29 August 2022


I had vague hopes that this might be the tallest one in the history of the world, but such was not to be.  This stately fellow sprang up in a seldom-used corner of our back yard earlier this year.  We have previously had mullein appear in untended areas, and since we try to maintain a herbicide-free pollinator-friendly yard and garden, we have just watched them grow.  Earlier ones had topped out at about 6 feet in height; this one is almost 8 feet high this morning.  Herewith some interesting tidbits about the species:
Verbascum thapsus, the great mullein, greater mullein or common mullein is a species of mullein native to Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, and introduced in the Americas and Australia.

It is a hairy biennial plant that can grow to 2 m tall or more. Its small, yellow flowers are densely grouped on a tall stem, which grows from a large rosette of leaves. It grows in a wide variety of habitats, but prefers well-lit, disturbed soils, where it can appear soon after the ground receives light, from long-lived seeds that persist in the soil seed bank. It is a common weedy plant that spreads by prolifically producing seeds, and has become invasive in temperate world regions. It is a minor problem for most agricultural crops, since it is not a competitive species, being intolerant of shade from other plants and unable to survive tilling. It also hosts many insects, some of which can be harmful to other plants. Although individuals are easy to remove by hand, populations are difficult to eliminate permanently...

In the 19th century, it had well over 40 different common names in English alone. Some of the more whimsical ones included "hig candlewick", "Indian rag weed", "bullicks lungwort", "Adams-rod", "hare's-beard", and "ice-leaf". Vernacular names include innumerable references to the plant's hairiness: "woolly mullein", "velvet mullein", or "blanket mullein", "beggar's blanket", "Moses' blanket", "poor man's blanket", "Our Lady's blanket", or "old man's blanket", and "feltwort", and so on ("flannel" is another common generic name). "Mullein" itself derives from the French word for "soft". Some names refer to the plant's size and shape: "shepherd's club(s)" or "staff", "Aaron's rod" (a name it shares with a number of other plants with tall, yellow inflorescences), and a plethora of other "X's staff" and "X's rod". The name "velvet dock" or "mullein dock" is also recorded, where "dock" is a British name applied to any broad-leaved plant...

A given flower is open only for a single day, opening before dawn and closing in the afternoon. Flowers are self-fecundating and protogynous (with female parts maturing first), and will self-pollinate if they have not been pollinated by insects during the day. While many insects visit the flowers, only some bees actually accomplish pollination...

The seeds maintain their germinative powers for decades, up to 100 years, according to some studies. Because of this, and because the plant is an extremely prolific seed bearer (each plant produces hundreds of capsules, each containing up to 700 seeds, with a total up to 180,000 or 240,000 seeds), it remains in the soil seed bank for extended periods of time, and can sprout from apparently bare ground, or shortly after forest fires long after previous plants have died...

Roman soldiers are said to have dipped the plant stalks in grease for use as torches. Other cultures use the leaves as wicks. Native Americans and American colonists lined their shoes with leaves from the plant to keep out the cold... The seeds contain several compounds (saponins, glycosides, coumarin, rotenone) that are toxic to fish, and have been widely used as piscicide for fishing.
This was a serendipitous growth in our garden, but we were delighted one afternoon to see a local downy woodpecker emerge from the woods, and land on the raceme.  It then proceeded to work its way downward, pecking as it went, then shifted sideways and proceeded back up the raceme, retrieving either seeds or insects as it went along.

President Roosevelt's polio legs

His bare legs are briefly visible in a video embedded in the Washington Post today.  The atrophy of the quads is quite evident to the experienced eye.  The video is a compilation of clips from home movies that were not released for public viewing; the press at the time shared a gentlemen's agreement not to photograph or film evidence of his impairment, which is why he is seldom depicted standing (and rarely walking).  More at Wikipedia.


Yes, it's a neologism.  Etymology and subclassifications briefly explained at Neatorama, with links for deeper diving.

