Fatal Epidemics of the Bronze Age

by Edward Pegler on 25 October, 2016

Fatal epidemics in the Eastern Mediterranean have been going on since at least the start of the Bronze Age. However, the best evidence for big outbreaks is in 18th century and 14th century BC.

 Map showing the locations of 14th and 18th century BC fatal epidemic outbreaks in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Map of known fatal epidemic outbreaks in the Mediterranean Bronze Age (blue for 14th century, red for 18th century BC.

After about 500 BC historians occasionally took the trouble to chronicle the fatal epidemics they experienced. However, due to a lack of historians there’s not much on earlier epidemics. Here’s what evidence I’ve found so far.

I’ll start with the earliest evidence and move forward. Bear in mind that all of these are epidemics of unknown strains of disease, poorly reported, and no diagnosis is suggested. If anybody knows of other events then please do say.

At the end I will discuss the results and suggest patterns.

?30th century BC

Manetho, in copies of the 3rd century BC ‘Aegyptica’, states the following of ‘(Se)mempses’ (1st dynasty, 30th century BC pharaoh Semerkhet):

In his reign many portents and…’ depending on the reading ‘… a great pestilence occurred…’ or ‘a very great calamity (befell Egypt).’

This evidence is weak as calamities come in various forms and ‘pestilence’ may be a later reading.

20th century BC

‘The Story of Sinuhe’ – Egypt

This comes from two papyri from Egypt, Berlin Papyrus 3022 (lines 43-45), thought to be 20th cent BC date or later, and Papyrus 10499 (line 67), from the 19th century BC.

‘Then he said to me: “How will that land be without him, that excellent god, fear of whom was throughout the lands, like of (the goddess) Sekhmet/the Great One in a year of pestilence?”‘

The story concerns events which happened in the 12th dynasty, around the 20th century BC. However, there is no reference to a particular event, just the idea that epidemics may already be a concept people are familiar with in Egypt.

18th century BC

There are three very different pieces of evidence for epidemic from this period, both from Egypt and the Middle East.

‘The Appeal to Utu’ – Larsa, Southern Mesopotamia

This is from the Royal Correspondence of Larsa (II.1 1-13, III.30.), dated to about 1780 BC. The king, Sîn-iddinam, asks the god Utu why Larsa’s population, after 5 or 7 years of peace, has been struck down but people of other regions have been spared. Here are the main relevant excerpts (Elam is modern southwestern Iran, Subir is probably northern Mesopotamia, Cimack, or Kimas, is probably in the Zagros Mountains to north).

Distress has been caused in your city, Larsa, which you have chosen in your heart. The broad squares where days have been passed in merriment have been reduced to silence. Your commendable troops who were assembled have been annihilated (?) like reeds from a reed fence splitting apart. Your young men have been harvested like barley at the due time; they have been picked and have been plucked like ripened fruit (?). The people have been smashed like terracotta figurines; they (?) have perished all together. An evil storm took away the little ones from the laps (?) of their mothers

The mountain land of Elam where there are no dead in great numbers (?) like ……, and Subir, a heavy cloud, which knows no reverence even towards the gods — these districts have not been ……; their time has not yet come. The Cimackian does not elect nugig or lukur priestesses for the places of the gods. His soldiers are numerous like grass; his seed is widespread. He who lives in tents, who does not know of the places of the gods: like a wild beast which mounts, he knows nothing of eca flour nor the offering of prayers. The evil namtar demon and the distressing asag demon have not carried him off (?). Who …… a divine oath is committing sacrilege, yet his troops are in good health.’

The evidence, such as it is, suggests an epidemic which the king of Larsa perceives to be localised in Southern Mesopotamia.

Avaris excavations – Tell el-Dab’a, Nile Delta, Egypt

Excavations of areas F/I and A/II of the ancient Hyksos capital by Manfred Bietak and his team recovered several communal pit graves without evidence of burial gifts in stratum G (?3 or 4), as well as subsequent partial abandonment of the site (? area A/II). These graves are dated to the 13th Dynasty Period, around 1740-1710BC.

Bietak interprets them as evidence of an fatal epidemic outbreak. According to Wikipedia there is papyrus evidence to corroborate this, but this is unreferenced and I currently have my doubts that this is any more than the ‘Story of Sinuhe’ above or one of the medical texts listed below.

Mari Royal Letters, Eastern Syria

The royal letters contain a series of tablets (26 17 & 26 259-261 & 263 to 265), written in the years before the destruction of Mari around 1760 BC, which appear to contain good evidence of fatal epidemics (the ‘hand of god’ or the ‘devouring of a god’) within the region.

The letters to King Yasmah Adad date from between about 1795 and 1775 BC. They may be describing the same epidemic. Those to Zimri-Lim date from about 1775 to 1760 BC. Both discuss epidemics upriver.

26 259 from La’um to Yasmah Adad ‘About the devouring of a god, concerning which my lord wrote me – in Tuttul there are cases of illness. Death is rare. In Dunnum below Lasqum is a corpse heap. Within two day days about 20 men of the troops died. And the [Dunnites left] the city and went to the mountain of Lasqum. Muban, Manuhatan, in the vicinity of Dunnum, are well. Dunnum itself is diseased. Mari is well, the land is well.’

26 260 from La’um to Yasmah Adad ‘The hand of [the god] has abated [ on the bank of the Euphrates] and [ ]. It did not [spread (more) infection]. (Before,) 10 men, 5 [died] a day. Now the hand [of the god]. 1 man [ ] in a day. The god has made peace. I had [extispicies] done for [the burying] of the corpse heap and will write a full report [to] my lord after (sending) [this tablet of mine].’

