Life in the Time, Again, of Pandemic
Though the nearly deserted streets of my Florida town are from a modern pandemic, they remind me that many powerful ancient empires were humbled by plague and disease, often with lasting effects on their society.
The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens during the Peloponnesian War (430 BCE) and killed nearly 100,000 people, twenty-five percent of the population. It entered through Piraeus, the city’s port and sole source of wartime supplies.
Athens’ main enemy, Sparta, was a land-based power, able to field unbeatable land armies. Fearing the Spartan power, the Athenians, under the direction of Pericles, retreated within Athens’ city walls, using maritime supremacy for supply while its superior navy harassed Spartan troop movements. Unfortunately, this plan caused massive migration from the local countryside into the already crowded city-state, generating close quarters and leading to resource shortages. Add in the era’s poor hygiene, and Athens became a breeding ground for disease and horrible death.
Upon seeing the smoke and smelling the stench from the burning funeral pyres of Athens, the Spartans withdrew their troops, unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy.
The historian Thucydides, himself a survivor of this Athenian pandemic, writes of a disease originating in Ethiopia and arriving in Greece via Egypt and Libya, a heretofore unknown plague of severe and deadly consequences.
The plague affected Athens’ society. Its citizens, fearful of what might happen to them next, became indifferent to every rule of law or religion. The government countered with stricter laws with severe punishments. It didn’t help Pericles, the leader of Athens, who contracted and died from the plague.
Centuries later, the Antonine Plague arose from another war as mighty Rome fought the Parthians, who had invaded Roman territory in Armenia. Ancient sources write that the epidemic appeared during the Roman siege of Seleucia in the winter of 165 CE. It jumped to troops in Gaul before spreading to the great city of Rome. There, it claimed the life of Lucius Verus, who died in 169 CE and was the co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, after whom the plague is named. Marcus Aurelius, last of the Five Good Emperors, would later write the classic Meditations, which embodied Stoic philosophy and spirituality and is still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty.
In 166 CE, the Greek physician Galen traveled to his home in Asia Minor to observe the outbreak and returned to Rome in 168 CE, summoned by the emperors. He describes the disease as long-lasting with symptoms of fever, diarrhea, vomiting, thirstiness, swollen throat, and coughing and accompanied by dry and pustular lesions on the skin.
At its peak, the Antonine Plague caused up to two thousand deaths a day in Rome, with a mortality rate of about twenty-five percent. The total deaths were close to five million, and the disease killed entire villages and devastated the Roman army.
Like the current pandemic, it is thought that the disease originated in Han Dynasty China, brought west by caravans treading the Silk Road and by sailors plying the lucrative trade routes of the Indian Ocean and points east.
The severe devastation to the Roman Empire’s population from the pandemic may indicate that people had no previous exposure to it. It did have one positive effect—immunity for its survivors. The plague affected Roman culture and literature. In their fear, many citizens turned away from common sense and turned to magic, often writing cryptic sayings over the doorways of their homes. Such warding often became the homeowner’s epitaphs.
Marcus Aurelius would later write during the war famously portrayed in the movie Gladiator that the pestilence around him was less deadly than falsehood, evil behavior, and ignorance.
Ironically, the Antonine Plague faded in180 CE, the same year Marcus Aurelius died. On his deathbed, he uttered the words, “Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.” Perhaps the ancient warning against ignorance, lies, and lawlessness will be heard in the present. Perhaps Aurelius’ words of duty and service, so epitomized by hospital doctors and nurses, first responders, and other essential workers will inspire our government and all of us to persevere through to the end of COVID-19 and to life beyond the time of coronavirus.
Life in the Time of CoronaWithin weeks after March 11, 2020 World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, West Florida Literary Federation offered its writers a catharsis. By April, regional writers were submitting words and images to preserve this time in history. The ongoing project began with Phase I, a special edition of The Legend published in May. It featured more than thirty juried submissions. Life in the Time of Corona continues with Phase II, updated as submissions are accepted. Here are the voices of health care workers, poets, essayists, historians, and the images of artists and photographers, documenting this time in Northwest Florida's history. The ongoing project ends with the advent of a vaccine or declaration by the World Health Organization.
Social Distancing at Johnson's Beach
Six Feet Apart
The Last Haircut
The Passage to Paradise
When Hammock Becomes Mask
ProseRiding Out a Hurricane in a Pandemic
To Butt in or Not
Bends and Turns
Pandemic Pen Pals
Prayer to The Theotokos
Grieving Loss of Many Kinds
Why Wear Masks?
COVID 19 Sidewalk Chalk 4-16-2020
View from Within
The Enigma of Deadman’s Island
In the Kitchen with Andrea, Corona, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Tutu
Meditations on the Coronavirus
Life in the Time, Again, of Pandemic
PoetryOnly 2 Things
A Muted Life
America is on Life Support; Prognosis Poor
Crossing COVID Bay
Next Week’s Plans
A View of the Stars
Some Inland Curse
From My Soul To Yours
Eating the Mango
Blindly It Slays Thee
Death in the Time of Corona
What to Do
The Earth Lives On
COVID-19 from the Beginning
Let This Scourge Pass
Earth Day, 2020
Old School Dream
Chronicle of Fools
Ghost of COVID-19
The Year of the Virus
The Mask III
Behind the Mask
Short FictionPassage to Paradise
Mardi Gras Queen
The LegendThe Legend Special Edition Life in the Time of Corona