A much-admired colleague told me a shocking story this morning which demonstrates why she is so admired. I hope she will share the story in her own words later, but I want to talk about it now. Walking down the hall of her medical office building, she saw a patient collapse with a seizure. He had been standing in front of his doctor’s office, but the staff would not open the door because he was known to be COVID-19 positive. He was left unattended in the floor of the hallway. She was wearing only a standard hospital mask and had no other protective equipment, but stopped to care for him until he was transported to the Emergency Department.
The mental image of a man collapsed in front of the closed door of his doctor’s office has haunted me all day because it reminded me of something. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I asked my friend Dr. Diana Severance, a historian, if she would send me a summary of the plagues of Europe between the 1st and the 5th centuries. I wanted to see what I could learn from those pandemics. The detailed account she provided was both horrifying and encouraging, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Now, perhaps it’s time to talk about it.
In 165 AD, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, an epidemic of what is thought to have been smallpox was brought to Rome by troops returning from wars against the Parthians (modern Iran). The disease decimated the Roman army and spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire. Lasting episodically for fifteen years, it is estimated that one quarter to one third of the population of the empire perished.
About 100 years later, the Cyprian plague struck, so named because Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage vividly described the disease as follows:
“…the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds… the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; the eyes are on fire with injected blood… the hearing is obstructed or the sight darkened… in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by… putrefaction…” (1)
No house was spared. Pagan priests fled the city and the Roman temples closed. At the first sign of illness, the sick were thrown into the street by their family members and their bodies were left to rot. Remember, mercy was not considered a virtue by the Romans. Galen, the noted physician, fled the city. Physicians had no concept of duty to their patients. Hippocrates did not appear on the scene until about 460.
Only one group of people provided care to the plague victims. They were a much-hated group and were often under persecution for their rejection of polytheism. They believed in showing mercy to the suffering and even cared for the Romans who persecuted them. As described by the historian Eusebius:
“…In this awful adversity they alone gave practical proof of their sympathy and humanity. All day long some of them tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all part of the city, a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all…” (2)
Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, said that they tended the sick gladly and that many who nursed others to health died themselves. It was in part because of their behavior during the plagues that the Roman Emperor Constantine established a policy of toleration for the religion called Christianity and later adopted it as the state religion.(3)
In the plague of the 3rd century, Bishop Cyprian encouraged his flock with these words that I think are worth recounting:
“What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! What sublimity to stand erect amid he desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion…” (2)
In the 21st century, I thought most people considered mercy a virtue they should demonstrate, even if they don’t subscribe to the faith that produced it. However, the unattended patient in front of the closed door of his doctor’s office is a picture of 1st century pagan Rome. I’d like to emulate my friend and colleague who demonstrated the powers of an unshaken mind. Against much devastation and death, perhaps we can all strive to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race. Thankfully, COVID-19 does not compare to the plagues of Europe, and we face it with the most advanced technology in human history. Nevertheless, it is easier to embrace the “benefit of the occasion” if you have hope in God.
- Cyprian. “On the Mortality”, Treatise VII in The Treatises of Cyprian. Fathers of the Third Century, volume V of The Ante-Nicene Fathers. W.W. Eerdmans, 1986, VII.14. Kyle Harper in The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton U. Press, 2015) analyzes the evidence and suggests the Cyprian plague was a viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola.
- The Church History, 9.8.
- Rodney Stark. The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion. Harper One, 2011, 111-119.
Excerpted from a longer article by Diana Severance, Ph.D.
Director, Dunham Bible Museum, Houston, Texas