Aristides had come to Rome, much as Galen would a generation later, an aspiring young provincial ready to try his fortunes on the grandest stage. He had been preparing his entire life. A son of the gentry, Aristides had been tutored throughout his youth by a celebrity cast of rhetorical teachers. After his father's death, Aristides had cruised the Nile, the ultimate Grand Tour. He failed to discover its exotic headwaters, but acquired a stock of colorful experiences he could recycle for a lifetime. Shortly after, he ventured to the capital. He journeyed west by land, along the Via Egnatia, the great Roman highway cutting through the Balkans. On the way, he contracted a nagging cold that turned violent, worsened by the dreary weather and the swampy landscape. He struggled to eat, and breathing became laborious. "I was very worried about my teeth falling out, so that I was always holding up my hands to catch them." The fevers struck, and by the time he reached Rome, "there was not any hope even for my survival." When Aristides delivered the "Roman Oration", he lifted himself off what he thought was his deathbed.¹As it turned out, this was the last book I finished in 2018; a very thought-provoking study of the natural causes behind the collapse of the Roman Empire, which he describes as the biggest economic reverse suffered by any region of the world in human history (though surely the destruction of the pre-colonisation Americas must come pretty close).
¹ Nile: Aelius Aristides, Or. 36. Sickness: 48.62-63, tr. Behr. On Aristides in general: Downie 2013; Israelowitch 2012; the essays in Harris and Holmes 2008; Bowerstock 1969; Behr 1968.
Harper goes in detail into the two big factors to which he attributes the fall of Rome: climate change and pandemic. The initial growth of the Roman Empire took place at a moment when the Mediterranean was unusually warm and wet by the standards of the last few thousand years. When the climate started shifting - not for anthropogenic reasons, just from the natural shift of orbits and sunspots - crops optimised for the previous situation did not do as well, and also shifting populations (both of humans and of animals) meant that new diseases had new populations to devastate.
He identifies three big pandemics which devastated the Roman Empire - the Antonine plague of 165, the plague of Cyprian in 249, and Justinian’s plague in 541. The first of these was probably related to smallpox, the second is uncertain and the third was definitely bubonic plague in its first major European manifestation. Unhealthy Roman urbanisation made it all worse. So did a major volcanic eruption in 536, the “year without a summer” - the volcano in question has not been identified, but the effects are clear. The 6th century plague was proportionally at least as bad as the Black Death of the 14th century. He pulls in lots of contemporary observations, notably from Galen and Procopius.
It’s a good read, though slightly oddly organised in places, and marked down for poor monochrome maps which don’t always illustrate the points being made and also for GRRRRRRR endnotes. In particular, though Harper doesn’t put it in these terms, it’s an important corrective to Gibbon, who very much wanted to find a human political cause of the Decline and Fall. The human factor is not absent from Harper’s account, but the key point is that the most developed society is still vulnerable to the vicissitudes of climate change and disease - a lesson for us all. You can get it here.