Science, History, and Late Antiquity

I really enjoyed Christina Sessa’s recent article in the Journal of Late Antiquity, “The New Environmental Fall of Rome: A Methodological Consideration” (JLA 12.1 (2019), 211-255). As the title suggests, Sessa considers the growing interest in applying environmental data to the fall of Rome. She takes particular aim at the work of Michael McCormick, Kyle Harper, and colleagues and argues that their efforts to bring a wide range of scientific data for environmental and epidemiological crisis to bear on the collapse of the Roman world risks subordinating cultural evidence to scientific evidence.

For Sessa, this work has complicated our notions of agency and causality in the history of the Late Roman world. She sees our understanding of causality in a history inextricably linked to textual (and to a less extent material) evidence and mediated by culture. In many cases, scholars interested in environmental history appeal to metaphor to link environmental proxy data to political, culture, social, and economic changes at the end of the ancient world. When they do attempt to link environmental data more clearly to texts, Sessa seems particularly bothered that McCormick’s (and his group’s) rely upon relatively literal readings of textual sources as corroborating climate proxy data or, at least in one instance, literary sources being redated on the basis of climate data. In general, she finds these approaches unsatisfying at best, and unsophisticated at worst. By ignoring the important work of cultural studies scholars over the past 40 years, recent efforts to integrate scientific analysis and history run the risk of ignoring or, worse, dismissing the significance of such complicated issues of race, identity, gender and other “relations of power” (p. 245).  

Sessa’s critique is more thoughtful and in depth than I am presenting here. She suggests that the first phase of environmental scholarship falls short of what is necessary to substantively revise our understanding of Late Antiquity. At the same time, she remains optimistic that a second phase of scholarship will embrace the complicated relationship between human and non human actors and the recursive flows of non-linear causality over long timespans. Curiously, new metaphors for the relationship between between long-term environmental trends and the human stuff of history do offer one way to trace new understandings of causality. After all, the very notion of the “fall of the Rome” is a metaphor useful for describing the complex series of events that led to the decline in Roman power.

Part of the challenge of using environmental data to understand political change is the issue of incommensurability across scale. As Braudel’s classic work on the Mediterranean demonstrated over 50 years ago, the geography and natural environment of the Mediterranean world does not cause particular events. In fact, in Braudel’s masterful panorama of the Mediterranean world, the lines of causality between environmental circumstances, human societies, and events are purposefully obfuscated. Each exists within its own temporal frame, and one is not subordinated to the other. In recent years, a growing interest in the archaeology of assemblages – inspired in part by the work of scholars like Deleuze and Guattari and, in part, by folks like Manuel DeLanda’s work on non-linear history – has offered new and more nuanced ways of understanding the relationship between human and non-human agents. This, in turn, has prompted new questions and ways of thinking about our place in the world that, as Sessa has noted, reject the simplistic binaries of human/nature, culture/environment, things/people.  

In fact, for the study of the Late Roman world and the end of antiquity, I have tended to see efforts to resolve issues of environmental change to the scale of political events as the opposite of Sessa’s critique. Attempting to use environmental data to understand human events reduces the long-term and large-scale changes to an often incommensurate scale of human political institutions. Not only does this speak, as Sessa has noted, to our own particular circumstances of accelerated anthropogenic climate change, but also to a view of the world in which we expect political, social, and economic institutions to persist both locally and globally even when confronted by natural events. Our post-Enlightenment understanding of our relationship to nature has created the expectation that institutions can both adapt to incremental environmental change and compensate for even the most catastrophic circumstances. In antiquity, as John Haldon has noted in his recent work on the Roman Empire of the 7th and 8th centuries, the resilience of the Roman state requires more explanation than the difficulties faced by communities beset by an unpredictable world.  

Despite these reservation, Sessa’s piece is yet another example of how the humanities and sciences can create space for mutual critique. Sessa’s suggestion that this critique should be agonistic and antagonistic (p. 229) reads as a bit too “neoliberal” for my taste. That is to say, I don’t necessarily think that disciplines need to compete with one another to produce a singular truth any more than Braudel’s vision of the Mediterranean resolved long and short-term history.  Working along parallel tracks recognizes the diversity of human experiences. Maybe for complex events like the end of the ancient world, this is the best way forward… 

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