28 August 2022

Don't drink the feculent water at a splash pad

Abstract from a report by the CDC:
In June 2021, Kansas state and county public health officials identified and investigated three cases of shigellosis (a bacterial diarrheal illness caused by Shigella spp.) associated with visiting a wildlife park. The park has animal exhibits and a splash pad. Two affected persons visited animal exhibits, and all three entered the splash pad. Nonhuman primates are the only known animal reservoir of Shigella. The splash pad, which sprays water on users and is designed so that water does not collect in the user area, was closed on June 19. The state and county public health codes do not include regulations for splash pads. Thus, these venues are not typically inspected, and environmental health expertise is limited. A case-control study identified two distinct outbreaks associated with the park (a shigellosis outbreak involving 21 cases and a subsequent norovirus infection outbreak involving six cases). Shigella and norovirus can be transmitted by contaminated water; in both outbreaks, illness was associated with getting splash pad water in the mouth (multiply imputed adjusted odds ratio [aORMI] = 6.4, p = 0.036; and 28.6, p = 0.006, respectively). Maintaining adequate water disinfection and environmental health expertise and targeting prevention efforts to caregivers of splash pad users help prevent splash pad–associated outbreaks. Outbreak incidence might be further reduced when U.S. jurisdicitons voluntarily adopt CDC’s Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) recommendations and through the prevention messages: “Don’t get in the water if sick with diarrhea,” “Don’t stand or sit above the jets,” and “Don’t swallow the water.”
Image credit Getty, via Ars Technica, where there is additional information

Salt crystallizing out of Play-Doh

Found at Reddit, where the discussion thread focuses on memories of eating Play-Doh as a child.

Librarian hero

Excerpts from a report at NBC News:
A Louisiana school librarian is suing two men for defamation after they accused her of advocating to keep "pornographic" materials in the parish library's kids' section. It's a rare example of an educator taking legal action against conservatives who use extreme rhetoric in their battle against LGBTQ-themed books.

Amanda Jones, a librarian at a middle school in Denham Springs, Louisiana, filed a defamation lawsuit Wednesday, arguing that Facebook pages run by Michael Lunsford and Ryan Thames falsely labeled her a pedophile who wants to teach 11-year-olds about anal sex.

Jones, the president of the Louisiana Association of School Librarians, was alarmed and outraged by the verbal attacks, which came after she spoke against censorship at a Livingston Parish Library Board of Control meeting. She said she’s suing the two men because she’s exhausted with the insults hurled at educators and librarians over LGBTQ materials...

Three days after the meeting, Citizens for a New Louisiana posted Jones’ picture on Facebook and asked, “Why is she fighting so hard to keep sexually erotic and pornographic materials in the kid’s section?” Lunsford also submitted records requests to Jones’ school, demanding access to her personnel file and her emails and said he planned to visit her workplace...

People commented on some of the [Facebook] posts with calls that she be physically assaulted, and they circulated where she worked...

But she felt compelled to fight back, she said, because she’s well-known in the library world and  if she didn’t speak out, other targeted librarians would not either.

“If this takes four or five years, I’m going to fight these people on this,” she said. “Even if I lose, I could say I stood up to them.”

Severed foot in the Garden of Earthly Delights - updated many times

It has been almost two years since I've been able to add any material to the 29 posts in TYWKIWDBI's category of severed feet.   So, a tip of my blogging cap to Miss Cellania at Neatorama, who found one in Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

A quick search led me to a claim that "the severed foot is one of the most repeated in the Bosch's panel paintings, appearing in several works, as in the Garden of Delights and in the central panel of the Temptation of St Anthony triptych in Lisbon." Although this is offered as support for the premise that Bosch was depicting sequelae of ergot poisoning, the one pictured above appears to me to be traumatically severed, not withered by occlusive vasculitis.

And speaking of severed feet, by an improbable coincidence, the Washington Post is reporting this week that severed feet continue to wash ashore in the Pacific Northwest.  Those were the odd events that prompted me to create this category for TYWKIWDBI back in 2008.
Sixteen of these detached human feet have been found since 2007 in British Columbia, Canada, and Washington state. Most of these have been right feet. All of them have worn running shoes or hiking boots. Among them: three New Balances, two Nikes and an Ozark Trail.

