In 165 AD, Roman troops were besieging Ctesiphon, the capital city of the Parthian Empire, located in what is today the territory of Iraq.
The army led by Avidius Cassius, a Roman general, succeeded in razing the city to the ground.
After the destruction of Ctesiphon, Seleucia, located on the other side of the Tigris River, was the only city that the Romans needed to take.
Seleucia fell, and the Parthian Empire was severely crippled. With these final battles, the Romans had ended the war and defeated their greatest enemy.
Coming home victorious, the Roman troops brought great riches back to Rome. However, unknowingly, they also carried with them something very sinister: the plague.
As soon as the troops arrived in Rome, the disease hit, spreading rapidly throughout the city, and later invading other parts of the Empire.
Originating somewhere in Central Asia or China, this malady propagated itself with a vengeance and hit all sectors of society. One of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire, Lucius Verus, died because of it a few years later.
This left Marcus Aurelius as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He was tasked with leading a country ravaged by disease, and fighting enemies on several fronts.
While Marcus handled his duties magnificently, many historians point to the plague as one of the factors that started off the disintegration of the Empire.
German historian B. G. Niebuhr remarked on the pivotal role the plague probably played in history:
“The ancient world never recovered from the blow inflicted on it by the plague which visited it in the reign of Marcus Aurelius.”
— B. G. Niebuhr
In some places up to a third of the population was killed, leaving many areas depopulated, and the economy severely depressed.
The effects of this pandemic were being felt many decades later, and probably played a part in sparking the chaos that hit the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD.
This era, now titled the Crisis of the Third Century, saw rapid economic collapse, political instability, and a rapid succession of emperors and usurpers fighting for the throne.
The weakened country was visited by more plagues at that time. In 249 AD, another plague hit the Empire and ravaged it further.
Pontius of Carthage, a Christian author from North Africa, described the effects of that plague on the population:
“Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house.”
— Pontius of Carthage
The plagues were some of the scariest things that the ancient world underwent. This dread of the plague appeared as a staple in the works of many poets, playwrights, and philosophers.
Lucretius, the ancient Roman Epicurean poet, left us a massive work titled “On the Nature of Things”, in which he tried to describe how the world functions.
The purpose was to show people how to live a good life according to Epicurean principles.
Yet, he ends his epic poem with a frightening description of the effects that the plague had on the city of Athens four hundred years before his time.
It was meant to serve as a reminder of the dangers that are lurking for everyone, and that could strike at any time.
“Who had stayed at hand would perish there by that contagion and the toil.”
Pandemics have played crucial roles in history
Pandemics have periodically hit the world, leaving scores of dead wherever they passed.
The plague of Athens in the 5th century BC famously ended the Golden Age of that city and led to its fall. The city was then easily defeated in war, and democracy in Athens died as a result.
The Antonine and Cyprian plagues spread chaos in the Roman Empire and were influential factors in its decline and eventual fall. The Justinian plague in the 6th century AD was probably a key factor in the ending of Late Antiquity and the coming of the Dark Ages.
While all these plagues were caused by different types of viruses, they had some things in common. They hit their nations hard and caused many changes in society.
Most likely, the current coronavirus pandemic which is sending shockwaves in societies around the world will also signal many shifts in the society that we know.
Many of its effects will reverberate throughout the world long after the virus itself has passed. In the future, this pandemic will probably be seen as a major turning point.
It could further exacerbate the current centrifugal tendencies, seeding more chaos, and emboldening populists to preach their messages of hate.
Or hopefully, this pandemic could also serve as a wake-up call. There are many dangers lurking out there, and only if we work together can we defeat them.
We are all in this together
Today, we seem to be experiencing the biggest pandemic in the past 100 years. Not since the times of the so-called Spanish Influenza that hit the world after the end of World War 1 have we seen something of this magnitude.
Many of us are holed up at home, scared of what is happening, wondering what will come next. We will have to cope with the potential dangers and the carnage that is sure to come.
We can learn many lessons on how to cope and overcome the current pandemic from the people who were in similar places before us.
When Marcus Aurelius was dying, reputedly his last words were these:
“Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.”
— Marcus Aurelius
This is probably one of the biggest lessons that we should keep in mind in times of a pandemic.
We are all in this together.
A virus spreads from one person to another, and it is only if we work together that we can defeat it.
If you are selfish, not only can you endanger other people, but you will also probably endanger yourself as well.
You are just one of many people. In the current time, there are many people falling sick, some seriously. Thousands of people are dying.
Doctors are fighting the pandemic day and night, tired, sometimes catching the sickness themselves and dying from it.
A pandemic such as this should cause us to reflect on how interconnected we really are, and how the actions of one person can affect the lives of thousands of others.
You might catch it and not experience any symptoms, but you will likely pass it onto others. These others will then pass it to even more people.
A virus-like this spreads exponentially. From a few cases one day, you might have hundreds, even thousands, just a few days later. Some of these people might die.
“While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”
— Marcus Aurelius
How to keep a level head during a pandemic
Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, and as a Stoic, he had learned that it is important to keep a level head in times of chaos.
“Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”
— Marcus Aurelius
You need to stand firm and bravely face all the hard times that are coming. Don’t let all the things happening around phase you.
Ancient Greek historian Thucydides noted that keeping a positive mindset is important. When you lose hope, you succumb to the disease much more easily.
“By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when anyone felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance, and left them a much easier prey to the disorder.”
