A Glib History of Ancient Pandemics

Wherein I draw tenuous connections between the current Coronavirus shemozzle and the great pandemics of the ancient world.

A dramatic depiction of an ancient Roman chariot race by Hungarian painter Alexander von Wagner inspired by Lew Wallace's 1880 best-seller Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Naming Controversies

There’s no justice in the naming conventions for infectious disease. Sometimes they’re named after the place where they first broke out – like the Plague of Athens – and sometimes they’re named after the guy in charge at the time. Sometimes they’re named after the size of the pox relative to other, similar, poxes and sometimes the name is just a convenient way to insult foreign rivals. The French initially called the venereal disease syphilis the ‘Neapolitan disease’ after Naples but later switched to calling it the ‘Spanish disease’ (presumably after relations with the Neopolitans had thawed). The English, Italians and the Germans all started out calling syphilis the ‘French disease’ (‘morbus Gallicus’) while the Russians called it the ‘Polish disease’. For reasons lost to history the Polish decided to refer to it as the ‘Turkish disease’ while the Turkish hedged their bets by calling it the ‘Christian disease’.

But the really deadly plagues seem to have attached themselves to the prominent figures of the era they coincided with. The Antonine plague, which broke out in the 2nd century AD, was named after Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Which feels a bit unfair given that he’s widely considered the model for a benevolent philosopher king*. He carried out reforms to make life tolerable for the less fortunate members of Roman society – such as slaves, widows, orphans and Christians. He also wrote a philosophical treatise on putting-up-with-shit that remains popular to the present day (mostly thanks to men in their 20s that own a lot of books by Richard Dawkins). But, as the old joke goes, you fuck one goat…

The Antonine plague is sometimes referred to as the Plague of Galen. He was the foremost medical expert of the era and just happened to be the first person to document the plague and its symptoms. Galen certainly doesn’t deserve to be permanently associated with some dreadful disease but, as Lou Gehrig would attest, sometimes you just have to play the hand you’re dealt. It’s still possible that our current crisis will go down in history as the Plague of Fauci or the WHO Flu.

Returning to the ancient world the 6th century Plague of Justinian was named after the Byzantine ruler at the time – as if it was something he came up with in his bio-warfare laboratory. But, all things considered, Justinian ought to be remembered for his political genius. He reconquered half the Roman Empire, re-built Constantinople, commissioned the Hagia Sophia and was so successful in fixing the legal system that we’re practically still using his laws to this day.

Worse still is when plagues get named after the first place to raise the alarm. That’s how we’ve ended up with the infamous ‘Spanish flu’ – which was reported on by the Spanish press in 1918 at a time when the rest of the world’s news organisations remained muzzled by wartime censorship laws.

I suppose we should be thankful that, despite Trump’s insistence on calling it the ‘China Virus’, we now appear to be labelling our infectious diseases based on what they look like under an electron microscope. Though, to be honest, most 3D renders of Coronavirus don’t make it look much like a crown. It clearly looks more like the burrs you find stuck to your hiking boots or one of those old-timey sea mines.

*Parthians notwithstanding


Campaign Rallies

Ancient Rome might not have invented right-wing populism but it definitely perfected the art. When the Antonine plague was sweeping through Rome the Emperor Commodus was in charge and his raging narcissism makes Trump look like a shrinking violet. He declared himself a god, erected statues of himself looking like Hercules and renamed Rome ‘Commodiana’. To ensure his popularity he kept up the free grain distribution to the urban poor and organised spectacular chariot races and gladiatorial games that were open to the public. Commodus sometimes took part in staged fights preceding the main event at the Colosseum but, for each appearance in the arena, the Emperor charged the city a million sesterces (roughly equivalent to four million dollars).

Cassius Dio – one of the lucky senators to escape execution during Commodus’s frequent bouts of paranoia – wrote that the emperor ignored the plague even at its height when it was killing two thousand people a day in Rome. In his history Dio tells us that;

“Commodus devoted most of his life to ease and to horses and to combats of wild beasts and of men. In fact, besides all that he did in private, he often slew in public large numbers of men and beasts as well. For example, all alone with his own hands, he dispatched five hippopotami together with two elephants on two successive days; and he also killed rhinoceroses and a camelopard [giraffe]. This is what I have to say with reference to his career as a whole.”

The best thing that can be said for Commodus is that he appears to have been a somewhat resourceful maniac. He’s credited with inventing a new sort of arrow-head designed specifically for decapitating ostriches. Dio later apologises to his readers for ‘sullying the dignity of history by recording such occurrences’ which are sentiments we can all relate to given what’s happened over the last four years. At least Commodus appears to have understood the necessity of providing both bread and circuses. Trump seems to think he can get away with providing just the circus.

French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme's famous painting 'Pollice Verso' (from Latin: with a turned thumb) shows a crowd in the coliseum demanding the death of a wounded gladiator. Commodus as depicted by Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley's Scott's Gladiator. The film had Commodus die in the arena but in real life we was strangled to death in the bath by his personal trainer. Detail from a marble relief on the funeray monument of Lusius Storax's, ca 30-50 AD.