The most recent one turned up earlier this week.
More information and a video at the link, but no explanation for the phenomenon.

Reposted from 2016 to provide some addenda:
I continue to encounter the odd report of severed feet (and longtime readers occasionally send me links of such incidents).  Rather than put new reports on the front page of the blog, I'm going to convert this post into a linkdump.

Via Nothing to do with Arbroath:
"Three severed human feet found in and around a park are likely to have been educational medical exhibits or from a private collection, an investigation has concluded. The first foot was found by dog walkers in Weston Park East Bath, Somerset, in February. A second was discovered in the garden of a property in Weston Park in July and a third in a garden in nearby Cranwells Park a month later. Avon and Somerset Police said they found no evidence of foul play..."
 A website that sells severed animal feet (dried, salted, or preserved in alcohol).

Severed feet as a theme for Cake Wrecks.

At Rio's 2016 summer Olympics: "A beach goer Wednesday discovered human body parts that had washed up on the shore, right in front of the Olympic Beach Volleyball Arena on Rio's famed Copacabana beach. A dismembered foot and another body part still unidentified was found..."

"The freelance journalist told the Bath Chronicle: "It was just like CSI. There were a few of us out walking our dogs and then a lady came running over to find us and said there's a foot in the hedge."

"The Sonoma County coroner's office is investigating a foot in a shoe that washed ashore at Doran Regional Park south of Bodega Bay" (Feb 2017)

"After a shoe with a human foot inside turned up on a dock in Charleston, South Carolina, investigators are trying to figure out whose it was and how it got there." (May 2017)

A severed foot in a tennis shoe was discovered in a county park in St. Louis, Missouri.  The park was adjacent to the Mississippi River, so it could have come from an aquatic incident.

A tip of the blogging cap to long-time readers Phil and Bub, who remembered this series of posts and sent me a link about yet another foot washing ashore in Canada (13 since 2007...).  This one was remarkable for having the tibia and fibula still attached (photo at right).

I was pleased to see in Neatorama today a link to a Wikipedia page that provides comprehensive coverage of this topic (at least as it relates to the Pacific Northwest).


Another update from British Columbia after the discovery of a fourteenth severed foot.

A 2019 report of a fifteenth severed foot from the Pacific Northwest, with a reasonably concise and comprehensive summary of all the available evidence from past reports.

Reposted in 2022 to add a note about the discovery of a severed foot (in a shoe) floating in a hot spring at Yellowstone National Park.

Freshwater jellyfish at Leech Lake in northern Minnesota

I've been visiting Leech Lake for over 60 years and have never seen (or known about) this phenomenon. Posted for all my friends up there.

More information at Minnesota Public Radio News.


27 August 2022


Image via the nocontextpics subreddit.  The six legs are explained at the 2-minute mark of this video.


Posted because of the clever name, this is one of 38 new foods premiering at the Minnesota State Fair this week.  Others include cake-on-a-stick, a cotton-candy float, deep-fried ice cream, and a dill pickle pizza.  

Photos and brief info at the StarTribune.  I'll include more images in an upcoming linkfest.

Problems for Italy and the euro

Excerpts from a Bloomberg article:
Italy is back in crisis, unsurprisingly.

The political cycle that started with a populist earthquake in 2018, bringing together fringe forces of the left and right in an unusual coalition, has ended the same way it started — with a bitter shock to the system and market turbulence over the future of Italy. Along the way, it has fueled the rise of the far-right Brothers of Italy and the fall of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who was ultimately unable to escape the machinations of Rome. It seems no one, not even the man credited with saving the euro, gets a clean exit from government, no matter how applauded or internationally revered they happen to be. Because in Italy, politics is personal...