26 261 from Ikšud-Appašu to Yasmah Adad ‘My lord wrote me [about my trip]. My lord [knows] that I do [not] put off a trip. The journey is on schedule. And my lord wrote me strict orders about small-boats, and I was present 3 days where they fixed them up, and I had a burning fever. I am ill, I cannot go to my lord. Further, a god spread infection in Zurubban. It has not yet calmed down. And now he spreads infection in Zapad…’

26 263 to Yasmah Adad ‘The god has become reconciled with the [land, all of it. From] the 25th day of [? a month ] until the month [of Tirum] (the 12th month) the 5th day being in progress, [ ]. A sick (man) who was touched [ ] melted away. I had extispicies done for the burying of the corpse heap on the 10th day of the month of Tirum. The god has answered. All of them were viewing (the corpses). ?They (each) buried the corpse belonging to them. The exorcists and cantors cleansed the city thoroughly on the 14th of the month of Tirum…’

26 265 to Yasmah Adad ‘the hand of god has abated. The palace is well. There are numerous fatalities among the domestics, the weaver women, prisons and cultivators…

26 264 from Mašiya to Yasmah Adad ‘About the hand of god, which abated in [ ] – I [drew up] a tablet of the [dead] among the weaver women, the cultivators, the [ ] and the prisons [and sent (it)] to my lord…’

26 17 to Zimri-Lim I don’t have a copy of this text, but the gist is that there is an epidemic in the district of Saggaratum  to the north, and that the king should not go beyond Terqa because of it.

According to historian Adrienne Mayor (see below) there may also be a tablet forbidding people from plague-ridden towns travelling to healthy towns. However, I haven’t seen a translation of the original source text for this quote.

These text show that there were at least two outbreaks of epidemic between 1795 and 1760 BC, affecting towns and regions on the Upper Euphrates at slightly different times.

?15th century BC

‘Short Plague prayer’ – Ḫattuša, Turkey

This prayer (CTH 376C) is formulaic and of unknown date (the tablets of Ḫattuša are all from a 13th century context), although the some of the words suggest that it’s older than the Ḫattuša prayers listed below. It appears to make reference to some kind of population loss which may be epidemic. However, it also talks about attacks on the land of Hatti by enemies, so it’s not clear exactly what it refers to. I have just quoted the introduction, which is very fragmentary.

‘[O Gods, why did you do these things?] You let [the pestilence] spread, and [the whole] la[nd is dying]. Nobody [is preparing for you bread loaves] and libations [anymore]…’

14th century BC

‘The Plague Prayers of Mursilis II’ – Ḫattuša, Turkey

These prayers by Mursilis (CTH 376A, 377, 378 & 379) record a fatal epidemic around 1300 BC in the Lands of Hatti, not just in the capital but in other towns. This was thought by Mursilis to be a return of an epidemic which had previously killed his father, King Suppiluliuma, and large numbers of the population twenty years before, and was now killing again.

The prayer seems to indicate that Suppiluliuma’s soldiers brought back this disease while fighting the Egyptians in Syria. However, references in prayer IV to plague in the time of his grandfather, Tudhaliya II, make this confusing (this is perhaps the confusion of the original prayer writer, as the period of Tudhaliya II is known to be one where Hatti was overrun). The following are relevant passages from the prayers.

CTH 378.iii ‘O Sun-goddess of Arinna, my lady! O gods, my lords! What is this [you have done?] You have allowed a plague into Hatti, so that Hatti has been badly oppressed [by the plague. People kept dying] at the time of my father, at the time of my brother, and now since I have become priest of the gods, they keep on dying [in my time] For twenty years now people have been dying [in great numbers] in Hatti. Hatti [has been very badly damaged] by the plague.

Hatti has been very much oppressed by the plague [if someone] produces a child [the…] of the plague [?snatches?] it from him. Should he reach adulthood, he will not attain old age. [And even if old age?] will be left for someone he [will be oppressed? by] the plague. He will not [return] to his previous condition. We he reaches old age [he will…] but he will not keep warm…
… May the gods, my lords, again have pity on Hatti. May it thrive and grow and [return to] its previous condition.’

CTH 378.ii ‘At that time too the Storm-god of Hatti, my lord, by his verdict caused my father to prevail, and he defeated the infantry and the chariotry of Egypt and beat them. But when the prisoners of war who had been captured were led back to Hatti a plague broke out among the prisoners of war and [they began] to die. When the prisoners of war were carried off to Hatti, the prisoners of war brought the plague into Hatti. From that day on people have been dying in Hatti.’

CTH 379.iv ‘All of a sudden, in the time of my grandfather Hatti was oppressed, [and it] became [devastated] by the enemy. Mankind was [reduced in number] by plague and your [servants] were reduced in number… But when my [father] became king, [you] O gods, my lords, stood behind him. He settled the [depopulated] lands… When my father went to Egyptian territory, since that day of Egypt, death has persisted in [Hatti] and from that time Hatti has been dying… Send the plague away from the land. Let it subside in the towns where people are dying, and let the plague not return to the towns in which it has subsided…’

This is clearly an extensive fatal epidemic. The evidence suggests that epidemic is recurring, no longer spreading uniformly but attacking individual towns at different times. The first wave of the epidemic is suggested to be around 1322 BC (short chronology) but could be earlier, perhaps dating to before 1344 BC.

Amarna Letters

These all date to the Amarna period, between 1343 and 1328 BC, and are from the letters sent between various Kings of the Middle East and either Akhenaten or, perhaps, Tutankhaten (Tutankhamun).

EA35 from the King of Alashiya, Cyprus

This letter comes from the King of Alashiya and refers to difficulties in supplying a copper order to Egypt due to the ‘hand of Nergal’ (death) killing men, including copper workers, as well as one of his son’s.

