The Pandemic Issue

In 430 B.C., an infectious plague struck the crowded Athe- nian population and killed 20 percent of them, including the char- ismatic leader, Pericles. Athens kept on fighting but it never recov- ered its population or its strength and in the end it lost. Plagues very frequently started in eastern and southern Asia, where population was densest, and spread westward. In A.D. 166, when the Roman Empire was at its peak of strength and civilization under the hard-working philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Roman armies, fighting on the eastern borders in Asia Minor, began to suffer from an epidemic disease (possibly smallpox). They brought it back with them to other provinces and to Rome itself. At its height, 2,000 people were dying in the city of Rome each day. The population began to decline and did not reach its preplague figure again until the twentieth century. There are a great many reasons advanced for the long, slow decline of Rome that followed the reign of Marcus Aurelius, but the weakening effect of the plague of 166 surely played a part. Even after the western provinces of the empire were torn away by invasions of the German tribes, and Rome itself was lost, the eastern half of the Roman Empire continued to exist, with its capital at Constantinople. Under the capable emperor Justinian I, who came to the throne in 527, Africa, Italy, and parts of Spain were taken and, for a while, it looked as though the empire might be reunited. In 541, however, the bubonic plague struck. It was a disease that attacked rats primarily, but one that fleas could spread to human beings by biting first a sick rat and then a healthy human being. Bubonic disease was fast-acting and often quickly fatal. It may even have been accompanied by a more deadly variant, pneu- monic plague, which can leap directly from one person to another. For two years the plague raged, and between one-third and one-half of the population of the city of Constantinople died, togeth- er with many people in the countryside outside the city. There was no hope of uniting the empire thereafter and the eastern portion, which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to decline thereafter (with occasional rallies). The very worst epidemic in the history of the human species came in the fourteenth century. Sometime in the 1330s, a new vari- ety of bubonic plague, a particularly deadly one, appeared in central Asia. People began to die and the plague spread outward, inexorably, from its original focus.


Isaac Asimov on the History of Infectious Disease — And How Humanity Learned To Fight Back


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