Database of Pestilence in the Roman Empire

Database of Pestilence in the Roman Empire

The term “endemic,” when applied to disease, is a spatial term: it means a particular disease is native or persistently present in a specific place. The terms “epidemic” and “pandemic,” by contrast, generally denote events – disease outbreaks that occurred at specific times, when the incidence of a given disease significantly increased. The Greeks and Romans, lacking germ theory, used a generic language for disease events – lues, loimoi, etc. – words that mean “pestilence” or “plague,” as long as we remember that the latter term does not always mean the plague, bubonic plague, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

Yersinia pestis: CDC-PHIL

The list below represents a reasonably comprehensive effort to gather the evidence we have for epidemics/pandemics in the territories of the Roman Empire from ca. 200 BC to ca. 600 AD. It draws on previous compilations, such as Stathakopoulos’ catalogue for late antiquity. *This is a draft, and I would be immensely grateful if you know of any pestilences I’ve missed in this database!*

A few quick observations on the data:

  • This list is surely wildly incomplete and unrepresentative. Probably, epidemic mortality was so common that it mostly went unnoticed.
  • The city of Rome, via the history of Livy, dominates the first part of the record, whereas the coverage becomes somewhat more geographically balanced in the later centuries.
  • Interregional events – spreading beyond one province or so – were rare before the outbreak of the Antonine Plague. It seems unlikely that pandemics occurred but went unattested. The Antonine Plague, Cyprian Plague, and Justinianic Plague, are each attested by more than a dozen sources.

A lot more could be said, and I would welcome comments or suggestions. I hope the data are useful to others and appreciate any efforts to help make this dataset better.

The data (with some additional fields) are available in an Excel spreadsheet here: pestilence database.

