In The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire Kyle Harper argues that the Plague of Cyprian, between 249 to 262 A.D., served as a massive exogenous shock to the Roman Empire that changed history. Harper observes that the structures of Roman society were reordered in the face of near collapse and exhaustion due to the onslaught of disease. The Plague of Cyprian, at least in Harper’s telling, plays a major role in the rise of Christianity and the fading away of the traditional religion (more through the inability of the old pagan institutions to persist in the face of social instability as opposed to a crisis of faith).
But the change was more than cultural. It is well known that Augustus, the first of what we call Roman Emperors, styled himself Princeps, and maintained the external fiction that he restored the republic. The term Imperator was not applied regularly to Roman Emperors until the reign of Vespasian, in the last quarter of the 1st century A.D., nearly a century after Augustus came to power. But even then the rulers of the Roman world maintained a conceit and fiction that they were scions of the old republican world, the first among the aristocrats. This was certainly true of Marcus Aurelius, who famously styled himself something of a philosopher-king as well.
After the disastrous reign of Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, the dynasty founded by Septimius Severus moved in a more nakedly autocratic direction. Severus notably presented laws to the Senate as expressions of his fiat will. But Severus was from the old aristocracy of Rome. He underwent the cursus honorum under the Antonines.
The true shift came during the late 3rd-century and the rise of the Tetrarchs. These military rulers, who came out of the barracks of the Illyrian legions, ushered in the Dominate. This is the despotic later phase of the Roman Empire and derives from the fact that Diocletian added dominus, lord or master, to one of his titles. Diocletian and his successors did not see the need for the pretense that their world was that of the Republic. It was fundamentally different. They accrued to themselves the powers and styles of despotic eastern rulers.
Why? The shock of the Plague of Cyprian induced instability in the Roman world, which a powerful ruler stabilized. But according to Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire the Romans were reacting to the emergence of the Sassanians, who had reconfigured Persia to be a more formidable rival to Rome.* The irony here is that just the Persians became the great enemy of Rome, the Emperors of Rome began to resemble their eastern rivals in their external form and internal self-identity.
* Adrian Goldsworthy disagrees that Sassanian Persia was so formidable, ascribing the military parity more to Roman decay than the rise of Iran.
Ancient Rome was the capital of an empire of ~70 million inhabitants, but little is known about the genetics of ancient Romans. Here we present 127 genomes from 29 archaeological sites in and around Rome, spanning the past 12,000 years. We observe two major prehistoric ancestry transitions: one with the introduction of farming and another prior to the Iron Age. By the founding of Rome, the genetic composition of the region approximated that of modern Mediterranean populations. During the Imperial period, Rome’s population received net immigration from the Near East, followed by an increase in genetic contributions from Europe. These ancestry shifts mirrored the geopolitical affiliations of Rome and were accompanied by marked interindividual diversity, reflecting gene flow from across the Mediterranean, Europe, and North Africa.
If you don’t have access to the paper, the supplements are very good, with lots of visualizations.
The figure above summarizes the main clear dynamic: the period of cultural and genetic cosmopolitanism of the Imperial period turned out to be ephemeral. The authors express a bit of surprise that the cosmopolitanism of Roman genetics during the Imperial period seems to manifest itself in an ‘eastward’ shift, and hypothesize that this is due to the greater population density of the eastern provinces.
This is almost certainly true.
The western focus of the early Roman Empire was somewhat at odds with the reality that the wealthiest and most populous domains were located in the eastern Mediterranean. The shocks of the 3rd-century resulted in an eastward orientation because that’s where the largest cities and tax base were. The Greek-speaking east, in particular, continued to provide the intelligentsia even throughout the Classical period, and due to the wealth of eastern cities, it is plausible that the mercantile elite of the capital often had eastern roots. The prevalence of Greek inscriptions in burials also is strongly indicative of eastern people in the capital.
That’s all to be expected. But what happened after the fall of Rome? The evidence above shows a western and northern shift. Though the proximal populations that contributed to this shift are somewhat different, overall the distal ancient components (e.g., “Neolithic”) return to frequencies that are closer to Iron Age Latium than the Roman Imperial phase. How did this happen?
Ancient DNA is a great window into the past, but it needs to be synthesized with an understanding of historical and anthropological processes. The Rome of the 400s was still a massive city, only marginally off its imperial peak in terms of population. But the Rome of 600 A.D. was a city filled with emptiness. What happened? A combination of the wars of the 6th-century, which are recorded to have depopulated much of Italy, and the overall decentering of Rome from the Mediterranean system after the ending of the Western Empire, probably resulted in the inevitable contraction of the Eternal City.
Of course, Rome grew again over the centuries. But the new Romans were not the same Romans as those of the Roman Empire, who left few descendants. In addition to far off cosmopolitans, the bulk of the population was probably derived from northern Lazio and southern Tuscany. Rural people whose genetic makeup resembled the Iron Age Italians from whom they descended.
This answers the question that people have been asking for decades: are modern Romans descended from the people of Republican Rome or Greeks and Syrians who transformed themselves into Romans? The answer is neither. Modern Romans descend from Italian peasants, who were less impacted by the predations of the Goths and Byzantines, and had higher fertility than urban dwellers even in peaceful times.
There is substantial variation in psychological attributes across cultures. Schulz et al. examined whether the spread of Catholicism in Europe generated much of this variation (see the Perspective by Gelfand). In particular, they focus on how the Church broke down extended kin-based institutions and encouraged a nuclear family structure. To do this, the authors developed measures of historical Church exposure and kin-based institutions across populations. These measures accounted for individual differences in 20 psychological outcomes collected in prior studies.
