Archaeology

Animal and Zoonotic Diseases in the Ancient and Late Antique Mediterranean: Three Case Studies

Michael Decker

Maroulis Professor of Byzantine History and Orthodox Religion, The University of South Florida

Few outside the world of veterinary health officials and those who work in the agricultural sector took notice when in June, 2011, The New York Times ran a piece trumpeting the eradication of the disease rinderpest, commonly known as cattle plague.[1] Officials in the United Nations determined the virus stamped out following a failure to detect any new cases since 2001. Rinderpest therefore joins only smallpox as diseases officially eradicated through human intervention. As more people than ever before live in urbanized environments and are further removed from the animals that provide sources of food and raw materials, the lack of interest in such breakthroughs in animal science is unsurprising. Equally unsurprising is that, despite the centrality of animal husbandry in the life of pre-industrial societies, there has been little interest in the human-zoonotic relationships of the past. Consequently, ancient accounts of livestock diseases are rarely studied by historians and their effects on societies remain largely unexplored, as a brief review of the major literature attests. Spinage offers a broad overview whose scope does not permit detailed analysis of the pre-industrial era.[2]Likewise, although Blancou provides a valuable overview of animal diseases in early history, his work was a survey and thus he was unable to examine all cases comprehensively.[3] While Blancou’s work prompts us that there was a number of familiar zoonotic diseases afflicting cattle generally, it also is a reminder that there were others about which we know little. It is not possible in the space provided to be comprehensive in our treatment of these diseases. Without a thorough genetic study of ancient animal and zoonotic disease based on grave finds and DNA analysis, such a discussion is in any event beyond our grasp. Rather, the present work seeks to advance discussion by analyzing three disease episodes in the ancient and early medieval world; the first from the Roman imperial period and two from Late Antiquity.

Work in the history of animal and zoonotic disease is made especially difficult in no small part due to the fragmentary and cursory nature of the sources, which are scattered both chronologically and geographically. Even more frustrating for the historian is the scant interest that the surviving sources show in animal disease, especially of humble cattle, and that notices of mass death among livestock rarely include sufficient descriptive detail for us to ascertain the precise cause of mortality. Descriptions, when they exist, typically lack the kind of sharp description and discussion of mortality that allows one to determine the type of pathogen the ancient text records.

Anthrax is probably the best known and most frequently invoked zoonotic killer of livestock in Antiquity and the medieval world. The Greek anthrax (‘coal’ or ‘charcoal’) refers to the black skin lesions that form during infections. The anthrax bacillus forms endospores that can lie dormant in soil for decades or centuries; grazing ungulates are often infected through their ingestion of thousands of endospores lying on the surface. Human infection is almost never person to person, but generally indirect with the disease passed from an infected animal or animal product to the human host. There are several forms of infection; among them inhalation or pulmonary anthrax in which the host ingests tens of thousands of endospores causing internal infection. Pulmonary anthrax victims exhibit flu-like symptoms and lung failure within days of first manifesting symptoms; untreated, the death rate is above ninety per cent. Inhalation anthrax is also called ‘Woolsorters’ disease, since it was first noticed in modern medicine among Victorian era English wool workers who handled infected fleeces and thus breathed in sufficient material to succumb. Ingesting endospore laden meat from salvaged carcasses can cause a gastrointestinal form of the disease that may be fatal in sixty per cent of those infected.[4]Cutaneous forms of anthrax exhibit the tell-tale black ulcers and accompanying necrotic flesh. Only about twenty per cent of these cases are fatal; it is likely that the cutaneous form of anthrax was relatively common among the pastoralist societies of the ancient and medieval Mediterranean. Fatalities would have been highest among peasant herders and husbandmen, whose regular work among ovicaprids (sheep and goats) and large cattle exposed them to the disease with some regularity.

