The Antonine Plague: A Re-evaluation of its Effects on the Economic Structure, Military Capability, and Religious Thought of the

Roman Empire.

Author: Nicholas Martin Burrell Student Number: s40103363 Course: ANCH6850 - Honours Research Thesis Supervisor: Professor Tim Parkin Date Finished: 4th November 2005


Acknowledgements The volume of work channelled into this study served a great challenge to this author. The effects of any plague in history are not simple consequences to address. Mortality affects all aspects of society, of only the most important I have addressed in this work. In order to assess the overall degree to which a plague affected the attributes of an Empire, one must be first especially familiar with the foundations of these attributes, so as to see the way in which the plague affected them. The time frame in which this work was to be finished limits the degree to which one can study all these attributes to their fullest potential. I would first like to thank my supervisor Professor Tim Parkin of the Ancient History and Classics department at the University of Queensland, Australia, for his efforts to ensure that my work was written to its fullest potential. One of my very good friends Tess Higgins provided me with unfailing support in the emotional, and editing aspects of my thesis. My good friend Emma Lewis also provided me with informative and highly entertaining feedback regarding the grammar and structure of my work. Two good friends of mine, Alex Norris, and Christie Williams, spent a worthy amount of their time helping me search for references within the library. As a final note I would like to thank my housemates and good friends, Melissa Cadden, and Michael Welsh, for their patience during my period of work. I hope that one day they become the brilliant scholars that I know they can be.





Epidemiology of the Antonine Plague


The Economic Decline


Consequences of Plague Mortality within the Military


Pagan Faith in a Time of Crisis







Maps and Tables

Map 1.1 - Distribution of coins in India in 1st-4th Centuries A.D.


Map 1.2 - Trade routes of the Roman Empire


Table 1.1 - Estimate of the Roman population in A.D. 164


Table 1.2 - Population decline of male taxpayers in Mendesian nome of Egypt



The Antonine Plague: A Re-evaluation of its Effects on the Economic Structure, Military Capability, and Religious Thought of the Roman Empire.

Preface In A.D. 166 a plague hit the Roman Empire which killed thirty percent of the population. The ruler at the time was Marcus Aurelius. The entire Empire was affected, from Persia to Spain and from Britain to Egypt. The last recorded outbreak of the Antonine plague was in A.D. 189. The plague is thought to have been

smallpox. The Antonine plague affected all aspects of Roman life due to the high mortality rate. My argument is that the advent of the Antonine plague began a chain of events which lasted long into the third century A.D., and which eventually hastened the downfall of the Roman Empire. The economy decreased, the military suffered and religious fervour changed direction. This thesis is divided into four sections. The first will focus on the

epidemiology of the disease, providing background knowledge as to how the disease affected various parts of the Empire. The second section, through literary and

archaeological evidence, is concerned with the economic downfall caused by plague mortality. The third section addresses the actions of Marcus Aurelius to maintain military strength. The measures taken to combat this military threat permanently affected future recruitment. The final section will attempt to explain how conversion to Christianity was exacerbated by plague mortality. Plague was not the only factor that caused a decline in population, and had economic repercussions, during the late 2nd century A.D. The barbarian wars in the north and the Persian wars in the east were taking a toll on both the military and civilian population. The loss of life through warfare was relatively small compared to


the decimation caused by the plague across the Roman Empire. War-related mortality was isolated to military losses within the army, and civilian losses in the areas of conflict. Extant studies focus on individual aspects of societal disintegration, whereas my study will combine and relate all information in a generalised view of plague mortality across the Roman Empire.


Epidemiology of the Antonine Plague

The main source for the description of the Antonine plague is the works of the medical writer Galen, who wrote contemporary to the plague. He wrote not in the method of a historian trying to contrast the plague with aspects of Roman life, but as a medical practitioner “more interested in the treatment and physical effects of the disease” 1 . The current view in studies regarding the Antonine plague is that it was caused by the smallpox virus. The Littman’s discuss the symptoms of the disease as recorded by Galen 2 . His description of the Antonine plague differs little from the modern day diagnosis for smallpox. Their study is very informative, but the author of this study does not agree with the death rate suggested of a maximum of 13-15% fatality across the Empire 3 . This percentage suggested by the Littman’s has been criticised by many modern authors, and the general view today of mortality for the Antonine plague is between 25-30% 4 . Smallpox has an incubation period of about 12 days, with a total infection period of around four weeks 5 . If a victim survives this period, he or she acquires almost total immunity. Blindness or male infertility can result from more serious cases. Smallpox is extremely contagious, either by contact with infected rashes, pustules or bodily fluid, or airborne transmission over short distances. There is evidence to suggest that smallpox existed in the ancient world before the Antonine plague 6 .

1 2

Littman & Littman 1973. Littman & Littman 1973. 3 Littman & Littman 1973:255. 4 Rathbone 1990:119, Zelener 2003; Scheidel 2002:100. 5 Crosby in Kiple 1993:300. 6 Thucydides The Peloponnesian War 2.49; the Athenian plague of 430 to 426 B.C. is thought by Littman & Littman 1969 to have been a strain of smallpox by Littman & Littman 1969; The mummy


Ancient sources suggest that the Antonine plague originated in the east, from the Parthian empire. Cassius Dio 7 , Ammianus Marcellinus 8 and the Historia

Augusta 9 all point towards a spread of the disease across the Roman Empire, beginning in the area of Babylonia. Towards the end of the Parthian War under Marcus Aurelius, the armies of Lucius Verus began to contract the disease while campaigning, apparently while raiding the city of Seleucia in Babylonia. In A.D. 165, at the end of the Parthian war, legions under the command of Lucius Verus returned to Rome, spreading the disease in the provinces through which they travelled and subsequently throughout the entire empire.

“It is believed that this pestilence originated in Babylonia, where a pestilential vapour arose in a temple of Apollo from a golden casket which a soldier had accidentally cut open, and that it spread thence over Parthia and the whole world.” 10

The campaigns under Marcus Aurelius in the east may have caused unusual population movements that helped the disease grow to a level of epidemic proportions. The appearance of the Roman army may have given the disease a chance to spread into a large body of uninfected people and subsequently spread into communities that had direct contact with military activities. From here it made its

way through major communication routes into the centre of the Empire. There are three methods by which the transmission of the virus could have occurred. These are through trading routes, military movements, and population movements.

of Ramses V, who lived in the 12th century B.C., shows symptoms of smallpox but cannot definitely be identified with the modern strain of smallpox. Petrucelli & Lyons 1979:92. 7 Cassius Dio History 71.2. 8 Ammianus History 23.6.24. 9 Historia Augusta Lucius Verus 8.1-4. 10 Historia Augusta Lucius Verus 8.2.


In the 2nd century A.D., Roman trade extended from Britain to China, and from Ethiopia to Scandinavia 11 . Egypt was one of the most important centres of trade to areas outside the Roman Empire. The Nile acted as a medium of transport for ships travelling as far south as Ethiopia. The Red Sea offered sea routes to as far as Polynesia and India; from India there was the land route to China. Silk trade with China had been growing from the early 1st century A.D. as, according to Pliny, noble women in the Roman Empire began to wear extravagant silk gowns and dresses 12 . The discovery of Roman coins in southern India dating to the 1st to 2nd century A.D. indicates the presence of Roman traders within this area (See map 1.1). Pliny

recognised a drain of coinage out of Rome to the eastern areas of India, Persia and China 13 . Roman trade to the east seems to be well established by the 2nd century A.D. Traders travelling from these areas may have carried diseases to uninfected areas as they stopped at cities or villages for accommodation or to trade goods. On reaching major trading centres such as Damascus, Tyre and Alexandria, the disease would have spread through the population of these cities. It could then have travelled across land or the seas via trading ships to other major coastal trading cities such as Carthage in north Africa, Massalia in Gaul, Tarraco and Gades in Spain, Byzantium in Asia Minor, and, of course, Ostia and Rome. Many of these cities were located near the mouth of major rivers (See Map 1.2). Rivers were a major source of travel for traders and merchants, so the plague probably travelled with these voyagers as they encountered various villages during their journeys. The cities mentioned above served as important centres for trade communication, providing ‘the perfect pathway for transmitting diseases not only from one urban centre to another but also

11 12

See Wheeler 1954 for one of the most comprehensive studies of trade in the Roman Empire. McNeill 1976:99; Pliny Natural History 12.84. 13 Pliny Natural History 12.84


toward the hinterland’. 14 It is probable that most coastal and riverside villages had connections with inland communities via roads or trails.

Map 1.1 – Distribution of coins in India in 1st-4th Centuries A.D. 15

14 15

Zelener 2003:62. Wheeler 1954:138.



Map 1.2 – Trade routes of the Roman Empire. Note the proximity of major trading centres to mouths of rivers (Charlesworth 1970)

Two examples of bubonic plague outbreak mimic the path of transmission of the Antonine plague. The Black Death of Mediaeval Europe first began in the south of Russia, with a sudden explosion in A.D. 1347 from the trading port of Feodosiya, which engulfed the whole of Europe 16 . Military movements to and from the area of the Caucasus, and mass migrations from the area of Asia minor to avoid the plague facilitated the passage of the disease back to the major cities in Europe 17 . An example of bubonic plague outbreak in 19th century China provides a modern example. Between the years A.D. 1861 and 1919, bubonic plague became endemic in areas of south-east China, spreading through trading rivers and land routes to major trading cities like that of Beihai 18 . From Beihai the disease spread up the south-east coast in consecutive outbreaks, where it first struck large coastal cities then spread inland. The start of the opium trade around A.D. 1840 had intensified trading activity in the area, serving as a major conduit for the disease 19 . Feodosiya in south Russia and Beihai in south-east China had similar roles as cities such as Alexandria, Massalia and Ostia in ancient Rome, which served as major conduits for the spread of disease across the Roman Empire. The spread of the Antonine plague was not limited to the movement of traders alone. Most Roman roads were built to minimise the distance travelled so that journeying time would be made as efficient as possible. Civilians, traders and

military units used the same roads to travel from one side of the Empire to the other in relatively short spaces of time. This was especially important for repositioning bodies of military troops to areas of high conflict.

16 17

Benedictow 2004:44 Benedictow 2004:60-64 18 Benedict 1996:55,64 19 Benedict 1996:55.


Military units were a large source of infection and spread of disease. The close proximity of large numbers of soldiers living together led to an easy path of infection. In the late 2nd century A.D., military units became mobilized as different areas of the frontiers needed to be reinforced quickly and efficiently in a time of rebellion. When a unit was heavily infected with a virus like smallpox, it would have been easy for virus transmission from one area to the next. When Lucius Verus was appointed commander for the Persian assault during the years A.D. 162 to 166, several legions were despatched from the northern borders to help in the Eastern defence. The I Minerva and V Macedonia legions reinforced the area of Cappadocia, while II Adiutrix was sent to Syria 20 . Once order had been restored, they were sent back to Europe 21 . The Historia Augusta mentions that Lucius Verus, on returning from the war in Persia, brought the plague with him as he travelled, infecting every province through which he passed 22 . These military units camped outside of major towns, acquiring supplies from within the towns to treat the wounded or to feed the hungry troops. Local traders and civilians interacted with soldiers who had captured booty from the raids on Parthian cities, contracting the disease when coming into close proximity with infected soldiers. The interaction of civilians with large military units which were infected with the plague facilitated the spread of the disease into urban areas. The mobilization of military units across the empire quickened the

speed at which the disease would have been transmitted across the entire Empire 23 . The constant movent of the Roman population may also have helped the facilitation of diseases around the provinces. Travellers passing from one city or province to another may have carried diseases with them into uninfected areas.

I Minerva – Parker 1958:19 citing Inscr. Lat. Sel. 1098 ; V Macedonia – Parker 1958:19 citing Inscr. Lat. Sel. 2311; II Adiutrix – Parker 1958:19 citing Inscr. Lat. Sel. 1091, 8977. 21 Historia Augusta Lucius Verus 8.1-4. 22 Historia Augusta Lucius Verus 8.1-4. 23 Boak 1955:26.


Infected slaves from the Parthian war may have been transported across the Empire and sold to various nobles, causing the disease to spread into those regions. Barbarians settled under Marcus may have either passed diseases between populations or contracted the disease themselves once settled in an infected area. Another population movement that may have aided plague transmission was Flight, or anachoresis, a phenomenon by which inhabitants of a community fled to other areas to avoid unfavourable circumstances such as high taxes, plague, or famine 24 . When a plague attacks a community, the population will fall, as will the tax base. Some local governments may not have reacted in time to change taxes to compensate for the smaller population. The individual payment would then be higher as the taxes were divided among a smaller number of residents. The people would then flee from not only the threat of mortality, but also the increase in taxes. Evidence from the Nile Delta suggests that some villagers fled from high taxes at the time of the plague, possibly spreading the disease to other parts of Egypt 25 . The subsequent movement of people between villages to find more convenient living arrangements may have allowed the virus to migrate into areas that had not yet been touched by the plague. This would inevitably cause direct contact between infected and uninfected villagers. Flight is a good example of how, through population

movement, the plague could spread between villages in localized areas. As the virus travelled by various means throughout the Empire, the rate of mortality would not have been uniform. Large populations with high density were more susceptible to an infection due to closer proximity between individuals and a lowering of living standards. The infrastructure problems faced by larger cities added to the mediums in which infection could be spread throughout the city.
24 25


Duncan-Jones 1996:121. Bagnall 2000:292; Duncan-Jones 1996:121.


information regarding the living conditions of major cities in the Empire is relatively scarce. Most sources focus on the city of Rome. Descriptions of Rome, however, can be used as an indicator of how mortality affected major cities of the Empire. By the early 2nd century A.D., the population of Rome is said to have been over one million individuals 26 . If this were true, the population density would have been extremely high. Rome was unable to cope with such a large population and the infrastructure began to break down. The low lying areas of Rome were riddled with insulae, apartment blocks 27 . These apartment blocks reached up four levels with up to four or five civilians living in rooms measuring two to three square metres 28 . Public latrines served as the major source of waste disposal for the lower classes 29 . When the Tiber flooded, the sewer systems were known to back up, flooding the streets with human excrement and collapsing insulae 30 . The flood under Marcus Aurelius “ruined many houses in the city, drowned a great number of animals, and caused a most severe famine” 31 . Fresh running water did not reach all houses in Rome and many may have had to walk several blocks to collect their daily water supply from fountains 32 . Merchants displayed their products, exposed to the open air, where hundreds of passersby would touch, poke and prod to determine which piece they would choose 33 . These problems seem to have existed because the population was greater than the space available. Frier believes that Rome was the only city in the Roman Empire to reach one million, with other major cities like Alexandria and

Frier in Bowman, Garnsey & Rathbone 2000:813. Such as the Subura, Argiletum, Caelium, Aventine and Velabrum; Yavetz 1958:505. 28 Carcopino 1941:20. 29 Carcopino 1941:52. 30 Sewers backing up - Scobie 1986:413-414, Pliny Natural History 36.105; Collapse of apartments in floods - Tacitus, Annals, 1.76, Livy 35.9.2-3, 40.28.4 31 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 8. 32 Scobie 1986:423. 33 Carcopino 1941: 199.



