Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field. 

Reading Wednesday: The Domination of Pompeius

Syme disliked Pompeius “the Great,” and his father, Cn. Pompeius Strabo:

“Brutal, corrupt and perfidious, Strabo was believed to have procured the assassination of a consul. When he died of a natural but providential death the populace broke up his funeral. Strabo was a sinister character, ‘hated by heaven and by the nobility’ [hominem dis ac nobilitati pennvisum.], for good reasons. There were no words to  describe Cn. Pompeius the son.”

The third chapter of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution describes the rise of Pompeius who for Syme anticipated the rise of Augustus and the end of the Roman Republic. Pompey’s efforts to secure the loyalty of the military, to secure the authority of the tribunate, and to move himself or his pandering allies into the consulate established his power at Rome whether he managed to endear himself to the nobiles or not. At first, the process did not go smoothly when Pompeius victoriously returned from the East and sough to secure land for his troops and Senate approval for his treaties. Syme’s description was brilliant (and eerily contemporary):

“By scandalous bribery he secured the election of the military man L. Afranius. The other place was won by Metellus Celer, who, to get support from Pompeius, stifled for the moment an insult to the honour of his family. [Pompeius had divorced Celer’s half-sister to marry Cato’s niece.] 

Everything went wrong. The consul Celer turned against Pompeius, and Afranius was a catastrophe, his only talent for civil life being the art of dancing.”

And: “The triumphal robe of Magnus seemed chill comfort in political defeat.”

Despite these setbacks and the efforts of his enemies, Pomeius’s managed to seize power and, when the Republic and the Senate was confronted by a cornered Caesar, he revealed to his enemies their dependency on his standing and his troops. This victory, however, came at great cost to both himself and the entire Republic. There’s a lot to chew on in this description:

“They might have known better Cato’s stubborn refusal to agree to the land bill for Pompeius’ veterans only led to worse evils and a subverting of the constitution. After long strife against the domination of Pompeius, Cato resolved to support a dictatorship, though anxiously shunning the name. Cato’s confidence in his own rectitude and insight derived secret strength from the antipathy which he felt for the person and character of Caesar. 

The influence and example of Cato spurred on the nobiles and accelerated war. Helped by the power, the prestige, and the illicit armies of Pompeius Magnus (stationed already on Italian soil or now being recruited for the government and on the plea of legitimacy), a faction in the Senate worked the constitution
against Caesar. The proconsul refused to yield.”

The end result is well known:

“To the bloodless but violent usurpations of 70 and 59 B.C. the logical end was armed conflict and despotism. As the soldiers were the proletariat of Italy, the revolution became social as well as political. The remedy was simple and drastic. For the health of the Roman People the dynasts had to go. Augustus completed the purge and created the New State.”

~

The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here.

Reading The Roman Revolution II

The second chapter in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is pretty remarkable. In less than 20 pages he manages to describe the Roman political order in the final decades of the first century B.C. The chapter manages to be both dense in description and austere in its prose. It reminds me, at its best, of Miles Davis who played the right notes at the right time.

Syme summarizes (p. 11):

The political life of the Roman Republic was stamped and swayed, not by parties and programmes of a modern and parliamentary character, not by the ostensible opposition between Senate and People, Optimates and Populares, nobiles and novi homines, but by the strife for power, wealth, and glory.

This suits his method which is prosopographical. In this chapter, his understanding of the Roman state is less concerned with “constitutional” niceties, ancient precedents, abstract policies, or even in the uncoordinated play of factional rivalries as much as the pure expression of the ambition mediated by the dendritic reach of personal alliances.

This feels remarkably contemporary. 

Since Syme sees personal ambition as the driving force, his descriptions of individuals are crucial and appropriate vivid.

His description of Cicero could, with slight changes, apply to many a prominent politician of our own era: “M. Tullius Cicero, in the forefront by brilliance of oratory and industry as an advocate, pressed his candidature, championing popular causes but none that were hopeless or hostile to the interest of property and finance, and at the same time carefully soliciting the aid of young nobiles whose clientela carried many votes…”

Cato: “Upright and austere, a ferocious defender of his own class, a hard drinker and an astute politician, the authentic Cato, so far from being a visionary, claimed to be a realist of traditional Roman temper and tenacity, not inferior to the great ancestor whom he emulated almost to a parody, Cato the Censor. But it was not character and integrity only that gave Cato the primacy before consulars: he controlled a nexus of political alliances among the nobiles.”

He describes Pompey the Great in the chilling final sentence of the second chapter: “The young Pompeius, trecherous and merciless, had killed the husband of Servilia and the brother of Ahenobarbus. ‘Adulescentulus carnifex.'”

~

The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingTheRonald80. I explain the project here.
 

Reading Rendsday: Reading the Roman Revolution or Reading Ronald at 80

This year Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution turns 80 years old. I want to re-read it.

This year I teach from 2-3:15. I’m not much of an afternoon person and I tend to leave my office at around 5. So there’s this gap between when I wrap up anything to do with my class and when I feel like I can quietly shuffle out of my office. In the past, I’ve used that gap to read an article or to read some material from North Dakota Quarterly or whatever. It’s been pretty unstructured. I like to think of that hour or so as a chance to do a little slow reading that differs a bit from my research reading, editing, or my frantic preparations to teach.  

This year, I’m going to structure it a bit with a project called “Reading The Roman Revolution.” Years ago, in my youth, I fancied myself a Roman historian and took seminars on the history of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire at Ohio State. We read The Roman Revolution, as almost any student of the ancient world should, and discussed its role in shaping contemporary views of the end of the Republic and the rise of Augustus. 

Mostly, though, I was enthralled by Syme’s prose and what felt to me to be a genuine hatred of Augustus and sorrow for the end of the Republic. As he notes in his preface:

Liberty or stable government: that was the question confronting the Romans themselves, and I have tried to answer it precisely in their fashion.

The design has imposed a pessimistic and truculent tone to the almost complete exclusion of gentler emotions… Δύναμις and Τύχη are the presiding divinities.

In Chapter I, he explains that his work will follow the example of the history of C. Asinius Pollio which “has perished, save for inconsiderably fragments or supposed borrowings in subsequent historians. None the less, the example of Pollio and the abundance of historical material … may encourage the attempt to record the story of the Roman Revolution and its sequel, the Prinicpate of Caesar Augustus, in a fashion that has now become unconventional, from the Republican and Antonian side.”

Anyone vaguely aware of the political situation in the U.S. will probably understand why reading TheRoman Revolution at this moment in history might be useful. Syme, of course, wrote it in the 1930s against the backdrop of the rise Mussolini and Hitler 

There is one thing, though, I don’t want to do this alone:

First, I don’t remember enough about Roman History to evaluate the historiographic consensus on Syme’s work in the 21st century, but that would be interesting to understand.

Second, my tendency will be to read The Roman Revolution with the figures of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian looking over my shoulders and grinning at the savvy and brashness of Augustus, while quietly critiquing his unfortunate lack of “real authority.”

Finally,  want to hear how other people read this book and whether other people find Syme’s view of Augustus as useful in the 21st century.   

My plan is to read a chapter a week (with a few weeks off here and there) and blog about them. If folks want in, I’m happy to share your words on my blog, if you want. Or, if you blog or tweet using the hashtag #ReadingRomanRevolution (which I think is better than #ReadingRonald80), I can link to your pages or tweets or whatever. 

I mean, this could be fun, right, and who knows, maybe something will come out of it that we can pitch to folks at The Digital Press?