The Roman Empire was one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, but that didn’t protect it from collapse. For a few hundred years its culture managed to live on within the Byzantine Empire, but even that couldn’t survive a devastating new peril. Now research suggests that the same threat that is believed to have destroyed the mighty Byzantines may still exist today.
There were many reasons for the fall of Rome, but it was partly a victim of its own success. It grew too large to govern easily, so the emperor split it in two. The Western Roman Empire had its capital in Italy whilst the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) spanned Eastern Europe into Asia. This fostered a new rivalry that weakened Rome as a whole.
Emperor Diocletian was responsible for the division, and he ruled the east whilst appointing Maximian to govern the west. The Western Roman Empire, however, would not experience the success enjoyed by the Byzantines. It was ravaged by attacks by Barbarian tribes such as the Visigoths until, in 476, its last emperor was overthrown.
This makes the achievements of the Byzantine Empire even more impressive, because it would live through its counterpart’s fall and continue into the beginning of the modern age. No other state west of China would manage such a feat. It was a wealthy empire with a strong administration and that allowed it to not only survive, but expand.
The Byzantine Empire took its name from Byzantium, which was a Greek colony, named after its founder, a man called Byzas. The colony was built on the edge of the Bosporus strait and provided a perfect gateway between Europe and Asia. Emperor Constantine would rename it Constantinople when it became capital of his “New Rome,” but today we know it as Istanbul.
Latin may have been the official language of Rome but Greek was widely spoken in the eastern empire. That didn’t stop residents from considering themselves as Roman and Christian, as Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. The Byzantines considered themselves Rome’s successors despite their Greek cultural influences.
The Byzantines were ruled by an all-powerful emperor who commanded the army and church as well as the government. There was also an influential senate composed mainly of successful military figures. Being a wealthy landowner or popular with the emperor was the best way to obtain power, especially as there were no elections.
Christianity had a profound impact on all aspects of Byzantine culture and its importance can’t be understated. Eastern Christianity was headed by the Bishop or Patriarch of Constantinople, who frequently quarrelled with the Pope over who was more important. This culminated in the Schism of 1054, which divided the eastern and western church forever.
The borders of the empire would fluctuate regularly over the years due to the varying military prowess of its emperors. There were battles in the west against states where the Pope held sway, while ongoing conflict with Persians in the east eventually led to the fall of the Persian Sasanian Empire. Other recurring enemies included the Normans, Slavs, Bulgars, Arabs and Turks.
Constantinople’s location meant it was easy to defend from outsiders while the wider empire expanded into what had once been Western Rome. The Byzantines spread throughout the Mediterranean, from Europe to the Middle East to North Africa. They were the greatest power in Europe, but some of the seeds of their destruction were already being planted.
The expansion was not without its difficulties and Emperor Justinian racked up huge debts that his people had to pay through onerous taxes. It was increasingly difficult for the Byzantine army to guard all the empire’s new territories from other ambitious civilizations. That was even before a new religion called Islam started to spread.
The Islamic army swept through the Middle East and North Africa throughout the 600’s and dramatically shrank Byzantine territory. In the 11th century Emperor Alexius I turned to Western Europe to help defend his now smaller empire against an invasion of Islamic Turks. This marked the beginning of the Crusades and centuries of war between Islam and Christianity.
In the following years the Byzantine Empire would grow weaker and weaker until eventually Constantinople itself fell to Ottoman Turks in 1453. How did an empire that was once so strong become so vulnerable? It seems the answer may lie not just in invasion, but in changes to its wider environment a century before.
There’s always a temptation to measure our society today in comparison to the civilizations of the past. We know that great empires fell and want to see if we can avoid making the same mistakes. The Fall of Rome was one of the most significant societal collapses in history and as such it is a major research topic for historians.
The newest evidence isn’t from a glorious ancient palace or temple, but comes from a rather less grand garbage dump. Elusa was a Byzantine settlement in the Negev Desert of what is now Israel. In ancient times it once had a well-organized trash disposal system, but around the 6th century that stopped working. The reason why may tell us a lot about Elusa, and the Eastern Roman Empire as a whole.
Elusa was the capital city of a province called Palestina Salutaris, so it was considered important. And that’s even before you look at the many farms dotted around the area, as well as seven more communal settlements. The archaeologists estimated that Elusa produced an impressive 212,000 cubic feet of trash every year. That’s not too different to a modern city.
Elusa had its origins in a village that was built over 2,000 years ago. It probably grew because it had access to a water supply, which is vital in the otherwise arid Negev. Its importance increased because it was at the intersection of two important trade routes known as the Incense Road and the Way of Shur. It was a place where East met West.
Clever farming techniques allowed settlements to be built in the desert, but Elusa is impressive even when compared to its neighbors. Some of the biggest streets are as much as 26 feet wide and there are nine churches, as well as a theatre, pottery workshops and unusually large bathhouse. People travelled from distant countries to study at Elusa’s school of rhetoric.
It can often be difficult to identify ancient ruins because they don’t usually come with labels. Archaeologists have to guess based on maps and descriptions from the time period. There’s no such problem with Elusa, as a sign with the city’s name was discovered in a previous excavation. The site is now a national park, although the surrounding area is controlled by the Israeli army.
Elusa has long been a site of excavations but this one was from a perspective never explored before. The investigation was led by archaeologists from Israel’s University of Haifa and was the first of its kind to focus on garbage dumps. That meant the opportunity to explore layers and layers of untouched history.