The results are not that surprising, though the statistical rigor of the paper is impressive. I first encountered the idea about the instrumental role of the Western Church in imposing a new family order in Western Europe in Adam Bellow’s In Praise of Nepotism (others may have heard about this via HBD Chick). Bellow offers a very simple explanation: the early Roman Catholic Church used its ideological power to prevent the emergence of powerful lineage groups. More concretely, limiting marriage prospects of elite lineages increased the probability that properties of wealthy families would be given to the Church as a gift.
In some ways, this paper has nothing to do with the first. But note that the period when the Western Church began to transform the familial structure of Western Europe is at the end of the Roman Empire. Between the 6th and 9th centuries the Roman Church was a particularly cosmopolitan institution in a rapidly barbarizing Western Europe. In the 7th and early 8th century, there were a series of ethnically Syrian Popes, to give one example. As the post-Roman world in the West began to devolve into localism, the Western Church remained international. Global.
Consider then this Late Roman institution, the Western Church, a locus of urbane cosmopolitanism reflecting the civilian values of the ancient Roman aristocracy, surrounded by a rising tide of unlettered barbarism in the form of marginally Christianized Lombards and their ilk. This cultural tension during these centuries of Late Antiquity may lay at the root of the ideological program promoted by the Western Church against the ascendent barbarian elites which had inherited the mantle of Rome.
Finally, a map within this paper showing the role of kinship in modern societies illustrates a striking pattern:
In Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels he asserts that Southeast Asia, like Europe, is part of a “protected zone” against the predations of the steppe. As such, it retained stability and continuity which allowed for the emergence of modern nation-states. Notice that Theravada Southeast Asia has a low kinship index, just like Europe (Vietnam, like China, has a high kinship index probably because of Confucianism’s focus on family as the atomic unit of society). Japan, also part of the “protected zone”, has a low kinship index.
It strikes me that exploring the role of institutions and historical contingency in these regions in decreasing the importance of familialism might be something that needs to be done. With that being said, the fact that the Western Church inherited Greco-Roman aversion to polygamy and innovated its own aversion to consanguinity resulted in a very unique familial configuration in Western Europe. Monogamous. Deemphasizing the extended kinship group.
We live in a time when some people would assert that “Western civilization” is a racist term. But it seems to me that these tendencies within Western civilization are highly correlated with flourishing and innovative societies.
Inspired by Tanner Greer, I’ve decided to put together a list of books that I think will useful to understanding the Romans from the perspective of a non-specialist without a background in Latin, or Classics more broadly (I am in this category obviously).
First, I’m a big fan of Michael Grant’sHistory of Rome. Grant was a historian who wrote a great many books for the popular audience, and his History of Rome is a comprehensive survey. I’ve read it multiple times. Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is a more contemporary take which covers a similar period. But I’m not sure it’s as useful if you have less background than Grant’s more traditional sequence.
Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC is a good read on a classic topic. Goldsworthy is a military historian, and it shows. To be frank I haven’t read many treatments of the republican period since so much of it is back-loaded to the decades before the principate. But Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus illuminates this critical juncture in Roman history well enough.
There are so many nearly novel-like treatments of figures from the Second Triumvirate and the Julio-Claudians that I’m not going with anything conventional: try Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire. Colin Wells’ The Roman Empire focuses on the imperial apogee and the early years of the 3rd-century troubles. It’s a bit pedestrian but has interesting quantitative data like the decline in the proportion of soldiers of Italian origin over the centuries. If you’ve read the survey above then you know why Gwyn Morgan’s 69 A.D.: Year of Four Emperors is important to read.
I think biography is a pretty good way to get a sense of particular periods. With that in mind, Frank McLynn’s Marcus Aurelius: A Life and David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor are useful if a bit plodding and overmuch for the casual student.
I’m not a humanist in Tanner’s league, so you won’t get poetry recommendations from me, but Aupelius’ The Golden Ass is the only complete surviving Latin novel. It’s rather weird. You surely know the list of eminences of the Latin poets, but Ovid’s Metamorphoses induced less labor than Virgil’s Aeneid. I recall thinking Virgil was a bit too “try hard.” Unlike The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization and History of Rome, both of which I’ve read more than half a dozen times front to back, with literature I usually read once, and don’t retain too much. I’m a Philistine!
Historical fiction isn’t always accurate, but it really brings the dramatis personae alive. Colleen McCoullough’s First Man in Rome series is excellent, especially the first few novels. Everyone knows Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. But my teenage-self really enjoyed Allan Massie’s Let the Emperor Speak, about Augustus, and Tiberius: The Memoirs of the Emperor. Gore Vidal’s Julian: A Novel is well written and engaging, though a little light on history (not surprisingly there is a lot of editorializing by Vidal through Julian).
You have in some way read the works of Seutonius,Tacitus, and Livy because they are the foundation for so much of the narrative works written today. They are also the source material for fiction and dramatizations. If you want to “go back to the sources”, give Ammianus Marcellinus a try. He’s overlooked, and he’s excellent.
Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit. At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640, when another signal in the ice—a spike in airborne lead—marks a resurgence of silver mining, as the team reports in Antiquity this week.
