The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. Engraving by Levasseur after J. Delaunay, 1894. (image via the Wellcome Collection)

Recent climate changes have been linked to a lengthening laundry list of troubles, including famines, social turmoil, and disease outbreaks. Now the same sort of connections have been found between climate shifts and crises in the heartland of the ancient Roman Empire. 

In a recent paper in Science Advances, SFI Fractal Faculty Kyle Harper (University of Oklahoma) and coauthors use plankton buried in millennia of marine sediments from the Gulf of Taranto (the arch in Italy’s boot) to track the air temperatures and precipitation from 200 BCE to 600 CE with a resolution of three years. It’s the first climate data from that period found so close to the center of the Empire. They found that colder periods after 100 CE are associated with records of pandemic diseases. The changing climate caused the outbreaks in several ways, they explain, including changes in nutrition, conflicts over resources, and the varying populations of disease-carrying animals like mosquitoes and rodents. 

Read the paper “Climate change, society, and pandemic disease in Roman Italy between 200 BCE and 600 CE” in Science Advances (January 26, 2024). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adk1033