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A Short History of Plague

Catastrophe and Recovery.

 The Black Death by dou Tielt / Wikimedia Commons
Source: The Black Death by dou Tielt / Wikimedia Commons

COVID-19 was first identified in the city of Wuhan, China, in December of 2019. The World Health Organization declared it a pandemic in March. As of July, over 12 million people have been infected worldwide, and over half a million have died.

This isn’t the first bad bacterium or virus H. sapiens has come across, and it won’t be the last. Evidence of disease fills the historical record as far back as the historical record goes. Smallpox hit the Roman Empire hard in the middle of the 2nd century, with the Antonine plague; waves of the Bubonic plague swept from Constantinople to London from the 6th to 17th centuries and beyond; measles decimated New World populations after Columbus, Cortés, and Pizarro landed. And the coronavirus is wreaking havoc on all of us. But epidemics of the past often ended with some kind of upside. And it often had something to do with spreading out.

Aelius Galenus, the philosopher who was Marcus Aurelius’ doctor, was in Rome when a plague broke out in AD 166. Galen followed the Roman army to the Adriatic a few years later and wrote: “On my arrival in Aquileia the plague attacked more destructively than ever before, so the emperors fled immediately to Rome with a small force of men. For the rest of us, survival became very difficult for a long time.” The fever and blisters he depicted were probably associated with Variola major, the smallpox virus. Another round of infections swept across the empire a century later; all around the Mediterranean, the disease came and went for over half a millennium. Roman soldiers were ravaged; in some places, a quarter to a third of the population died.

The costs of the Antonine plague were long-lasting, but there were some good effects. Uprisings on the frontiers and civil unrest in the West moved the emperors, and the seat of the empire, toward the East. Emperors established themselves at Antioch, in the Mediterranean east, and at Nicomedia, in western Asia Minor. Diocletian, who was born in Dalmatia, retired to his palace at Split on the Adriatic to raise cabbages in 305. And Constantine ended up on the Bosporus a quarter of a century later. Some of his subjects came along, but many stayed behind. A freer people went on to flourish in Europe.

There would be other plagues. Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that caused the Black Death, infected Constantine’s 6th-century successor, Justinian I. He survived, but as many as 25 to 50 million people died. “Pestilence swept through the whole known world and notably the Roman Empire, wiping out most of the farming community and of necessity leaving a trail of desolation in its wake,” the Secret Historian, Procopius, summed up. Epidemics would recur over the next several centuries in the East; then after 1346, swollen lymph nodes in armpits and on buboes, or groins, started to show up in Europe. Carried by rat fleas on caravans along the Silk Road, the plague sailed on trade ships into Genoa and other Mediterranean ports. Morality rates ranged from 30 to 60 percent. This pestilence was in England by 1348, where it stayed for a long time. “Great fears of the Sickenesses here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all,” wrote the eventual Secretary of the Admiralty in his Diary, one day in 1665.

But many survived, and some prospered. As the plague came in wave after wave, inequality declined. As early as 544, Justinian condemned “persons engaged in trade and literary pursuits, as well as artisans and agriculturists of different kinds, and sailors, who 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.” And in England, the 1351 Statute of Labourers warned people who, “to their own ease and exceptional greed, withdraw themselves to work for great men and others, unless they are paid livery and wages double or treble what they were accustomed to receive.” Workers who survived the plague were better paid.

The worst of all plagues followed the meeting of worlds. After Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas in 1492, Old World diseases decimated the New. They included influenza, typhus, smallpox, salmonella and measles; Measles morbillivirus was one of the worst. Epidemics returned every generation; in some spots, mortality approached 90 percent. “Great was the stench of death. After our fathers and grandfathers succumbed, half the people fled to the fields. The dogs and vultures devoured the bodies. The mortality was terrible,” wrote a 16th-century Guatemalan annalist. Civilizations of millions of people in the Valley of Mexico and the Andes fell.

On the rubble, North, South, and Central native Americans, together with Europeans and Africans and Asians, built new cities and states. By a number of measures, on those wide-open spaces, societies of unprecedented peace and tolerance, opportunity and prosperity rose up. Some people shared rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. All men are created equal, one of them wrote.

But not equal enough. In the wake of this coronavirus, we can hope that all of us, of whatever historical origins, might better live up to that promise. And we can expect that any improvements might have something to do with occupying virtual space. More and more of us are buying and selling, working and consuming, online. We’re finding it less necessary to crowd together on the coasts, from New York to Miami, from Seattle to LA. We’re collaborating outward from Kansas and Arkansas; we’re ordering in from London and Wuhan. That should inhibit the next plague. And it should facilitate the long trend toward fairness, for many of us.


McNeill, W. H. 1976. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books.

Scheidel, W. 2017. The Great Leveller. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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