Pandemics in Perspective

Plague in an Ancient City by Michael Sweerts (c.1652) is thought to depict the Plague of Athens.

Many adjectives can describe our current historical reality, which materialized when it became clear that the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) would reach pandemic proportions: Surreal, scary, revelatory, and humbling are all real and appropriate descriptions. Another term that appears frequently in news reports is “unprecedented.” It is certainly understandable that the current crises may feel unprecedented. After all, it has been more than three generations since the last pandemic of comparable magnitude. However, history assures us that our current global condition is most definitely not unprecedented. Humanity has confronted pandemic events many times before. An examination of our current state through a historical lens can perhaps offer us another adjective: hopeful.

Plague of Athens

Our earliest eyewitness account of a devastating disease event in classical antiquity comes to us from the Greek historian Thucydides, who describes in horrific detail his own experience during the “Plague of Athens,” an outbreak that occurred during a series of wars with Sparta at the end of the fifth century B.C.E. Holed up in their walled city in an attempt to ward off a besieging Spartan army, the Athenians found themselves fighting a war against their human enemies without, while simultaneously confronting an unknown disease within. Some estimates suggest that the Athenian epidemic killed up to 25 percent of the total population.1

Historical demography is a tricky science, particularly when it comes to ancient sources. We will probably never know the true mortality rate when it comes to the Plague of Athens, but Thucydides’s chilling narrative brings home the impact with blunt imagery: According to his account, the sight of the constantly burning funeral pyres prompted the besieging Spartans to pack up and retreat, lest they, too, succumb to the contagion (The Peloponnesian War 2.57).

Antonine Plague

More than five centuries later, the “Antonine Plague” made its appearance in Rome in 164–165 C.E. Legions of the Roman army, fresh from victory over Parthia in the east, returned to Rome not only with war booty, but also with a mysterious disease that the second-century physician Galen, an eyewitness to the pandemic, called “the great plague” (On My Own Books 1.19.15K). Many of Galen’s writings survive, and his case notes describe a disease that modern scientists generally agree was smallpox, a viral heavy-hitter for which we happily have a vaccine today, but which had a dizzying mortality rate of approximately 30 percent (i.e., 30 percent of those who contracted the disease did not survive).2

The most current studies suggest that the Antonine Plague may have carried off between 7 to 8 million people, approximately 10 percent of the Roman Empire’s total population.3

Plague of Cyprian

Less than a century after the Antonine Plague, the “Plague of Cyprian” (249–270 C.E.) was recorded by the eponymous Bishop of Carthage, who describes a transcontinental pandemic of such magnitude that an Athenian historian claims as many as 5,000 of his compatriots died per day during the height of the pandemic (Historia Augusta: Gallieni Duo 5.5). The sociopolitical and economic consequences of the disease event were major contributing factors to what is sometimes referred to as the “third-century crises,” a period of upheaval and instability in the Empire that lasted for decades, and which eventually led to Rome’s dissolution in the West and its refashioning as a Christian empire in the East.

Plague of Justinian

The Eastern Roman Empire (also referred to as the Byzantine Empire) would endure for almost a millennium. One of its most famous emperors, Justinian I (r. 527–565 C.E.), would go down in the annals of history for, among other things, his role in shaping the doctrines and institutions of the early Church. But in addition to his various historical accolades, Justinian’s name would also be forever linked to antiquity’s next major pandemic event: the “Plague of Justinian” (541–546 C.E.).

Justinian’s plague marks the first known appearance of the Yersinia pestis bacterium on the European continent. Known today as the bubonic plague, it is a disease that can be managed with modern medicine’s antibiotics. Left untreated, however, it is a savage killer. Estimates derived from the sixth-century primary sources place its mortality rate somewhere between 50 and 60 percent, a number that squares with similar estimates from its most infamous resurgence in the 14th century (1347–1351 C.E.), a disease event referred to as the “Black Death” by its horrified eyewitnesses. Current statistical analyses suggest that the population of Europe in the mid-14th century dropped from 450 million to 350–375 million. It would take about two centuries for Europe’s population to reach its pre-pandemic numbers.4

Today, watching and reading the myriad sources of information (and misinformation) concerning COVID-19 and its domino-like impact on virtually all aspects of lives, it is difficult not to reflect upon the stark similarities between past pandemics and this one. In recent years, there have been many excellent studies on the interconnected nature of seemingly disparate phenomena that converged to create “perfect storms” of disease in the distant and not-so-distant past. Situations in which diverse and naturally separate ecosystems artificially converge, the massive movement—or forced displacement—of human and/or animal populations, environmental exploitation, and changes in climate have all been unequivocally proven to be substantial factors in pandemics throughout history.

