The Aurelian Plague; Pandemic Events and the Military

Article Cover from Current Archaeology Issue 221. Photo from Oxford Archaeology

The article ‘Is this the evidence for Roman Britain’s Great Plague?‘ originally featured in Issue 221 of Current Archaeology, and is used here with their kind permission.  The Current Archaeology website can be found at this link – Current Archaeology

The Aurelian Plague; Pandemic Events and the Military

Written by Colonel Al McCluskey, Assistant Head CHACR.

This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence

In 2008, archaeologists working in Gloucester unearthed the remains of 91 men, women and children buried almost 2000 years ago by the former citizens of the Roman city of Glevum. However, unlike the respectful and ordered remains frequently encountered on such sites, the haphazard character of these burials suggested a community under severe stress, with ritual norms being overridden by the need for the emergency disposal of a large number of corpses. The remains date to the late 2nd Century CE, suggesting that they could have been victims of a plague that swept across the Roman Empire in this period. And as we contemplate the consequences of COVID-19 on the contemporary world, it provides a timely reminder of the impact such events may have had on armies in Britain, and across Europe, in the past.

The Aurelian Plagues were recorded in historical sources as being the most severe to strike the Roman Empire, with widespread death reported across whole communities, including the military. Furthermore, while the disease counted Roman soldiers among its many victims, the Roman Army was also held responsible for the introduction of the disease into the Empire in the first instance. It was also the institution which had to grapple with the wider insecurity that may have been unleashed as a result.

Historical commentators, such as the Greek Doctor Galen, generally considered the pandemic to have been brought back to the Empire by Roman troops that had been campaigning against Parthia in the East. In 161CE, perhaps exploiting the death of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, or to test the mettle of his successor Marcus Aurelius, the Parthian king Volgases III invaded the Roman protectorate of Armenia and replaced the Armenian King with a member of his own household. In response, the following year Rome sent an expeditionary force against them, that included major units normally based on the Rhine and Danube frontiers. By 165CE, Armenia had been restored and the Parthians pursued south to the twin cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital on the Tigris. Despite welcoming the Roman force on its arrival, Seleucia was sacked, and its 400,000 citizens scattered by the rampaging Roman troops who proclaimed victory in the War. To ram home the message of Roman Imperial power, in 166CE a further task force drove into the Parthian heartlands further to the east – across modern day Iran – and reportedly reached the banks of the River Indus before returning to base. This was not the furthest east that Roman citizens reached in that year. Court records of the Chinese ‘Celestial Emperor’ describe the arrival of Embassies from the western Empire of ‘Antun’, bearing gifts of ivory and rhinoceros’ horn. These were likely to be merchant adventurers travelling by sea via Indo-China rather than Roman Officials, but the reach of the Roman Empire now included East Asia; globalization is not new.

As the Army returned to its European bases and celebrated its triumph in the east, so a deadly pestilence spread across the Empire. The nature of the disease is unknown with various modern suggestions being that it may have been bubonic plague, smallpox or typhus. However, it was exceptionally destructive of human life with graphic descriptions of towns and estates becoming deserted, and fields being uncultivated. In Rome itself, the most densely inhabited location within the Empire, thousands of the dead were carted unceremoniously away for disposal. The disease also ripped across the ranks of the Army with the VII ‘Claudia’ Legion at Viminiacum – modern day Kostolac in Serbia – requiring at least twice as many recruits than normal in 169CE to bring it up to strength.

While historical records of this period are very fragmentary, this moment of military weakness in the Roman Empire may have tipped the strategic balance on the Northern Frontier along the Danube. Pressure had been building for some years as Gothic tribes on the lower Vistula migrated towards lands occupied by other ethnic groups further south. While Roman diplomacy and military deterrence had held the situation in check up until that point, in late 166 or early 167CE, a warband of 6,000 Langobardi raiders crossed the Danube and poured into Pannonia – modern day Hungary – before they were beaten back by a Roman counter-offensive. They were followed by a much more serious incursion by the Marcomanni and Quadi, who after defeating depleted Roman frontier units, crossed the Alps and laid siege to the city of Aquiliea at the head of the Adriatic. This was a massive strategic shock for Rome, being the first time that a Barbarian force had breached Italian security for over two hundred years. The Roman response was massive, with the ensuing wars on the Danube frontier lasting a decade until being concluded by treaty on the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180CE.

