COVID-19: How 3 Prior Pandemics Triggered Massive Societal Shifts

Andrew Latham begins with the Antonine and Cyprian twin plagues, which ravaged the Roman Empire and gave rise to Christianity. 

A 19th-century engraving depicts the Angel of Death descending on Rome during the Antonine plague. (J.G. Levasseur/Wellcome Collection, CC BY)

By Andrew Latham 
Macalester College

Before March of this year, few probably thought disease could be a significant driver of human history.

Not so anymore. People are beginning to understand that the little changes Covid-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change their way of life. They may not be sure whether these changes will outlive the pandemic. And they may be uncertain whether these changes are for good or ill.

Three previous plagues could yield some clues about the way Covid-19 might bend the arc of history. As I teach in my course “Plagues, Pandemics and Politics,” pandemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways.

First, they can profoundly alter a society’s fundamental worldview. Second, they can upend core economic structures. And, finally, they can sway power struggles among nations.

Sickness Spurs Rise of Christian West

The Antonine plague, and its twin, the Cyprian plague – both now widely thought to have been caused by a smallpox strain – ravaged the Roman Empire from A.D. 165 to 262. It’s been estimated that the combined pandemics’ mortality rate was anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the empire’s population.

While staggering, the number of deaths tells only part of the story. This also triggered a profound transformation in the religious culture of the Roman Empire.

On the eve of the Antonine plague, the empire was pagan. The vast majority of the population worshipped multiple gods and spirits and believed that rivers, trees, fields and buildings each had their own spirit.

Christianity, a monotheistic religion that had little in common with paganism, had only 40,000 adherents, no more than 0.07 percent of the empire’s population.

Yet within a generation of the end of the Cyprian plague, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the empire.

How did these twin pandemics effect this profound religious transformation?

Rodney Stark, in his seminal work The Rise of Christianity, argues that these two pandemics made Christianity a much more attractive belief system.

While the disease was effectively incurable, rudimentary palliative care – the provision of food and water, for example – could spur recovery of those too weak to care for themselves. Motivated by Christian charity and an ethic of care for the sick – and enabled by the thick social and charitable networks around which the early church was organized – the empire’s Christian communities were willing and able to provide this sort of care.

Pagan Romans, on the other hand, opted instead either to flee outbreaks of the plague or to self-isolate in the hope of being spared infection.

This had two effects.

First, Christians survived the ravages of these plagues at higher rates than their pagan neighbors and developed higher levels of immunity more quickly. Seeing that many more of their Christian compatriots were surviving the plague – and attributing this either to divine favor or the benefits of the care being provided by Christians – many pagans were drawn to the Christian community and the belief system that underpinned it. At the same time, tending to sick pagans afforded Christians unprecedented opportunities to evangelize.

Second, Stark argues that, because these two plagues disproportionately affected young and pregnant women, the lower mortality rate among Christians translated into a higher birth rate.

The net effect of all this was that, in roughly the span of a century, an essentially pagan empire found itself well on its way to becoming a majority Christian one.

Plague of Justinian & Fall of Rome

The plague of Justinian, named after the Roman emperor who reigned from A.S. 527 to 565, arrived in the Roman Empire in A.D. 542 and didn’t disappear until A.D. 755. During its two centuries of recurrence, it killed an estimated 25 percent to 50 percent of the population – anywhere from 25 million to 100 million people.

This massive loss of lives crippled the economy, triggering a financial crisis that exhausted the state’s coffers and hobbled the empire’s once mighty military.

In the east, Rome’s principal geopolitical rival, Sassanid Persia, was also devastated by the plague and was therefore in no position to exploit the Roman Empire’s weakness. But the forces of the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate in Arabia – which had long been contained by the Romans and Sasanians – were largely unaffected by the plague. The reasons for this are not well understood, but they probably have to do with the caliphate’s relative isolation from major urban centers.

Caliph Abu Bakr didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. Seizing the moment, his forces swiftly conquered the entire Sasanian Empire while stripping the weakened Roman Empire of its territories in the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt and North Africa.