There is no denying that the legislature about to end has been beset by constant infighting, backstabbing and personal machinations of the same people that promised to put the nation’s interest before party politics in 2018. The past four years have seen huge ideological swings, enough to anger and confuse Italian voters at each turn... 

Meanwhile, the ECB has shown its willingness and ability to act vigorously to protect the single currency. For all its faults, Italy, a founding member of the euro and the bloc’s third-largest economy, will remain a key part of the monetary puzzle Frankfurt has to work with.
And this from John Authers:
But the critical problem for the euro is that its viability is once again in doubt. Ten years ago, it was the ECB that effectively ended the sovereign debt crisis as then-chief Mario Draghi promised to do “whatever it takes” to rescue the euro. This time, the problem is more focused, but unfortunately it’s focused on Italy, the eurozone's third-largest economy. And the market is still not convinced that the ECB can do what is needed to keep Italy in the eurozone...

There is one critical difference with the first eurozone sovereign debt crisis. That one was truly existential and revolved around a group of countries on the area’s periphery known as the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain), sometimes joined by Cyprus. This time, it’s about Italy...

The pressure on the euro owes much to the awful coincidence that Draghi chose this of all times to depart as Italian prime minister. Markets were naturally more comfortable with a technocrat like him heading the government. More seriously, the current favorite to take the job next is Giorgia Meloni. She leads a party called the Brothers of Italy, which is directly descended from Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement... And whoever gets the job faces intractable economic problems, from low growth to an aging population.

16: Moments

A video presentation from Radiolab.  I recommend immersing yourself via the fullscreen button.  Reposted from 2015.

"The Stars My Destination"

"He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. Then he lifted his mute face to Eternity and muttered: `What's a matter, me? Help, you Heels. Help, is all.'

Blasphemy came easily to him; it was half his speech, all his life. He had been raised in the gutter school of the twenty-fourth century and spoke nothing but the gutter tongue. Of all brutes in the world he was least valuable alive and most likely to live...

He was Gulliver Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class, thirty years old, big boned and rough.. . and one hundred and seventy days adrift in space. He was Gully Foyle, the oiler, wiper, bunkerman; too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love. The lethargic outlines of his character even showed in the official Merchant Marine records... 
Education: none.  Skills: none.  Merits: none...
"A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition. Energizes at minimum. The stereotype Common Man. Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key. Do not recommend for further promotion. Foyle has reached a dead end."
The spaceship Nomad drifted half-way between Mars and Jupiter. Whatever war catastrophe had wrecked it had taken a sleek steel rocket, one hundred yards long and one hundred feet broad, and mangled it into a skeleton on which was mounted the remains of cabins, holds, decks and bulkheads. Great rents in the hull were blazes of light on the sunside and frosty blotches of stars on the darkside. The S.S. Nomad was a weightless emptiness of blinding sun and jet shadow, frozen and silent...

He lived in the only air-tight room left intact in the wreck, a tool locker of the main-deck corridor. The locker was four feet wide, four feet deep and nine feet high. It was the size of a giant's coffin. Six hundred years before, it had been judged the most exquisite Oriental torture to imprison a man in a cage that size for a few weeks. Yet Foyle had existed in that lightless cage for five months, twenty days and four hours."
A memorable excerpt from The Stars My Destination (Tiger Tiger in the U.K.) by Alfred Bester, a work generally regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.  I first encountered it as a teenager in the 1960s, reread it as an adult, and then set it aside for a final read in the"future" (which arrived this past week).  

It amazes me that this book has not been made into a major motion picture (or better yet a prolonged miniseries).  I do have one suggestion for the scriptwriters who adapt the 1956 text into a screenplay:  when you describe the 24th-century megacorporations that dominate human commerce on multiple planets and moons, choose ones other than Kodak and Montgomery Ward...


