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Posted at 7:31 PM ET, 01/14/2011

Does climate change explain the Roman Empire's fall?

By Stephen Stromberg

Professional and amateur historians have offered thousands of explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire. It was barbarians. It was Christianity. It was lead poisoning. It was "decadence" (in some circles understood as "homosexuality"). How many of these factors were really causal and how many are merely the imposition of contemporary agendas on ancient events (chemicals in food, the culture wars, etc.) is always a matter of dispute.

Now a group of scientists is adding another explanation for the most over-determined event in history: climate change. Writing in the journal Science, the experts claim that Rome's Third Century Crisis -- a period of political and economic unrest that inaugurated the empire's slow decline -- coincided with "distinct drying" recorded in tree rings, which may have rendered European agriculture less productive. Not just that -- the appearance of the Plague in Western Europe correlates with a wet period, which may have provided conditions favorable for spreading the disease. So, the scientists warn, don't underestimate the possible risks associated with contemporary climate change.

Some conservative reactions have been dismissive; Weasel Zippers called the scientists' claims the "latest global warming scare tactic."

But they shouldn't be so quick.

Regardless of the grandiosity of the study's implications and the question of how applicable it is to the contemporary debate, I can't help but find this reasoning quite plausible:

Climate shifts that affected farm output were factors in "amplifying political, social and economic crises," Ulf Buentgen, of the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, told Reuters.

The general point is that climate has affected agriculture, and agriculture has affected society. Particularly in places that lacked the technology to adapt. How and how much this has interacted with other trends is something for historians to continue arguing about. I'd like to see more research with that in mind.

By Stephen Stromberg  | January 14, 2011; 7:31 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Comments

Everyone at WaPo knows that Sarah Palin caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Come on, Stromberg.

Posted by: drowningpuppies | January 14, 2011 9:55 PM | Report abuse

I thought that Bush caused the fall of the Roman Empire.

Posted by: concernedcitizen3 | January 15, 2011 12:38 AM | Report abuse

Having read the article in question one interesting point does come up.

Warmer and wetter periods where better for the Roman empire and the states of the medieval era. It was the colder drier periods that disrupted crops and where more likely result in the displacement of populations seeking food sources as was the case of the barbarian invasions.

Too be brief given the data on hand I can state that global cooling to be a scarier proposition than global warming.

Posted by: werehawk | January 15, 2011 1:19 AM | Report abuse

Interesting theory, but one which will likely result in a threat by ambitious politicians to investigate the data, emails, and liberal leanings of the authors. Next thing you know, the climate change non-believers will deny that the Romans ever existed.

Posted by: wilsonjmichael | January 15, 2011 7:02 AM | Report abuse

If you refer to your history books, you will see it's true.

Caesar ran on the original "Change" platform, encouraging the use of battery-operated chariots and the implementation of solar panels on the Coliseum .

Then, along came Brutus...

Posted by: jpmenavich | January 15, 2011 7:50 AM | Report abuse

It may not be a correlation, but there does seem to be a relationship between weather and events facing society at large in about a 150-200 year cytle.

1850--Irish Potato crises, weather deteriorating, inspiring Frankenstein. 1700. Cooler weather affects crops in France. 1350. End of Middle Age warm period, plague years. 1200. Beginning of warm period in Europe, grapes grow in England. 1050, Norman period in England, 850. Viking period in England. 600 Dark ages. Increase of dragon and other myths. 450. Fall of Roman Empire.

The Roman Severan crisis in 250 is considered the start of the cycle.

Interesting question. Does weather affect society. Yes. Does society affect weather? WHile no correlation, a relationship does appear likely.

Posted by: PALADIN7E | January 15, 2011 8:17 AM | Report abuse

Lunatics sitting in the corner, babbling -- that's how you Warmists appear to the rest of us.

Let it go. Your power grab failed. Let it go.

Posted by: happyacres | January 15, 2011 8:34 AM | Report abuse

We are between ice ages and have been in a long term natural warming trend for at least 10,000 years. Of course there are within the long term trend upwards their are shorter cooling and warming dips and peaks. For example the period from about 800-1200
A.D. was much warmer than today's word, at least in the Northern Hemisphere with settlements and agriculture on the fringes of Greenland and flouriswhing agriculture in Scananavia.
This was followed by the Little Ice Age which ended not that long ago. Thus global warming, with dips and peaks is not really news. Moreover, in geologic terms we are just emerging from the last ice age and the warming trend will continue until the onset of the next one, X ten thousands of years from now The only real question is the extent, if any, mankind may be adding to the natural warming trend. Scientists, not even the politically commited ones, know the real answer to that. However if anyone thinks that we can entirely reverse the warming trend and have a "stable", unchanging climate they are whistling in the dark. The causes of natural warming and cooling cycles are not know, only hypothesized. I wonder how much of the furor isn't caused by the Boomers solipsism.

