Coronavirus will rival 9/11 in being the most pivotal event this century (thus far of course). Even so, you don’t need me to tell you that disease is bad, nor that epidemics in the past were worse. As experts spar over whether the peak of the virus was last month or next month, and as presidents, governors and mayors across the world reopen their economies despite warnings from health officials, or outright deny the existence of the epidemic at all, it’s right to be wary. In such uncertain times, I had to consider whether the current epidemic could be responsibly compared to those of the past. Nobody needs to be told about the horrors of Black Death, and so my comparisons here could easily be construed as fear mongering or perhaps worse, making light of the epidemic by comparing it to those that are worse.
With that in mind, one thing I noticed when reading the news is that there’s an aspect that’s more or less being overlooked, and an aspect I’ve spent some time speculating myself about. How will Covid-19 change our society? The only way to get an answer is to ask the question that’s the heart of my posts: How have plagues of the past shaped society? It’s an interesting question with even more interesting answers. However, before diving in, the last thing I want to note is that sources on past plagues are a bit scant. In some cases, all we have is literally one guy’s record. This is partially because when everyone is dying, and society is falling apart, chronicling the doom is less important that surviving it. Leaders of the time aren’t writing about the near collapse themselves as they do with their successes, but perhaps more importantly, disease begets famine begets war begets destruction. Not always in that order, but always ending with destruction. With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
Plague of Athens
A Crease in the Fabric of History
The Plague of Athens is perhaps the earliest recorded plague we know of. It hit its worst point right in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, claiming up to 100,000 lives. 100,000 may not sound like much considering Covid-19 has claimed many times that, but the Plague of Athens took place at a time when the world population is only estimated to have been about 100,000,000. Put more simply, about .1% of the entire world’s population succumbed to it.
Most of what we know about the Plague of Athens is from a guy named Thucydides. Thucydides was a general and historian in ancient Greece, living roughly between 460BCE and 400BCE. His greatest work, the History of the Peloponnesian War, can still be read in its entirety here.
The plague was bad, as plagues are, but what were the ramifications of it?
There were three big things that came out of the plague. The first was that, as Thucydides himself writes, lawlessness abounded:
Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.
To compare the George Floyd protests that are rocking the world to the purported lawlessness that occurred during the plague of Athens would diminish, or even trivialize, the message behind the protests. Still, it’s not inconceivable that protests about racial inequality have been agitated or aggravated by a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting minorities, and while a plurality of protests have been peaceful, they certainly haven’t all been, and that’s not necessarily the fault of the protesters. Some research has suggested a protest escalating into a riot is at least partially attributable to police arriving dressed for a riot.
As the protesters’ demands begin to coalesce, it’s not impossible that real structural change will follow. See my piece on the Hong Kong protests for historical precedent on the effectiveness of protests.
Secondly, the plague worsened Athens’ position in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, and is largely credited with being a major reason Athens lost. In its loss, Democracy was shattered in the country. Sparta installed an interim government known as the Thirty Tyrants, which carried out a reign of terror. Though counter revolutions ensued, Democracy never returned. Of course, it’d be absurd to claim that pandemics in themselves cost an erosion of liberties. A virus has no preferred system of governance. It’s interesting to note, however, that as the United States arrest journalists for covering protests, there’s a similarity between us and the ancient Greeks who saw their liberties eroded due to something that was likely aggravated by a pandemic. Perhaps that says more about the nature of humankind than it does about pandemics.
The third thing that happened during the plague of Athens isn’t unique to Athens at all. Athens’ leader, Pericles succumbed to it. Plagues throughout all of history never discriminated between the king or the peasant. The Athenian Plague likely killed Pericles, and that’s not the only plague that took world leaders.
The Antonine and Cyprian Plagues
A Legion-dary Plague
As Thucydides noted, everyone was susceptible, pious or rotten, rich or poor, and noble or peasant. The plague of Athens likely killed Pericles — Athens’ defender of democracy. About 500 years later, the Roman Empire was seeing an outbreak of its own plague (That’s right; the apex of Greek world and Roman world were further separated than present day and the founding of Jamestown).
The Antonine plague is thought to have been brought to the Roman Empire from soldiers fighting the Macromani near the Rhine and Danube Rivers and the Parthians (modern Iran), though it’s possible that the plagues affecting China in the preceding 20 years had spread to Rome.
The little we know about the Antonine plague comes to us from a guy named Galen. Galen acted in a similar role as Dr. Fauci does — a doctor and official advisor to the government.
