In the year 165 AD plague broke out in the Roman Empire. Now referred to as the Antonine Plague, historians believe it originated in China and that Roman soldiers came into contact with it while on campaign in modern-day Iraq. It quickly spread into Gaul and the Germanic territories held by the Empire and even down into the Italian peninsula. Based on contemporary descriptions of the epidemic, it seems that the plague was a variation of smallpox – and it was devastating. Some writers from the period estimated that 2000 people a day died in the city of Rome at the height of the crisis. All told, historians think that about 60-70 million people died from the plague, numbers that represent a quarter to a third of the entire population of the Empire. Among the victims was Lucius Verus, who reigned as co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius, and died in 169.
Many in the Empire thought that the plague was a punishment sent from the gods – due to either a violation of a sacred oath or an act of sacrilege. Marcus Aurelius attributed it to the refusal of Christians to pay homage to the pagan deities. Ironically, the average Roman’s sympathy for Christianity was growing alongside the hostility of their rulers toward the relatively new sect. The reason for this was that, unlike adherents to the polytheistic system of the Roman Empire, Christians believed that they had a moral duty to care for those in need, including people affected by the plague. While pagan nobles fled the urban areas where the disease was wreaking havoc, Christians remained and provided the sick with basic needs of food and water, as well as compassionate care. The people noticed that Christians provided care to everyone, including non-Christians. Furthermore, Christianity taught people that life has meaning even under the most difficult circumstances, and that death is not the end of existence. As a result, many people became Christian. Some historians trace the eventual establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire to the way Christians comported themselves during the time of this terrible plague.
Like the ancient Romans, we find ourselves in the midst of a public health crisis. Thankfully, the Coronavirus is far less dangerous than the plague outbreak of 165. But we are no less called as followers of Christ to imitate the charity of the Catholics in the Roman Empire. Part of the charitable response is to be conscientious about not taking unnecessary risks that might expose ourselves or others to the virus. It is a sign of prudence to observe “social distancing.” At the same time, it’s very important for us to keep tabs on each other and to check in with people whom we know are alone and who might be feeling anxious, to console them, and to ask them if there’s anything we can do for them. And most importantly we should be using this time to pray for each other. Our Lord is with us. We must put our trust in Him.