This is the first part of a two-part article; the second, “A first inventory of mass graves from late antiquity”, will appear in JRA 29 (2016) as well as on the CJO website.
The Roman empire was more than a system of institutions, beliefs and socio-economic structures; it was a concentration of human capital, physically located in the demographic strength of the population. Human health and mortality crucially affected, and reflected, the economy. As less optimistic interpretations of Late Roman history regain traction, it becomes important to find ways to test such interpretations, including their biological manifestations and implications. One approach would be to map over time and space large-scale violence and disease-driven surges in mortality, as well as chronic factors that may have more gradually eroded the empire’s human capital. Biomolecular archaeology and pathogen genetics are sparking novel explorations of ancient diseases, which ranged from the spectacularly acute to the chronic – malaria, leprosy or tuberculosis –, not to mention seasonal spikes in more routine gastrointestinal infections and the like. Individually and especially cumulatively, the impact of acute and chronic factors could have been of considerable magnitude. The same is true for environmental conditions; thanks to the advances of paleoclimate science, we now know that they too varied unexpectedly, and surely could affect population health.