Marcus Aurelius and the Plague of Galen

My favourite Roman Emperor (and great Stoic philosopher), the last of the “Five Good Emperors”, Marcus Aurelius. I have great esteem for his work “Meditations“. I am often amazed by how I relate more closely with the words of a dead guy from 2000 years ago, than with my societal peers.


Dealing with a plague must have been no easy thing.


Copied from a journal excerpt (link):

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius the Roman Empire was struck by a prolonged and destructive epidemic. It began at the end of 165 AD, in Mesopotamia… and quickly spread to Rome within the year. The epidemic lasted at least until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD and more likely into the early part of Commodus’ reign, probably with another outbreak in 189 AD.


The Antonine Plague, or the Plague of Galen, was a pandemic of either smallpox or measles, for which the ancient Romans had no immunity. The Wikipedia article says that at the height of the second outbreak, more than 2000 people a day were dying in Rome.


The plague carried Galen’s name because the Greek writer and physician happened to see and record the symptoms in his Methodus Medendi when he passed through Aquileia in 168 AD. (Ebook is available for free – I can’t read it, I guess this is why medical students are taught Latin).


He describes the plague as “great” and of long duration and mentions fever, diarrhea, and inflammation of the pharynx, as well as a skin eruption, sometimes dry and sometimes pustular, appearing on the ninth day of the illness. The information provided by Galen does not clearly define the nature of the disease, but scholars have generally preferred to diagnose it as smallpox.


It’s hard for me to imagine what being in the midst of a true pandemic must have been like for Marcus Aurelius, being the guy in charge and knowing you had no power to assuage its effects.


From this webpage about Marcus Aurelius:


Marcus Aurelius Antoninus died at the age of 58 on the 17th of March, 180 of an infectious disease. His last words were: Weep not for me, think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.




The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. (Pic: Wikipedia)


In the face of all that, I can totally understand how a man could be driven to think he was cursed, or perhaps that the Gods conjured up spirits and malady to afflict him and his people. The fact that he developed a Stoic mindset and treatise in spite of all that is truly stunning and awesome. He had confidence in himself and his own capability. Definitely a hero of mine.