When the Romans Got Infected

Piety and Anxiety in the “Antonine Plague” (AD 165-182)

Guest Contributor / 7.22.20

Grateful for this post by David Evans:

Even though the media has called these months dominated by COVID-19 “unprecedented times,” historians have been quick to point out that epidemics and plagues are anything but unprecedented. Modern historians have reminded us of the Spanish Flu of 1918; medieval historians would ask us to consider the Bubonic Plague; and ancient historians and scholars of early Christianity have pointed to the Great Plague of Athens of the fifth century BCE or the Cyprian Plague in the mid-third century. There is much to be learned from these histories, and to be applied to our own context.

Between 165 and 182 CE, what is known to historians as ”the Antonine Plague” raged through the Roman Empire. It was believed to have been introduced by Roman troops returning from the Parthian war in 165 CE, and continued to affect various regions until as late as 182 CE. The scholarship is not settled on what disease the Antonine plague was, but many suggest that something like small pox is likely.[1] The effects of the plague were widespread, with evidence spanning from North Africa to London.[2] In this same period, there were numerous outbreaks of plague in China, which may suggest that the same plague traveled east as well as west.[3] Some estimates suggest that around 25% of the entire population of the Roman Empire died.[4]

The rampant death of the lower classes led the emperor to hold public funeral ceremonies, but the deaths of the ruling elite were a matter of grave concern and care. Restructuring was required to avoid civic instability. The death of nobles received particular attention in the late second century, who received honorific monuments. As Marcus Aurelius’ biographer records:

There was such a pestilence, besides, that the dead were removed in carts and wagons […] Thousands were carried off by the pestilence, including many nobles, for the most prominent of whom Antoninus erected statues. Such, too, was his kindliness of heart that he had funeral ceremonies performed for the lower classes even at the public expense (Marcus Aurelius XIII.3-6).

Evidence from Athens reveals similar impacts of the Antonine Plague. In a letter from Marcus Aurelius to the Athenians, the Emperor allowed a relaxation of eligibility requirements for membership in the city’s highest council, the Areopagus Council, because so few aristocratic families remained to fill the positions. In the letter, he notes that he gave this allowance because of “the disasters which have befallen them through the intervention of chance, because of which many other cities have, I know, made special claims for relief.”[5]

In response to the plague, there was a sharp increase in religious devotion, hoping to stem the rising tide of the pandemic. Within such a context, religious dissent was seen as a threat to civic prosperity, if not the cause of the calamity. Marcus “zealously revived the worship of the gods” (Marc. Aur. XXI.6). Evidence remains of inscribed stones and amulets bearing oracles regarding the plague.[6] In his scathing critique of Alexander of Abonuteichos, Lucian reports an oracle that Alexander “dispatched to all the nations during the pestilence,” which read, “Phoebus, the god unshorn, keepeth off plague’s nebulous onset” (Alexander 36). He notes that “this verse was to be seen everywhere written over doorways as a charm against the plague; but in most cases it had the contrary result.” A very similar reference to Phoebus, found on an amulet in London, is testimony to the wide spread of both the disease and the attempts via religious devotion to avoid its contraction.[7]

The rising emphasis on piety at the time of the plague was a problem for the Christians. Within such a fever-pitched panic, the Christians became easy scapegoats, and their difference from the civic religious institutions stoked persecution. Anthony Birley observes, “[The Christians’] failure to honour and propitiate the gods, particularly at a time when special religious rites were being carried out, would make them more than usually conspicuous.”[8] He notes Justin Martyr’s opponent Crescens’ accusations that the Christians were “atheists and impious” (Eus. HE IV.16.3; Jus. 2 Apol. 3.2), and the report that he “counselled others to despise death” (Eus. HE IV.16.9; Tat. Ad Graec. 19.2), as evidence that Crescens made the accusations of impiety at the time of the plague.[9]

