The Black Plague — or, The Black Death, as it is sometimes known — is the single most famous pandemic in the history of the Western World. A bubonic epidemic stretching itself from Asia to Europe between the years 1346 – 1353, on the backs of fleas on the backs of rodents, it left vacant communities in its wake. Entire chapters of school history books center around this part of humanity’s story.
Although we don’t really have solid numbers about exactly what kind of damage this pandemic did, historians tend to put it somewhere between “one third of all Europe” and “50 – 60% of the European population”. Either way, it was devastating. And it remains the measuring stick by which we calculate all other pandemics.
Before we get into our list, let’s define some things… What IS a plague? What exactly IS an epidemic? What’s the difference between that and a pandemic?
Plague is both a noun and a verb. It can BE something (a plague of locusts), and it can be something DOING something (the locusts are plaguing us). According to dictionary.com, plague means:
- (noun) an epidemic disease that causes high mortality; pestilence
- (verb) to trouble, annoy, or torment in any manner
Well, they use the word epidemic in that definition, so let’s define that next. According to the CDC, epidemic means:
- the occurrence of more cases of disease than expected in a given area or among a specific group of people over a particular period of time
So, that makes more sense. Puts it in context for us. But what’s a pandemic, then? The World Health Organization says a pandemic is:
- an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people
Okay. A big epidemic.
Now that we’ve got those words nailed down, we can move on to our list. We’ll take these in order of appearance…
Hamin Mangha Site, China — c.3000 BC
The first known epidemic in history took place in a village now known as the Hamin Mangha Archaeological Site, in Inner Mongolia, China. The village contained 29 structure, and the digs have recovered the remains of 100 people, from all ages.
With only 29 structures, you gotta wonder how many people lived in the village. What percentage of their population was 100 people? Those claimed by this plague were all buried together, and the survivors left the village and never returned.
There is one other site in China — slightly younger — called Miaozigou, with the same results and apparently from the same epidemic. This epidemic is believed by Archaeologists to have affected the entire region.
Athens, Greece — 429 – 426 BC
During the war between Athens and Sparta, an epidemic ravaged the people of Athens. Though the exact cause or nature of the disease is still unknown, there are legitimate historical sources for the symptoms. The same sources give some estimates on the casualties.
Between 75,000 and 100,000 Athenians were victims of this plague. There are many theories about what the plague could have been (typhoid fever, Ebola), but no one knows. The high number of victims is attributed to the fact that the Athenians were living inside the city during the war with Sparta.
The Roman Empire — 165 – 180 (maybe later) AD
What is known as the Antonine Plague, was a possible smallpox pandemic that claimed between 5 – 10 million people in the Roman Empire. Thought to have been brought back to the empire from troops returning from the Parthia — first appearing at a siege in what is now Iraq — the plague spread all the way to present day France and Germany. It swept through all the space in between.
Believed by some historians to have originated in Eastern Han China prior to 166 AD, based on contemporary Chinese records, the Antonine Plague was a major reason for the decline of the Roman Empire. In 180, Rome was at the height of its power. It would never return to that point.
The Byzantine Empire (and the rest of the old Roman Empire) — 541 – 542 (but recurring for two centuries)
The Plague of Justinian (the Byzantine Emperor) seems to have been Round 1 of The Black Plague. Same bubomic bacterium that toppled Eurasia in the 1300s. Epidemiologists believe that this bacterium originated in the Tian Shan region of Central Asia.
This plague has been compared to the Black Plague for more than just the bacterial relationship. With numbers ranging from 25 – 100 million lives claimed — with half of the Empire’s population being claimed in the first occurrance of the disease listed in those above dates — The Plague of Justinian hit civilization harder than any plague known before it.
Japan — 735 – 737
Known in Japan as the Epidemic of the Tenpyo Era, this smallpox pandemic killed more than 1/3 of the entire nation’s population (approximately 2 million people). Being a small isolate nation at the time, this plague changed Japanese culture, society, and religion forever.
Even 13 centuries ago, Japan was reporting and recording disease outbreaks among its population. And Japan learned these record-keeping habits from the kingdoms on the mainland. Fate is not without a sense of irony, it would seem, since Japan’s increased interaction with the people who taught them how to keep records about diseases also gave them every epidemic they had to record over the next thousand years.
Which leads us six centuries later to THE Plague (possibly as many as 200 million people). And back to the start of the article. *Plagues* of bacteria and viruses *plague* humanity from time to time. There are obviously very many factors as to how or why one would be worse than the last (or next), but medicine, science, and public health have all come A LONG WAY since all those people in Hamin Mangha were faced with losing what could have been nearly all of their population.