Picture this with me if you will. The year is 165 CE, the Roman-Parthian wars are coming to an end, and a successful one at that. The great philosopher Marcus Aurelius has just settled into his rule a few years before. He’s great. He’s the last of the 5 Good Emperors... 5 Good Emperors, seems like things should be going well for the Romans, right? Wrong.
The end of 165 CE saw the beginning of then end for the Roman-Parthian wars. Troops had just sacked the Mesopotamian city of Seleucia, it’s a happy occasion. For the Romans anyways- not the Seleucids…. But Seleucia had the last laugh because they went and infected the army with a plague.
There are two main legends as to how the plague was released onto the Romans, and there’s the more likely story. The first story is that the Roman General who would later also become co-emperor, Lucius Verus, opened a closed tomb during the sacking of Seleucia and thus releasing the disease into the world. The second legend is that a Roman soldier went and opened a golden casket in the temple of Apollo which allowed the plague to spread. Wrath of the titans vibes, I like it. Both Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius blame the outbreak to the violation of a god so it seems to have convinced them! Other blamed the Christians for making the quote ‘real gods’ angry.
The plague is said to have originated in Eastern Han, China
So those are the two legends, now here’s how it probably actually happened! It’s most likely that the plague began in Eastern Han, China and made its way along the Silk Route towards Rome. Seleucia is on the banks of the Tigris River, and on said Silk Route and this is where the Roman picked it up. There are accounts of soldiers suffering from it while in the city.
The ancient Romans, like the rest of the world are not yet 100% knowledgeable about how epidemics spread, or identifying them in general. So not only did they bring back the spoils of war, they brought the plague home with them, and spread it across the Roman Empire. That’s literally the worst souvenir anyone could have brought back from their travels. Remember, armies march at this time, so they travelled through various states to get back home so they’re just spreading it from city to city across the entire empire.
The plague hit Gaul, Egypt, colonies along the Rhine, you name it. And the death toll- 5 million people over 14 years. 5 MILLION! The Antonine Plague (named of course after Marcus Aurelius, who’s real name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) did what no one else could do at the time, it almost broke the Roman Empire apart, and many attribute this plague as a starting point for the beginning of the decline and the eventual fall of the Roman Empire. At the height of the epidemic, there were up to 2,000 deaths per day all over the Empire with a mortality rate of about 25%. In total, around 7-10% of the entire empire was killed from this plague. Even the emperors may have been killed by it! Lucius Verus died in 169 and Marcus Aurelius in 180. It’s speculated that the plague got to them as well. No one is safe from pandemics.
So what were the symptoms and can we determine what it was? The Antonine plague stands out in history because it’s the only epidemic that we have several eye-witness accounts for, as well as a few later sources. That being said, there still aren’t that many, and the source material is brief and sparse. Galen, that most famous medical writer of the Roman Empire was living through this plague so he wrote all about it. He describes the symptoms as fever, diarrhoea, an inflammation at the back of the throat, as well as skin eruption with the odd puss coming out of your body on the 9th day. The information here doesn’t help us too much in identifying what the plague actually was, but many scholars speculate that it may have been smallpox of measles. Some molecular studies place the emergence of measles to 500 CE though so let’s go with smallpox shall we?
The sweeping nature of this plague hit the Roman Empire hard, and not just in population numbers. The plague affected the military the most, and the army was said to have been all but wiped out. This called for emergency recruiting and conscription in order to keep fighting the Marcomannic War. The death of so many taxpayers also meant major economic decline. We can see in records from Egypt just how this affected the economy. Also, farming plots decreased dramatically in size and rent. This drove a lot of people in Egypt to become nomads again and try and sustain themselves that way.
Documentation dropped dramatically, especially with military discharge certificates, public building projects dropped by well over 50% in comparison to the reign of the previous emperor, Antoninus Pius, and buildings financed by the emperor halted completely. This also means people producing bricks and marble also saw a significant decline in business. It’s all a domino effect. Maritime trade in the Indian Ocean and throughout Southeast Asia also dropped significantly. This was majorly irreparable damage to Roman maritime trade.
Culturally speaking, there were some interesting things that happened as well. We had a fun false prophet by the name of Alexander of Abonoteichus who created a long-lasting cult. He came to Italy and began a whole anti-plague campaign. He came up with a verse or slogan of sorts that read:
“Phoebus, the god unshorn, keepeth off plague’s nebulous onset.”
This was written over doorways all over the place to try and ward off the plague. The writer Lucian called him out as a complete fraud in his writings. A fun little anecdote was that the phrase seemed to have the opposite intended effect, as most of the houses that had the verse written above the doors were depopulated.
Alexander of Abonoteichus's cult was ridiculous. Look at this snake god with it's luscious locks
Finally, some scholars believe that the plague also brought about a new way of thinking. Mostly due to the stoicism and writings of Marcus Aurelius in his work Meditations. He wrote things about the plague like:
‘for the destruction of understanding is a pestilence, much more indeed that any such corruption and change of this atmosphere which surrounds us…’.
For Marcus Aurelius, lack of understanding and lies were worse than any plague.
So there you have it. The Antonine Plague. Viscious as it was, it saw a decline in 180, although it surged again in 189 CE. The Roman Empire never recovered from such as blow, but the world carried on, just like it always has.
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Looking to find out more?
Horgan, John- The Antonine Plague
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
Lucian of Samosata : Alexander the False Prophet
Elliott, C. P. (2016). The Antonine Plague, Climate Change and Local Violence in Roman Egypt. Past & Present, 231(1), 3–31. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtv058
Fears, J. R. (2004). The plague under Marcus Aurelius and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Infectious Disease Clinics of North America, 18(1), 65–77. doi:10.1016/s0891-5520(03)00089-8
Duncan-Jones, R. P. (1996). The impact of the Antonine plague. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 9, 108–136. doi:10.1017/s1047759400016524