Thoughts Along the Way…
In the year 165, Roman soldiers returning from their victory over the Parthians brought an unwelcome guest home with them. As they battled the Parthians and camped in the borderlands, many of them contracted a highly contagious and lethal virus. It began to decimate their ranks as they marched homeward. The disease was probably smallpox and it spread through the empire like wildfire. It claimed the life of the emperor, Lucius Verus, in 169. His co-regent, Marcus Aurelius also contracted the disease but survived.
That first Roman pandemic came to be known as the Antonine Plague and it lasted the better part of 20 years, sweeping across the empire in surges and waves. Medical historians think there were at least two variants of the virus. At its height, it is estimated that the plague was causing 5,000 deaths a day. When it broke out again in 189, Cassius Dio documented a death toll of 2,000 a day. Over a 23 year period, the Antonine plague claimed somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of the entire population. In the army and in the densely packed cities, the rate was between 13 and 15 percent. Cassius Dio wrote that caravans of carts loaded with bodies could be seen leaving the city every day, taking the dead to the countryside for burial or burning.
Needless to say, a plague with such a devastating mortality rate had a tremendous impact on every aspect of life in the Roman world. Civic building projects, one of the primary engines of the Roman economy, came to a complete halt between 166 and 180. On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius, in an effort to curry favor with the gods, sank enormous amounts of money into rebuilding and refurbishing the temples and monuments of the pagan deities of Rome. On the whole, though, the empire’s economy tanked. People avoided crowds. Marketplaces languished. Supply systems became disrupted and often there would be shortages of food and other goods. There was a chronic shortage of workers, even slaves. The mortality rate was so high in the army that Marcus Aurelius ordered the drafting of slaves and gladiators to fill the ranks. Since the plague didn’t spare Patricians, their numbers thinned so much that the emperor decreed that the sons of freed slaves could fill administrative positions that had previously been reserved for the higher born.
Christian communities changed, too. For one thing, they began to grow in size at a steady pace. People living in fear and confronted by mortality were much more ready to consider options in their understanding of things divine. People also noticed that the Christians cared for each other when illness struck. That was an attractive feature in an empire with no official provision for health care. As they grew, the Christian communities became better organized and more cohesive. Communication between communities increased as elders and bishops wrote to other elders and bishops about church practice and understanding of scriptures. Infant and child baptism, which had been rare, became more common and widespread as anxious parents sought to ensure the eternal well-being of their children.
The Antonine Plague changed everything in the Roman world. As it dragged on, year after year, wave after wave, surge after surge people wondered if things would ever go back to the way they had been before. And while things did eventually return to something more like normal, too many things had changed for their world to ever again be what it had been before the plague.
Structures and functions of government had changed. The military had changed. The status of many people had changed. Commerce had changed. Christianity was more present, stronger, and more well-represented in the social mix of the empire. None of these changes could have been imagined when the virus first marched in Rome with the homecoming soldiers.
In this third year of our pandemic with Covid 19, I think it’s important to take stock of how this virus has changed us. I think it’s important for us to make note of how living in a pandemic has changed our economy, changed our politics, changed out basic institutions, and challenged our infrastructure and supply chains. Those things all affect us, and not just in practical ways. Those changes can have a profound effect on how we understand our lives and how we live them.
It’s also important to assess the impact that Covid has had on us psychologically and spiritually. Especially spiritually. How has it changed us? How has it changed the way we respond to news and truth we don’t want to hear? This virus has taken the lives of more than 860,000 of us in the U.S. alone. How has it changed the way we value—or don’t value—life, especially the lives of others, the lives of people we don’t know or are not close to?
In describing the meaning of the commandment You Shall Not Kill, Martin Luther wrote this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” How are we doing with that? In a time of pandemic when some rebel against the simple measures of wearing a mask properly, getting vaccinated, and avoiding in-person gatherings in enclosed spaces, I think we need to take Luther’s understanding more to heart. Are we doing everything we can so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors? On some future day when the Covid pandemic is over, what will we think of the way we handled ourselves and our relationships in our own time of plague?