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Antonine Plague

From Academic Kids

The Antonine Plague AD 165-180, also known as the Plague of Galen, was an ancient pandemic, either of smallpox or measles brought back to the Roman Empire by troops returning from campaigns in the Near East. The epidemic claimed the lives of two Roman emperorsLucius Verus, who died in 169, and his co-regent who ruled until 180, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, whose family name, Antoninus, was given to the epidemic. The disease broke out again nine years later, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, and caused up to 2,000 deaths a day at Rome, one quarter of those infected. Total deaths have been estimated at five million.

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In 166, during the epidemic, the Greek physician and writer Galen traveled from Rome to his home in Asia Minor. He returned to Rome in 168 when summoned by the two Augusti. Galen’s observations and description of the epidemic, found in the treatise “Methodus Medendi”, is brief. He mentions fever, diarrhea, and inflammation of the pharynx, as well as a skin eruption, sometimes dry and sometimes pustular, appearing on the ninth day of the illness. The information provided by Galen does not clearly define the nature of the disease, but scholars have generally preferred to diagnose it as smallpox.

The epidemic had drastic social and political effects throughout the Roman Empire. Imperial forces moved east under the command of Emperor Verus when the forces of Vologases IV of Parthia attacked Armenia. The Romans’ defense of the eastern territories was hampered when large numbers of troops succumbed to the disease. According to the 4th century Spanish writer, Paulus Orosius, many towns and villages in the Italian peninsula and the European provinces lost all their inhabitants. As the disease swept north to the Rhine, it also infected Germanic and Gallic peoples outside the Empire’s borders. For a number of years, these northern groups had pressed south in search of more lands to sustain their growing populations. With their ranks thinned by the epidemic, Roman armies were now unable to push the tribes back. From 167 until his death, Emperor Marcus Aurelius personally commanded legions near the Danube, trying with only partial success to control the advance of Germanic peoples across the river. A major offensive against the Marcomanni was postponed until 169 because of a shortage of Imperial troops.

During the Germanic campaign, Marcus Aurelius also wrote his philosophical work, “Meditations”. Passage IX.2 states that even the pestilence around him is less deadly than falsehood, evil behavior, and lack of true understanding. As he lay dying from the disease, Marcus uttered the words “Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.”

Plague of Cyprian

In 251 to 266, at the height of a second major outbreak of disease, known as the Plague of Cyprian (the bishop of Carthage), 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome. Cyprian's biographer, Pontius the deacon, wrote of the plague at Carthage:

"Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcases of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience" [1] (http://www.users.drew.edu/ddoughty/Christianorigins/persecutions/cyprian.html).

In every age, the universal human reaction to overwhelming devastation is twofold: to moralize, and to lay the blame on a nearby minority and wreak vengeance. As Jews paid with their lives during the 14th century's Black Death, so in Carthage the "Decian persecution" unleashed at the onset of the plague sought out Christian scapegoats. Fifty years later, the North African convert to Christianity Arnobius defended his new religion from pagan allegations:

"that a plague was brought upon the earth after the Christian religion came into the world, and after it revealed the mysteries of hidden truth? But pestilences, say my opponents, and droughts, wars, famines, locusts, mice, and hailstones, and other hurtful things, by which the property of men is assailed, the gods bring upon us, incensed as they are by your wrong-doings and by your transgressions." (Adversus gentes 1.3)

Cyprian drew moralizing analogies in his sermons to the Christian community and drew a word picture of the plague's symptoms in his essay De mortalitate ("On Mortality"):

"This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened;--is profitable as a proof of faith. What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment!" [2] (http://www.ewtn.com/library/PATRISTC/ANF5-15.TXT)

Historian William McNeill asserts that the Antonine Plague and the Plague of Cyprian were outbreaks of two different diseases, one of smallpox and one of measles, although not necessarily in that order. The severe devastation to the European population from the two plagues may indicate that people had no previous exposure - or immunity - to either disease.

External links

Reference

  • Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations” - IX.2. Translation and Introduction by Maxwell Staniforth, Penguin, New York. 1981.
  • McNeill, William H. "Plagues and Peoples." Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., New York, NY, 1976, ISBN 0-385-12122-9.
  • Zinsser, Hans. “Rats, Lice and History: A Chronicle of Disease, Plagues, and Pestilence.” Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 1996. ISBN 1884822479.
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