known by anyone familiar with Jewish customs, geography, major Palestinian events, etc given the interests Diaspora Jews appear to have maintained in Palestine. A half-way competent author who strives for some measure of verisimilitude is not going to use names that will jar against known customs and variations of the day.

      Secondly, I have posted elsewhere on Mark’s fondness of selecting names, both personal and geographical, that form apt puns with the theological message their little stories convey.

      Besides, there is some evidence that certain persons of Palestine were indeed leaders of the early church prior to Mark’s gospel: Paul speaks of the importance of James, Peter/Cephas and John.

      So there are many possibilities that explain the names in Mark’s gospel.

      1. Good points.

        Your comments on confirmation bias are very true. I am an ex-fundamentalist Christian turned agnostic so my bias is for all the evidence to point AWAY from the Gospels being eyewitness testimony. I want to assume that the author of Mark was a Gentile living in a far away land who could not have been an eyewitness. Bauckham’s research rattled my cage a little.

        But the truth is, even if Mark was a native of Palestine and knew the frequency of Palestinian Jewish names, that is not proof that his stories are historical.

        1. The writer of the Gospel of Mark could very well have had access to Josephus “Jewish Wars”. All the names used in Mark are commonly used by Josephus. There is a lot more to it than that, but that’s all I recollect right now.

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