Buildings can be destroyed by invaders or natural disasters, which can in turn make it hard to trace the history of a city’s architecture. Landfill sites simply pile up more and more trash, with new waste stacked on the old. Digging down through these layers gives archaeologists insight into every age of Elusa and how its people lived.
Four trash mounds were explored in total and each was full of exciting waste. As well as pottery, there were coins and glassware. Seeds included the burnt remains of grapes that had been grown in the neighboring villages. These grapes may have been used to produce wine that could have been exported as far as France and Britain.
There were lots of different remains buried in those dumps, from pieces of broken pottery to lumps of burnt wood. Some foodstuffs had been imported from the Nile and Red Sea, which means they were probably expensive and highly sought after by locals. Radiocarbon dating indicates that these objects date to early in Elusa’s history. There is no collected garbage from later periods.
If the residents stopped disposing of their garbage in the usual way it suggests that the wider infrastructure of their city was collapsing. That’s despite the fact this period was during the height of the empire’s power and the region was experiencing relative stability and peace. There were still 100 years to go before the Muslim invasion, so what was the problem?
Experts think the answer lies in two major occurrences of the era. A pestilence known as Justinian’s Plague caused millions of deaths across the empire. Meanwhile, the Northern Hemisphere was experiencing some radical climate shifts known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age. These two interconnected events may have contributed to the ultimate downfall of the Byzantine Empire.
The Late Antique Little Ice Age began in 536 A.D. and its origins were dramatic. Three volcanoes erupted so violently that their ash blocked sunlight from reaching the earth. One of the volcanos was far up in the Arctic — possibly in Iceland or Alaska — but its impact was still by the Byzantine empire. It was so serious that temperatures dropped for 150 years.
Some historians focus on the geography and politics of the empire and surrounding nations when discussing the Byzantines. It’s only recently that the natural world has been given a more prominent place in the discussions. We often associate climate change with the innovations of the Industrial Revolution, but it has existed in different forms on a smaller scale throughout history.
Climate’s contribution to the rise and fall of Rome can be traced to the earliest days of the empire. Roman soldiers were deployed in stable weather conditions where a combination of wetness and warmth were conducive to farming, and therefore a productive economy. This provided the perfect base for building and controlling territories.
Despite this, climate change is not a regular topic of discussion in studies of ancient civilizations and that’s partly because its impact is so hard to measure. Renovations in big cities are so common that archaeologists don’t always know whether adaptions are a response to the climate or something else. It’s the more stable record represented by the garbage heaps that has reframed the narrative.
The first pandemic of bubonic plague occurred during the Late Antique Little Ice Age and that may have partly been due to the climate. Infectious diseases were already a leading cause of death for a population that often didn’t live past their twenties. A tightly interconnected empire made it easy for microbes to spread through bustling cities.
Leprosy and tuberculosis were among the diseases that took advantage of Rome’s crowded cities and long highways. When water and food were contaminated gastric diseases such as shigellosis and paratyphoid soon followed. Then the climate started to change and things got worse. First there was the Antonine Plague, which may have been the first time smallpox devastated a population.
There was no going back once the plague had hit and Byzantine society began to lose some of its commanding presence. The Antonine Plague would be followed by other lethal pandemics. The origins of the Plague of Cyprian are still a mystery, but it ripped through the empire in the 3rd century.
Then came the Bubonic Plague, which would be a forerunner of Europe’s Black Death. Justinian was growing his territory to be larger and more powerful than ever, but at the same time half of his population was lost to a tiny bacterium called Yersina pestis. It probably travelled into the empire along one of its major trading routes.
Yersina pestis first emerged in Central Asia around 4,000 years ago and is known for being prevalent in rodent colonies. Animals like gerbils and marmots can carry the plague, but it is most associated with the black rats that can so often infest human dwellings. Fleas on the rats spread the bacterium and before long it spreads everywhere.
The series of accidents and coincidences that must have been involved in one bacteria being carried from China to the Mediterranean is astonishing. Volcanos, climate, fleas, rats and humans all had to be in the right place at the right time. We may know more about germ theory today, but we can still learn from this collision of man and nature.
People were dying and the economy was suffering, so it’s no wonder the empire’s grip began to weaken. It seems that the Byzantines were losing control even before the devastating Islamic invasion. Disease and climate change were threats that even the most powerful couldn’t escape.
Archaeologists warn that findings don’t mean we suddenly have one perfect solution to the decline of the Byzantine Empire. Indeed, one professor at the University of Jerusalem who wasn’t involved in the study suggested it was more evidence of the “limit to resilience” that civilizations could experience.
Elusa may have been weakened by climate change to the point it couldn’t defend itself against other threats. That means the Muslim armies weren’t invading a mighty city with a powerful infrastructure, but the already fading outpost of a dying empire. It’s a sharp warning that even the most powerful civilizations are not infallible.
What’s fascinating about this theory is how it shows the complexity of the ancient world. Elusa was much further south than the areas experiencing the truly freezing winters of the Late Antique Little Ice Age, but it did trade with those north European countries. It goes to show how the Byzantine Empire followed Rome’s example by connecting different parts of the globe.
Now scientists want to highlight how our modern world may be able to learn from the struggles of the Byzantines. Climate change is one of the most debated and controversial subjects discussed today, and countries are interlinked with each other like never before. Something that impacts a distant corner of the world could eventually reverberate here — just as it did in Elusa.