Antioch only reaching a few hundred thousand 34 . Although smaller than Rome, these cities would still have faced a higher infection rate relative to smaller towns and villages due to large populations living in small areas. Smaller cities averaged at around 10 to 15,000 individuals, with many “residing outside the city itself” 35 . This distance from city life may have been due to the lack of focus of political and social life on the major structures of larger cities such as religious temples, forums and the senate. This meant there was less crowding within the city centre and therefore less chance of infection. A smaller population meant that population density was decreased, allowing greater space between individuals and decreasing the amount of physical contact that could be used to transmit diseases. The Antonine plague may not have affected the smaller

communities to such a degree as it did the major cities like that of Rome or Alexandria. If population density determined the effect of the plague upon a particular area, then mortality of smallpox would have varied throughout the Empire. The table below was created by Frier using information from various studies of ancient population 36 . It shows the approximate population density of the provinces

encompassed by the empire in the year A.D. 164.

34 35

Frier in Bowman, Garnsey & Rathbone 2000:813. Frier in Bowman, Garnsey & Rathbone 2000:813. 36 Frier in Bowman, Garnsey & Rathbone 2000:814.


Table 1.1 – Estimate of the Roman population in A.D. 164 37

Egypt holds the highest population density on the table, with 178.6 persons per square kilometer. This high density can be explained by the concentration of five million inhabitants within the narrow area of the lush Nile Delta and the narrow strip of vegetation bordering the Nile River. The regions of Germany and Iberia have considerably lower population densities than Egypt. Germany and Iberia


Frier in Bowman, Garnsey & Rathbone 2000:814.


encompassed vast areas of land which allowed the population of the West to spread across a larger area. Smaller areas such as Egypt were more susceptible to a high mortality rate due to its high population density, allowing ease of transmission between individuals. The large distances between settlements in Germany and Iberia may have hindered the process by which the Antonine plague was able to transport itself to new hosts. Once a Roman became infected by smallpox, he or she may have sought medical help from private doctors within his or her local city. No large scale medical facilities existed in the Roman world until the 4th century A.D. 38 Medical treatment was restricted to the higher classes of Roman society owing to the payment necessary for treatment. Medical treatment in the Roman world was in large part based on Greek medical philosophy. Illnesses were commonly thought to be caused by what doctors referred to as ‘bad seeds’ 39 . These seeds circulated through the atmosphere where they would contaminate the air, food or water in a particular area. The internal workings of the body also affected the health of an individual. The constitution of an individual was believed to be dependent upon the balance and correct proportion of four humors within the body 40 . These were blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Pain would result in the area where a particular humor was deficient or

excessive. The balance could be altered by fluctuation in the patient’s diet, physical fitness or lifestyle. The use of such beliefs indicates that doctors had a limited concept of contagion. Celsus prescribes going to the bath, in important meeting place for Romans, in order to soothe certain ailments 41 . Such beliefs caused treatment to

38 39

Robinson 1992:128; St Jerome Letters 77. Jackson 1988:172. 40 Hippocratic Writings On the Nature of Man 4. 41 Celsus De Medicina 3.2.6, 3.6.14, 4.2.8.


be ineffective against highly infectious such as smallpox. Some patients resorted to religious incantations when such medical treatment failed to help them 42 . This chapter is provided to familiarize the reader with the pathogenic qualities of the Antonine plague as an aid to the assessment of economic, militaristic and religious decline. The Antonine plague spread from the region of Persia to the rest of the Empire via trade routes, military redeployments, and civilian population movements. The effect of mortality on the Roman populations cannot be known precisely, but it may be inferred that the larger trading cities were more susceptible to attacks of the virus smallpox than smaller inland communities. Larger population sizes within smaller areas would have caused severe infrastructure problems, which would have facilitated the spread of the virus across a city by creating greater opportunities for disease transmission. Smaller cities may not have had such

problems due to a smaller population density, allowing more space for the individual and decreasing the chance of effective transmission of the virus. Once contracting a disease, the patient would only seek medical attention if he or she could afford it, and the treatment provided little help against severe life-threatening diseases.


Diodorus Siculus HIstory 31.43; Pliny Natural History 30.98.


The Economic Decline

The economy of a society depends upon the productivity of the population. When the population drops in number or faces significant financial difficulty, the available revenue for public expenditure decreases. A society’s ability to adapt and function under such a situation will determine the extent to which it is able to recover. Literary sources point to a general population loss across the Empire, and there is evidence to suggest that this affected the economy. Recent studies by modern authors have focussed on archaeological evidence of an economic decline. Most authors focus on Egypt, where material evidence for economic activity has been well preserved. A study including both archaeological and literary evidence must be attempted if plague mortality is to be measured across the entire Empire. DuncanJones 43 provides important information across the Empire that can be related to a decline in numbers at the time of the Antonine plague. The intention of this chapter is to re-evaluate the evidence of the available literature in an attempt to broaden the information able to be extracted from the archaeological record. Focus will be directed to primary information provided by Duncan-Jones and similar studies, as this will give a representation of the mortality of the plague across the entire Empire, rather than restricting it to the study of Egypt. Once this information has been analysed, the literary sources for the time period after the plague, from A.D. 180 to 212, will be examined to find evidence of continued economic and demographic hardship across the Empire. The cessation of this

particular study finishes with the Constitutio Antoniniana from A.D. 212. The main


Duncan-Jones 1996


clause within this law which strengthens this theory states that all inhabitants of free status were granted the privilege of becoming Roman citizens, suggesting that the existing citizen population was no longer capable of supporting the Empire, neither economically nor physically. The literary sources that discuss the effects of the Antonine plague provide us with a general overview of population loss across the entire Roman Empire. Some examples are included:

Lucian (Late 2nd century A.D.)

“One oracle in particular, an autophone again, he distributed broadcast at a time of pestilence. It was a single line: Phoebus long-tressed the plague-cloud shall dispel This was everywhere to be seen written up on doors as a prophylactic. Its effect was generally disappointing;…” 44 Galen (Writing late 2nd century/Early 3rd century A.D.)

“After I had passed another three years at Rome, when the great plague began, I swiftly returned to [Pergamum] my native city.” 45

“When I reached Aquileia [in A.D. 168], the plague grew fiercer than ever, so much so that the Emperors immediately went back to Rome with a few soldiers, while we the majority had difficulty in surviving. Most of us died, not merely from the plague, but because the epidemic was happening in the depths of winter.” 46

44 45

Lucian Alexander the Oracle Monger 36. Galen Opera Omnia (Kuhn 19.15). 46 Galen Opera Omnia (Kuhn 19.17-18).


Eutropius (Approximately A.D. 369)

“…there occurred so destructive a pestilence, that at Rome, and throughout Italy and the provinces, the greater part of the inhabitants, and almost all the troops, sunk under the disease.” 47 Historia Augusta - Marcus Aurelius (Late 3rd century to early 4th century A.D.):

“And there was such a pestilence, besides, that the dead were removed in carts and waggons. About this time, also, the two emperors ratified certain very stringent law on burial and tombs, in which they even forbade any one to build a tomb at his country-place, a law still in force. Thousands were carried off by the pestilence, including many nobles, for the most prominent of whom Antoninus erected statues. Such, too, was kindliness of heart that he had funeral ceremonies performed for the lower classes even at the public expense;…” 48

“…and that at a time when a grievous pestilence had carried away thousands of civilians and soldiers.” 49 Historia Augusta - Lucius Verus (Late 3rd century to early 4th century A.D.):

“It was his fate to seem to bring a pestilence with him to whatever provinces he traversed on his return, and finally even to Rome.” 50 Ammianus Marcellinus (Late 4th century A.D.)

“…germ of pestilence burst forth, which after generating the virulence of incurable disease, in the time of the same Verus and of Marcus Antoninus

47 48

Eutropius, Breviarium ab urbe condita, 8.12. Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 13.3. 49 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 17.2. 50 Historia Augusta Lucius Verus 8.1-4.


polluted everything with contagion and death, from the frontiers of Persia all the way to the Rhine and to Gaul.” 51 Orosius (Early 5th century A.D.)

“A plague which broke out over many provinces followed, and so laid waste all Italy that everywhere country estates, fields, and towns were left without a cultivator and inhabitant and gave way to ruins and forests.” 52

Literary sources tend to be quite general, referring to population loss across the Empire and not to areas or numbers in particular. They give a modern historian proof that there was a loss of population in the Empire, which ancient historians believed was due to the plague. Writers contemporary to the plague occurrence tend to describe the mortality rather than the effects of the population loss on the countryside. The Historia Augusta refers to mass losses in Rome, Galen refers to civilian losses at Aquileia, and Lucian shows widespread superstition as Romans reacted in religious furore to the epidemic. Both Ammianus and Eutropius give the impression that the plague ravaged all inhabitants in every province of the Empire. Orosius indicates that the epidemic had a serious effect upon the population of Italy, causing high mortality in both rural and urban areas. Orosius was a Christian, and as the title of his work, “Seven books against the Pagans”, suggests, he was quite biased, relating the troubles of the Romans to their impious attitude towards Christianity. Having said that, his work suggests he was observing long term effects upon the countryside of Italy. Authors writing in the late 2nd century A.D. may have noted only the immediate effects of the plague mortality in their time, whereas authors writing later
51 52

Ammianus Marcellinus 23.6.24. Orosius Seven Books against the Pagans 7.15.5-6.


in the period between the 3rd and 5th centuries A.D. had a retrospective view of the long term effects upon various aspects of society. All literary sources, however, refer to a general loss of population for both rural and urban environments for all classes of society, across the entire Empire. No source focuses specifically on how the

population loss affected the economy. It is up to the modern historian to find material evidence that can support what is only suggested within the works of ancient authors. A population loss in a society signifies a loss in economic productivity. Material evidence provides us with proof that during the time of the Antonine plague, industrial labour declined. Although this information exists for many areas of the Roman world, the most significant and comprehensive studies have been undertaken in Egypt. Papyrus rolls relating to business transactions or governmental activity are some of the best preserved literary media that have survived. This study will begin with the analysis of material regarding the economic decline of various areas in Egypt during the period of the Antonine plague.

Egyptian Villages While it is not my intention to focus on the Egyptian evidence for the economic and political decline caused by the Antonine plague, this evidence does provide specific, tangible proof of the economic effects of the plague on the political and economic structures. In this section, I will briefly outline the extant research concerning Roman Egypt in order to provide a foundation upon which a broader understanding can be based. The village of Karanis in the Arsinoite nome of the Fayum is a prime example of population loss attributed to plague mortality in this period. Arthur Boak compared poll tax records from the Arsinoite nome to determine


the population at various times in its history53 . One papyrus fragment, P. Rylands IV 594, records a poll tax of 38,312 drachmas for the year A.D. 145/146 54 . With this figure, Boak determined the number of tax paying individuals at Karanis during the year A.D. 145/146 to be between 958 and 1093. Thirty years later, at a time when the plague was at its height, tax rolls from the years A.D. 171 to 174 show the number of tax paying individuals as ranging from 575 to 644 55 . Duncan-Jones indicates that this drop is equivalent to about 33 to 47 per cent of the population 56 , a percentage very close to the general mortality of smallpox 57 . The Antonine plague lasted from A.D. 166 to 189. These documents have been dated from A.D. 145 to 174. Some

conjecture could be raised as to whether these documents are contemporary to the outbreak of the plague. The drop in population explained by these sample figures could be attributed to another factor, such as economic decline before plague, causing villagers to flee the area to find somewhere more profitable. If this was the case, and plague did hit the village in the late 160’s, the mortality would only have increased economic decline. However, many other villages within the Delta/Fayum area were also showing large losses of population during these years, which may connect the loss of population at Karanis to plague mortality. Evidence from a papyrus fiscal register from the Mendesian nome of Egypt, once located within the Nile Delta, provides information that over twenty villages suffered a serious population decline in the years from A.D. 166 to 170 58 (See table 1.1). Rathbone’s study of the papyri revealed that the decline was due not only to

Boak 1959:248, Boak 1955. P. Rylands IV 594; the date A.D. 145/146 refers to the period between mid A.D. 145 and mid A.D.146. 55 Boak 1959:248; P. Mich. IV 223-5 in Youtie 1936 cited in Boak 1959:248. 56 Duncan-Jones 1996:122. 57 25-30%; Crosby in Kiple 1993:300. 58 Rathbone 1990:114.



plague mortality, but also to internal conflict that was occurring in this time period 59 . The Roman army had engaged a group of pastoralist brigands known as the Boukoloi 60 . Many of the villages were attacked by both Romans and brigands during the conflict, causing significant loss of life. Another significant reason for the loss of population was the phenomenon of flight, whereby villagers fled to other cities inside or outside the nome to avoid conflict or economic stress. The number of inhabitants which fled from a particular village may have caused the population to drop to such a low level that there was no collectable tax income available from those villages. Whether through mortality of plague and revolt, or the flight of villagers away from the city, it still meant there was a significant drop in the tax base of the area when the plague was recorded to be at its height around the Empire.

