The Cyprian Plague

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Magnus Maximus, Jun 8, 2019.

  1. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    Rome faced many challenges in the third century: climate change, hostile tribes/kingdoms to the north and east, and political atrophy in its foundational institutions. Any one of these problems would be a challenge to deal with on their own but throw all of them together and add one of the worst pandemics in human history to the mix, and you get a recipe for 50 years of military and civil anarchy.

    The pandemic, known as the Plague of Cyprian, was first reported in Egypt in 249 and was likely spread throughout the empire by troops stationed in Alexandria. From Alexandria the disease spread throughout the Roman world causing misery and death. It was reported that at the height of the pandemic over 5,000 people were dying a day in the city of Rome. Alexandria, the city where the first cases occurred, lost 62% of it's population. It is possible that the Roman legions lost up to a quarter of their number, and had trouble filling vacancies due to the general population decline from the pandemic. Faced with a significant loss of its tax base the central government increasingly debased it's currency to cover the increasingly high costs of the military. This theory can be supported with evidence that suggests that the rapid debasement of the silver coinage occurred in the year 250/1, exactly the same time the plague was hitting the Roman empire.

    Actually estimates vary about how many people died from the plague in the empire due to the fact that scientists still don't know what the causative agent was. Sadly, unlike the century earlier Antonine plague, the Cyprian plague (and third century) does not have a very detailed description of events. What we do know of the outbreak comes from the writings of or about Cyprian of Carthage, whom the outbreak is named after. Cyprian and his biographer tend to focus more on the religious aspects of the pestilence than epidemiological ones, though their writings are still a gold mine for trying to piece together what was going on. Cyprian's biography vividly describes the hardship faced by the Romans at the time of the outbreak as " a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease that invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. 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. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcases of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves."

    In addition Cyprian himself describes the symptoms faced by a person infected by the plague as "the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened."

    Some historians suggest the agent of the plague was the Smallpox virus or Measles virus, though this is not likely as the symptoms do not match. Specifically the symptoms of hemorrhaging from the eyes, severe neurological damage and visual impairment are not found in most cases of Measles and Smallpox . Also, if the disease was indeed Smallpox it seems odd that Cyprian would leave out the tell tale rash and skin pustules associated with that disease. Measles can also be ruled out as it simply hadn't evolved from the Rinderpest virus yet; that would happen in the middle ages.

    So we are left with a disease that spreads rapidly by direct contact with infected individuals, and it's symptoms include hemorrhagic bleeding, neurological damage, and vision loss. The current leading hypothesis is that the Plague of Cyprian was caused by an viral hemorrhagic fever, similar to today's Marburg and Ebola viruses.
    Ebola and Marburg belong to the family of Filoviridae, a group of related viruses found in Africa, the Philippines, and Europe. Many members of this family cause life threatening illness(up to 70% mortality in some cases) that are characterized by hemorrhaging, high fever, vomiting, neural atrophy, and visual impairment. Unfortunately the viruses are made of RNA which is less stable than DNA and rapidly degrades, which is why scientists are not likely going to find any Filoviridae genetic material in graves associated with the Cyprian plague.

    I had heard of the Cyprian plague before but never put much thought into it until one day I came across a thread on CT that talked about the debasement of Roman silver coinage. One user on the thread brought up a good point that Roman empire seemed to be at least somewhat stable until the reigns of Trajan Decius (249) and Trebonianus Gallus (251). I work in an hospital lab (Micro dept), and am a big fan of history so it was an fun adventure to learn about what possibly caused this epidemic and what it's effects on the Roman empire were. So to "celebrate" the Cyprian Plague here is an tetradrachm of Trebonianus Gallus struck during the early stages of the outbreak.
    Feel free to post your coins! s-l1600-4.jpg
    25MM .
    251-253 CE
    Antioch Mint
    A statue of the man on the money.

    Some of the common Filoviruses

    Fun reading on the subject
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2019
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  3. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper

    I don't have any Trebonianus Gallus, but that's one fascinating post. Also, fantastic statue of Trebonianis Gallus. Though I didn't know the emperor had such a tiny....ahem, nice coin.:rolleyes:
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2019
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  4. Ancient Aussie

    Ancient Aussie Supporter! Supporter

    Great post, learn something everyday here.
  5. Topcat7

    Topcat7 Still Learning

    @Magnus Maximus
    'Très intéressant', mon ami.
    A very interesting article MM. Thank-you.
    FYI - Here is my Trebonius Gallus (251-253)

    Antoninianus AR 23mm., 3.4gm.
    RIC IV PtIII 72
    Mint - Milan
    AR Antoninianus Trebonianus Gallus  RIC Milan 72.jpg
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2019
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  6. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Great post! Yes, I can see how Ebola running through the empire would cause some consternation. :eek:

    I wonder if this odd SAECVLVM NOVVM type issued by Gallus (here for Hostilian in 251, Antioch mint) was at all connected with the outbreak. "It's gonna get better, I promise... it'll be a new era!"

    Screen Shot 2019-06-08 at 12.18.10 AM.jpg
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  7. R*L

    R*L Well-Known Member

    Thanks for posting that, really interesting!

    Trebonianus Gallus, 251-253 AD.

    Mediolanum. 251-253 AD.

    22mm., 3.09g.

