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

(The Princeton History of the Ancient World)

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  324 ratings  ·  62 reviews
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 o
Hardcover, 440 pages
Published October 24th 2017 by Princeton University Press (first published October 2nd 2017)
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4.22  · 
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 ·  324 ratings  ·  62 reviews

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The Fate of Rome is yet another investigation on the collapse of the Roman Empire. Harper knows he is not alone in this - he makes generous references to the previous literature on the topic, ranging from Gibbon and Malthus themselves to William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples. Even better, he brings in the perspective of recent archaeological and microbiological studies.

Their conclusions are horrifying. The Roman Empire experienced a series of disastrous epidemics which wreaked societal and econ
Nov 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: netgalley
For his third book, Kyle Harper has utilised the tools developed to address the modern focus on climate change to investigate the extent to which the varied effects of environment, climate, and disease were significant in the fall of the Roman Empire. In no way does he discount the role of human agency, but compellingly argues the ways in which these factors, at varying times, pushed the empire past its resilience, beyond its ability to truly recover, and therefore played a definitive role in it ...more
Sep 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Kyle Harper's "The Fate of Rome" is the intellectual heir to Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Where Diamond looked at how environmental change led to the collapse of several smaller civilizations around the world, Harper argues that climate change and disease helped push one of the largest and most successful empires in history over the edge.

Despite the title of this book, Harper doesn't quite argue that climate change and disease alone led to the collapse of R
Stu Campbell
Dec 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Absurdly stunning book.....I think it will take its place as maybe the great book of the end of the Roman Empire (yes I know there are massive contenders for that title)
It looks at the Fall of Rome factoring in climate change and disease. In a nutshell, the height of Rome occurred during a climactic warm spell, the start of the long decline corresponds with the warm period becoming not so warm then worse. Also, he looks at 3 major epidemics (and the epidemiology of them) that were body blows to
Anas Sabbar
Oct 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Summary :

1. While Marcus Aurelius held the reins, a pandemic “interrupted the economic and demographic expansion” of the Roman empire.

2. In the middle of the 3rd century, a cocktail of drought, plague, and political turmoil led to the unforeseen and precipitous dissolution of the empire. It was, however, determinedly rebuilt, with a new emperor, a new system of governance, and in due time a new Mythos.

3. The coherence of this new empire was splintered in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Th
Chris Jaffe
Dec 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Decent book. If Goodreads gave half-stars, I'd give it 3.5. But a lot of it seemed fairly basic, so I wasn't going to give it four stars.

This book has a different take on Rome's fall. Instead of looking at Huns or Goths or Christians or internal politics to explain Rome's fall, author Kyle Harper looks at the environment. He starts by noting that Rome's peak came in an era called the Roman Climate Optimum, which - as the name implies - was an era where the weather really helped Rome prosper. It
Feb 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Scholarly nonfiction is always so hard to rate. Is this examination of the impacts of disease and climate on the fall of the Roman empire interesting and important? Yes, very much so. Do I have enough detailed background on the minutia of Roman history to independently evaluate the strength of this examination? That's a big, fat no. It is a very good sign however that the footnotes and appendices are over a quarter of the pages in my copy, and that the author is a professor of classics, so I'll ...more
May 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A different perspective on the fate of Rome. What made the empire to topple? Adrian Goldswhorty gave us in 2009 his thesis that It was the internecine fights what ended the system in "How Rome Fell" and now I have my hands in this jewel of a book telling me that germs and climate change are the new culprits.
Fascinating read and a pleasure to witness a task force from different fields of science to take on this wonderful tale of how good luck on climate cannot last forever.
On the other hand this
Peter Mcloughlin
Another decline and fall theory for the perennial pastime of expounding on what did in the Romans. This book pins the blame on climate change and disease. These games are fun like trying to look at stills of the grassy knoll it can only go so far before becoming guesswork and speculation but fun to entertain the ideas especially if you are Roman Empire buff.
Nov 30, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a fascinating book on a topic that I assumed had long since been picked over. There was quite a bit of evidence to support the author's arguments. It does enjoy using a 75 cent words when a 10 cent one might do the job.
Apr 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Kyle Harper's The Fate of Rome is so far the best and most thought-provoking investigation into the role of climate in the end of the classical world.

