Lesson of the Antonine Plague

To the editor:

In 165 AD, the marching Roman army brought the Antonine Plague to the Roman empire from the east, along with the riches of war. Marcus Aurelis Antonius, the aging emperor of Rome, after whom the plague was named, wrote the beloved “Meditations” during this time. The plague lasted 15 more years until 185 AD, and then broke out again in 189 AD. At the end of it, 5 million lay dead. The plague devastated the Roman army and the communities across the empire.

The resilience of the Roman empire in the face of the plague’s sustained assault is impressive. Romans initially responded to the plague by calling on their beloved gods. When communities began to buckle, Romans sought to reinforce them. Marcus Aurelius responded to the death of the soldiers by recruiting Romans to the legions. He filled the depopulated cities by inviting immigrants from outside the empire to settle within its boundaries. Cities that lost aristocrats replaced them, often filling vacancies with the sons of freed slaves.

Roman society bounced back well from Antonine Plague, so much so that the historian Edward Gibbon began his monumental “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” not with the plague but with the events after Marcus Aurelius’s death.

“Meditations” as we all know, are exhortations of the last great emperor of Rome, Plato’s real-life philosopher king, that makes no detailed references to the emperor’s daily life and times. One of the mentions of the Antonine Plague (“pestilence” as he calls it), where he condemns the irrational attitudes of the Romans toward the plague, appears thusly:

“The corruption of the soul is a far graver disease than any comparable disturbance in the air that surrounds us. For this corruption is a pestilence of animals so far as they are animals; but the other is a pestilence of men so far as they are men.”

Marcus called the falsehoods, the lack of true understanding and our cognitive distortions a pestilence, much more indeed than the plague itself.

That brings us to the current times. If Marcus Aurelius were alive today, he would find the history repeating and say:

“All that comes to pass, even illness and death, should be as familiar as the rose in spring and the fruit in autumn. To bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before, and will happen again — the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. Produce them in your mind, as you know them from experience or from history. All just the same. Only the people are different.”

We live in modern times. Unlike the Romans, we know germ theory, have the power of science at our disposal. Will we add to the current pandemic suffering, through falsehoods and cognitive distortions? Will we allow ourselves to blindly follow the Pied Pipers of the current world? Or will we use the lessons of history and seek solace in the consolations it provides, employ reason and good judgment, and rebound?

Let us ponder this whilst behind our masks.


Nandan Pai

Lake Placid


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