‘The First Great Pandemic in History’

In the spring of 2003, on a visit to Toronto, I was startled by the sight of passersby in the streets with mouths and noses hidden under medical face masks. My trip, it emerged, had coincided with an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Those nervous Torontonians were reacting to speculation in the mass media that this might be the start of a pandemic which could wipe out entire populations, send world financial markets crashing, and form the prelude to the imminent collapse of civilization.

These apocalyptic terrors were, happily, unrealized, but from time to time the fears of plague recur. In Britain, alarm in the press and on television has focused on long-distance migratory wildfowl arriving to winter here in salt marshes, estuaries, and wetlands. Commentators have emphasized the possibility that these migrants from the East might infect domestic chickens and turkeys in intensive farms with the virulent H5N1 strain of avian flu, and so set off a lethal pandemic. The H5N1 virus is in fact not easily transmitted among humans, but in these doom scenarios it mutates into a strain lethal to human beings. And even in sober reality, we have become more conscious than ever that there is a price to the dense network of communication which has given us almost instant access to even the remotest parts of the world. In the global village, bird flu in the shanties of rural China may well turn out to be very bad news indeed for London, Los Angeles, or New York.

Pandemic disease is not, of course, a twenty-first-century novelty. Everyone has heard of the Black Death, which decimated the populations of Europe and Asia in the fourteenth and following centuries. Yet the actual historical consequences of such nightmare mortality rates are hard to nail down, and have proved curiously resistant to integration into wider frames of historical explanation and analysis. The worldwide flu epidemic of 1918–1919 was responsible for between twenty and fifty million deaths, a death toll far greater than that caused by all the guns and bombs of World War I put together. Yet while the impact of the war is endlessly explored, flu seldom features as one of the determining forces shaping the problems and character of the early twentieth century.

Plague and the End of Antiquity is a fascinating collection of essays by specialists in history, archaeology, epidemiology, and molecular biology who gathered in 2001 at the American Academy in Rome—of which Lester K. Little, the editor, was then director—to see what light the pooling of their very different kinds of expertise might cast on one of the most significant of history’s forgotten pandemics. Their focus is the recurrent waves of plague which ravaged Europe and Asia for two centuries, appearing suddenly in the Egyptian port of Pelusium in 541 AD. It spread from there to Alexandria, probably from an incubation center somewhere in central Africa, then moved rapidly through Syria, north and east into Greek Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Persia, and…

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