Troops clash in a 14th-century illustration of the Battle of Yarmouk.
Muslim forces of the Rashidun Caliphate captured the Levant – a region of the Middle East – from the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 636. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pre-pandemic, the Mediterranean world had been relatively unified by commerce, politics, religion and culture. What emerged was a fractured trio of civilizations jockeying for power and influence: an Islamic one in the eastern and southern Mediterranean basin; a Greek one in the northeastern Mediterranean; and a European one between the western Mediterranean and the North Sea.

This last civilization — what we now call medieval Europe — was defined by a new, distinctive economic system.

Before the plague, the European economy had been based on slavery. After the plague, the significantly diminished supply of slaves forced landowners to begin granting plots to nominally “free” laborers – serfs who worked the lord’s fields and, in return, received military protection and certain legal rights from the lord.

The seeds of feudalism were planted.

Black Death of the Middle Ages

The Black Death broke out in Europe in 1347 and subsequently killed between one-third and one-half of the total European population of 80 million people. But it killed more than people. By the time the pandemic had burned out by the early 1350s, a distinctly modern world emerged – one defined by free labor, technological innovation and a growing middle class.

Before the Yersinia pestis bacterium arrived in 1347, Western Europe was a feudal society that was overpopulated. Labor was cheap, serfs had little bargaining power, social mobility was stymied and there was little incentive to increase productivity.

But the loss of so much life shook up an ossified society.

Labor shortages gave peasants more bargaining power. In the agrarian economy, they also encouraged the widespread adoption of new and existing technologies – the iron plow, the three-field crop rotation system and fertilization with manure, all of which significantly increased productivity. Beyond the countryside, it resulted in the invention of time and labor-saving devices such as the printing press, water pumps for draining mines and gunpowder weapons.

Townspeople flee the city for the countryside to escape the bubonic plague.
The Black Death created massive labor shortages.
(Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In turn, freedom from feudal obligations and a desire to move up the social ladder encouraged many peasants to move to towns and engage in crafts and trades. The more successful ones became wealthier and constituted a new middle class. They could now afford more of the luxury goods that could be obtained only from beyond Europe’s frontiers, and this stimulated both long-distance trade and the more efficient three-masted ships needed to engage in that trade.

The new middle class’s increasing wealth also stimulated patronage of the arts, science, literature and philosophy. The result was an explosion of cultural and intellectual creativity – what we now call the Renaissance.

Our Present Future

None of this is to argue that the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic will have similarly earth-shattering outcomes. The mortality rate of Covid-19 is nothing like that of the plagues discussed above, and therefore the consequences may not be as seismic.

But there are some indications that they could be.

Will the bumbling efforts of the open societies of the West to come to grips with the virus shattering already-wavering faith in liberal democracy, creating a space for other ideologies to evolve and metastasize?

In a similar fashion, Covid-19 may be accelerating an already ongoing geopolitical shift in the balance of power between the U.S. and China. During the pandemic, China has taken the global lead in providing medical assistance to other countries as part of its “Health Silk Road” initiative. Some argue that the combination of America’s failure to lead and China’s relative success at picking up the slack may well be turbocharging China’s rise to a position of global leadership.

Finally, Covid-19 seems to be accelerating the unraveling of long-established patterns and practices of work, with repercussions that could affet the future of office towers, big cities and mass transit, to name just a few. The implications of this and related economic developments may prove as profoundly transformative as those triggered by the Black Death in 1347.

Ultimately, the longer-term consequences of this pandemic – like all previous pandemics – are simply unknowable to those who must endure them. But just as past plagues made the world we currently inhabit, so too will this plague likely remake the one populated by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.The Conversation

Andrew Latham is professor of political Science at Macalester College.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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11 comments for “COVID-19: How 3 Prior Pandemics Triggered Massive Societal Shifts

  1. robert e williamson jr
    October 10, 2020 at 17:15

    The U.S. of A has proven itself to be an overbearing bore of a bully to anyone who can still assess reality for what is means to the rest of the world. U.S. reality has been anything but since Nov 22, 1963, we have been living a lie.