‘…My brother, behold, my messenger I have sent with your messenger to you to Egypt. Now I have sent 500 (talents) of copper to you; I have sent it to you as a gift – for my brother. Do not let my brother be concerned that the amount of copper is too little, for in my land the hand of Nergal, my lord, has killed all the men of my land, and so there is not a (single) copper-worker…

‘Do not be concerned, my brother, that your messenger has remained three years in my land, for the hand of Nergal is upon my land and upon my house. My wife bore a son, who is now dead, my brother.’

No doubt the death of all men is an exagerration. However, it does appear to be significant.

EA244 from Biridiya of Megiddo, Levant

This letter makes passing reference in a request to Pharaoh for archers to defend the city, he mentions:

‘…In truth, the city is destroyed by death as a result of pestilence and disease…

EA 96 from A Chief to his father Rib Addi (?of Byblos, Levant)

The chief shows some irritation about not being able to get donkeys for a caravan because of pestilence (Simyra is Tell Kazel in Levantine southern Syria. Some people choose to read this as Sumer, but this seems unlikely).

May the gods be concerned for thy welfare (and) the welfare of the dynasty! Because thou sayest, “I will not permit the entrance of the men of Simyra into my city; there is a pestilence in Simyra”. Is it a “pestilence” attacking people or donkeys? What sort of “pestilence” attacks donkeys that donkeys can’t go on caravans?

Again, this suggests the outbreak of epidemic in one coastal town but not another. There is also a suggestion that whatever kind of epidemic it is, the writer does not expect it to infect animals as well.

EA 2110 Plea from Ewiri-shar of Ugarit (Ras Shamrah), Levant

Written to P-l-s-y about some disaster and a request for help.

May it be well with thee, with T-r-x-d-s and with K-l-b-y! Thou hast heard of the blows by which we have been shattered (ruined) – indeed, behold, there is nothing (left) – we are ruined! So send (help) to me. And the hand of the god is here, for the death (?pestilence) is exceeding sore…

In this letter it’s not clear what the cause of death is although epidemic is a possibility.

?13th century BC

Hittite Rituals Against Pestilence – Turkey

This ‘scapegoat’ ritual (KUB IX 31 ii 45-60) appears to be written by Ashalla of Hapalla (?western central Turkey), although where it was found I don’t know (quite possibly Ḫattuša).

If people are dying in the country and if some enemy god has caused that, I act as follows: They drive up one ram. They twine together blue wool, red wool, yellow wool, black wool and white wool, make it into a crown and crown the ram with it. They drive the ram on to the road leading to the enemy and while doing so they speak as follows: “Whatever god of the enemy land has caused this plague—see! We have now driven up this crowned ram to pacify thee, O god! Just as the herd is strong, but keeps peace with the ram, do thou, the god who has caused this plague, keep peace with the Hatti land!

This ritual, known as the ‘Ritual of Pulisa’ (KBo V I), is similar but uses both ewe and bull.

‘If the king has been fighting the enemy and returns from the enemy and out of the enemy country a pestilence comes and afflicts the people: they drive in a bull and a ewe, these both from the enemy country, and they decorate the bull’s ears with ear rings and red wool, green wool, black wool and white wool, and they say “Whatever has made the king red, green, black or white shall go back to the enemy country”‘

Finally, the Ritual of Dandaku (KUB II 7 iii 11-18) uses a donkey or clay subsitute.

‘They drive in a donkey -if it is a poor man they make one of clay – and they turn its face to the enemy country and say, “Thou, Yarri, hast inflicted evil on this country and its army. Let this donkey lift it and carry it into the enemy country.”‘

While these don’t refer to any particular fatal epidemic event, they suggest a familiarity with, and expectation of, epidemics and an assumption that they are caused by action of, or infection from, enemy countries. This mirrors the ‘Plague Prayers of Mursilis’, perhaps suggesting a similar or later date.

Oracle bone, Anyang, China

Quoted by William H NcNeill in ‘Plagues & Peoples’ as a translation by Joseph Cha. I can find nothing more about this or of Joseph Cha.

Will this year have pestilence and will it be deaths?’

If confirmed it shows a first date for written evidence of epidemics in China. However, I think that the reading of texts on oracle bones could not currently allow us to tell whether ‘pestilence’ is simply ‘illness’ and whether this is applicable to a large area or just a palace setting. This is point will be discussed further at the end.

8th century BC

The Eponym Chronicles of Assyria record terse statements of epidemics (‘mass death’s) occurring to the Assyrian army in the Levant during the end of the 9th and the 8th centuries BC, as noted by Karen Radner. The examples she quotes are:

802 BC ‘to the sea; mass death’ (presumably the Mediterranean)

765 BC ‘to Ḫatarikka; mass death’ (on Orontes River, Levant)

759 BC ‘revolt in Guzana; mass death’ (same place as the Mari outbreak)

7th century BC

Epic of Gilgamesh, Nineveh, Northern Iraq

This is lines 184-185? of tablet XI (the famous ‘Flood Tablet’) from the standard version of the famous story of Gilgamesh, found in the Library of Assurbanipal, Nineveh.

‘Instead of your bringing on the Flood, would that Erra had appeared to ravage the land.’
Where Erra is the god of pestilence. Note that William McNeill gives this story a date around 2000BC. Most scholars argue that the date of the standard version of Gilgamesh, from which this is taken, dates around the 13th century BC. The line could, indeed be an interpolation after the 13th century as the god Erra is known only from the 1st millennium BC.

? 6th century BC (The Bible)

There are several references to possible epidemics often sited from the Biblical Canon.

