Classical Antiquity The Golden

The time limits of classical antiquity are as protean as all artificial periodization. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall concentrate on Greece from the sixth century B.C. through the Western Roman world into the second century A.D. Overall, the disease picture here suggests societies with significant overpopulation expanding into new territories and experiencing few major epidemics, until a point was reached when exposure to infectious epidemic disease began a process of demographic decline and cultural retraction.

If one considers classical Greece, the former part of this process can be seen in full swing. The settlement of Magna Graecia by colonists from the Greek mainland speaks clearly of population pressure. The Greeks also colonized the coast of what is now Turkey. The Italian and Sicilian settlements became major sources of grain for mainland Greece, and the need for reliable grain sources has been linked plausibly to the Athenian military debacle in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War (Guillaume and Poussou 1970).

The Peloponnesian War also saw the famous Plague of Athens. In Thucydides' description of this plague, there is no sense of epidemic disease on this scale being any part of ordinary Greek life. To that author, the epidemic was one of the main factors in Athens' ultimate loss because it bore away Pericles whom Thucydides clearly felt could have led his people to victory (Thucydides 1958).

The exploits of Alexander the Great resulted in the Hellenization of parts of Asia and Africa. The army of Alexander was able to campaign for 12 years in Asia without suffering a significant loss to disease. Fresh recruits from Macedonia and Greece arrived mainly to replace those retiring or lost in battle. The whole concept of a campaign like that of Alexander, which lacked temporal and spatial goals, would be either unthinkable or pure folly in an environment similar to that found in Renaissance Europe wherein plague could easily defeat both opposing armies. The size of the armies of the Persian king, Darius III, although beyond the scope of the ecology of Europe, also bespeaks a very heavily populated realm (Bosworth 1988).

Although no social custom so complex and deeply rooted in Greek society as the exposure of infants (Veyne 1987) can admit an easy explanation, the practice still argues for significant population pressure. In response to most severe epidemics, the birthrate rises, probably partly consciously to repopulate, but also because many epidemics remove weaker elements from the population (Wrigley 1962; Ner-audau 1984). The deliberate abandonment of infants in places where their survival would depend on some other adult's desire for a child being strong enough to rescue them presents a picture of children as an apparently significant economic liability. This is rarely the perception when epidemic disease makes day-to-day life totally unpredictable and when an outbreak can destroy entire family lines. The Greek myths are filled with tales that bear on the abandonment of infants, of which the story of Oedipus is but the most famous. Many others involve the abandonment of children by the poor.

There is reason to believe that children were an economic liability in fact as well as in perception. A worker in Periclean Athens could earn enough to live comfortably, if he did not marry. Once married, he could still afford food and shelter. But each child added significant strain to that ability (Austin and Vidal-Naquet 1977; Finley 1981). The mindset of past societies cannot reliably be reconstructed, but it seems reasonable to imagine that persons exposing children had little reason to suppose that the family was at significant risk of being decimated by disease. Classical Greece seems to offer the picture of a society at the limits of its population potential, but which perceived and experienced minimal risk of epidemic disease altering the tenor of life.

The Hellenistic Age shows little difference in this regard. Greek became the lingua franca of much of the Mediterranean world, and Alexandria, an Egyptian city founded by Alexander, became one of the intellectual (and population) centers of the world. Greek influence is clearly to be found in sculpture native to India during this period, a measure of how extensive Greek expansion and culture became.

It is said that as he spent his last months of life in Babylon, Alexander the Great considered the conquest of Rome, a state just then beginning to become prominent in Mediterranean affairs (Bos-worth 1988). Alexander died short of his thirty-third birthday without having affected Rome other than through the latter culture's admiration of him. Rome then began perhaps the most impressive expansion in all of world history. In order to gain some insight into the disease ecology of the Roman world, it is instructive to consider the Second Punic War, which established Rome as the most important power in the western Mediterranean. This war, fought at the end of the third century B.C. (ending in 202 B.C.), gives glimpses of both a very highly populated Italy and a military strategy that excluded any significant impact secondary to epidemic disease.

Hannibal invaded Italy (with his elephants, as every Western schoolchild used to know), commanding an army of around 40,000 mercenaries. These men had marched through Spain, across southern France (for convenience, I refer to places by their modern names, insofar as is possible), over the Alps and into northern Italy. According to contemporary sources, Rome could have put an army in the field 20 times the size of that of Hannibal. Rome could call upon a reserve of 700,000 foot and 70,000 cavalry (figures sometimes adjusted to 580,000 and around 60,000) (Caven 1980). Rome replied more cautiously but, using smaller armies, lost 15,000 and 5,000 men in the first two major encounters with Hannibal. At Cannae, a larger Roman force left around 25,000 men on the field and a similar number prisoner (Caven 1980). Yet Rome refused to ransom the prisoners, even though Hannibal offered. (It may have also been good strategy to keep Hannibal's soldiers busy guarding prisoners.)

