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As climate change and disease contributed to the fall of Rome
Material posted: Publication date: 01-01-2018
Sooner or later every historian that studies Rome, asks the question: what part of the history of Rome is the modern civilization? Historians like to use the past for analogies with the events of the present, but even if history does not repeat itself and does not tolerate moral lessons, it can deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and how fragile our society.

In the middle of the second century, the Romans controlled a vast and geographically diverse part of the globe, from Northern Britain to the Sahara, from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia. In General, the affluent population reached 75 million. In the end, all the free inhabitants of the Empire began to enjoy the rights of Roman citizenship. It is not surprising that English historian of the XVIII century Edward Gibbon believed that time "the happiest" in the history of our species, but today we see in the development of Roman civilization was born the seeds of its demise.

Five centuries later, the Roman Empire became the Byzantine stub, controlled from Constantinople, the Eastern province was suffering from the Islamic invasions and the Western lands was covered with flap of the German kingdoms. Trade declined, population decreased, and technological advances have stopped. Despite the high level of culture and spiritual heritage of the past centuries, this period was characterized by population decline, political fragmentation, and lower levels of material wealth. According to the universal index of social development of the historian Ian Morris of Stanford University, the fall of Rome was the greatest obstacle in the history of human civilization.

Explanations for the phenomenon of this magnitude abound: in 1984 the German classicist Alexander Demandt gathered more than 200 hypotheses. Most scientists drew attention to the internal political dynamics of the Imperial system or the displacement of the geopolitical context of Empire, whose neighbors gradually adopted their level of military-political technologies. But new data reveal a crucial role played by changes in the natural environment. The paradox of social development and the inherent unpredictability of nature worked together, and led to the demise of Rome.

Climate change began not with the exhaust gases of industrialization, but it was a constant feature of human existence. Orbital mechanics (the small variations of inclination, rotation and orbital eccentricity of the Earth) and solar cycles change the amount and distribution of energy received from the Sun. And volcanoes has led to the increased content of sulfates in the atmosphere, sometimes with long lasting effects. Modern anthropogenic climate change is so dangerous that it is fast and combined with many other irreversible changes in the biosphere of the Earth. But climate change itself is not something new.

The need to understand the natural context of modern climate change was undoubtedly a boon for historians. Scientists are studying the planet in search of paleoclimate data, natural archives of the past. It turns out that climate has played an important role in the rise and fall of Roman civilization. Imperial builders have benefited from a flawless era climate: characterized by warm, humid and stable weather have contributed to the economic productivity of the agricultural community. The benefits of economic growth have supported the political and social transactions through which the Roman Empire was in control of its vast territory. A favorable climate has been an integral part of the internal structure of the Empire.

The end of this happy climate the time is not directly coincided with the fall of Rome. Rather, the less favourable climate undermined his power only when the Empire was threatened by more dangerous enemies — the Germans and the Persians. Climatic instability reached its peak in the sixth century, during the reign of Justinian. Job dendro-chronologists and experts in the field of ice points to a huge increase in volcanic activity in the 530 and the 540-ies BC. e., a unique in the last several thousand years. This sequence of eruptions has caused what is now called "Late antiquity little ice age", when cooler temperatures lasted at least 150 years. This phase of deteriorating climate had a decisive impact on the collapse of Rome. In addition, the big blow was another catastrophe: the outbreak of first pandemic of bubonic plague.

Disturbances in the biological environment was even more important for the life of Rome. During all the earlier achievements of the Empire, life expectancy ranged in the field 20+ years, while infectious diseases were the leading cause of death. Many diseases which troubled the Romans, was not static and new technologies are radically changing how we understand the dynamics of evolutionary history — both for our own and for our allies and enemies in the environment of the microbes.

Very urbanized, interconnected the Roman Empire was good for the microbes. Gastrointestinal diseases such as shigellosis and artifices fever, spread through contamination of food and water, and flourished in densely populated cities. Where was devastated swamps and walkways, potential malaria was particularly high. The Romans also paved trade route by land and by sea, which led to unprecedented spread of infections. Slow killers such as tuberculosis and leprosy, has blossomed into a network of interconnected cities, supported the development of Rome.

However, the decisive factor in the biological history of Rome was the emergence of new microbes capable of causing disease. The Empire was shaken by three such catastrophes. Anginal plague coincided with the end of the optimal climatic regime and probably was the global debut of the smallpox virus. The Empire recovered, but never reached its previous levels of dominance. Then, in the middle of the third century, a mysterious mishap of unknown origin, called the plague of Cyprian, has led the state in shock.

Although this has been overcome, the Empire changed dramatically: a new device of the government, economy, society, and soon a new religion known as Christianity. In the sixth century a resurgent Empire led by Justinian faced with a pandemic of bubonic plague, a prelude of medieval Black Death. Its consequences were enormous: according to various estimates died before half of the population.

Justiniana plague — an important case is extremely complex relations between human and natural systems. The culprit, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is not a particularly ancient species, appearing just 4,000 years ago, almost certainly in Central Asia, it in the era of the first plague pandemic from an evolutionary point of view, was a newborn. The disease is constantly present in the colonies of rodents such as marmots or gerbils that lived alongside humans. Nevertheless, the historical pandemic of the plague were enormous catastrophes, which influence at least five different types: bacteria, rodent vehicle, the owner of the amplification (black rat, which lives near to the person), flea and people.

Genetic evidence suggests that the strain of Yersinia pestis that caused the plague of Justinian, occurred somewhere near Western China. He first appeared on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and, in all probability, extended along the southern Maritime trade networks that carried silk and spices for Roman consumers. It was an example of early globalization. Once the strain has reached commensally colonies of rodents, which were fed into a giant storage of grain of the Empire, the death rate was enormous.

Pandemic plague was the event amazing ecological complexity. It required a mass of coincidences: for example, the initial outbreak in Central Asia was caused by massive volcanic eruptions in the preceding years. It is also associated with unintended consequences of a new human environment, such as global trading network that led the strain on the Roman coast, or the spread of rats within the Empire.

Pandemic shows us the relationship between the development of structures and randomness, regularity and randomness. This is one of the lessons of Rome. People form nature, first of all, the environmental conditions in which evolution is developing. But nature is blind to our intentions, while others the organisms and ecosystems do not follow our rules. Climate change and the evolution of the disease were unforeseen circumstances in the history of mankind.

Our world now is very different from ancient Rome. We have the health care and pharmaceutical drugs like antibiotics. We are not so helpless as the Romans, and can detect the threat, use available tools to overcome them. But the influence of nature on the fall of Rome gives us reason to reconsider the importance of the physical and biological environment for human societies. Perhaps we should not take Romans as an ancient civilization, infinitely remote from our modern era, but rather as creators of our world today. They built a civilization in which a global network, emerging infectious disease, and environmental instability become the decisive forces, which influence the fate of human societies. The Romans also believed that prevailed fickle and violent force of the natural environment. History warns us, they were wrong.

Kyle Harper


Tags: Europe , climate

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