Table 1.2 – Population decline of male taxpayers in Mendesian nome of Egypt late A.D. 160’s 61
59 60

P. Thmouis 1. Rathbone 1990:116. 61 Rathbone 1990:136.


The data collected from papyri in the study of Rathbone suggest around 12 villages out of the 20 or so recorded were abandoned completely, with the remaining villages containing no more than eleven taxpayers 62 . The government did attempt to deal with the drop in tax base. In the villages which had been completely abandoned, no tax collection could take place. Where the population had been diminished to only a few, the taxes were adjusted to cope with the loss of population 63 . Even with a

decrease in taxes to deal with diminished members, the amount of manpower available to sustain an economy of pre-plague numbers would have been an incredible stress upon the small population without direct government intervention. To this author’s knowledge, there is no evidence to prove that the government reacted in such a way to increase the population of these diminished villages to save the economy of smaller communities. It is this author’s suggestion that such a study would provide vital information to the recovery aspects the Roman Empire within the early 3rd century A.D. In the village of Socnopaiou Nesos, 80 of the 244 tax-paying males in the population died during the period from January to February in A.D. 178, indicating a one-third drop in the tax-paying population over a two-month period 64 . Rathbone indicates that the sudden drop in the population within such a short period of time can only be attributed to the plague 65 . This seems plausible, as smallpox has a mortality rate of 25-30%, which correlates to the loss of population in Socnopaiou Nesos 66 . Socnopaiou Nesos was nearby to the village of Karanis, and by correlating this evidence with population loss at Karanis, the mortality evident in Karanis can also be more plausibly related to the plague. Communication between the two villages may
62 63

Rathbone 1990:116. Rathbone 1990:115; P. Thoumis 1. 64 Hobson 1984:850; Pvindob.Gr. 24951 + 24556 in Hobson 1984. 65 Rathbone 1990:114. 66 Crosby in Kiple 1993:300.


have caused the plague to be transferred through trade, messengers, or residents fleeing from the pressures of their own village. The timing of this example, in A.D. 178, indicates that the plague was still manifest in the population, and may have affected rural populations inside and outside of Egypt. Early in the 3rd century A.D., the village of Socnopaiou Nesos registered a population of 135 tax-paying men, compared to 244 before the Antonine plague in A.D.178, suggesting that it may not have recovered from plague losses 67 . The plague may have had a larger influence on the villages in Egypt, but the documentation we have to work with is limited to the areas for which papyri describing economic indicators have been preserved. The tax base in Egypt at the time of the Antonine plague was dropping, and it can be inferred that the plague aided in the process of economic decline within rural areas. The long-term effects of the plague on the population of Egypt have been debated at length by various scholars. It is not my aim to reassess each modern author’s opinion, as the focus of this paper is not on Egypt in particular; my aim is to place this evidence in a wider context of plague mortality across the Roman Empire. Comparative evidence from other locations at the time of the plague must be analysed in order to discuss the effect that the Antonine plague had upon the population and economy of the whole Roman Empire.

Loss in Numbers at a Trading Facility in Puteoli The evidence showing a population loss in other parts of the Empire at the time of the plague occurrence is plentiful. In A.D. 174, an association of Tyrians


Samuel 1977:169.


trading at Puteoli wrote to the government of Tyre, requesting that the mother city pay for their rent, which was too much of a burden for the few remaining Tyrians 68 .

“By the gods and by the fortune of our lord emperor. As almost all of you know, of all the trading stations at Puteoli, ours, in adornment and size, is superior to the others. In former days the Tyrians living at Puteoli were responsible for its maintenance; they were numerous and rich. But now we are reduced to a small number, and, owing to the expenses that we have to meet for the sacrifices and the worship of our national gods, who have temples here, we have not the necessary resources to pay for the rent of the station, a sum of 100,000 denarii a year; especially now that the expenses of the festival of the sacrifice of bulls has been laid on us. We therefore beg you to be responsible for the payment of the annual rent of 100,000 denarii… We also remind you that we receive no subscriptions from ship owners or traders, in contrast to what happens with the station of the sovereign city of Rome. We therefore appeal to you and beg you to take thought of our fate and of the affair.” 69

The decline of Puteoli in this period has been connected with the building reforms of Trajan in the early 2nd century A.D. Trajan excavated a large hexagonal area behind the port of Ostia to protect the trading ships from stormy weather 70 . This action diverted trading activity away from the port of Puteoli; trading activity began to decline and, as a result, some of the population may have moved to more productive areas. Duncan-Jones uses this letter as an example of population loss in Italy that could be attributed to the plague 71 . Puteoli may have been losing its population due to the economic decline mentioned above, yet if the plague had infected this area, it would provide a significant explanation as to why the letter was
68 69

Meiggs 1973:60. Duncan-Jones 1996:121 citing Orien. Graec. Inscr. 595. 70 Juvenal 12.79-82; Meiggs 1973:59. 71 Duncan-Jones 1996:121.


sent out directly after the outbreak of plague in many other areas of Italy. If anything, the plague gave residents an even greater reason to flee the area. The falling

population meant that the rent of 100,000 denarii a year was split between smaller numbers. Religious tribute was expected at this time and no membership fees were collected from ship owners or traders. This letter is a good example of how the plague may have caused greater economic stress upon individuals in affected communities, but it also attests to the economic stress faced by the community as a social entity by itself. This scenario may also have happened at other villages or commercial facilities across the Empire. As in Puteoli, residents may not have been able to pay the rent or tax without adjustments to deal with a drop in population. We see evidence of attempts to adjust the rate in the examples from Egypt 72 . We will not know the extent to which this was evident to the rest of the Empire unless new evidence is uncovered. The example of Puteoli shows how the plague may have caused a significant drop in population at a time when the trading association was already under economic stress. It gives an example of how the economy was altered in order to halt the population from fleeing or deteriorating to a point where income would be unable to be collected.

Losses in the Nobility at Athens In a letter written to the Athenians around the years A.D. 174 to 175, Marcus Aurelius indicated that he would alter the laws of eligibility for the Areopagus, a political law-making assembly for Athens, so that more Athenians could be admitted


Rathbone 1990:115; P. Thoumis 1.


into its seats 73 . Duncan-Jones states that a drop in numbers had began prior to the onset of the plague 74 , but as with the case of the trading association at Puteoli, the context of this letter at a time when the plague had already struck many areas of Italy suggests another instance of plague mortality. Both these inscriptions date to A.D. 174/175, relatively soon after the plague was at its height. Marcus’ mention of “disasters which have befallen them through the intervention of chance” could indicate that he was referring to the plague striking other cities near Rome, reinforcing the idea that mortality was widespread across the Italian peninsula. This example is not economically based in particular, but the loss in numbers of the political assembly of the Athenians shows that the plague was not restricted to the lower classes of the society. Much of the wealth in the Roman world existed in the wealthier classes of the aristocracy. A decline in numbers of this class signifies instability in economic structure. The very fact that Marcus restructured the

eligibility laws for service in the Areopagus indicates that Marcus recognised the impact that the plague had on society 75 . When Marcus remained behind to guard Rome before the wars in the north 76 , he may have implemented measures to ensure that landed property would not be left unsupervised in the wake of the plague. Plague mortality caused a relaxing of eligibility laws, affecting the intake of nobility into the political sphere and perhaps contributing to what later authors recall as the ‘barbarisation’ of traditional political positions.

73 74

No. 184 in Oliver 1984:376-7. Duncan-Jones 1990:72. 75 Duncan-Jones has a similar opinion 1990:134. 76 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 13.3.


Brick Production Decreases at Rome Duncan-Jones gives an example of economic instability within cities by studying the decline of brick producers in Rome during the plague period. In a previous study by Steinby, surviving brick samples were sorted into categories of producers and dates that were displayed by stamps upon the brick surface 77 . These bricks, when placed into a timeline, show a drop in producers between the years A.D. 160 and 200. The decline began before the plague began, but a significant drop occurred at a time contemporary to the Antonine plague. The lull in production lasted until around A.D. 190, one year after the last episode of plague occurrence. DuncanJones explains this drop in producers as an effect of plague upon the population of Rome 78 . The very fact that it stayed at a constantly low rate of production at the time of the outbreak indicates that plague mortality may have been halting productivity. Between the years A.D. 190 and 200, a slow increase began in the number of producers, indicating a possible recovery from the disease. These bricks were used to construct and maintain various structures around Rome, including the apartment-style insulae that occupied the lower lying areas of Rome 79 . The high demand for this sort of building material may have allowed such a trade to increase quickly after a disaster period, especially after a lull in supply for many years. This example shows how productivity in trades at Rome may have decreased due to plague mortality taking its toll upon the industrial population.

Public Works Decline Under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus During the first two centuries A.D., many Roman cities were outbidding each other in municipal extravagance for the construction of the most opulent public
77 78

Steinby 1974:110-11, cited in Duncan-Jones 1996:129, n.149. Duncan-Jones 1996:129. 79 Brunt 1974:85.


works 80 .

These included baths, gymnasia, theatres, ceremonial arches, tombs,

triumphal columns and other civic works considered an essential part of life for the Roman citizen 81 . Such construction projects were funded by the taxable income from the local population. With the possibility of a large drop in taxation base during the plague, either taxes would be insufficient to maintain such extravagance or the local council would need to raise the taxes. This would mean that there could be an

overwhelming impact of economic stress upon the diminished population of the cities, or a complete economic and structural collapse in the city itself. Dated inscriptions from public buildings in Italy provide us with an example of decreasing public works projects in Italy decreasing during the plague years. Using the average number of dedicatory inscriptions for each Imperial reign, Jouffruy created a table to show the production of public buildings over the 2nd century A.D. 82 Non-imperial public buildings decreased in production from the A.D. 160’s and continued to do so throughout the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries A.D. 83 . This

evidence equates with the idea that there may have been a structural collapse in the building of public works due to the decline of population and subsequent drop in taxable income. This example only describes what happened in Italy, but provincial cities trying to mimic the greatness of Italy would also have had an economic and subsequent structural decline. Dedications for public works did not disappear

completely, and as mentioned below, the marble mined from Phrygia from A.D. 173 to 180 may have been used to maintain the public works while Marcus refilled the treasury.

80 81

Jones 1966:21. Walbank 1966:62. 82 Jouffroy 1986. 83 Duncan-Jones 1996:127.


Marble Output Decreases at Docimium in Phrygia Marble quarries in the city of Docimium in Phyrgia were used to supply pavonazzeto to Rome and Latium. Pavonazzeto was a polychrome marble used for veneer and columns. Dated evidence from marble slab findings around Docimium and Italy show a lull in production from A.D. 166 to 173, when the plague was at its height 84 . Production resumed around A.D. 173, and stopped under the reign of Commodus from A.D. 180 to 196. In the year A.D. 197, during the reign of

Septimius Severus, there was an increase in production. The A.D. 166 to 173 lull occurred not only when the plague was at its height, but also at the time when Marcus Aurelius was waging war upon the northern frontiers. The second lull coincided with the reign of Commodus. During the reign of both of these emperors, no imperiallyfinanced buildings within Italy were recorded 85 . There are two possible reasons for these lulls in production. The first is that a decline in industrial labour due to plague mortality meant the mining facility could no longer be kept level with continued production. This theory, however, does not explain why the resumption of production in A.D. 173 was suddenly halted in A.D. 180 at the beginning of the reign of Commodus and did not resume for 16 years. A second reason is more credible. The first lull occurred at a time when the plague had struck the population all around the Empire. Marcus was warring with the northern tribes as they broke through to Aquileia in A.D. 167, at about the same time as the plague outbreak 86 . The excessive stress on the economy at this time may have prevented Marcus from building any Imperial structures 87 . As pavonazzeto was a marble used for its aesthetic qualities, the decrease in demand of

84 85

Fant 1989: 62-66. Jouffroy 1986, cited in Duncan-Jones 1996:126, n. 140. 86 Parker 1958:21. 87 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 17.


Imperial buildings may have caused the mines to shut down.

The increase in

production of marble from A.D. 173 to 180 could be explained by the slow surplus of funds which occurred as the plague began to subside. This marble may have been used for what public works were still affordable around Italy 88 . Once the plague had abated, Marcus and the Senate may have had the time and the money to focus on the maintenance of infrastructure around Italy and to construct some Imperial buildings for the reinforcement of political and economic stability. Unlike Marcus, the images we get through the sources of Commodus are of a man who cared more for the pleasures of life rather than the politics of government 89 . If Commodus had the choice, he presumably spent the money on his own extravagant lifestyle rather than dedicate Imperial works to his political image. Thus the production of marble at the Docimium mine during his reign may not have been a major issue for Commodus, explaining the second lull in production. The A.D. 197 recommencement of activity at the mine related to the reign of Septimius Severus. The Historia Augusta states that one of the major achievements of Septimius was the restoration of all public sanctuaries90 . The money for such restoration needed a source, and the Historia Augusta also states that the proscriptions of followers of Albinus specifically went to swell the public treasury 91 . Although tenuous, this evidence suggests that the income for the Empire was not enough to sustain the public treasury, and other methods were needed to procure funds for public works around the Empire, in particular, the prosecution of wealthy aristocrats and confiscation of their property. The continuation of such proscriptions threatened

88 89

Jouffroy 1986, cited in Duncan-Jones 1996:126, n. 140. E.g. Historia Augusta Commodus 5; Cassius Dio 73.10,18. 90 Historia Augusta Septimius Severus 23. 91 Historia Augusta Septimius Severus 12.


instability to the economic structure of the Empire, as a great portion of the wealth of the Empire lay within the aristocracy.