Galen’s story starts when the high priestess of Asia Minor sought a new physician to tend to gladiators after their matches. In his audition, Galen sliced open a live ape in front of all the other potential physicians, and asked them to operate on the creature. When they refused, Galen performed surgery himself and the ape fully recovered. The high priestess granted him the job and his innovative surgical methods led to renown. When the nearby war in the east likely drove Galen to Rome, Marcus Auerelius took note and appointed him to take care of his heir, Commodus. Galen would outlive Commodus and end up as the physician for Septimus Severus — serving as the imperial physician for roughly 30 years.
Galen wrote extensively in his time caring for Commodus, and his medical writings would be used for over 1,000 years before they’d be improved upon in the Islamic golden age by Ibn al-Nafis
Galen wrote extensively about the Antonine plague, and modern physicians believe it was one of the first outbreaks of smallpox. The plague, or pestilence as they called it, ravaged Rome for years, at one point killing up to 2,000 people a day just within the city of Rome. For a bit of comparison, Rome had an unusually high population — so high that no city would match it again until the 1800s. It’s estimated that the city of Rome housed about 1 million people. By 2019 estimates of US cities, that would make it the 11th largest city in the United States right between San Jose, California and Austin, Texas.
The Antonine plague is the likely cause for the death of Marcus Aurelius’ brother and co-ruler, Lucius Verus. Covid-19 has also infected several heads of state, including most notably the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Other notable figures who’ve contracted the disease include US Senator, Rand Paul; Heir to the British throne, Prince Charles; Iranian Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri; Prime Minister of Canada’s wife, Sophie Trudeau; likely the late President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza (officially, he died from cardiac arrest); and most recently, President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. If the Antonine and Athens plagues should teach us anything, it’s that the elite aren’t immune from disease.
These plagues didn’t just kill rulers though; they fundamentally changed society.
Both Cyprian and Antonine plagues contributed to the rise and dominance of Christianity in Europe. The Bishop Cyprian, for whom the plague is named due to his records, saw the plague as an opportunity for Christians to put their preachings of caring for the ill and helpless into practice. The Pagan community, by contrast, took the apocalyptic plague as a sign of displeasure from the gods and thus required sacrifices that the pestilence had made harder to come by. Christianity exploded during these plagues in the 100s and 200s.
Paganism, which had been dominate in Rome and coincided with a centuries long tradition of deifying each emperor as they passed, began to wane, until Christianity became legal in 313CE and the state religion in 380CE. Consider that both edicts were given by emperors who just a generation beforehand would have expected to be deified to appreciate how quickly this institution changed.
Additionally, the Cyprian plague wrecked Rome’s economy. Compared to the previous century, the price of grain had increased 7,300% over the course of the century. Granted, a century is a long time. For comparison, in 1920 a pound of sirloin cost about 43 cents a pound compared to about $8.48 today. If we had seen the rate of inflation that Rome did during this epidemic, a pound of sirloin would average almost $32 today. These out of control prices led Emperor Diocletian to enact several economic reforms that would sew the seeds of feudal society in the middle ages. I’ll get back to that when we talk about the Black Death.
Antonine Antagonizes An Aggravated Agoge
The other big structural change that the Antonine plague brought was that in military recruitment and maintaining a standard army. The Antonine plague killed up to 25% of the population of the Roman Empire and is a common contender in the long list of things that may have eventually lead to its collapse. A related contender was the resulting decision made to recruit the barbarians due to man power shortage. A practice that kicked into high gear after the Cyrpian Plague. These “barbarians” (really just non-Romans) were effectively mercenaries. While I don’t want to get into what truly caused the fall of Rome, this practice of hiring mercenaries to fight your wars because you didn’t have enough people far outlasted Rome, and the practice is even used today. Granted, the Romans didn’t invent this technique, but it was certainly popularized by them, and as a direct result of the plague, this method of military recruitment would dominate Europe throughout the middle ages. As a result, countries often didn’t have standing armies.
This Just In: Panic
The Justinianic Plague was recently confirmed to be a “first wave” of the black death, and while exactly how severe this first wave was has recently come under question, there’s certainly no denying it happened. It’s just a matter of whether it was quite as apocalyptic as Procopius and John of Ephesos would have you believe. It’s worth noting that chroniclers of events had habit of exaggerating (or under representing) pretty much everything for whatever agenda they were trying to push. A tactic that might sound familiar today. Procopius in particular had an axe to grind. In his “Secret Histories,” he names his chapters things like, “How Theordora, Most Depraved of All Courtesans, Won His Love” and “Proving that Justinian and Theodora Were Actually Fiends In Human Form.” Turns out accusations of leaders being lizard people aren’t unique to today. You can read his Secret Histories in its entirety online here.