The Roman reserve of soldiers, the losses sustained, and the disdain for ransoming prisoners in one of the darkest hours of Republican Roman his tory are impressive. No army of medieval or Renaissance Europe could have approached the size of the army Rome could have mustered from its Italian population alone. Losses such as those sustained at Trasimeno and Cannae would likewise have left even many early modern states without the manpower even to consider continuing a war. The Roman Senate judged that a similar number of men were not worth ransoming to help fend off an incredibly skilled opponent; rather, the image of what a Roman soldier should be was more important.

If the early course of the war argues for abundant population and little risk or heed of epidemic disease, the remainder of the conflict shows the same features. Hannibal was able to campaign in Italy for nearly 2 decades, with only minimal reinforcements. He was never defeated on Italian soil. When Rome finally produced a general capable of opposing the Carthaginian commander, the strategy employed again indicates the same picture with regard to epidemic disease.

Scipio Africanus the Younger took his army to Africa to threaten Carthage, reasoning that Hannibal would be obliged to return and defend his homeland. This he did, and Scipio defeated the Carthaginian master at the battle of Zama in 202 B.C. Once again, in moving the most important Roman army to Africa as a strategic ploy, we see no fear of an epidemic destroying Rome's greatest chance to end the war. Indeed, the relative ease with which armies traversed great distances during this war argues for a relatively uniform environment in terms of disease and one that had little to frighten an adult. Hannibal's army operated on two continents, yet never experienced significant loss to disease. In 1630, the Venetian army met that of the Hapsburgs at Mantua. At a fraction of the distance from home traversed by the armies of the Second Punic War, plague caused so much mortality that neither the victorious Hapsburgs nor the beaten Venetians could even reorganize their forces (Lane 1973).

The Mediterranean world in the centuries before the first emperor of Rome appears to have been an environment abundantly populated, but relatively free of at least major epidemic disease. Of the fate of children, we know much less. The Romans continued the practice of exposure or abandonment of infants. The head of a Roman household decided on the fate of any infant born into that household. Once again, there are complex cultural phenomena at work, but children were definitely an expendable commodity (Veyne 1987).

All of this speaks of the great classical civilization being largely spared devastating epidemics of infectious disease. Of the disease background we know little. The writings of the Hippocratic corpus, in particular, describe many illnesses (it is felt by some that brucellosis is described therein), but putting modern names to them is another matter. No one has successfully identified the disease that caused the Plague of Athens. Background causes of morbidity and mortality are simply beyond reach. At a time when fever was considered a disease and not a symptom or sign, there is no realistic way to translate most diseases from Ancient Greek or Latin into a modern equivalent.

Some generalizations seem reasonable, nonetheless. There was probably a surplus of men among the adult population because more women died in the 25- to 45-year age group. Much of this is probably attributable to death associated with childbirth. If this period had the attributes common to most prein-dustrial societies, about 30 to 40 percent of the total population was composed of children. What is singularly lacking is a sense of what the probability of a child at birth growing to adulthood was. This is both the most important factor in determining life expectancy at birth (much of the spectacular change in this parameter in modern times is the result of decreasing childhood mortality).

The Tide Begins to Turn

As we have seen, military strategy in the early Roman Empire again depended upon abundant manpower and low risk of epidemics. A controversial but compelling reassessment of Roman strategy over time has divided the military strategy of the empire into three phases (Luttwak 1976): First was the use of client or buffer states to separate Rome from potential enemies. These states, such as those along the Asian border of the empire, could be paid or otherwise induced to mediate or simply physically separate Rome from potential enemies. If attacked, such states also buffered the conflict to give Rome the time necessary to concentrate forces and plan a campaign against the opponent. Such a strategy could operate only when the empire could confront any enemy on the battlefield with an army that might be gathered from many regions and transported a long distance, while the buffer state was itself strong and populous enough to hold off the enemy at least for enough time for the Romans to make their military reply.

The second strategy was that of fixed frontiers. Perhaps here is the first inkling that the population situation was not so favorable. Even though this strategy had in position soldiers in the hundreds of thousands, the soldiers over time also became colonists and were defending their own land. Hadrian's Wall across England is an example of this phase of strategy. Its sophistication and effectiveness speak for themselves. It was perhaps no longer so safe to move armies to strange countries. Recall that Marcus Aurelius died near Vienna while on a frontier campaign. In fact, the "plague" epidemic of the end of the second century has been seen by Robert Lopez (1967) as perhaps the most important of the myriad of factors in the subsequent decline of the empire. In any case, after the second century, the empire was obliged to develop new and increasingly risky military strategies to maintain itself.

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