Two Fragmentary Examples of Plague Mortality: A Funerary College in Alburnum and a Mithraeum in Virunum Two other fragmentary examples show a loss of population during the period of the plague. At a gold mining facility in the Dacian town of Alburnum, a funerary college recorded a drop in number from 54 to 17 in A.D. 167 when many of their members fled from the area 92 . Duncan-Jones plausibly connects this drop in A Mithraeum in

population with the plague outbreak in A.D. 166 in Rome 93 .

Virunum, (Carinthia, Austria) lost 5 out of its 98 members due to mortalitas in the years A. D. 183 to 184 94 . Although this drop in population is after the climax of the plague, the existence of this information gives us an idea that the disease may have lingered in smaller provinces and towns. The circulation of the disease would explain the reoccurrence of the plague in A.D. 189 where 2000 people were said to have died every day in Rome 95 .

Agricultural Losses Other information has been provided for agricultural activity within Egypt, in particular the research of Scheidel96 , Bagnall 97 , van Minnen 98 and Duncan-Jones 99 . It would be impossible, given the constraints of this thesis, to analyse adequately this

92 93

Inscr. Lat. Sel. 7215a, Alburnum, Dacia. Duncan-Jones 1996:121. 94 Corp. Inscr. Lat. III 5567 in G. Piccottini 1994 cited in Duncan-Jones 1996:117, n.98. 95 Cassius Dio 72.14 96 Scheidel 2002. 97 Bagnall 2002:114-120. 98 Van Minnen 2001:175-7. 99 Duncan-Jones 1996:121-124.


material in its proper context and give the evidence the scrutiny it deserves. The population drop that occurred during the Antonine plague indicates that agricultural produce must have decreased significantly. There is one piece of evidence from the time period after the Antonine plague that can be analysed. Pertinax, who ruled for less than three months in early A.D. 193, tried to encourage agricultural activity in Italy. All land that was “not being farmed and lying completely fallow”


allotted to either private ownership or independent farmers. The farmers were given “tax immunity for ten years and permanent security of tenure” 101 . These rather drastic incentives indicate that Pertinax was not only trying to increase the tax revenue, but also attempting to raise agricultural productivity, thereby stimulating local and regional economies weakened by the plague. By remitting taxes on farmers, he gave them the opportunity to build a sound economic structure on their property which would support them once taxes were reinstated. The security of tenure ensured that land would never be taken away from a family inheritance, solidifying ownership and guaranteeing ongoing support to the economic base of Italy through continued tax payment. Pertinax placed a great deal of importance in the re-establishment of an agricultural structure within Italy. The attention he gives to such a venture suggests that there was a problem with the existing agricultural structure. This is a clear suggestion that plague depopulated the countryside of Italy, and an example of how emperors in the late 2nd century A.D. attempted economic recuperation after the plague had taken its toll upon the population. Such measures would strengthen the foundations by which the government was able to exact taxes from agricultural communities, returning the revenue status to one equivalent to pre-plague figures.

100 101

Herodian II.4.6. Herodian II.4.6.


Overcoming problems of the evidence Let us consider the archaeological evidence provided thus far in this chapter for the purpose of critical analysis. Individually, the evidence provided within these studies can be considered somewhat tenuous. In each case, the evidence details affairs specific to the location in which they were found, or the location discussed in the text. Each one individually cannot be taken as representative of the entire Roman Empire. Matters discussed in the letters regarding the Areopagus and the traders at Puteoli are isolated to those letters, with no contemporary evidence to back up the subject matter. Other examples relate to the analysis of extant archaeological finds, such as the brick producers in Rome, the marble mines in Phyrgia, and the public and imperial works of Italy. The discussion of these fragmentary finds is based on

archaeological samples which are few in number and spaced over long periods of time. They may not give a proper representation of numbers as a whole. The decline recognized in each of the case studies discussed above could plausibly be related to other factors independent of plague mortality. The imperfect nature of each individual case study hinders historians’ attempts to attribute the economic decline to plague mortality. Yet, when these samples are considered in a more holistic fashion, they reveal an overall decline in both the population and productivity at a time contemporary with the plague outbreak. They can each be compared to one another to show a common cause of structural deterioration by plague mortality. It is almost impossible to know the extent to which the plague directly affected the population or economy in every village, town or city, but these samples provide glimpses at the indirect effects through comparable data from various locations around the Empire. It may certainly be inferred from this


evidence that plague mortality deeply affected the normal economic structure of local communities. There is a definite decline in population in all the archaeological examples citied above. If a population drop occurs in a city, town, village, or farm, it means a decrease in available manpower, free or unfree, to work in economic or industrial facilities, such as farms, mills, metalworking and quarries. It also signifies a drop in the available tax base of a population. Both the industrial output and income of these facilities formed a major part of the revenue for the Roman imperial power 102 . The agricultural and industrial facilities were unable to supply these revenues at their preplague level once the population was decreased. If the economic revenue decreased, this in turn decreased public expenditure. The drop in public works and marble output may well have been cutbacks to avoid economic stress. The cause of this economic stress can readily be associated with the Antonine plague. The Roman government needed to find a different source of income if it was to recover its preplague revenue. This new source seems to have come in the form of noble blood. A number of emperors of the late 2nd and early 3rd century killed numerous rich Romans to acquire money for political activities. The death of so many Romans led to a deficiency of noble blood, seriously damaging a class that held most of the wealth in Roman society. Given the direct and indirect strain placed upon the Roman economy by the Antonine plague illustrated above, it behoves us now to examine whether or not, after the generally accepted end of the epidemic, the Roman economy was significantly affected in the long term. The aim of the second part of this thesis is to look at the period from A.D. 180 to 212 and elucidate any signs of economic decline. Emphasis


Duncan-Jones 1990:188-9.


will be placed not only on references to hardship within the lower classes of the Empire, but also to the numerous proscriptions which had a serious effect upon the higher classes of the Empire. The reigns of emperors from Marcus Aurelius to Caracalla will be addressed, in order to assess the post-plague economic stability as shown in the historical record.

Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161 - 180) The reign of Marcus Aurelius was fraught with economic problems. A flood engulfed Rome causing a severe famine 103 , the exhausting frontier wars stretched the economy and the plague caused significant loss of life: all shook the economic foundations of the Empire. In the Historia Augusta it is mentioned that Marcus “could not bring himself to impose any extraordinary tax on the provincials”


perhaps realising that the provincial cities were already under enough pressure from the loss of population suffered at the hands of the plague. Instead he sold all Imperial property so he could raise enough money for the Marcomannic wars on the northern frontiers 105 . He revived the worship of the gods to quell religious anarchy and supplemented the army with slaves, bandits and barbarians rather than allied manpower to supplement the plague-depleted ranks 106 . He mentioned the plague within his work Meditations 107 and on his death bed reminded his son Commodus to think of the pestilence rather than his dying father 108 . These examples suggest that Marcus realised the debilitating effects that both plague and war were having on the

103 104

Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 8. Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 17.4. 105 Cassius Dio Epitome Book 71. 106 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 21. 107 Marcus Aurelius Meditations 9.2. 108 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 28.


population of the Empire and that he attempted in some way to relieve the economic stresses.

Commodus (A.D. 180 - 192) Commodus did not follow his father’s lifestyle. Instead of campaigning against the northern Germanic tribes, he bribed the barbarians into peace with huge quantities of money 109 . He returned to Rome after achieving peace in the

Marcomannic war, indulging in the vast extravagances that were available to him in the city of Rome, apparently caring nothing for the politics of the government. “He cut himself off from his interest in moral studies and continually gave his whole mind to the slavish pursuit of unrestrained physical pleasure day and night” 110 . He paid gladiators, jugglers and entertainers to amuse him and soldiers to protect him wherever he went 111 . All these expenditures took a heavy toll upon the Imperial treasury: “The expense of his luxurious living had drained the treasury” 112 . Commodus killed many senators and other elite Romans to obtain much of the wealth that he spent on his extravagances113 . “He had intended to kill fourteen others also, since the revenues of the Roman Empire were insufficient to meet his expenditures” 114 . As discussed above, a large part of the income from around the Empire came in the form of taxes in kind or monetary form. If the revenues of the state were not sufficient to fund the expenditures of the emperor, there must have been a significant failure in the economic structure of the government. The loss in revenue is supplemented by the proscription of rich nobles and confiscation of their

109 110

Cassius Dio 74.6.1, Herodian 1.6.8-9. Herodian 1.13.8. 111 Herodian 1.16.2. 112 Historia Augusta Commodus 16. 113 Cassius Dio 74.6; Historia Augusta Commodus 4,5,7; Herodian 1.17.2. 114 Historia Augusta Commodus 7.


property. Continued loss of life in the nobility would eventually lead to a further collapse in the economic structure as this is where much of the wealth in the Empire lay. He also sold constitutional exclusions and governmental and provincial

positions 115 . There may be some bias regarding the image of Commodus that is portrayed in the ancient sources. Most historians belonged to the aristocratic classes of society, who were directly affected by the proscriptions and indulgence of Commodus. Bearing this in mind, the fact that Herodian, Cassius Dio and the

Historia Augusta all mention the avarice of Commodus, suggests that at least some, if not most, of what they mention can be believed with caution.

Pertinax (A.D. 193) There is evidence to suggest that Commodus introduced new taxes in order to raise funds, for both himself and the Imperial treasury. According to Herodian, the succeeding emperor Pertinax remitted taxes started by Commodus.

“He (Pertinax) remitted all the customs tariffs which had been devised under the tyranny of Commodus… from traffic on the rivers, in the city harbours or on the arterial roads” 116

The introduction of new taxes indicates that emperors in the time period after the plague were attempting to supplement the loss in revenue caused by a loss in population. The Historia Augusta takes an opposite view of the same taxes. Instead of Pertinax remitting the taxes, it seems Commodus nullified them and Pertinax needed to reinstate them to help assist in Imperial expenditure.

115 116

Historia Augusta Commodus 14.4-8. Herodian 2.4.7.


“… he (Pertinax) was forced, in violation of a previous promise, to exact certain revenues which Commodus had remitted” 117

However, because the authorship, and indeed the very trustworthiness, of the Historia Augusta is still hotly debated by numerous authors, this suggestion is fraught with doubt and the document probably dates from the early 4th century A.D. Herodian may appear to be a more trustworthy source in this case as he wrote his work in the mid 3rd century A.D. The introduction of taxes by Commodus or the reintroduction of remitted taxes by Pertinax shows that the standard taxation system was not collecting enough money from the provinces to maintain the imperial expenditure that was required to upkeep the Empire. We have already mentioned the agricultural reforms of Pertinax which show his attempt at encouraging growth in the population of the Italian countryside to boost the economy. Pertinax also adopted the same action of Marcus Aurelius by selling imperial property to increase the treasury, most of which belonged to Commodus 118 .

Julianus (A.D. 193) Julianus followed soon after Pertinax, but not much information can be given as to any economic deterioration during his reign. He ruled for only two months, guilty of extravagances and proscriptions of two senators in a manner similar to Commodus 119 . He was not able to do much with his reign as the treasury was completely empty 120 .\

Historia Augusta Pertinax 7.6. Cassius Dio 74.5, Historia Augusta Pertinax 7. 119 Extravagances - Historia Augusta Didius Julianus 3,9; Cassius Dio 74.14; Herodian 2.7.1; Proscriptions - Cassius Dio 74.16. 120 Herodian 2.7.2.



Septimius Severus (A.D. 193 - 211) The rule of Septimius Severus encompassed two civil wars, the first being against the commander in Palestine, Pescennius Niger (A.D. 193-196), and the second being against the commander in Britain, Albinus (A.D. 196-197). The Empire’s resources were channelled into all aspects of the war to support the various factions that had arisen. In raising the money for the campaign against Niger’s partisans, Septimius exacted a heavy toll on the provinces, about four times the amount that Niger had demanded from the cities under his command 121 . When Albinus landed in Gaul to prepare for an attack against Septimius, he ordered the governors of Gaul to send him support in the form of money and supplies 122 . Septimius ultimately won his battles and the spoils of war went to pay the army and swell the treasury. Supporters of both Albinus and Niger were put to death 123 . Whole cities that had supported Albinus or Niger were decimated 124 . All assets confiscated in this way were added to the state and imperial treasury. As well as these civil wars, there were two other campaigns that Septimius undertook while emperor. The first was a campaign against the Parthian King

Vologaeses, who had used the distraction of the civil war in Gaul to invade Mesopotamia (A.D. 197 - 199). The second was a campaign against the tribes of northern Britain (A.D. 208 - 211). The spoils of war from these campaigns also helped to fill the treasury which was already holding the confiscated assets of nobles. Herodian, Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta all attest to the treasury being full of

121 122

Cassius Dio 75.8. Herodian 3.7.1. 123 Herodian 3.4.7, 3.7.8-8.3, 3.8.6; Historia Augusta Septimius Severus 12,13. 124 Herodian 3.5.7, 3.7.7.


gold at the end of the reign of Septimius 125 . Plague had decimated the provincial population, decreasing the tax base available for collection of revenue. Emperors purposely prosecuted Roman nobles who were associated with rebellious generals, with a second aim of filling the treasuries of Rome and their own pockets. Games were held in great numbers, gifts were showered on the commanders and Praetorian Guard, and dole grants were given to the general population126 . The construction of public works was recommenced with great enthusiasm, which would explain the continued production seen in the archaeological examples above, of both pavonazzeto in A.D. 197 at Docimium and brick producers at Rome in A.D. 200. Most of the funds during the reign of Septimius were acquired from proscription of Roman nobles, heavy taxes enacted on cities for military expenses and collection of war booty from the various campaigns during his reign. The revenue of the provinces was not solely able to support the vast military campaigns undertaken under the rule of Septimius Severus.

