Shipwreck with Spectator Epidemics and Society in the Ancient World

Document Type : Original Article


PhD. Full Professor of Classical Philology, Tor Vergata University of Rome, Rome, Italy


Epidemics are dramatic, far-reaching events. Their impact on society is unpredictable. Starting from the meaning of the Greek word epidemia, the paper highlights its topographical and social connotation (“stay at home, stay in a city”), from Homer to Hippocrates. By revisiting some of the most impactful epidemic events in ancient Greece and Rome, some of them well known, it focuses on their social and political consequences, the geographic spread and the medical features, the continuities in the reaction,  and in the astonishment of societies. These events are the Athenian so-called plague of 431 BCE; the epidemic cough of Perinthos as narrated in the Hippocratic Collection; the Antonine plague in Rome around 166 CE; the epidemic taking place in China in the same years of the Antonine plague, suggesting a possible connection between the two, at a time when the first direct contacts between the two empires were established. The notion of contagion is considered. The paper also briefly recalls the so-called plague of Justinian, whose fateful aftermath has been often related to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Eventually, a reflection upon the different perceptions of an epidemic can provide us with some food for thought.