The Antonine Plague - the germs that killed an empire

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Nails and horses, a stitch in time, plugging a hole, greasing a cartridge, dropping a letter, not changing the batteries – all tiny things which can spark off heavy consequences. And a great technique for writers to plant an insignificant seed at the beginning of their book which later becomes a full-blooming crisis. The clever reader picks it up and thinks ‘Aha!’. And the clever writer scatters a load of them to attempt to confuse the clever reader…

But nobody could have foreseen the catastrophic effect tiny germs could have on the largest superpower the world had ever seen.

In AD 165 a plague hit the Roman Empire which by AD 180 had killed thirty percent of the population.

A pandemic followed soldiers returning home from campaigns in the Middle East. Army units lived in tight quarters, whether tents or barracks, and while generally well fed, they often fought or trained to exhaustion. And let’s not mention illness or wounds…Even if not messengers or liaison  officers, they moved between different units, regrouping as military circumstances required.

So, what was it? Many scholars believe it was an outbreak of smallpox. The most definitive account comes from the Greek physician Galen, who witnessed multiple outbreaks firsthand. Galen described numerous unpleasant symptoms, but one that stands out is pustules or boils which sound similar to the characteristics of smallpox. Some historians think that Galen was describing two different strains of the smallpox virus in his notes, which would explain why the disease remained deadly over a 20-year period.

It rampaged throughout the Empire from Persia to Spain and from Britain to Egypt. It probably killed Lucius Verus, the co-emperor and brother of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. For the first time, the Roman military started accepting significant auxiliary units in the form of Germanic tribes who fought under their own autonomous Germanic commanders which began the process of de-Romanizing the Roman army.

The impact of this was so great politically and morally that the plague was called ‘Antonine’ after the brothers’ family name. In AD 178  it caused 2,000 deaths a day in Rome, a quarter of those infected, according to Roman historian Dio Cassius.  Total deaths are reckoned at around five million.

The results were catastrophic:

  • it decimated (reduced by 1 in 10) the Roman Army, by now consisting mostly of non-Italians and struggling against barbarians in the north and Persians in the east
  • it cut a naturally dwindling population by a third, wiping out whole villages, even towns
  • it shrank the labour force
  • it diminished the reliability of transport links,
  • it weakened trade, so wrecking the whole economy
  • it promoted increasing religious fervour which split Romans from their traditional martial and pragmatic values
  • and all these combined to reinforce social disintegration.

In brief, the Antonine Plague may well have created the conditions for the decline of the Roman Empire and, afterwards, for its fall in the West in the fifth century AD.

So it’s not only taxes, corruption and apathy that get you, but the tiny little bugs.

Today’s suggestion: keep washing your hands, maintain your distance and wear a face covering/mask on transport and in shops.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

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6 comments to The Antonine Plague – the germs that killed an empire

  • SAM

    Really helped me with my research paper (:

  • Alison

    Very pleased to have helped. What was the paper about?

  • KDK

    thank you very much! this helped me with a school assignement, and i am thankful u let this be open to me. 😀

  • Shell

    how did the disease end or come to a halt?

    • Alison

      The plague is generally thought to have been smallpox or measles, more likely smallpox. I’m not a public health doctor, but I believe that after a while, the disease burns itself out, e.g. there are no more victims left, some people have natural immunity or developed immunity by recovering from the disease, or have isolated themselves from all contact with other people until the disease has run its course.
      Hope that helps!

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