did pandemics hasten the end of the roman empire? -- 7/06/21

Today's selection -- from A Concise History of Byzantium by Warren Treadgold. Major epidemics in the Roman Empire in 165 CE and 251 CE decimated its densely populated cities. More sparsely populated barbarian territories were less affected, and continually challenged Rome's borders:

"The Roman Empire of the third century … had problems that seemed to presage not merely decline but fall. Gibbon believed that the trouble had begun in 180 with the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, which ended a long period of peace, prosperity, and good government. Yet the real beginning seems to have come as early as 165, when a devastating epidemic arrived from the east, probably the first appearance of smallpox in the Mediterranean basin. Such diseases caused much higher mortality in the densely populated empire than among the sparser populations of Germans and other barbarians on the northern frontier, who launched a major invasion of the empire in 166. Marcus was still able to defeat the barbarians, but with difficulty.

"Marcus' son Commodus, who showed distinct signs of mental derange­ment, was assassinated in 192. This set off a brief rash of military revolts, one of which brought the harsh but capable general Septimius Severus to the throne. Though Severus restored order, at his death in 211 he left the empire to an equally harsh but less capable son. The son executed his brother, hugely increased the army's pay, and was murdered in his turn, beginning a long period of political instability and military rebellions. Successive emperors kept bidding for the army's favor by raising its pay still more, covering the expense by debasing the silver coinage and caus­ing inflation that lost the army's favor again. Meanwhile, on the eastern frontier, the Parthian Empire was replaced by a new, stronger, and more aggressive Persian Empire under the Sassanid Dynasty. While the Persians raided from the east, the Germans raided from the north.

"In 251, a new epidemic broke out, this time perhaps a strain of influ­enza, which was far more deadly than it later became because the popula­tion had no immunity to it. Now both Germans and Persians began not merely to raid but to invade and sometimes to conquer Roman territory. Scarcely any part of the empire escaped foreign invasion or civil war, and most of the East suffered from both. From 211 to 285, besides having a large crop of unsuccessful usurpers and rebels, Rome had about twenty-­six emperors who were generally recognized as such, more than in its whole previous history. Of these, one died of the epidemic, another died fighting the Germans, a third was captured by the Persians and died in captivity, and twenty-three died violently at the hands of Romans. So matters stood in 285, when the general Diodes defeated and killed the last of his predecessors and became sole emperor under the name Diocletian."

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Warren Treadgold


A Concise History of Byzantium


Red Globe Press


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