Posted by: ronh6 | January 15, 2011 10:32 AM | Report abuse

So Germanic tribes have been replaced by droughts as the reason for Rome's demise.
Liberals will stoop to anything to add legitimacy to their whacked out ideas.

Posted by: cleancut77 | January 15, 2011 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Amazing that in this day and age, an article of such nonsense could be printed in a paper of such prowess. Moreover, cited with one single quote that comes closer to summing up bowel cycles than the content of the title. In the words of the illustrious French nobles of Monty Python, "I fart in your general direction." Perhaps you will hypothesise blindly that such farts have instigated further global warming and exacerbated the crumbling of the modern American Empire.

Posted by: TheFreeMan | January 15, 2011 12:48 PM | Report abuse

happyacres...you are a fool.

Posted by: mrtimmaulden | January 15, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

climate changes throughout history have correlated with many cultural changes. empires have risen and collapsed and changing patterns.

the "little ice age" in europe from (am going from memory)-- a period of colder temperatures from about 1500 to 1800 is thought to have reinvigorated the more northern cultures (the netherlands, england)and began a shift of cultural advancement from the mediterranean area.

i'm very confused by people who, because of political beliefs, simply dismiss any and all climate change research. science is not liberal or conservative -- even though there are liberal and conservative scientists.

those of you who take the newest drugs for whatever ails you depend upon scientific methodology and rigorous checking of data to make sure those drugs a)are safe, and b) actually work. yet, when a major drug gets pulled from the market because even more research has shown it to be either unsafe or ineffective, i don't see people writing that drugs don't work -- or only liberal (or conservative) scientists would have produced such a result in the first place

the same scientific methodology is used to study climate change as is used to develop new medicines, or to further any scientific endeavor. one must have a testable hypothesis, reams of carefully collected data, and a result that is statistically significant. the journal science does not accept papers that are willy nilly put together. the data must be strong and strenuous.

if some other group of scientists looks at the data and sees a different pattern, or result, and their results are very strong, then this too will be published. as will another study backing the original, if the data are strong.

this is part of the scientific dialogue. it is how we move forward, and get a better understanding about anything that is open to scientific investigation.

a little scientific literacy -- how the scientific process even works -- would go a long way towards improving the chances of this country into staying at the top in the 21st c.

Posted by: shellinelson1 | January 15, 2011 1:45 PM | Report abuse

I;ll stick to the lead in the pencil story behind the bloodthirty cirque de ole but our paranoia of a mad hatters tea party in Alice's washingtonland is not as easily explained. Wars of offense touted as defense...

Posted by: Wildthing1 | January 15, 2011 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I'll stick to the lead in the pencil story behind the bloodthirty cirque de olslaye but our paranoia of a mad hatters tea party in Alice's washingtonland is not as easily explained. Wars of offense touted as defense... spending ourselves silly on defense then go on the offense... mountains of money for intelligence and then throw it all away...and pretend we don't have any..

Posted by: Wildthing1 | January 15, 2011 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Happyacres, given that the people who are concerned about global warming have all the science and the evidence on their side while their critics cannot point to a single peer reviewed study that would support their case, doesn't it strike you as arrogant to refer to your opponents as "lunatic?"

Every time we embrace a falsehood, it compromises our ability to understand the universe.

Posted by: Hellmut | January 15, 2011 2:43 PM | Report abuse

As an engineer who has studied control systems and paid attention to the climate debate (I am neutral on this), I can see how climate cycles continually occur on various scales. It is not hard to see how such events could contribute to redistribute power geographically, whether it be due to temperature or precipitation. Much more information remains to be discovered to reach definitive conclusions.

