Plagues that Brought Down Empires

The United States is not the first empire laid low by a plague. Throughout history epidemics and pandemics have brought empires down by exposing political, cultural, social, economic, technological, and military weaknesses.

In fact, plagues gravely weakened or destroyed many of history’s great empires. For instance, plagues sometimes led to military defeat by wiping out armies or castes of military professionals vital for defense. Additionally, plagues can destroy the economy by killing workers and consumers and frightening people out of economic activity.

Therefore, the coronavirus is only the latest of a long list of pandemics and epidemics that weakened empires. Here are a few examples of plagues that brought down empires:

The Mysterious Plagues that Devastated Rome

The Plague of Antonius

Many historians think this contagion fatally weakened the Roman Empire. Also known as the Antonine Plague, this pandemic was one of the first outbreaks recorded by historians and examined by doctors.

The great Greek physician and author, Galen, one founder of Western and Indian medicine, witnessed the Plague of Antonius first hand. Hence, we know a great deal about what historians sometimes call the Plague of Galen.

Some historians estimate that the Antonine Plague killed a quarter to one-third of the population of the Roman Empire. Thus, the Plague of Antonius could have killed 20 to 23.1 million people in the Roman Empire alone.

One of the hardest groups hit by the Plague of Antonius was the Roman Army. Roman soldiers were vulnerable to the plague because they lived close to together in camps and barracks and traveled all over the Empire.

The Antonine Plague

The Antonine Plague gravely weakened the Empire’s defenses by killing off many of the crack legionnaires in the camps along the German Frontier. Consequently, the Empire was vulnerable to attack by marauding German tribes for the first time in generations.

In detail, historians think the plague appeared in 165 AD or 166 CE. By 167 Common Era, German invaders were crossing the Imperial Frontier for the first time in over 200 years.

As a result, the Plague forced Emperor Marcus Aurelius to impress any man who could fight into the Army. Army recruiters turned to gladiators, criminals, freed slaves, and even Germans to fill the legions. Any man who could use a sword was in the legions.

Thus, the movie Gladiator is historically inaccurate. In the real history, all the gladiators were at the frontier fighting German invaders because of the plague.

The Plague that Killed Rome’s Economy

Outside the army, the plague suppressed economic activity by killing workers, peasants, slaves (the empire’s workforce), craftsmen, bureaucrats, merchants, and taxpayers. Hence, Marcus Aurelius had less money when he needed to buy more weapons and pay more soldiers.

A probable side effect of the Plague of Antonius was inflation. To explain, Marcus Aurelius and his successors covered expenses by debasing the coinage. In other words, they added cheaper metals such as copper to the coinage.

That gave the money less buying power. As a result, the Emperor had to mint more money to pay his bills. Hence, the Antonine Plague forced the Emperors to turn to the printing press to finance the Empire. This led to inflation by increasing the money supply.

Historians think the Plague of Antonius came twice. The plague first came in 165-180 CE, but returned a century later in 251-266 AD. Historians call the second outbreak the Plague of Cyprian.

The Plague of Galen

The greatest impact of the Plague of Galen was on religion. The plague’s high death toll caused many Romans to lose faith in their traditional pantheistic religion. To elaborate, the historian Dio Cassisus estimates the death toll in Rome at 2,000 deaths a day.

Consequently, many Romans became interested in a rival monotheistic faith, Christianity. Notably, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. The reign of Constantine was 306-337 CE, 40 years after the Second Antonine Plague.

Historians write that the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, 110 years after the Second Plague of Antonius. Significantly, a collection of German Kingdoms replaced the Western Roman Empire.

Thus, the effects of the Plague of Galen shaped our Modern World. Christianity could be the world’s largest and influential religion today because of an ancient pandemic.

The Plague of Cyprian

Nobody knows what pathogens caused the Antonine Plague and the Plague of Cyprian. However, historian William McNeill speculates the plagues were smallpox and measles in his book Plagues and Peoples.

