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.

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“Out in the Dark”

Review: “Out in the Dark”, Linda Nagata, 2013.

This is Nagata’s second Zeke Choy story, and I liked it a lot better than “Nahiku West”.

This is good example of how the character of the policeman can be used to illustrate the conflicts between a society’s laws and justice, morality, and changing mores.

Choy is sent on an internal investigation to Sato Station. Its target is another member of the Commonwealth Police, Pana.

Three days earlier, two asteroid prospectors, Kiel Chaladur and his wife Shay Antigo, showed up there. As usual, both were scanned for illegal modifications to their bodies because, sometimes, asteroid prospectors get up to illegal things in the vast and lonely dark of space.

The scan for Kiel matched the one on file and showed a legal person. However, Shay’s records did not exist. Pana’s report accepted her claim that Kiel met Shay in space where she was born. That’s why she is not registered in Commonwealth records.

Choy finds this implausible and thinks Pana took a bribe.

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Stealing Other People’s Homework: Network theory may explain the vulnerability of medieval human settlements to the Black Death pandemic

No, it has nothing to do with books, but the Black Death has long fascinated me.

Complexity Digest

Epidemics can spread across large regions becoming pandemics by flowing along transportation and social networks. Two network attributes, transitivity (when a node is connected to two other nodes that are also directly connected between them) and centrality (the number and intensity of connections with the other nodes in the network), are widely associated with the dynamics of transmission of pathogens. Here we investigate how network centrality and transitivity influence vulnerability to diseases of human populations by examining one of the most devastating pandemic in human history, the fourteenth century plague pandemic called Black Death. We found that, after controlling for the city spatial location and the disease arrival time, cities with higher values of both centrality and transitivity were more severely affected by the plague. A simulation study indicates that this association was due to central cities with high transitivity undergo more exogenous re-infections. Our study provides an easy method…

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The Great Mortality

Surprisingly, this is the first plague book review I’ve posted.

A retro review from September 10, 2012 …

Review: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, John Kelly, 2005.Great Mortality

If you are interested in the Black Death and have never read a general history of it, Kelly is as good a place to start as any. It’s as well-written and full of anecdote as Norman F. Cantor’s shorter In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made and has not dated as much in its biological speculations. It ranges farther in space and time than Philip Ziegler’s mostly England-bound The Black Death. While it has almost has many stats as Robert Gottfried’s The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe, it thins them out with more prose.

If you fancy yourself a bit of an amateur plague enthusiast, this book is an enjoyable read. Kelly has an eye for interesting people affected by the plague. We not only hear about Boccaccio, but Joanna Queen of Naples and Sicily, beautiful defendant in a 1348 murder trial during the height of the plague in Avignon. We trace the final days of Joan Plantagenet, daughter of Edward III, who died of the plague while traveling to take marriage vows in Spain. We hear how the vermin “boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron” when the clothes were stripped off the body of the murdered Thomas Becket.

Kelly bounces around a great deal in time and space to set the context for his plague tales. Thus, we don’t just hear about Mongol plague dead being catapulted over the walls of the Genoese colony at Caffa but also how there came to be such a settlement on the shores of the Black Sea. We don’t just hear of the murder of half of Strassbur’s Jews on Feb. 14, 1349 but how Europe’s anti-Semitism may have pushed into a deadlier form by an intra-faith dispute among Jews in the mid-13th century. We learn that the roving bands of Flagellants actually date back to a movement in 1260. Continue reading

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Two: To the Dark Star, 1962-69

A retro review from February 20, 2012 …

Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Two: To the Dark Star, 1962-69, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2007.To the Dark Star

Just buy the book, buy this whole series whether you’re only curious after hearing Silverberg’s name or if you have some of his collections and novels or if you’re a hardcore Silverberg collector.

Yes, with the exception of “(Now + n, Now – n)”, all these stories seem readily available in cheaper versions – theme anthologies, award anthologies, best of the year anthologies, and, of course, many of Silverberg’s own collections.

So why should you pay for this expensive, limited edition collection (or even the cheaper Kindle edition)?

Well, if you’re new to Silverberg, it’s a way of sampling the variety of this amazingly prolific and protean author via some nice, handsome editions without the repetition you’d get by collecting Silverberg’s previous collections. Continue reading

A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World, 3500 B. C. — 1603 A. D.

The time of new posts is coming closer — but not yet here.

So you get a review of a companion book to a Simon Schama tv series.

A retro review from October 27, 2008.

Review: A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World, 3500 B. C. — 1603 A. D., Simon Schama, 2000.A History of Britain

As with the companion DVD series, Schama has a knack for the framing metaphor and – as befits an art historian – vivid image and anecdote.

