The Roman Egypt Laboratory: Climate Change, Societal Transformations, and the Transition to Late Antiquity

Under the lead of Prof. Sabine Huebner at the University of Basel, the C-CIA team will contribute to a Swiss National Science Foundation project in the Humanities dedicated to the interaction between climate change, environmental stress, and societal transformations in 3rd century CE Egypt.

The “Roman Egypt Laboratory” project 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.

The 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.

The C-CIA team will contribute to this project with the analysis of mummy labels made of local wood, which are thought to contain valuable information on hydroclimatic conditions that prevailed in Roman Egypt, thereby providing clues on past fluctuations of the Nile and its floods and the impacts they could have had on agricultural productivity.