The interaction between climate change, environmental stress, and societal transformations is increasingly attracting the interest of the scientific community and the general public alike, as contemporary concerns about global warming grow. This research project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and directed by Prof. Dr. Sabine R. Huebner will apply groundbreaking and innovative multidisciplinary approaches to the complex relationships between climate variability and environmental change on the one hand and the ability and capacity of human society to adapt to these challenges on the other.

The third century CE was a period of grand-scale transformations and existential threats to the Roman Empire, the ancient superpower that ruled a geographically vast and ethnically diverse area comprising nearly a fourth of the world population at that time. During the third century, the Roman Empire experienced military anarchy, civil wars, rampant inflation, severe famines, dramatic changes in the religious landscape, bloody persecutions of minority groups, and raids and invasions from beyond the frontier. What were the reasons and causal relationships underlying this concurrence of adverse events? Recent research has suggested that climate variations triggered these cascading shocks, but this theory has yet to be put to scrutiny through a comprehensive interdisciplinary analysis of all available evidence.

Due to its unparalleled evidence, the Roman province of Egypt can serve as a laboratory to test such hypotheses and study social vulnerability, resilience, and adaptation strategies in the face of environmental and climatic changes. This pioneering and innovative project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between climate scientists, archaeologists, and ancient historians that bridges the traditional divide between the humanities and the natural sciences. The project aims to evaluate and interpret the effects of environmental stressors, and climate change on society, economy, and politics using third-century Roman Egypt as a case study for a multi-disciplinary approach to a fervently debated transition period in Western civilization. This holistic approach to climate change and societal transformations will be the first of its kind for the Roman world and promises a major breakthrough in an increasingly intense scholarly discussion, which this project will shape and lead.

More about the Project

This project is a collaboration between natural scientists, archaeologists, papyrologists, and ancient historians undertaking a radical reevaluation of the fervently debated transition period from the High Roman Empire to Late Antiquity. The natural sciences, especially climate science, have started to expand the spectrum of historical evidence to an extent that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. Since each field, however, has its own approaches and methods, a collaborative effort is the only way to jointly deploy palaeoclimate proxies and more traditional literary and documentary sources for the study of the human past in order to avoid the misinterpretation of each other’s data. The third century CE has been generally acknowledged as a watershed for Western civilization and as a major turning point in the history of the Roman Empire, marking the transition between the High Roman Empire and Late Antiquity. The century was characterized by foreign invasions on multiple fronts, a quick succession of emperors coming from and raised to power by the army, civil wars, political fragmentation, famines, economic depression, and religious change. Only at the end of the third century did the Roman Empire prove its resilience, that means its ability to adapt and change in the face of these challenges. It survived as one political realm for another 200 years – however with its administration, military, society and religious landscape changed forever. One particular question has been at the center of historical debate: what were the reasons for the concurrent challenges arising particularly from the middle of the century on that led the Roman Empire to sway?

The virtual absence of Egypt from the historical discourse regarding the third century CE is surprising given the province’s central importance. Egypt provided the lion’s share of Rome’s grain supply and was deeply integrated into the Roman Empire on a cultural, administrative, and economic basis. Moreover, Egypt was a global transportation hub and connected the Roman provinces to the Indian Ocean in the East and to Inner Africa in the South. Finally, Egypt is, from a historian’s perspective, a unique region within the Roman Empire as it offers a wealth of textual, archaeological, and palaeoclimatological evidence preserved by the desert sands, offering us an excellent laboratory to evaluate the impact of climate change on the challenges of the third century. Surprisingly, the remarkable evidence from Egypt has so far been widely neglected in studies of this “critical century” (Ando 2012), even though it provides us with more information about socio-economic, demographic, fiscal and administrative developments under way in the third century CE than we have for any other region of the Roman world.

Historical and scientific analytical and quantification techniques and statistical applications will be used to interpret data and link climate and environmental changes to socio-economic developments. For this goal we will collate a historical climate database that contains political, socio-economic and climatological changes and events integrating geographical and chronological information.

The project consists of eight subprojects – subproject n° 1 studies changes in the Egyptian agricultural economy, subproject n° 2 studies settlement changes in third-century Egypt, subproject n° 3 tries to come up with new dendroclimatological proxies and a reconstruction of annual Nile flood qualities for the Roman period. Subproject n° 4 explores provision and deployment of the Roman Army in Egypt, administrative events and reforms, subproject n° 5 analyzes coin finds and coin hoards, subproject n° 6 traces paleoclimate proxies from sediments in the Nile source region, the Nile valley and the delta, and finally subproject n° 7 collates geopolitical events with impact on Egypt.



We thank the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) for funding the research carried out by the team.