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A ‘plague’ comes before the fall: lessons from Roman history

A ‘plague’ comes before the fall: lessons from Roman history

Colosseum.The ruins of the Colosseum in Rome. Credit: Livioandronico2013. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Pax Romana—the 200-year “golden age” of the Roman Empire—was a marvel of diversity, connectivity, and unchallenged hegemony. By the middle of the second century AD, imperial Rome ruled territory across three different continents. Roughly one-quarter of the Earth’s population, some 60 million people, lived under Rome’s vast aegis, and the emperors of the age—most notably Marcus Aurelius—enjoyed the consent of those they governed. The Empire’s elites—witnessing the disciplined legions, widespread religiosity, cultural efflorescence, and dominant economy—likely expected their world order to endure forever.

In the year 166 AD, however, seemingly eternal Rome was caught completely off-guard as a deadly novel disease swept across the Eurasian landmass. It ransacked Rome’s cities for at least a decade and preceded centuries of decline. This major biological event—now known as the Antonine plague—appears to have been the world’s first pandemic.

Historians hotly debate its death toll—with estimates ranging from 2 percent to 35 percent mortality—and its broader social and economic effects. The disease itself remains undiagnosed. The great Greek physician Galen described its main symptoms as fever, throat ulcers, and a pustular rash. Some have suspected it was measles or smallpox, but modern analysis provides reasons to doubt these as the possible culprits. Human remains from the Antonine plague period, meanwhile, have thus far failed to yield genetic evidence sufficient to identify the pathogen.

Although the plague did not on its own cut short Rome’s dominance, it struck an empire that was confronting multiple challenges beneath a veneer of prosperity and growth—factors that modern-day infectious disease experts might recognize as creating the ideal conditions for pandemics. Much remains unknown about the Antonine plague; in some ways, modern scholars are just as in the dark about this first pandemic as its contemporary victims…

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