"Life was slow, organic, fragile, and constrained. Time marched to the dull rhythms of foot and hoof. Waterways were the real circulatory system of the empire, but in the cold and stormy season the seas closed, and every town became an island. Energy was forbiddingly scarce. Human and animal muscle for force, timber and scrub for fuel. Life was lived close to the land. Eight in ten people lived outside of cities... Survival depended on the delivery of rain in a precarious environment. For the vast majority, cereals dominated the diet. "Give us this day our daily bread" was a sincere petition. Death always loomed. Life expectancy at birth was in the 20s, probably the mid-20s, in a world where infectious disease raged promiscuously..."
"Population growth was the unintended outcome of countless, razor-thin changes in the narrow margins between life and death... Mortality was blindingly high... Even by the low standards of all underdeveloped societies, the actuarial tables of the roman world were grim. Average life expectancy at birth fell somewhere between twenty and thirty years. The blunt force of infectious disease was, by far, the overwhelming determinant... the obligatory response is high fertility. The burden of fertility fell heavily on the bodies of women... Roman law allowed girls to be married starting at age twelve. Most women married in their mid-teens... Women who bore sufficient numbers of children were granted robust legal privileges. Contraception was primitive, at best... The woman surviving to menopause bore something like six children, on average...""... possibility that the Romans had a modest role in accelerating climate change. Orbital, solar, and volcanic forcing are unmoved by human affairs, and the Romans did not pollute the atmosphere sufficiently to trigger climate change. But the Romans did fell forests in massive swaths. Woodland was cleared for agriculture.. and consumed huge forests for fire and fuel... Hadrian was concerned enough about the dwindling supply of long timber to claim certain Syrian forests as imperial property and exert control over their exploitation.""By its nature, Roman civilization seemed to unlock the pestilential potential of the landscape. The expansion of agriculture brought civilization deeper into habitats friendly to the mosquito. Deforestation facilitated the pooling of water... Roman roads... cut directly through the malarial Pontine marshes.. Urban gardens and waterworks brought mosquitoes and humans into unbearably close quarters... The roman Empire was an unintended experiment in mosquito breeding.""The effects of malaria include severe malnutrition, leaving its victims vulnerable to other infections...Malaria clears the path for vitamin-deficiency disorders like rickets, and can increase susceptibility to respiratory infections such as tuberculosis... But it could always kill quickly, too, and it is probable that immigrants were particularly vulnerable... If the Roman Climate Optimum was indeed an especially wet period, it was a boon for the mosquitoes and the parasites they ferried... Malaria was endemic in Rome and other core regions..."
"A fuller picture is likely to emerge as more genomic data is recovered from archaeological samples. At present, one hypothesis is that Variola evolved from a rodent orthopoxvirus to become an obligate human pathogen, in Africa, sometime before the Antonine Plague. The biologcal agent of the second-century pestilence could represent an especially virulent lineage of Variola that went extinct, or an ancestral form of the virus that evolved into a milder medieval form of smallpox. And it still could have been caused by some other biological agent altogether, although there are no serious candidates at present."
"The geographic scope of the pestilence was vast. 'There was almost no province of Rome, no city, no house, which was not attacked and emptied by this general pestilence.' It hit the largest cities like Alexandria Antioch, Rome, and Carthage, but also remote urban areas. It was an "empire-wide event."
"By design, the Roman frontier system was defensible, not impenetrable. But almost simultaneously, in the early AD 250s, the defensive network imploded along all of the main fronts. 'The Alemanni, having devastated the Gauls, penetrated into Italy... Greece, Macedonia, Pontus, and Asia were destroyed by Goths. Pannonia was plundered by Sarmatians and Quadi. Germans advanced all the way to the Spains.'"
"To own a slave was a standard of minimum respectability. In the fourth century, priests doctors, painters, prostitutes, petty military officers, actors, inn-keepers, and fig-sellers are found owning slaves. Many slaves owned slaves. Even assistant professors in Antioch had a few slaves."
"The top senatorial families of late antiquity owned stupendous wealth... each of the great senatorial houses in Rome was like a city in its own right... incomes the equivalent of something like the production of 80,000 family farms, per year."
"The last two decades from ca AD 350 to 370 were the worst multidecadal drought event of the last two millennia. The nomads who called central Asia home suddenly faced a crisis as dramatic as the Dust Bowl. The Huns were armed climate refugees on horseback. Their mode of life enabled them to search out new pastures with amazing speed.... By AD 370, Huns had started to cross the Volga River. The advent of these people on the western steppe was momentous."
"'Against the stone of sickness they stumbled and the steeds fell... He who was skillful in shooting with the bow, sickness of the bowels overthrew him...' What actually repulsed the invaders was seen, from one perspective, as "heaven-sent disasters: famine and some kind of disease." The retreat was in fact the predictable biological consequence of intruders colliding with the indigenous disease ecology. The heartland of empire was a gauntlet of germs. The unsung savior of Italy in this affair was perhaps even malaria."After the Huns retreated in the fifth century, the Roman empire was in ruins. The western Roman army "ceased to exist as a state institution." By AD 476 there was no Roman emperor in the west. The cities shriveled. Money was scarce. The churches found themselves the wealthiest landowners and institutions.
Granaries were everywhere in the later Roman world. the stockpiling of grain was deeply rooted in the Mediterranean psyche. In the empire, the vast network of cities, ships, and stores of grain created an ecosystem. This ecosystem served as an invitation for a species uncannily evolved to be commensal - literally, to "share a table" - with us: Rattus rattus, the black or ship rat...The fusion of global trade and rodent infestation was the ecological precondition for the greatest disease event human civilization had ever experienced: the first pandemic of plague... In 541 plague appeared on the shores of Egypt..." [presumably having come from the Indian subcontinent via the trade routes along the Red Sea]
It required one last twist of fate for the bacterium to make its grand entrance into the roman world. The Asia uplands had prepared a monster iin the germ Yersinia pestis. The ecology of the empire had built an infrastructure awaiting a pandemic. The silk trade was ready to ferry the deadly package. But the final conjunction, what finally let the spark jump, was abrupt climate change. The year AD 536 is known as a "Year without Summer." It was the terrifying first spasm in what is now known to be a cluster of volcanic explosions unmatched in the last three thousand years. Again in AD 540-541 there was a gripping volcanic winter... the AD 530s and 540s were not just frosty. They were the coldest decades in the late Holocene. The reign of Justinian was beset by an epic, once-in-a-few-millennia cold snap, global in extent."
"AD 536 was the coldest year of the last two millennia. Average summer temperatures in Europe fell instantly by up to 2.5 degrees, a truly staggering drop. In the aftermath of the volcanic eruption in AD 539-40, temperatures plunged worldwide. In Europe, average summer temperatures fell again by up to 2.7 degrees."
"Most towns suffered a fate somewhere between hollowing out and utter annihilation. Rome is only the most famous and dramatic instance of the urban death spiral. Procopius claimed that by AD 547 there were only 500 people in the city: the number may not be entirely credible, but the point is made.
I'll end this mega-post here, with the observation that not only is the book interesting because of the factual material, but it is also extremely well-written from a language and stylistic standpoint. This author knows how to tell a story. I'll write a separate post to list the new words I learned while reading the book.
p.s. - I'm not back to blogging regularly yet. Just had to finish this post so I can return the book to the library.