While the Plague may have contributed to the outbreak of the conflict, it had a fundamental impact on the character of the Roman Army that fought back. Needing to re-generate the depleted units on the Northern Frontiers, novel sources of recruits were tapped, with slaves being accepted as volunteers in return for their freedom, gladiators being formed into military units, mercenaries hired from other Germanic tribes and outlaws from the Balkan hill-country being conscripted into Service. This began to break apart the traditional structure of the Roman Army which at this time usually consisted of long service professional troops that drew recruits from Roman citizens for the Legions and non-citizen provincials for the Auxilliary units. The idea of using into novel sources of manpower was also adapted to decompress the strategic situation north of the Danube when in 175CE, 8,000 Sarmatian cavalry were recruited into the Army. Of these 5,500 were redeployed to Britain where they were based at Ribchester in modern day Lancashire. This suggests that that the manpower losses in the Roman Army caused by the Plague and the extended period of conflict on the Danube frontier, had also reached Britain itself.

To a great extent these novel measures were driven by economic factors as the impact of the Plague hit the Roman tax base. With the agricultural economy in tatters and sensitive to the costs of regenerating his Army for the Northern War, in 169CE Marcus Aurelius auctioned off possessions from the Imperial Palaces in Rome in a sale which lasted fully two months. This personal sacrifice went a long way to assuage public concern and provide sufficient cash to fund the military campaigns. But it also showed how deep the Plague had bitten into Rome’s resources.

These events from the Ancient World provide several insights for modern soldiers to contemplate. The first, and perhaps most important point, is that pandemics change the strategic calculus. The security of the Northern Frontier was held by a delicate balance of diplomatic persuasion backed up by an over-watching military capability. As the pressure on the tribes beyond the Danube built up, and the military element of the Roman strategy was denuded, this balance was altered sufficiently for war to break out. One of the questions we should ask in the contemporary world, is where could the strategic balance be tripped into conflict by a pandemic and how could the UK respond? Is this a strategic threat or an opportunity? The second point is economic. The adverse impact on the Roman economy required a fundamental reset of the character of their Army. No longer was it a force of long service professionals built around a core of citizen soldiers augmented by non-citizen subjects who gained citizenship through military service. It increasingly became a force of contracted personnel, many of whom came from outside the Empire. This was not always a bad thing as the ‘best’ should never be the enemy of the ‘good’, and these units were often good enough in battle for Rome. But it also fundamentally changed the relationship between the soldier and the state and the place of the soldier in wider society. These are challenges all too familiar in the contemporary world to those charged with generating sufficient military personnel within economic constraints. Thirdly, the transmission of the disease by the Army from the East highlights the need for good bio-security in an operational theatre. This goes beyond just basic hygiene, although this is important. All soldiers are all institutionally conditioned to consider the adversary force. But this tends to be in human terms; Mother Nature can be equally capricious if ignored. Force preparation through vaccinations; effective and disciplined implementation of prophylactic regimes such as anti-malarial; effective identification of pathogens and rapid isolation of those affected are essential parts of our armoury. This does not mean that we necessarily need to master Nature’s threats, but if we can tolerate them better than our human adversaries, it could be the difference between victory and defeat.

The final point brings us back to Gloucester. The unfortunate individuals who filled the mass grave found in 2008 were buried in the late 2nd Century CE, at a time when Pandemic Plague was wreaking havoc across the Ancient World. While this must have seemed like a cataclysmic event for those affected by it, the Roman Empire carried on for another 200 years in Britain and much longer again on mainland Europe. The Aurelian Plague changed their world, but it didn’t end it. Nor will COVID-19 end ours.

  • Marcus Aurelius: A Biography.  Anthony R Birley, Routledge; London. ISBN 0-415-17125-3