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plagues and people

September 3, 2010

In the 1960s, historian William H. McNeill noticed something missing from other scholars’ theories about the history of civilization: disease. Documenting battles in detail, historians conscientiously scoured archives for accurate body counts and troop movements, but they largely ignored some of the most colossal slaughters ever recorded. In 165 AD Roman soldiers returning home from war in Mesopotamia brought with them a microbe—smallpox is the best guess. Rome had suffered disease outbreaks before, but the Antonine Plague of 165-180 AD killed more people than any other; a quarter to a third of Rome’s population died, including two emperors: Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who gave the pandemic its name. The Antonine Plague, says McNeill, the Robert A. Millikan distinguished service professor emeritus in history, coincided with the start of the Roman Empire’s 300-year decline.

The year 251 AD brought another pandemic to Rome, the Plague of Cyprian, which imposed a similar death toll. Ultimately, “about half the population died,” McNeill says. “That has an enormous effect on society.” And yet, among the myriad theories about what caused the fall of Rome—political corruption, deteriorating morals, constant wars, economic chaos, the tremendous burden of a rapidly expanding empire—historians had said little about disease. The way McNeill sees it, Rome’s pandemics left it with a population too small to support its large military and state apparatus, a predicament that led to further civic and economic unraveling. Collapse was inevitable.

Today, it seems difficult to overstate McNeill’s case. Looking back across history, it’s clear that catastrophic disease has played a role in shaping human affairs. In the 1960s, however, epidemiology was a discipline sequestered among physicians and statisticians. It had not yet found its way to history departments. (read)

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