Caracalla (A.D. 211 - 217) The reign of Caracalla saw one of the most important laws of the century. With the enactment of the Constitutio Antoniniana in A.D. 212, Caracalla gave citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire. The Antonine plague had killed off many citizen members of the population, and the continued proscriptions of emperors in the years following the plague only exacerbated the problem. The

existing population of citizens was no longer able to support the economy of the Roman Empire. The Constitutio Antoniniana instantly created a larger body of

125 126

Cassius Dio 77.1; Historia Augusta Septimius Severus 12, 23; Herodian 3.13.4, 3.15.3. Games - Herodian 3.8.9-10, 3.10.2; Public works – Historia Augusta Septimius Severus 19; Gifts to army commanders – Herodian 3.15.5; Gifts to praetorian guard and dole grants to populace – Cassius Dio 77.1.


citizen manpower eligible for citizen taxes 127 . Taxes were raised on manumissions and inheritances from five to ten per cent 128 . Some families had been exempt from these taxes through special privileges, but Caracalla now abolished all such exemptions, making all citizens liable to the new taxes 129 . In addition to these tax burdens, Caracalla proscribed huge numbers of rich Roman nobles. Particularly those thought sympathetic to the cause of his brother Geta. Geta’s own family and close friends 130 , along with some twenty thousand of Geta’s followers are said to have been executed at the whim of Caracalla 131 . The money raised from these proscriptions and taxes was put to use in paying the soldiers for their loyalty, gladiatorial games involving vast numbers of animals, and massive public works like that of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome 132 . Once again, all of these measures indicate that the revenue of the Roman Empire was no longer able to support the ventures of the emperor. The further taxes and proscriptions enacted by Caracalla would only have helped the deterioration of provincial economic structures that had originated with the Antonine plague.

Proscriptions During the years A.D. 160 to 217, the only emperors not to proscribe noble men and women were Marcus Aurelius 133 and Pertinax. Commodus 134 , Julianus135 , Septimius Severus 136 and Caracalla 137 are documented as having killed noble men

127 128

Cassius Dio 77.9. Cassius Dio 77.9. 129 Cassius Dio 77.9. 130 Herodian 4.6.1-2,4; Historia Augusta Caracalla 4. 131 Cassius Dio 77.4. 132 Cassius Dio 77.10; Historia Augusta Caracalla 9. 133 Cassius Dio 72.28. 134 Cassius Dio 73.4-5, 73.14.1, 74.6.1; Historia Augusta Commodus 4, 7. 135 Historia Augusta Didius Julianus 6; Cassius Dio 74.13,16. 136 Cassius Dio 75.8; Historia Augusta Pescennius Niger 6, Historia Augusta Albinus 12, Historia Augusta Septimius Severus 12, 13; Herodian 3.4.7, 3.5.1, 3.6.9, 3.7.7, 3.7.8-8.3, 3.8.6.


and their families. The alleged rebellion of various nobles gave the emperors an excuse to proscribe individuals, military units and sometimes even whole towns so they could use the assets belonging to these people to swell the public treasury. This influx of funds to the treasury explains why expenditures such as public works were continued under Severus and Caracalla. There is evidence to suggest that an official advisory position was set up to manage the funds acquired from these proscriptions, indicating that the amount collected was large enough to justify its own position to look after distribution 138 . The Antonine plague had a huge impact upon the

population of the Roman provinces. The drop in population caused a permanent loss in annual income. The emperors in the time period from A.D. 180 to 212 needed a second source of income to maintain the treasury. The emperors ruling during this

time period used the proscription of Roman nobility as a major source of income to replace the insufficient provincial revenue. A passage from the work of Cassius Dio provides a summary for the concept discussed within the second part of this chapter:

Once when Julia chided him [Caracalla] for spending vast sums upon them [soldiers] and said, “There is no longer any source of revenue, either just or unjust, left to us,” he replied, exhibiting his sword, “Be of good cheer, mother: for as long as we have this, we shall not run short of money.”

The plague ravaged provinces were no longer able to provide an adequate income for the revenue of the empire, which is the “just” revenue described by Julia. The mention of an “unjust” revenue points towards a loss in available nobility to proscribe

137 138

Historia Augusta Caracalla 4; Herodian 4.6.1-2,4. Millar 1977:171-3 citing Inscr. Lat. Sel. 1421; Duncan-Jones 1994:6,15.


in order to acquire funds, as they had already been culled by Caracalla and the previous emperors. The reply of Caracalla reinforces the common action of emperors in the years after the plague to execute wealthy nobles and confiscate their assets to fund both the emperor and state. There may be bias against Caracalla by Cassius Dio, but the fact that the historian acknowledges these economic issues within his work means that they may have been prevalent during the reign of Caracalla. The Constitutio Antoniniana under Caracalla was the culmination of a century of economic turmoil. When the Antonine plague caused a loss of economic growth and of manpower, the tax base was lowered to a level insufficient to support the Empire without raising taxes or acquiring funds from elsewhere. The proscriptions between the late 2nd and early 3rd century A.D. relieved the economic pressure for a limited time, but took a toll on the higher echelons of Roman society. Both lower and higher classes felt the strain of the effects of a declining post-plague economy. The laws instituted by Caracalla show that there was certainly not enough revenue coming in from the existing taxation system. Even Caracalla’s new taxes did nothing to help the economic stress already placed on both the lower and upper classes. The advent of citizenship to all free inhabitants expanded the degree to which the economic stress affected the populace. Now all free inhabitants were expected to pay taxes that were expected from the citizen social class. These free inhabitants included the already financially burdened lower classes still reeling from the plague. Taxation on a decreased population furthered the disintegration of the urban and rural populace until the mid-3rd century when the economy could no longer handle the pressure. At this point the entire Empire struggled to maintain its expenditures; this would lead to the economic turmoil of the 3rd century A.D.


Consequences of Plague Mortality within the Military

Marcus Aurelius began his reign at a time when military activity had settled down. The previous emperor, Antoninus Pius, had promoted the concepts of peace and recovery during a relatively peaceful reign. The tide was about to change, as the trickle of resistance at the northern borders was soon to turn into a raging torrent that would blast through the Roman perimeter in an explosive assault upon the Empire. The peace of the previous reign had given the Romans a sense of false security towards those enemies that lay beyond the Danubian provinces. But an unexpected plague erupted at the eastern frontier which slowly engulfed the provinces and attacked the population. This decreased the effectiveness and recruitment capacity of the military ranks. With the Empire weakened and in a state of conflict, the northern barbarians saw the perfect opportunity to strike out, attempting to occupy Roman land. Marcus Aurelius managed to repel these attacks to the outer limits of the Empire, attempting to conquer the invading tribes with the ultimate view of incorporating them into the Empire. He settled allied tribes upon the borderlands to act as a buffer zone against the hostile tribes. These allied tribes were subject to military service in return for the land which Marcus had supplied. Marcus was forced to recruit soldiers who were not consistent with legionary standards, and to use barbarians to support the remaining legions. This enlistment process threatened the level of loyalty to the Roman Empire in the legions and auxiliary units. The untimely death of Marcus in A.D. 180 interrupted his plans of annexation. His son Commodus,


instead of continuing annexation, simply bribed the restless tribes into peace. Subsequent emperors imitated Commodus by providing donatives to tribes on the border provinces in return for alliances, friendships and mercenary defence. This slow dilution of loyalty in the Roman army and the enlistment of mercenary troops would last for centuries, and ultimately reveal one of the factors that led to the downfall of the Roman Empire. It is hard to establish the effect of plague mortality on military numbers across the Roman Empire, but within the sources there are hints of infection in Syria, northern Italy and Rome. Sources suggest that it started in the eastern areas of the Empire, where it spread towards Rome and the western provinces. As we have seen, the mobile nature of the army helped the passage of the virus throughout the Empire.

“It was his [Lucius Verus’] fate to seem to bring a pestilence with him to whatever provinces he traversed on his return, and finally even to Rome. It is believed that this pestilence originated in Babylonia, where a pestilential vapour arose in a temple of Apollo from a golden casket which a soldier had accidentally cut open, and that it spread thence over Parthia and the whole world” 139 .

Lucius Verus was the co-ruler appointed by Marcus Aurelius in the early years of his reign to deal with the Persian wars in the East while Marcus tended to the northern borders. As Lucius Verus returned from the Parthian war with the Danubian legions, the plague spread with the army through the provinces until it reached Rome in A.D. 166. When these legions returned home, they brought the disease to forts on the northern frontiers. Military forts at this time were of a hygienic standard, if not necessarily comparable to today, but it was not the facilities in military establishments

Historia Augusta Lucius Verus 8.1-4.


that acted as the major mode of infection. The density and close proximity of soldiers increased the susceptibility to contagious diseases. Each century of eighty men was accommodated within one large building 140 . Each eight-man squad was given two rooms, one for living quarters and one for equipment. Glass finds around many barracks in central Europe indicate that there were windows for each of these rooms, but in the colder provinces of northern Europe, windows may not have been considered due to the low temperature 141 . The Valetudinarium was not significantly different in accommodation capacity than the living quarters. Continuous pairs of cubicles were arranged in a rectangular shape surrounding a central courtyard. Each cubicle held up to eight soldiers. These hospitals had a capacity of around 5 to 10 per cent of the entire legion 142 . With a disease such as smallpox, which has a death rate of 25 to 30 per cent, one can imagine that the capacity of medical quarters during times of outbreaks was easily exceeded. Sick soldiers may have been treated within their living quarters to conserve space. The living conditions within these facilities have been compared to the insulae apartments that line the streets of Roman cities 143 . Gloomy, crowded, and with little or no ventilation, the chance of infection was quite high. The low

temperatures in the Northern provinces of Germany kept the soldiers indoors during both winter and summer, increasing the chance for diseases to pass between them. Forts were also an important trade centre for the surrounding areas, drawing merchants, tradesmen, and other workers. Once the disease attacked the military, it may have spread through civilian workers into neighboring villages and cities, limiting the number of civilians available for local recruitment.

140 141

Goldsworthy 2003:86. Goldsworthy 2003:86. 142 Goldsworthy 2003:87. 143 Goldsworthy 2003:87.


Sources for the period suggest that the Antonine plague had a drastic effect on the army’s population.

Galen (Writing late 2nd century/Early 3rd century A.D.):

“When I reached Aquileia [in AD 168], the plague grew fiercer than ever, so much so that the Emperors immediately went back to Rome with a few soldiers, while the majority had difficulty in surviving. Most of us died, not merely from the plague, but because the epidemic was happening in the depths of winter.” 144 Cassius Dio (Early 3rd century A.D.):

“In returning, he [Lucius Verus] lost a great many of his soldiers through famine and disease, yet he got back to Syria with the survivors.” 145 Historia Augusta - Marcus Aurelius (Late 3rd century to Early 4th century A.D.):

“He [Marcus Aurelius] himself singled out the Marcomannic war, a war which surpassed any in the memory of man and waged it with both valour and success, and that at a time when a grievous pestilence had carried away thousands of civilians and soldiers.” 146

Eutropius (Approximately A.D. 369):

“... as whole armies had been lost; since, under the emperor [Marcus Aurelius], after the victory over the Parthians, there occurred so destructive a pestilence, that at Rome, and throughout Italy and the provinces, the greater part of the inhabitants, and almost all the troops, sunk under the disease.” 147
144 145

Galen Opera Omnia (Kuhn 19.17-18). Cassius Dio History 71.2. 146 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 17.2. 147 Eutropius A Concise History of the Roman World 8.12.