For those who wonder how climate cycles occur, it is obvious to me that the Earth has built in negative feedback systems which have managed to stabilize conditions enough so that life continues to flourish, which is amazing. One way this feedback operates is by regulating greenhouse gases. When CO2 is high, the increased warmth increases photosynthesis, which sequesters CO2, driving down temperatures. When temperatures are low due to sequestered CO2, decomposition slowly releases CO2 and methane back into the atmosphere to warm the planet again. By the way, methane is naturally converted to CO2 and water vapor.

It makes sense to me that human activity is helping to increase CO2. While this appears to be impacting global temperatures, it remains unknown exactly what impact this will ultimately have. I don't think we have developed our knowledge and climate models to the point of accurately predicting climate and future outcomes. I do think we are experiencing change already, but it is entirely possible that the effect could be positive in terms of increased crop production and forestalling the next ice age. An ice age, it seems to me, might be even more catastrophic than the disruption caused by warming.

My main concern is that the debate is highly politicized, with people shouting on both sides who don't know what they are talking about. We need a scientific process that is not tied to politics and special interests, but this can only occur in a rational setting. The solution is further study, along with more rational politics. We the people must begin selecting more intelligent, independent, rational, thoughtful leaders. This requires we the people to become more informed and active in politics. Maybe that is already beginning to occur as the natural result of yet one more feedback process, as we ascertain with disgust the current political climate of divisiveness and short sighted greed.

Posted by: mikeyjay | January 15, 2011 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Augustus tried to warn of the consequences of those carbon belching chariots. He was the Al Gore of his time.

Posted by: alexandria6351 | January 15, 2011 3:34 PM | Report abuse

We have always had climate change. In the early middle ages England was as warm as Central California and was known for its vinyards. We may or may not be in a warming cycle know and what no one can prove is that it is man made. One good volcanic eruption can spew more pollution into the atmospher than 100 years of human development.

Posted by: jkk1943 | January 15, 2011 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Yup yup it’s the boomers fault!

Let’s see, starting … Hummm … around 1000 AD humans started extracting carbon from the earth to burn along with wood. Oil and gas were discovered and both were burnable, true some carbon was reabsorbed by plants but that has been negated by rapid destruction of forests within the last 100-200 years.
So yes … it’s the boomers fault.

Posted by: knjincvc | January 15, 2011 7:47 PM | Report abuse

Drought or excess rain are God's promise for those who reject His ways. (Leviticus 26) The Roman Empire fell for the same reason the US and other nations are falling. Our ways are against God's commandments and warnings against debt, interest, insurance (surety), seeking riches and honors, pride and vanity.

To avoid becoming the next Roman Empire we can back out of our stressful, oppressive, unfair and enslaving employment lifestyle and create a garden paradise lifestyle by choosing trees, plants and pets that provide fresh food around us. It is the only sustainable lifestyle. It solves our world problems with that one strategy.

Posted by: MarieDevine | January 15, 2011 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps if the Romans had focused on green jobs, erected windmills, and halved their economy by suspending the use of fossil fuels (SARCASM)it would have helped. Seriously, the climate changes. Life goeth where it listeth. www.granitesentry.com

Posted by: granitesentry | January 15, 2011 8:59 PM | Report abuse

Taxes sank the Romans.

In the end they welcomed their enemies.

Posted by: RavenGodiva | January 16, 2011 5:39 AM | Report abuse

I can't stop laughing. Stromberg should consider doing stand-up.

Posted by: reggerman1 | January 16, 2011 11:02 AM | Report abuse

The fall of the Roman Empire was a direct result of the decree by Glutius Maximus that homosexuals (then called what is literally translated as shemen) not be thrown to the lions anymore and, instead, be openly enlisted into the Roman army.

It was later discovered that Glutius Maximus and his inner circle were shemen and Gluty wanted to have his pick of the best, young soldiers for his frequent orgies.

The rest is history as the Roman army became mostly homosexual and more interested in bath houses, orgies, fine food, and luxury. Nero really did fiddle and diddle while the thing burned down.

Anyhow, malaria, sexually transmitted diseases, and laziness did 'em in.

The barbarians were the straight warriors from without that walked in and took over.

The Roman women welcomed the barbarian warriors because the Roman women hadn't seen any real men in a long time.

That's the real story.

Posted by: battleground51 | January 16, 2011 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Yonkers, New York
17 January 2011

Edward Gibbon's monumental "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" is the definitive Magnum Opus on the causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire.

These causes could be boiled down to two major ones: 1) Over-extension of the reach of Empire; and 2) Internal corruption and decay.

