Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (2) Roman Empire

A series of plagues contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. A massive expansion of travel networks and movements of large armies of Roman soldiers aided the spread of infectious diseases.

These plagues were reinforced by changes in the climate which caused food shortages. Rome emerged to power during a season when the climate was favourable (Roman Climate Optimum, 200 BC to 150 AD) for an agricultural empire. After the empire peaked, the weather became more disruptive (Roman Transitional Period, AD 150 to AD 450). The empire’s collapse concurred with a spell of frigid weather caused by volcanic activity (Late Antique Little Ice Age, AD 450 – AD 700).

Antonine Plague
The event called the Antonine Plague began in Asia Minor in about AD 160 amongst soldiers returning from fighting in Persia. It has arrived in Rome AD 166. Jerome recorded that it had decimated the army by AD 172, reducing its strength by at least a quarter. Roman documents do not name the pathogen that caused this plague, but historians have concluded that it was most likely Smallpox, as the symptoms were fevers, rashes and scabbing. They have estimated that this plague caused the deaths of ten to twenty million people or a quarter of the population. This plague was still around ten years later, but the population of the Roman empire recovered quickly from this plague.

Plague of Cyprian
A second severe plague struck when Cyprian was bishop of Carthage in North Africa. It came from Ethiopia and migrated west across the empire from AD 259 to about AD 270. This disease killed everyone in a household quite quickly. Fevers and headaches struck first and were followed by haemorrhaging from the mouth and bowels. Death was agonising and those who survived often had permanent disfigurement of limbs and loss of hearing and sight.

Historian Kyle Harper suggests that this pandemic was caused by a filovirus like Ebola. It was different from anything the empire had experienced before. It struck soldiers and civilians, city dwellers and villagers. The death toll was horrendous.

The pandemic seriously fragmented the empire as armies revolted and the frontiers were penetrated by enemies. Food shortages and difficulties collecting taxes made it hard to pay the armies and keep them loyal. By late in the AD 260s, there were essentially three empires and later emperors struggled to reunite them again.

The crisis sparked religious conflict and Christians were persecuted. Nevertheless, the gospel expanded, because the compassion of the Christians caring for the sick was conspicuous. Basic nursing care significantly reduced the mortality rate, as providing water and food kept many people alive who would otherwise have died.

The empire recovered from this pandemic much more slowly, but by the fourth century, it had become stronger again.

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