How Ancient Rome Managed a Pandemic

The Antonine Plague had a devastating effect on the empire

Temple of Antonine
The Temple of Antonine, built a few decades before plague devastated Rome.
Vincent van Rooden/Creative Commons

It’s understandable to look to crises of the past when confronting a crisis in the present. Looking at how infectious diseases spread in the past can offer some insight into the present moment, for instance. And in seeing how others coped with life during a plague, we might be able to derive some inspiration from their actions. It’s an understandable reason to delve into history.

A new article by Edward Watts at Smithsonian Magazine travels back to the time when smallpox ravaged through the Roman Empire. Watts writes that it began in the year 165, and is generally known as the Antonine Plague. From there, Watts writes, the epidemic “waxed and waned for a generation, peaking in the year 189 when a witness recalled that 2,000 people died per day in the crowded city of Rome.”

The plague shows up in various historical accounts of ancient Rome — it’s sometimes referred to as the Plague of Galen, due to the role that the aforementioned doctor played in treating the infected. The plague also coincided with the imperial reign of Marcus Aurelius — also known as the last of the “Five Good Emperors.” In his article, Watts — a professor of history at the University of California, San Diego — holds out plenty of praise for the emperor’s handling of the crisis.

[Marcus Aurelius] filled the abandoned farmsteads and depopulated cities by inviting migrants from outside the empire to settle within its boundaries. Cities that lost large numbers of aristocrats replaced them by various means, even filling vacancies in their councils with the sons of freed slaves. The empire kept going, despite death and terror on a scale no one had ever seen.

Watts notes that the Antonine Plague was much more lethal than COVID-19, and struck a population with far fewer medical resources. But there’s also plenty to be learned from the example of resilience that Romans showed in the face of adversity.

Subscribe here for our free daily newsletter.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.