You can already tell something from the previous line of telling: not the generic "Fall of the Roman Empire", but "end of the classical world" -- that's right. Whereas the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476 AD might strike a contemporary college student as the year of Rome's demise, nobody at the time of its happening actually thought of that.
Nov 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
I thought this was a very interesting take on the end of the Roman Empire. Harper argues that plagues, brought on by expansion and sedentary society mixed with climate contributed the demise of the Empire.
Mar 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book places disease and climate at the center of the fall of the Roman Empire. It's probably best read in conjunction with other books of the fall of Rome- its political and military narrative is not especially detailed, but as Harper points out, many books already exist that cover those dimensions. This is a good, sweeping view of new information, told in fairly accessible (though often very purple) prose.

I found the disease chapters to be especially masterful, and will probably assign the
Michael Philliber
Nov 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Instead of rehearsing the unraveling of late Roman antiquity as a monochromatic and monotonous tale, what would happen if other disciplines were drawn on and brought to bear? How would it change our history of the fall of Rome if we could tease out many of the environmental and biological conditions of the time? Kyle Harper, Professor of Classics and Letters and Senior Vice President and Provost at the University of Oklahoma, has made just such a venture in his new 440 page hardcover “The Fate o ...more
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
A narrative history of Imperial Rome that focuses primarily on the history of climate change and disease. It surveys a wealth of recent work understanding climate change and the evolution of pathogens. It's striking to note the way this recent scientific work aligns with the written record: In early Imperial times the Tiber flooded in the spring and high summer (48). Late in Justinian's reign the Danube froze "as usual... to a considerable depth" (271). Climate is not constant-- "on its own term ...more
Sep 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: food-for-thought
The bad: it reads like a scientific book about scientific events that happen to take place during the Roman era versus an actual book about the Roman era. Not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes I thought there were too many mentions of climate, pests, earthquakes and other natural phenomena and not enough actual history.

The good: the flip side of the above. It's a different and interesting take on the story of the Roman empire, from a scientific point of view.
Zack Clemmons
Sep 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of the most impressive and intellectually generous works of scholarship I’ve read. I didn’t know I was capable of enjoying climatology and epidemiology quite so much.
Mar 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Une oeuvre qui ne peut que susciter l'admiration pour son auteur qui a réalisé un travail de recherche tout à fait exceptionnel. Même si les faits mis en avant été connus, qu'il s'agisse des terribles épidémies ou des changements climatiques, ils sont cette fois clairement mesurés et désignés - variole, peste et cycle glaciaire comme les vrais responsables de la Chute de l'Empire Romain d'Occident, et du grand repli de celui d'Orient. Au lecteur d'aujourd'hui il apporte non seulement des lumière ...more
Ryan Denson
Aug 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Kyle Harper provides a thorough examination of the unseen forces in the collapse of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, namely disease and climate change. Harper’s central thesis is that the environment, in which the political and social events leading to the downfall of the ancient world occurred, was not merely a static backdrop. Rather, environmental factors had their own influence in the ups and downs of antiquity. This book masterfully synthesizes an exceptionally broad range of sources fro ...more
Charles Inglin
Feb 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the history of the Roman Empire. The author explores an aspect of the fall of the empire that most histories don't really touch on, the effects of climate and disease. The rise of Rome and the empire coincided with a climate regime called, appropriately enough, the Roman Climate Optimum, from about 250 BC to 400 AD. The climate in the Mediterranean during this period was warm and moist, excellent for the agriculture that underpinned the empire. I ...more
Feb 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
A really interesting analysis of the fall of the Roman Empire from the perspective of climate and biological factors. Up until this point I thought that the Roman Empire fell because, you know, civilizations become decadent and corrupt or whatever as they become successful. The imperial system was brittle, the army was expensive and impossible to control, palace intrigue, etc etc.

But when you look at it from the perspective of climate and disease, it's kind of hard to see how even the world's mo
The growing field of exploring history via the climatological record is long overdue. Too long have subjects like The Roman Empire been explained and studied through the lens of Awesome Men Doing Awesome Things Because Awesome. While that does play a part, it's only logical that the ground on which they stood and the air they breathed and the climate that surrounded them played a part as well - perhaps the biggest role of all, in the case of the Roman Empire. It's the story of a society that was ...more
I enjoyed reading Harper's book; he is a good writer and quite eloquent. He does a good job of explaining some of the more complicated issues regarding climatology and epidemiology.

