Pestilential postscript

Why do we remember and commemorate wars but not epidemics? The blog asked that in its last post focussing on the differences between commemorating Australia’s WWI dead and those many more who died in the world flu epidemic immediately after the war.

Yet in one of those serendipitous events the blog came across some significant work on just how prevalent epidemics have been in history, how they have been forgotten and some lessons for today.

At the outset the blog has to say it now hates using the term serendipity having misused it for decades until it read Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber’s magnificent 2004 book The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. The book, written in 1958, was un-serendipitously not published until this century and the blog has written about it elsewhere along with other examinations of words which have lost their meaning in modern times – for example literally and metaphorically.

But in the original sense of the word the blog chanced on reviews (TLS 21 September 2018) of two books on pestilences just after posting the last blog. The first book was Samuel K. Cohn Jnr’s work Epidemics. As you can guess he is an American author, although whether he is – fittingly – a relative of the Norman Cohn of apocalyptic historical study fame the blog doesn’t know. But nevertheless his book touches on some of the same ground as does the previous Cohn work and provides insights into what promoted fears, and destroyed societies, throughout history.

Cohn’s book ranges over the 430 BCE Plague of Athens through yellow fever, small pox, the Black Death, cholera, violence, mass persecution, SARS, HIV-AIDS, syphilis and other mass killers. The blog hasn’t read it yet but as it read the review it was also reading – in small doses – Anne Applebaum’s astonishing book, Red Famine, about Stalin’s genocidal attacks on the Ukrainian population. This took some stiff drinks for the blog to finish and stacks of guilt every time it had a meal but also reinforced the significance of possible causes of societal destruction.

Needless to say, being Stalin, those he didn’t manage to kill through the inhuman collectivisation program; murders of Ukrainian nationalists; purges and murders of fellow Bolsheviks; and, the creation of famine to earn foreign currency by the export of grain which could have saved millions of lives if it had been kept in Russia and the Ukraine, were reduced to an Hobbesian life – nasty, brutal and short.

Which is a bit like the fate of much of the population throughout the early days of Judeo-Christian western civilisation from which we are supposed to draw lessons.

The other book, The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper, looked at that ever-popular subject – the fall of Rome. The theories from lead pipes onwards, along with other theories, have flourished since Gibbon.

But Harper looks at epidemics, climate change and other factors. The publisher’s blurb says: “Here is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome’s power—a story of nature’s triumph over human ambition.

“Interweaving a grand historical narrative with cutting-edge climate science and genetic discoveries, Kyle Harper traces how the fate of Rome was decided not just by emperors, soldiers, and barbarians but also by volcanic eruptions, solar cycles, climate instability, and devastating viruses and bacteria. He takes readers from Rome’s pinnacle in the second century, when the empire seemed an invincible superpower, to its unravelling by the seventh century, when Rome was politically fragmented and materially depleted. Harper describes how the Romans were resilient in the face of enormous environmental stress, until the besieged empire could no longer withstand the combined challenges of a ‘little ice age’ and recurrent outbreaks of bubonic plague.”

Now this blurb is possibly hyperbolic, even by the standards of most publishers, let alone Princeton University Press but it does broaden the debate about the subject significantly. The blog hasn’t read Harper yet, nor Cohn, but as Harper’s previous book, From Shame to Sin about the impact of Christianity on attitudes to the sex lives of Romans, got a rave review from Emeritus Professor Peter Brown some hype might be justified – particularly as the Harper thesis about sex after Constantine appears to be more fun, if not as compelling as explanations about infectious diseases, and presumably has a nod to Gibbon, who worried greatly about Christianity’s role in the decline of western civilisation.