The Impact of Plague: From Antiquity to the Present

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 21 March 2021

Almost exactly a year ago, the British government announced the first lockdown to counter the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and around the same time such measures were adopted in almost every other country. With Britain having now vaccinated nearly half the country, including all of the most vulnerable, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson having set out a timetable for the lifting of restrictions, it is possible to think of the post-COVID 19 situation and to wonder about how or if it will be different to what came before.

The great plagues of the classical world tend to be remembered because they had such important impacts on the course of history. The Athenian plague of 430 BC swept Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) against Sparta. In his history of the war, Thucydides, who had contracted the plague himself, points to the plague as having given a sense of invincibility to the survivors, the mindset that led to the Athenians’ Sicily expedition that was ultimately their undoing.

In Rome, the first two of the three great plagues can in some ways be considered two installments of a single event, the first a shock that traumatised the system and the second a final shove that broke it.

The Antonine plague (165-80 AD), also sometimes named for the physician Galen (d. c. 200) whose description of the plague survives, likely came from Persia and is believed to have been smallpox or measles; it killed five million or so people—about one-tenth of the Empire’s population—over fifteen years, including quite possibly the co-Emperor Lucius Verus (r. 161-9). Whether Verus fell to the plague or not, many of his troops did and the damage to the Roman army was disproportionate for an important reason: the spread of plague is an index of globalisation, and the Roman legions were the key infrastructure underpinning that globalised order. The legions were key vectors, along with trading ships and slaves, and the losses of these troops eroded the pillars of the Empire.

Fortunately for Rome, the surviving co-Emperor was Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-80), among the line of the most capable rulers that had begun with Nerva in 96 AD and brought the Empire to its height in the second century, securing Pax Romana. If there was a notable change, it was the large-scale re-adoption of the religiones to appease the gods. The return of the plague in 189 AD and the ascent to the throne of Aurelius’ wayward son, Commodus (r. 176-192), brought an end to this period and by the time the Cyprian plague (249-62) hit, it was a stress too far for a tottering Imperium.

The Cyprian plague, named for the bishop of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), a Berber convert to Christianity whose account of the plague is the major surviving source, might well have been Ebola, though much about this period is deeply uncertain because the records are so sparse, probably a testament to the virulence of the plague. Cyprian was executed in 258 during an anti-Christian persecution, itself partly induced by the stresses of the plague. The Emperor who oversaw this persecution, Valerian (r. 253-60), was soon the first Roman ruler to be captured in battle (by the Persians): Christians were greatly satisfied that their God’s justice was swift, and a mark was made of how far Rome had fallen.

The Empire was laboriously stabilised under Diocletian (r. 284-305), essentially rebuilt from the ground up, partly by means of decentralisation—the practice of having two Emperors, one east and one west, is institutionalised—but with each of the autonomous polities more centralised and powerful within themselves than had previously been the case. The process of state Christianization follows almost immediately under Constantine (r. 306-337) and continues, with one brief effort at reversal, until Christianity is proclaimed the official religion in 380 by Theodosius (r. 379-95). The storm clouds had been gathering even before Theodosius had died, however, and with the sack of Rome in 410, the terminal decline of the Western Roman Empire is underway and concludes in 476.

The Roman Empire survives in the East as Byzantium for another thousand years, and half-a-century after collapse in the West had seemed to be recovering generally under Emperor Justinian (r. 527-65), who restored direct Roman rule to the city of Rome in 536, albeit at great cost, while reconquering much of Italy and taking back the lost Roman territories in Africa and even Spain. The Justinian plague (541-49) that erupts in Egypt before overtaking the whole Empire and derailing Rome’s revival is almost certainly the first major bubonic plague epidemic and potentially killed fifty million people, half the population of the world at the time.

The plague was devastating in the cities—some estimates say 5,000 people per day were dying in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople—and similar rates were occurring to the east, in Sassanid Persia, the great rival to Byzantium/Rome. Less affected were the rural provinces, notably the desert periphery of the Levant and Arabia, the battleground where Byzantium met Persia and fought each other through Arab proxies, who, in the 630s, took advantage of the mutual exhaustion of the two superpowers after the last and greatest war between them to overrun Persia entirely and to bring the Byzantine Christian territories of the Levant, North Africa, and Spain under the rule of an Arab Empire that would in time fashion a new creed, Islam, drawn from the two vanquished superpowers. Without the plague, Justinian might well have succeeded in recreating Rome as a Mediterranean power and would thus have been able to mitigate the impact the Persian war in the seventh century, and in those circumstances it is difficult to imagine Islam’s emergence.

The plague that originates during Justinian’s rule will persist and flare up intermittently for about two centuries, and a second wave, perhaps more deadly and certainly more instantiated in the memory of the Christian world, begins six centuries after that, in the middle of the fourteenth century. This second plague pandemic, which comes to be known as the Black Death, begins in about 1346 in China and in 1347 reaches Europe, Crimea to be exact, carried with the Mongols, a horrific coda to their direct ravaging. Over the next five years, approximately seventy-five million people—between one-third and one-half the population of Eurasia—were killed.

In his book, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents (2005), John Aberth documents the difference in reaction in Christendom and the Islamic world.