Likewise, pandemics in the historical record include accounts of fear-induced conspiracy theories, quack cures, missteps by governmental officials, and the persecution of specific groups. The need to lay blame, regardless of its unfounded nature, is an unfortunate but consistently reported response to such events.

But the differences between events of the past and today are similarly stark—and encouraging. Never before has humanity been so well placed to confront medical crises of such huge proportions. We are the beneficiaries of medical advancements and treatments that would have been unimaginable even a hundred years ago. These advancements will continue to be pushed forward determinedly by the scientific and medical communities until an effective treatment or vaccine is developed. Safety measures and protocols can be communicated to entire populations in a matter of minutes, as can efforts to organize and mobilize resources. Social and other forms of media circulate examples of everyday kindness, generosity, and grace, actions which were largely omitted from the historical record in antiquity.

It is these aspects of the current pandemic that are truly unprecedented—and why we have great reasons for hope.


[1] Exactly which disease caused the Athenian plague is unknown, but Robert Littman suggests typhus as the most likely cause. See Robert J. Littman, “The Plague of Athens: Epidemiology and Paleopathology,” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 76.5 (2009), pp. 456–467.

[2] Until relatively recently, it was believed that measles was a potential culprit for the Antonine Plague. However, a 2010 study suggests that the measles virus in its current iteration did not evolve until the 10th or 11th centuries, making a variation of smallpox the most likely candidate for the pandemic of the Antonine era. See Yuki Furuse, Akira Suzuki, and Hitoshi Oshitani, “Origin of Measles Virus: Divergence from Rinderpest Virus Between the 11th and 12th Centuries,” Virology Journal 7 (2010).

[3] See Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2017), p. 115. Yan Zelener suggests the mortality rate was even higher with a range of 22–24 percent; see Yan Zelener, “Genetic Evidence, Density Dependence, and Epidemiological Models of the ‘Antonine Plague,’ ” in Elio Lo Cascio, ed., L’impatto della “Peste Antonina” (Bari: Edipuglia, 2012).

[4] See Ole J. Benedictow, The Black Death, 1346–1353: The Complete History (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2004), p. 383.


sarah-yeomansSARAH K. YEOMANS specializes in the Imperial period of the Roman Empire. Pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California, she is also adjunct faculty at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and West Virginia University.

This article is published in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review

Read more about plagues in Bible History Daily

Justinian Plague Linked to the Black Death The reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I (482–565 C.E.) was marked by both glory and devastation. Justinian reconquered much of the former Roman Empire while establishing lasting legal codes and cultural icons, including Hagia Sophia, the world’s largest cathedral, for nearly 1,000 years. However, his reign was scarred by the spread of the Justinian Plague, which claimed the lives of tens of millions of people in the 540s. Justinian himself was a victim of the plague.

Doctors, Diseases and Deities: Epidemic Crises and Medicine in Ancient Rome There’s no question that today’s modern culture is very different from that of ancient Rome, but certain human realities remain consistent across time. The challenges of illness and injury were as prevalent in the Roman Empire as they are in today’s society, and the concern with medicine and health is something modern people have in common with ancient Romans. BAS Director of Educational Programs Sarah Yeomans’s doctoral research is concerned with Roman medical technology, medical cult and the impact of plague on Roman society. Recently, she gave a lecture on these subjects at the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In her presentation, Yeomans surveys some of the remarkable discoveries made at a site in Italy that has yielded an extraordinary amount of information about the surgical technology available in ancient Rome. The “House of the Surgeon,” located in Rimini, is a treasure trove of artifacts that tells us a great deal about the practice of medicine almost 2,000 years ago.

Classical Corner: The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity The year was 166 C.E., and the Roman Empire was at the zenith of its power. The triumphant Roman legions, under the command of Emperor Lucius Verrus, returned to Rome victorious after having defeated their Parthian enemies on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. As they marched west toward Rome, they carried with them more than the spoils of plundered Parthian temples; they also carried an epidemic that would ravage the Roman Empire over the course of the next two decades, an event that would inexorably alter the landscape of the Roman world. The Antonine Plague, as it came to be known, would reach every corner of the empire and is what most likely claimed the life of Lucius Verrus himself in 169—and possibly that of his co-emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180.

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  1. Arline Sachs says:

    Why does it ask me to subscribe every time I open something from BAS I am a subscriber. I have filled out the form several times, and have been receiving BAR for over 40 years?

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