By Michael McCormick
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.34:1 (2003)
Introduction: Until recently, there were no Roman rats. As disease, ecological change, and their economic implications push their way to the top of the historian’s agenda, ancient rodents have triggered controversy and new research, some of it in the pages of this journal. Rats are crucial to epidemics of bubonic plague, a disease that has been linked to the massive demographic changes that ushered medieval Europe into the modern age. Some historians implicate rodent-borne plague in the end of the ancient world. Today archaeology and zoology draw a picture of rats and their history that differs from even a decade ago. Tiny bones and dna are yielding glimpses of the rat’s migration from southeast Asia into the Roman empire and medieval Europe. The diffusion of the rat across Europe looks increasingly like an integral part of the Roman conquest. Its movements illuminate patterns of economic organization, communications, and urbanism, and carry signiªcant implications for the history of disease and the ecology. The history of rats is tightly interwoven with the economic rise and fall of the ancient world, as well as the expansion of the medieval economy.