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Plagues - part 2

by Trevor Moore

The more one looks into the past the more one finds that what seems new, strange or unusual to us today is not new, strange or unusual when viewed through a historical lens. Plagues are a case in point. Were I dictator of the universe for a day then I should find time to ban the use of the word “unprecedented”. When subjected to a forensic examination I submit that there is little that is unprecedented; though I concede that this would be an interesting hypothesis to debate. Plagues are not unprecedented. This is Part 2 of two articles on plagues of the past. I am doing these the wrong way round … well, for no reason in particular. In the first part I described the Second (the Black Death in the 14th centuries) and Third (the one that hit Australia in the19th century Great Bubonic Plague Pandemics. The First Great Bubonic Plague Pandemic was earlier still, and it occurred when Justinian was Emperor of Rome in the 6th century. But these three pandemics were all connected to the Bubonic Plague. So, the current COVID19 plague is not the Fourth Great Pandemic, because it’s not the bubonic plague.


Relative impact of some previous pandemics: you can’t see COVID19 because – compared with some historical plagues – the number of deaths is small. That does not mean, however, that it is not a serious thing.

Things don't look so bad from this angle but that's only because we understand pandemics better now than they did before

If there was a Fourth Great Bubonic Plague Pandemic, it would probably be the 1994 plague in India. This was an outbreak of bubonic plague that affected a number of Indian states with an estimated 693 cases and 56 deaths. In terms of statistics, this outbreak cannot be considered “great” though it was serious enough. The outbreak happened in Surat in Gujarat and though it did not last long - between August and November 1994 - when news of the plague became known to the public, a quarter of Surat’s population (700,000 people) fled the city. The international media were, as ever, judgemental. A 2006 paper that re-examined the Indian outbreak noted that “a London tabloid described an Air India plane at Heathrow as a ‘plague plane’. The Times called the plague in India as the “afflicted diaspora”. The Independent branded it as ‘medieval scourge’ while the Times news magazine designated the happenings as a ‘medieval horror show’.”

But there were plagues before the First Great Bubonic Plague Pandemic. It is difficult to know much about the health and welfare of people who lived long ago but the adoption of agriculture and the transition to settled societies would have exposed humans to diseases that they had not encountered. People began to live in close proximity with one another and with their animals. According to Clive Ponting’s A Green History Of The World “smallpox is very similar to cowpox and measles is related to rinderpest (another cattle disease) and canine distemper. Tuberculosis also originated in cattle as did diphtheria. Influenza is common to humans and hogs and the common cold certainly came from the horse. Leprosy came from the water buffalo.” And of course, bubonic plague comes from the bacterium yersinia pestis carried on rat fleas. Yersinia pestis was discovered in archaeological finds from the Late Bronze Age (about 4,000 years ago).

The Spanish ‘flu is not one of the bubonic plague outbreaks. There seems to have been a major outbreak of influenza in about 1200BCE that affected much of south and central Asia. But the first pandemic of which we have something approaching a reliable record is the Plague of Athens in about 430BCE. We don’t know exactly what this plague was, but it had serious consequences. The plague took the life of Pericles who was, according to Thucydides the "the first citizen of Athens”; it also took his wife, and their sons, Paralus and Xanthippus. Beteween 75,000 and 100,000 people died in the Plague of Athens.

Thucydides wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War and is reckoned to be one of the “fathers of history” because of the empirical approach he took. He said that people ceased fearing the law since they felt they were already living under a death sentence. They started spending money indiscriminately. Many people felt they would not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of wise investment, while some of the poor unexpectedly became wealthy by inheriting the property of their relatives. Thucydides tells us that people refused to behave honourably because most did not expect to live long enough to suffer any consequences. It would be difficult to separate the effects of the Plague of Athens from the overall effects of the Peloponnesian War but it was serious stuff. Athens did not fully recover from the plague for nearly a generation.


The First Great Bubonic Plague Pandemic occurred during the reign of the Roman (or Byzantine) emperor Justinian I in the 6th century CE. Now, the place to go to read about Roman Emperors is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire. He may not always be accurate but Gibbon (1737 - 1794) writes the most beautiful prose and he is always a pleasure to read. By way of example here is Gibbon’s description of the bubonic plague. He writes that “infection was sometimes announced by visions of a distempered fancy, and the victim despaired as soon as he had heard the menace and felt the stroke of an invisible spectre. But the greater number, in their beds, in the streets, in their usual occupation, were surprised by a slight fever; so slight, indeed, that neither the pulse nor the colour of the patient gave any signs of the approaching danger. The same, the next, or the succeeding day it was declared by the swelling of the glands, particularly those of the groin, of the armpits, and under the ear; and when these buboes or tumours were opened, they were found to contain a coal, or black substance, of the size of a lentil. If they came to a just swelling and suppuration, the patient was saved by this kind and natural discharge of the morbid humour; but if they continued hard and dry mortification quickly ensued, and the fifth day was commonly the term of his life.”