I assume that volcanic mega-eruptions occur in a pattern defined by a Poisson distribution. That is, they are rare and random events. One thing about the Poisson distribution is that the events tend to cluster together more than human intuition would predict based on what we think might occur when we hear “random events.” Those with more paleoclimate knowledge that I can evaluate this, but it seems that massive eruptions that occurring so close in time are going to be rare indeed, but, they will happen now and then.
That’s the random part. The outbreak of plague is probably less random. In Europe, the plague faded in the early modern period. Though people disagree about the reasons, modern developed societies where people are more well-fed are probably less susceptible to it (as well as low-density hunter-gatherer or pastoralist populations). As Peter Turchin has pointed out only one sitting European monarch died during the Black Death of the bubonic plague, even as 30-60% of the local population succumbed. It seems likely that extremely difficult conditions for agriculture, and the consequent malnutrition, made the spread of plague through vulnerable populations much more likely.
A major consequence of the calamities of the mid-6th century is the reconquest of the West Roman Empire under the push from Justinian and his heirs lost steam. Unlike in China, the Roman system was never recreated in full. Many explanations have to do with the violence of the Gothic Wars, or the inability of East Roman power to expand west while dealing with a more vigorous Persia to the east. We can’t rerun the experiment, but the above volcanic eruptions suggest that the likelihood of total reconquest took a major hit because of an event that was not inevitable.
Remember that the Roman state recovered by near total unwinding in the middle of the 3rd century.
Though we will never resolve the issue of whether the fall and collapse of the Roman Empire was inevitable and its reassembly impossible, by looking in totality at volcanic events and seeing how it correlates with state-formation or collapse, and social complexity, we may get a sense of the nature of the balance of endogenous cyclical forces and exogenous random shocks in the rise and fall of polities. By endogenous cyclical forces, I’m referring here to social cohesion and elite unity, which over time degrades and decays. As states and societies fracture and a new cycle of integration begins anew. I suspect that the exogenous shocks occur periodically, but that if they slam a society at its peak, then the social structure may be able to absorb the shock. In contrast, societies under stress collapse due to unexpected perturbations.
Stonehenge was first erected around 3100 BC, though the timber was only replaced with stone in 2600 BC. The great monument was a product of the Late Neolithic in Britain. Ancient DNA today tells us that these people were distantly related to the modern Sardinians, and derive from a wave of farmers that radiated out of Anatolia across much of Europe.
About a century after the stone form of Stonehenge was erected, prehistoric Britain was culturally and genetically transformed. In the space of a few centuries after 2500 BC there was nearly a ~90% genetic turnover, and a new people more closely related to Northern Europeans in Germany and further east became ascendant. The majority of the ancestry in Britain today probably derives from this migration period.
And yet the new people continued to utilize Stonehenge for over 1,000 years. Clearly, they co-opted a monument erected by their predecessors and maintained its significance across an enormous cultural disruption.
There is relatively little common ancestry shared between the Italian peninsula and other locations, and what there is seems to derive mostly from longer ago than 2,500 ya. An exception is that Italy and the neighboring Balkan populations share small but significant numbers of common ancestors in the last 1,500 years, as seen in Figures S16 and S17. The rate of genetic common ancestry between pairs of Italian individuals seems to have been fairly constant for the past 2,500 years, which combined with significant structure within Italy suggests a constant exchange of migrants between coherent subpopulations.
The implication here is that there’s population structure deeper than the Roman period. When I first saw these results I was surprised. Looking at genome-wide data I was pretty sure that most of the modern Italian population dated to the Roman Republican period, but I was not expecting provincial level substructure. It was like telling me that the Samnites and Umbrians were still with us!
But what about the great cosmopolitan cities of Neopolis, Rome, and Ravenna? Some commenters on this blog routinely get frustrated when I dismiss the textual and epigraphic evidence of massive migration into the Italian peninsula during the height of the Roman Empire. Actually, I believe that this migration occurred. I just do not believe it was particularly impactful genetically today. Though my general outlook on this issue goes back over ten years (in part thanks to the suggestion of Greg Cochran), I believe the issue here is that cities are such incredible demographic sinks.
Roman urban cosmopolitanism was parasitic on migration. Demographically it was never self-sustaining. In fact, as Patrick points out urban areas probably did not see sustained above replacement reproduction anywhere in the world before about 1900, with the emergence of germ theory and massive public sanitation works, especially in the United States. This is evident in books as diverse as Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome and The Rise and Fall of American Growth.
So did Roman urban civilization leave nothing to posterity? On the contrary. Like much of Rodney Stark’s work in the last twenty years Cities of God is needlessly polemical and oftentimes unscholarly*, it gets at the reality that Christianity was fundamentally an urban cult. It was brought to Italy by people from the Eastern Mediterranean, Jews and Greeks. In its early period it was dominated by urban cosmopolitans. Some of the sermons in urban churches even castigated rural peasants as pagan beasts of the field.
Christianity was an international religion with foreign origins, and like many elite cultural constructions of the pre-modern oikoumene its existed operationally as a social network across the various cities around which elites congregated. In some ways the vast sea of villages which filled in the landscape were untouched by many of the cultural innovations occurring in the cities. A Neolithic person might be confused by some aspects of Roman village life (in particular, access to standardized manufactured goods), but they would be totally flabbergasted by the city of Rome.
Over the 200 years between 400 AD and 600 AD the population of Rome probably went from ~500,000 to ~50,000. The decline of the Western Empire and the period of the Gothic Wars choked off the economic subsidies which could maintain the city’s population by drawing newcomers. And yet the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, remained in the city. If Patrick and I are correct then medieval Rome was repopulated by the descendants of peasants from Lazio, the hinterlands around the city.