Hooking Up With Security Guards

The New York Times has a great article on anti-mask activism in American during the Spanish flu epidemic but the history of stubborn jerks refusing to follow public health advice isn’t confined to the United States and goes back a lot further than the 20th century. When historian Giulia Calvi studied the Italian plague of 1630 she uncovered a whole raft of low-level corruption designed to circumvent quarantine measures and restrictions. She points out that:

“Surgeons could be bribed to certify deaths as not plague, allowing loved ones to be buried in churchyards; inspectors could overlook plague and allow families to remain in their homes, perhaps extracting material or sexual favours in return. Clearly, gaps have existed between what authority decrees and what actually happens”

As any Victorian who’s watched the last thirty consecutive Dan Andrews press conferences will know – we’re still contending with the gaps between what the authorities decree and what actually happens.


Conspiracy Theories and Scapegoats

Rejecting expert advice and coming up with deranged conspiracy theories is also not a modern phenomenon. To be fair on our ancestors, the expert advice they received often wasn’t much better than a deranged conspiracy theory. Most physicians and scholars believed that ‘corrupted air’ was the main vector for disease but many others believed that plague could be spread through speech or eye contact or 5G mobile phone signals.

One of the more resilient conspiracy theories was that Jews in Medieval Europe were somehow responsible for spreading the plague. Race riots against Jewish communities were so common that they eventually got their own name – pogroms. Modern historians have suggested that some of these outbursts of violence may have been prompted by a noticeable difference in plague mortality between gentiles and jews – possibly owing to the fact that Jewish hygiene practises require people to actually wash their hands every once in a while.

Later on, in the 1830s, the spread of cholera baffled both medical authorities and the general public – leaving many people convinced that their governments were poisoning them to reduce the population. Likewise when British authorities attempted to introduce a smallpox vaccine in the late 19th century there were rumours that the vaccination program was a plot to kill children under five and dank memes circulated at the time depicting Queen Victoria as a modern-day Herod.


Do Not Resuscitate Orders

These days you can get tattoos or bracelets that instruct paramedics and doctors not to to attempt CPR if your heart stops beating. The Byzantines would have considered that to be pure luxury. Back in their time people wore ID cards just to get a proper burial. According to John of Ephesus, who witnessed the plague sweep through Constantinople;

“When they were obliged to go out, the one who went out, either to accompany or to bury (the dead), wrote a tablet with these words that he hung on his arm: “I am such a one, son of such a one, and of such a neighbourhood; if I die, for God’s sake, and to show his mercy and goodness, let them know at my house, and let my people come to bury me”


Asymptomatic Transmission

Received wisdom in antiquity was that plagues came from swamps and roadkill and other things that stank but that theory didn’t seem to match up with first-hand experience. Aide to the patriarch of Antioch and man with a nerdy name – Evagrius Scholasticus – wrote that Justinian’s plague defied all logic;

“The ways in which the disease; was communicated, were various and unaccountable: for some perished by merely living with the infected, others by only touching them, others by having entered their chamber, others by frequenting public places. Some, having fled from the infected cities, escaped themselves, but imparted the disease to the healthy. Some were altogether free from contagion, though they had associated with many who were afflicted, and had touched many not only in their sickness but also when dead. Some, too, who were desirous of death, on account of the utter loss of their children and friends, and with this view placed themselves as much as possible in contact with the diseased, were nevertheless not infected; as if the pestilence struggled against their purpose.”


Boomer Bail-outs

Justinian’s plague also wreaked havoc amongst the subjects of the early Caliphate. When Caliph Umar II – the Bernie Sanders of Islam – came to power in the 8th century he reinstated the welfare policies that had been established by the first Caliphs (known as the Righteous Four) and also declared that all debts would be forgiven by the state. Many regional governors complained to the Umar that his debt-forgiveness program wasn’t sufficiently means-tested. Discussing public policy in the early years of the Caliphate Basem A Khalil wriote;

“His governors reported back to him that some of those in debt had a house with all its necessities, a horse/camel as means of transportation and a servant. Governors felt that such people were not entitled to State money to pay off their debts. The Caliph replied that these were basic necessities for the citizens of his Caliphate and they should not part with these necessities in order to pay their debts.”


Climate Change:

People in Justinian’s era were also dealing with climate change. An enormous spasm of volcanic activity in the 530s and 540s is thought to have triggered a period of global cooling known as the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’. Traces of this climatic shift show up in ice cores and tree-rings and one study has suggested that global temperatures during that time might have dropped by 3.6F (unfortunately there’s no way of knowing what that means in real terms).

These shifts in average temperatures are thought to have enticed Slavic and Germanic tribes to migrate south so that they could take advantage of those balmy Mediterranean winters. Famously the Byzantine Emperor’s elite Varangian guard were made up almost exclusively of Vikings who wanted the chance to get a tan. The LALIA is also thought to have helped the Caliphate in its initial conquests as increased rainfall in the Arabian peninsula boosted the all-important camel economy.


