Our Cousins in Rome

The ancients revered the frightful sway of the goddess Fortuna, aware, in their own way, that the presiding powers of history seem to be a volatile mix of structure and chance, laws of nature and sheer luck. The Romans lived at a fateful juncture in the human story, and the civilization they built was, in ways the Romans could not have imagined, the victim both of its own success and the caprice of the environment. The enduring power of the Romans to enchant us derives, at least in part, from the poignancy of our knowledge that they stood on the invisible edge of unsuspected change. The long, intertwined story of humanity and nature is full of paradox, surprise, and blind chance. That is why the particularity of history matters. Nature, like humanity, is cunning, but constrained by the circumstances of the past. Our story, and the story of the planet, are inseparable.

The Fate of Rome

Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire is packed full of disaster. Volcanic eruptions blot out the sun, people drop dead in the street, crops rot in the fields because there is no one to harvest them – it describes, quite literally, the end of a world. And, it might be one of the most encouraging things I’ve read in the past few months as we grapple with our own global pandemic against a backdrop of shifting demography and a rapidly changing climate.

In terms of the specific arguments of the book regarding what led to the demise of the Roman empire, I’m not qualified to make any strong judgments. I think at the very least, Harper makes a strong case that epidemic disease and climate change are a significant part of the story (as a side note: he also provides a good example of an academic writing well for a general audience). While he uses data from current climatology and genomics to make his case, the 21st century science also gives context to the ancient sources which are marked by the language of apocalypse. A certain sort of reader (this is what is known technically as a “bad reader”) might be tempted to dismiss John of Ephesus’ proclamations in the 6th century regarding the wine-press of God’s wrath as the hysterical ravings of a fanatic who lacks the benefit of modern science and so can be easily dismissed as exaggeration and ignored. But, when up to half of the population was dead due to plague while the survivors were living through the coldest decade of the past 2000 years (due to volcanic eruptions, and possibly a meteor strike), John’s descriptions are better understood as a relatively accurate assessments of what was happening, using the language available at the time. The fact that we are now able to use the language of genes and solar cycles to try and grasp what was happening shouldn’t obscure the sheer human terror of what that particular moment in history must have felt like. It really was the end of a world.

So, why do I say this was an encouraging read? First, and most obviously, is the recognition of the fact that while 2020 has been a tough year here in these United States of America, the life of a peasant farmer starving to death in central Italy in 536 was incomparably worse. To live in a world of vaccines, antibiotics, germ theory, indoor plumbing, Spotify (etc.) is a great privilege. There is a technological gulf between us and the ancient Romans and it would be ignorant to not recognize the great benefits we enjoy in our current moment (the vaccine news this week certainly lifted my spirits). Second, and perhaps running slightly counter to the technological prowess point, is that Harper’s analysis draws our attention to just how much of life is out of our control. The most interesting parts of the book for me were likely the sections on climate, which point out that the empire’s peak coincided with a period of a warm, stable climate, the “Roman Climate Optimum” (200BC-150AD), and its collapse with the “Late Antique Ice Age” (450AD-700AD). These were huge forces, moving in the background of human politics and personalities, inexorably shifting the foundation of an empire which looms large in the human imagination but is a mere flicker in the vast expanse of geological time. Climate is much discussed now days, and perhaps is having a similar effect, but more interesting to me is to consider that there may be other things as well, things we can’t see and aren’t aware of, that are shifting the ground all around us. The historian of the future may describe tectonic shifts we simply can’t see right now. There is still plenty we don’t know, and we would be foolish to forget it.

Finally, the book is encouraging because there is a real sense of connection across the centuries. The Romans Harper describes are our cousins across time and space, even if our elites have traded the language of apocalypse for the language of epidemiology and genomics when confronting pandemics. Harper ends the book:

Rome is almost inevitably a mirror and a measure. But we should not see the case of Rome as the object lesson of a dead civilization. Rather, the Roman experience is important as part of an ongoing story. Far from marking the final scene of an irretrievably lost ancient world, the Roman encounter with nature may represent the opening act of a new drama, one that is still unfolding around us. A precociously global world, where the revenge of nature begins to make itself felt, despite persistent illusions of control . . . this might feel not so unfamiliar. The primacy of the natural environment in the fate of this civilization draws us closer to the Romans, huddled together to cheer the ancient spectacles and unsuspecting of the next chapter, in ways we might not have imagined.

Published in 2017, this concluding paragraph packs a little extra punch when read in November 2020. We have traveled quite far from the horse and cart world of the Romans, but not as far as we sometimes think, as the events of this year might remind us. There is some sort of solidarity to be drawn from that I find, and some comfort that while the specific construct of Rome’s particular empire fell, humanity carried on amid death and disaster all the way to our present moment. So, I take some strength from these cousins in our deep past, both distant and close at the same time, as we march onward into whatever lies ahead.

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