The collapse of the class-based, slave -owning society of late antiquity might appear on casual reflection to hold few lessons about the future of capitalist society in the first quarter of the 21st Century, but a recent book by Professor Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma (The Fall of Rome – Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, Princeton University Press) can give us pause for thought.
Professor Harper is no Marxist, but his approach is evidence-based, scientific and socio-economic. He does not directly address, as a Marxist might, whether the collapse of the social structures of Late Antiquity arose from a failure of those structures to protect and grow the economy, but his findings can readily be considered from this perspective. The fundamental cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, according to Professor Harper, was not, as has often been suggested, the growth of Christianity within its borders or Islam beyond its crumbling eastern edge; nor was it some intrinsic fault that only worked itself out in the fullness of time, suggestions for which have included contested imperial succession and the abandonment of the short sword and armour by Roman infantry. Drawing on both the latest archaeological and paleo-genetic evidence and on classical sources including judiciously assessed eye witness reports, Professor Harper convincingly demonstrates that the collapse was caused by climate change and pandemic disease: first the Antonine Plague in the mid-second century (probably a voracious smallpox pandemic), then the hammer blow of bubonic plague from 558 until 749. The way in which the consequences of disease and climate change interacted and undermined the economy of the Roman Empire, including its tax and fiscal structures, is dealt with in an admirably dialectical way; and the resulting class struggle– especially the efforts of the Roman land owning class to cling on and even expand their estates at a time of economic crisis and population decline is not ignored.
Professor Harper concludes his book with a muted but cautionary warning to the 21st Century reader. This concerns the recent discovery of the speed with which history’s great pathogens have evolved. This evolutionary facility to exploit opportunities opened up as society changes represents a threat to us today although it is one that Professor Harper only hints at. He is even more reticent about the threat today of climate change due to CO2 emissions even though the effect could be far greater than that which contributed so significantly to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire following the Antonine Plague.
We are indebted to Professor Harper for an excellent book which helps us understand why the Roman Empire fell. We, his readers, need, however, to bear in mind Marx’s advice: it is not enough to understand the world – what we have to do is change it.