The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper
Fate of Rome by historian Kyle Harper is a favorite book of the year for me. I took a lot of Latin in high school and have always been interested the Roman republic and empire. Harper weaves a inter-disciplinary tale from primary documents, archeology, genetics, climatology, and epidemiology that lends immense clarity to a confusing and important time in western history (eastern too).
Harper focuses on new evidence surrounding the outbreak of the Justinian plague in 541. What caused the outbreak? Both in terms of the pathogen and the climatic, social, and economic causes of the plague. It takes more than a bug to wipe out 13% of the world's population.
Recent evidence has uncovered the pathogen, Yersinia pestis which is the same pathogen that caused the black death 800 years later. Harper traces the bugs path from the Steppes to Alexandria Egypt and from there on the grain boats to entire empire.
On the climate side, Harper explains how the climate in the Mediterranean was milder and warmer in the period of the Republic and Pax Romana. Leading up to the outbreak of the Justinian Plague, the climate warmed and agriculture, wild life, and humans were all affected. And that helped bring Y. pestis west.
This is a complex and fascinating story and Kyle Harper tells a great tale of an important and underrated story. The book also serves as a warning and preview of some of the things we might experience as we continue to warm our planet.