Some scholars, albeit often from a partisan Protestant viewpoint, have suggested that the Western Christian Church of the early Middle Ages did not truly Christianize the peasantry. Whether this is true or not, it does seem to correct to say that deeply rooted popular Christianity took many centuries to become pervasive in rural areas. Despite their relative decline in the medieval period, both substantively and in terms of cultural prestige, cities remained remained the stalwart redoubts of Roman Christianity. They were the braintrust of European civilization, even if they were not demographically self-sustaining.
To a great extent the last ten years has seen a refutation of “pots not peoples.” It turns out that many of the archaeological transitions seen in the physical record correlate with demographic changes inferred from genetic changes. And yet we know from history that some peoples and social groups which were highly influential left far less of a demographic footprint. I suspect that the rise of cities and complex polities transformed the “pots not peoples” calculus significantly.
* Google the fact that about ten years ago Stark was dismissing reports that Americans were getting more secular as wishful thinking by biased liberal scholars. Who do you really think had a bias with hindsight?
The plot at the top is from a Peter Turchin post, History Is Now a Quantitative Science. Peter has been on this for more than ten years now. I’ve long been broadly sympathetic, but of late it’s been nice to see his formal and data-intensive approach take hold and make some waves. Using raw data from a PNAS paper on the concentration of lead in Greenland ice caps one can illustrate the theory of secular cycles, as the western edge of the oikoumene went through periods of rise and fall. I don’t say specifically Rome because as Peter observes the first rise probably had more to do with Carthage than Rome, and the last recovery was particular mild probably because its focus was on the eastern Mediterranean, rather than the west.
As readers of this weblog know this lead data is not entirely new. I remember stumbling on it in The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. It’s just more fine-grained and detailed than what came before. This sort of result definitively convinced me in a flash that the “fall of Rome” was neither fiction nor propaganda, but a true material event.
And yet the materiality is important. Like Song China, the Augustan and Antonine periods were characterized by a phase of intensive coordinated economic activity and productive output that one can’t deny. It’s right there in the material record. But from the perspective of a Christian or a Muslim, the collapse of the power of the Roman state coincided with the rise to power of the most important development in human history: the cultural dominance of singular religious visions.
The point being that when we say that “Rome fell,” it hides within it assumptions of value and importance. History is not fiction and can be understood in all its reality, but it is always critical to expose your assumptions and gain an understanding of the common ground shared between individuals whose viewpoints may differ.
I chose a fortuitous time to read Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. This is a great book, and a nice compliment to Bryan Ward-Perkins The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Where Ward-Perkins attempts to convince you that Rome did indeed fall, and that that fall mattered, Harper takes it as a given that you accept this position. Rather, he tries to show you in The Fate of Rome that a series of contingent and necessary causal factors set the Roman system up for its fall. The fall of Rome is not just an idea, but a material event that was given a strong push by material factors.
As the The Fate of Rome was published in the fall of 2017, so it was written well before recent work which highlights both the nature and role of steppe barbarians in triggering the changes which we dramatically term the “fall of Rome” and the “barbarian migrations.” A few months ago I wrote about a paper which reported that post-Hunnic people of the Balkans were genetically different from typical Europeans in that they exhibited some East Asian admixture. Harper does assume that the Huns were barbarians whose ultimate provenance was somewhere in the region of modern Mongolia, but emphasizes that their peregrinations transformed them.
As so it did. A new paper in Nature, 137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes, nails the overall dynamics. As illustrated in the figure above the early steppe was dominated by peoples of a West Eurasian provenance, while the latter steppe shifted toward a more East Asian shifted population.
These early groups go by various names. But the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians have origins on the Pontic steppe. Flourishing in the first millennium before Christ, I should precisely label them “Iranian,” but that might mislead readers a bit since some of these groups were never resident within Iran. The Scythians were a presence across a huge zone of Inner Asia and were a force in Eastern Europe, West Asia, South Asia, and in Eastern Asia. Likely emerging out of the Andronovo culture, genetically the results from the paper confirm early work that Scythians mixed with the local substrate where they went. In this way, they prefigure later steppe populations. Being a nomad was a lifestyle, the genetic correlates to some extent an accident.
In The Fate of Rome the Huns have a role to play as a push for the migration of Goths into the Roman Empire, which eventually leads to their rebellion and a collapse in both the prestige and military manpower of the Roman state. The genetic evidence above and elsewhere is strongly indicative of the likelihood that the Huns were originally part of the Xiongnu confederacy. As they moved west they mixed with post-Scythian and other Iranian and Siberian elements, and presumably by the time they arrived on European frontier of Rome they had picked up some Germanic and proto-Slavic ancestry. In 137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes the authors also report that the East Asian gene flow was somewhat “male-mediated” in the later steppe. Similarly, earlier work on proto-Iranian peoples in the Altai region is strongly suggestive of male-mediation in West Eurasian gene flow.
The obligate and exclusive Eurasian nomad lifestyle was one dominated by men, though as one can see the importance of Genghis Khan’s wives and daughters women maintained independence as well.
For whatever reason, full-blown nomadism only became a feature of the landscape north of what became China in the last few centuries before Christ. The mobile and militarized nomadic lifestyle that emerged in western Eurasia in the years around 1000 BC seem to have taken five centuries to penetrate the far eastern fringes. Until the crushing of the Dzhungar’s by the Manchus in the 18th century, 2,000 years later, the dynamic between nomad and settled was a defining feature of Chinese statecraft and political culture. And, it was also a major feature of nomad culture, because the wealthy Chinese state was an almost irresistible attraction to steppe elites as a source of plunder and tribute.
