Pandemics: Lethal Ringmasters Of Society

COVID-19 or Coronavirus has exposed the vulnerability of humans. The pandemic has taken the entire globe by a storm economically, politically and socially, there is no better time to revisit the sickly history of some of the deadliest pandemics 

By Barish Raman

Over millennia of human existence, diseases and death have been the best of friends and infectious diseases are as common and frequent as lies in a politician’s declamation. A pandemic is an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.

It doesn’t just pose a medical threat but also adversely affects all aspects of life. In the past, when each pandemic receded, it left cultural, political, and social changes that lasted far beyond the disease itself. Throughout history, it can be seen how pandemics have changed the course of history; collapsing entire civilisations and empires, forcing an economic depression, or birthing a new worldview.  

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of humans. The pandemic has taken the entire globe by a storm economically, politically and socially. As of 25th May, there were more than 5.6 million people infected by this deadly virus around the world and more than 3.60 Lakh people died.

Since its emergence in China late last year, the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica. Affected nations are trying hard to slow the spread of Covid 19 by testing and treating patients, social distancing, limiting travel and quarantining citizens,  

There is no better time to revisit the sickly history of some of the deadliest pandemics. Previously, we have seen how pandemics have changed the course of history and even helped in the rise of nationalism, xenophobia and iron fisted dictators. The quality of healthcare planning during a pandemic, can make or break a government.   

And as they say, ‘the only way to improve oneself is by revisiting the past.’ 

Plague of Athens – 430 BCE, Athens
Death Toll – 1 Million 

The earliest recorded pandemic happened during the Peloponnesian War. After the disease passed through Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt, it crossed the Athenian walls from the city’s port of Piraeus.

The Greek historian Thucydides recorded the outbreak in his monumental work on the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta. The plague would ultimately play a large part in Athens’ eventual defeat by Sparta. 

Despite the limited information available about this pandemic, It is suggested that the plague killed upwards of one-third of the population; a population which numbered 250,000-300,000 in the 5th century BCE. By most accounts, the plague which struck Athens In the summer of 430 B.C. was the most lethal outbreak of illness in the period of Classical Greece history.

The historian Thucydides who witnessed the epidemic described that patients experienced hot flashes so extreme that they did not bear to have any clothing or linen on them even of the very lightest description. It destroyed the city’s population over the next five years. 

The sense of despair of losing thousands and thousands of people, downgrading the economy and the constant fear that comes along with mortality led to a surge in licentiousness among the population, almost seeking refuge in it. It is still a scientific mystery as to what the actual disease is, with a debate between the possibility of it being Ebola, Typhoid, Smallpox or Measles.  

Antonine Plague – 165 CE, Rome 
Death Toll – 5 Million 

The Antonine Plague, sometimes referred to as the Plague of Galen, named after the famous greek physician. The ancient pandemic is said to have been brought to the Roman Empire by troops who were returning from campaigns in the Near East, coincidentally, conjectured to be China.

Paleopathologists have suspected it to have been either smallpox or measles, but the true cause remains undetermined.  It is estimated that the pandemic took upto 5 million lives along with the emperors of the entire empire spread across three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe.

This ultimately had resulted in less taxpayers and assets like soldiers, public officers and craftsmen for the empire, causing an economic stagnation. At the outbreak of the plague, Rome’s military consisted of 28 legions totaling approximately 150,000 well trained and well armed men and the disease spread rapidly. 

The interconnected Mediterranean trade network also acted as a major contributor to the spread of the plague. Even the gods were not immune to the tribulation of the plague. The pandemic had acted as a great attack at the whole Roman polytheisteic system.

Marcus Aurelius had launched persecutions against Christians who refused to pay homage to the gods which, the emperor believed, in turn angered the gods whose wrath made itself known in the form of a devastating epidemic.

Ironically the anti-Christian attacks produced the opposite effect amongst the general population as the people lived in great harmony, since christians believed in doing good for the sick. This care for the victims created a bond between all the religions.

Furthermore, Christianity’s belief in salvation and heaven provided meaning of life in times of crisis, hence, attracting more followers. This solidified the start of christianity emerging as the sole, dominating monotheistic culture.  

Plague of Justinian, 542 CE, Constantinople 
Death Toll – 50 Million 

The Justinian Plague, which occurred in the 6th Century, was one of the worst outbreaks seen in the Roman empire and ultimately the downfall of the empire. This was one of the first ever appearances of bubonic plague and a glimpse of its true terrors.

The plague first made its appearance in 542 CE under Emperor Justinian I’s rule. Originating in China and northeast India, the plague (Yersinia pestis) was carried to the Great Lakes region of Africa via overland and sea trade routes.

The point of origin for Justinian’s plague was Egypt. The outbreak continued to sweep throughout the Mediterranean world for another 225 years, finally disappearing in 750 CE.  