Matthew Kneales’ lovely book Rome: A History In Seven Sackings traces a Roman Empire all the way to the 20th century: his seventh chapter deals with the Nazis and their nine month occupation of Rome after the death of Mussolini and before its liberation by the Allies. If we take what Gibbon meant by the Roman Empire, then by the 6th century what passed for the Roman Empire was pretty much all done. In a last-ditch attempt to save the ship Justinian embarked on a “restoration of the Empire” program. We can see that his efforts did not succeed for today there is no Roman Empire although his reign was not without its successes. He completely revised Roman Law and some of his reforms were modestly humanitarian. For example, he passed laws to protect prostitutes from exploitation and women from being forced into prostitution. Rapists were treated severely. Women charged with major crimes were to be guarded by other women to prevent sexual abuse. He had some military success recovering large chunks of land. As a Christian, he regarded it as his divine duty to restore the Empire to its ancient boundaries, whatever they were. He may have been the last Roman Emperor to speak Latin.

In 540, as an attempt to eradicate paganism, he ordered that the temple to Isis at Philae in Egypt should be destroyed. Now Plutarch (46CE - after 119CE) said that one of the things that Isis had taught mankind was how to cure diseases. When, the following year, Egypt fell victim to an outbreak of bubonic plague many adherents of the old gods may have taken this as a sign of the folly of imperial policy. Some sources suggest that the First Great Bubonic Plague Pandemic came from India but according to the historian Procopius (c500CE - after c565CE) the outbreak began in Egypt and moved along maritime trade routes, striking Constantinople in 542CE. There it killed residents by the tens of thousands, the dead falling so quickly that authorities had trouble disposing of them. Judging by descriptions of the symptoms and mode of transmission of the disease, it is likely that all forms of plague were present. Over the next half-century, the pandemic spread westward to port cities of the Mediterranean and eastward into Persia. Christian writers such as John of Ephesus ascribed the plague to the wrath of God against a sinful world, but in fact it was spread by domestic rats, which travelled in seagoing vessels and proliferated in the crowded, unhygienic cities of the era.



The impacts of the Justinian Plague were enormous. Estimates of how many deaths vary between 30 and 50 million with some as high as 100 million. Current estimates (see the Atlas of World Population, Colin McEvedy and Richard M. Jones, 1978) the world population of the time are about 200 million. This may mean that up to half of the population of Europe died. This led to serious depopulation of rural areas and a shortage of labour - just as with the Black Death in the 14th century. Justinian issued an edict in which he complained that workers were demanding wages twice or three times the normal. This, of course, misunderstands the meaning of normal. He tried in his decree to restrict wages to the pre-plague levels. That almost certainly didn’t work and it didn’t work almost a thousand years later when the Statute of Labourers (1351) called for a return to the wages and terms of employment of 1346 also failed to work as intended.

Another major effect of the Justinian Plague was that tax revenue dropped. This, of course, will sound familiar. The current government is very keen to keep stressing that GST will not be raised to help pay for the borrowings that it is making to pay for the various economic protection measures it has introduced like JobSeeker and JobKeeper. At some stage these will have to be paid for either by higher taxes or decreased public services … or possibly by a sensible economic policy that encourages economic growth rather than a blond focus on debt as a bad thing. But I digress … but only slightly for Justinian could not carry out his “restoration of Empire” program without taxes and without a population to pay taxes, he was in trouble. One result was that the currency became worth less - again there’s a parallel here with 2020. Here’s a picture of the value of the Australian dollar against the US dollar for the last three months. Justinian saw a devaluation of about 15 - 20% of his currency. This economic fallout lasted for many years; almost 100 years later Justinian’s successor Heraclius required payments to the government to be in gold while payments made by the government were in silver.

I’ve picked just a couple of plagues from history to show that there isn’t anything particularly unusual about the coronavirus pandemic. That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, but it does mean that we could just possibly learn things from history. We knew about social distancing when the Spanish Flu hit. Mediaeval people knew that the bubonic plague could be spread by person to person contact. Justinian knew about the economic consequences of the plague. He also knew about the personal consequences: he caught it and recovered like Boris Johnson fifteen hundred years later but unlike Pericles a thousand years before. Great people are not immune.

Note: when old people like me were at school we referred to dates as being BC (before Christ) and AD (anno domini). These days we are (apparently) sensitive to the fact that there are religions other than Christianity and there are philosophical canons other than the Western (Graeco-Roman) canon. I therefore refer to BCE (before common era) and CE (common era). I have found, however, that according to the international standard for calendar dates, ISO 8601, both systems are acceptable.

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