Rinderpest (cattle plague) is less well known than anthrax but is of much greater historical import. A member of the genus Morbillivirus and thus related to measles, rinderpest does not directly attack humans but its effects on their livestock are often devastating. The disease preys violently on animals on which people have traditionally depended, especially bovines (large cattle and oxen). Ovine rinderpest, an allied disease caused by a paromyxovirus, commonly called ‘peste des petits ruminants’, afflicts sheep and goats. In its most virulent forms indications of rinderpest include sudden fever, mucosal discharge and necrosis and erosions prevalent in the upper digestive tract. Dehydration and death quickly follow the appearance of symptoms, usually at most a week or two after the onset of symptoms. In animal populations lacking prior exposure and immunity, mortality can be staggeringly high – ninety per cent in such instances is normal. In populations where rinderpest is endemic, casualty rates are lower but still significant, often around twenty per cent.[5] Recent studies in the tropics indicate seasonality in the incidence of rinderpest, with outbreaks more frequent in wetter months.[6] In the Mediterranean, we would expect most outbreaks in Antiquity to occur at the end of winter with the arrival of warmer temperatures and rainfall. Climatic seasonality also correlated with transhumant movements, which helped to spread disease along the routes traveled by herders and their flocks.

The seminal historical work on rinderpest, Diekerhoff’s Geschichte der Rinderpest und ihrer Literatur, demonstrated that the disease devastated animal populations throughout Europe since Late Antiquity.[7] Diekerhoff’s treatise long remained the primary historical reference; it took more than a century for it to be superseded by the detailed work of Clive Spinage.[8] Spinage raised awareness of the larger historical implications of rinderpest outbreaks in world history and examined probable outbreaks prior to the identification of the disease in the nineteenth century.[9]

These works encourage us to broaden our explorations of specific zoonotic outbreaks in the pre-modern world to include not only the best known lethal agents such as anthrax and bubonic plague. The present study builds upon prior studies of ancient animal disease through a discussion of cases reported in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds during Late Antiquity through the early Medieval period. Although the episode from Virgil is early (first century ad), the other disease cases come from the fourth through seventh centuries ad. The geographical area that I have chosen to investigate is comprised of those lands of the Mediterranean generally east of Italy and extending as far as Mesopotamia, which were initially under Roman control but eventually formed one of the core territories of Islam. While Europe has received the bulk of the rather scant treatment of animal disease in history, the Mediterranean world and the Middle East have generally been neglected.

A number of accounts of early livestock epidemics are well known, among them the plague described in the Book of Exodus (9:1–5) in the Bible, which apparently relates events that occurred in Egypt in c. 1300 bc. According to this account, all manner of livestock, including sheep, oxen and camels, succumbed to murrain (anthrax in this case). Likewise, anthrax has been blamed for the first-century bc epidemic among cattle described by the Roman poet Virgil, whose Georgics depict a cattle illness that swept through the region of Noricum (an area today comprising Austria and Slovenia) and Illyria (the shoreline of the Adriatic Sea and inland areas to northern Greece). In his long description the poet notes characteristics of the illness: sheep lag behind the flock and separate themselves, then falter due to weakness. Entire folds, rather than individuals, are infected overnight. ‘…As the heat of autumn glowed every sort of cattle, domestic or wild, it carried to death; it poisoned the lakes and infected the pastures’.[10] Virgil’s description offers other clues: death is sudden and animals drop while grazing, hounds are infected, swine are also sickened. Horses burn with fever and sweat and cannot slake their thirst. After the first couple of days, the eyes are burning red (ardentes oculi), black blood runs from their nostrils and their swollen tongue obstructs the throat.[11] This episode, called the Noric Cattle Plague, has garnered attention from scholars interested in agrarian history and in understanding whether Virgil’s description is in keeping with what we know of disease outbreaks.

Flintoff argued that Virgil described a real, large-scale outbreak of anthrax and not simply a fictional episode.[12]Anthrax probably best fits the description of a number of the symptoms described in Georgics; these included myasthenia, hemorrhaging from the nose, and sudden death among oxen. However, what complicates matters, as discussed below, is that other zoonoses exhibit broadly similar symptoms. Since many of these symptoms are also found in rinderpest, Spinage did not discount the possibility of the presence of anthrax in the Noric Cattle Plague, but suggested that the account might have been a conflation of various illnesses that appeared at around the same time. A key piece of evidence that tips the balance in favour of anthrax is Virgil’s stress that animal hides were rendered worthless and that shearers could not clip fleeces in the midst of the epidemic; this evidence comports well with anthrax, whose bacterial spores infect hides and wool.[13] In modern outbreaks in southern Africa, anthrax spread primarily through attempts to salvage hides from dead animals, thus infecting neighbouring villages for miles around the original epicentre of the outbreak. After contact with infected hides, people quickly realized they were dealing with a serious communicable disease.[14]

