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~Epidemics Page II~

Some Historically Significant Epidemics


This list (below) was compiled largely from Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, edited by George C. Kohn, and published by Facts On File, Inc., 1995. ...cont.


480 B.C. The Plague of Xerxes, probably an outbreak of dysentery, hit the Persian army, facilitating its defeat by the Greeks. The Greek historian Herodotus probably exaggerated its impact, but it is nonetheless significant as one of the first epidemics recorded in a lengthy written account.

451 B.C. A severe outbreak of an unidentified disease struck Rome, and was recorded by the historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnasus.

430 B.C. The Great Plague of Athens was described by Thucydides, who survived an attack himself. The symptoms described have been variously interpreted as smallpox, typhus, bubonic plague, or most recently, Ebola virus. The outbreak seriously impaired the Athenian army, and prolonged the Peloponnesian War.

410 B.C. The first recorded epidemic of mumps was described by Hippocrates, who was probably present on the Island of Thasos where the epidemic struck around 410.

400 B.C. Hippocrates also recorded an outbreak of a cough followed by pneumonia and other symptoms, at Perinthus in northern Greece (now part of Turkey). Several possible identifications have been suggested, including influenza, whooping cough and diphtheria.

212 B.C. The Roman army was struck by an infectious disease, perhaps influenza, described by the historian Livy.

1st century A.D. The earliest unequivocal epidemic of bubonic plague in the Mediterranean occurred in Libya, Egypt and Syria.

165-80 The Antonine Plague, or Plague of Galen, was probably smallpox or measles, or both, and was brought back to the Roman Empire by troops returning from the Middle East. The Roman emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus both died from it, in 169 and 180 respectively.

251-270 The Plague of Cyprian takes its name from Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who described symptoms that suggest measles or smallpox rather than bubonic plague. This epidemic killed the Roman emperor Claudius in 270, and is credited with encouraging mass conversions to Christianity. It has also been suggested as the time that Christians first began wearing black as the color of mourning.

542 The Plague of Justinian was the first pandemic of bubonic plague, beginning in Egypt and Ethiopia and sweeping through the Mediterranean. About 300,000 people died in Constantinople alone during the first year. The Byzantine emperor Justinian was stricken, but recovered; however the disease crushed his ambitions to recover the full extent of the old Roman empire under his rule. Merchant ships carried the disease into the rest of the Mediterranean, and it flared up repeatedly in Europe for the next 50 years.

569 A smallpox epidemic struck Arabia and forced the Ethiopian army to retreat, thus ending their rule there. This was known as the Elephant War epidemic, for the white elephant on which the Christian prince Abraha rode into Mecca before his defeat, and is described in the Koran. It was one of the earliest recorded epidemics of smallpox.

590 A.D. Bubonic plague killed Pope Pelagius II, who was succeeded by the reformer Gregory the Great.

680 A.D. Plague again struck Rome and Italy, and is credited with the origin of the cult of St. Sebastian, a third century martyr who was regarded as a protector against disease, because the epidemic abated after his bones were moved from Rome to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Pavia.

700s-800s Japan suffered repeated epidemics of smallpox. The one in 735-736 killed several members of the ruling Fujiwara family, and led to a religious fervor that facilitated the spread of Buddhism.

746-748 A.D. Constantinople was struck again by plague.

10th century Japan was struck again by smallpox epidemics, and also by measles.

1081 The army of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was defeated by disease in his attempt to conquer Rome, probably typhoid fever and dysentery, and perhaps also malaria.

1098 The First Crusade was delayed and made more difficult by disease, in particular by an epidemic probably of typhoid fever that struck in Syria in 1098 after the siege of Antioch.

1148. An epidemic at Adalia on the coast of Anatolia wiped out soldiers and pilgrims of the Second Crusade and facilitated their defeat by the Turks.

1167 The army of Frederick Barbarossa was nearly destroyed after his conquest of Rome in 1167 by an epidemic disease. Whether this was typhus, malaria, or something else has not been decided.

14th century. The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague, was the most devastating single epidemic of all time, killing probably a third or more of the population of Europe and Asia. It originated in central Asia and had already killed an estimated 25 million people before it reached Constantinople in 1347. From there it was spread around the Mediterranean by merchant ships and by crusaders returning from the middle east. By 1350 it had spread throughout Europe, and at least another 25 million people had died. The social upheaval that ensued is generally regarded as the end of the Middle Ages. Outbreaks of bubonic plague continued sporadically in various European locations throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.

1494-95 Syphilis first appeared in Europe, beginning among Spanish soldiers in Naples. Historians differ on whether it was brought back by explorers returning from America. The Italians called it the Spanish or French Disease, the French called it the Italian disease, the Russians called it the Polish disease, and the Arabs called it the disease of the Christians. Smallpox, which had existed previously in Europe, also got its modern name at this time, to distinguish it from syphilis which was also known as "the pox".

1499 Plague struck London, causing thousands of deaths, the first of a number of outbreaks in that city.

~cont. on next page.....

This list was compiled largely from Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence, edited by George C. Kohn, and published by Facts On File, Inc., 1995. ...cont.

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