In the middle of the second century AD, Rome was at its prosperous and powerful apex. The emperor Marcus Aurelius reigned over a vast territory that stretched from Britain to Egypt. The Roman-made peace, or Pax Romana, seemed to be permanent. Then, apparently out of nowhere, a sudden sickness struck the legions and laid waste to cities, including Rome itself. This fast-spreading disease, now known as the Antonine plague, may have been history’s first pandemic. Soon after its arrival, the Roman Empire began its downward trajectory toward decline and fall.
Did a single disease—its origins and diagnosis still a mystery—bring Rome to its knees? After examining the available evidence, historian Colin Elliott asserts that Rome’s problems were more insidious. Years before the pandemic, the thin veneer of Roman peace and prosperity had begun to crack: The economy was sluggish, the military found itself bogged down in the Balkans and the Middle East, food insecurity led to riots and mass migration, and persecution of Christians intensified.
Elliott argues that the pandemic exposed the crumbling foundations of a doomed empire and that it was both cause and effect of Rome’s fall. He discusses the plague’s “preexisting conditions” (Rome’s multiple economic, social, and environmental susceptibilities); recounts the history of the outbreak itself through the experiences of physician, victim, and political operator; and explores post-pandemic crises. The plague’s most transformative power, he suggests, may have been its lingering presence as a threat both real and perceived.
Elliott’s book Pox Romana: The Plague That Shook the Roman World (Princeton University Press) is available for purchase.
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