But human action is not the only relevant parameter in human history. The Fate of Rome is fundamentally a work of history, but it also takes ecology and evolution seriously. In fact, it foregrounds them. Kyle Harper makes the argument that the expansionary phase of the Roman Empire was not necessarily coincidental, or at least it was lucky indeed because there was a climatic optimum, similar to the one which preceded the demographic expansion of medieval Europe. In contrast, in the 6th century, the world went through some of the coldest years in the Holocene because of a combination of fluctuations in solar radiation and volcanic explosions. I assume that the likelihood of the latter is Poisson distributed, so the combination of decreased radiation and several successive volcanic events can be chalked up to randomness. But its consequences were not random at all.
The climatic changes can have demographic and social consequences obviously. Desperate armed pastoralists can overwhelm states, and change the course of history, just as peasants can rebel from taxes and subordination. And, pastoralists can also bring Yerisina pestis, the plague. Climate is an abiotic pressure which is to some extent an exogeneous shock which occurs randomly, and does not react to human feedbac k.* Disease though is a biotic pressure, and though it may relate to abiotic forces, human interaction and agency matter quite a bit.
The Fate of Rome clearly hinges on abiotic factors as initial drivers: a good harvest is good for the state. But the biotic factors, disease, are partly under the control of the state. The Romans did not have germ theory, and were under constant stress due to the high pathogen load, especially of the cities. Harper presents the evidence of high mortality within Roman society well. Because of the endemic ubiquity of disease even elites were impacted by it. But Rome was not just affected by endemic ailments, it was subject to pandemics and plagues. Three loom large in The Fate of Rome:
The Antonine Plague, which ended the expansionary phase of the High Empire in the middle to late 2nd century.
The Plague of Cyprian of the middle 3rd century which ushered in a period of state collapse.
And finally, the Justinian Plague which marked the end of Late Antiquity and the beginning of the “Dark Ages.”
One of the major insights that Kyle Harper reiterates is that these plagues, these pandemics, are a feature/bug of the Roman imperial system. They are not just the consequence of simply settled agricultural society. As described in books such as Pandora’s Seed, agriculture and settled society transformed the lifestyles of human groups, and many diseases which were rare in hunter-gatherer populations probably became common among farmers. But The Fate of Rome the author argues that pandemics were a novel outcome of complex imperial state-systems with long-distance trade-networks. Small-scale pre-state Neolithic chiefdoms did not have the scale and interconnections to foster plague.
Mass pandemics of smallpox, plague, and influenza are then aspects of civilized life, not, settled agricultural life. This puts the argument of Charles C. Mann in 1493 into greater focus. It wasn’t just more extensive and intensive agriculture in the Old World which left Amerindians vulnerable, it was also that the Old World had thrown up several massive imperial systems which had incubated pandemic producing pathogens (smallpox and influenza epidemics were a major issue in New World societies). These were unleashed at once upon New World societies.
It also suggests to us why adaptation seems to be occurring in the last few thousand years. Bouts of plague which persisted for generations may have driven immunological responses.
Kyle Harper also seems to agree with the general thesis in The Fall of Rome that this period in European civilization was in some ways proto-modern, with economic specialization resulting in a modicum of affluence in ways unimaginable in times before, or after. Trade and some level of mass production allowed British peasants to eat off tableware that was standardized, and not homemade. In contrast after Britain’s post-Roman regression a more local economy had to step in. The most curious fact from The Fall of Rome is that pollution in British ponds did not attain Roman levels until the early modern period, with the rise of industrialization. Again and again The Fate of Rome emphasizes that social and economic complexity achieved in the Roman Empire was not attained in Europe again to the same scale as the early modern period.
Roman wealth was fundamentally due to the returns on scale and specialization that are the hallmark of Smithian growth. Though the Romans did invent a few things, Roman prosperity was not fundamentally driven by innovation. Rather, the Roman peace was a framework for trade and exchange that took advantage of abiotic clement conditions (the Roman climatic optimum highlighted in The Fate of Rome).
But this political system had biotic costs, as well as being subject to biotic shocks. Though Romans may have been wealthier than their Iron Age predecessors in things, and also wealthier than their early medieval successors, they were also a smaller people. Using isotope data Harper suggests that this is not due to Malthusian immiseration as the imperial population pushed up against food supply. Apparently Romans did not subsist on gruel alone, but ate a fair amount of meat, especially pork. Rather it was the high pathogen load enabled by the advancement of Roman urban life and its scale. Rome was a world of intense morbidity.
Unlike physical/abiotic forces biological/biotic pressures on human existence are adaptive. Moderns know this with the rise of antibiotic resistance, it’s the eternal race. The Romans were not aware of the consequences of their means of prosperity, and were not ready for the exogenous shocks of climate and disease which were to perturb their state system.
But The Fate of Rome is not just a story of exogenous factors, climate and disease. Rather, Harper puts into stark relief the variables which might push an empire over the edge, or eat into its seed corn of human capital. That does not negate the fact that endogenous variables matter. The Roman elite of the early centuries exhibited some level of asabiyyah, social cohesion. The Empire was fundamentally not a strong state in comparison to modern ones. It was a thin skein of cities and fortifications binding together an overwhelmingly rural population of villages. Its achievement of peace and prosperity was bound up in an ideology and identity focused project which bound together an elite (or bound together elites).
