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Measles and Ancient Plagues: A Note on New Scientific Evidence Jennifer Manley Classical World, Volume 107, Number 3, Spring 2014, pp. 393-397 (Article) Published by Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/clw.2014.0001 For additional information about this article https://muse.jhu.edu/article/546424 Access provided by Iowa State University (8 Feb 2019 14:39 GMT) Scholia Measles and Ancient Plagues: A Note on New Scientific Evidence JENNIFER Manley ABSTRACT: A number of diseases are frequently cited as possible causes for the plagues of antiquity. Amongst these, measles is often mentioned. However, recent scientific advances based on studies of the molecular clock of the virus have shown that measles is too “young” in evolutionary terms to have been the cause of either the Athenian Plague or the Antonine Plague. This paper draws scholars’ attention to the implications of this discovery and its broader consequences for our approach to diagnosing ancient plagues. The great plagues of antiquity—the Plague of Athens (430–427 B.C.), the Antonine Plague (A.D. 165–180s), the Justinianic Plague (A.D. 540–541)—continue to fascinate scholars and students alike. While no one claims to know beyond doubt which particular pathogens drove these epidemics, one potential culprit is frequently mentioned—measles.1 In particular, measles has continued to be proposed as the cause of the Plague of Athens, even though Holladay and Poole mounted a convincing argument as far back as 1979 that measles (at least as we know it today) was an extremely unlikely candidate.2 They could not have known that their argument would receive a measure of confirmation from scientists thirty years later using the genetic code of the virus to unravel its history. This new scientific evidence, examining the “molecular clock” of the measles virus and deriving from this its date of emergence, should compel us to lay the measles hypothesis finally to rest, at least for the Plague of Athens if not also for the Antonine Plague ; and other epidemics of antiquity.3 1 See J. Longrigg, ‘The Great Plague of Athens,’ History of Science 18:3 (1980) 209–25; J. R. Fears, “The Plague under Marcus Aurelius and the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Infectious Disease Clinics of North America 18 (2004): 65–77; R. J. Littman, “The Plague of Athens: Epidemiology and Paleopathology,” Mt Sinai Journal of Medicine 76.5 (2009) 456–67. Measles as the cause of the Plague of Athens is forcefully argued by B. Cunha, “The Cause of the Plague of Athens: Plague, Typhoid, Typhus, Smallpox, or Measles?” Infect Dis Clin of N Am18.1 (2004) 29–43. 2 A. J. Holladay and J. C. F. Poole, “Thucydides and the Plague of Athens,” CQ 29.2 (1979) 282–300. 3 Y. Furuse, A. Suzuki, and H. Oshitani, “Origin of the Measles Virus: Divergence from Rinderpest Virus between the 11th and 12th centuries,” Virology 7 (2010) 52 http:// www.virologyj.com/content/7/1/52 Classical World, vol. 107, no. 2 (2013) Pp.393–397 394 Classical World A process of logical deduction and reasoning led historians to consider measles as a candidate in the struggle to “diagnose” ancient plagues. It is logical that measles would have arisen in the Neolithic period, as it is closely related to rinderpest (a disease primarily of cattle4) and canine distemper. An evolutionary niche would have opened up as humans and their domestic animals lived in close proximity and unhygienic conditions. Measles made itself at home when settlements increased to a size and density able to support the virus over the long term. From what is known of human settlement patterns, it is plausible that conditions could have been right from prehistoric times.5 The literary evidence has added further weight to the logical assumption. Thucydides’ plague narrative is striking for its authoritative, seemingly accurate tone and style.6 He refers to a bright red rash spreading from the head down and burning fever, both of which would seem to support the diagnosis of measles.7 Yet the plague narrative itself is also integral to Thucydides’ literary agenda, as Bellemore has convincingly demonstrated: the scale and scope of the plague are designed to match the other disastrous events in Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War.8 An important article by T. E. Morgan on the literary nature of Thucydides’ narrative notes that though he may have borrowed certain features of Hippocratean dialogue, Thucydides was no physician and did not himself attempt a diagnosis.9 Rather, his narrative was crafted to meet his audience’s need for a compelling literary account of the plague situated within a culture that valued the scientific framework