Societies and cultures that seem ossified and entrenched can be completely upended by pandemics, which create openings for conquest, innovation and social change.
Before March of this year, few probably thought disease could be a significant driver of human history.
Not so anymore. People are beginning to understand that the little changes COVID-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change their way of life. They may not be sure whether these changes will outlive the pandemic. And they may be uncertain whether these changes are for good or ill.
Three previous plagues could yield some clues about the way COVID-19 might bend the arc of history. As I teach in my course “Plagues, Pandemics and Politics,” pandemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways.
First, they can profoundly alter a society’s fundamental worldview. Second, they can upend core economic structures. And, finally, they can sway power struggles among nations.
Sickness spurs the rise of the Christian West
The Antonine plague, and its twin, the Cyprian plague – both now widely thought to have been caused by a smallpox strain – ravaged the Roman Empire from A.D. 165 to 262. It’s been estimated that the combined pandemics’ mortality rate was anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the empire’s population.
While staggering, the number of deaths tells only part of the story. This also triggered a profound transformation in the religious culture of the Roman Empire.
On the eve of the Antonine plague, the empire was pagan. The vast majority of the population worshipped multiple gods and spirits and believed that rivers, trees, fields and buildings each had their own spirit.
Christianity, a monotheistic religion that had little in common with paganism, had only 40,000 adherents, no more than 0.07% of the empire’s population.
Yet within a generation of the end of the Cyprian plague, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the empire.
How did these twin pandemics effect this profound religious transformation? [ … ]