Exodus, Chapters 9-12 – the ten plagues of Egypt

Numbers, Chapter 11 – eating too much quail (could happen to anyone I suppose)

I Samuel Chapters 5 & 6 – Philistines being cursed with possible groin swellings

II Samuel Chapter 24 –  Pestilence among the people of Israel

2 Kings 18-19, Isaiah Chapter 37 – Destruction of Sennacherib’s Assyrian army outside Jerusalem (around 700 BC).

These references can be dated anywhere from the time of compilation in the 7th or 6th century BC back theoretically to 12th to 14th centuries BC (e.g. the events of Exodus). However, while they reveal some understanding of epidemics they have questionable historical value.

Medical Evidence

As well as what’s recorded above, there are descriptions which could be diseases related to epidemic and which some have argued are evidence of bubonic plague. These occur in various papyri from Egypt, including the Ebers Papyrus (16th century BC copy), the Hearst Papyrus (16th century BC or older) and, arguably, the London Medical Papyrus (18th century BC). There is also evidence of quarantine and prevention of infection in the Mari Royal Tablets (Early 18th century BC – tablet ARM X from King Zimrilim to Queen Šibtu).

There is also the evidence potential smallpox in various Egyptian mummified corpses, one from the 18th dynasty (1580-1350BC), and two from the 20th dynasty (1200-1100BC) including that of pharaoh Rameses V who reportedly died in 1157 BC. However, all of these are not in themselves evidence of epidemic events.

Discussion

This is a rag-bag of evidence. Nearly all of it is written, which immediately excludes all those areas of the world without writing at the time. Better archaeology may find evidence of other graves like those of Avaris, but then we’re going to be limited to regions such as the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and China.

For the writings themselves there are ritual elements to some, such as the Hittite prayers, which make it complicated to understand their purpose. More importantly, there is ambiguity in some of the writing which makes it difficult to know whether what’s being read refers to an epidemic or something else. However, the combined evidence does suggest that fatal epidemics were known from about the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC in the Middle East and Egypt.

As for individual events this is more difficult. For a start, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Papyri and tablet libraries may date back to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, but they may simply not have recorded any evidence for epidemics by chance. More than that, the libraries that have been preserved are often a result of chance events themselves, such as fire or city abandonment, and epidemics may have occurred at other times (Middle Eastern libraries exist from the 25th, 23rd, 18th, 15th, 13th and 7th centuries BC).

That said, lets try some speculation. There may be a event in Egypt around the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC. However, this is nothing more than speculation based on a story and should probably be discounted.

There may be more widespread epidemic outbreaks across the Middle East and Egypt during the 18th century BC.  Notably, there appear to be outbreaks concentrated along the Euphrates River sometime between 1795 and 1775 BC. The Egyptian outbreak appears to be a bit later.

Lastly, there may well be widespread epidemic outbreaks from the Southern Levant to Anatolia in the middle to late 14th century BC. I’m not the first to suggest the last epidemic. It has been suggested as a pivotal moment in western history by Jan Assman in ‘Moses the Egyptian’. Although I haven’t read this yet, I can’t help but guess that this adds in aspects of the Biblical plagues of Egypt as part of this epidemic.

Alternatively, Siro Trevisanato argues that this apparent epidemic phase is the result of biological warfare involving deliberate infection of animals with Francisella tularensis. Personally, this seems like a misreading of the evidence of scapegoats recorded by the Hittites. Scapegoats don’t have to be infected – they are symbolic, as shown by the use of clay models where people can’t afford animals. Furthermore, the fatal strain of this disease is North American, not Western Asian. Until the paper is uploaded in full to the internet where I can see it I can say no more.

Widespread epidemic events after this time and before 500 BC are not obvious from the data I’ve seen. However, localised epidemics, such as those attacking Assyrian armies in the 9th and 8th centuries BC, were clearly familiar during the early first millennium BC.

References

Bietak, M. 1996 Avaris, The Capital of the Hyksos, Recent Excations at Dell el-Dab’a, British Museum Press.

See page 6, Fig. 3 and page 35 for the relevant discussion of evidence for epidemic.

Bremmer, J. 2004 Ritual, In: Religions of the Ancient World (ed. S.I.Johnston), Harvard, p33-34

Source for the background of the Hittite ritual against pestilence

Bryce, T. 2009 The Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia: The Near East from the Early Bronze Age to the fall of the Persian Empire, Routledge.

Source of place locations near Mari.

Dollinger, A. 2006+ The Amarna Letters, from ‘An Introduction to the History and Culture of Pharaonic Egypt’ (website).

My main source for the Amarna Letters, the translations of which come from various sources quoted here.

Fenner, F. et al. 1988 The History of Smallpox and its Spread Around the World, Chapter 5 from Smallpox and its Eradication, WHO Geneva, p209-244.

Useful information about the possible evidence of smallpox in preserved Egyptian mummies on pages 210 and 211.

Heimpel, W. 2003 Letters to the King of Mari: A New Translation, with Historical Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, Eisenbrauns.

Source for Mari tablets.

Letter from Sîn-iddinam to the god Utu, from ‘The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature‘ (website), Oxford University.

Lorenzi, R. 2007 Killer donkeys were first bioweapons, ABC Science website.

Journalistic discussion of the Trevisanato paper, with comments from Adrienne Mayor on the Mari letters.

Martin, S. 2015 A Short History of Disease: From the Black Death to Ebola, Oldcastle.

Mayor, A. 2003 Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, Duckworth 2003, p 11.

Not read but apparently the source for the Mari reference.

McNeill, W.H. 1976 Plagues and Peoples, Penguin, p80.

Source for the oracle bone information.