    IMP C C VIB TREB GALLVS AVG. Bust of Trebonianus Gallus, radiate, draped, cuirassed, right

    LIBERTAS PVBLICA. Libertas, draped, standing left, holding pileus in right hand and transverse sceptre in left hand

    References: RIC IV Trebonianus Gallus 70

    Trajan Decius, 249-251 AD. Rome.

    22mm., 3.3g.

    IMP C M Q TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG. Bust of Trajan Decius, radiate, draped, cuirassed, right.

    DACIA. Dacia, draped in long robe reaching feet, standing left, holding vertical staff with head of ass in right hand

    References: RIC IV Trajan Decius 12
  8. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    My Cyprian Plague issue is an ant of Valerian, struck when it was still wreaking havoc in Rome. This particular reverse with Apollo the Health-Bringer is, not surprisingly, most commonly found on coins of Trebonianus Gallus.

    Billon Antoninianus. 2.82g, 20.5mm. Rome mint, AD 256-257. RIC 76; Cohen 28. O: IMP C P LIC VALERIANVS P F AVG, radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right. R: APOLL SALVTARI, Apollo standing left holding laurel branch in right hand and lyre resting on rock in left.
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  9. Sallent

    Sallent Live long and prosper

    Man, that is one nice Valerian. Mine is a "roadkill" version, but it was a super cheap coin, so I ain't complaining.

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  10. Al Kowsky

    Al Kowsky Supporter! Supporter

    Sallent, The older you get the smaller it gets :(. Reaching my 71st birthday last April I can testify to that :shame:.
  11. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    Interesting write-up and coins. I have a poor specimen of a Trebonianus Gallus sestertius featuring the APOLLO SALVTARI reverse, similar to zumbly's Valentinian antoninianus. I too have heard that there are plague connections to this issue:

    Trebonianus Gallus - Sest Apollo 2017 (0).jpg

    Trebonianus Gallus
    Æ Sestertius - Rome Mint
    (253 A.D.)

    IMP CAE C VIB TREB GALLVS AVG, laureate, cuirassed draped bust right / APOLLO SALVTARI S-C, Apollo naked standing left, holding branch & resting hand on lyre set on a rock.
    RIC 104b (rarer than APOLL).
    (17.15 grams / 27 mm)

    I also have two from Gallienus with Apollo and the SALVS legend, possibly also plague-related - or just for an ailing emperor. These are duplicates, but one is AE and the other still has some silvering present, so I kept them both:
    Gallienus - SALVS Apollo Ant Feb 2018 (0).jpg

    Gallienus Ant. Apollo May 2019  (0).jpg

    Gallienus Æ Antoninianus
    (c. 267 A.D.)
    Antioch (or Asian) Mint

    GALLIENVS AVG, radiate, cuirassed bust right / SALVS AVG, Apollo standing left, holding laurel branch in right hand, left arm leaning on tripod. PXV in exergue.
    RIC 610; Göbl 1670k
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  12. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Dynamite write up @Magnus Maximus ! Very informative, I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    Trebonnius Gallus:

    RI Trebonianus Gallus Ant 20mm 3.0g Apollo Lyre RIC 32 RSC 20
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  13. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    Claudius II Gothicus was likely one of the victims in the Plague of Cyprian.

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  14. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    Yeah, I forgot to mention that Claudius II and Hostilian likely died of the plague. It must have been a terrible time to be alive and witness all that death and misery without really knowing what was going on.
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  15. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    Interesting write-up and excellent coin!

    Last Fall I read Kyle Harper's The Fate of Rome which explored climate and disease in the Roman world and went into detail about many of the plague outbreaks, including the Plague of Cyprian. I highly recommend it!
  16. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    RI Claudius II Gothicus 268-270 CE BI Ant Neptune Stndg dolphin trident.jpg
    RI Claudius II Gothicus 268-270 CE BI Ant Neptune Stndg dolphin trident

    RI Hostilian 251 CE AE 27 Viminacium Moesia Bull-Lion.jpg
    RI Hostilian 251 CE AE 27 Viminacium Moesia Bull-Lion
  17. R*L

    R*L Well-Known Member

    Out of curiosity, did Harper offer a view as to what the plague was?
  18. ominus1

    ominus1 Supporter! Supporter

    yeah, kool thread!...right around the year 250 there was definitely big schisms and upheavals...many deaths.. Trebonus Gallus  Romans  Christmas 2018 002.JPG Trebonus Gallus  Romans  Christmas 2018 004.JPG .Trebonus Gallus provincial
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  19. David Atherton

    David Atherton Flavian Fanatic

    Granted, this is highly speculative, but he thinks it was either pandemic influenza or more probably viral hemorrhagic fever.
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  20. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    I should have added that their are more families of viruses other than Filoviridae that cause hemorrhagic fever. Though most of those other viruses require arthropod vectors, making their rapid dissemination throughout the entire Roman Empire unlikely. Though who knows what the Cyprian plague’s etiological agent was. :dead::hungover:
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  21. 7Calbrey

    7Calbrey Well-Known Member

    Treb.Gallus Billon. Prieur 659. BTW.. Cyprian as an adjective has a meaning, and as a noun has a totally different meaning.

    T. Gallus O         Prieur 659.jpg TrebGalBil R 001.jpg
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