Plague and pestilence

While researching the historical events of the year of Lucius Sestius’ consulship, 23 BCE, I found the historian Cassius Dio very informative. In Book 53 of his Histories, he tells us that this year and the next were not good for people’s health, and certainly we know of two famous people who fell seriously ill – Augustus himself, who recovered, and his nephew Marcellus, who died. In addition, in 23 BCE the wooden bridge (the Pons Sublicius) was swept away in the flooding of the Tiber and that a wolf was found in the city… an omen of course of terrible things! Immediately following this, in Book 54, Dio says that a pestilence swept through all Italy during the early part of 22 BCE, leading to food shortages. I wondered what this disease might be: plagues are reported throughout Roman history but symptoms are rarely described. One can imagine that diseases similar to typhoid and dysentery would spreading through Rome at a time of flooding, and a city with low-lying marshy areas subject to flooding would have been a breeding ground for malaria. But what sort of disease would sweep through Italy?

There were well-documented plagues later in Roman history – the Plague of Justinian ravaged the Mediterranean world in the sixth century and has been traced back through DNA analysis to the same bacterium Yersinia pestis which was responsible for the Black Death. In the second century, the Antonine Plague was observed by the great physician and writer Galen, and his description has led to some scholars suggesting smallpox.

I’m reading a very interesting article* about the diseases most likely to affect the Roman population, and the authors conclude that malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis were likely endemic in Rome’s population, and may have been epidemic at times – for example, in the summer the mosquitoes causing malaria would have been in reproducing in greater numbers in high temperatures. However, I can’t find any suggestion as to what caused an Italy-wide pestilence in 22 BCE, which got a hold on the population before the summer, causing famine in many areas. But with no symptoms listed in Cassius Dio’s account, I’m struggling. My best guess is some sort of pneumonic plague, again caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis which was behind Justinian’s Plague and the Black Death. With ships and soldiers constantly visiting Rome from all points of the known world, it does not seem unreasonable to theorise that a disease carried to the densely-populated centre of the empire could thrive and quickly spread. I’m now on the look-out for evidence that it spread from Italy.

As I write, coronavirus is spreading, and the fears felt all over the world are being reported avidly. The Sinophobic element of some responses is depressing: would people react differently if this disease had arisen in Rome or London or New York?

*Oerlemans, Annelieke P.A., and Laurens E. Tacoma. “THREE GREAT KILLERS INFECTIOUS DISEASES AND PATTERNS OF MORTALITY IN IMPERIAL ROME.” Ancient Society, vol. 44, 2014, pp. 213–241., Accessed 24 Feb. 2020.

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