Book Review: The Fate of Rome

The Fate of Rome:Climate, Disease, & The End of an Empireby Kyle HarperPrinceton University Press, 2017University of Oklahoma Classics Professor Kyle Harper knows as well as anybody that the low-hanging fruit of “Rome's fall” has attracted hundreds of guesses and theories and hypotheticals. Historians and other scholars have pointed at a wide variety of potential culprits, from over-dependence on slavery to successive waves of barbarian invasions to lead poisoning. The subject attracts theorizing because it's a mirage; the Rome – understood as the larger entity of the Roman Empire – didn't fall, it transformed, so theorizing will always be more about storytelling than mystery-solving. The real goal is to broaden the pool of suspects.Harper's book, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & The End of Empire, nominates a whole array of suspects that added to the woes of the Empire. The argument here is that Rome faced not only the standard dangers of invasion and lead pipes but also radical climate upheavals – and that perhaps the climate upheavals of the 21st century have sensitized modern historians to scrutinize earlier blind assumptions:

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. As a byproduct of our own urgent need to understand the history of earth systems, and thanks to dizzying advances in our ability to retrieve data about the paleoclimate and genomic history, we know that this assumption is wrong. It is not only wrong – it is immodestly, unnervingly wrong. The earth has been and is a heaving platform for human affairs, as unstable as a ship's deck in a violent squall.

Harper's prose is everywhere that vivid; 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, always charging even geography with the kind of changeability that underscores the book's contention that the very world around the Romans was a looming potential threat:

It is not simply the raw square mileage of Roman territory that impresses, but also the specifics of the core region. The nexus of the empire was the Mediterranean Sea, a giant inland waterbody of 2.5 million km. The dynamics of the sea itself, in tandem with the crenellated landscapes that surround it, make the zone one of the most complex specimens of a climate regime in the world. Extremes of temperature and scarce water availability are a sensitive combination. Several interior zones of the Mediterranean that generate storms are notably finicky, capable of producing extreme precipitation. And what happens on the windward side of a mountain is often very different from the leeward. The Mediterranean region is a tessellation of microclimates.

If The Fate of Rome is guilty of conceptual overreaching, it's in excellent company – all “Fall of Rome” books overreach in order to make their case, since the humdrum reality underlying the events they relate starts no arguments and sells few books. At its best, Kyle Harper's book adds key suspects, long overlooked.