Is the world about to enter an era when pandemics become the new normal, meaning Covid-19 was just the curtain raiser to a newer, grimmer era? We cannot be certain, but it has happened before.
When the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) succeeded to the throne of Rome, he inherited a world that had had known nothing but peace and growing prosperity for generations. Under the benign rule of Rome, trade prospered, cities flourished and the arts, learning and mass sports were cultivated. In 165 all this changed forever. A new and terrible plague, probably smallpox, tore its way through the Empire. The population fell, at least by 20%. The currency weakened, trade fell and production dwindled. Most ominously the Roman Army was no longer all conquering and invincible, and barbarian tribes started to press into the Empire.
Marcus was an able man, and somehow managed to save things-just. But as Professor Harper shows, this was only the first of many pandemics that ravaged the advanced civilisation of Rome. Smallpox returned in the reign of Marcus’ degenerate son Commodus. Then, following a few fleeting years of recovery, the terrible plague of Cyprian struck around 249 AD. An Ebola-like virus which caused terrible suffering, its mortality seems to have been greater than smallpox, and Harper shows that its demographic and economic consequences were never recuperated. The Eastern rump of the Empire was essentially finished by the great plague of Justinian in the sixth century. World power shifted to the Moslem nations not long afterwards.
What caused these sudden upswings is not certain though Harper makes a strong circumstantial case for climate change and ecological in-balances in animal populations that harboured the viruses. What worries us at LSS is how familiar this seems. The easy peace and prosperity of the nineteen nineties has long passed. Since 2000 outbreaks of diseases like SARS, MERS and Ebola have become frequent. Until recently these were contained. But Covid-19 is very much the genie that got out of the lamp. As the relentless destruction of habitat continues, more pathogens will escape from wild hosts like bats and cross the species barrier. We have already alluded to the dangers of antibiotic resistant microbes and the influenza family of viruses. There will be others. And never forget that certain nations ruled by ageing autocrats will be holding stockpiles of biological weapons, with virus derivatives more terrible than anything in nature. As their regimes crumble, who is to say they will not release them in a last desperate attempt to cling to power?
It was in the reign of Marcus that the citizens of Rome saw the first shadows fall of the new darker age. It was to last for centuries. Are we in a similar place?
Kyle Harper The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the end of Empire: Princeton University Press 2017
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