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Life in the Time of Corona

Life in the Time, Again, of Pandemic

Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts is the author of Lost Scrolls of Archimedes, a historical novel, and winner of a 2019 Royal Palm Literary Award for historical fiction from the Florida Writers Association. He has also published Moving Pieces, a collection of mystery/suspense short stories. A software engineer in a previous life, Roberts began writing in 2017. Learn more at

    Though the nearly deserted streets of my Florida town are from a modern pandemic, they remind me that many powerful ancient empires were humbled by plague and disease, often with lasting effects on their society.

    The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens during the Peloponnesian War (430 BCE) and killed nearly 100,000 people, twenty-five percent of the population. It entered through Piraeus, the city’s port and sole source of wartime supplies.

    Athens’ main enemy, Sparta, was a land-based power, able to field unbeatable land armies. Fearing the Spartan power, the Athenians, under the direction of Pericles, retreated within Athens’ city walls, using maritime supremacy for supply while its superior navy harassed Spartan troop movements. Unfortunately, this plan caused massive migration from the local countryside into the already crowded city-state, generating close quarters and leading to resource shortages. Add in the era’s poor hygiene, and Athens became a breeding ground for disease and horrible death.

    Upon seeing the smoke and smelling the stench from the burning funeral pyres of Athens, the Spartans withdrew their troops, unwilling to risk contact with the diseased enemy.

    The historian Thucydides, himself a survivor of this Athenian pandemic, writes of a disease originating in Ethiopia and arriving in Greece via Egypt and Libya, a heretofore unknown plague of severe and deadly consequences.

    The plague affected Athens’ society. Its citizens, fearful of what might happen to them next, became indifferent to every rule of law or religion. The government countered with stricter laws with severe punishments. It didn’t help Pericles, the leader of Athens, who contracted and died from the plague.

    Centuries later, the Antonine Plague arose from another war as mighty Rome fought the Parthians, who had invaded Roman territory in Armenia. Ancient sources write that the epidemic appeared during the Roman siege of Seleucia in the winter of 165 CE. It jumped to troops in Gaul before spreading to the great city of Rome. There, it claimed the life of Lucius Verus, who died in 169 CE and was the co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, after whom the plague is named. Marcus Aurelius, last of the Five Good Emperors, would later write the classic Meditations, which embodied Stoic philosophy and spirituality and is still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty.

    In 166 CE, the Greek physician Galen traveled to his home in Asia Minor to observe the outbreak and returned to Rome in 168 CE, summoned by the emperors. He describes the disease as long-lasting with symptoms of fever, diarrhea, vomiting, thirstiness, swollen throat, and coughing and accompanied by dry and pustular lesions on the skin.

    At its peak, the Antonine Plague caused up to two thousand deaths a day in Rome, with a mortality rate of about twenty-five percent. The total deaths were close to five million, and the disease killed entire villages and devastated the Roman army.

    Like the current pandemic, it is thought that the disease originated in Han Dynasty China, brought west by caravans treading the Silk Road and by sailors plying the lucrative trade routes of the Indian Ocean and points east.

    The severe devastation to the Roman Empire’s population from the pandemic may indicate that people had no previous exposure to it. It did have one positive effect—immunity for its survivors. The plague affected Roman culture and literature. In their fear, many citizens turned away from common sense and turned to magic, often writing cryptic sayings over the doorways of their homes. Such warding often became the homeowner’s epitaphs.

    Marcus Aurelius would later write during the war famously portrayed in the movie Gladiator that the pestilence around him was less deadly than falsehood, evil behavior, and ignorance.

    Ironically, the Antonine Plague faded in180 CE, the same year Marcus Aurelius died. On his deathbed, he uttered the words, “Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.” Perhaps the ancient warning against ignorance, lies, and lawlessness will be heard in the present. Perhaps Aurelius’ words of duty and service, so epitomized by hospital doctors and nurses, first responders, and other essential workers will inspire our government and all of us to persevere through to the end of COVID-19 and to life beyond the time of coronavirus.

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