by Kit Kennedy
The angel of death striking a door
during the plague of Rome.
Engraving by Levasseur after J. Delaunay.
Imagine, if you will, that it's the year 165 AD.
There are two
Emperors of Rome,
Marcus Aurelius and
who have been ruling together for four years, and day-to-day
life is good.
The new emperor's
permit free speech, they're popular with the Roman military, and
the empire is stable.
That is, until the
Parthians invade the Kingdom of Armenia.
This act of war triggers
a Roman counter-assault, along with the Roman army retaliating in
kind. At the same time, the Germanic tribes along the northern
borders begin raiding, then invasions of the northern territories.
Within a few short months, the mighty Roman Empire was embroiled in
mass warfare on multiple fronts. It is during these already
difficult times that a new foe would invade the empire.
It was a far deadlier and
quieter assault, and one whose effects would scar the pages of
history as it decimated the population.
Rome was under attack from the plague...
Course of Empire: Desolation,
(Courtesy New York Historical Society/Wikipedia)
It's easy to imagine the scene; it's not wholly unfamiliar to the
one we face currently
There were rumors about
what was happening in far away lands, the government addressed the
populace, but before many could make plans and prepare, their way of
life was under attack.
The plague, named after the Antoninus family who ruled through out
the plague's duration, first appeared in the winter of 165-166 in
Seleucia from an unknown source.
Reports from the time
suggest that the plague was spread by troops of the Roman Empire
returning from their campaigns in the Near East.
Once contracted by the
army, it spread throughout the empire's territories as the legions
moved around through the villages and countryside.
After four years of the plague, in 169 AD, Lucius Verus was
returning to Rome with Marcus Aurelius from Aquileia, when he
contracted the disease. Although he would have taken some comfort in
his adoptive brother being by his side, Lucius' death was swift.
The emperor's rapid
departure was labeled as 'food poisoning', although that is now
thought to be inaccurate.
Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius
(Caracalla) at the reconstructed fort
Galen, the Greek physician, described the symptoms as consisting of
fever, diarrhea and pharyngitis.
Other symptoms included
the skin erupting in boil-like blisters, some dry and others filled
with puss, which would appear around the ninth day. Galen didn't
identify the disease fully, or its origin, but some scholars believe
this plague to have been smallpox.
One exception to this is historian William McNeill, who
asserts that the
Antonine Plague and the later
Plague of Cyprian
(251ca - 271) could quite possibly have been outbreaks of measles
The survivors developed
some immunity to these diseases, which suggests that neither disease
had existed before 165 AD in Roman civilizations.
Sadly, this 'great' plague, as Galen called it, would last for many
years more. For fifteen years it ravaged the Empire, from 165-180
When the disease attacked
the city of Rome, approximately nine years after the first outbreak,
it's believed to have caused up to 2,000 deaths per day, or a 25%
chance of death for Rome's population.
During this devastation, it's thought that one-third of the
population was killed by the plague, this includes those in the
countryside and in the army, and with an estimated 5 million deaths
attributed during it's reign of terror.
Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus,
At the time, there was no treatment or cure. Rather, during wave
after wave of the disease, Roman society built up immunity to its
However, it's interesting
to note that a plague with the same symptoms was afflicting the
reigns of two
Han emperors in the Near East,
Huan of Han (146-168)
Ling of Han (168-189)
During the rules of these two emperors, there were outbreaks in 151,
161, 171, 173, 179, 182 and 185 - all of which have similar dates to
known outbreaks in the Roman Empire, and have been suggested as
being connected to the Antonine Plague in Eurasia.
It is suspected that this plague originated in some unknown and
isolated part of Central Asia, and that it spread throughout the
Chinese and Roman empires as trade between the two powers grew.
The bulk of this trade
was conducted via maritime trading, which suffered 'irreparable'
damage as a result of the loss of life.
As such, trade with Southeast Asia slowed dramatically, and although
silk and spice trade did continue into the 6th century, it would
never return its full glory.
Instead, the Antonine
Plague's legacy would be one that would only become apparent after
500 A.D., with the evolution of measles and its effects on our DNA.
The Course of Empire
of paintings by Thomas Cole)
Although the Antonine Plague would have little influence over the
arts or Roman culture, its social and political effects have left an
indelible mark on the pages of history.
With it, the plague
brought the death knell of the Roman Empire, and would herald in a
time of constant upheaval, betrayal, and - some would argue -
insanity at the hands of a capricious dictator.
But, perhaps what we should also remember is the effect the plague
had on Roman society. Amid the terror and confusion, Romans gave in
to believing falsehoods, behaving badly, and acting without true
understanding and honor.
Marcus' thoughts had been plagued by another pestilence, and
according to his writings in the
Meditations, he was deeply troubled
by what he observed.
His beloved Rome was
descending into chaos, wanton acts, denying fact in favor of
fiction, and choosing lies over truth and justice...
Perhaps we have something
to learn from the following reflection of his,
"Real good luck would
be to abandon life without ever encountering dishonesty, or
hypocrisy, or self-indulgence, or pride.
But the 'next best
voyage' is to die when you've had enough. Or are you determined
to lie down with evil?
even taught you that - to avoid it like the plague? Because it is a
plague - a mental cancer - worse than anything caused by tainted
air or an unhealthy climate.
Disease like that can only threaten
your life; this one attacks your humanity."