Scientists have reconstructed temperature and rainfall records for the region of the Roman Empire between 200 BC and 600 AD using sediment cores from the southern Italian coast. This new study gives us the first high-resolution climate record for the heart of the Roman world during crucial centuries of its rise and fall.

The researchers, led by paleoceanographer Karin Zonneveld and historian Kyle Harper, analyzed sediment cores extracted from the Gulf of Taranto off southern Italy. Embedded in the layers of sediment were fossils of single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates that are sensitive to changes in temperature, nutrients and other climate factors.

By precisely dating the sediment layers using radiocarbon dating and tracking volcanic ash deposits, the team was able to piece together climate conditions in ancient Italy with around 3-year resolution over this 800-year period.

What’s exciting about this record is that it gives us climate data at a very detailed level right when the Roman Empire was at its peak and later declining, says Harper.

Until now, we didn’t have good climate data for the Roman heartland in Italy itself. This new information helps fill gaps in our understanding of how the climate may have impacted this important civilization.

The study also looked at outbreaks of infectious diseases recorded in historical sources from ancient Italy. It found a strong association between periods of abrupt climate change and epidemics, including major pandemics like the Antonine Plague and the Plague of Justinian.

This link between climate variations and human health is important for understanding how climate affects factors like agriculture, water access, biodiversity and disease spread – which are all relevant today with climate change.

Additionally, the sediment core confirms a significant cooling period in Italy during the 530s AD known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age, following large volcanic eruptions. The researchers suggest this abrupt climate shift may have triggered and worsened the effects of the Plague of Justinian pandemic that was sweeping through the Mediterranean at this time.

Overall, this new climate reconstruction provides exciting insights into how environmental factors like climate stability versus abrupt change could have impacted society, resources and health during the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. It emphasizes the value of studying past climate-human interactions for informing challenges ahead as climate change continues to accelerate globally.


University of Oklahoma | Karin A. F. Zonneveld et al. ,Climate change, society, and pandemic disease in Roman Italy between 200 BCE and 600 CE. Sci. Adv.10,eadk1033(2024). DOI:10.1126/sciadv.adk1033

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