Moyer, J.C. 1983 Hittite and Israelite Cultic Practices: a selected comparison, In: Scripture in Context II: More Essays on the Comparative Method (W.W. Hallo et al. eds.), Eisenbrauns, p33-35.

Source for other Hittite ritual prayers.

Nederhof, M-J. 2011 Sinuhe (pdf) transliteration and translation, St. Andrews.

Panagiotakopulu, E. 2004 Pharaonic Egypt and the origins of plague, J. Biogeography 31, 269–275.

Radner, K. 2009 The Assyrian King and his Scholars: The Syro-Anatolian and the Egyptian Schools
In: Of Gods, Trees, Kings, and scholars, Studia Orientalia 106, p230.

Details of Assyrian plagues

Robertson, W.C. 2007 Drought, Famine, Plague and Pestilence: Ancient Israel’s Understandings of and Responses to Natural Catastrophes, PhD, Drew University.

Source for the Mari contagion letter.

Serafimov, P. & Tomezzoli, G. ?2009 The Inscription from Tell el-Dab’a, Proceedings of the Seventh International Topical Conference: Origin of Europeans, Ljubljana, 89-96.

Singer, I. & Hoffner, H.A. 2002 Hittite Prayers, Brill.

Includes all the plague prayers.

Spalinger, A. 2010 Two Screen Plays: ‘Kamose’ and ‘Apophis and Seqenenre’, J. Egyptian History 3, p115-135.

Fragmentary stories relating to a crisis in Egypt during the Amarna Period, which refers the Harris Papyrus and to a book ‘Moses the Egyptian’ by Jan Assman, which I think I must have a look at.

Torri, G. A 2010 A ‘New’ Prayer from the ‘House on the Slope’. In ‘Pax Hethitica: Studies on the Hittites and Their Neighbours’ (Cohen, Y. et al. eds.), Harrasowitz, 362-371.

Source of Hittite prayer CTH376C.

Trevisanato, S.I. 2007 The ‘Hittite plague’, an epidemic of tularemia and the first record of biological warfare, Medical Hypotheses Magazine 69, p1371-1374.

Wadell, W.G. 1940 Manetho’s Aegyptica (online translation)

{ 2 comments }

Is the massive inflation seen in the third century Roman Empire a result of reckless spending by megalomaniac emperors, plague or loss of faith? Take your pick. Is late Rome like the modern US? Probably not.

Obama as CaesarThere has been a general (though not universal) assumption in studies of the later Roman Empire that increasing militarisation and reckless spending by emperors was the cause of uncontrolled inflation, leading to the ‘Third Century Crisis’ and, ultimately, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

This is, understandably, compared by some US commentators to inflation trends in the last century to show that we’re all going to hell in a hand-cart (or hand-basket, if you like your doom transport small).

While it may be true that we’re all doomed like those old Romans, I want to suggest an alternative mechanism for the late Roman inflation which should show itself in a very similar way in the archaeological and literary record.

This is the effects of two disastrous epidemics on the Empire during the late 2nd and mid 3rd centuries (the Antonine Plague, 165-180AD, and the Cyprian Plague, 251-270AD). I’m not the first to spot this link (Classical Egypt expert Dominic Rathbone has suggested it). However, I do wish that more people gave it a look.

What’s known about late Roman coinage and history

Roman silver debasement graph for 0-270 AD

Chart of the average percentage of silver in Roman silver coinage from 0-270AD. The blue line represents the Denarius and the red line the ‘Double Denarius’ or Antonianus. Also shown are some potentially significant events. Data are based on Butcher & Ponting (see refs).

It’s long been known that from late second century until the late third century something horrible happened to the Roman silver coinage. Initially, the coins started with a silver content of about 75% or more. However, by the end of the period the silver content was about 2% (US small change has shown a more drastic reduction from 90% silver to 0% in an even shorter period). The data available also indicate that between 197 and 235 AD soldiers pay tripled – probably more if supplementary payments are included.

What else is known about the period is that it included phases of protracted civil war, emperors being murdered in rapid succession, the temporary break-up of the empire, two plagues and a fair amount of barbarian invasion. Some kind of order was re-established at the end of the third century AD. However, even with this ‘restoration’ the empire was a changed place, more unfree, more unequal and with rampant inflation (perhaps around 16%) causing the collection of taxes in commodities rather than money.

(This inflation may have been the result of frequently issuing base metal coinage while not withdrawing it from circulation for tax payments, so coin supplies continued to increase… maybe)

The uses of ‘debasement’

debasement of Roman silver coinage from 0-270AD, total silver contents

Chart of the total weight of silver in Roman silver coinage from 0-270AD. The blue line represents the Denarius. The ‘Double Denarius’ or Antonianus has been rescaled: pink represents weight divided by 1.5, red is weight divided by 2 (these are corrections for the possible value of the coin). Data are again based on Butcher & Ponting (see refs).

Kings and ancient governments have frequently tended to run deficits, spending more than their tax or coinage income, and have used methods of precious metal reduction (debasement) of new coin issues to overcome these deficits.

In the case of the Rome Empire the supply of new silver was limited, even with input from new mines. The Empire was probably a net exporter of silver (silver mines are rare in the neighbouring regions) and the money supply, if nothing else, would become worn with use, returning silver to the ground.

Therefore a limited debasement (i.e. reducing the silver content of each coin) allowed not only the maintenance of the currency supply but also the funding of some capital or military projects by emperors. Such practices were seen in medieval and more recent times too. They were not abnormal. They did not cause disasters.

Rome’s first major debasement was in 64 AD (possibly a result of the great fire of Rome, but this is by no means certain). Although there were occasions where the standard was raised again, the genie was out of the bottle. For the next hundred years, despite a constant tendency to try to keep the coins at around 80% silver, the average silver content declined by about 12%. Various academics have estimated annual inflation during this time at about 1% or a bit less (note: this means that there is no linear relationship between debasement and inflation).