of the Hippocratics, but did not feel constrained by it.10 Ancient medical narratives are not dispassionate or objective accounts of symptoms and examinations, but are infused with rhetorical and stylistic features.11 Given these considerations, scholars who wish to attempt a diagnosis of ancient plagues have relied less upon literary accounts and more upon archaeological and paleopathological evidence, although even this is not without its problems. In light of this, recent work by Papagrigorakis et al. on evidence from the ancient Athenian cemetery of Kerameikos assumes particular importance.12 The study used dental pulp from remains dating to the fifth century B.C. to test for microorganisms that may have been responsible for the Plague of Athens. The 4 The United Nations declared in 2011 that, after concerted effort, rinderpest finally had been eradicated globally: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=38868#. USlsvVfBkr4. 5 F. Retief and L. Cilliers, “Measles in Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” S Afr Med J, 100.4 (2010) 216–17. 6 Thucydides 2.49; Longrigg (above, n.1); Holladay and Poole (above, n.2). 7 Cunha (above, n.1) 33. 8 J. Bellemore, “Thucydides, Rhetoric and Plague in Athens,” Athenaeum 82 (1994) 385–401. 9 T. E. Morgan, “Plague or Poetry? Thucydides on the Epidemic at Athens,” TAPA 124 (1994) 197–209. 10 Morgan (above, n.9) 201. 11 L. T. Pearcy, “Diagnosis as Narrative in Ancient Literature,” AJP 113.4 (1992) 595–616. 12 M. J. Papagrigorakis et al., “DNA Examination of Ancient Dental Pulp Incriminates Typhoid Fever as a Probable Cause of the Plague of Athens,” Int J Infect Dis. 10.3 (2006) 206–14. Scholia 395 tests returned positive results for Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi (the infective agent for typhoid fever). However, even these results are controversial and cannot at this point be regarded as definitive: the discussion provoked by the publication of Papagrigorakis’ article highlighted potential problems with the methodology and the need for further verification.13 This demonstrates how difficult it is to diagnose ancient plagues on the basis of scientific evidence, let alone the manifest issues with using literary evidence to attempt diagnosis. There can be little doubt that the Roman Empire under Marcus Aurelius was struck by a serious epidemic, conventionally referred to as the “Antonine Plague.” Its degree of severity and its longer-term impact are, however, the subject of debate.14 The statistical analyses of Duncan-Jones and Scheidel suggest that the mortality rate of the Antonine Plague was high enough to disrupt the normal functioning of the economy in Rome and its provinces, especially Egypt.15 Smallpox appears to be the favored diagnosis at this point, and smallpox certainly existed in antiquity.16 However, measles has also been suggested as a potential culprit.17 Galen’s account may suggest that the Antonine Plague was the same disease as that described by Thucydides, but we have to question whether preconceived notions led Galen to see what he wanted to see and to describe the epidemic using the language of Thucydides.18 Any ancient account of a disease will be couched in the language of a prescientific era, and no matter how intelligent, authoritative, and perceptive its author may be, an account will 13 B. Shapiro, A. Rambaut, and M. T. P. Gilbert, “No Proof that Typhoid Caused the Plague of Athens (A Reply to Papagrigorakis et al.),” Int J Infect Dis 10.4 (2006) 334–5. See also the reply by Papagrigorakis et al., “Insufficient Phylogenetic Analysis May not Exclude Candidacy of Typhoid Fever as a Probable Cause of the Plague of Athens (Reply to Shapiro et al.),” Int J Infect. Dis. 10.4 (2006) 335–36. 14 J. Greenberg, “Plagued by Doubt: Reconsidering the Impact of a Mortality Crisis in the 2nd Century A.D.,” JRA 16.2 (2003) 413–25. 15 R. P. Duncan-Jones, “The Impact of the Antonine Plague,” JRA 9 (1996) 108–36. W. Scheidel, “A Model of Demographic and Economic Change in Roman Egypt after the Antonine Plague,” JRA 15.1 (2002) 97–114. 16 Greenberg (above, n. 14); S. P. Mattern, The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire (Oxford 2013) 199–204; V. Nutton, Ancient Medicine (London 2013) 24. On the evolution of smallpox, see Y. Li et al., “On the Origin of Smallpox: Correlating Variola Phylogenics with Historical Smallpox Records,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104.40 (2007) 15787–92. 17 See C. B. Cunha and B. A. Cunha, “Great Plagues of the Past and Remaining Questions,” in D. Raoult and M. Drancourt, eds., Paleomicrobiology: Past Human Infections (Berlin 2008) 1–21 (10–12); G. C. Kohn, ed., “Antonine Plague” in Encyclopaedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present (New York 2008) 9–10. See also, arguing for smallpox, R. J. Littman and M. L. Littman, “Galen and the Antonine Plague,” AJP 94.3 (1973) 243–55. 