The Colonizer’s Misfortune: Rome’s Contraction of Malaria

Nicholas Buttino

From determining the location of cities to influencing human evolution to facilitating colonization, the transmission of disease, or resistance to such transmission, has done much to shape development of societies. For Spanish conquistadors the spread of Eurasian disease, and Spanish resistance to such diseases, throughout the Americas made colonization possible (Diamond 197). Africa, known to the Romans and later Europeans as the Dark Continent for its impenetrability and diseases, did not follow the trend seen in the Americas. Malaria is responsible in Africa for causing Nairobi to be built in the mountains and facilitating the survival of the sickle cell anemia gene. Out of Africa, it scourged Europe and prevented colonization of the heart of Africa for two thousand years. Not coincidently, malaria made this trek with the assistance of climate fluctuations and the advent of Mediterranean sea trading. The prevalence of malaria around Rome contributed to demoralization, the harsh effect of climate changes and economic troubles. Advancements in transportation technology made possible the transmission of malaria to Rome, defying the later trend of diseases benefiting colonizers, and altering the home environment of its Empire enough to affect the political and social climate.

The mechanisms of survival and transmission of malaria determine its origin and relevance to the effect of innovations in transportation on Classic civilization. Malaria, from the Italian for bad air (Reiter 144), survives in the blood of a host and propagates through mosquito carriers. Nearly all females of the 3,500 species of mosquitoes require blood to produce eggs. When female mosquitoes take blood from an infected source they become carriers and transmit malaria to future hosts (Reiter 142). Because it depends on mosquitoes for transmission, malaria does most well in hot wet areas, where mosquitoes breed most efficiently, such as in Africa and in Asia. Mountains, because their elevation causes a decrease in temperature, provide a refuge from malaria. Roman thinkers did not fail to notice the importance of this connection; Varro, Columella and Virtruvius believed malaria to be caused by microscopic animals that lived near marshes (Soren 203). Perhaps this explains why Cicero believed the raised areas of the city of Rome to be healthier than the surrounding valleys in the first century BCE (Prescott 453). If exposed to a suitable environment, such as those made available from water manipulation and the geographical engineering of cities, malaria can establish itself in an area. Specific to the Roman story, once malaria came from Africa to Europe it could survive in the rivers and marshes of Southern and Central Italy and Greece, and continue to infect the populations of these civilizations.

Shipping technology provided the vector that malaria needed to escape from its native environment of Africa to Europe. The specific transmission of malaria likely came through trade from Africa to Sardinia or Ostia and then traveled from there to Rome and all along the Tiber River (Soren 199). While some trade did occur over land, the efficiency and speed of ocean traveling makes it a more likely path for the disease. In need of hosts to survive the trek, malaria likely carried itself overseas on the soldiers and slaves traveling from Africa and Asia (Jones 785). Historians lack enough data to complete a full economic analysis, but it is thought that the protection of private property available in the Greek city-states fueled the trading economies (Rostovtseff 206). These economies established the Mediterranean shipping routes that the Romans would later use to secure their empire, increase wealth and (inadvertently) transfer diseases such as malaria.

The introduction and spread of malaria caused a philosophic demoralization of Rome. Homer’s mention of King Priam’s fever in the Iliad, written around 800 BCE, is the earliest written evidence of malaria-like disease in the Western world (Reiter 144). This reference has particular significance because it occurs in a tale that depends on the large-scale transportation, using ships, of men and supplies south from Greece to Troy. Historical evidence, however, suggests that malaria did not become well established until 300 BCE in Greece and 200 BCE in Rome (Jones 785). Even after establishment in Rome, malaria infection rates did not remain constant; periods of high malaria infection occurred in the second century BCE (ibid) and the fifth century CE (Wilford). The spread and rate of infection devastated morale; Jones even goes so far as to write that malaria caused “a loss in manly vigor” among the Greeks (785). Soren, however, documents a bizarre tale from evidence found in a children’s cemetery. In response to the malaria epidemic of the mid-Fifth Century CE, the Romans blamed God. They buried children, whom archaeologists believe died from malaria, with dolls without limbs (201) and decapitated puppies (197). The desperation and futility shown by these responses demonstrates the destabilizing influence of malaria. The long-term presence of malaria combined with other factors to influence the disintegration of order in the Fifth Century CE.

The demoralization caused by malaria coincides with political and economic troubles of the Empire. Similar to present economies, the Roman Empire had several declines and rises. While the sacking of Rome easily defines the final fall of the Western Empire, Rome’s disintegration occurred gradually. The decline of Rome and prevalence malaria co-vary with each other because each co-varies with factors that influenced the other. For example, Huntington posits that Rome fell because of climate change that caused the exhaustion of soils that in turn caused poverty among the masses because of reduced agricultural output. The poverty then that rotted the foundation of the Empire and caused collapse (Rostovtseff 209). Climate change, whether at the local and anthropogenic scale or at the climatic scale, also influences malaria prevalence. The creation of marshlands, which can result from both greater and less rainfall to an area, encourages mosquitoes and increases the spread of malaria. Once established, malaria can plague areas causing further decline, and perhaps further manipulation of local environment. Malaria periods coincided with economic and political declines because it thrived during periods of great environmental stress that caused further declines, forcing a weakened economy to cope with another blow.

The co-variance of malaria to climate change and other factors influencing Roman decline necessitates that one not attribute malaria as a primary cause of Roman decline. Wilford reports on archeological evidence for a malaria epidemic occurring shortly before the sacking of Rome. His findings, however do not demonstrate that Rome faced pandemic levels of malaria. He reports on children’s cemeteries full of infants that might have died from malaria and fifty stillbirths that were perhaps caused by malaria. Yet, the proof from DNA evidence that malaria caused their deaths remains unclear (Wilford). The cemeteries reported on by Wilford and Soren contribute to the literary evidence suggested by other historians, economists and archeologists to suggest disruption that malaria caused in Rome. One must also consider other factors to understand Rome’s decline.

The direction of the vectors for transmission of malaria to Rome, and the accompanying effects, turns our concepts of the role of disease and transportation on its head. Not only did malaria prevent, in part, the colonization of Africa until the Nineteenth Century, but it also spread to the colonizer’s homeland of the colonizers. The factors that influenced this spread, other than the shipping routes, were largely out of Roman control. For example, Romans had little control over global climate, even if they did have control over local drainage. With the current rise in global temperatures, which could cause a rise in the prevalence and spread of malaria worldwide, we should consider the possible effects of our current methods of transportation (and other energy uses) on malaria (Rogers 1764). Transportation increases exposure to different environments, even if it does not alter our local environments, and this exposure can take explorers unprepared. Rome’s unfortunate surprise constitutes demonstrates an instance of the effect of transportation on disease transmission that serves as a warning for the present.

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Wilford, J.N. 2001. DNA Shows Malaria Helped Topple Rome. The New York Times. February 20, 2001.

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