Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Even the richest Romans could not escape contagions and curses. The Antonine Plague savaged Rome from 160AD until 180AD. The rich flocked to their countryside villas, the poor had no choice but to remain in densely packed, unsanitary urban areas. At its peaks, it killed 2,000 people per day.

In terms of medical care, the Roman population was faced with several issues[1]. Doctors around this time were highly militarised; their work mainly involved removing weapons from wounds. Secondly, treatments that were advocated for the plague such as “eat a nestling swallow in salt” would have had little effect. Thirdly, doctors were not prepared to make the sacrifices that frontline workers do today; refusing to treat the very sick for example. Romans had to treat themselves using home remedies, whilst doctors fled.

After the current pandemic, the Government will feel more obliged to spend more on the NHS and social care. With more spending, healthcare workers should receive a better salary, in hopefully better-resourced working environments. The rich individuals of Rome attained the best doctors and resources, whilst the poor suffered. At present, in the UK, the healthcare system has been stretched but there are still intensive care beds, despite a ratio of 7 beds for every 100,000 people. But today, wealth still hugely affects health – ‘vaccine nationalism’ is on the rise as the richest nations are pouring resources into finding a vaccine and get priority access to this vaccine when it is found.

There are also some key religious similarities between the Antonine Plague and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Sufferers of the Antonine Plague called upon the Gods for support. Some Romans blamed Christians for making the Gods angry. In the present day this bears a striking similarity to COVID-19, which some have interpreted as a naturalistic understanding of God’s way of protecting our environment in the face of the climate crisis. UN environmental chief Inger Andersen stated that we must respect the fact that the pandemic is part of nature’s way of “sending us a message.”

Although current religious authority does not claim a direct link between rituals and protection from COVID-19, religion in this public health crisis has been well established. Whilst still promoting face masks, hand-washing, and social distancing, some Buddhists have also conducted expulsion rites against the disease. For millions worldwide, Buddhist prayers offer a meaningful way to confront the anxieties of the global pandemic. Similarly, the Romans made sacrifices and sent delegations to Apollo, the God of healing and medicine, asking for advice on how to survive. The healing power of the Gods is continually sought. 

Just like today, the Antonine Plague had a major impact on economic activity. Rome and its empire witnessed a dramatic drop in the activity of marble inscriptions, which at the time was a good indicator of economic downfall. Land prices dropped significantly, and wheat prices nearly doubled, due to workforce scarcity. Today, European Governments are subsidizing businesses and individuals on a vast scale. The Economist states that 90% of Europe’s small firms are affected by the pandemic and losing 80% or more of sales.

Europe now faces a recession and growing unemployment. As global lockdown eases, businesses must adapt to operating with social distancing in place, so globally, economies are likely to shrink. Many Governments across the world are providing billions to support businesses facing widespread losses. The Roman Government did not have the same ability to control the economy via extensive financial support. Today, the Government is paying the salaries of one in four workers, on top of the growing benefit costs.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius responded to the pandemic and depopulated cities by inviting migrants from outside the empire to settle, in order to strengthen defences and stimulate economic growth. These migrants would not have obtained permanent residence and may have been considered as second-class citizens. Today, European states tend to accept foreign workers for their cheap or skilled labour, but immigrants are then scapegoated for numerous issues often including changing a state’s national identity. During this lockdown, hundreds of workers flown to the UK from Romania to do fruit picking, even though there were thousands of British workers who responded to nationwide appeal for this job. Immigrants are essential to the British economy, but given the current widespread unemployment, Marcus Aurelius’ response cannot be considered a viable solution in our current economic situation.

Ancient Rome lived on, despite death and terror on a scale no one had ever seen. Today it seems that the economic forecast is especially gloomy. Perhaps it is important to remember that in the words of Seneca, the great Roman philosopher and satirist, “In crisis lies opportunity”.

[1]  Littman R.J (1973) Galen and the Antonine Plague, The American Journal of Philology