It has been estimated that the plague took more than 50 million lives. Justinian Plague proved itself to be the radix of the emergence of the downfall of one of the biggest empires in history, as in the coming years, Roman empire saw plague after plague, further weakening the empire from the very root that Justinian Plague established.

Just like every pandemic, the plague attacked and harmed the economy and military, both being the very two stilts upon which the wide byzantine empire rested.

This was a great opportunity for rivals to attack and the unvarying enemy of the empire, Germainc tribes took this opportunity. By 568 CE, the Lombards successfully invaded northern Italy and defeated the small Byzantine garrison, leading to the fracturing of the Italian peninsula, which remained divided and split until re-unification in the 19th century CE.

In Northern Africa and Near East the Arabs couldn’t have been stopped. The army was weak and the economy was collapsing. Not to mention that people widely started believing that the misfortune of the empire was due to Emperor Junstinian being the devil himself or invoking the gods’ wrath with his evil ways and no matter how big one’s army is or how much wealth one has, if the subjects look at you as the devil himself, the reign might be slipping out of hands.  

The deadly plague had such colossal consequences that the question that arises is ‘what would be of the world if the Justinian Plague didn’t happen?’  

Just the mere ‘what if’ that the plague did not have happened opens up the possibility of several alternate universes where the world might be very different.  

Most of the possibilities stemming from the fact that Europe as a political and geographical fragmentation would not exist. If Europe had had a history as a single political unit, think of the wars that might not have happened, as well as those that might have.

We might have a history where there was no Thirty Years War, or Hundred Years War, or Napoleonic Wars, or Great War, or WWII. The state of jews might have been different, Renaissance might not have happened with the conditions that it did occur with.

The Cold War might have looked extremely different. It really makes one question as to how one event could have altered a series of events, all in all, changing the world.   

Black Death (Bubonic Plague), Europe, 1346 

Death Toll – 75-200 Million 

Maybe the most famous, lethal and horrific plague that people remember is Black Death or Bubonic Plague. Taking over an estimated 75 – 200 million lives all over Europe and even its colonies in Asia and Africa.

The plague came to Europe from the East, most probably via the trade routes known as the Silk Road overland, and certainly by ship overseas. Transmitted from the fleas present in black rats, becoming airborne.

The Bubonic Plague has also been one of the outbreaks to alter the course of history, ironically, many of these consequences were tilted to the positive side.

The unjust system of feudalism, which was the social hierarchy followed throughout Europe, collapsed after the plague. The tradition of nobles, merchants, clergy oppressing the peasants had stunted due to extreme labour shortages, inflation and increased demand for labour.

Women also were raised to a higher social status. Women’s status had improved somewhat through the popularity of the Cult of the Virgin Mary which associated women with the mother of Jesus Christ but the Church continually emphasized women’s inherent sinfulness as daughters of Eve who had brought sin into the world.

Due to the majority of men dying, they were the ones who had to take over businesses. Women were allowed to own their own land, cultivate the businesses formerly run by their husband or son, and had greater liberty in choosing a mate.  


Just like with any catastrophe people turned to religion and superstitions. Many thought that this was god punishing humanity for their sins. The Flagellant Movement, in which groups of penitents would travel from town to town whipping themselves to atone for their sins, began in Austria and then in Germany and France.

These groups were led by a self-proclaimed Master with little or no religious training and helped spread the plague along with encouraging attacks on jews.

The Flagellant Movement was not the only source of persecution; otherwise peaceful citizens could be whipped into a frenzy to attack communities of Jews, Romani (gypsies), lepers, or others.

Women were also tormented in the belief that they encouraged sin because of their association with the biblical Eve and the fall of man. Anti-semitism also gained a lot of momentum, as they were seen as the ‘Christ Killer’ they were held responsible for this so called god’s fury leading them to be marginalised and massacred.

Jewish communities in Germany, Austria and France were pretty much destroyed and most fled and settled in Poland and Eastern Europe. 

It has also been theorised how the plague might have helped in birthing the Renaissance. The butterfly effect played its role and these changes, directly and indirectly, led to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture, and literature in human history.

As trade and work stagnated, people were left unemployed. Boccaccio in the Decameron, describes people abandoning their occupations, ignoring the sick and living lives of wild excess, as everyone expected to die. Funnily enough, this could count as one of the first ever trends of ‘YOLO’.

People pursued things that gave them pleasure, leading to a rise in popularity of the arts.  Interestingly, the Black Plague was the genesis of the practice of ‘quarantine’ something we are all extremely familiar with now.

This began during the 14th century, in an effort to protect italian coastal cities from plagues. Port Authorities, in an attempt to stop the spread, required ships to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. The origin of the word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian “quaranta giorni”, or 40 days.  

One thought on “Pandemics: Lethal Ringmasters Of Society

  1. Good writer , good explorer, good thinker or I must say a free thinker.
    All the best , keep it up . We feel proud of you.

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