Most of us are probably more familiar with the frame of time from the end of the Roman Republic to the beginning of the Empire, the Augustan Age. Both the earlier and the later periods are more unfamiliar. Harper concentrates on the times when the Empire was hit by major plagues from the middle of the second and thir
Linda Gaines
Dec 17, 2017 rated it liked it
I really wanted to like this book. I heard the author speak, presumably part of a book tour, and his speech/presentation was very interesting and enlightening, so I bought the book. I was disappointed. First, I think you have to have a decent knowledge of Roman history going into this book to follow it, and I don't. He makes lots of references to people, groups of people, and places I have never heard of. He does have some maps in the book, which is helpful. However, there are certain cities of ...more
Federico Davoine
Jun 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Even though the final centuries of the Western Roman Empire have been studied by lot of authors, from several perspectives (internal politics, secondary state formation, macroeconomics), this book contributes with new insights on climate change and epidemiology.
In this case, the final years of Western and Eastern Roman Empires arise as the result of complex interactions between environmental and human factors. The end of a warm climate period (Late Roman Optimum) and the Antonin plague (probably
Oct 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I’ve seen some complaints this book is boring, but I disagree. It’s academic and I have some issues with its structure (i.e., building up to the plague of Justinian and then hardly covering it compared to other epidemics). But it’s a fantastic book. It’s engaging and replete with maps and tables of data, which help detail it’s arguments.

It’s compelling and engaging and well worth the read.
Jun 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
The Fall of Rome brings an interesting perspective to history and the fall of Rome. Traditional histories have focused on Rome’s bureaucratic, economic, military, and social failures (human made). This book discusses the roles of health and environmental factors. History is often written in terms of the actions of people, with the environment being a blank canvas, as the author states. This book corrects that (think of this book as the Guns, Germs, and Steel version of Roman history). Despite th ...more
Jackson Cyril
Apr 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
A riveting account of the decline of Rome which emphasizes the role played in this by plagues and climate change-- including volcanic eruptions, both global warming (from the death of Caesar till about the end of Aurelius' reign) and then global cooling, which led first to agricultural boom and then to famine and drought. Grand history in the Braudel-ian manner which emphasizes the helplessness of humanity in the face of sinister forces beyond our ken, and which contains poignant reminders for o ...more
Susan Paxton
In the old days this book would have been called "learned." Kyle Harper has done a virtuoso job collecting evidence from a wide array of disciplines and has formulated a new history of the fall of Rome that is the first to fully incorporate the climate and epidemiological data into a synthesis that is complete and, best of all, very readable. This book will change the way you think about late antiquity, guaranteed - and contains the faintest hints of warnings for our own time. In its day, Rome w ...more
Jan 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Most histories (of whatever civilization or country) concentrate on the political/military or on the political/economic changes over time. Some few specialized works deal with environmental impacts or the effects of spectacular disease outbreaks. This is one of the rare books that tries, very successfully, to link environmental changes, disease outbreaks, changes in the political, military and economic order of the society. This was a well researched, well written and thoroughly enjoyable work. ...more
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Professor of Classics and Letters and Senior Vice President and Provost at the University of Oklahoma. His research topics are the social and economic history of the Roman Empire and the early middle ages, and the environmental and population history of the first millennium, exploring the impact of climate change and disease on the history of civilization.


Other books in the series

The Princeton History of the Ancient World (2 books)
  • The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece
“Exactly one century lies between the capture of Rome by Belisarius and the retreat of the empire’s armies behind the lightning advance of the Islamic conquests. Over that span of time, the Roman state exerted itself, with all its might, against the inexorable pull of the tides.” 0 likes
“And the connections we have progressively built between human societies not only link old germ pools, but more profoundly they have turned separate groups into a metapopulation for roving killers to explore. The main drama of disease history has been the constant emergence of untried germs from wild hosts, finding human groups linked in ever-larger pacts of mutually assured infection.” 0 likes
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