Plagues that may have brought down the Roman Empire

The Plagues That Might Have Brought Down the Roman Empire

Bioarcheologists are getting better at measuring the toll of ancient pathogens.

"While we may never be able to pinpoint one reason for the death of the Roman Empire, historians are inching ever closer to understanding what life was like for its residents as their world crumbled. Two especially innovative papers published in the latest issue of the Journal of Roman Archaeology ask what role epidemic disease played in the twilight of the Roman Empire. The first, by University of Oklahoma historian Kyle Harper, addresses the so-called Plague of Cyprian in the middle of the turbulent 3rd century C.E. The other, written by Harper’s former professor Michael McCormick, a professor of medieval history at Harvard University, takes on the 6th-century C.E. Plague of Justinian."

David Trammel's picture

I came down with strep throat over the weekend, and luckily have decent health insurance and a boss who saw the wisdom of not having a highly infectious individual in the shop. I'm home until Thursday drinking lots of coffee and taking an antibiotic twice a day.

(Yes, I'm not keen on the over use of antibiotics but in this case its appropriate.)

It got me thinking of what healthcare will be like in a declining world. Professional care and modern drugs will be expensive, if you can get them. Herbal medicines will be available but we need to relearn them fast. For many I suspect the first serious illness might end up being their last.

lathechuck's picture

One of the uncommon complications is toxic shock syndrome (in addition to meningitis and so on). TSS will kill you quickly, but painfully. I'll certainly sign up for the antibiotics, as long as they're available. Some people try to save money (or bypass the Medical-Industrial Complex) by buying their antibiotics at the pet supply store. A story I heard on the radio described a doctor who had to treat a patient who self-prescribed aquarium tetracycline at 10x the appropriate dosage.

I thought there was a thread in the old forum about the Ice Man and medical tattooing, but I couldn't find it. There is a fairly recent article on FB about tatooing and the immune system.

Untangling tattoos’ influence on immune response

"More than 30% of Americans are tattooed today. Yet, few studies have focused on the biological impact beyond risks of cancer or infection.

"Tattooing creates a permanent image by inserting ink into tiny punctures under the topmost layer of skin. Your body interprets a new tattoo as a wound and responds accordingly, in two general ways.

"Innate immune responses involve general reactions to foreign material. So getting a new tattoo triggers your immune system to send white blood cells called macrophages to eat invaders and sacrifice themselves to protect against infection.

"Your body also launches what immunologists call adaptive responses. Proteins in the blood will try to fight and disable specific invaders that they recognize as problems. There are several classes of these proteins – called antibodies or immunoglobulins – and they continue to circulate in the bloodstream, on the lookout lest that same invader is encountered again. They’re at the ready to quickly launch an immune response the next time around.

"This adaptive capacity of the immune system means that we could measure immunoglobulins in saliva as approximations of previous stress caused by tattooing."

We have another batch of new noroviruses coming out of China this winter....

I just finished reading In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World it Made

"The Black Death was the fourteenth century's equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe's population, taking some 20 million lives. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched in the minds of terrified schoolchildren—the hideous black welts, the high fever, and the awful end by respiratory failure—are more or less accurate. But what the Plague really was and how it made history remain shrouded in a haze of myths."

It's been a long while since I've read Babara W Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century--and Connie Willis's Doomsday Book-- but the material has stayed with me! What caught my attention with In the Wake of the Plague was the theory that there were two simulataneous infections going around: the bubonic plague and an outbreak of anthrax. And anthrax is nasty! Anthrax spores can lie dormant in the soil for ages before the right environmental conditions wake them. In a declining world where more people have returned to growing their own meat and crops, anthrax could be a big health issue.