Viral (source unknown)

"Hard-time party"

Excerpts from an entry by Beulah (Deibel) Hendricks in a book celebrating the centennial of the city of Walker, Minnesota:
"My parents Wilbert and Julia May Deibel purchased the farm where I still live in the fall of 1922.  The home was a two-story log house with a very small parcel of open land.  The area had been logged off so there was lots of brush and only a fe trees... The Jack Rodekuhr family still occupied our house, so we stayed at the Patrick Henry Hotel.  I had never seen a flush toilet before and my mother had a difficult time trying to keep me from pulling the chain just to see how it worked.

My father farmed with horses and we never owned a car  We walked most everywhere we went... Back then, during the busy seasons, neighbors worked together, sharing equipment.  During the depression years we had many neighborhood get-togethers, such as hard-time parties, when we wore our worst clothes so no one was embarrassed if their shoes or clothes had holes or patches... No one had money but we shared food and all had fun together.  Some of my fondest memories are of those times...

The first school bus I rode in was an old Model-T truck with a wooden body.  We sat on benches along the side and in winter, there was a manifold heater pipe down the middle of the bus on the floor.  Never much heat but an odor of burnt rubber if our overshoes got against it..."
I don't think most Americans nowadays can quite grasp what life was like in the Great Depression.  Posted because the "hard-time party" concept was such a great idea for socializing at a time of widespread poverty.


"... a local poacher who killed a gamekeeper in a fight and was transported for eight years... When he returned to England at the end of his sentence, he built the Image House... according to the old custom of "jerry-building" which permitted a man to claim land without purchase or lease, provided he could build some sort of a house in a single night and have the chimney smoking by sunrise."
Text from Witchcraft in England by Christina Hole (1947).   Clearly the current Image House in Bunbury is not the same one that was "jerry-built," but I've posted this for the concept, which was new to me. 

Image cropped for size from the original at Ludchurch.

01 August 2022

"The Fate of Rome: climate, disease, and the end of an empire" - updated

This is the best book I've read in several years.

If someone had asked me a month ago why the Roman empire fell, I might have concocted a reply implicating lead in the drinking vessels, debauchery and dissolution, and the rise of Goths and Huns.  This book very cogently, and reasonably concisely (300 pages) explains how climate change and a series of pandemics absolutely destroyed what had been a pan-Mediterranean empire.

I found this set of parallel timelines to be quite useful:

The first point of note is that the previous rise of the Roman empire had also been fueled by climate change -  in this case the favorable "Roman Climate Optimum."  Starting in about 200 BC the Mediterranean region experienced increased precipitation, resulting in bountiful production of wheat in north Africa, which was in effect the breadbasket for the emerging empire.  With abundant food and population growth, growth was easy, and by the time of emperor Antoninus Pius (who ruled from 138-161) the empire stretched from the north of Britain to the south of Egypt and from the Atlantic to the edges of Asia -

Linking these areas together for the delivery of food, goods, and armies was the key to the establishment and power of the empire, but that network of ships and roads would later become pathways for the dispersion of novel pathogens.  

Prior to the rise of the Roman empire...
"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..."
Then the rains of the Climate Optimum came, extensively and predictably in a region that even today is noted for extensive dryness.  Human populations grew, cities bloomed, civilization organized.

The collapse of the empire began in the second century, when the Antonine plague became pandemic in extent.  By the middle of the third century the climate had reverted back to seasonal drought, and a second pandemic swept the area.  By the fifth century the climate advanced from drought to the "late antique little ice age," which unleashed the overwhelming Justinianic Plagues from the mid-500s to the mid-700s.  When the cities were depopulated, they were easy prey for the Goths and Huns. 

That's the TL;DR.  Here are some additional notes that I jotted down for myself for future reference.
"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..."
The first "great pestilence" (the Antonine Plague) was probably smallpox.  Contemporary accounts suggest it arrived via the Red Sea axis after having devastated Arabian kingdoms in ancient Yemen.  For diagnosis we have detailed descriptions by the renowned physician Galen, who treated "countless" victims: "its attendant symptoms were fever, a black pustular rash, conjunctival irritation, ulceration deep in the windpipe, and black or bloody stools."  If the scabs dried and fell off like scales, the victim might recover.

