Plague and the fall of the Roman Empire

Many compelling theories have been put forward as to what really caused the downfall of Imperial Rome. For hundreds of years, the Roman Empire controlled territory stretching from Britain in the north to the Sahara in the south. The capacity to integrate conquered societies into the empire was a source of strength and staying power. The fall of the Roman Empire represented a great step backward in human civilization. We even lost the knowledge to make concrete.
The Western Roman Empire began to disintegrate in the early 5th century AD as Germanic migrations and invasions overwhelmed the capacity of the Empire to assimilate the migrants and fight off the invaders. Did Imperium Romanum simply fade away?

One could argue that the Roman Empire never really disintegrated, because the empire in the East - often known as the Byzantine Empire - survived for almost a millennium after the fall of its Western counterpart and became the most stable Christian realm during the Middle Ages.

What historians are learning today is that the fall of the Roman Empire may have been caused by the bubonic plague, caused by Yersinia pestis[1]. This bacterium has been the agent of three historic pandemics, including the medieval Black Death. The first pandemic interrupted a remarkable renaissance of Roman power under the energetic leadership of the emperor Justinian. In the course of three years, this disease snaked its way across the empire and carried off perhaps 30 million souls. The Roman renaissance was stopped dead in its tracks, state failure and economic stagnation ensued.

In Roman times, Yersinia pestis was an emerging infectious disease,. The closest known relatives of the strain that caused the Roman outbreak have been found in western China. This fact is consistent with the detail provided by ancient sources that the pandemic erupted on the coast of Egypt, at an entrepôt of the bustling Red Sea trade. The deadly package was ferried into the empire across the vast Indian Ocean trade network that brought silk and spices to Roman shores. The plague was, then, an unintended side effect of nascent globalization.

[1] Harbeck et al: Yersinia pestis DNA from Skeletal Remains from the 6th Century AD Reveals Insights into Justinianic Plague in PLoS Pathogens - 2013

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