St Jerome (Late 4th century A.D.): “There was such a plague throughout the whole world that the Roman army was reduced almost to extinction.” 148

Galen’s experience was first hand, as the doctor was stationed in Aquileia with the army when the plague broke out. He gives an example of plague mortality in the army, an example of its occurrence in Italy, and shows how the emperors sensed the danger of contagion. Cassius Dio lived during the Severan period, just after the plague outbreak, and may have seen the after-effects which the plague had in the following decades. He gives an example of how the army carried the plague back to Syria, demonstrating the disease’s mode of transmission. The date of composition for the Historia Augusta has been debated by many scholars, but most suggest a period between 3rd century and early 4th century A.D. Although it is written 100 years or more after the outbreak of the plague, the passage still gives insight into the mortality of the plague of both the military and civilian populations. Eutropius and St Jerome composed their works later, in the late 4th-early 5th centuries and as such are not as trustworthy as the earlier historians. The geographic spread of the plague over the Empire and the emphasis on military losses are highlighted in Eutropius, while the brief excerpt of St Jerome illustrates the high mortality rate in the army. St Jerome was a Christian, and many Christian historians were known for their bias against the Roman pagan beliefs. They occasionally exaggerated the effects of the plague as a divine act of God against non-believers. All these writers would not have mentioned


St. Jerome Chronicle p.172 Helm.


the plague within their histories if it did not have a noticeable effect upon the army in relation to the major wars that were occurring at the time 149 . The Parthian war raged on the eastern frontiers, and the northern borders were under pressure from the migrating barbarians. The losses taken in these military campaigns were exacerbated by the mortality of the plague. Adequate replacements for lost soldiers needed to be found if the army was to maintain its pre-plague strength to continue campaigning. The plague had already taken its toll on the population of the Empire. Romans who were eligible for the army were diminishing in numbers. Orosius states that levies were enacted at Carnuntum for three years before the war with the Marcomanni could occur 150 . This prolonged period of levying indicates a lack of available manpower at the time, with the army struggling to find eligible legionary recruits in an already diminished population. In a time when conflict threatened the borders of the Empire, the losses of military personnel due to war and plague required fast and efficient replacement. New methods of recruitment were needed in order to maintain the military at full fighting strength. Until A.D. 197, soldiers were not permitted by law to marry while serving with the military 151 . This did not signify, however, that no sexual relationships existed within the army. Records show that many men contracted unions, against Roman law, to women who did not have any sort of Roman status. The children born to these women in the military camps were traditionally illegitimate, known as castris 152 . Even though they did not have the citizen background required for

traditional legionary service, they were still recruited into the army 153 . The annulling in A.D. 197 of the law preventing soldiers from marrying suggests that the
149 150

Gilliam 1961:248. Orosius Seven books against the Pagans 7.15.5-6. 151 Herodian 3.8.5. 152 Parker 1980:171. 153 Duncan Jones 1990:72.


recruitment situation was becoming desperate; the state may have realized that these marriages provided an untapped source of young recruits. There is an Egyptian inscription dating from A.D. 168 that demonstrates the heavy reliance on camp-born men used as intake into the legionary units 154 . It shows an irregularity in traditional recruitment patterns which may be explained by a sudden decrease in the numbers of eligible men amongst the population used to replenish the army. The only

explanation for such a drop in numbers at this time is from the presence of both the frontier wars and the plague. Marcus Aurelius was forced to recruit members into the army that did not meet the requirements of legionary service.

“…and trained slaves for military service, just as had been done in the Punic war, whom he [Marcus Aurelius] called Volunteers, after the example of the Volones. He armed gladiators also, calling them the Compliant, and turned even the bandits of Dalmatia and Dardania into soldiers. He armed the Diogmitae 155 , besides, and even hired auxiliaries from among the Germans for service against Germans. And besides all this, he proceeded with all care to enrol legions for the Marcomannic and German war.” 156

It seems Marcus Aurelius used every source of manpower available to recruit soldiers into the army. These soldiers were not necessarily recruited as legionaries, as in the last sentence of the Historia Augusta quotation, the author writes that Marcus took up legionary recruitment as a separate process. Therefore these slaves, bandits and gladiators were mixed together into support units separate from the legions, or used as replacements for auxiliary units, perhaps working as border patrols for the

154 155

Inscr. Lat. Sel. 2304; Wright 1942:36-7. The Diogmitae were a police force in Asia Minor which was employed by Marcus Aurelius to help with auxiliary service. Parker 1958:24. 156 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 21.6.


Northern provinces. As the Historia Augusta suggests here, the use of slaves to support the army had been used earlier in Roman history. During the second Punic War, when Rome faced Hannibal of Carthage, slaves were enlisted from the area of Etruria to support the legions decimated by Hannibal in northern Italy 157 . In the same way, Marcus recruited slaves to support the military that had been decimated by frontier wars and plague mortality. The consequence of creating bodies of troops in this manner threatened the traditional loyalty of the army. Slaves, bandits and

gladiators had no permanent place of residence or family structure similar to that of the Roman citizen or wealthy freedman, and so had little to compel loyalty. They could not gain political status or a plot of land from their military service. The loyalty of these support units to the Empire was significantly less than that of the native legionaries, as these men had no attachment to family or land like that of the traditional Roman citizen. The recruitment of such men into the army shows how far Marcus Aurelius was willing to go to in order to maintain his military force. The early years in the reign of Marcus Aurelius were taken up by a revived Parthian War. Vologaeses, the king of Parthia, entered Armenia and placed Pacorus, a member of the Parthian royal house, on the throne. Vologaeses continued on to Syria, where he defeated the Roman army stationed under the command of M. Sedatius Severianus 158 . This renewed war with Parthia required fresh legionaries to replace the ones lost by both the new uprising and the plague. These were taken from the Danubian provinces and the troops serving on the Antonine wall were recalled in A.D. 163 to strengthen the Danube 159 . Men levied from Italy were also sent to aid in the defence of the northern borders 160 . Marcus was removing the most experienced

157 158

Livy 28.10. Parker 1958:18-19. 159 Webster 1985:85. 160 Parker 1958:20.


soldiers from the Danubian frontier and replacing them with raw recruits and soldiers who were unfamiliar with the surrounding terrain. This diversion of seasoned

military troops from the Danubian frontier weakened the borders to attacks from barbarians 161 . But it was not only the Parthian war that weakened the Danubian frontier. The plague, once it reached the Danubian provinces, massively depopulated the countryside, affecting frontier garrisons and those workers who supported the military. In an area weakened by redeployment of military forces and plague, this provided the perfect opportunity for the barbarians to storm the Roman defences. The years before the reign of Marcus Aurelius saw no serious damage from migrating Germans, but the weakening frontiers at the time of the Parthian War gave them the opportunity they needed to attack. Goths from south Russia in search of new land were pressuring the German tribes from behind, forcing them against the borders of the Roman Empire 162 . Major incursions began in A.D. 166, when tribes of Quadi and Marcomanni ravaged the Danubian provinces, reaching as far as Aquileia in Italy 163 . It took only a year to quell this attack, but soon afterwards unrest began again with the outbreak of the first war against the tribes of the Marcomanni, Quadi and Iazyges from A.D. 170 to 174. After the war of A.D. 170, Marcus settled tribes of conquered barbarians in areas south of the Danube to repopulate areas that had decreased which war and plague mortality.

“Some of them [barbarians] were sent on campaigns elsewhere, as were also the captives and deserters who were fit for service; others received land in Dacia, Pannonia, Moesia, the province of Germany, and in Italy
161 162

Parker 1958:21. Webster 1985:83. 163 Birley 1993:164.


itself. Some of them, now, who settled at Ravenna, made an uprising and even went so far as to seize possession of the city: and for this reason Marcus did not again bring any of the barbarians into Italy, but even banished those who had previously come there.” 164

Dacia, Moesia and Pannonia were all lands that bordered the Danube. The areas in which these tribes settled acted as buffer zones when an insurgence appeared. The enemy would have had to fight their way through these areas before they reached proper Roman soil, giving the Roman army the time it needed to arrange an appropriate force to counterattack. Marcus attempted to utilize the barbarians’ need for land in exchange for military service that was desperately needed. He attempted to relieve pressure on the borders by transferring the conquered tribes to his side of the Danube, and in the process, he tipped the scales of military force in his favour. The ultimate plan of Marcus Aurelius was to annex areas across the river from where the invading Quadi and Marcomanni had originated. These areas were to become the new Roman provinces of Marcomannia and Sarmatia 165 . The addition of these areas into the Roman Empire would ensure their financial support and cease the troublesome activities that had occurred during the previous years. In addition to this, it would shorten the northern borders in the area of Dacia, decreasing the quantity of troops and resources needed for perimeter defence. Unfortunately, this plan did not come to fruition, as on March 17th, A.D. 180, Marcus died while campaigning in the north, leaving his son Commodus to continue in his place. There is evidence to suggest that Marcus died from the plague while campaigning on the northern frontiers. Both Cassius Dio 166 and the Historia Augusta 167 refer to Marcus suffering

164 165

Cassius Dio 71.11. Webster 1985:83; Parker 1958:25. 166 Cassius Dio 71.33. 167 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 28.


from a disease. If this disease was the Antonine plague, it may suggest that the plague was present in the area in which he was campaigning and possibly widespread around the border provinces by the time of his death in A.D. 180. Commodus did not wish to continue the war with the barbarians and quite possibly failed to see, or ignored the strategy behind his father’s plans. Instead, as we have seen, he returned to Rome and indulged in the luxuries that awaited him as the newly acclaimed emperor. Instead of annexing the areas which Marcus proposed, he paid the barbarians large sums of money for peace, further depleting the Imperial coffers 168 . This effectively destroyed any remaining loyalty and revenue that these

tribes would have had towards the Empire had the areas been annexed, settled by Roman citizens, and assimilated into the Roman Empire. This behaviour not only set an example for future Roman emperors, but also emboldened the barbarians into asking higher prices for alliances and bribes. Thus the plague, in combination with military campaigns, had significant long-term effects on the military power and political machinations of the Emperors. It set a precedent that was to be followed in the 3rd century. A passage from Cassius Dio suggests that the use of money to bribe armies into submission was widespread by the time of Caracalla.

“Nevertheless, even they [tribe of the Cenni, otherwise known as Chatti] accepted a defeat in name in return for a large sum of money and allowed him to make his escape back into the province of Germany… Many also of the people living close to the ocean itself near the mouths of the Albis [Elbe] sent envoys to him asking for his friendship, though their real purpose was to get money.” 169

168 169

Herodian 1.6.8-9; Cassius Dio 74.6.1 Cassius Dio 77.14.1-2.


The Cenni, or Chatti, were bribed into submission when they invaded during the reign of Caracalla. The barbarians at this stage realised that emperors were beginning to hand out tributes in order to avoid conflict. The Roman government wished to avoid widespread rebellion at a time when the military capacity was already stretched to its limits and economic strain was growing. All tribes needed to do was wait for the right moment, such as a diversion of forces, then ask for donatives or gold in return for an alliance or peace. Tribes such as the Juthungi, during the mid 3rd century A.D., were given an annual subsidy to keep the peace and supply the Empire with border defences 170 . Tribes such as the Juthungi were likely to rebel if the situation was not favourable. In A.D. 270, the Juthungi rebelled against the joint rule of Claudius Gothicus and Aurelian in an attempt to find new settlements. Use of Barbarians to defend the Empire was now becoming a permanent policy. Unstable as their loyalty was, the barbarian tribes were rife with discontent, awaiting the perfect opportunity to break alliances. As we have seen, in A.D. 212, the Constitutio Antoniniana was passed giving citizenship to all free men 171 . The barbarians that had been settled upon the borders of the Roman Empire by Marcus Aurelius were now considered free men, entering in business transactions and positions of power among their own people 172 . The

Constitutio Antoniniana made all these men citizens, enabling them to serve within the Roman army as legionaries and obtain official governmental positions. Although this may have strengthened the process of recruitment in both the army and politics, these men were not traditionally Roman. Areas such as Spain or Greece had been Romanised for centuries, and may have held a great deal more loyalty than those barbarian provinces which had only just been introduced to Roman rule.
170 171

Dexippus, Fragment 6. Cassius Dio 77.9. 172 Walbank 1969:29.


The beginning of recruitment of ineligible men into the army on a widespread scale during the reign of Marcus Aurelius shows that the Empire was under stress in terms of military recruitment, and resorted to unusual methods of recruitment in order to sustain a strong military presence. Legionary and auxiliary troops had already been stationed permanently at the borders of the Roman Empire and the constant wars within his reign to the east and north took a heavy toll on military numbers. The

Antonine plague decreased the numbers of a military force already stretched to its limits. The emperor had to find sources of able-bodied recruits other than that of normal procedure if military strength was to be maintained at pre-plague levels. Marcus set a trend that was copied by the following emperors and ultimately led to the incorporation of recruits into the army who were not as loyal as the traditional legionaries recruited from the Roman provinces. This pattern culminated with the bribing of German tribes under Commodus, which were settled in the frontier zones to provide military support for the Roman army in the form of frontier defense and auxiliary service. Although they served to help the Roman army, it meant a decline in professionalism and loyalty, and an inclination to use these hired forces to protect the borders instead of the Roman armies. The barbarization of the military is an aspect that has been related to the downfall of the Roman Empire.


Pagan Faith in a Time of Crisis

In a time of crisis many people look to their own spirituality as a source of inspiration. Stresses from outside factors make them search for security in any way, shape or form. Widespread disasters can cause a questioning of traditional beliefs and way of life. The Antonine plague had both a physical and psychological effect on the population of the Roman Empire. The emphasis of this chapter is to assess the degree to which the effects of the plague contributed to the conversion of the Roman Empire from the traditional polytheistic religion to the monotheistic belief of Christianity. The advent of a new religion that cared for the individual and the saving of the soul provided an alternative in a time of disaster that the individual could turn to when usual beliefs appeared to be failing. Much of the information within this chapter does not revolve around the Antonine plague. The reason for this is that there is little evidence to show a change in faith towards Christianity during the Antonine plague. Various epidemics from the Greek, Roman and modern era will be examined to show the mentality of humans when faced with a traumatic life-threatening experience such as disease. The

polytheistic nature of Roman religion will be discussed, as will how the Roman government assimilated various foreign cults as the Roman Empire expanded. These examples will show the attitude that Romans had towards their traditional religions under the mortality of a plague and how they wavered in religious thought to achieve safety from such a disaster. The following discussion will not prove that the Antonine plague caused a pivotal change in religion to Christianity, but will show that the religious diversity of the Roman age in combination with the psychological effects of


plague in general allowed Christianity to grow in numbers as a result of major crisis situations like the Antonine plague. Firstly, one must address the question of where the influence for foreign religions came from. Greece was one of the major influences upon Roman culture and as such an analysis of the religious diversity of Greece shall take place before continuing to the Roman examples. During the 5th century B.C., various foreign cults appeared around Greece. The orgiastic practice of Bacchanalianism, the

Phrygian ‘Mountain Mother’ Cybele and the Thraco-Phrygian deity Sabazius were a few religious groups gaining followers at this time 173 . The cult of Bendis, a Thracian deity, was recognized by the state of Athens at the Piraeus in 429 B.C. 174 Foreign and unfamiliar deities were referred to in the plays of Aristophanes. Cybele is referred to in Birds at line 877 and Sabazius is mentioned in Wasps at line 9. According to Cicero, in one of Aristophanes’ lost plays, the Horae, several foreign gods are placed on trial to be sentenced and banished from Athens 175 . The recognition of the deity

Bendis by the Athenians shows there was a degree of religious tolerance towards foreign influences, as long as they did not clash with the ruling power of the state. The lost play Horae shows a certain animosity towards such foreign religions by the playwright, perhaps reflecting the general feeling of the populace towards these cults. The occurrence of foreign gods and cults within plays of the 5th century B.C. shows the common knowledge by which the public knew such religious activity. The

presence of these cults within Greece suggests the existence of popular appeal moving away from traditional Greek religious beliefs and ideals.