The origins of this elite were not always arbitrary. Though the Empire was famously cosmopolitan, The Fate of Rome crystallizes something that anyone who had sat back and thought about could see: certain groups bound the imperial state together as a ruling caste. Harper observes that between the reign of Claudius and Phocas, from 268 to 602, 75% of the Emperors were of Illyrian/Balkan stock. That is, 75% of the Emperors were drawn from 2% of the Roman Empire’s territory. The exception being the Theodosian dynasty, which was of Iberian origin and jumped into the breach after the defeat of Valens at Battle of Adrianople.
This is a fascinating fact in and of itself. Harper points out that these Emperors from the Danube frontier did not enrich their own region to the detriment of others. They were ideological heirs of the earlier Roman project, and their identity was as Romans first, Illyrians and Thracians of Latin stock second (or third, after Christianization). But they brought particular skills of administration and an overall martial attitude which served to lead the Empire through a period of greater stress than it had been subject to during the earlier climatic optimum.
The Fate of Rome does not plumb the depths of ideological and social change but emphasizes their interaction with biotic and abiotic factors. Harper observes that public temple building decreases sharply after the Cyprian plague. Why? Perhaps there was a loss of faith in the old religious institutions. Though popular paganism remained dominant, new elite religious ideologies such as the cult of the Invincible Sun and later Christianity came out of the shadows during this period.
These cultural and political aspects remain bit players and mostly offstage in The Fate of Rome. If you are interested in political narrative, then something like Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire may be more to your taste. If culture, then Mary Beard’s SPQR. But ultimately social, political, economic, biological, and climatological factors are critical and interconnected. The rise of plague is hard to understand outside of the context of trade, which was enabled by political power and unity. Ecological factors may have driven Yerisina pestis out of its Central Eurasian reservoir, and those ecological factors may have been triggered by climatic variables.
The fall of Rome is a huge topic. I’m just glad that we’re beyond the revision of the previous generation which denied that it happened in the first place. The reason that it occurred is probably contingent in the details, though inevitable over the long-term. All things must end, even the Roman peace.
* This is not totally true, but over the time-scales we’re talking about probably mostly true.
My own comprehension or understanding of the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions probably began when I was about nine years old when I read a book about the various peoples who crashed the gates of civilization. First and foremost in the various descriptions were the Huns, a mysterious and fearsome race who in previous times had almost a talismanic role in the history of this period. Like the Mongols later on, they were more a force of nature that illustrated the hand of an angry God in the world than a people with their own agency.
But their identity was, and is, mysterious. Though contemporary descriptions seem to describe them as alien and repulsive in physiognomy, by the 19th century these antique descriptions were filtered through the racialist framework ascendent in the West of that period to cast them as foreign Asiatics. By the 20th century, a reaction set in and attempts to adduce the Huns’ possible connection to Central Asia seem to have diminished, though no one could deny the proposition either.
The fact that the ethnolinguistic affiliation of the Huns is mysterious to us should give a clue that they weren’t related to the standard Germanic or Iranian groups which operated on the fringes of the European Roman world. If the latter surprises you in the context of the European frontier of the Roman Empire, the Sarmatian tribes which pushed into Hungary and harried Rome defenses were related to groups like the Scythians, and branches eventually gave rise to the Alans (who ended up in the North African kingdom of the Vandals!) and Ossetians.* The German peoples have been observed by the Romans since the time of Cimbri invasions, and the later eruptions were easy to slot into that ethnographic framework.
In contrast, the Huns are mysterious precisely because they were a new cultural force. They seemed to be pure nomads like the Sarmatians, but not out of the Iranian steppe cultural milieu. Though they may have been a linguistic isolate, the most likely probability is that they spoke a Uralic (e.g., Hungarian) or Altaic language (e.g., Turkish). Like later steppe nomad hordes which burst out of Inner Asia into the Eurasian oikumene the genius of the Huns was in part organizational, as they accrued to their confederacy a motley of German and Iranian tribes. One standard narrative of the Gothic migrations is that their peregrinations were triggered by the movement of the Huns and their allies to their east and north.
An extreme social constructionist might assert that the term “Hun” simply brackets a new way to organize mobile barbarians beyond the Roman frontier. That they were not ethnically distinct. Though I don’t know anyone who holds to this extreme view, it’s not entirely impossible.
…we generated genomic data from 41 individuals dating mostly to the late 5th/early 6th century AD from present-day Bavaria in southern Germany, including 11 whole genomes (mean depth 5.56×). In addition we developed a capture array to sequence neutral regions spanning a total of 5 Mb and 486 functional polymorphic sites to high depth (mean 72×) in all individuals. Our data indicate that while men generally had ancestry that closely resembles modern northern and central Europeans, women exhibit a very high genetic heterogeneity; this includes signals of genetic ancestry ranging from western Europe to East Asia. Particularly striking are women with artificial skull deformations; the analysis of their collective genetic ancestry suggests an origin in southeastern Europe. In addition, functional variants indicate that they also differed in visible characteristics. This example of female-biased migration indicates that complex demographic processes during the Early Medieval period may have contributed in an unexpected way to shape the modern European genetic landscape. Examination of the panel of functional loci also revealed that many alleles associated with recent positive selection were already at modern-like frequencies in European populations ∼1,500 years ago.