Christians were unwilling to honor the Greek and Roman gods as Marcus had urged. Tertullian, a Christian apologist, wryly noted that those who hated the Christians used

as a pretext to defend their hatred the absurdity that they take the Christians to be the cause of every disaster to the State, of every misfortune of the people. If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once: ‘The Christians to the lion!’ (Apol. XL.1–2) [10]

The proliferation of Christian apologetic writings during the 170s is evidence of a surge of anti-Christian sentiment in this period.[11]

Along the same lines, this pietistic antagonism joined with a general concern at this time for delineating the boundaries between “Greek” and the foreign “Barbarian” — a concern further exacerbated by an invasion into Greece by the Costobocs in the early 170s. This attack reached as far as Eleusis, a town near Athens which was the location of one of the most important mystery cults. Evidence of both the “psychological” effects of the attack and the damage inflicted upon the sanctuary of Eleusis can be seen in the dedications honoring a certain priest of Eleusis who saved the sacred objects related to the Eleusinian Mysteries. The honors recorded in inscriptions in Athens and Eleusis indicate how significant it was to the Athenians that the objects of the sacred rites were protected during this attack.[12]

In short, the Antonine plague brought widespread fatalities, political distress, social anxiety, and increased demonization of minorities, including Christians. It is striking to compare the challenges faced by those living in the Roman Empire, and their responses to them, with those in our own time.

Whether there will be a rise of religious piety in our own day remains to be seen, but our civic piety is on full display, shaped by one’s political and ideological adherence. Wearing or not wearing a mask, attending parties or staying at home, and attending church in person or Zooming: these are all now displays of civic righteousness.

Just as the Christians were easy scapegoats for the Romans, ethnic minorities today have been readily blamed for COVID-19. A rise in racially motivated attacks against Asians has been reported in numerous western nations.[13] Accusations between such nations as Iran, the United States, and China, as to who was responsible for the pandemic, is another aspect of this same issue. In an attempt to bolster their nations’ images, officials have been willing to level some dubious accusations against their international political “opponents.”

If Romans responded to their pandemic with fear and racism, the response of Christians both then and now is something different altogether. In their time of persecution, the second-century Christian philosopher Athenagoras reminded the Christians of Jesus’ words: “I say to you, love your enemies, bless them who curse you, pray for them who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Leg. 11.2; Matt. 5:44). To love one’s enemies, he said, is to be “moderate, philanthropic, and humble … gentle and kind” (Leg. 12.1).

Christians are not under attack now, but the sentiment remains the same — in the midst of our current chaos we should be less like the Romans and more like Jesus, offering love where there is strife and help where there is need.


[1] Paul McKechnie, Christianizing Asia Minor: Conversion, Communities, and Social Change in the Pre-Constantinian Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 125.

[2] Christopher P. Jones, “Ten Dedications “to the Gods and Goddesses” and the Antonine Plague,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 18 (2005): 293–301.

[3] Richard P. Duncan-Jones, “The Impact of the Antonine Plague,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 9 (1996): 117.

[4] McKechnie, Christianizing, 124.

[5] James H. Oliver, Greek Constitutions of Early Roman Emperors from Inscriptions and Papyri (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1989), no. 184, l.57–69.

[6] Christopher P. Jones, “An Amulet from London and Events Surrounding the Antonine Plague,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 29 (2016): 469–72; “Ten Dedications,” 293–301.

[7] “An Amulet from London,” 469–70.

[8] Anthony R. Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (London: Routledge, 2000), 152.

[9] Marcus Aurelius, 152–53.

[10] cf. E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 111-16.

[11] Apologies were written in this decade by Apollinaris of Hierapolis, Melito of Sardis, Athenagoras of Athens, Tatian, and Miltiades. Robert M. Grant, “Five Apologists and Marcus Aurelius,” Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988): 1.

[12] c.171–176CE ; I. Eleus. 494.

[13] For example, see this news article regarding reported Covid-19 related attacks on Asian-Australians: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/17/survey-of-covid-19-racism-against-asian-australians-records-178-incidents-in-two-weeks. Consider also this article by Emer Lucey, which discusses the focus on “wet markets” as a means to stigmatize Chinese communities and fuel xenophobia.