The Antonine Plague - the germs that killed an empire

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Nails and horses, a stitch in time, plugging a hole, greasing a cartridge, dropping a letter, not changing the batteries – all tiny things which can spark off heavy consequences. And a great technique for writers to plant an insignificant seed at the beginning of their book which later becomes a full-blooming crisis. The clever reader picks it up and thinks ‘Aha!’. But the clever writer scatters a load of them to confuse the clever reader…

But nobody could have foreseen the catastrophic effect tiny germs could have on the largest superpower the world had ever seen.

In AD 165 a plague hit the Roman Empire which by AD 180 had killed thirty percent of the population. A pandemic, possibly smallpox or measles, followed soldiers returning home from campaigns in the Middle East. It rampaged throughout the Empire from Persia to Spain and from Britain to Egypt. It probably killed Lucius Verus, the co-emperor and brother of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The impact of this was so great politically and morally that the plague was called ‘Antonine’ after the brothers’ family name. In AD 178  it caused 2,000 deaths a day in Rome, a quarter of those infected, according to Roman historian Dio Cassius.  Total deaths are reckoned at around five million.

The results were catastrophic: it decimated (reduced by 1 in 10) the Roman Army, by now consisting mostly of non-Italians and struggling against barbarians in the north and Persians in the east; it cut a naturally dwindling population by a third, wiping out whole villages, even towns; it weakened trade, shrank the labour force, diminished the reliability of transport links,  so wrecking the whole economy; and promoted increasing religious fervour which split Romans from their traditional martial and pragmatic values, further undermining social disintegration.

In brief, the Antonine Plague may well have created the conditions for the decline of the Roman Empire and, afterwards, for its fall in the West in the fifth century AD.

So it’s not only taxes, corruption and apathy that get you, but the tiny little bugs.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, and PERFIDITAS. Third in series, SUCCESSIO, is now out.

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