Appendix 13

The Plague of Cyprian: AD 250–AD 271

In AD 250, the Roman Empire was losing its way, badly. The Imperial Crisis exploded when the Roman Empire was destabilised by a seemingly endless series of barbarian invasions, rebellions and imperial pretenders queuing up to wrestle power from the man in charge.

We have seen how the Antonine Plague in the previous century drained the Roman armies of manpower, skills and experience and wrecked the Roman economy. From AD 250 to AD 271, the Plague of Cyprian also laid waste the Roman Empire to such an extent that some cities, such as Alexandria, experienced a sixty-two per cent decline in population from something like 500,000 to 190,000, although not all of these people may have died of plague: some may have fled in panic.

The plague greatly hampered the Roman Empire’s ability to ward off barbarian invasions, not helped by additional problems such as famine, with many farms abandoned and unproductive as farmers sought refuge in the cities. The absence of consistent leadership and the further dilution of the army during all the political instability, plus the ineptitude of a long succession of short-lived emperors all incapable of stemming the contagion just added to the parlous state the empire was in. Two of these emperors died of the plague: Hostilian in 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in 270.

Named after St Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage who saw the epidemic as signalling the end of the world, the Plague of Cyprian was estimated to be killing 5,000 people a day in Rome alone. What disease caused the pandemic? It may well have been smallpox, pandemic influenza or viral hemorrhagic fever, the Ebola virus.

Whatever it was, the Cyprian Plague destroyed whole populations throughout the empire causing widespread shortages in manpower, food production and army recruitment – just as the Antonine Plague had done in the previous century. Its effect was to severely weaken further the empire during the Crisis of the Third Century.

Cyprian, ever moralising and desperate to reassure his flock who were no more immune for being Christian than anyone else the pestilence encountered, gives graphic descriptions of the horrible physical symptoms in his De Mortalitate:

The pain in the eyes, the febrile attacks, and the aching in all the limbs are the same among us and among the others, so long as we share the common flesh of this age … . These are proof of faith: that, as the strength of the body dissolves, the bowels dissipate in a flow; that a fire that begins in the inmost depths burns up into wounds in the throat; that the intestines are shaken with continuous vomiting; that the eyes are set on fire from the force of the blood; that the infection of the deadly putrefaction amputates the feet or other extremities of some; and that as weakness prevails through the failings and losses of the bodies, you go lame, deaf or blind.

Cyprian, De Mortalitate. Adapted from Harper, The Fate of Rome.

All the while the Crisis of the Third Century rumbled on and the barrack emperors persisted with their corrupting policies, bribing armies to ensure their support in the civil wars, debasing the coinage, igniting rampant inflation and generally wrecking the economy. The people resorted to a black market economy, thus depriving the treasury of essential taxes; taxes were paid in kind in food or goods.

The various armies were so distracted by their own differences and battling that they ignored the incursions on their borders by the Carpians, Goths, Vandals and Alamanni on the Rhine and Danube with raids by the Sassanids in the east. Climate change in what are now the Low Countries caused sea levels to rise, forcing the displacement of inhabitants there in search of new land to settle.

The crisis, aided and abetted by the plague, forced wholesale changes in the military – the Romans, if anything, were going to learn from this perfect storm, chaos and mayhem to try and prevent it from recurring. Under Gallienus (r. 253–268), senators were barred from serving in the army: this had the dual benefit of reducing the likelihood of senatorial insurrection against Gallienus and eliminating the old hoary aristocratic hierarchy in the military. Officers would now have to work their way up through the ranks, no longer reliant on their privileged status. The result was a much more experienced and rigorous officer corps. To win his victories over the Gallic and Palmyrene secessionists, Aurelian deployed fleet cavalry rather than the usual infantry. Diocletian increased even further the cavalry element to ensure speedy and flexible deployment wherever armies were required. Diocletian reigned from the regions as well as Rome so that his fast reaction forces were nearer to potential trouble spots.

These appendixes are adapted from chapters in my book, The History of the World in 100 Pandemics, Plagues and Epidemics (2021).

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