The Roman Empire’s Worst Plagues Were Linked to Climate Change


The sixth-century C.E. (aka BC) Plague of Justinian was “a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated”, according to the Byzantine historian Procopius.

Up to half the population of the Roman Empire and tens of millions of people around the Mediterranean may have been killed in the pandemic, which is now known to have been an outbreak of bubonic plague.

But a new study recently published in Science Advances links this—and other pandemics in the Roman Empire—to climate change. Specifically, it finds that periods of cold and dry weather on the Italian peninsula coincided with major plagues in the empire—indicating that the changes in climate caused stresses in Roman society that resulted in such pandemics.

The research —the culmination of a 10-year effort— shows how a changing climate can have dire consequences for societies that are not robust enough to withstand the upheavals it can cause, the study authors say. Those findings resonate today as the world contends with human-caused global warming.

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