Christians, Aberth explains, were sure that the plague was a judgment from God upon the sinful and looked to do penance so that the punishment would be lifted: it is no accident that the flagellant movement revived at this time. The more sinister aspect was that Christianity’s apocalyptic strain came to the fore and this made Jews into targets. Jews were accused of causing the plague, either by poisoning the wells as part of their mission to bring about the reign of the Antichrist or by their presence contaminating communities with heresy, thus provoking God’s wrath, while hindering the Second Coming by refusing to convert.

In the short-term, it all added up to a Christian conviction that the Jews were in the way and the pogroms that took place in France, Germany, and Austria—over the strenuous objections of the Roman Pope Clement VI (r. 1342-52)—were on a scale that would only be seen again during the Holocaust, itself in a sense a long-term consequence of this episode: the antisemitic tropes of the flagellants and others build on ideas tracing back to the early Church, but they thickened and expanded them in new ways that had a profound impact among Christians over the next several centuries.

Islamdom showed no such tendency to scapegoating its Jews because the Muslim concept of God is so powerful that events happen only through Him: to posit a human cause would be to deny His agency, a very serious blasphemy. The downside to this belief, as Aberth documents, is that it applied to the notion of contagion, too: germ theory was still half-a-millennium in the future, but in Christendom the basic idea was accepted and proto-social distancing measures and quarantines were widely adopted from quite early on in the second pandemic wave. Muslim theologians denounced the idea that any mechanism but God selected who was to live and who was to die. Communal prayers continued and death by plague was regarded as a mercy, a chance to get closer to God; taking measures to avoid try to influence the fate already handed down would be a defiance of His will.

The lack of an inclination in Islamdom to scapegoat religious minorities during the Black Death also has to be qualified by noting that minorities were persecuted, namely that minority among Muslims who advocated the contagion theory. In Andalusia, the areas of Iberia occupied by Islamic armies and often held up as a bastion of tolerance, the philosopher and physician Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib was put to death after he wrote that the “existence of contagion has been proved by experience, deduction, … [and] observation”, visible in the way plague spreads by the transfer of diseased items and in the cities moving from house to house in a traceable manner.

The second wave of plague that begins with the Black Death persists for at least four-hundred years, with terrible recurrent outbreaks all across Christendom. Britain is struck soon after the first wave, in the 1360s, and then again just after the turmoil of civil war with the “Great Plague” in 1665-6 that is only ended by the “Great Fire” of London in September 1666. Shortly before this, in the late 1640s, Spain had been hit and a quarter of the population of Seville wiped out; shortly afterwards, Austria would be afflicted in 1679, first in Vienna and then in the eastern Habsburg territories. The major outbreaks of the eighteenth century were in France (1720), Central Europe (1738), and Russia (1771).

A third wave of the plague in 1855, again originating in China, spread to India, killing ten million or more people in each country but being largely confined to the east this time. The impact crested and declined within a few years, but a fairly substantial yearly death rate could be attributed to this plague well into the 1890s. The major political impact was helping fuel a massive theocratic rebellion in China (1851-64) by the Taiping, a sect created by Hong Xiuquan, a convert to (Protestant) Christianity, who declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and who managed to carve out a millenarian statelet of a kind not seen since the Munster events at the beginning of the Reformation. Based around Nanking, this “Heavenly Kingdom” ruled over nearly thirty million souls until it was eventually put down, with assistance from the British in the form of General Charles Gordon, later murdered by another group of theocratic rebels, the Mahdists in Sudan.

The final pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, gives a very different lesson altogether. The high-end estimate is that the First World War killed twenty million people; that is the most conservative estimate for the death toll of the Spanish flu. First detected in Kansas in the United States in March 1918 and then on the Western Front a month later, over the next two years the pandemic killed maybe one-hundred million people, one percent of the entire globe, though the true toll will never be known since reliable statistics are difficult to get at even in the West and impossible for Africa, Central Asia, and the Far East. Yet the Spanish flu had no discernible political ramifications; there is no serious way to connect the virus to the Bolshevik coup or the Red risings in Central Europe, for example, and it played no part in the historiography of the fascists and Nazis. The 1918-19 pandemic all-but passed out of memory for a long time afterwards.

COVID-19 is very unlikely to be the last pandemic this century, and the next one will almost certainly be worse. It can be hoped that 2020-21 serves as a test run, so to speak; that the administrative weaknesses that it has exposed are tended to and the structural vulnerabilities—like not having domestic industrial capacities—are rectified. But it is possible that the pandemic will set in train a political evolution in an extremist direction that prevents this, or that everyone is so keen to “get back to normal” that the entire thing is consigned to a kind of oblivion, overtaken by pre-existing and more immediate-seeming political priorities; in either case, it would mean almost nothing was done to reinforce the defences against pandemic that did not hold up very well even in the most technologically sophisticated states.




Post has been updated

1 thought on “The Impact of Plague: From Antiquity to the Present

  1. Craken

    You’ve got a miscalculation: the Spanish Flu killed perhaps 100 million at the most, out of a population of 1.9 billion. That would be about 5%, not 1% as you have it. In the U.S., the highest estimate is under 1% mortality.


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