Climate change had nothing to do with it. There is not one line in Gibbon's diagnosis which mentions "climage change."

Mariao Patalinjug

Posted by: MPatalinjug | January 17, 2011 6:52 AM | Report abuse

Not sure what caused the Holy Roman Empire to fall apart. I do know the Brits lost theirs, to WW2, and Roosevelt not signing on to regain it. I do know our empire has been brought down, by a handful of US Banks. And the Ironic part is now even fewer of them are running the show.

Posted by: dangreen3 | January 17, 2011 10:50 AM | Report abuse

If only the Roman's had cut down on thier greenhouse emissions their downfall could have been averted.

Posted by: BradG | January 17, 2011 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Nothing new... and it wasn’t Roman-induced.

Dark Ages Triggered by 535AD Krakatoa eruption
http://www.ees1.lanl.gov/Wohletz/Krakatau.htm

PBS did a Secrets of the Dead piece on this years ago.
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/html/e1-about.html

/blame Gaia 1st

Posted by: KaddafiDelendaEst | January 17, 2011 11:29 AM | Report abuse

It makes sense to me. These results appear to correlate quite well with the ice core measurements of CO2 and other greenhouse gases for the time period.

Even more striking is the reduction in CO2 in ice cores immediately after the Justinian plague where the Eastern Roman Empire last approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of its population. There were also reductions in ice core CO2 amounts following the crisis of 3rd century that corresponded with the reduction in the population of the Roman Empire during this time period.

So yes Büntgen et al.'s conclusions appear to be very solid, as confirmed by multiple different types of data.

Posted by: larryclyons | January 17, 2011 11:35 AM | Report abuse

"those of you who take the newest drugs for whatever ails you depend upon scientific methodology and rigorous checking of data to make sure those drugs a)are safe, and b) actually work. yet, when a major drug gets pulled from the market because even more research has shown it to be either unsafe or ineffective, i don't see people writing that drugs don't work -- or only liberal (or conservative) scientists would have produced such a result in the first place

the same scientific methodology is used to study climate change as is used to develop new medicines, or to further any scientific endeavor. one must have a testable hypothesis, reams of carefully collected data, and a result that is statistically significant. the journal science does not accept papers that are willy nilly put together. the data must be strong and strenuous. "
Posted by: shellinelson1 | January 15, 2011 1:45 PM
__________________________________________

I hereby ban you from this and other discussion threads on the WaPo website. You are far too rational for these conversations. :D

Posted by: Patzer111 | January 17, 2011 12:44 PM | Report abuse

The Roman empire fell because the communication lines were overextended.

If they had had telephones, it would have been a far different story. Perhaps even sadder than it already is.

As for global warming, I don't care what caused it, but we have to do something to alleviate it.

To say that the Earth has been warmer is quite true; to say that humans were on it at the time is not the same story.

We couldn't survive at the temperatures of the Carboniferous period, which is where/when all of the fossil fuels that we are releasing came from. All of them.

Now, think about that.

Posted by: taroya | January 17, 2011 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Obviously, human-produced carbon emissions did not cause global warming during the Roman empire. While the experience of the Romans may suggest that climate change can be sociologically traumatic (as if we didn't know that), it undermines the case for anthropogenic global warming, since dramatic climate change can occur without industrial-age carbon emissions.

Posted by: chazmull | January 17, 2011 7:26 PM | Report abuse

The elephant in the room here is that the climate is ALWAYS changing. Hotter, colder, hotter, colder. You get the drift. I think that is why this whole Climate Change™ thing is getting so tedious.

If you examine the numbers: How much C02 that man releases into the atmosphere compared the the entire size of the atmosphere, man caused GW makes little sense. Ad in that CO2 is a lagging indicator (not a leading like Al baby says), AGW makes no sense at all. BUT the AGW guys have a mortgage, car payments and tuition for the kiddies just like everybody else. Viola, reports like this persist.

Posted by: Oscarphone1 | January 17, 2011 8:00 PM | Report abuse

How about "Rome Fell because it wasn't that great to begin with"? It lived, it had it's time to prosper, and then it died as all things do. Wouldn't it be terrible if Rome was around today?

Think of all the awful laws we no longer enforce because they're absurd, silly, or a waste of time. Think of all the crippling bureaucratic nonsense we've created stacking new systems on top of old. Now multiply that by 10 and perhaps more, and that would be Rome today.