McNeill thought the plagues were smallpox and measles because of their symptoms. For example, both smallpox and measles causes a red rash or skin eruptions. Importantly, Galen wrote that some Antonine Plague victims had such a rash.

Historically, smallpox and measles have devastated many empires and peoples. Including many Native American societies.

The Mysterious Plagues that Devastated Rome

Frighteningly, nobody knows the origins of the Antonine and Cyprian Plagues. Modern epidemiologists think the plagues originated in China, where people could have caught the diseases from hogs.

However, Roman historians offer two interesting but plausible origin stories for the plagues. First, the general and co-emperor Lucius Verus released the plague by opening a tomb while his soldiers were pillaging the city of Selecuia. Second, an anonymous Roman soldier released the plague by opening a golden casket in a temple of Apollo during a sack of Babylon.

Roman moralists blame the plagues on the Gods’ anger at looting soldiers and their officers. However, it is possible, soldiers caught the plague from corpses in tombs they were pillaging.

To elaborate, the corpses in the tombs in the tombs could have died of an earlier plague to which later generations had no immunity. Thus, it possible modern archaeologists or tomb robbers could release new plagues on our world. Therefore, research into ancient plagues and the examination of the bodies of ancient plague victims by modern scientists is a great idea.

They call these pestilences the plagues of Antonius, or Antonine Plagues, because the pandemics began during the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius. We call that ruler Marcus Aurelius today. Significantly, Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Five Good Emperors; whose reigns marked the high point of Roman civilization.

Meanwhile, the name Plague of Cyprian comes from Saint Cyprian, a Third Century bishop of Carthage who wrote an account of the second epidemic. The Cyprian Plague caused widespread manpower shortages that weakened the Roman Empire during the Crisis of the Third Century A.D. Historians believe that the Empire almost collapsed during that crisis.

The Black Death vs. The Mongols

One thousand years after the Crisis of the Third Century, another plague brought down several huge empires – those of the Mongols.

In 1331, Mongol Khans ruled most of Asia, and large swaths of Europe and Middle East. For instance, the Yuan Dynasty founded by Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan conquered all of China, Korea, and Mongolia.

Meanwhile, the Mongol Golden Horde ruled Russia, the Ukraine, the Caucus, Northern Kazakhstan, and Moldova. The Ilkhanate dominated parts of Turkey, Turkmenistan, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Armenia, and Afghanistan. Finally, the Chagatai Khanate founded by Genghis Khan’s son Chagatia, ruled Uzbekistan, Southern Kazakhstan, and Western Tajikistan.

The Mongol Empires founded by Genghis Khan’s son and grandsons were the first to control all of Central Asia. Importantly, the Mongol Empires formed the first direct link between China, Europe, and the Middle East.

How the Black Death Destroyed the Mongol Empires

A century later, the Mongol Empires were gone; swept away the Black Death.

Scholars think the Black Death; the Bubonic or Black Plague began in China’s Hebei Province in 1331. ThoughtCo estimates the Black Death killed 90% of Hebei’s population or five million people.

Dramatically, China’s population fell from 120 million people in 1200 to 65 million in 1393. During that period, the Yuan Dynasty collapsed paving the way for the Chinese Ming Dynasty.

From China, Black Death spread across the Mongol Empires over the Silk Road to Europe and the Middle East. In particular, a Mongol Army transmitted the Black Death to Europe by flinging the corpses of Black Plague victims over the walls of Caffa, a Genoese trading outpost in the Crimea during a siege.

From there, Genoese ships took the fleas and rats that carried the Black Plague to Europe. Scholars estimate the Black Death, killed up to 200 million people and 30% to 60% of Europe’s population.  

The Black Plague or Great Mortality, caused the Fall of the Mongol Empires and of European states including the Holy Roman Empire, or First German Empire. One result of the Black Death was the end of the Mongols as a great power.

The Black Plague

In a little over a century, the Black Death destroyed Mongol Power and created divisions between China and Europe that lasted until the 20th Century. Notably, there was no good land connection between China and Europe until the Russians built the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the 19th and Century.