There’s a lot of ground to cover in that subtitle. Chapter One starts with the Celts and Skara Brae, quickly goes through pre-Roman Britian, Roman Britain, the Dark Ages, Vikings, and King Alfred. Chapter Two is William the Conqueror and the Conquest. Chapter Three, “Sovereignity Unbound?”, concentrates on the struggle to define the nature of English kingship – and its limits up to the Magna Carta. Since this is a history of Great Britain, Chapter Four, “Aliens and Natives”, chronicles the entanglements of Welsh, Scot, Irish, and English from King John’s death to the plague. King Death and its effects are the subject of Chapter Five. The “Burning Convictions” of Chapter Six concern the English Reformation. “The Body of the Queen”, both literal and as a political symbol, concern the final chapter on Queen Elizabeth.

Clearly, Schama doesn’t give every period equal coverage. Neither the Baron’s War nor Richard III get much of a mention at all. Something, after all, has to go to give us those stories like the miserable death of William the Conqueror or Edward I’s bank robbery. And Schama takes a few swipes at revisionist history for instance when he tells us that maybe those English tales of Viking atrocities weren’t that exaggerated. Nor does he have much of a patience for structuralist history. In the plague chapter, he relates the Black Death’s horror while acknowledging that it precipitated a perhaps inevitable reform of late medieval society. (But would that reform have taken place without the plague?)

Schama is quite consciously bringing back the excitement of history as a story. Yet, the colloquial prose genuinely instructs. We may not be invited to draw utilitarian lessons from history – few modern historians deign to do that – but Schama’s prose suggests the possibility.


The Rome page.

Justinian’s Plague Is Not Your Plague

Now in the case of all other scourges sent from Heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters; for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man, and to fabricate outlandish theories of natural philosophy, knowing well that they are saying nothing sound, but considering it sufficient for them …

So grouched Procopius, as quoted in Robert Gottfried’s The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. He was a Byzantine court historian who claimed, at its height, what we know as Justinian’s Plague killed 10,000 people a day in Constantinople.

However, those who are clever in these matters really have managed to establish several things.

Three great pandemics swept through humanity starting around 541 AD and then 1344 and then in the 1860s. The First Pandemic may have put a stop to the Byzantine Empire bringing the Western Roman Empire back into the fold.  The Second Pandemic (aka the Black Death, the Black Plague, the Great Mortality) probably hastened the end of the feudal system in medieval Europe. The Third Pandemic actually swept the world and introduced reservoirs of plague in America.

I’m a Black Death man myself, but virtually every book I’ve read on the Black Death mentions Justinian’s plague, so I was very interested to see that, while we know that the bacteria yersina pestis caused all three pandemics, the First Pandemic seems to have been caused by a mutant strain, a “a novel branch on the Y pestis phylogeny” in the words of the researchers, that accounted for the First Pandemic’s unusually high mortality. That strain is unknown today as a disease agent or, at least, “unsampled” in the wild. Our plague is from the strain that caused the Second and Third Pandemics.

Melissa Snell at About.com’s Medieval history has the details including the researchers’ Lancet article and links to various news stories.

Of course, controversies remain. Like any scientific study, it’s not really the first test that counts. It’s the second and later confirming observations that will really matter — providing researchers can find some more good 6th century teeth to drill into to get the DNA they need.

DNA sampling seems to have swung the argument toward the y. pestis side as the disease agent that caused what we call the Black Death. For a while, people put forth other candidates — anthrax and hemorrhagic fever, but that seems to have died down. John Kelly’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time concludes with a refutation of those positions. Of course, it is possible the biological and social havoc the medieval plague caused could have led to higher mortality from other infectious diseases during a plague epidemic.

I have read a fair number of books on the Black Death but by no means everything in English even from an historical perspective to say nothing of works centering on the plague from ecological and microbiological perspectives.

Besides Gottfried and Kelly, I’d recommend, for an account of England in the time of the Black Death, Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death. And, of course, there is the still the seminal work on the effect of infectious diseases on history: Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill.

As far as fiction goes, there are a fair number of stories involving the plague in the past and present. Of those, I would recommend three. Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book has a time traveler trapped in the England of the Second Pandemic. Medical doctor Alan E. Nourse gives us a modern plague epidemic in The Fourth Horseman. For something a bit different, there is Karen Joy Fowler’s short story “The Dark” which mixes the tunnel war of Vietnam with the plague. (Vietnam really did have outbreaks of the plague during the Vietnam War.) It can be found at many locations.

Finally, for a lurid story set in the plague, there is Paul Finch’s King Death which I reviewed for Innsmouth Free Press.