Why Rome Fell

I hadn’t heard of Harper’s book before it was covered on The KMG Show on YouTube. Disease epidemics and the Roman Empire! I didn’t need any more convincing to buy it. First, though, I pulled Goldsworthy’s book off the shelf.

Review: How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, Adrian Goldsworthy, 2009 and The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, Kyle Harper, 2017.

There’s no shortage of theories of why the Roman Empire, or, to be more exact, the western Roman Empire, fell. Goldsworthy and Kyle present two from completely different spheres, the political and biological, and they argue their cases well and clearly.

Goldsworthy blames the fall on the fact that more Roman soldiers died at the hands of other Roman soldiers than from barbarians and Persians. Harper says the Roman Empire reached its peak in freakishly good times in the Mediterranean. When the climate cooled, famine and disease epidemics, enabled by the empire’s trade networks, wrought havoc.

Goldworthy’s book is slightly longer than Harper’s, 531 to 417 pages, but his scope is narrower. He focuses on the years from 194, with the death of Emperor Commodus and his rival Pertinax, to 476. He definitely doesn’t agree that there was some gradual transition from the late Roman Empire in the west and Medieval Europe. The break was sharp and felt by the populace at large. From 217 on, very few adult Romans would not have seen at least a couple of civil wars in their lifetime.

Roman civil wars were not unknown during earlier days of the empire as per the famous Year of the Four Emperors in 69. The struggles for the imperial throne were life and death for both parties. They almost always ended in the death of one of the rivals, their families, and, because of the Roman client-patronage system, lots of their clients too. Usurpers needed military muscle, so the Roman military system became more bureaucratized. Provinces no longer had governors who commanded both the civil administration and military in their area. This split command made response to barbarian invasions less flexible. Emperors were wary of giving potential rivals in the provinces large military forces to command. Often they wanted to go the site of incursions to command in person with resulting tardiness in response.

Emperors began to be surrounded by massive households – servants, bureaucrats, and, of course, bodyguards. The strategic concern of the emperors shifted from protecting the empire to protecting themselves. Those with access to the emperor were chosen more for loyalty than competence.

The imperial bureaucracy swelled in the third and fourth century which put strain on the empire’s finances. But Goldsworthy argues it still managed to be marginally competent.

The crucial change from the days of 69 to 217 and afterwards is that the empire no longer relied on the elite senatorial class. In the days of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, senators and their families would have been personal acquaintances of the emperor. They could be trusted to lead large armies, even govern, at times, more than one province. The reason why the empire didn’t go into a constant cycle of civil war after 69 is that Republican ideals still held. Most senators still had few political ambitions to go for the ultimate prize, the imperial throne. In turn, the emperors trusted them and dignified them by giving them real responsibilities. They were also a smaller group than the many army commanders who vied for the throne after 217. Thus they were more easily controlled.

Barbarians were not a threat Roman resources couldn’t quell. Even the more formidable Persian Empire only took small areas on their borders with the Roman Empire. Rather, the Roman Empire wasted resources and lives in civil wars.

Goldsworthy also helped me put in context Ramsey MacMullen’s Corruption and the Decline of Rome which I read decades ago. MacMullen argued that the Roman Empire fell because of rampant corruption, armies only existing on paper, imperial resources diverted for private ends. The question I had with that book is why the Roman client-patron system, embedded in Roman culture for centuries, suddenly became very dysfunctional in the later Roman Empire. Goldsworthy would seem to suggest that the increased bureaucracy created by imperial suspicion and paranoia about what the army was up to in the provinces led to greater opportunities for corruption. That was coupled with client-patron networks that no longer held either the legitimacy or permanency of the emperor as a given.

Goldsworthy acknowledges the many theories that blame the fall of the Western Empire on oppressive taxation or land falling out of cultivation or decreasing trade and that they are plausible, but more data is needed. “The same is true of claims about climate and other wider problems.”

And that’s where Harper’s book comes in. He tries to provide some data, derived from archaeology and the physical sciences, on those claims. His book is a fascinating look at the biological underpinnings of the Empire, and he looks at the years 200 BC to 700 AD when the expansion of Islam would, basically, lock the Byzantine Empire into a rump of its former self.

The Roman Empire reached its glory years during the Roman Climate Optimum which existed from 200 BC to about 150 AD. Even Pliny the Elder noted that some trees which once used to grow only in the lowlands could now be found in the mountains. Grape vines and olive cultivation moved north. Glaciers were retreating. Volcanic activity on Earth was quiet. Of the 20 largest volcanic eruptions in the last 2,500 years, none occurred between the death of Caesar and 169 AD.

Reconstructions of precipitation in the Mediterranean basin in this period seem to point to conditions generally being wetter and more humid.

But things begin to change in 162 AD. That was the year of the Antonine Plague. It being a crucial event in Roman history is not new. A. E. R. Boak’s Manpower Shortage and the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West (another book I read decades ago) was published in 1955. The plague interrupted Roman imperial expansion. Harper believes it was smallpox, and the Roman physician Galen very definitely distinguished from other diseases then common in the empire.

In the

middle of the third century, a concatenation of drought, pestilence, and political challenge led to the sudden disintegration of the empire.

It ushered in a “new kind of emperor, a new kind of government”.

In Harper’s view, these so weakened the empire that the “entire weight of the Eurasian steppe” caused the western empire to buckle.

Harper relies on various records, literary and scientific for this thesis. (Both authors agree that the third century is marked by a paucity of literary records.)  Male and female femur lengths provide evidence of disease and malnutrition. Seasonal mortality records point to increased water borne diseases. Real estate prices for agricultural land point to a reduced population resulting in less cultivation. Nile flood records point to climate change. He also cites a variety of proxies from the archaeological record and geologic record to reconstruct the climate the Roman Empire existed in.

He also talks about a little remarked upon disease epidemic, the Plague of Cyprian, which seems to have entered Egypt by 249 AD.  It may have been a filovirus, the disease family that includes Ebola.

Of course, I’ve skipped all the historical details cited by the authors in their books.

Generally, I find Goldworthy’s argument more convincing. There was nothing inevitable about the empire responding to the disease shocks and changing climate the way it did. The style of emperors changed in a period between the Antonine and Cyprian plagues, not right after either though Marcus Auerlius’s son Commodus certainly did not help imperial stability. The civil wars that so preoccupied emperors after 217 were because of political rivalries, not famine or disease. The Roman Empire was entirely capable, with its military resources, of withstanding the “weight of the Eurasian steppe”.

Still, Harper’s book is worth reading for a couple of reasons. First, in an age that seems determined to deny even the most basic biological realities, it reminds us that we are animals buffeted and shaped by forces of the natural world, not linguistic legerdemain. Second, he does provide a lot of fascinating details about what the background was, in terms of disease and climate, of the Roman Empire at various points.

Both books are well worth reading and full of all the useful academic appurtenances like bibliographies, timelines, maps, and, for Goldsworthy, a glossary.

5 thoughts on “Why Rome Fell

    1. Certainly the book that launched it all. One tidbit from Goldsworthy is that Americans are a lot more interested in books on Rome’s fall than the British are.

    1. Indeed, Goldsworthy follows many a Roman historian in his epilogue when he compares the Roman Empire to America. He argues it and Britain have, like the late Roman Empire, have governmental structures rewarding loyalty above competence.

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