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Mignanelli: Modern hysteria from Hermes’ Caduceus

The Classics Corner

By Mike Mignanelli

The media hysteria about the recent Ebola outbreak has been characterized by outlandish article titles that only a few half-baked news staffers create. These titles include; “In the eye of the Ebola storm,” “Who shouts Ebola in a crowded theater,” and my personal favorite: “Obama’s Ebola plans: A new boondoggle?” Though this personal preference may have more to do with the use of the word “boondoggle” than anything else. The escalation of Ebola as the “new” disease that will ravish and lay waste to humans of the 21st century is purely an invention of our 24-hour news cycles. The fact is that this disease is not easily spread like airborne illness and that with some appropriate measures we can increase efforts to avoid any further spread of this minor health crisis.

Looking closely at plagues from antiquity and the reasons many of their plagues were so successful in spreading throughout the ancient world may shed some light on what actions we could take to avoid any further problems.

The ancient Greek word for disease was νόσος, which appears frequently in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, in which he tells the story about the plague that hit the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. This plague put the Athenians at a large disadvantage to the Spartans. Many scholars have argued that this plague, which wiped out almost a third of the Athenian population, sealed the fate of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides writes that this disease spread to Athens from Ethiopia.

The knowledge that this disease spread from Ethiopian imports shows a problem caused by the internationalization of the world. The war General Pericles had no idea of the potential disaster that disease could cause to his skillful military plans. His decision to move the Athenians inside the fortifications around their city was an unfortunate and unforeseen factor that exacerbated the spread of the Athenian plague.

Looking at another plague from the Roman period we may be able to learn something from the critical mistake made within a period of Pax Romana, or Roman peace. The Antonine plague, which ravaged the empire for 100 years starting at the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and his co-emperor, Lucius Verus, were both victims of the plague. Rome’s involvement in the fighting the Parthian Empire is what caused the spread from the modern day Middle East to Rome. The involvement in foreign affairs made it possible for this disease to enter the Roman Empire. More interestingly was that the disease spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire and scholars believe that the reason for this was Rome’s developed roadways throughout the Empire. Since travel was so convenient, by ancient standards, in the Roman Empire the spread of the Antonine plague was exacerbated.

The spread of Ebola today has in large part been attributed to the internationalization of the world. The question is how can we mitigate the effects of this disease so that it cannot spread and impact our citizens.

I would argue that we look at the mistakes made by the Romans who may not have fully known the science behind the spread of disease. The spread of the Antonine plague was strengthened by the innovations that allowed Romans to travel freely through the empire. Similarly, the ease in global travel today has allowed Ebola to spread to other countries, including the United States. It seems that the responsible decision would be to limit flight and travel between the United States and West Africa. This could be done with government sanctions and the screening of those few exceptions would be a necessity.

Had the Romans a better understanding of the spread of disease it is unlikely the Romans would have reached a death rate of close to 2,000 romans per day during the heights of the plague. The diseases that ravaged both Athens and Rome were in large part caused by their connections with foreign civilizations. Similarly, our own humanitarian efforts and involvements in foreign countries have brought Ebola to the United States. The origin of the disease is always an unknown factor but the actions or inactions that come after recognition of a disease ultimately characterize a civilization’s effectiveness in handling disease.

Mike Mignanelli is a junior majoring in classics.

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