The Antonine Plague and the Christian Response
Despite widespread hatred, Early Christians served the sick and the dying during the deadly Plague that ravaged the Roman Empire. Their exemplary and sacrificial service was a counter-trend. We would do well to remember the selfless service of the Early Church.
Is not serving the sick and the dying part of Christian heritage? Of course! Throughout history, Christians have served the sick and the dying, particularly during Epidemics.
Between 165 – 266 CE, the Roman Empire was devastated by two plagues - the Antonine and the Cyprian Plague. Historians point that the Plague was the primary reason for the collapse of Rome.
The first outbreak of the Antonine Plague in Rome closely followed the return of the Roman legions from the eastern frontier. We now know that the Antonine Plague could have been a strain of the smallpox virus.
The effect on Rome’s population was severe, and its spread multiplied across the Roman Empire. The Plagues were virulent and dangerous and nearly wiped out a third of its population.
The Cyprian Plague happened 80 years later. Bishop Cyprian (200 – 258), who lived through this “hateful disease,” describes it in much detail. “Afterwards, there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in the succession of the trembling populace, (cf. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 5)
Early Christian writings capture the ‘fear and dread’ in the streets. We also get a glimpse of the strain on the civic systems caused by the epidemic. Cyprian writes, “There lay …over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses [sic] of many, and… demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves.” (cf. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 5)
Similarly, The Patriarch of Alexandria St. Dionysius records, “Now, indeed, everything is tears, and everyone [sic] is mourning, and wailings resound daily through the city because of the multitude of the dead and dying.”
Infected people were abandoned to the streets to die. Rome was facing an enormous physical and psychological burden due to the increase in the daily death toll, not to mention the pile of dead bodies on its streets.
All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the Plague, one could exclude death itself also.
They [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”
The Plague also affected Christians in the Empire. Cyprian mentions this disease attacked people equally with the heathens. However, the Christian response to the Plague was a counter-trend.
St. Dionysius writes: “Most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ.
And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbours to themselves, and willingly receiving their pains…
Truly the best of our brethren departed from life in this manner, including some presbyters and deacons and those of the people who had the highest reputation;
So that this form of death, through the great piety and strong faith it exhibited, seemed to lack nothing of Martyrdom.”
Note, when most people fled Rome due to fear of contracting the infection, Christians fearlessly served the sick with exceeding love and kindness and ministered to them continually. Moreover, when people shunned any contact with the afflicted, the Church most joyfully took the affliction of others and willingly received their pains.
Our forebears served the people through exemplary and selfless service, borne of piety, strong faith, and devotion to Christ. Many presbyters and deacons lost their lives, and this form of death was seen as Martyrdom.
Interestingly, Christians were blamed for angering the gods due to their refusal to participate in religious rituals. However, Christians served the sick and dying selflessly, despite growing hatred towards them.
Not surprisingly, Christianity spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire because of this powerful demonstration of selfless love and sacrifice. The Christian faith, hope and, love attracted even those who were hostile and hurtful.
Historically, Christian service has been rooted in faith, a sense of shared purpose, and devotion to Christ. Contemporary Christians can draw inspiration from a rich repository of spiritual experience and selfless service.
Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash
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