giovedì 19 maggio 2016

The Fate of a Healing Goddess _ Supplementary Material: Was the Antonine Plague really that bad?

My name is Antonine plague, queen of epidemics: Look on my (few remaining) documents, ye mighty historian, and despair!
Image: screenshot from Centurion: Defender of Rome, © 1990-1991, Magic Bits / EA.

My peer-reviewed paper The Fate of a Healing Goddess: Ocular Pathologies, the Antonine Plague, and the Ancient Roman Cult of Bona Dea was published in the Open Library of Humanities less than ten days ago. The contribution is included in a Special Collection entitled ‘Healing Gods, Heroes and Rituals in the Graeco-Roman World’ and edited by Panayotis Pachis (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki). If you haven't checked that issue out, you definitely should: it looks nothing short of amazing (added bonus: everything is available without paywall).
In the true spirit of open access, I am delighted to provide here an extended discussion on the reliability (or the lack thereof) of the most relevant ancient sources cited in my paper. You may consider this post as a sort of (quite informal) Supplementary material.
Comments are welcome!

I love this vintage poster! Next step: steampunk digital humanities.
Please be sure to check the OLH website!
Source: OLH
Was the Antonine plague really that bad? This banal question lays bare a crucial point. As noted lucidly by Christer Bruun, there are some persistent problems (2012). First of all, we should consider that in-group religious norms tend to strengthen belonging to any community against free-riders whose behaviour risks undermining the established moral code and subverting social relationship within the community and between the community and the god/s. The theodicic short-circuit between so many different cognitive domains, heuristics, and biases usually urges believers to undertake socially sanctioned - and possibly violent - actions. In the words of Richard P. Duncan-Jones, ‘Societies with no effective medical explanation for plague could easily blame it on human agency’ (Duncan-Jones 1996: 115). If the Antonine Plague was really that terrible, where are the ancient documents linking the outbreak of the plague to the persecution of scapegoats chosen among minorities?

Women, for instance, had already been the object of manic repression during the mid-Republic (331 BCE) when, after the death of some eminent men, the Senate sentenced 170 women to death because of the usual Roman obsession with female pudicitia plus paranoid concerns regarding conspiracy plots to poison high-ranking men with veneficia – which were probably just medicinal potions (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita Libri VIII 17; Pliny, Naturalis Historia, XXXIII vi 17; Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia, II v 3; see Cantarella 2010a: 70-73; venena were cited also as charge in the Bacchanalia affaire). As noted by Phyllis Culham, ‘It could simply be that an outbreak of illness was blamed on human agents and that women healers [i.e., initially two patrician, Cornelia and Sergia] were targeted’ (Culham 2004: 149). This precedent, expiated as a prodigium, set the route for other similar and more recent events in 180 BCE and 153 BCE (Cantarella 2010a: 70-75; Cantarella 2010b: 189-192). As far as I know, there is no mention whatsoever of women as scapegoats during the outbreak of the Antonine plague nor of the Bona Dea cult, which might be of interest if we consider that herbal medicines prepared by the priestess of the cult are attested (see Macrobius’ account in my paper). This absence, however, could be easily explained by the sheer scale of the disease and by a radically different social milieu (see Cantarella 1999).

Specifically regarding religious minorities, there is a handful of ancient sources (the most pertinent being the martyrdom in Lyon of a group of Christians, in 177 CE) of which, unfortunately, none is proven beyond reasonable doubt to be relevant (Bruun 2012: 153; the case of Lyon has been explained by a senatus consultum which allowed the use of criminals in the arena to cut down the cost of professional gladiatorial fights; ibid., 157). Yet, in a later and much different socio-political milieu, religious minorities (i.e., Christians) were struck by repression during the following outbreak of the so-called plague of Cyprian, from the name of the bishop of Carthage who described the symptomatology of this (probable) second wave of smallpox (ca. 251-270; see Stathakopoulos 2008; for the Christian theodicic explanation of this plague see Marshall 2008: 597). Interestingly, Bruun highlighted a consistent bias among historians to prefer the most catastrophic sources, which usually come from a much later date: Eutropius, Orosius, the sections of the Historia Augusta dedicated to Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, and an epitome of Dio Cassius’ Ῥωμαϊκὴ Ἱστορία (LXXII xxiv 3-4), where he is reported to have famously written that ‘2,000 people often died at Rome in a single day’ during a new outbreak of the same plague (?) in ca. 189 (a guess ‘at least theoretically possible for the very large capital’ that was Rome; Scheidel 2013: 52).

When coeval sources are available, they are incomplete or not directly interested in covering the topic. Lucian of Samosata, for instance, wrote about the plague only when merely concerned to deplore the style chosen by two historians for their description of the disease (Crepereius Calpurnianus and, possibly, Callimorphus; see Πῶς δεῖ ἱστορίαν συγγράφειν 15-16, in Fowler and Fowler 1905: 109-136; cf. Bruun 2012: 129). Even the accounts of Galen might be doubted, for lack of precision: he wrote two different stories concerning the reason why he left the city of Rome, and only the later account clearly links the concern for leaving the city as soon as possible with the epidemic (see Bruun 2012: 145-146). Gilliam (1961) pinpointed the presence of Salus and Pietas in the numismatic record, without being able to detect any significant pattern (see Bruun 2012: 133). There is a significant amount of coeval legislation concerning peculiar situations which may recall the exceptional setting of an epidemics from the Digest, yet there are close to zero citations of the expected seriousness (Bruun 2012: 138-143).

