As modern empires rise and fall, ancient Rome becomes ever more significant. We yearn for Rome’s power but fear Rome’s ruin–will we turn out like the Romans, we wonder, or can we escape their fate? That question has obsessed centuries of historians and leaders, who have explored diverse political, religious, and economic forces to explain Roman decline. Yet the decisive factor remains elusive.
In New Rome, Paul Stephenson looks beyond traditional texts and well-known artifacts to offer a novel, scientifically-minded interpretation of antiquity’s end. It turns out that the descent of Rome is inscribed not only in parchments but also in ice cores and DNA. From these and other sources, we learn that pollution and pandemics influenced the fate of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire. During its final five centuries, the empire in the east survived devastation by natural disasters, the degradation of the human environment, and pathogens previously unknown to the empire’s densely populated, unsanitary cities. Despite the Plague of Justinian, regular “barbarian” invasions, a war with Persia, and the rise of Islam, the empire endured as a political entity. However, Greco-Roman civilization, a world of interconnected cities that had shared a common material culture for a millennium, did not.
Politics, war, and religious strife drove the transformation of Eastern Rome, but they do not tell the whole story. Braiding the political history of the empire together with its urban, material, environmental, and epidemiological history, New Rome offers the most comprehensive explanation to date of the Eastern Empire’s transformation into Byzantium.