It'd be terrible. I'm glad Rome fell, just like I'm glad that Caligula isn't alive to vote today.

Posted by: DmetriKepi | January 18, 2011 3:25 AM | Report abuse

This is not totally new news. The idea of a Roman Warm Period similar to the Medieval Warm Period has been in the literature for years. The NAS global temperature report mentioned it but punted on it due to insufficient data at the time. While most pundits and activists trumpet the NAS findings of warming in the 20th century they neglect the fact that it also dumped on the Mann hockey stick and did discuss long term cyclical trends.

While a lot of folks find it easy to divide the world into global warming believers and non-believers, there is a large third group. There are a lot of folks, including a whole lot of technical people and scientists, who do not doubt that the earth is experiencing a warming trend or high temperature period in a warm/cool cycle. However, the cause of this warming may be part of a natural cycle, ie every 1000 years or so, or a natural cycle possibly augmented this time around to some extent by human activity.

The dirty secret of the whole anthropogenic global warming drumbeat is the ratty quality of what little hard data there is, the fact that the computer models are by no means the last word and that the consensus really isn't there.

Posted by: redink3d | January 18, 2011 6:31 AM | Report abuse

If only the electric chariot had made it out of development.

Posted by: flyover22 | January 18, 2011 6:51 AM | Report abuse

Seriously, the fall of Rome was not from climate change. It came from a fundamental policy change to stop increasing the wealth of the empire and instead spend all it's current and future wealth on the citizens of Rome.

Posted by: flyover22 | January 18, 2011 7:38 AM | Report abuse

Any Latin student knows that one unusual faction in the Roman social scene was the "vomitorium"- a room a guest could retire to to purge themselves before returning to the social whirl- I have always wondered if the fall was partially the fault of mass dyslexia.

Posted by: nouveauus | January 18, 2011 7:44 AM | Report abuse

sorry- meant bulimia, not dyslexia-shouldn't post first thing in the am.

Posted by: nouveauus | January 18, 2011 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Wikipedia Medieval Demography:
This article discusses human demography in Europe during the Middle Ages, including population trends and movements. Demographic changes helped to shape and define the Middle Ages. Population trends in Europe during the Middle Ages can be roughly categorized:

* 150–400: population decline
* 400–1000: stable at a low level.
* 1000–1250: population boom and expansion.
* 1250–1350: stable at a high level (with the exception of the Great Famine)
* 1350–1420: steep decline
* 1420–1470: stable at a low level.
* 1470–onward: slow expansion, gaining momentum in the early 16th century.

Compare that to the temperature record of a European cooling from 100ad to 700ad before the medieval warm period started.

It was also the period of migrations of tribes in Europe. Why did they move of they didn't need to expand to handle increased population?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Migration_Period

Posted by: minstrelmike | January 18, 2011 9:53 AM | Report abuse

It's a provocative idea that's difficult to prove but worth considering. I'm bothered to see so many rancid, over-the-top comments dismissing it. Tone down the anger and think, people!

Posted by: Howeman | January 18, 2011 10:32 AM | Report abuse

It's a provocative idea that's difficult to prove but worth considering. I'm bothered to see so many rancid, over-the-top comments dismissing it. Tone down the anger and think, people!

Posted by: Howeman | January 18, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse


The lesson: don't build Roman coal-fired electric generating plants.

Posted by: happyacres | January 18, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Why single out Rome? Every empire in history has fallen. They can't all be climate related.
Maybe its just a human thing; we try to control a larger and larger area, until we run out of resources to control effectively, and then the cycle reverses. Typically, the core is pretty rotten by that time, being dependent on the periphery to thrive, so there is little left that can be preserved.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | January 18, 2011 3:38 PM | Report abuse

This proves that the Romans were driving SUVs, burning fossil fuels, and changing the climate!

Posted by: DirtFarmer1 | January 18, 2011 11:21 PM | Report abuse

Howeman says:
"It's a provocative idea that's difficult to prove but worth considering. I'm bothered to see so many rancid, over-the-top comments dismissing it. Tone down the anger and think, people!"

I certainly endorse both of Howeman's comments. My physician frequently insists my medication will only be beneficial provided I keep my anger in check and refrain from provocative and irrational behavior. God knows I try, but I fear I'm losing it... We should be all grateful for articles like this that tell it just as it is, or should be.

Posted by: Shibui | January 21, 2011 9:25 AM | Report abuse

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