This plague is also what likely prevented Justinian from fully reuniting the Roman Empire. Citizens dying of the plague couldn’t pay their taxes, and when taxes aren’t paid, soldiers can’t be paid either. This lead to an inability to raise the necessary armies to retake the west. Of course the man power shortage effected Justinian’s ability to wage war as well, further increasing their reliance on unreliable barbarian mercs. The dream of a fully united Rome would die with Justinian, as the empire slowly waned over the course of the following millennium.
Similar to the stimulus checks that are being issued around the world, Justinian also issued various tax breaks as well as edicts intended to curb out of control inflation.
The Justinianic plague reached its full extent in the 530s and 540s. The plague wouldn’t come back to wage chaos on all of Europe for another 800 years.
The Black Death
Of all the plagues in history, this is far and away the worst. It represents one of the only times in all of human history where the global human population actually decreased. While the majority of deaths were in Europe, the effects were felt on a global scale. As I mentioned in my post on climate change, the death of the Europeans contributed to the downfall of the Vikings as they relied on mainland Europe for trade.
The Bubonic Plague’s biggest legacy though, perhaps, is ending Serfdom. Europe was largely a feudalistic society before the black death hit, and nearly 85% of its population were serfs. Looking back on Serfdom today, it wouldn’t look that different from what we think of as slavery. Of course there was a difference, and an important one to the people of the time, but when you look at the characteristics of Serfdom, it’s certainly not an enviable position.
Serfs were not permitted to leave their lord’s estate and were often treated harshly by their lord with little legal recourse available to them. Because serfs were destitute, they could only provide their lord with rent in the form of work. Importantly, because there were more peasants than there were jobs, this arrangement stuck until the plague flipped this supply and demand on its head. With half of Europe succumbing to the plague, there was now a labor shortage, which gave peasants leverage for better terms, namely cash payment. The peasants being able to pay for their lodging with cash instead of labor upended society as peasants were able to freely shop for the highest bidder. Of course, the higher echelon’s of society in England attempted to stymie the change with new taxes and the Statute of Labourers Act of 1351. You can read it in its entirety here, but in short the king threatened to imprison any peasant who didn’t accept pre-pestilence wages. This edict lead to the Peasant’s Revolt a few years later, which ended with the royal government killing 1,500 of its rebelling citizens.
When the ball starts rolling, it’s hard to roll it back. While serfdom wasn’t completely vanquished, it’s long steady decline was set in motion. This change indirectly lead to the rise of the market economy we see today.
Will things ever truly go back to normal after Covid-19 has been neutralized? Probably not, but how different will the other side look is up for debate. Some of the effects we’re seeing now may permanently manifest.
Coining the phrase, “Cashless Future.”
The US has most recently faced a coin shortage, and Europe, as traditionally cash based as they’ve been, are largely embracing plastic for contactless payment. Of course, there are large entities whose livelihood depends on a cash based economy, such as Americans for Common Cents, and of course government mints and those employed there. Still, large structural change always encounters resistance, and as the realities of a diseased world manifest, alternatives are embraced. As Emperor Julian the Apostate learned when Christianity was taking over his former Pagan empire, sometimes the current of change sweeps past your dam.
Globalization a World Away
Several giant tech firms are moving to make working remotely a more permanent feature of their workforce. Among the companies that have committed to at least a partial permanent workforce are Twitter, Facebook, Square, Shopify, and Slack. The effects of this are interesting to ponder. If an employee isn’t tied to an office, they’re not particularly tied to a location. If they’re not tied to a location, where might they come from? This could make it easier for current employees to move abroad or for employers to consider hiring internationally. This would apply equally to schooling as school and universities embrace remote classwork. Both could have far reaching effects on culture and language as well when one considers how working hours would change for an average person or what languages might go from a majority to hegemonic — possibly even wiping out lesser spoken languages.
Defund the Police
I may do a deeper dive on this topic specifically as that movement wanes or waxes, but as I mentioned in the beginning, these protests may result in fundamental change in the way our society polices itself. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated above, we’ve seen bigger change in smaller time.
Of course, as I titled this section, it’s all blind speculation. We’re seeing the change happen in slow motion, changes that history books will have reduced to a paragraph a hundred years from now. For now, wear a mask.