One of the best things about reading history is that it lifts you above what others have called the narcissism of the present. This is the foolish idea that our times are completely unprecedented and that we have nothing to learn from the wisdom and the follies of the past.
Two books in the past year have offered a corrective to this point of view. The first is “Epidemics and Society” by Frank Snowden. Written before the present pandemic which is nevertheless referred to in in a revised introduction it describes the history of humankind’s relationship with infectious disease and gives an account of the pandemics of the past. How lucky we were to escape a pandemic for so long! We had this one coming our way for some time and pandemics can be much more serious than this one. Think smallpox, Ebola virus and bubonic plague.
The other is “The Fate of Rome” by Kyle Harper. Harper is a professor of classics and ancient history in the USA. Most of us are dimly aware that the Roman Empire can be said to have fallen. Some of us know that pandemic disease gave the Empire a series of shocks. There seem to have been three main ones: the Antonine Plague of 165-6, the plague of St Cyprian in 264-6 so called because Cyprian Bishop of Carthage wrote a detailed description of it and the plague of Justinian which raged across the Mediterranean world in the sixth century and of which there are many reports. These diseases had a devastating effect on population numbers. In addition the Empire had to face the effects of climate change-not anthropogenic climate change to be sure- but none the less devastating for the strength and welfare of the Empire and its inhabitants. These findings have been resourced by a new science: bio-archaeology. The Roman Empire was not a blessing for the health of its inhabitants. To the question: What have the Romans ever done for us?-the answer might well have been: got us sick.
From my perspective particular interest attaches to the response of the Church in worship teaching and service. In the case of the plague of the third century Christians were initially blamed and persecution intensified. But the response of Christians in caring for one another and for strangers strengthened the Church and showed up the uselessness of the pagan gods. Preaching both at this time and later became darker with an especial emphasis on judgement and the end times. By the time of the plague of Justinian Christianity was the official faith of the Empire.
Against this plague the Church mobilised all its resources. There was special preaching, new Biblical commentaries were written and prayer walks across the city of Rome were held led by the Bishop-Gregory-known to history as St Gregory the Great. Gregory’s writings on pastoral ministry can still be read with profit today. An important theme of Gregory’s preaching was judgement and a belief in impending judgement is an impetus to action. So Gregory was inspired to initiate a mission to the savage Anglo-Saxons a mission which sadly remains incomplete to this day. Special days of prayer were decreed for the Christian calendar by the Emperor’s command.
One of the most famous icons which led the processions –an icon of Mary devoted to the health of the Roman people can still be seen in in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. It would be interesting to know whether it’s been brought out as an aid to intercessory prayer during the present pandemic.
So far during this pandemic the Churches response has been disappointing. The leadership seems unable to speak prophetically and their prayers are sometimes half hearted. The theme of judgement and repentance is scarcely ever mentioned and yet the scientists know that behind the pandemic and the climate crisis lies environmental degradation driven by greed. The later Romans were taught by their Church to repent of their greed, inequality and waste. Why is our Church so timid and so silent?