173 174

Longrigg 1992:37. Garland 1992:111 citing Inscr. Graec. I³ 383.143. 175 Cicero De Legibus 2.37.


During the Peloponnesian war, a deadly plague struck Athens from 430 to 426 B.C., killing a great number of inhabitants 176 . There is evidence to suggest that, throughout the period of the plague, there was a temporary breakdown in traditional religious faith and an acceptance of unfamiliar deities to solve the crisis situation. Thucydides refers to many examples of what he sees as a change in traditional virtues due to the plague. Burial rites were ignored as corpses were left lying in piles on the streets and in temples around the city 177 . Bodies were thrown onto pyres of other families with no ceremonial rites. Self indulgence overtook the inhabitants of the city, who spent everything they had on the pursuits of pleasure, as they believed that there was no hiding from the dreaded plague 178 . Although Thucydides describes important religious implications of the plague, his literary method plays an important part in the analysis of the outbreak. His plague depiction contrasts Perikles’ funeral oration, in which the general idealises the glory of Athens and comforts the people for losses suffered in the first year of the Peloponnesian war 179 . His descriptions of the plague symbolise the decline of

Athenians into immoral activities as soon as they are subjected to the threat of death. Thucydides may have overemphasised the decline of the Athenians into moral and religious blasphemy, yet the fact that he was in Athens during the plague suggests that his description of the plagues effects has some truth to it 180 . The first phase of the Peloponnesian war concluded with the peace of Nicias in 421 B.C. In 420 B.C., the deity Aesculapius was accepted into the religious pantheon of Athens, residing as a sacred snake in the house of Sophocles until an

176 177

Mikalson 1984:217. Thucydides Peloponnesian Wa. 2.52. 178 Thucydides Peloponnesian War 2.53. 179 Morgan 1994:207-8. 180 Bury 1958:76


appropriate temple could be constructed 181 . Like his father Apollo, Aesculapius was known as a healing god. It is no coincidence that an unfamiliar god of healing was inducted into the pantheon of Athens at the end of a serious health disaster. The induction of Aesculapius may have helped to quieten religious dissent that was present within the Athenian population. The evidence provided in the study of the plague in Athens indicates there was a breakdown in religious faith owing to the threat of plague. The lack of faith may also have been caused by the wartime threat, but the introduction of Aesculapius into the Greek pantheon indicates it was most probably health-related. The failure of traditional religious rites to solve the plague situation prompted the Athenian government to introduce a new healing deity to maintain religious order within the populace, showing that it was willing to accept an untraditional god into its traditional beliefs. In 429 B.C., at approximately the same time as the epidemic in Athens, there was an outbreak of an unknown disease in Rome. The religious instability in Rome is illustrated by this vivid passage in Livy’s history:

“And not only were men’s bodies smitten by the plague, but a horde of superstitions, mostly foreign, took possession of their minds, as the class of men who find their profit in superstition-ridden souls introduced strange sacrificial rites into their homes, pretending to be seers; until the public shame finally reached the leading citizens, as they beheld in every street and chapel outlandish and unfamiliar sacrifices being offered up to appease Heaven’s anger. The aediles were then commissioned to see to it that none but Roman gods should be worshipped, nor in any but the ancestral way.” 182
181 182

Longrigg in Ranger and Slack 1992:41 citing Inscr. Graec. II.4960. Livy 4.30.8-10.8


It is not certain if this disease is the same epidemic which hit Athens, but from this passage, we can see that the religious implications were similar. The populace began to follow rites that were unknown to Roman religion in an attempt to receive salvation from the epidemic. During the early year of the Republic, the religious beliefs of the Senate were more conservative than those of the emperors in the Imperial era. Rome had not yet expanded past the borders of Italy, and was still uncertain of religions vastly different from its own beliefs. The Senate tried to maintain traditional rites prevalent in the society to boost Roman loyalty. The

adoption of other cults was actively discouraged, as can be seen from the last sentence of the Livy passage. This passage suggests that at this time the Roman populace was willing to go against the traditional rites in order to find absolution or protection from the plague, in much the same way as the Athenian population under the influence of the Athenian plague of 431 B.C. The Romans’ behaviour toward Aesculapius was similar to that of the Athenians. During an outbreak in 293 B.C. of an unknown plague, the Sibylline books revealed that the god Aesculapius was to be brought to Rome to end the devastation 183 . The epitome of book 11 from Livy’s history of Rome tells us that envoys were sent to Epidaurus to bring back the god in the form of a snake 184 . Ovid describes the journey by which the sacred snake travelled from the sanctuary of Epidaurus to Rome, who decided himself on the island in the middle of the Tiber as the location for his temple 185 . As the Athenians had done before under the pressure of the Athenian plague, the Romans now called on the god Aesculapius. Ovid specifically mentions Aesculapius as a foreigner, introduced into the temples from
183 184

Livy 10.47.7. Livy Epitome of book 11. 185 Ovid Metamorphoses 15.622.


outside Rome’s religious boundaries 186 . The Senate of Rome turned from their own traditional rites and deities to those of foreign origin that were perceived to have helped people at a time of plague in the past. As Rome expanded outside the borders of Italy from the 3rd century B.C., the new religious beliefs and ceremonies began permeating through Roman society. By assimilating foreign deities with traditional Roman gods and giving them Latin names, the Romans increased the chance of sustaining the loyalty of an indigenous population and suppressing what Turcan calls ‘religious xenophobia’ 187 . At the same time, these deities were incorporated into the Roman religious pantheon, showing a policy of religious tolerance that helped the spread of the indigenous religions across the Empire. Cybele, or Magna Mater, a Phrygian mountain goddess, was introduced into Rome towards the end of the second Punic War under the influence of the Sibylline books 188 . Around the same time as Cybele became prominent, the cult of Bacchus was appearing around Italy 189 . The mysterious orgiastic nature of this cult must have seemed appealing to an urban populace that was wrapped up in the traditional, restrictive, ideas of a stern conservative society. Mithraism, based on worship of the Persian solar god Mithras, held great interest due to its mysterious primordial rituals and beliefs 190 . The cult had a popular following that spread through most of the north- western provinces along the Danube/Rhine frontier 191 . As a different example, the triumvirs Antony, Octavian and Lepidus promised to dedicate a temple to Isis and Serapis in order to gain favour

186 187

Ovid Metamorphoses 15.744. Turcan 1996:12. 188 Beard, North & Price 1998:96; Livy 29.10.4; Ovid, Fasti 4.247-348. 189 Beard, North & Price 1998:92. 190 Ferguson 1970:111-12, 121-2. 191 Turcan 1998:131-134.


with the populace 192 . Isis had grown popular in the 2nd century B.C. through trade contacts with the Greek world 193 . It slowly grew in popularity up to the reign of Caracalla when its faith could be admitted without persecution 194 . The incorporation of foreign deities by the Roman government decreased religious uprising and increased loyalty. It made freedom of religious choice more common and varied across the Republic and Empire. During the first two centuries A.D., there began an increased amalgamation of foreign religions into all classes of Roman society. O’Rourke believes that such religions were allowed, so long as they acknowledged that the Roman religion existed, left Roman morals intact, and did not cause public disorder 195 . Some of the emperors of the first century had their own foreign patron gods and goddesses. Caligula favoured the Egyptian gods, Claudius was sympathetic toward Phrygian religions, and Nero worshipped the Syrian goddess 196 . Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius became initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries and Antoninus Pius legalized the cult of Cybele 197 . Senators began to be drawn from the provincial areas of the Roman Empire, meaning they may have had greater loyalty to the religion of their home town 198 . The mingling of the provincial elite classes with the aristocracy of Rome may have influenced the latter’s religious beliefs 199 . The recruitment of local

aristocracy to municipal positions may have led to native religions staying prevalent in the politics of that community, as long as it did not interfere with Roman rulings 200 .
192 193

Freedmen played an important part in the religious positions, such as

Cassius Dio, 47.15. 4. Beard, North & Price 1998:293. 194 Ferguson 1970:25. 195 O’Rourke in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:178. 196 Cumont 1956:55,87. 197 Gager in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:102. 198 Gager in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:103. 199 Gager in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:103. 200 Gager in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:104.


priests for particular colleges like Mithras or Cybele, and sometimes had important roles under emperors such as Claudius and Nero 201 . Slaves could be influenced by their masters, and plebeians may have been enticed to religious movements that included mass conversions 202 . Christianity may have been introduced by the same methods as these other foreign religions. Many of the emperors recognized the existence of Christianity, but did not perceive it as a threat to the Imperial policy. They tolerated Christianity in the same way that they tolerated most other foreign religious cults, trying to avoid the bloodshed and disapproval involved in mass persecutions. Christians were

persecuted, but it seems only when they did not recognize the pagan religion, displayed a lack of reverence to the emperor, or advertised their religion in an extremist fashion 203 . They were left to themselves as long as they did not interfere with the running of the government. When Christianity first began, it focused on the less fortunate of Roman society, as they were the easiest to attend to 204 . When the wealthier classes began to convert, Christianity had to undergo a series of changes to make it more acceptable to these classes 205 . It slowly began to permeate every part of Roman social structure. Several sources attest to Christians taking part in

governmental activity during the principate. The pagan author Celsus, writing in A.D. 175 to 180, recommends that Christians serve in military and political positions 206 . The Christian Tertullian, writing in approximately A.D. 197, states that Christians had filled many cities and occupied prominent positions in the Roman

201 202

Gager in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:108. Gager in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:108,11. 203 Sordi 1994:64,73,74. 204 Gager in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:113. 205 Gager in Benko & O’Rourke 1972:115. 206 Celsus, Christians and Society, 8.73-75.


political sphere 207 . The tolerance of Christians working in governmental positions meant that they had opportunities to influence the Roman political system into accepting Christianity. Municipal positions were perfect for the permeation of

religious propaganda through a local community without drawing undue attention. This theory is highly dubious, yet if fanatical religious sects were able to gain access to such positions, they could quite possibly use their positions to vehemently spread their beliefs. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a sect of Christianity called Montanism began in Asia Minor. It has been regarded as more fanatical than its source religion, with more enthusiasm for prophecies, martyrdom and anti-pagan sentiments 208 . The exact timing of this new sect corresponded with a lack of manpower and resources around the Roman Empire. If they were to refuse public service or military offices, or use these positions for propaganda, the Montanists could have caused minor upsets in the governing structure. Hopkins suggests there may only have been 200,000 Christians at the end of the 2nd century A.D 209 . This is not a significantly high number considering the population of the Empire may have been up to 60 million in the same period 210 . Fanatical followers like the Montanists may have only been a few thousand in number, not seemingly able to create a threat to political stability. Even so, if Celsus is correct, there is some chance that these fanatical sects of Christianity held political positions which they could manipulate to their own advantage. This is seen by Sordi as one reason why Marcus Aurelius began persecution against the Christians, as he did not want these fanatics to upset the balance of

207 208

Tertullian Apologeticus 37.4. Sordi 1994:73. 209 Hopkins 1998:198 210 Frier in Bowman, Garnsey & Rathbone 2000:814


economy and politics when it was already at a low from the plague 211 . The Romans did not distinguish this sect from true Christianity, seeing them as one and the same 212 . Some Christians did not approve of the fanatical enthusiasm that drove this sect, and various apologiae addressed to Marcus Aurelius from prominent Christians display genuine wishes not to undermine the Roman government 213 . Although the “true” Christians did not approve of the Montanist sect, such fanatical sects within government may have helped the process of conversion to Christianity, especially considering the plague situation into which it was introduced. According to the Historia Augusta, the threat of the Marcomannic Wars in the north encouraged Marcus to perform foreign religious rites that would purify the city of Rome.

