Pestilences have a horrific record in mankind’s history having produced massive problems of civil disorder, disruption of labor, economic disaster, insurrection, and demise of whole populations. Maybe we can learn from the plague of Saint Cyprian and not make the same mistakes people of that day made.
In A.D. 250, the Roman Empire was in turbulence. The Goths had just won a major victory and the barbarians were at the gates of Rome. Barbarians originally meant any non-Greek people but eventually came to mean “a brutal, cruel, warlike people.” Then the plague of Saint Cyprian lashed the empire for fifteen years with wave after wave smashing the same areas. Its spread was facilitated by numerous military activities that were going on throughout the provinces. It was a time of terrible tragedy that pushed people to the brink of despair.
An indication of the conditions prevalent at the time can be seen in the statement of Heinrich Häser, a German medical author: “Men crowded into the large cities; only the nearest fields were cultivated; the more distant ones became overgrown, and were used as hunting preserves; farm land had no value, because the population had so diminished that enough grain to feed them could be grown on the limited cultivated areas. Hieronymus wrote that the human race had been all but destroyed.”
Much of the face of Italy was changed because of this epidemic. Large parts of the land were depopulated and left vacant. Swamps appeared and the earth was returning to a state of desert and forests. Disease was changing the face of the earth in every way. There were problems in the palace and bickering on the battlefields. The soldiers were often unpaid because the pestilence sapped the wealth and the cash flow slowed. Rebellious soldiers broke rank and fled into the forests, and took what they wanted from those trying to eke out an existence from the land. Military insurrections, civil disorders, and civil wars became common while the Roman Empire continued to crack along its foundations.
An indication of the extent of national trouble during times of disease, destruction, and death can be seen in desperate laws passed during Diocletian‘s reign (ruled 285-305). Farmers were forbidden to leave the farms to take up other jobs and some occupations were made hereditary. That simply meant that a son had to follow his father’s trade or profession. Yes, it was tyrannical but when you are poor without much of a future, the chain doesn’t seem too heavy. Just one more burden to bear.
Caesar had trouble “keeping them down on the farms” once they had been to the city. Moreover, after mutinous soldiers had robbed the country people and tax collectors had confiscated their money and crops (calling it–like today–taxes), the country people looked for other means to make a living. Those laws, forcing people to work at certain occupations, were passed because famine and epidemic had killed so many of the workers leaving critical jobs vacant.
The marching armies, fleeing populations, and famine all contributed to conditions that were inviting pestilence. The empire was crumbling and dying by the fifth century with the Vandals, Goths, and other barbarians still beating on the gates of Rome. (Many were already in the Empire having crossed the Pyrenees into Spain.) The first of the barbarians to sack Rome were the Visigoths, led by Alaric in 410. Alaric‘s hopes of glory faded when he developed symptoms of malaria and soon died. His successful storming of the city signaled the final decline of the Roman Empire in the West, but it had been crumbling for many years from various internal problems. The mighty Alaric fell because of a mosquito bite.
In 455, the Vandals appeared at the gates of Rome, entered for a few weeks, and then left the city for Carthage. Angelo Celli suggested they were driven out by malaria. Thousands of infected people threw themselves into the Tiber River to hasten death and escape lingering pain. It was a time of famine, fear, and fighting–and pestilence. At this time, as if Rome were not having enough trouble, faraway Britain experienced a relentless epidemic.
The barbarians had been moving in human waves from east to west during the troubled early fifth century and were now settled along the Danube–in Roman territory. They had already knocked down the gates of Rome and had settled in Italy, Gaul, and Spain. Now they were interested in Britain. Vortigern, Britain‘s leader, had his back to the wall as he faced other barbarians from the north (the Picts and Scots), and the Venerable Bede reported that Vortigern called upon the Saxon chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, for help. Desperate leaders thought it wise to settle barbarians within their empire to furnish troops to aid in the defense of the empire. It worked–for a while.
Bede wrote: “…a severe plague fell upon that corrupt generation [Britain], which soon destroyed such numbers of them, that the living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead….They consulted what was to be done, and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations; and they all agreed with their King Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation; which, as the event still more evidently showed, appears to have been done by the appointment of our Lord Himself, that evil might fall upon them for their wicked deeds.”
Apparently Britain‘s fighting forces were greatly depleted by the plague. The Saxons arrived in 449 and acted as mercenary guards for the Britons. The Brits discovered that their “help” was to be another “plague” upon their island. Everything would be different because of the Saxons, who came to help but ended up being a plague. Bede recognized that the pugnacious Saxons were a curse from God because of Britain’s wickedness.
Hans Zinsser, physician and author, concludes: “It requires little exercise of the imagination, therefore, to conclude that the history of the British Isles in all its subsequent developments of race, customs, architecture, and so forth, was in large part determined by an epidemic disease.” Britain would never be the same because of an invisible bug.
And neither will we.
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