During the next one hundred years, from about 170 AD, debasement accelerated. Two bursts of debasement occurred between 180 and 195 AD, and between 245 and 270 AD bringing the silver content down to about 2%. The rate of inflation for this period is estimated to be more than 4% on average – not hyperinflation, but a noticeable increase from what went before.

The conventional view of what caused the problem

At the end of the second century insecure Emperors started to increase soldiers’ pay and the size of the army, as these represented their main source of support. This needed the issue of silver coinage to increase considerably. In order to make this possible, the silver coinage was noticeably debased so that the supplies of silver available would be enough for all the coins.

Depending on whom you read, either the reduction in quality of the coins or the increase in money supply led to inflation (the latter makes more sense to me – see below). Prices increased, leading to further demands from the army for increased pay to compensate for this. This generated a cycle of increased coin issue, further inflation, price increases and demands for more army pay. No doubt taxes and duties on the (non-Italian) population increased as well.

Thus Gresham’s Law took effect. Good quality coinage was hoarded by the richer elements of the population as a store of wealth. As the face value of the coins dropped below the price of silver (both within the empire and internationally) coins were melted down and turned into plate or exported abroad. The quantity of silver in circulation decreased.

The continued increase in coin issue led to further reductions in the amount of silver per coin. Gresham’s Law led to an overall decrease in the supply of silver for the coinage. Both conspired to make the silver content of the coinage smaller and smaller. Either the cheap feel or the abundance of the coinage (perhaps both) led to uncontrolled inflation as citizens lost faith in it.

Problems?

The problem that I have with this story is why Emperors suddenly decided to increase army pay or the size of the army and why then.

It’s possible that increased frontier attacks requiring a larger army. However, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the first emperor to experience these increased attacks, managed to overcome a lengthy barbarian assault on the Empire around 166 AD without major debasement (therefore without increasing army pay or, probably, numbers).

Alternatively, it could simply be chance that Emperors felt insecure after the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’ (AD 193). However, the previous period of mess during the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ (AD 69) didn’t seem to have this kind of effect, so why now?

Lastly, it could be that the silver supply started to dry up. This is a genuine possibility. However, current evidence suggests that new silver supplies were being acquired from the Balkans from Marcus Aurelius’ reign onward, so again…?

Here’s an alternative story.

‘Pandemic’ as the cause

The Antonine Plague lasted between 165 and 180 AD and spread rapidly around the empire. Estimates vary, with a common figure of 20-30% of the Empire’s population dying. The plague of Cyprian, from about 251 to 266 AD, is not so well recorded but its effects may have been similar. Such pandemics tend to recur, dragging population figures down over the space of a hundred years or more.

Reduced populations in the Empire should mean that there’s less of everything. Both supply and demand should decrease so nothing should change. However, this ignores two things. The first is that the amount of coinage and commodities is still the same, so there’s more silver, gold and coinage knocking around per person. The second is that land volume is the same, so the Roman frontier is still as big as it was before and so needs the same number of soldiers to defend it. However, soldiers die in plagues too.

The consequence of a greater money supply means that more people initially can afford to buy existing goods. However, the increased demand but no increase or a decrease in supply means that the price of everything goes up. This is price inflation. For people in a market economy the effect of inflation is to push up wages too. Therefore with time everything should balance.

However, for state employees, in this case mainly the army, wages are regulated and stay low until an emperor decrees a pay rise. This is coupled with a need to employ more soldiers to defend the frontier. Therefore existing disgruntled soldiers need to have their pay increased and new soldiers need to be paid too.

Couple this with the fact that the tax income of the government has gone down as there are fewer citizens and you start to see the problem. The government gets far fewer incoming coins than it sends out. Additionally, Gresham’s Law starts to operate at a low level as coinage with the highest precious metal content is removed from circulation by citizens, reducing the overall quantity of silver in circulating coins by more than the average of all the coinage.

The government is therefore getting much less silver and having to issue far more coins. The only solution is debasement, probably coupled with an increase in taxation and duties.

But as with the conventional view, the issue of more coins inevitably leads to further inflation. Furthermore it causes the worst consequences of Gresham’s Law to operate as the bullion value of old coins becomes greater than their face value, and silver rapidly starts to disappear from the coinage.

So from such an exogenous (external) stimulus as pandemic things could go quite badly wrong. The Roman Empire was hit by not one but two plagues during this time (the Antonine Plague and the Cyprian Plague). The timings of these plagues coincide pretty well, though admittedly not perfectly, with the starts of debasement cycles.

Why didn’t a crisis happen after the Black Death?

There was debasement before during and after the Great Plague or Black Death in all the states and cities of Western Europe. In some places it peaked after the Black Death, for perhaps similar reasons as in the Roman Empire (e.g. Flanders), but not in all. However, there was inflation and, possibly as a result, a silver shortage, in much the same way as in the Roman case.

The important difference is that medieval Europe was not surrounded by a large land frontier to a barbarian world beyond (for Eastern Europe this is not true, and this should be considered in a different post). This meant that an external threat to much of Europe was absent during the population crash of the Black Death.

As for the payment of state armies this was rare. Most soldiers were nobility and their men, or mercenaries who were paid at the market rate. Regardless, even state armies could contract with the contraction of the population without consequence. Any runaway inflation was prevented.

What’s different from the last one hundred years?

So what is the cause of the inflation which has become so noticeable over the last one hundred years? It’s about 3% on average in the US. Also silver has been removed from the coinages of most, if not all, countries. The pattern appears pretty similar to that of the Late Roman Empire, in the US leading all too frequently to ‘that comparison’, particularly by small government, ‘metallist’ advocates.

