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“The Roman era’s declension was a time in which bizarreness masqueraded as creativity”*…

Constantinople

The Roman Empire “shrank” from being ruled from several different cities in the fifth century, among them Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome itself, to just Constantinople. Daisy Dunn reviews Paul Stephenson‘s new history of that period, The New Rome— a comprehensive explanation of the Eastern Empire’s transformation into Byzantium.

Drawing on scientific data, Stephenson demonstrates that the challenges faced by the last Roman emperors weren’t simply martial, economic, and theological; they also faced natural disasters, the degradation of the human environment, and pathogens previously unknown to the empire’s densely populated, unsanitary cities. In the end, despite the Plague of Justinian, regular “barbarian” invasions, a war with Persia, and the rise of Islam, the empire endured as a political entity (albeit “post-Roman”). But Greco-Roman civilization, a world of interconnected cities that had shared a common material culture for a millennium, did not…

Attempts to answer the time-old question of why Rome fell have been characterised in recent years by a new awareness of the role that factors including pollution and climate change played. Anyone who has shrugged at the suggestion that the weather had anything to do with the demise of such a mighty empire will, I think, come away from this book persuaded that climate change and natural disasters provide an important part of the answer. Far from being moralistic and attempting to apply the examples of the past as a warning, Stephenson lays down the evidence unemotionally, and lets it speak for itself.

The causes of change were not purely driven by human behaviour, though smelting and, even more so, heavy warfare in the era of invading Huns and Vandals, had a significant environmental impact. Pollen records reveal a dramatic decline in the growing of cereals in Greece by about 600AD and, from the seventh century, pollination was happening predominantly through nature rather than agriculture.

The root cause of this was the destruction of arable land following invasions and the decline in human settlements. Add to this diminishing sunlight — measurements of “deposited radionuclides” indicate a significant reduction of light between the midfourth and late seventh centuries — and we are looking at a radically different landscape in this period from that of the High Empire…

A new history of Byzantium reveals the inner workings of a late antique empire: “Wonders and warnings from the ancient world,” from @DaisyfDunn in @TheCriticMag.

* Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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As we ponder precedent, we might recall that Rome’s prior history had not been without its perturbations. Indeed, it was on this date in 37 CE, following the death of Tiberius, that the Roman Senate annulled Tiberius’ will and confirmed Caligula, his grandnephew, the third Roman emperor.  (Tiberius had willed that the reign should be shared by his nephew [and adopted son] Germanicus and Germanicus’ son, Caligula.)

While he has been remembered as the poster boy for profligacy, Caligula (“Little Boots”) is generally agreed to have been a temperate ruler through the first six months of his reign.  His excesses after that– cruelty, extravagance, sexual perversity– are “known” to us via sources increasingly called into question.

Still, historians agree that Caligula did work hard to increase the unconstrained personal power of the emperor at the expense of the countervailing Principate; and he oversaw the construction of notoriously luxurious dwellings for himself.  In 41 CE, members of the Roman Senate and of Caligula’s household attempted a coup to restore the Republic.  They enlisted the Praetorian Guard, who killed Caligula– the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated (Julius Caesar was assassinated, but was Dictator, not Emperor).  In the event, the Praetorians thwarted the Republican dream by appointing (and supporting) Caligula’s uncle Claudius the next Emperor.

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