“So great was the dread of this Marcomannic war, that Antoninus summoned priests from all sides, performed foreign religious ceremonies, and purified the city in every way, and he was delayed thereby from setting out to the seat of war. The Roman ceremony of the feast of the gods was celebrated for seven days.” 214

This passage shows that in a time of crisis, Marcus was not averse to practicing foreign as well as traditional religious rituals to placate the gods. The inclusion of these religious rites may have been due to the religious diversity in existence at this time. It is possible that the Marcomannic war was not the only reason why such religious ceremonies took place in Rome. The sight and sounds of death across the

211 212

Sordi 1994:73. Sordi 1994:72. 213 Sordi 1994:73; Athenagoras of Athens, Melito of Sardis, Apollinaris of Hierapolis and Miltiades were writers who addressed apologiae to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. 214 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 13.1.


entire city may have shaken the religious faith of the population. The same religious renewal is seen in earlier examples of outbreaks at Athens 215 and Rome 216 . The evidence is slim, but still extant, that religious diversity and transference of faith existed within Rome at the time of the plague. The Greek writer Aelius Aristides fell sick with the plague while he was visiting the suburbs of Rome. He writes of his miraculous recovery at the hands of Athena:

“…and while I was about this, Aesculapius, the Saviour, turned me suddenly to the outside. Then not much later, Athena appeared with her Aegis and the beauty and magnitude and the whole form of the Athena of Phidias in Athens … and I cried out and I named her Athena…” 217

It could be suggested by this passage that the author realised that his patron deity of healing was not living up to the characteristics he was known for. The vision of Athena suggests the transference of his religious beliefs from one deity to another. This is a perfect example of how a person, when placed under the stresses that could lead to the loss of life, loses faith in current beliefs and looks to another source of salvation. Just as Aelius changed his faith in favour of Athena, many Roman citizens may have tried new symbols of protection and cleansing rituals in order to protect themselves from the plague. The Romans had many gods that the populace could turn to in a time of health crisis. Salus and Mars ruled health in general, Carmenta watched over childbirth, Mephitis was the patron of disease-producing airs and Aesculapius was the patron


Diodorus Siculus History 12.58; The Athenian plague saw a re-establishment of the Delia festival and the purification of the Island of Delos. 216 Livy 4.30.8-10; The quote has been displayed above showing the aedile’s attempts to quell nonRoman rituals. 217 Aelius Aristides Oration 48.40.


god of healing 218 . There was a god for every aspect of Roman life. This plethora of gods with endless ceremonies may have been confusing for the everyday Roman. The omnipotence of the Christian god encompassed all aspects of human life within one set of beliefs. He had the ability to care for every soul on the planet equally, asking only that followers live by the teachings handed down to humans from the Christian heaven. The omnipotence, care and ease in worship of the Christian god may have inspired awe within potential followers. The caring nature of Christianity may have seemed very appealing during the Antonine plague at a time when religious faith was shaken by the effects of the plague upon everyday life. As we have seen, Rome had no adequate medical

facilities for the masses until the mid 4th century A.D., when a hospital for the common people was set up by a Christian woman known as Fabiola 219 . One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is that it is a duty of every Christian to help those in need, to care for the sick, and to attend to the salvation of the body as well as the soul 220 . Proper nursing and care of a patient can leave the patient with a feeling of heartfelt sympathy towards their saviour 221 . Even if the patient did not survive, the promise of a place in heaven next to the Christian god through repentance, no matter what the social class, would certainly have seemed appealing to an otherwise gloomy shade existence of the pagan afterlife 222 . We see the caring duty of the Christians portrayed during the so-called “Plague of Cyprian”, which lasted from A.D. 251 to 266. In a letter from Hierax, the bishop of Egypt, Eusebius gives a vivid picture of the help that Christians gave the sick, and the flight of ‘heathens’ from similar service.
218 219

Cartwright 1972:21. St Jerome Letters 77. 220 Cartwright 1972:23; McKenzie 1988:212-3. 221 McNeill 1976:108. 222 Ferguson 1970:132-149.


“Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains… The heathens behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest…” 223

Although the Plague of Cyprian occurred almost 80 years after the Antonine plague, this caring behaviour of the Christians may also have been present during the late 2nd century A.D. In seeing the care with which Christians treated their patients in comparison to Roman practices, people from all classes of Roman society may have flocked to Christianity to ensure proper medical attention and a place in heaven. It is recorded, that at one point during the Plague of Cyprian, from 200 to 300 people were being baptized per day 224 . Christianity may have used crisis situations like the Antonine plague to help make the pagan populace sympathetic to their beliefs and causes. The Roman

philosophy concerning death could offer no reason as to why all types of people, rich, poor, good, bad, old, young, were dying from the onset of the plague 225 . It may have been that Christianity believed it was the Roman’s lack of Christian faith that unleashed the plague, killing all men and women indiscriminate of their characteristics. Orosius, a Christian writer of the early 5th century A.D., dedicated his literary work ‘Seven books against the pagans’ to the Bishop Augustine, who asked Orosius to create a literary composition directed toward pagans, showing that

223 224

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 7.22. Cartwright 1972:23. 225 McNeill 1976: 108.


disasters were a constant phenomenon throughout history 226 . The pagans apparently claimed disasters had been on the rise as the worship of pagan idols decreased and the spread of Christianity increased 227 . Probably not meant to be a work completely biased against the pagans, Orosius adds his own interpretation in describing how suffering was a result of pagans distancing themselves from the “true religion” 228 . He also refers to the Marcomannic war in the reign of Marcus Aurelius as being “managed by the providence of God” 229 . Orosius writes almost two and half

centuries after the time of the plague, but the mentality he has of blaming disasters upon the lack of Christian faith may have been prevalent in other Christians at the time of the Antonine plague. The Antonine plague was not the only major crisis that occurred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The frontiers of the Empire were overwhelmed with unrest. There was the Parthian War in the east, the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, incursions on the British frontier, and, for the first time since Marius, the Italian borders were breached and barbarians were allowed to penetrate as far south as Aquileia 230 . Natural disasters were upsetting the infrastructure of both the economy and the internal structure. An earthquake devastated the city of Smyrna in A.D. 177 231 and a flood swept through Rome, destroying many buildings and causing widespread famine in the poorer, low lying areas of the city 232 . The coalescence of several catastrophes in a short period of time, including the severely debilitating plague, may have caused a degree of religious panic among the populace of the

226 227

Rohrbacher 2002:138. Rohrbacher 2002:138. 228 Orosius, Seven books against the Pagans, 1.preface.14. 229 Orosius, Seven books against the Pagans, 7.15.6. 230 Sordi 1994:71. 231 Cassius Dio 71.32.3. 232 Historia Augusta Marcus Aurelius 8.


Roman Empire 233 . This became an environment similar to the plagues of early Athens and Rome, in which traditional morals and religious beliefs began to break down with the imminent threat of death. Jumping ahead more than a millennium, we can see an interesting analogy. The Black Death swept through Europe in the mid to late 14th century A.D. and caused a mortality rate of between one third and one half of the entire population. It was widely regarded in the 14th century that the plague was sent from the Christian god to test the faith of men and punish them for their sinful nature 234 . During this epidemic, there were instances of Christians losing faith in their religion. The flight of both doctors and priestly members during the plague outbreak is seen as a reason why the lack of faith occurred 235 . Popular new sects of Christianity started to appear during the period in which the plague attacked the population 236 . The flagellants

appeared during the spring of 1349 and became increasingly popular as they travelled around Europe preaching their beliefs 237 . In each village they visited, they collected repentance for the sins which man had committed, punishing themselves in the same way that Christ had been punished upon the cross 238 . By this method they wished to drive away the plague. Deaux believes the flagellants may have become popular enough to undermine Church authority 239 . The example of the Black Plague shows similarities to the Antonine plague. In the Black plague, Christians started to lose

faith in traditional beliefs, turning to extremist sects of Christianity or perhaps even other religions. In the Antonine plague, pagans started to lose faith in traditional

233 234

Sordi 1994:57. Ziegler 1982:268; Horrox 1994:113,116. 235 Longrigg in Ranger and Slack 1992:38; Zeigler 1982:269. 236 Longrigg in Ranger and Slack 1992:37. 237 Deaux 1969:180. 238 Deaux 1969:180. 239 Deaux 1969:181.


Roman religion, switching to other gods and quite possibly seeing Christianity as an option. The decades following the outbreak of the Antonine plague saw a continued tolerance toward Christianity and the incorporation of many Christians into the ranks of the social community. The catechism school in Alexandria did much to strengthen the philosophical and theological study of Christianity during the Severan period and into the 3rd century A.D. 240 . Although there is evidence for the persecutions of Christians under the Severan emperors, most cases have been attributed to local persecutions rather than instigation by the emperors themselves 241 . The Severan emperors consisted of an Afro-Syrian dynasty whose religious beliefs were open to the influence of oriental religions 242 . The learned Christian scholar Origen was invited to give lectures to several prominent Roman aristocrats, including the governor of Arabia and Julia Mamaea, the mother of Alexander Severus 243 . The Christian writer Sextus Julius Africanus was placed in charge of the Pantheon library in A.D. 227 244 . By this time, Christians were allowed into positions of power and respected for their educational values. The Roman government became more

accepting toward Christians in political positions throughout the 3rd century A.D. until the ascension to the throne of the Christian emperor Constantine the Great. The Antonine plague was the largest documented plague in Roman history. It created an environment similar to the Athenian plague, in which a high mortality rate caused loss of faith in traditional religious beliefs. The traditions of Aesculapius in Athens and Rome are significant to this study as they hold a degree of similarity to the beginnings of Christianity in the first centuries of the Roman Empire.
240 241

Sordi 1994:163. Sordi 1994:79. 242 Sordi 1994:164. 243 Sordi 1994:164. 244 Sordi 1994:164.


Aesculapius was first introduced to the sanctuary of Epidaurus in 500 B.C., slowly gaining popular support until the god was inducted into Athens in 420 B.C. after a plague. One of the greatest plagues in Athenian history had shaken the religious faith of the community and caused them to look for a new deity which could help them in their time of need. Similarly, Aesculapius was inducted into the Roman religious tradition when a plague struck Rome in 293 B.C. Christianity, as a new religion, grew in popularity from the beginning of the 1st century A.D. The religious diversity of the early principate may have set the scene for Christianity to become a major religion under the influence of crisis situations such as, but not solely due to, the Antonine plague. The apparent caring nature of Christians may have influenced the decision of pagans to convert from their complex polytheistic traditions to the focused doctrines of Christian religion. There is no solid evidence to prove that

there was a rise in Christianity during the Antonine plague. However, evidence does exist for a rise in Christianity after the Antonine plague and during the Plague of Cyprian from A.D. 251 to 266. Thus one could infer that a rise in conversion to Christianity may have resulted from the effects of the Antonine plague on the religious thought of the Roman population. Thus it is highly plausible that the Antonine plague significantly effected Roman religious systems and structures and led to a considerable growth in Christianity.



Another brief mention of the Plague of Cyprian (A.D. 251 – 266) is warranted at this point. This second depopulation of the already depleted countryside continued the population decline of the cities and agricultural communities. The Roman state at this time was already under extreme economic pressure and the Goths were amassing a large army to the North. No doubt the recruiting effort was much the same as the aftermath of the 2nd century plague, with barbarians and any available manpower possible being enlisted into the army in order to maintain military capabilities. This plague, as discussed in the Religion section, caused a significant turn in religious faith towards Christianity. The Plague of Cyprian instigated a reoccurrence of the

problems discussed in the chapters above. There is evidence to suggest that the population did not recover by this period. According to Frier, in the period A.D. 14 to 164, the population of Rome grew from 45.5 million to 61.4 million 245 . This is a growth of 15.9 million over a period of 150 years, or just over 25%. If we look at the mortality rate of smallpox, it occurs between the ranges of 25-30% 246 . Striking in A.D. 166, the Antonine plague would have taken the population back to a level similar to that of A.D. 14, around 45.5 million. The gap between the end of the Antonine plague in A.D. 189 and the start of the Plague of Cyprian in A.D. 251 is only 62 years. This was not enough time for the population to grow by 25-30%, and allow the infrastructure of the Empire to recover. A second plague that hit the population of only 50-55 million inhabitants would have aided the slow decline of the empire.
245 246

Frier in Bowman, Garnsey & Rathbone 1970:812,814 Crosby in Kiple 1993:300


The Antonine plague affected the economic structure, military strength and religious faith of the Roman Empire. The analysis of archaeological evidence shows a decline in population that affected the economic output. Egypt holds the largest amount of information regarding population and economic decline, although it cannot be used individually as an example of the entire Empire. Other examples highlighted that the plague had an impact on many provinces outside Egypt. This had serious implications for the future of the Roman government. A loss in population meant a decrease in taxes and commodities collected from the provinces. The murder of Roman nobles and confiscation of their property subsidized the loss in revenue present in the years after the plague. All classes of Roman society were succumbing to pressures of plague mortality and economic stress. The law of A.D. 212 proves that the citizen manpower and economic income were no longer enough to support the needs of the Roman government. Military recruitment patterns changed as a result of the plague. Loss of

manpower in all recruitable societal classes caused Marcus Aurelius to use untraditional recruitment methods. Slaves, bandits and barbarians were recruited into the army to replace those that had been lost through battle or plague mortality. The untimely death of Marcus left the annexation of the new barbarian areas unfinished. Commodus ignored his father’s wishes to continue military activity and bribed the barbarians into accepting peace treaties. Untraditional recruitment methods and peace payments to barbarian tribes contributed to the barbarisation of traditional Roman legions and a weakening of military strength. This has been seen as one of the factors of military decline in the later Roman Empire. Religious fervour may have shifted during the plague. There are examples of times before the Antonine plague when religious thought changed under the influence


of plague mortality. The acceptance of religions by the Roman governing classes, as long as they did not interfere with the running of the state, enabled religious diversity to be widespread across the Empire. This diversity became increasingly liberal as religions permeated through all classes of the Roman social structure. Christianity was growing in influence during the late 2nd century A.D. and it may have held some appeal during the debilitating effects of the plague. Although there is no definitive evidence to suggest a change to the Christian faith during the Antonine plague, there is evidence to suggest a change of faith during both the Plague of Cyprian and the Black Death. Human mentality during these plagues may have held some similarity to the conditions under the influence of the Antonine plague. It could be inferred that some Romans were entranced by the caring nature of Christianity, and converted. Plague was at least one factor in the decline of the Empire, as it affected all aspects of society in a way that could not be predicted. The Antonine plague was the biggest plague to hit Rome in recorded history. It made a dent in the Empire which the Romans were unable to recover from completely and this contributed to the turmoil which lasted into the later days of the Roman Empire.



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