An interesting side effect of the Black Death was the basis of trade between Europe and Asia shifted from the land to the water. By the 17th Century, the principle trade routes between Europe and Asia were the water routes controlled by European maritime empires; Portugal, Spain, the Dutch, and the British.

Thus, the Black Death reordered the World’s Economy and redirected it towards Europe. Additionally, the Black Death could have saved Europe and Egypt from the Mongols by weakening the Mongol military machine and making it incapable of further conquest. Pointedly, the Mongol conquests ended after the Black Plague appeared.

How Smallpox and Measles Gave Spain an Empire

Plagues can build and destroy empires. The Conquistadors built Spain’s New World Empire on the bodies of tens of millions of plague victims.

To explain, when the Spanish reached the Americas they brought all the diseases of the Old Worlpld with them. Those pestilences included the Plagues of Antonius and Cyprian (smallpox and measles).

The Native Americans had no immunity to the diseases, but the Spanish were immune. Hence, the Mexicans, Incas, and other indigenous peoples died while the Spanish lived.

For example, smallpox and Hernán Cortés’ army landed in Mexico at the same time in 1520. Spanish writers estimate smallpox killed half the population of Tenochtitlán; the capital of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire. Some historians think up to 300,000 people died from smallpox in Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City).

The smallpox victims included the Mexican Emperor Cuitláhuac and several top Mexican generals. Hence, the Mexica were leaderless in the face of an attack by some of the best-trained and equipped soldiers on Earth.

Further south, smallpox devastated the Inca Empire before Francisco Pizarro’s conquistador invasion. Small victims included the Inca Emperor making the Empire easy pickings for Pizarro.

To be fair, the Spanish did not practice germ warfare as ignorant modern leftists claim. To explain, the Spanish knew nothing about germs. Additionally, the Spanish lacked modern scientific equipment to isolate germs or spread germ warfare. Thus, Cortés using germ warfare is as preposterous as conquistadors attacking Tenochtitlán with tanks and fighter planes.

Instead, the Spanish blamed the plagues on the wrath of God. The devoutly Catholic Spanish thought God was punishing the natives for practicing paganism.

Some historians think European diseases killed up to 90% of the Americas’ indigenous population between the 16th and 19th centuries. Therefore, our ancestors built the United States, Canada, and the republics of Latin America, on the bodies of plague victims.

The World Health Organization (WHO) eradicated smallpox with vaccination in 1980. However, measles is still with us. The New York Times claims, over 100 million children could be at risk from measles because coronavirus is disrupting vaccination efforts.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there were 1,282 measles cases in the United States in 2019. Moreover, the CDC recorded 12 U.S. measles cases in the first four months of 2020. Therefore, the measles could be the next global pandemic.

The Spanish Flu and the British Empire

The last pandemic to cripple an empire was the Spanish Flu of 1918. Historians believe the Spanish Flu fatally weakened the British Empire by encouraging Indian independence.

More people died of Spanish Flu in British India, 18 million than in any other country. One reason the death toll was so high was that inept British administrators had neglected public health and health care. British India, the so-called Jewel in the Crown, lacked a modern medical infrastructure.

The Spanish Flu discredited the British by proving they were incapable of ruling India. Indian nationalists took advantage of the situation by organizing a response to the pandemic.

One result of the Spanish Flu was that independence leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi became a national hero in India. Gandhi’s organization, the Indian National Congress, became the most potent political force on the subcontinent. Ironically, Gandhi himself caught the Spanish Flu but recovered from it.

Just 18 years after the Spanish Flu, the British left and India and Pakistan became independent in 1947. Thus, patriots built the modern Republic of India; and its neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh on the bodies of plague victims.

History shows that disease can build and destroy empires and nations. Therefore, our ancestors built our modern world and civilization itself on the bodies of plague victims.

Consequently, modern plagues such as COVID-19 could reshape our world.