What Was The Antonine Plague?

In the past, infectious diseases were major killers due to absence of proper medical intervention.
In the past, infectious diseases were major killers due to absence of proper medical intervention.

The Galen plague of 165 to 180 AD, also referred to as the Antonine plague, was a pandemic brought to the Roman Empire by soldiers who were coming from the Near East. Numerous scholars believed that it was either measles or smallpox; however, the cause of the Antonine plague is unknown. The pandemic might have claimed the life of Lucius Verus, who was a co-regent of Emperor Antoninus Marcus whose family-name was associated with this disease. According to Dio Cassius, the illness broke out again, 9 years later, causing the death of over 2,000 people per day in Rome. The Antonine plague caused the death of over 5million.


The pandemic emerged before 155CE in China and then spread westwards along the Silk Road. Several sources confirm that the Romans came into contact with this pandemic between late 165 CE and early 166CE during the siege of Seleucia-on-Tigris. The soldiers traveling from the East spread the illness northwards to the legions along River Rhine and Gaul.    

During the pandemic, Galen, the Greek writer hand physician, had traveled to Asia-Minor in 166. However, he was summoned back to Rome in 168 by Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius and presented with the outbreak among the Roman soldiers who were stationed at Aquileia. Galen observed the sick soldiers and recorded the pandemic in the treatise Methodus-Medendi. Galen described the epidemic as  great and noted a few symptoms, including pharyngitis, diarrhea, and fever. He also noticed skin eruptions (sometimes pustular and sometimes dry), which appeared on the ninth day of the sickness. The description given by Galen doesn’t define the nature of the illness, but numerous scholars have diagnosed it as smallpox.

MacNeill William asserts that the Plague-of-Cyprian and the Antonina Plague were outbreaks of 2 different illnesses. He claims that one was measles while the other was smallpox. The severe devastation caused by these two plagues in Europe suggests that the population had no previous exposure to the first plague (Antonine Plague). Other historians claim that both plagues were smallpox. The second view proves to be more likely since the molecular estimate puts the evolution of measles around 500AD.

Origin Of The Plague

Even though Ge Hong might have been the first person to describe the signs of smallpox, Zhang Leifu muses that the epidemics that attacked the Eastern-Han Empire were associated with the Antonine Plague on the westernmost end of Eurasia. Zhang Leifu states that this epidemic coincides with the Roman-embassy touring the Han court in 166. Raoul MacLaughlin believes that the tour resulted in the introduction of the Roman Far-East trade. McLaughlin claims that the illness originated from an isolated population group in Central Asia and then spread to the Roman and Chinese worlds.

Impact Of The Antonine Plague

According to Paulus Orosius, numerous villages and towns in the eastern provinces and the Italian peninsula lost all their residents. As the epidemic moved to River Rhine, it also affected the Gallic and Germanic communities living outside the Empire. The northern tribes had pressed southward in search of more land for several years. However, with the number of Roman troops being thinned by the pandemic, the Romans were not able to push them back. Marcus Aurelius commanded the troops near River Danube from 167CE to his death. Emperor Aurelius was trying to stop the Germanic community from crossing the river with partial success. The Romans had to postpone a primary offense against the Germanic people due to a shortage of soldiers until 169CE.


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