The Antonine Plague (165 – 180 CE)
This fearsome and devastating epidemic was thought to have been introduced to the Roman Empire by troops returning from their campaigns in the Near East. So virulent and fatal was the disease that it is reckoned to have caused the deaths of 5 million unfortunates and as much as a third of the population in some areas as well as devastating the Roman army. It may well have accounted for the death of the emperor at the time, Lucius Verus, who pegged it in 169.
What is interesting about this epidemic is that it was witnessed and recorded first hand by the great Greek physician, Galen, in his Methodus Medendi and, consequently, it is often known as the Plague of Galen. This was not a fast-acting disease. Galen describes it as great and of long duration with the victim suffering fever, diarrhoea and inflammation of the throat and then on the ninth day a skin eruption, sometimes dry and sometimes pustular. From his description some scholars have concluded that it was a smallpox based epidemic.
Ancient sources affirm that the epidemic first appeared during the Roman siege of Seleucia in the winter of 165-6 and that it then spread to Gaul and the legions along the Rhine. Galen witnessed the epidemic first hand amongst the troops stationed at Aquileia in the winter of 168/9. Of course, there being no antidote or effective quarantining, the populace were forced to rely on their own resources or seek help from the gods or other forces. Lucian records that the charlatan Alexander despatched a verse containing a magical spell to all parts of the empire during the pestilence and it could be seen written over doorways everywhere, particularly, the poet notes with heavy irony, of houses that were emptied of occupants.
The geo-political consequences of the plague were significant. The Parthians took the opportunity to attack Armenia and the Roman defence of their territories was significantly hampered when a large number of their troops succumbed to the disease. According to a 5th century source many towns and villages in the Italian peninsula and the European provinces lost all their inhabitants. The disease swept north into the Rhine area infecting Germanic and Gallic peoples outside the empire’s border.
The northern tribes pushed southwards in an attempt to find more and better living space and the Roman armies were hard-pressed to contain them. The then emperor Marcus Aurelius personally commanded troops near the Danube in an attempt, which was only partially successful, to hold back the hordes. A campaign against the German tribe, the Marcomanni, was postponed until 169 because there weren’t enough troops available.
Despite his campaigning Marcus Aurelius found time to write his stoical philosophical Meditations but the footprint of the plague is plain to see. In one passage he notes that the plague around him was less deadly than falsehood, evil behaviour and lack of compassion. Even on his death-bed he asked those around him not to weep for him but to think of the pestilence and the deaths of so many that it accounted for.
I doubt many shared his stoical approach to life and death.