Date Source Location Report
-187 Livy 38.44.7 Rome and environs A grave pestilence struck the city and the country (urbem atque agros)
-181 Livy 40.19.3; Obsequens 6 Rome and whole region Obsequens says a plague killed so many it overwhelmed Libitina. Livy reports pestilence in city and country.
-180 Livy 40.36.14 Rome and Italy A pestilence raged for three years in Rome and Italy (182, 181, and 180)
-174 Livy 41.21.5-11; Obsequens 10 Rome Livy: Pestilence year before affected the cattle now turned into human pestilence; victims die before 7th day; long illness, a quartan fever; the dead left unburied. Obsequens: grave pestilence of men and cattle overwhelmed Libitina.
-165 Obsequens 13 Rome There was such suffering from famine and plague that Sibylline books were consulted.
-142 Obsequens 22; Orosius 5.4.8-9 Rome; Northern Italy Obsequens says there was famine and pestilence, presumably at Rome, and also adds that at Luna the pestilence was so grave corpses were lying around. Orosius places a horrific plague at Rome.
-126 Obsequens 29 Lipari Islands Earthquakes, etc., cast up dead fish, which the islanders eat and suffer a plague
-125 Livy Per. 60; Obsequens 30; Aug. Civ. Dei 3.31; Orosius 5.11.1-7 Africa Livy Per. 60 says there was a pestilentia of a huge number of locusts in Africa and many died. Obsequens says great locust swarms in Africa, and then a livestock plague in Cyrene, the putrefaction of which killed 800,000 people. Orosius too has locusts swarms, die in Ocean, pushed on shore, putrefaction kills animals and humans. In Numidia 800,000 people died; at Carthage and Utica more than 200,000 died; in Utica 30,000 soldiers killed and 1500 a day carried out.
-74 Appian, Mithr, 76 Cyzicus Army of Mithridates laying siege to Cyz goes hungry, plague begins from bodies unburied.
-43 Cassius Dio 45.17.8 Italy Pestilence across Italy (follows massive volcanic event of 44 BC)
-23 Cassius Dio 53.33.4 Rome Deadly year in Rome; Tiber floods
-22 Cassius Dio 54.1.3 Italy Pestilence across Italy; Tiber floods.
65 Tacitus Ann 16.13; Suetonius Nero 39; Orosius 7.7.1011 Rome Autumn plague in Rome killed 30,000; Storms in Italy
77 Orosius 7.9 Rome Plague in Rome
79/80 Suetonius, Titus 8.3; Epit. de Caes. 10.13; Jerome Chron. ann. 65; Cassius Dio 66.23.5 Rome Vesuvius erupts; unprecedented plague in Rome, 10,000 die daily.
117-38 Hist. Aug. Hadrian 21.5 empire Pestilence under Hadrian. Timing and location unclear.
148 Galen Anat. Admin. 1.2; Ven. Art. Dissect. 7 Asia (province) Epidemic of anthrax in many cities of Asia
165-72 numerous: Harper 2017 Chapter 2 Empire From ca. 165, a massive pandemic sweeps the entire empire. Known as the Antonine Plague, the pathogen is most often considered to be smallpox.
178-9 SB 16.12816 Egypt Probable relapse of Antonine Plague
182-3 AE 1994, 1334 Noricum Probable relapse of Antonine Plague
191 Cassius Dio 73.14 Rome Probable relapse of Antonine Plague
249-270 numerous: Harper 2017 Chapter 3 Empire From ca. 249, a massive pandemic sweeps the entire empire. Known as the Plague of Cyprian, its pathogenic agent is unknown.
273 Bonneau 1971, 257 Oxyrhynchite nome See darmc.harvard.edu, Item 276
304-5 Theophanes, Chron. 13 empire Wars, famines, plagues, droughts: not reliable according to Stathakopoulos
312-3 Stathakopoulos #4 eastern Mediterranean Eusebius describes smallpox-like pestilence
333 Stathakopoulos #5 Syria, Cilicia famine induces pestilence
346 Stathakopoulos #8 Thebais, Egypt severe pestilence afflicts monastery
359 Stathakopoulos #11 Amida Siege leads to pestilence
360 Stathakopoulos #13 Amblada Drought and pestilence follow exile of teacher
360-1 Stathakopoulos #14 Phbow, Thebais Monastery struck by pestilence
363 Stathakopoulos #17 Persian frontier Army ravaged by hunger and pestilence after death of Julian
378-9 Stathakopoulos #26 Illyricum Ambrose describes epizootic and epidemics related to arrival of Goths across Danube
383 Stathakopoulos #28 Macedonia Ambrose reports terrible pestilence sent to punish Goths
384-5 Stathakopoulos #30 Antioch Famine and pestilence in Antioch
395-6 or 396-7 Stathakopoulos #36 Peloponnese Army of Alaric struck by disease
397-8 Stathakopoulos #37 Rome During revolt of Gildo, famine in Rome and terrible contagious disease
400 Stathakopoulos #38 Empire After fall of Eutropius, plagues
around 406 Stathakopoulos #40 Palestine Locust swarms cause outbreak of animal and human plagues
405 or 406-7 Stathakopoulos #41 Cappadocia John Chrysostom in exile reports plagues wars etc.
408 Stathakopoulos #42 Rome Siege of Alaric = epidemic
410 Stathakopoulos #46 Spain Famine and plague ravage Spain during Visigothic invasion
434 Stathakopoulos #54 Pannonia? Plague afflicts Hunnic army
440s Stathakopoulos #55 outside Antioch Simeon Stylite predicts famine and pestilence, then they happen
442 Stathakopoulos #57 World Hydatius reports a comet and a pandemic
445 Stathakopoulos #59 Constantinople Marcellinus Comes reports food shortage, riots, disease
446 Stathakopoulos #60 Constantinople Marcellinus Comes: food shortage, plague
447 Stathakopoulos #61 Constantinople and region Famine and pestilence killed animals and men
~451-4 Stathakopoulos #64 Anatolia and Levant Drought leads to hunger leads to eating poisonous plants equals plague
451-2 Stathakopoulos #65 Italy Famine and disease afflict Huns
467 Stathakopoulos #70 Rome Severe pestilence in reign of Anthemius
471 Stathakopoulos #72 Rome War, famine, and according to Paul the Deacon, sickness
494-5 Stathakopoulos #78 Edessa famine and plague
495-6 Stathakopoulos #79 Edessa famine and plague
500-2 Stathakopoulos #80 Edessa locusts, famine, plague
525-31? Stathakopoulos #88 Orient Six year drought, famine, plague in Agapios
537 Stathakopoulos #94 Rome Armies besieging Rome suffer epidemic
539 Stathakopoulos #98 Italy War leads to hunger leads to epidemics
539 Stathakopoulos #100 Po Valley Frankish army struck with dysentery
541-4 Numerous Empire Justinianic Plague – beginning of first Pandemic of bubonic plague.
547 Annales Cambriae Wales great mortality
550 Annals of Tigernach; Annals of Ulster Ireland “great mortality” from “yellow plague”
554 Agathias S Italy Alamanii army struck by epidemic
558 Harper Appendix 1 #1 Constantionople and surrounding countries Bubonic plague
561-2 Harper Appendix 1 #2 Cilicia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia Bubonic plague
565-71 Harper Appendix 1 #3 Northern Italy Bubonic plague
569-70 Gregory of Tours: see Newfield 2015 Gaul bovine epidemics
571 Harper Appendix 1 #4 Italy, Gaul Bubonic plague
573-4 Harper Appendix 1 #5 Constantinople, Egypt, East Bubonic plague
574 Annals of Tigernach etc. Ireland; Britain? scintilla leprae et abundantia nucum inaudita; bloggach. Bubonic plague has been mooted (Woods) but speculative at best.
580 Gregory of Tours Hist. 5.34 Gaul Dysentery strikes whole of Gaul
582 Harper Appendix 1 #6 Southwestern Gaul Bubonic plague in Narbonne in 582 and various places in 584; Gregory also lists other diseases in 582
584 Harper Appendix 1 #6 Southwestern Gaul Bubonic plague in Narbonne in 582 and various places in 584; Gregory also lists other diseases in 582
586 Harper Appendix 1 #7 Constantinople Pestilence (plague?)
588 Harper Appendix 1 #8 Gaul Bubonic plague
590-1 Harper Appendix 1 #9 and 10 Italy, France Bubonic plague
592 Harper Appendix 1 #11 Palestine, Syria Bubonic plague
597 Harper Appendix 1 #12 Thessalonica and countryside Bubonic plague
598 Harper Appendix 1 #13 Thrace Bubonic plague
599-600 Harper Appendix 1 #14 Constantinople, Asia Minor, Syria, North Africa, Italy Bubonic plague