18 J. F. Gilliam (“The Plague under Marcus Aurelius,” AJPh 82.3  225–51) collects the scattered references to the plague in Galen’s massive body of work. See esp., Galen, Method of Medicine, I. Johnston and G. H. R. Horsley, trs. (Cambridge, Mass. 2011) 5.12. 396 Classical World always be a product of its author’s culture, beliefs, and notions.19 These factors compel historians to use caution in any attempt to make a diagnosis on the back of an ancient narrative. We should also recognize that the desire to make a diagnosis is itself a cultural artefact, arising from the influence of science on modern culture and historical methods. The ancient writers had different motives. Even though the measles hypothesis has undoubtedly been an attractive one, the science now compels us to abandon it. A recent study by Furuse, Suzuki, and Oshitani employed a technique that (in simple terms) looks at the number of mutations in an organism’s genes over time and works backwards to determine the point at which it diverged into a distinct species. Since this “molecular clock” model has some issues, scientists improve the accuracy of their conclusions by analyzing the data using Bayesian statistics. Using this method, Furuse and colleagues were able to determine that the measles virus most likely diverged from rinderpest as recently as the eleventh or twelfth centuries A.D. This would explain why no convincing description appears in the surviving works of the ancient medical writers. A definitive account of measles is conspicuous in its absence from the massive corpus of Galen. The Islamic Golden Age scholar Rhazes (A.D. 865–925) supposedly distinguishes between measles and smallpox, although given this new evidence, perhaps he also was describing a different disease.20 Wertheim and Kosakovsky Pond have argued that there are problems with the technique used to date the emergence of the measles virus and its relatives to the eleventh or twelfth centuries and question whether it may be more ancient than the “molecular clock” model would suggest.21 Like historians, scientists can deal only in likelihoods, or statistical probability. It is not the purpose of this article to enter into the debate in molecular biology about uncertainties in dating due to the suppression of nonfunctional genetic mutations. Nevertheless, Wertheim and Kosakovsky Pond’s calculations still place the emergence of the measles virus no earlier than the first millennium A.D. One way or another, this rules out measles as the cause of the Athenian Plague. We can say only that measles is a possibility for the Antonine Plague (at a stretch) and the Justinianic Plague,22 if Wertheim and Kosakovsky Pond’s alternative model is the one that is eventually confirmed. 19 V. Nutton, “From Galen to Alexander, Aspects of Medicine and Medical Practice in Late Antiquity,” DOP 38 (1984) 1–14; R. Flemming, “Women, Writing and Medicine in the Classical World,” CQ 57.1 (2007) 257–79; S. P. Mattern, Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing (Baltimore 2008). 20 Furuse (above, n.3); B. Lee Ligon, “Biography: Rhazes: His Career and His Writings,” Seminars in Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 12.3 (2001) 266–72. 21 J. O. Wertheim and S. L. Kosakovsky Pond, “Purifying Selection Can Obscure the Ancient Age of Viral Lineages,” Mol. Biol. Evol., 28.12 (2011) 3355–65. 22 At this time, the Plague of Justinian is generally thought to be bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis); see P. Sarris, “The Justinianic Plague: Origins and Effects,” Continuity Change 17.2 (2002) 169–82; D. Raoult et al., “Plague: History and Contemporary Analysis,” J. Infect. 66.1 (2013) 18–26; P. Horden, “Mediterranean Plague in the Age of Justinian,” in M. Mass, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (Cambridge 2005) 134–60. Scholia 397 There are undoubtedly numerous problems with attempting to identify ancient plagues from literary accounts written by men with their own agenda and their own ideas of causation and contagion. Nevertheless, the intellectual puzzle seems irresistible. The idea that the measles virus existed in antiquity and caused ancient plagues has been persistent, but it can no longer stand. Scientific advances mean that identifying ancient plagues may not be such an “insoluble problem”23 after all. At the very least, we may be able to disconfirm some of our hypotheses. THE UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLAND email@example.com 23 S. Hornblower, A Commentary on Thucydides (Oxford 1991) 316.