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The scientists studying the current influenza pandemic are looking to history for clues about how the disease may progress. They are generally looking at 20th century pandemics, but there are several major plagues in the ancient world. We don't know for sure the identity of the ancient diseases that caused widespread death, but influenza is not a likely candidate. Still, it might be worth looking at 4 major ancient plagues.

Plague of Pericles (430-428 B.C.)

Thucydides wrote about the plague that killed the Athenian leader Pericles in his history of the Peloponnesian War. It might have been any number of diseases. Recently, typhoid has been suggested. Pericles had crowded together within Athens' city walls the residents of the extended area of Attica. Crowded conditions contributed to the mortality.

Antonine Plague (165-180 A.D.)

During Marcus Aurelius' reign a plague was brought back from the East that was called the Antonine Plague after the family name of Marcus Aurelius. The physician Galen described the pandemic, for which reason, it is also called the Plague of Galen. It lasted from 165/66 - 180 or later with possibly another outbreak in 189. It may have been smallpox.

Plague of Cyprian or Aurelian Plague (251- 270)

Possibly smallpox or measles. Named for the Roman Emperor Aurelianus or the Christian writer Cyprian who described the plague. See: The Plague of AD251 for text describing the pandemic.

Plague of Justinian (541-542)

Procopius describes this plague, saying it came from Egypt, spread to the Roman Empire and then to Persia. It is said that 10,000 people a day died from it in Constantinople, lasting 3-4 months, and wiping out about a third of the population of the Eastern Empire, according to Demographic Transition Theory.

A DIscovery News article, Plague Helped Bring Down Roman Empire from May 10, 2013, says the plague named fro Justinian was indeed caused by the Black Death culprit, Yersinia pestis, based on DNA evidence found among Bavarian skeletons.


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