In 165 A.D, the Roman Empire was introduced to a new plague called The Antonine Plague. The plague is also known as the “Galen Plague”, with Greek physician and the author, Galen, being a main source of the information that we know today.
The Antonine Plague is said to have originated from China spreading through a trade route that connected central China with the eastern Mediterranean. The trade route, also known as the Silk Road, got its name because silk was sent from China to the west. Between 165 and 166 CE, during the siege of Seleucia, Roman soldiers would be introduced to the illness and unknowingly spreading it on their journey home.
The cause of the illness can be traced back to smallpox, a viral disease that leaves one’s skin scabbed with marks covering their body from head to toe. People who had fallen ill, would have symptoms of fever, diarrhea, vomiting, swollen throat, skin rash, and coughing. When a person coughed, there was a distinct unpleasant odor to follow. The Greek physician, Galen, who lived in the Roman Empire territory, noted that the color of diarrhea some experienced appeared to be a blackish color, leading some to think those infected were suffering from gastrointestinal bleeding.
The illness would not only affect soldiers returning home but also many in their hometowns and would change the way people lived. Soldiers who had fallen ill were not able to protect their land, causing a decrease in the soldier population of the Roman Empire. The plague had even taken a toll on entertainment. Gladiators were becoming ill causing a decrease in the gladiator games that were traditionally performed for large crowds.
Due to the decreased soldier population, the Germanic tribes seized the opportunity to begin their attacks on the Roman Empire. Crossing the Rhine River, the tribes would attack the weakened Roman army, leaving the empire with very little protection.
While it is up for debate on how crucial this epidemic was, it is safe to say that many lives were lost because of it. The plague not only caused many to fall ill but also contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire itself.