Climate variations have influenced the agricultural productivity, health risk, and conflict level of preindustrial societies. Discrimination between environmental and anthropogenic impacts on past civilizations, however, remains difficult because of the paucity of high-resolution palaeoclimatic evidence. Here, we present tree ring–based reconstructions of Central European summer precipitation and temperature variability over the past 2500 years. Recent warming is unprecedented, but modern hydroclimatic variations may have at times been exceeded in magnitude and duration. Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from ~AD 250 to 600 coincided with the demise of the Western Roman Empire and the turmoil of the Migration Period. Historical circumstances may challenge recent political and fiscal reluctance to mitigate projected climate change.