The Atlantic

The Plagues That Might Have Brought Down the Roman Empire

Bioarcheologists are getting better at measuring the toll of ancient pathogens.
Source: Murad Sezer / Reuters

What brought down the Roman Empire? By the end of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, even the great historian Edward Gibbon was sick of the question. He noted that instead of speculating about the reasons for Rome’s long, slow collapse between (depending on whom you ask) the third and seventh centuries C.E., we should instead marvel that it lasted so long in the first place.

Still, something keeps historians fascinated by the fall of Rome. Proposed explanations include mass lead poisoning (mostly disproved) and moral decay (somewhat difficult to test). One hugely influential revisionist theory holds that Rome never fell at all—it simply transformed into something unrecognizable. In response to this “transformation” interpretation, historians have more recently insisted that late antiquity was characterized above all by violence, death, and economic collapse—an idea most aggressively championed in Bryan Ward-Perkins’ 2005 book, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

While we may never be able to pinpoint one reason for the death of the Roman Empire, historians are inching ever closer to understanding what life was like for ask what role epidemic disease played in the twilight of the Roman Empire. The first, by University of Oklahoma historian Kyle Harper, addresses the so-called Plague of Cyprian in the middle of the turbulent 3rd century C.E. The other, written by Harper’s former professor Michael McCormick, a professor of medieval history at Harvard University, takes on the 6th-century C.E. Plague of Justinian.

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