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Plagues throughout History #1
Some Thoughts on Ancient and Medieval Pandemics and Epidemics
Written 4/4/2020
Domestication is the single most common cause of epidemic disease, with man living in close proximity to animals generating a toxic spectrum of disease. One of the chief causes of the rapid depopulation of the New World populations upon European contact was small pox, a disease gotten from cattle. The people of the New World had very few domesticated animals and no immunity to diseases that had crossed over from four-legged to two-legged cattle.
Old Testament Thought held that liberation from Egyptian bondage [something that has been attacked by academics who claim to have found no evidence for the support of Exodus as an historical record] points to plagues of various sorts, both microscopic and macroscopic as having had profound effects in the dispersal of human populations and the fortunes of human civilizations. One does not have to agree or disagree on scriptural accuracy to appreciate the extensive references to disease in scripture—including the Book of Job—as reflecting early civilized reality.
Indeed, the story of Enkidu, of his death, is presented in the pre-scriptural text of the Epic of Gilgamesh, as having been as the result of a god-sent plague. Apollo, patron of boxing, music, prophecy and the arts in general, was also regarded as the “Far-Darter” the Lord of pestilence and plague. Perhaps the various cultic aspects of Apollo, particularly Helios, who was the driver of the heavenly chariot and his boxing associations being tied to artistry and cattle ranching, with bull-hide wraps and sacrifices key to fist-fighting rites, represents a historical subconscious admission that the crowding together of beasts and men in domesticated civic centers was both the birth of large scale ritual artistry and of epidemic disease.
Periclean Hubris set the stage for the plague that best approximates modern urban epidemics. Pericles was essentially the mayor of Athens, a city-state that committed numerous genocides of smaller city states in the formation of the tyrannical Athenian League. This would eventually bring Athens into conflict with its ally Sparta. Athens arrogantly went to war with Sparta on a maritime basis, confident that its walls, which extended all the way from the High City down to the sea at a place called Tie-Up, could not be breached by the Spartans. The walls stood and the Athenians, under long siege, died of a still unidentified epidemic behind their slave-built walls. Pericles was among the first to die.
Hellenistic Sloth was another kind of pandemic, one of ennui and luxury, in which people above the laboring class did not even bother having children, much as Modernity has fostered demographic suicide in our own fat time.
Roman Logistics, their clearing of pirates from the seas, the building of roads—which all “lead to Rome”—and of previously unrealized supplies of fresh water [without chemical treatment and perfect for carrying a plague such as Cholera, which still caused early modern London to be a population sink as late as 1800] facilitated unheard of importation of exotics goods and wealth and eventually the epidemic diseases that would ravage Rome in Late Antiquity after trade routes had been opened to India, with India having been a key incubation site for epidemic disease.
The Black Death wiped out up to 100% of some populations, always it seemed, claiming at least a third of a community. Dark Age Europe had not suffered the ravages of plague that had reduced Rome and Persia, as economic fragmentation, community isolation and lower population density and broken communications, was neither conducive to the spread of commerce or disease. The story—possibly spurious—of Tartar hordes intentionally spreading plague within the walls of besieges Azov by catapulting dead bodies over the walls, is gruesome historic fun. However, despite the veracity of this account, the mechanism that ultimately spread the Black Death from the warrens of Manchurian rodents to the cities and towns of Western Europe was the fact that Mongol conquest had made far-ranging trade possible. Where previously even a military caravan might not be able to win through from Samarkand to Peking, it was now remarked—by way of prosaic exaggeration—that a naked virgin with a sack of gold could traverse all of Asia unmolested. It was most likely peaceful trade that transmitted the flea-borne plague across the steppes of Eurasia and to the Black Sea ports which launched Venetian and Genoese ships into the heart of Europe, much as airliners do today, that insured that the very same lifeline of plentiful exchange of goods transmitted the dreadful exchange of plague.
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