    American is failing miserably at the second real “world class test” it has faced since WWII and this failure has come at a very bad time for the country. The first failure would of course be the handling of the JFK murder by CIA and government., the second would be COVID-19.

    U.S. foreign policy still hopelessly locked in the days of “Imperialism” has managed, with the assistance of two inept political parties and a floundering idiot president, to blow it’s ability to lead the world and time stops for no nation.

    Vietnam should have been a dire warning but the Deep State prevailed in hiding the truth there also.

    Now were is it we find ourselves? Andrew Latham has given us a great hint. Great job, thank you.

    One would think that the last place anyone with a half a brain would look for redemption is to the same political system that has brought us, the murder of JFK, Vietnam, the failed war on communism, failed war on drugs, and the failed war on poverty. Not to forget that government has apparently declared war on UI.S. education also.

    Good thing a war was not declared on this virus, or was it.

    If Americans do not get real with themselves the out look is grim. Killing begets more killing.

    Vote your life depends on it.

  2. October 10, 2020 at 15:53

    As Andrew Latham explained:

    “People are beginning to understand that the little changes Covid-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change their way of life.”

    It is estimated that approximately 30% of world economy has been affected by the lock-downs. The most damage as been done to the commercial real-estate investments, the tourist, the aviation, the service economies, restaurants, bars and pubs and the gig economy that hire mostly young people.

    The lock-downs contributed to an ongoing paradigm shift to an e-commerce business model introduced by Amazon and copied by all other retailers, accelerating a move away from shopping in brick and mortar stores, promoting online buying by a captive buyers at home. The shift benefited several additional sectors like; the delivery businesses and web sites that provide the news, opinions and entertainment that generates advertising money.

    On top of the current paradigm shift favoring e-commerce and home based work. There is a paradigm shift in the world global finances. For instance, the concentration of wealth held by transnational corporations is matched by high levels of debt held by governments, corporations and consumers. Corporate buybacks and the products and services that people purchase is bought on credit. Both buybacks and things consumers buy increase stock market valuations and results in a disproportionately high levels of debt shared by all. This has produced a debt trap and an inevitable shift in the current monetary system and financial markets.

    At the same time, the world is undergoing a subliminal power grab promoted as a “global reset”, implemented by non-elected officials subsidized by an alliance of varied interests groups. Among them; a) wealthy individuals using their foundation money to play god and impose their agendas to the world; b) a body of the transnational corporations defined as the Inve$tor-$tate who seeks to bypass the legitimacy of nation-states; and, c) the European Union (EU), as the emblematic model of a non nation-state; and d) the “climate change” movement. All aligned to challenge the legitimacy of the nation-state as we know it.

    We are indeed living in turbulent times…

  3. Eddie S
    October 10, 2020 at 13:10

    Very interesting article! It supplies a more broad/sociological reason for the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, rather than the ‘great individual’ version of Constantine’s purported pre-battle vision, tolerance of Christianity, and his reported death-bed conversion, which all struck me as possibly being mostly after-the-fact propaganda by Constantine proponents.

  4. Allan P.-E. Tolentino
    October 10, 2020 at 10:07

    The pandemic has shown the world what socialist-oriented governments of China, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Vietnam, North Korea have accomplished in health care for their people and neighbors. And what a pathetic mess of a response to the virus by capitalist-oriented governments (US, UK, France, Italy, Philippines) more obsessed with vaccine profits than people’s immediate health needs. The author may be unsure of the immediate and long term implications of the pandemic’s aftermath. But given the world’s admiration for China’s disciplined response and sacrifice, and China’s relative imperviousness to US sanctions and military intimidation, there seems no doubt China will influence major countries’ socio-economic policies and emerge as a world leader in economic development, science, culture, and peaceful co-existence. Inshallah.