However, during our inflation the population of the US or Europe has continued to rise, which was not the case for the ‘Third Century Crisis’ on pretty much any measure. Military spending has also been decreasing steadily since WW II. Also, there has been a succession of (largely) democratically elected leaders, almost none of whom have died violently. This is not the same kind of inflation crisis.

Our inflation has in fact been a deliberate and often quite carefully controlled desire of governments in order to grow their economies. Yes, there have been two wars, which did drive inflation (also massively increasing military spending for short periods). Sometimes everything has just gone wrong, such as due to gold withdrawals on people’s trust in the US Dollar in the late 1960s, and during the energy crisis of the 1970s (when the shortage of energy meant that factories couldn’t run to full production, making things expensive and reducing the need for workers).

Importantly, the economy of the US and Europe has grown significantly during this time. The same could not, in any way, be said of the Roman Empire during the 3rd century. It’s a daft comparison, sometimes made by scholars who I think should know better.

Bad Money & Bad Emperors?

What’s amazing about the ‘Third Century Crisis’ is that it did not destroy the Roman Empire. Undoubtedly, there was stupidity, greed and mismanagement, as always. However, quite a few emperors and their governments did their best to guide the empire through an unholy mess. Even Septimius Severus’ supposed dying words to his son (‘… enrich the soldiers and scorn all other men.’) can be seen as simply stating the needs of the situation.

Perhaps the Empire would have been better to simply shrink back to a defensible and economically strong position in the East, as it eventually did at the beginning of the fifth century (i.e. ‘if you lose weight, don’t just hold up your old pants, get smaller pants’). It’s difficult to say. From there maybe it would have eventually been able to reconquer the West as it eventually started to do in the sixth century. But then there was another plague.

As for the money, I’d make a guess that it wasn’t its quality that was the killer. It was its quantity. I can’t prove this, of course. Estimates of the amount of money in circulation in the Roman Empire are virtually non-existent. And that’s the trouble with all of this stuff. With the available data you can argue what you like.

Ho hum.

References

Bagnall, R.S. 2000 P. Oxy. 4527 and the Antonine Plague in Egypt: death or flight? JRA 13, 288-292

Roger Bagnall, in various essays, strongly makes the case that the effects of plague were relatively small and that institutions were more damaging. It might be worth looking these out for a different view.

Butcher, K. & Ponting, M. 2005 The Roman Denarius under the Julio-Claudian emperors: mints, metallurgy and technology. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 24, 163-197.

Butcher, K. & Ponting, M. 2012 The Denarius in the First Century. In: I. Holmes (ed) XIV International Numismatic Congress Vol 1 Glasgow, Spink, 557-568.

Butcher, K. & Ponting, M. 2012 The Beginning of the End? The Denarius in the Second Century. Numismatic Chronicle 172, 63-83.

These three papers cover, in various formats, new results of changes in silver percentage of the Denarius up to 194 AD. These show the huge potential variation in ‘fineness’ of the coinage, depending on the issuing mint, lax standards of minting, preservation of the coins and their modern cleaning.

Chantrill, C. 2016 US Government Spending website

For info on US military spending.

Chilosi, D. & Volckart, O. 2010 Good or Bad Money? Debasement, Society and the State in the Late
Middle Ages, London School of Economics Working Paper 140/10

Nice graphs of debasements through the Black Death years, showing that many debasements started before the onset of the Black Death in 1348-9 AD.

Coscarelli, J. 2012 New York Post Thought Better of ‘Obama as Caesar’ Cover, New York Magazine

Where I got the Obama pic.

Deaths of Roman Emperors

Nice graph of debasement of silver coinage during Roman era. However, it appears to be based on the data of David Walker, which is now partly superceded or at least requires ammendment. The data used in this post is that of Butcher and Ponting with recommendations for adjusting the data of David Walker.

Coins of Bulgaria

Graph of coin concentrations in Bulgaria during the Roman (and later periods). It would be nice to find a graph that did this for all Empire. Unfortunately, even this graph is only on the internet to show it’s rubbish.

‘Guaporense’ 2011 Graph of Mediterranean shipwrecks and arctic lead pollution for classical period. and Graphs of Mediterranean proxies for population in the classical period (in a comment from the ‘Historum’ forum)

An interesting set of graphs, showing the pattern of Roman enterprise, which is possibly a good proxy for the Roman economy and/or population. The peak of the shipwrecks peaks in the first century AD, earlier than the peak for lead (read silver) mining, which is near the end of the 2nd century AD. There’s a nice late rise into the sixth century too, perhaps before the advent of the Justinian Plague cut short Rome’s resurgence.

Historia The Imperial Roman Economy, Hoarding, Gresham’s Law and All That

A very good overview of Roman coinage, telling the conventional story well without reference to modern politics.

Howgego, C. et al. 2013 Coinage and the Roman Economy in the Antonine Period: the view from Egypt. In: Bowman, A. and Wilson, A. (eds) Mining, Metal Supply and Coinage in the Roman Empire. Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy, 5 . Oxford University Press, Oxford.

An interesting comparison of another coinage within the Roman world, subjected to the same shocks.

Mundell, R. 1998 Uses and Abuses of Gresham’s Law in the History of Money, Columbia University

A very comprehensive and useful explanation of what Gresham’s Law is, explaining how it is often misunderstood.

Pannekeet, C.G.J 201? A theory on how the Denarius disappeared and the debasement of the Antoninianus. (Unpublished?)

Contains Butcher & Ponting’s recommended adjustments to David Walker’s later denarius and antonianus silver content data.