Bed Hair and Zoom Meetings

Admittedly the Byzantines didn’t have Zoom but, under normal circumstances, they were snappy dressers. Instead of a toga the typical fashion of the Roman east was the chlamys – a sort of one-piece cloak but, just like us, they all became scruffy and disheveled once they were under lockdown. Procopius tells us that:

“…it was not possible to see a single man in Byzantium clad in the chlamys, and especially when the emperor became ill (for he too had a swelling of the groin), but in a city which held dominion over the whole Roman empire every man was wearing clothes befitting private station and remaining quietly at home.”

There you have it. Even the Byzantine emperor opted for a comfortable North Face jacket.

The high fashion of Justinian's court as depicted in the mosaics preserved in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.


Nature is Healing, We Are The Virus

When the Coronavirus first hit there were a lot of pictures circulating on the net apparently showing animals moving back into the spaces vacated by locked-down commuters. There were dolphins in the Venice canals and coyotes in Chicago and a jaguar roaming the streets of Tulum in Mexico. Most of these stories turned out to be bullshit but, in late antiquity, the phenomenon was very real. The major source on the plague in Italy was Paul the Deacon. His History of the Lombards includes this poetic description of life after the plague.

“You might see the world brought back to its ancient silence: no voice in the field; no whistling of shepherds; no lying in wait of wild beasts among the cattle; no harm to domestic fowls. The crops, outliving the time of the harvest, awaited the reaper untouched; the vineyard with its fallen leaves and its shining grapes remained undisturbed while winter came on; . . . pastoral places had been turned into sepulchers for men, and human habitations had become places of refuge for wild beasts.”


Quantitative Easing

So far the various stimulus measures taken by central banks around the world have managed to stave off a global depression. They’ve also managed to piss off the sorts of people that quote Ayn Rand and buy Bitcoin and 3D printed firearms. I believe that’s what economists call a ‘win-win’ situation. The scale of the current global economy produces some staggering figures but governments taking on massive amounts of debt is nothing new. Likewise ramping up inflation is a tried and tested method for reducing that debt even though it remains difficult to explain to the general public.

Throughout history major crises have often prompted drastic monetary policy. During the Plague of Justinian the Emperor minted lighter versions of the standard ‘solidi’ gold coins. These were used to make payments from the treasury while the old coins were collected through taxation. Historians refer to this as ‘currency debasement’ but nowadays we’d call it ‘quantitative easing’ because that doesn’t sound as scary.



We don’t really know how the Coronavirus will affect our society in the long run but we do know that historical plagues have tended to shake the societal Etch-a-Sketch. Like other natural disasters epidemics can have a profound levelling effect. In the aftermath of the Plague of Justinian wealthy landowners still needed peasants to till the fields and workers to maintain the city but, by the late sixth century, there were far fewer people available to do the work. The Byzantine chronicler John of Ephesus highlighted the ‘scandalous profits’ being made by those tasked with disposing of the dead but, in a more petty turn, also complained about the greatly increased cost of getting laundry done in Constantinople (another reason people probably ditched their fancy chlamyses). To reduce a vast human tragedy to a simple economic equation; scarcity of labor = improvement in real wages.

But the Byzantine emperor was having none of that. He issued an edict in 544 directed at employers which threatened to fine them if they paid their employees more than the standard rate. As far as Justinian was concerned Adam Smith’s invisible hand could fuck off back to the future.

“We have ascertained that, in spite of the punishment inflicted by Our Lord God, persons engaged in trade and literary pursuits, as well as artisans and agriculturists of different kinds, and sailors, when they should lead better lives, have devoted themselves to the acquisition of gain, and demand double and triple wages and salaries, in violation of ancient customs.”

The fiends!

Some historians even consider the Plague of Justinian to have helped speed up the demise of slavery in Europe. As the population decreased the demand for labor increased and slaves could, for the first time, run away from their masters and offer their services elsewhere. Naturally the authorities at the time weren’t thrilled about this new form of social mobility. In his book Plague and the End of Antiquity historian Lester K. Little explains that;

“In the latter half of the sixth century and through the seventh, there took place in both Visigothic Spain and Lombard Italy an escalation of repressive measures (a nearly certain sign of a failed policy) having to do with runaways. According to one leading Iberian historian, the population of the Visigothic kingdom had by 700 [AD] come to constitute one vast social police force for hunting down slaves; punishments were now provided for any who failed to cooperate with this operation”

Coincidently a whole class of people who’d been brought up to believe that work was somethings slaves did so that they could devote themselves to playing the lute were suddenly faced with with all the chores that their runaway servants had left them. Again Lester K. Little summarises.

“The very concept of work … underwent a significant change at this time… In roman culture there was a fundamental opposition between leisure (otium) and work (negotium). The first referred not to laziness or aimlessness but to an honourable and agreeable search for wisdom through intellectual or artistic pursuits; the second meant literally the negation of leisure (neatly captured in the English word busi-ness). Work could also be expressed by the word labor, which was considered to be painful and sad. One way of expressing the change that came about in the Latin West in the sixth century was the simultaneous rise of work to respectability and the descent of leisure to its connotations of aimless passing of time”

So if you’re wondering why working from home makes you feel miserable but your hobbies make you feel guilty it’s because monks that survived a plague during the dark ages convinced everyone that having a job was inherently moral.

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.


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