"The Fate of Rome" by Kyle Harper. A Review.

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire
Kyle Harper
Princeton University Press
41 William Street
Princeton, New Jersey 08540 USA
ISBN: 9780691166834; $35; October 2017

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 of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire”. Between the covers of this portfolio Harper recounts the mid-second century until the mid-seventh century, hauling in other aspects of human and non-human records, to give a more interwoven, intriguing and insightful account. Professional historians, amateurs and those who simply want to be informed will find the volume readable and intelligible.

“The Fate of Rome” is something like a busy biker bar where all of the “Logy Gangs” gather to strut and sport their dominance: anthropology, epidemiology, climatology, sociology, biology, speleology, dendrology, archeology, volcanology, and ecology. Each gang has something to say and supply to the story! And in the end, what they add to Rome’s narrative is alarming; “the fall of their empire was a triumph of nature over human ambitions. The fate of Rome was played out by emperors and barbarians, senators and generals, soldiers and slaves. But it was equally decided by bacteria and viruses, volcanoes and solar cycles” (4-5).

Harper recaps later Roman antiquity, primarily focusing on the three major mortality events: AD 165, 249 and 541. He not only maps out the human actions and decisions, but melds in the climatological changes that were happening at these times, as well as the microbial cocktails that reached explosive levels, from which it becomes clear that the “great killers of the Roman Empire were spawns of nature” (18). This brings the author to conclude that “human societies are dependent upon their ecological foundations” (288). “The Fate of Rome” is a gripping chronicle of the fall of an empire with new colors added to the canvass that draw out freshly defined shadows and highlights. The finished product is a fuller picture packed with human resolve and resilience in the midst of crushing catastrophes.

Not only does “The Fate of Rome” fill in many blank areas in our perceptions of Rome, but it gives us historical reasons to humbly pause and reflect on the fragility of human and social existence. Academics and aspirants alike will find this dossier enlightening. Harper’s writing style makes it easy to read and retain. If you’re looking for one volume to acquire and read on Roman history; or if you’re pondering how ecology, climatology and biology might affect human societies, this is the book you need to rush out and get! I heartily recommend the book.

Thanks to the author and Princeton University Press for providing, upon my request, the free copy of the book used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).

A copy of the book may be purchased here: "The Fate of Rome".

Finally, for another book that is roughly about the same era, but has a different focal point, see my review of "Through the Eye of a Needle".


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