Anthro Honors Student Compares Ancient Pandemics with Current One
Several of the SoA faculty incorporated the current pandemic in their Spring semester courses. Upon returning from Spring Break, the scheduled topic in Eleni Hasaki’s (Associate Professor of Anthropology and Classics) course ANTH 313, Health and Medicine in Classical Antiquity, was “ancient plagues.” No one predicted that it would turn out to be so timely. The students read the ancient eye witness accounts of three major plagues: the Athenian plague in Classical Athens (430, 426 BCE) described in Thucydides’ historical work on the Peloponnesian War; the Antonine plague in Imperial Rome (165-180CE) described in the works of doctor Galen; and the Justinian plague in Byzantine Constantinople (541 CE), included in the work of historian Procopius who was also covering contemporary wars.
The Athenian and Justinian accounts were the longest, most continuous texts (here are the links: The Peloponnesian War 2.47-2.55; History of the Wars, II.xxii-xxxiii) and the students were asked to submit a short paragraph on the similarities they saw between the ancient accounts and current situation with COVID-19. With their permission, we highlight two essays, both from Anthropology majors. The course is extensively cross-listed across three colleges (COH, SBS, and Public Health) and students’ comparisons reflected their diverse academic majors. Dr. Hasaki notes “it made it a bit easier to comprehend this global pandemic when one compares it with several instances of pandemics in the ancient world, where plagues of varying intensity were quite a routine phenomenon, rather than extraordinary events.”
Today we present the perspective of Brittany Wright. Next week’s edition of “Reflections” will feature the writing of Dakota Drummond.
Mosaic of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his attendants in the Basicila San Vitale in Ravena (consecrated in 547 CE, a few years after the plague hit Constantinople (541 CE)). The officials and Justinian are wearing their formal attire, chlamys, a purple one worn by the emperor. During the plague, as our sources tell us, no one could be seen in the streets of Constantinople wearing a chlamys.
Brittany Wright, Class of 2021
Honors, double major in Anthropology and Physiology; minor in Emergency Medicine
UA Emergency Medical Services, Continuous Quality Improvement Officer, Shift Supervisor
It seems as though wherever people are, plagues tend to not be too far behind, and while all are slightly different in their nature, their effects seem to be universal across the ages.
The ancient historical accounts on Athenian (430 BCE) and Justinian (541 CE) plagues both reported having originated in ports, Piraeus for the Athenian plague and Constantinople for the Justinian, though the disease itself originally came from elsewhere. This makes sense, as the ports would have had contact with and travelers from the regions in which the disease started, and in which it was present. Similarly, with COVID-19 it was travelers from (first) China, and then Italy that were screened for the disease, until all international traveling was halted, and most domestic airline travel as well.
Both ancient sources report that their cities became like ghost towns, as few people would venture outside their homes except to bury the dead. This is very similar to now, as traveling from home except to go to the grocery store is frowned upon, and the only people allowed to still go to work are those deemed to be essential workers.
The Athenian and Justinian plagues differed in who contracted the disease, it seems, as the Justinian plague is said to not have affected physicians and caretakers, while in Athens, the physicians were some of the first to die for having tended to the sick. For COVID-19, a whistleblower doctor from China was one of the early casualties, and in New York especially, nurses and doctors are falling ill, likely due to lack of adequate PPE supplies, as it seems that they are falling ill at a higher rate than healthcare providers in other countries.
The historical text on the Justinian plague also discusses how the emperor gave money to the citizens in Byzantium during this time, similar to how Congress passed a $1200 credit for some people in the United States. Both cities reported having mass burials as there was no one able to dig all of the graves needed, and there have been images of body bags lining the corridors of hospitals still awaiting transport to the funeral home. Both plagues saw normal burial rites being foregone, and similarly, traditional funerals and celebrations of life are currently not able to be held due to restrictions on how many people can gather in one place, so many people are dying or being buried alone, without family or friends.
In both cases, almost a millennium apart, the suffering only ended when the plague had no one left to infect, when everyone had either already contracted it and recovered, or contracted it and died. Similarly, the only way out of our current situation will be the development of and mass distribution of a vaccine to where the population gains immunity, or the spread of the disease until everyone gets it and recovers, (hopefully) gaining immunity, or contracts it and dies.