Imperialism and infection


2020 is proving to be a treacherous mountain on this roller coaster of life. Despite first appearing in December of 2019 (hence the 19 in the name Covid-19) and being in UK newspapers around the same time, many people did not see it as a huge threat at the time. In the beginning, it seemed contained to a certain area, a certain country, which meant that few heavily entertained the idea of the virus spreading across the globe. However, due to Substantial international tourism worldwide, the contagion quickly became an issue for all of the world, some nations being rapidly consumed by this modern plague while others could only sit and prepare for the days that it would attack their shores. Covid-19 is only the latest disease to shake human history. 

The earliest recorded pandemic was in 430 B.C, during the Peloponnesian War. The disease was passed around in Lybia, Ethiopia and Egypt before it spread through the Spartan soldiers, claiming around two-thirds of Athens’ population as it’s victims. During a Spartan siege on the city of Athens, thousands of Athenians were exposed to this unidentified fatal infection that wiped out between seventy-five and one-hundred-thousand people alone. Both the Spartan attack and the disease claimed an untold number of unknown victims.  This, however, was only the first of many diseases throughout history to be spread through imperialism. 

The Antonine Plague first appeared during the Roman siege of Seleucia in Mesopotamia. There are two main legends on how the Antonine Plague was introduced to the Roman centuries and the empire. One of these stories insists that the cause of the plague was that Roman general, Lucius Verus, opened a closed tomb within the city of Seleucia, setting free the plague itself. The other story suggests that a roman soldier opened a golden casket in the temple of Apollo, setting the plague free.  Biographies from both Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelias suggest that the disease was a form of punishment from the gods for their sacrilege. However, there is very little information about the disease itself. One of the main historical sources of clinical observations of the outbreak was from a Roman physician by the name of Galen, earning the contagion an alternative title, the Plague of Galen. 

The Antonine Plague had a great effect on the Roman empire itself. There were two waves of the infection that targetted the Roman people, the first wiping out around a third of the Roman legion. This had a heavy impact on both the legion itself as well as the Roman culture. As a way to fill the gaps within the ranks of their armies, they began recruiting freed slaves, Germans, gladiators and criminals. The removal of the gladiators from the coliseums angered the Roman people, as watching them fight was a part of their everyday lives. With fewer gladiators, the fights became less regular. This move didn’t only affect the Roman culture, it also meant that the legion had become a patchwork army, leaving them disjointed and more disorganised than before.  In a sense, it can be said that, due to this reason, the Antonine plague contributed to the downfall of the Roman empire. The disease itself was brought to the Roman empire through their desire to expand their empire out of greed for power. 

Another example of where imperialism caused the weirder spread of disease was during the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian exchange refers to the transference of culture, food and disease as well as European colonization and trade. Many diseases made their way across to the new world through the Columbian exchange and quickly infected many of the natives as they had no previous contact with the viral infections, therefore had no internal defences against the microscopic attack. It is estimated that in the 100 to 150 years after Christopher Columbus’ voyage in 1492 AD, somewhere around 80 to 95 per cent of the Native American population was wiped out by a varying array of contagions. However, in spite of decades of research, there is no clear agreement among historians as to the true amount of deaths in the New World. Not only did the people that moved across the ocean bring diseases with them, but so did the domesticated animals such as dogs, cattle, pigs and camels. It appears that the domesticated native animals of the Native Americans, such as llamas, alpacas, turkeys and ducks, did not transfer any diseases to humans. After taking over their land, which the Native Americans had been living on for thousands of years, the settlers and colonizers, in an attempt to gain more land and power for their countries, brought diseases and infections that spread and killed estimated millions of the local people, all from greed and a desire for power. 

Not only did this affect the population, but some scientists argue that it has also had an impact on the Earth’s climate, as a consequence of the deaths themselves. Due to the deaths of millions of people, there were fewer workers to tend to the lands and the crops. This believed to have a large contribution to ‘The little ice age’ that allowed fairs to be held in the UK on a frozen River Thames as the increased growth, in what is estimated to be 56 million hectares of land, helped to drastically decrease the amount of Carbon dioxide in the air that was contributing to global warm, sending a chill across the world. Not only did this freeze the Thames, but it also created global cold year-round weather, creating famines, inspiring witch hunts and even wars into existence. All this can be traced back to the greed of those seeking to claim the New World for themselves. 

Throughout history, imperialistic views and approaches to expansion of power have led to the wider spread of diseases and infections. It is evident in the examples that the greed of these nations and individuals created a sort of domino effect that had great repercussions for certain communities and in some examples, the world itself. 


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Isolation and emotional contagions


  • June 29, 2020 at 7:14 pm
    Miss Layton

    This is so good, thank you for noting your sources.
    It was a very interesting read and i can’t wait for more of your historical and sociological views on topics.


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