A Rich Man’s Plague from Kisses

Pliny, Natural History, 26 3 (Full text on the Scaife Viewer)

“This plague didn’t exist among our ancestors. It first invaded Italy during the principate of Tiberius Claudius when some Roman knight from Perusia, secretary to a quaestor, brought the infection with him after he had been serving in Asia Minor. Women, enslaved people, and those of the low or humble classes tend not to get this disease, but it spreads quickly through nobles thanks to a brief kiss. Many of those who endured the medicine for the sickness handled the scar more foully than the disease. It was cured by burning treatments and the symptom would return unless the flesh was burned up almost to the bone in that spot.

Many physicians came from Egypt—that parent of these kinds of blights—in order to dedicate themselves to this work only, gaining a considerable profit, since it is true that Manilius Cornutus, a man of praetorian rank and legate in Aquitania, paid two hundred thousand for the treatment of his disease.

It does often happen, however, that new kinds of diseases are experienced en masse. What discovery would be more surprising? Some afflictions appear in a certain part of the world and attack certain body parts or people of specific ages or stations—as if a sickness were selective—one harming children, another adults, this one for the nobles, and that one for the poor.”

III. Non fuerat haec lues apud maiores patresque nostros, et primum Ti. Claudi Caesaris principatu medio inrepsit in Italiam quodam Perusino equite Romano quaestorio scriba, cum in Asia adparuisset, inde contagionem eius inportante. nec sensere id malum feminae aut servitia plebesque humilis aut media, sed proceres veloci transitu osculi maxime, foediore multorum qui perpeti medicinam toleraverant cicatrice quam morbo. causticis namque curabatur, ni usque in ossa corpus exustum esset, rebellante taedio. adveneruntque ex Aegypto genetrice talium vitiorum medici hanc solam operam adferentes magna sua praeda, siquidem certum est Manilium Cornutum e praetoriis legatum Aquitanicae provinciae HS CC elocasse in eo morbo curandum sese. acciditque contra saepius ut nova genera morborum gregatim sentirentur. quo mirabilius quid potest reperiri? aliqua gigni repente vitia terrarum in parte certa membrisque hominum certis vel aetatibus aut etiam fortunis, tamquam malo eligente, haec in pueris grassari, illa in adultis, haec proceres sentire, illa pauperes?

Roman Emperor Trajan making offerings to Egyptian Gods, on the Roman Mammisi at the Dendera Temple complex, Egypt

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