Civil and religious documents possibly from the same period seem to be equally impervious to an unambiguous identification with the Antonine plague. Bruun lists three categories of relevant archaeological documents:
  1. six Eastern oracular responsa from Claros dealing with plagues (λοιμός), whose dating remains highly controversial;
  2. eleven Western inscriptions (one of which in Greek) with the same text (by imperial decree?), dedicated diis deabusque secundum interpretationem oraculi Clari Apollinis which an older generation of scholars ascribed to Caracalla’s concern for his own psychological and physical health, while more recent scholarship is inclined to identify with the consultation of Alexander of Abonuteichos by Marcus Aurelius himself. Interestingly, Alexander was the prophet behind the cult of the snake-god Glycon, and he was responsible for the diffusion of an oracle against the plague in the whole empire (cf. Lucian, Ἀλέξανδρος ἢ Ψευδομάντις, 36; in ibid. 48, however, the reason for the consultation might have been only the military campaign on the Germanic limes; Bruun 2012: 134, note n. 58);
  3. four bilingual inscriptions from the Roman Forum ex oraculo and dedicated to Athena, Zeus and the Ἀπωσίκακοι θεοί, possibly as a consequence of (2) (see Bruun 2012: 136-137 for discussion and bibliography; however, did the Ἀπωσίκακοι θεοί include Bona Dea? Was it possible not to think of her in the Roman Forum?).
It is well beyond the purview of this post to delve deeper into the analysis of these and other sources, which have already been assessed and discussed in the past. Suffice it to remark here that any rebuttal of these sources against a relation with the Antonine plague should take into consideration that the only reliable document dating from the well-attested Justininiac plague (dated 544 CE) merely concerns prices and salaries (Bruun 2012: 143).

Screenshot from the OLH homepage.
Source: OLH
To the list of possibly converging evidence, albeit questionable, we could add the increased recruitment of castris to ensure a flux of new soldiers after 168 CE (the Historia Augusta relate about the decision of Marcus Aurelius to enrol ‘freedmen, gladiators, Dalmatian and Dardanian bandits, and German tribesmen as soldiers’; Phang 2001: 342). Unfortunately no direct mention of the plague in the relevant sources, as usual. A matter of cultural sensibility, perhaps?
On the other hand, the terminus a quo for the rise of Christian apologetics is exactly the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and this fact may provide another clue to spot a significant change in the coeval mindscape (Bruun 2012: 155). Did Marcus Aurelius really mention simply en passant the plague in his Meditations because of its unimportance (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν IX 2; but see also the reference to physicians and astrologers in ibid., IV 48)? Yet, he was a Stoic who was supposed to endure such dire situations.
Moreover, it could possibly be that the epidemic did not infect the whole empire. Duncan-Jones (1996), for instance, excluded Africa. However, we know from the available African inscriptions described in the paper that local military settlements were significantly devoted to Bona Dea, to Asclepius and Hygieia, and this for decades to come (Phang 2001: 342, note n. 77). Additionally, notwithstanding an approximate dating, the Roman African inscriptions testify to a significant devotion to Asclepius under the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (Cadotte 2002; cf. Bruun 2012: 137 for an evaluation). Since the army was reputed the main vehicle of the epidemic since antiquity, a proposographical network analysis of the legions and their movements could provide us with the most interesting results.

It has also been noted that previous statistical analysis concerning the imperial building activity in Italy cannot yield definitive or convincing results of a decline from the 2nd century onward (Duncan-Jones 1996; Horster 2001). Bruun, who re-run the analyses to check them, argues that ‘the material lends itself to different conclusions, depending on the pattern one wants to see and the periods one construes’, not to mention the other factors at play which might swamp any identification such as ideological acts like ‘imperial self-glorification’ (Bruun 2007: 213). He also ‘underlined the fragility of this kind of proof by statistics’, while suggesting that the ‘dearth of projects under Marcus [Aurelius]’ might be an artefact due to the fact that many projects built under Hadrian might have been dedicated by Antoninus Pius (ibid.), therefore saturating the local demand (if any).

It could not be denied that, when approximate and fragmentary data rule, there could hardly be salvation in statistics. Yet, this is the only data available. In cases like this one, as ancient historians, we should be concerned with providing the most statistically plausible reconstruction at the time being, even if the data are nothing more than a historiographical cullender. This is a common theme in other historical natural sciences (palaeontology, palaeoclimatology, epidemiology, evolutionary biology, historical geology, cosmology). As Carol E. Cleland and Sheralee Brindell have observed, the causal connection of localised events studied by these sciences is characterised by an overdetermination of causes and an underdetermination of effects. As in our case, the main goal is to look for ‘telling traces’, or smoking guns, that ‘when added to the prior body of evidence establish that one (or more) of the hypotheses being entertained provides a better explanation for the total body of evidence now available than the other’ (Cleland and Brindell 2013: 194).

Contrary to what has been ascertained beyond any reasonable doubt for the spread of the Justinianic plague (Harbeck et al. 2013), in the case of the Antonine plague we still lack microbiological material from skeletal remains which might help researchers in narrowing the focus for further investigations. Unfortunately, we still rely on symptomatological descriptions from contemporary sources. Sure enough, a definitive answer will come from the recovery of microbiological analysis of samples from multiple, comparable, and trustworthy evidence, e.g., burial sites from the 2nd century CE in good taphonomic conditions. Yet, given that scientific results might still not yield definitive answers (see Manley 2014: 395), interdisciplinary historiographical research might unexpectedly contribute to uncover some distinct patterns, possibly more epistemically reliable than before. In the meantime, we can continue to gather epistemically warranted evidence in the framework of a consilience of induction, which, is consistently pointing to a pattern of anomalies from different historical sources.
Until proven otherwise, of course.


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