History #3: Disease

What shapes human history? That’s easy, humans shape human history. The great man theory of history, made famous by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s, argues that history is the byproduct of the actions of great men. From Jesus to Hitler, Carlyle would argue that highly influential individuals were the key factors in shaping the course of human history.

The great man theory of history began to lose influence towards the end of the 19th century. Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher, was probably the most influential critic of the great man theory. Spencer argued the following:

You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown… before he can remake his society, his society must make him.

Spencer’s theory argues that the environment of a time are the key factors in shaping the course of human history.  Victor Hugo, a French poet and the author of Les Miserables, summed up this idea beautifully when he said:

One withstands the invasion of armies, one does not withstand the invasion of ideas.

Put another way, great men may seem like the conduit of change, but with or without them, nothing is going to stop an idea whose time has come.

Both of these theories share the view that human history is the result of human agency. But this human centered view of history completely ignores the larger biosphere that humans exist within. In reality, the greatest impacts of human history come from non-human actors. Pandemics, global warming, natural disasters, a meteor strike, all have a greater impact on the course of human history than any human, idea, or war.

With this in mind, maybe human history is shaped by something more random than we like to believe. This post will attempt to explore human history through the lens of diseases and pandemics rather than through the lens of humans and ideas.

Early history

In early history, very little was understood about disease, so very little was recorded in written records. It was often that disease was simply explained away as divine wrath by the gods. This lack of historical record makes it hard to know how disease affected early humans, but there is still much we can speculate.

Humans first appeared in the in tropical regions of Africa around 150 thousand years ago. Africa’s tropical climate is a prime environment for micro-parasites to flourish and we can speculate that early human populations where probably kept in check by rampant infections.

Around 60 thousand years ago, humans began to emigrate out of Africa, to climates where micro-parasites where less rampant. This coincided with a drastic boom in human population. Around 15 thousand years ago, humans began to develop agriculture and to form modern civilizations. These densely populated communities facilitated the transmission of infections between humans and allowed for rise of epidemics.

Some technological advancements of this time led to increased disease vulnerability. Irrigation relied on slow-moving water, which we now know is a breeding ground for disease carrying parasites. The domestication of animals relied people and animals living together, which we now know increases the chance of a viral infection making the leap from an animal host to a human host.

Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, argues that this early exposure to germs, that some societies had and others did not, would later explain why some societies became so dominant. His evidence will be shown later in the section on the Great Dying.

Plague of Athens (430-427 BC)

The Plague of Athens was an epidemic, of Typhus and Typhoid, that afflicted ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War. It is speculated to have entered Athens through a city port where food and supplies were traded. It is estimated that 25% of the city’s population died as a result of the outbreak. This might have led to the loss of the Peloponnesian War, and eventually, the rise of the Romans.

War and trade are very good at spreading disease, and this will be a recurring theme throughout history.

Antonine Plague (165 – 180 AD)

The Antonine Plague was a pandemic, of either smallpox or measles, which was brought to Rome through troops returning from campaigns in the Near East. In some areas, nearly one-third of the population died as a result of the disease. Two emperors fell victim to the plague and the Roman army was severely weakened. This might have laid the foundations for the eventual fall of the Roman Empire, but maybe not since it did survive for another 200 years.

Plague of Justinian (541 – 542)

The Plague of Justinian was a pandemic, of bubonic plague, that afflicted the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Rome. The plague reached the Easter Roman Empire by way of rats traveling on Egyptian grain boats. By the end of the outbreak, nearly 40% of the population of Constantinople died. In total, 13% of the world’s population died. Many experts believe this was the first outbreak of bubonic plague. As we will see next, it wasn’t the last.

The Black Death (1347 – 1351)

The Black Death was a pandemic, of bubonic plague(though it is argued), that wreaked havoc through Medieval Europe and much of the rest of the world. It is thought to have originated in central Asia where it was spread by travel along the silk road. Eventually, through rat hosts, the plague boarded ships and headed for Europe. It is estimated that 50% of the European population died as a result of this outbreak.

Renewed religious fervor flourished in the wake of the Black Death. Every group had someone they wanted to blame and the Jewish were heavily persecuted as a result. During this time, mystical healers began to lose influence as it became clear they had no way of dealing with the outbreak.

Some argue that the Black Death shocked Europe out of the Medieval period. The protestant reformation gained steam, new brick construction technologies were devised to combat the plague, and guilds were forced to accept new members as they had lost many of their own.

The Great Dying (1616 – 1619)

The Great Dying refers to the numerous outbreaks, mainly smallpox, that broke out in America as a result of the Colombian exchange. As we talked about earlier, Native Americans hadn’t built up a resistance to the diseases that the Europeans brought over. It is estimated that 90% of the native population of the Americas perished as a result of this, and entire civilizations were wiped out.

The sheer level of destruction and loss that accompanied the Great Dying is unmatched in human history. As a direct result, European influence over the future of western civilization was solidified.

The Third Pandemic (1855 – 1950)

The Third Pandemic was a pandemic, of bubonic plague, that spread from the Yunnan province of China to the rest of China and much of the world. The name is a reference to it being the third major outbreak of bubonic plague, after the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death, which we already talked about. It is estimated that 12 million people died as a result of this outbreak in China and India alone.

In India, this had a serious effect on the relations between Colonial British government and the Indian people. The colonial governments repressive response included the quarantine of whole populations. This, among many other things, led to renewed national vigor that would eventually expel the British from the country.

The Spanish Flu (1918-1919)

The Spanish Flu was a pandemic, of swine flu, that spread from Spain to the rest of the world with the help of World War I. It is estimated that one-third of the world population was afflicted and as many as 50 million people died. For comparison, the recent outbreak of swine flu in 2009 killed 200 thousand people.

Communities were devastated and the global economy took a serious hit. Historically, the world war deflected much of the attention away from this tragedy and it is often known as the forgotten pandemic.

Modern Medical Response

We have come a long way in fighting disease. The two most important medical advances of recent history are inoculations and antibiotics. The use of inoculation became widespread in the 19th century, and is credited for eliminating small pox and other viral infections. The use of antibiotics became widespread in the 20th century and finally allowed us to combat the bubonic plague and other bacterial infections.

This is not to say the problem is solved. Many drug resistant bacteria have already emerged at a troubling pace. HIV wreaks havoc on populations worldwide. Swine flu and Bird flu are still a serious threat. We still have a work cut out for us.


It is easy view human history as being shaped by human agents, who themselves, are motivated by continually increasing prosperity. In reality, history for the most part is the random result of non-human actors. Did Alexander the great will the Roman Empire into existence, or was it a breakout of disease in Athens that set the stage for him? Did the Europeans come to dominate the world by their innate superiority, or did their random exposure to disease give them the true advantage?

As always, there’s no right or wrong answer to history. We seek to understand history to better understand our world today. We should remember that disease played a large role in history, and we should expect it to play a large role in the future. Act accordingly.




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