However, what if you get sick? That is a real possibility in times of a pandemic when the virus spreads fast. Epictetus gave his thoughts on how to bear a fever well.
The main point is to acknowledge that you have it, and stop going back to thinking about how it happened and what you could have done differently.
You should also stop blaming others, especially ones who might have passed it onto you. Accept that things are the way they are.
It is important not to have your emotions overtake you.
“What is it to bear a fever well? To blame neither God nor man; to be unperturbed by whatever happens, to anticipate death nobly and well, to do whatever must be done. When the physician comes in, to be neither alarmed by what he says nor overjoyed if he says: “You are doing well”.”
Marcus Aurelius, and the other Stoics, saw how the world frequently hits you up with unpredictable things. He too sometimes ended up shaken by them, but he always tried to keep a perspective on things.
It is not the events that happen that are the problem, but how you think about these events. It is your reaction that counts.
Keeping a positive mindset, and bearing difficulties are what life is all about. You need to be brave, and remember that this pandemic that we are experiencing right now too will pass, just like other bad things have passed.
“All these things, which you see, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes you already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Be careful, but continue living your life, and be optimistic. Make the best of the current situation, for you never know what tomorrow will bring.
“In a world torn by hope and worry, dread and anger, imagine every day that dawns is the last you’ll see. The hour you’ve never hoped for will prove a happy surprise.”
For the Stoics, but also for other ancient philosophers, it was important to always keep in mind that everyone is mortal, and one day you too will join all the great heroes that you read about in history books. If you remind yourself of this, you will no longer feel scared.
Marcus Aurelius saw death as a natural part of the world. It’s not something to be feared, but instead to be taken as something that will one day visit you. This technique, sometimes called “memento mori”, was one of the most powerful ones in the arsenal of the Stoics.
As the ruler of a vast empire, Marcus applied these different mental techniques not only to keep himself sane in his personal life, but also to have a clear head when the duties of being an emperor called for solving problems.
In times of pestilence, quick action and good leadership is crucial
Plato had once said that the best rulers are the people who are the so-called philosopher kings.
This can happen in two ways. Either, the current rulers choose wisdom and become philosophers. Or the easier way, it happens when philosophers become kings.
Wisdom requires you to put aside your pride, and petty ambition, and instead think of promoting the greater good. Empathy towards others is an important aspect of having this ability.
In times of crisis, such as a pandemic, good leadership is crucial. Many ancient allegories, myths, and legends put character as the main driving force of the story.
Often, as the ancient Greeks used to say, a character is destiny. And character especially demonstrates itself in times of crisis.
The ancient Athenian poet Sophocles, situated his play “Oedipus Rex” in the times of pestilence in Thebes.
The play begins when an unknown plague is attacking the city. However, the moral of the story has nothing to do with this premise.
Instead, the lesson is about fate and the actions of people in the face of events.
The king of Thebes Oedipus has one nasty characteristic: his immense pride. That is his tragic flaw. Convinced of his exceptionality and greatness, Oedipus is a ruler who starts many petty squabbles with everyone.
Hubris blinds him to reality.
As the plague ravages the city, he decides that he can end it. He sends his brother in law, Creon, to the Oracle of Delphi to find out how it can be done.
Creon returns with the answer. The way to end it is by driving out the man who had killed the previous ruler of the city.
The entire play is about finding this man. Turns out, that the culprit is Oedipus himself. If the city is to survive, its ruler must leave.
Galen, the ancient Roman physician, who served as the personal doctor of Marcus Aurelius and who observed the effects of the pandemic that was destroying Rome first-hand, noted how important it is not to delude yourself.
Instead, you need to keep an open mind, gather evidence, and follow the science.
“Are they not clearly reckless who attempt to discover things of the greatest importance without first convincing themselves that they understand scientific demonstration?”
If you think you know everything, and act recklessly, hiding from the truth, you will fall into many blunders.
“These men must of necessity fall into many blunders; in the same way, those who try to prove something before they have exercised themselves in the method of demonstrations cannot fail to fall into error.”
Keeping a cool head, being humble, and relying on the evidence are crucial aspects of any response when facing something new, powerful, and unpredictable.
Pandemics often arrive out of nowhere, and propagate themselves rapidly throughout the populace, causing immense problems, which increase exponentially.
Thucydides described how quickly the plague arrived in Athens, and how no one knew what to do. In very little time, it overwhelmed the entire city, including killing the doctors themselves.
“Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better.
Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.”
The COVID-19 coronavirus is also something new, and we have no idea how it will behave. Luckily for us, we already have experience of pandemics hitting our shores, and we can use lessons from them to minimize the effects of the current one.
“Everything which happens is as familiar and well known as the rose in spring and the fruit in summer; for such is disease, and death.”
— Marcus Aurelius
We can see what worked in previous instances, and reuse the best practices in the catastrophe that has befallen us.
Currently, we are seeing the coronavirus spreading quickly throughout the world.
The hospitals in countries like Italy are collapsing under the strain, and many people are starting to die.
We should have probably acted more quickly in order to have nipped this pestilence in the bud, but we can’t cry over spilled milk.
It is now everyone person’s personal responsibility to get the virus to stop spreading. You and I, we all need to play a part.
Now, we need to buckle down and overcome this pandemic. If we learn the lessons of history, keep a level head, and remember that we are in this together, we will be able to overcome, and maybe even emerge stronger for it.
Good luck and keep safe!
Note: I first published this post in a publication on Medium called Live Your Life On Purpose.