More than 2,000 years ago, periods of brutally cold weather may have played a role in the deadly plagues that swept through the Roman Empire.
New research has suggested that three major Roman-era pandemics that killed countless people are linked to climate change.
The findings contribute to scientists’ understanding of how changes in the climate affect human health.
To study the climate of the Roman Empire, researchers drilled down into the sediment of the Gulf of Taranto, a wide body of water under the “sole” of Italy’s boot. Then, the team took samples of the sediment and analyzed the various layers.
Information found in the sediment cores was used to match the layers with specific years. The presence of volcanic glass in the sediments was what made the dating possible.
The volcanic glass could be traced back to well-known volcanic eruptions throughout history, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in 79 C.E.
The study revealed that the sediments spanned from 200 B.C. to 600 A.D., beginning in the late Roman Republic and ending with the last days of the Roman Empire. The researchers also looked at the tiny organisms called dinoflagellates that were preserved in the sediment.
Dinoflagellates are sensitive to temperature and precipitation. Different species have different preferences in weather conditions. While some thrive in the cold, others flourish in times of high rainfall.
Based on the dinoflagellates, the team was able to reconstruct the weather conditions in Roman Italy. The results showed that the climate was stable between 200 and 100 B.C. That period was followed by a series of short cold snaps.