The admixture plot is key. They have enough markers that intercontinental genetic differences should be discernible. The male and female symbols should be familiar to you, but they also classified the samples by the cranial deformation (a practice associated with the arrival of the Huns to Europe). Blue ~ no deformation, green ~ intermediate, and red ~ deformation.
You can see that the individuals with cranial deformation, who are females, are genetically very distinct from everyone else. And, in particular, the males who exhibit no deformation are pretty homogeneous. Both PCA and admixture suggest that the males resemble typical North-Central Europeans. That is, Bavarians. The women on the PCA plot are shifted toward Southeastern Europe, where anthropologically the deformations were much more common.
The authors analyzed the features of these women and determined that they were likely darker than the males in eye color. This is entirely reasonable in light of their more Southern European genetic character.
There are a few other random samples too. In the admixture plot, FN_2 is a Roman soldier from ~300 AD from the Munich area. About two centuries before the Bavarian samples. The authors note it is curious this individual seems to exhibit Spanish ancestry (IBS being the Spanish samples). And yet this ancestry did not impact the region. Anyone who reads a history of the Roman Empire and its fall and regression knows that the area of southern Germany, Austria, and Hungary south into the Balkans became highly barbarized. It seems likely that many Roman peasants died or fled back to the safety of the empire.
PR_10 is a Sarmatian from the southern Urals. The individual has more “Finnish” ancestry, but that’s not atypical for Russian samples. The South Asian ancestry is something I’d dismiss normally, but I think this might be shared Yamnaya heritage.
Finally, VIM_2, like AED_1108 (a Bavarian female with cranial deformation), has East Asian ancestry. This individual was sampled in Serbia, dates to the 6th century, and is presumably a Gepid, a relatively obscure German tribe.
The presence of East Asian ancestry in these individuals highlights the likely cosmopolitan character of the barbarian zone stretching from Hungary to Bulgaria. It should definitely increase our likelihood that the Huns spoke a Turkic language of some sort. By the time most Turkic peoples arrive on the scene in Western Eurasia, they’re highly admixed, but they invariably have some East Asian ancestry. I highly doubt that the Huns arrived in Europe with the Southern European ancestry, TSI (Tuscan). So that is probably admixture over the century and a half since they arrived that allows for this individual to be predominantly TSI (though the individual may also have been a later Oghuz migrant). The ancestry of the Huns should have been more like a mix of East Asian and Sarmatia. The latter sorts were the first “West Eurasians” they’d run acros unless they had originally come from further south in the Tarim basin.
In the decades before the Huns turned West, they harried the East Roman Empire, pushed its limes back toward the sea, and extorted tribue out of it. After the collapse of Attila’s Empire, they seem to have retreated back to the territories to the east where they could be self-supporting, as opposed to extorting protection money out of states more powerful than them. Because the Huns become less of a problem for the Roman Empire, we don’t hear much about them by the late 5th century. And yet that does not mean they disappeared. The human and biological ecology of this region seems to have been amenable to the intrusion of Eurasian nomads, by the end of the 6th century the Avar confederacy was dominant in the interior Balkans and toward southeastern Germany.
Though this paper is not exactly revolutionary, it confirms that individuals from a post-Hunnic cultural configuration are mostly indigenous, that some evidence of East Asian ancestry persist, it shows that many of the arguments about Late Antiquity as to the ethnological character of peoples will be resolved. Unlike prehistory, where we have no written records, this period has clear and distinct cultures which we have a grasp of. The empty spots on the map are smaller.
* Some captured Sarmatians were settled in Britain on the frontier looking north. There are conjectures that Sarmatian motifs may have influenced Arthurian legends.
There are many debates about the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century. For example, did it “fall” in the first place? I believe that the concomitant p0litical, social, and economic changes do warrant that word. But another question concerns the “barbarians,” who were mostly German peoples (there are some exceptions, such as the Iranian Alans and the Huns, whose specific provenance is unclear). Were they ethnically and politically coherent? Were they even peoples?
The extreme stylized positions might be outlined as follows:
– The barbarians who filled the political vacuum after the collapse of the late Roman state were coherent preexistent ethnic and political entities of German origin who migrated en masse and engaged in a folk wandering.
– Though their original provenance may have been in bands of German warriors from specific tribes, but the time they appear on the stage of history as we understand it, the barbarians were in fact a motley crew of opportunists of various origins, who adhered to a “barbarian” identity which was created de novo with the collapse of Rome. They were made by the collapse, they did not cause the collapse.
In the late 1990s, Norman Davies in The Isles presents an argument closer to the latter for the British Isles. That is, the Anglo-Saxon character of Britain was to a large effect a function of elite emulation and diffusion of a Germanic culture introduced by what was operationally a late Roman mercenary class. Davies alludes to texts which indicate a substantial native British population in Anglo-Saxon England centuries after the fall of Celtic kingdoms. This is in contrast to the apocalyptic vision of British monk Gildas, who depicts his Brythonic people fleeing before pagan Saxons and being driven into the sea. And, I have alluded to the possibility that the West Saxon monarchy, which later came to the center of English history during the Viking incursion, was in fact in origin Romano-British, rather than German (the early kings have Celtic names).
And yet England was always the most difficult case for cultural diffusion, because to a great extent Roman-British society did collapse. Both the British Celtic language and Christianity seem to have faded from the landscape, so the that the latter had to be reintroduced by Irish and continental European missionaries. Today, the genetics is more definitive, and it seems a substantial German migration did impact what became England, especially the east, what was the Saxon Shore. Though the majority of the ancestry of the people of England today seems to derive from people who were already resident in Britain in 400 A.D., a substantial enough minority seems to have greater affinities to people who were living in the stretch of land between the Netherlands and Denmark.
