Two Plagues in Imperial Rome

Suetonius 8.2 Titus 4-5 [79-81 CE, Plague in 80 CE]

“During the public fire at Rome he said nothing except “I am destroyed” and he designated all the decorations of his own houses for public buildings and temples. He put several people from the equestrian order in command of this so that the work might be completing more quickly. There was no effort either human or divine he did not pursue for healing and lessening the strength of the disease: he tried every type of sacrifice and every kind of treatment.

Among the challenges of the times there were also conmen and their associates, long left to their own devices. Once they were beaten in the Forum with whips and clubs and then led in a perp-walk through the floor of the amphitheater, ordered some of them to be sold and others sent off to the most remote islands. In order to dissuade those who might pursue these kinds of activities, he made it illegal for people to be sued under multiple laws for the same offense or for anything to be pursued from a dead person after a set number of years.”

Urbis incendio nihil publice nisi periisse testatus, cuncta praetoriorum suorum ornamenta operibus ac templis destinavit praeposuitque compluris ex equestri ordine, quo quaeque maturius peragerentur. Medendae valitudini leniendisque morbis nullam divinam humanamque opem non adhibuit inquisito omni sacrificiorum remediorumque genere.

Inter adversa temporum et delatores mandatoresque erant ex licentia veteri. Hos assidue in Foro flagellis ac fustibus caesos ac novissime traductos per amphitheatri harenam partim subici ac venire imperavit, partim in asperrimas insularum avehi. Utque etiam similia quandoque ausuros perpetuo coerceret, vetuit inter cetera de eadem re pluribus legibus agi quaerive de cuiusquam defunctorum statu ultra certos annos.


Tacitus, Annals 16.13 [=reign of Nero, 65/66 CE]

“The gods marked this year already tainted by so many crimes with storms and disease. Campania was destroyed by a tornado which laid waste to homes, fruit trees, and crops all over and then took its violence to the streets of the capital where a powerful epidemic was bringing death to all groups of people.

There was no sign of disease in the air to see, but dead bodies filled the homes and funerals filled the street. No gender or age avoided the danger; slaves and the free were killed one after another while spouses and children lamented even as they were often soon cremated on the same mound since they were around the people they mourned. Knights and senators, even though they perished similarly, were mourned less, just as if they had avoided the emperor’s violence by dying a commoner’s death.”

XIII. Tot facinoribus foedum annum etiam di tempestatibus et morbis insignivere. Vastata Campania turbine ventorum, qui villas arbusta fruges passim disiecit pertulitque violentiam ad vicina urbi; in qua omne mortalium genus vis pestilentiae depopulabatur, nulla caeli intemperie, quae occurreret oculis. Sed domus corporibus exanimis, itinera funeribus complebantur; non sexus, non aetas periculo vacua; servitia perinde et ingenua plebes raptim extingui, inter coniugum et liberorum lamenta, qui dum adsident, dum deflent, saepe eodem rogo cremabantur. Equitum senatorumque interitus, quamvis promisci, minus flebiles erant, tamquam communi mortalitate saevitiam principis praevenirent.

the Triumph of Titus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema,1885

One thought on “Two Plagues in Imperial Rome

  1. Wonderful snippets, and the painting is just so evocative. I have always felt that Alma Tadema and Waterhouse are by far the best of the classicising (in terms of subject matter, not artistic manner) painters. It is a striking composition and I find it hard to stop looking at it. The historical details (the menora, the face of Vespasian taken directly from a bust), the interplay between white and colour, the sense of intimacy with the triumphal group… Just wow. Great choice!

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