Reece, R. 2007 Coins and the Economy. In: The Later Roman Empire: An Archaeology AD150-600 (2nd ed). Tempus, 129-145.

A good, more ‘metallist’ view of coinage changes in the later Roman Empire.

Speidel, M. A. 1992 Roman Army Pay Scales, Journal of Roman Studies 82, 87-106.

Although not everyone agrees on absolute pay, there is general agreement on the timings of pay rises.

Temin, P. 2011 Price Behaviour in the Roman Empire. From conference ‘Long-Term Quantification in Mediterranean Ancient History’.

This covers many of the arguments in this post, based in part on the ideas of Dominic Rathbone, although I don’t think that he understands why it’s important to maintain an army, which is a significant weakness in his case.

Notes: Gresham’s Law

Gresham’s Law, as carefully stated, says:

When various qualities of currency are recognised as having equal value, better quality currency will disappear from circulation during times of inflation.

(This is normally simply expressed as ‘bad currency drives out the good‘, but this is not really true)

The basic idea behind Gresham’s Law is that in any country or empire there needs to be enough money (or currency) to allow internal trade to continue. If there is a shortage of money (a.k.a. a lack of liquidity), trade slows down, leading to ‘recessions’ or ‘depressions’. This is in fact what much of the advanced world is currently experiencing.

*What I’ve stated here is quite ‘Keynesian’. Many free-market economists would argue that a money shortage is a short term phenomenon and that, given time, the prices of goods will decrease until the existing money supply is sufficient to return the system to normal (note, though, that in the pre-modern world a shortage of hard currency would have made international trade more difficult).

The reverse of this argument is generally not made for inflation, where an increase in money supply is simply seen as a bad thing. It disadvantages creditors and those with capital, and is to the advantage of debtors. However, both Keynesians and free market thinkers would probably agree that uncontrolled inflation is self-sustaining and leads to a lack of trust, as is the point here.

In this circumstance any money, whether it be good or bad quality, private issues, even forgeries, will help to keep trade going. And this is true as long as there’s either a shortage of money or just enough money to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

However, when there’s too much money in the system, inflation kicks in. This results in prices for goods increasing or, to look at it another way, money at its face value having less buying power. Therefore, as people feel slightly cheated by rising prices they tend to hand over only the crappiest coins, holding back the best. In this way the good quality currency tends to drop out of circulation.

In extreme cases, the buying power of currency can fall enough for the ‘intrinsic worth’ of each coin (that is what you could get for the stuff the currency is made of) to become more than the face value of that coin. For good quality coins this happens sooner. At this point, the good quality coins tend to get melted down and the metal in them either turned into jewellery and plate (the best currency during inflation is a hard commodity) or sold abroad. This leaves only the poorer quality coinage in circulation, and the good quality coinage won’t come back easily.

Such is Gresham’s Law. If you didn’t understand that, try Wikipedia.

 

 

{ 2 comments }

The Late Bronze age: A ‘pleasant’ collapse?

June 25, 2016

I listened to ‘In Our Time’ the other day, as they discussed the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was nice to hear about something so dear to my heart as they rambled through the usual stuff and some stuff I didn’t know. It was a shame that they didn’t spend a […]

Read the full article →

The Greek Early Neolithic: following the ophiolite trail west?

November 2, 2015

Does the peculiar tendency of the first farmers in Greece to settle near certain bands of ophiolitic rocks hint at the strange fascination Early Neolithic farmers had for copper. Farming first appeared in Greece in the first half of the seventh millennium BC, around the time of the discovery of pottery in Western Eurasia. Although […]

Read the full article →

A primer on old-world metals before the Copper age (revised)

August 30, 2015

A discussion of copper, lead, gold and silver artefacts in the Old World, their origins and distribution from the Neolithic up to the time of the earliest smelting in the Chalcolithic or Copper age… and a discussion of where copper and lead smelting originated. (originally written mid 2010 – completely revised August 29th 2015) While […]

Read the full article →

Trying to date Avebury with the help of Stonehenge

December 4, 2013

This post gives me a chance to compare the radiocarbon dating of Avebury with the dating of Stonehenge and to see if Stonehenge’s new dates can help solve the dating mystery of Avebury. Stonehenge – current radiocarbon dating results So as far as anyone can tell, the ages of the stone circles and earthworks at Stonehenge are […]

Read the full article →

‘Plague’, language change and ‘dark ages’ – a general link?

November 1, 2013

Pandemics may have caused the collapse of the Roman Empire, the last European ‘dark age’ and the resulting changes of languages across North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. As wild speculation, could they have done the same in earlier dark ages? Recent work has been starting to fill in an old story about a […]

Read the full article →

Connecting China to Europe in the Bronze Age

November 1, 2013

How evidence of wheat, copper and broomcorn millet gives some clues to the first connections between West and East and the routes that were taken. A current best guess is for a steppe connection at the beginning of the third millennium BC and a ‘silk road’ connection at the end of the 3rd millennium. However, […]

Read the full article →

Water at Avebury

February 10, 2013

Was the water supply of Avebury as patchy in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic as it is now? It’s been a wet winter at Avebury. My recent attempts to visit Windmill Mill and West Kennet Long Barrow have resulted in wading through rivers where normally there’s no water at all. And it got me thinking maybe […]

Read the full article →

‘Why Nations Fail’ and the fate of Lele and Bushong

June 29, 2012

Acemoğlu and Robinson rightly argue in ‘Why Nations Fail’ that chance decisions by leaders play a big part in economic success, but using the Congo Basin’s Lele and Bushong as an example of this may be a mistake. One significant argument in Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson’s fascinating and highly informative recent book ‘Why Nations Fail’ […]

Read the full article →