Joachim Fritz-Vannahme
18. March 2020

Climate, plagues – doom?

Reading helps. Even though it doesn’t heal.


THE book of the hour has already been published three years ago in the original English version, in these spooky days the German edition is coming into the (unfortunately closed) bookshops. That is why reading these 600 inspiring pages shall at least be promoted by way of this blog.


Kyle Harper teaches history at the University of Oklahoma and with “The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire” (Princeton University Press, 2017; German edition:”Fatum: The Climate and the Fall of the Roman Empire”, C.H.Beck Verlag) he presents an interpretation of late antiquity that reads like a script of our fears and needs today.


Summer without heat, winter without storm


In the middle of the 6th century the climate changes worldwide. The winters come, as one contemporary writes, “without storms and the summers without heat.” In China, snow falls in August and the harvest rots in the fields along the Mediterranean.


This “little ice age of late antiquity” is undisputed among historians. Kyle Harper now adds epidemics like the smallpox or the “Justinian plague”. Procopius and John of Ephesus told about it, but historians found it difficult to prove. The dimensions of these epidemics remained controversial among them.


Epidemics accelerate Rome’s downfall


At least until, recently, the methods of DNA analysis have become so refined and so inexpensive that they could also be used in archaeological excavations. “The climate and epidemics have accelerated the end of Rome,” Harper now says in an interview with the French online debate forum (his book is currently also being published in France).


This sounds more cautious than in the 2017 edition, and some reviewers were bothered by the simple equation of climate change plus epidemics equals doom.


In the interview, Harper now prefers to talk about the “coincidence of epidemics and structural, subliminal weaknesses of Rome with other geopolitical events.” What is meant is the onslaught of the Goths and Avars, of the Slavs and Arabs on Rome and Byzantium.



Climate change particularly affects the poor


In the interview, Harper is reluctant to use the French word for the Barbarian Invasions, the “invasions barbares”: “Climate change is increasingly difficult for the poor, both within a society and between societies. (…) If the Roman Empire teaches us anything, it’s that crises quickly cross borders.”


Which brings us to the age of the corona virus and climate change.




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