The case for mass migration on the continent of Europe (with the exception of much of the Balkans) is more difficult to make in a cut & dried fashion because the basic outlines of Romanness were much more intact in the centuries after the fall than in Britain. Though France and Lombardy may have names which derive from German tribes, there is not much that is German about these regions today, and frankly, even at the height of the barbarian rule when conquest and migration were fresh, the non-Roman overlay was likely a thin elite layer. Outside of Britan and the Balkans, the languages of the Roman Empire and the Christian religion maintained their dominance even after the fall of the Roman political order, a transformation of social norms, and the collapse of the economy.
And yet this does not deny the possibility of migration of peoples into this order. In Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe the historian Peter Heather argues that we must not neglect the likelihood that to some extent the arrival of the Germans was one of “folk wanderings.” That the identity of the Franks, Goths, and Lombards, did not emerge ad hoc and de novo through the accrual of military men around a tiny nucleus of German warlords and their retainers. That women and children were also part of the movement into the Roman Empire. Heather, in fact, depicts the Gothic arrival as one of destitute refugees fleeing the famine and chaos outside of the Pax Romana, and their subsequent militarization and rebellion as one forced upon them by the exigencies of their situation.
Despite centuries of research, much about the barbarian migrations that took place between the fourth and sixth centuries in Europe remains hotly debated. To better understand this key era that marks the dawn of modern European societies, we obtained ancient genomic DNA from 63 samples from two cemeteries (from Hungary and Northern Italy) that have been previously associated with the Longobards, a barbarian people that ruled large parts of Italy for over 200 years after invading from Pannonia in 568 CE. Our dense cemetery-based sampling revealed that each cemetery was primarily organized around one large pedigree, suggesting that biological relationships played an important role in these early Medieval societies. Moreover, we identified genetic structure in each cemetery involving at least two groups with different ancestry that were very distinct in terms of their funerary customs. Finally, our data was consistent with the proposed long-distance migration from Pannonia to Northern Italy.
The preprint has genetic and isotopic results from two graveyards associated with elite Lombards of the 6th century. The one in late antique Pannonia would be in modern Hungary. The one in modern Italy is near Turin. The late 6th century was a time of tumult in the Roman Empire, as both Italy and the Balkans were subject to massive turnovers of the ethnic and political orders. The movement into Italy from the northeast was a typical one, prefigured by the Goths and other Germans before the Lombards.
From what I know, as far as German barbarians went, the Lombards were rather “raw” and non-Roman (in contrast, some tribes, such as the Goths and Franks, had had relationships with the Roman Empire for generations before they decided to take it over). Though they were nominally Christianized, and elite Lombards persisted in practicing pagan rituals in Italy down to the 8th century, over 100 years after their conquest of the peninsula.
The authors used a lot of “best of breed” methods with their large data set, but the ADMIXTURE plot really illustrates the result fine enough. The blue is associated with Northwest European ancestry (British and white Utah samples), red with Italian ancestry (Tuscan), and green(ish) with Iberian (Spanish mostly). The very light blue is 1K Genomes Finnish. Panel B is the graveyard in modern Hungary, and panel C is the one from northern Italy.
There is a strong correlation in the graves with those being of Northern European ancestry, and having high status via grave goods. The individuals also exhibited some segregation in the graves. Northern European ancestry and Southern European ancestry individuals were clustered together. The Pannonian individuals, whether Northern or Southern European, don’t seem to resemble ancient or modern Hungarians. The isotope analysis indicates that many of the individuals were highly mobile.
Finally, the data was robust enough to do a pedigree analysis. It looks like a lot of these individuals are related. If you look at the plots you can see groups with the label “Kindred.”
There is so much detail in the results that I won’t recapitulate. Just read the preprint and make sure to check out the supplementary text. What I will say is this.
The Lombard migration seems to have been a migration of people of Northwest European heritage into Southern Europe.
The migration occurred during the lifetime of some individuals. These were highly mobile individuals.
There were associated groups with the Lombards, who were genetically distinct, and likely of lower status. Their Southern European character is also distinct from the native population of Pannonia in the case of panel A.
The Lombards themselves had Northern European ancestry which was somewhat heterogenous (probably different tribes and ethnicities). The shift away from Finnish ancestry probably indicates sampling more from western and opposed to central Europe.
Admixture with the local populations and other post-Roman groups began early on.
The ethnocultural distinctiveness of the Lombards is clear from the textual evidence. The genetic data here confirm that in totality. But, The Geography of Recent Ancestry Across Europe, also highlighted a lot of deep population structure within modern Italy, and could not discern much impact of barbarian migration outside of the Balkans across their data set. Why?
It is rather clear that there were population declines across the West Roman Empire in the years after the Gothic Wars. If you read the textual evidence you imagine some sort of catastrophe going on. In human terms it was catastrophic. On the scale of economics, it was catastrophic. But in terms of population genetics, the long-term impact was not that extreme. The local population structure was not much altered because the Roman population base was so high that even a large decline did not induce bottleneck effects, and the German elite was also small enough it did not much perturb the underlying structure which had roots back to the period before the Roman Empire. Even in the first generations of Lombards in Italy, which is the Collego data set reflects, there was intermarriage between German people and others.
The demographic impact of the German migrations was huge on culture, politics, and economics. But it was not huge on population genetics.