  5. historicus
    October 10, 2020 at 09:08

    The Antonine plague was carried by soldiers returning from Rome’s campaigns in the east, yet another example of a high, unexpected cost of imperialism. At the same time Roman religion began its transition from the complex polytheism it had adopted from Hellenistic culture toward a simpler worship, emphasizing the major gods, principally Jupiter, the divine father, and Apollo, the divine son. One suspects that the nascent cults that would eventually form Christianity were more likely to have shifted their doctrinal emphasis to this trend in the larger society than the other way around. The future emperor Constantine would strike tens of millions of bronze coins naming those deities as his personal protector and invincible ally, respectively. Interestingly, Constantine’s first major coinage issue, as a co-emperor, honored the Genius, or Holy Spirit, of the Roman People. Together these coins bear a striking resemblance to the design of the Holy Trinity, which the Council of Nicea, under the emperor’s control, would come to define as an essential Christian belief.

  6. K Chohan
    October 10, 2020 at 07:02

    Interesting perspective, and no doubt pandemics must have accelerated existing trends, but this article is full of ropey ‘history’ massaged to fit the theory.
    The ‘Rashideen Khalifate‘ had only existed 10 years before Abu Bakr, was mainly a city state and some desert. Hardly a ‘containment’ issue for the Romans and Persians. Abu Bakr’s state was centuries ahead of its time in having a codified legal system with rights enshrined that even a ruler could not transgress (as they were direct commandments from God to the Prophet Mohammad within their lifetime, and firmly believed to be so by the people of that state).
    We in the modern world now appeal to Legal ‘precedents’ and ‘the constitution’ for such authority.
    This codified state was consistently more appealing to people than the whims of chieftains and garrison commanders.
    Our Eurocentric and by definition racist view of the world is that history then ‘stopped’, after Rome collapsed and the ‘dark ages’ descended, until the fourteenth century when the lights were turned on and the ‘renaissance’.
    The lights hadn’t gone off. There was a sea of scholars from Taskent to Baghdad, through Damascus, Cairo, to Andalusia and Seville. These rescued the work of far flung scholars from India, China, Greece, Persia, and carried the torch.
    Algebra was invented in a book called Al Jabbar. It was written by the Al Khorismi, father of the concept of the algorithm bearing his name. Astronomy was developed, they calculated the circumference of the earth in the 9th century, the distance to the moon, and even the relative circumference to the earth.
    The ‘renaissance’ was in fact kick started by the translation factories in Sicily, Toledo etc that translated the Arabic texts into Latin to lift N Europe out of ignorance.
    Certainly the Black Death contributed, but de facto plague attacks cities. The largest development and hence cities were in the ‘Islamic caliphate’. Hence it would certainly have accelerated the decline of these. The Pope, seized this opportunity and directed the N European population’s frustration with their miserable conditions against the riches of the Islamic neighbours in Andalus (Spain) and Palestine.
    N Europe has never quite recovered its humanity from that point on?

  7. Dave
    October 9, 2020 at 19:59

    Two other books written for the layman with regard to pandemics and history are:
    —RATS, LICE AND HISTORY, Hans Zinsser, 1935; and PLAGUES AND PEOPLE, William McNeil, 1977. Zinsser was a noted physician and biologist and McNeil a historian. If one has the time, they are well worth reading.

  8. Jay
    October 9, 2020 at 16:41

    I went to Macalester, back then the history department was pretending Egypt and Rome, amongst other powers not usually thought of as “black”, were not part of African history.

    Seems to have improved a bit.

  9. Andrew Thomas
    October 9, 2020 at 15:30

    This was fascinating. Thank you!

  10. Aaron
    October 9, 2020 at 13:26

    Future historians will wonder at the failure of the PPE shortage like “During the Great Pandemic of 2020, the richest country in the world, the US, could not provide the N95 mask for their dying workers and citizens, a simple product, that before the pandemic only cost around $1”!! When the pandemic started, I thought maybe people would really change their fundamental daily lives and ethos, to a super-healthy, environmentally-conscious and kind, charitable value system. But clearly we won’t, to the contrary, we seem to devolve into white supremacy, heavy drinking and eating, and an acceleration of the dumbing-down of the average IQ that has been going on for a few decades now. And an increase in morons believing in Q-ANON. It’s almost like we have tried to mismanage every aspect of the pandemic on purpose. Like it would be hard to screw this up more if that was the goal.

    • John Ressler
      October 10, 2020 at 08:07

      Nailed it again Aaron. Short and sweet comment, spot on.

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