Antonine Plague:The End of Pax Romana

The period of Pax Romana lasted for over a century. Spanning over the reign of the Five Good Emperors, it was a period of prosperity, peace, and expansion for the Roman civilization. But during the reign of the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, calamity struck the Empire. Even more deadly than a barbarian invasion, a disease spread like wild fire across Rome. The disease was known as the Antonine Plague, the plague that would end peace and tranquility of Rome.

The Antonine Plague, or otherwise known as the Plague of Galen, was one of the devastating plagues that hit the Roman Empire, if not the, the whole ancient world. Its name came from the family name of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus. Its intensity was equal to that of the Great Athenian Plague. And because of its, thousands would perish without a fight.

The spread of the Antonine Plague was credited to the extensive military campaigns of the Roman legions. During the reign of Emperor Trajan, the Roman military marched east, annexing Dacia and starting a campaign against the Parthians. However, during the campaign, the old Emperor Trajan suddenly died. However, his successors continued military campaigns against barbarians and neighboring kingdoms. Then in 161, two man became co-Emperor, Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius. Verus in 165 began a campaign against the Parthians in Armenia.

His successful campaign, however, was followed by a disaster. More deadly than a counter attack of Parthians or invasion of barbarians from Germania, the catastrophe brought by the campaign was a silent killer – a disease – the Antonine Plague. Because of few information about the disease, modern science remains struggling to know what struck the Romans in 165. But the most highly acceptable disease that caused the Antonine Plague was the deadly smallpox.

The Antonine Plague spread quickly and reached Rome with no problem at all. Soldiers from the campaign from Armenia contracted the disease and became carriers of it. Their march back home, to Rome, caused its spread to the whole northern Mediterranean coastlines. It hit the region of Asia Minor, then Greece, then the Balkans, then finally, the Italian Peninsula and Rome itself.

The effects of the plague were devastating the population. Cassius Dio described the high mortality caused by the plague. According to him, 2,000 died daily because of the disease. According to a Spanish writer, Paulus Orosius, many Roman villages were completely depopulated due to the plague. The high mortality caused many to flee outside the city. The great physician, Galen, left Rome in 166. Some scholars accused Galen of leaving Rome because of the plague. But he would return to Rome two years later upon the request of the two Emperor to help in containing the plague.

The details of the plague were, ironically, came from Galen and his work, Methodus Medendi. According to him, victims of the plague suffered fever, diarrhea, and inflammation in the pharynx. And in addition, during the ninth day within the disease, the victim suffered exanthem. Some suffered skin eruptions that were pustular and some were dry. The description of Galen were vague and not comprehensive, due particularly him being away. But his description of the disease was the only available sources about it.

The plague disrupted Rome heavily. Because of the plague, the military became short of manpower. Campaigns were have to be postponed. For example, the campaign against the Germanic tribes of Marcomanni had to be delayed because of the disease. Even worst, Rome lost one of its Emperors in 169, Lucius Verus, because of the Antonine Plague. And just about a decade later, it lost another Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, because of the plague once again. Marcus Aurelius lament upon his death for the thousands of death caused by the plague. His last words were: “Weep not for me, think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.”

With the death of Marcus Aurelius, the Antonine plague also died down. Upon its wake, 10% of Rome’s population perished. But it did not end all in 180. Just nine years after it died down, it suddenly reappeared and continued to collect lives up until 270.

From this plague, the period of Pax Romana came to an end. The number of its casualties led to reduction of number of troops; thus, caused delays in military affair. Also, it allowed barbarians to pillage villages in the borders of the Empire. Not to mention, the depopulation of villages caused lands to be idle and also decrease in the finances and food production of the Empire. It took Rome a lot of time to recover, but by the time of the recovery, Rome was not great as it was during the period of Pax Romana.

See also:
Justinian Plague

Kohn, G. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Time to the Present. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.

Potter, D. & D. Mattingly. Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Raoult, D. & M. Drancourt (eds.). Paleomicrobiology: Past Human Infections. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2008.


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