Foreign Policy Digital

Apocalypse, Soon: New Books on War, Plague, Famine, Demagogues, and the End of the World as They Knew It

FP staffers learn what really killed the Romans and why the 1930s should scare us to death.

Foreign Policy dove back into book reviews this summer, spurred by a flood of thought-provoking titles on all aspects of international relations. Now we’re back with a fresh installment featuring some of the top releases this autumn, just in time for a brand-new Armageddon.

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire — Kyle Harper (reviewed by Keith Johnson)

A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter With North America — Sam White (reviewed by Keith Johnson)

The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt — Julian Borger (reviewed by Dan De Luce)

The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse 1900-17 — Mikhail Zygar (reviewed by Emily Tamkin)

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine — Anne Applebaum (reviewed by Sharon Weinberger)

Gorbachev: His Life and Times — William Taubman (reviewed by Amie Ferris-Rotman)

Russia and Its Islamic World: From the Mongol Conquest to The Syrian Military Intervention — Robert Service (reviewed by Rhys Dubin)

Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities — Daniel Golden (reviewed by Jenna McLaughlin)

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World — Laura Spinney (reviewed by Robbie Gramer)

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American HistoryKaty Tur (reviewed by Ruby Mellen)


The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

Kyle Harper, Princeton University Press, 440 pages, $35, October 2017

Keith Johnson

Rome, argues Kyle Harper in his sweeping retelling of the rise and fall of an empire, was brought down as much by “germs as by Germans.”

Unwittingly built on fragile foundations — Rome’s rise coincided with several centuries of warm, wet weather known as the Roman Climate Optimum — the empire expanded prodigiously from the Sahara to the fringes of northern Europe. Agricultural yields soared; North Africa and especially Egypt were breadbaskets. Alexandria was rainy year-round. But when that anomalous Roman warm period started to recede in the 2nd century and long-term global cooling resumed, so began the empire’s troubles.

Harvests failed, prices soared, and rural rents collapsed. The most devastating plague yet recorded in human history soon followed, decimating the army and hammering the economy; it may have killed a quarter of Rome’s imperial population.

More plagues were to follow, especially the bubonic plague that massacred the eastern Roman Empire after a massive climate upheaval in the mid-6th century. Cooler temperatures and the empire’s global connections allowed the plague to make the jump from Central Asia to European ports for the first time.

None of the plagues and famines wrecked the

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