Imperial Mathematics

American researchers believe they have found the key to history with software that predicts the rise and fall of ancient empires

For almost as long as their profession has existed historians have been tantalized, baffled, at times even embarrassed by the question of how the mighty Roman Empire came to be toppled by a brutish mass of barbarians. In 1984 a German scholar by the name of Alexander Demandt published a list of the two hundred and ten explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire proposed over the centuries. It included apathy and impotence alongside inflation, bankruptcy and bathing (which was said to cause impotence). It is very much the way of historical enquiry to proceed through revision, not too dissimilarly from science where new orthodoxies displace old ones, often at breathless pace, as new evidence becomes available. Despite the wealth of explanations current historians seem to agree that in all likelihood Rome’s fall – for Rome certainly fell and did not simply decline – was caused by a fiscal crisis compounded by military catastrophe. Yet, debate surrounding the topic remains lively and theories continue to emerge, some from places as unlikely as the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology of the University of Connecticut.

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