Smallpox would be directly transmitted by the inhalation of infectious droplets expelled by an infectious person.  The incubation period averaged about 12 days, so the virus could travel a long distance before overwhelming the host.  The rash started as vesicles, then became pustular, then scabbed.  The patient would be infectious until after the scabs fell off, leaving disfiguring scars.  There are references to smallpox-like epidemics in China in the fourth century and in Indian texts of the sixth century.  A Persian physician devoted an extraordinary treatise to the differential diagnosis of smallpox vs. measles.
"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."
In April of AD 248, the city of Rome celebrated its 1000th birthday by slaughtering a "veritable zoo, of the most extravagant creatures from around the world... thirty-two elephants, ten elk, ten tigers, sixty lions, thirty leopards, six hippopotami ten giraffes, one rhinoceros... and countless other wild beasts, not to mention a thousand pairs of gladiators."

"... just when the Romans most needed a buffer against bad fortune, the Nile abandoned them spectacularly.  In AD 244, the waters failed to rise.  IN AD 245 or 246, the floods were weak again."  [grain prices soared spectacularly]

The second pandemic (the Plague of Cyprian) struck in recurring waves from AD 249-262.  The etiology is a bit uncertain, but it is known to have emerged from Africa (Ethiopia), then extended north and west.  Archaeologists have found mass graves in Upper Egypt with lime poured over bodies that were then incinerated.
"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."  
The pandemic disease was characterized by fever, diarrhea, ischemia of the extremities, conjunctival hemorrhages, with deafness and blindness in the aftermath - symptoms suggestive of a viral hemorrhagic fever.  The winter seasonality suggests an organism that transmits by interpersonal contact.  "Only one family of hemorrhagic viruses seems to provide a best match for both the pathology and epidemiology of the Plague of Cyprian: filoviruses, whose most notorious representative is the Ebola Virus."

After the second pandemic there was widespread anarchy, loss of resilience, and increasing problems contending with barbarians.
"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.'"
Slavery was ubiquitous across the empire in this era.
"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."
And economic stratification was enormous.
"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 fourth century also marked the rise of the Huns.  Their migration toward the west can be considered an environmental event.  It was a time of megadrought in the steppe.  
"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."
What made the Huns overwhelming were their horses and speed of movement, and their composite reflex bow (effective to about 150 meters).  The land north of the Danube had been dominated by Goths in a kind of equilibrium."In AD 376, in flight from the Huns, Goths appeared en masse seeking asylum inside Roman borders.  Upwards of 100,000 Goths - men, women, and children - may have sought help."  With the Roman empire "reeling," Attila "scaled up the Hun war machine." "Throughout the 440s, he wasted the Balkans and engorged his royal circle on plundered wealth.

In AD 447 a massive earthquake knocked down the great walls of Constantinople, including 57 defensive towers.  The city was defenseless.  What saved Constantinople were its endemic diseases.  
"'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.

When Rome tried to rebuild in a suboptimal climate, their focus was on securing huge hoards of food.  The principal food was bread, which required huge granaries full of wheat. 
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."
Because this Antonine [bubonic] plague was rat-borne, it had the ability to infiltrate and devastate rural areas as well as urban ones.  The Medieval Black Death (14th century) is estimated to have killed 40-60% of all the people in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.  This sixth century one was probably similar.  The empire crashed again.  There were no people to harvest the decreased crops, no money to pay the armies, inheritance systems were obliterated, building activity ceased.  During this Late Antique "Little Ice Age", Pope Gregory's Rome "may have been home to as few as 10-20,000 souls huddled inside its walls; they would barely have filled a corner of the Colosseum."
"AD 536 was the coldest year of the last two millenniaAverage 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."
There is modern evidence that the volcanic activity at this time may also have been accompanied by diminished solar output.   When Pope Gregory sent missionaries to convert the pagans of the British Isles, "there were no towns, no villas and no coins."
"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. 

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