How Climate Change and Plague Helped Bring Down the Roman Empire

Smithsonian | 12/21/2017 | Staff
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

At some time or another, every historian of Rome has been asked to say where we are, today, on Rome’s cycle of decline. Historians might squirm at such attempts to use the past but, even if history does not repeat itself, nor come packaged into moral lessons, it can deepen our sense of what it means to be human and how fragile our societies are.

Middle - Century - Romans - Part - Globe

In the middle of the second century, the Romans controlled a huge, geographically diverse part of the globe, from northern Britain to the edges of the Sahara, from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia. The generally prosperous population peaked at 75 million. Eventually, all free inhabitants of the empire came to enjoy the rights of Roman citizenship. Little wonder that the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon judged this age the ‘most happy’ in the history of our species—yet today we are more likely to see the advance of Roman civilization as unwittingly planting the seeds of its own demise.

Five centuries later, the Roman empire was a small Byzantine rump-state controlled from Constantinople, its near-eastern provinces lost to Islamic invasions, its western lands covered by a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms. Trade receded, cities shrank and technological advance halted. Despite the cultural vitality and spiritual legacy of these centuries, this period was marked by a declining population, political fragmentation and lower levels of material complexity. When the historian Ian Morris at Stanford University created a universal social-development index, the fall of Rome emerged as the greatest setback in the history of human civilization.

Explanations - Phenomenon - Magnitude - Classicist - Alexander

Explanations for a phenomenon of this magnitude abound: in 1984, the German classicist Alexander Demandt cataloged more than 200 hypotheses. Most scholars have looked to the internal political dynamics of the imperial system or...
(Excerpt) Read more at: Smithsonian
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