The First Pandemic

The First Pandemic

In about 165 AD, the Roman Empire encountered a foe they could not crush – the start of the Antonine Plague.

The plague swept through all levels of society; the healthy were just as likely to contract the disease and die as the infirm.  And although 70% of those who contracted the disease survived, they did so at great cost.  Blindness and disfiguring pockmarks marked them forever as those who had succumbed.  

Historians today think that the Antonine Plague was likely the first smallpox pandemic, largely thanks to the in-depth descriptions provided by the physician Galen, who treated those who suffered from the disease.

Galen and his group of physicians

Not often discussed today, the Antonine Plague not only marked the start of the decline of the Roman Empire, but occurred largely during the reign of one of Rome’s most beloved Emperors, the Stoic Marcus Aurelius.

And in an example of history coming full circle, not only was the Balkans one of the first European regions to be hit with the Antonine Plague as it returned with the Roman troops, but the former Yugoslavia was the last European nation to experience an outbreak of smallpox in 1972.  

A child shows their symptoms of smallpox in 1972 Yugoslavia.

For more on Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine Plague:
The Plague That Killed the Emperor

Romans in the Balkans:
Rome in the Balkans


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