The Noric Cattle Plague account does seem to combine details of a number of diseases and it may even represent a pastiche of oral traditions in circulation regarding a number of historical episodes. Some of the more extreme images, for instance Virgil’s notice of the death of fish and snakes, has led some to question the veracity of the account; although in my view, the poet links the death of fish and amphibians to a companion scourge, the simultaneous invasion by an insidious serpent, rather than to the disease itself.[15] On the whole there seems little reason to discount the historicity of the episode presented in Georgics. A careful reading of this text in light of scientific descriptions of various epidemics permits us to recognize in the symptoms that the poet describes in Georgics a number of real diseases, among them anthrax.[16] It is therefore surprising that a number of recent scholars continue to contend that Virgil’s account essentially amounts to fantasy.[17]

Rinderpest and anthrax share many characteristic symptoms. Sheep, large cattle and other ruminants are highly susceptible to both diseases, and both may manifest themselves in similar fashion, namely constriction of the respiratory tract, facial discharge, fever and sudden death. These indications are all present in Virgil’s account, who notes that many cattle collapsed suddenly while being worked, others died while grazing or stabled. Horses, pigs and even dogs are said to have perished in the Noric episode. While pigs are more resistant to rinderpest than other ruminants, they can succumb through acute exposure. Horses are not affected by rinderpest, but are quite vulnerable to anthrax, as are canines. Although it would be easy to discard Virgil’s description of fish, snakes and birds dying in the Noric Plague as fanciful, anthrax can, in rare cases, kill fowl.[18]

Anthrax is endemic to Europe, where as recently as the eighteenth century an outbreak killed an estimated one half of all sheep on the continent.[19] Infection occurs most often in alkaline soils common over much of the Mediterranean, since the positive pH of such ground favours spore survival, conditions which prevailed over much of Noricum, which lay predominantly in the limestone zone of the eastern Alps. Much of the Mediterranean is likewise calcareous and these limestone environments are amenable to the persistence of the disease. Likewise there is a correlation between droughty periods and anthrax epidemics since dry conditions lead to decreased forage and animals tend to crop grass more closely, increasing their intake of spores contained in the soil.[20]

A second scrap of evidence from Virgil also supports the view that the Noric Plague witnessed anthrax or rinderpest, that is the timing of the outbreak which occurred as ‘a storm that glowed with autumn’s heat’.[21] Both rinderpest and anthrax outbreaks exhibit seasonality, their communicability affected by temperature and precipitation. A third hint, and the strongest indicator of the variety of disease from Virgil’s description of the plague, is the inability of farmers and herders to harvest meat and hides from the animals which died; this indicates anthrax. Anthrax spores are often transferred via meat and hides to the human population and sicken those who tried to recover these products. That the spread of the disease was mitigated through the action of decomposition is another possible indicator that anthrax was to blame.[22]

On balance, the speed to mortality of the Noric Cattle Plague favours rinderpest, while the range of victims and the damage to their hides and contaminated carcasses lend considerable support to the view that anthrax was the main agent present. The episode underscores the difficulty of using ancient accounts to isolate specific outbreaks and their pathogens; most ancient and medieval accounts simply will not sustain close scrutiny. In such cases we can only tenuously link ancient outbreaks with known diseases identified by modern science.

Such is the case for a later cattle plague, this one described by a Christian poet named Severus Severinus Endelechius, who probably lived in Gaul in the fourth century ad. Endelechius is thought to have been a friend and correspondent of the bishop Paulinus of Nola (ad 353–431) and he thus lived in the later fourth or early fifth centuries. He wrote a poem entitled De Mortibus Boum (On the Death of Cattle), which recalls an epizootic that struck his home region in Gaul. The poem is cast as a discussion between a cowherd, Bucolus, and his friend Aegon. The cowherd tells his companion that the plague had spread through Pannonia, Illyria and among the ‘Belgians’. By ‘Belgians’ Endelechius presumably means the territory of Trier in Germany, centre of the old Belgic confederacy of tribes known from the campaigns of Julius Caesar and Augustus in the first century bc. This would suggest that the disease followed transhumant and trade routes in the cattle-rich lands north of the Mediterranean. It thus reminds us that the Rhine-Danube corridor was not only a trade route, but also a landscape through which large-scale movements of drovers and their stock occurred with seasonal regularity. Such migrations carried goods and disease with them.

The starting point of Endelechius’ disease, Pannonia, encompassed portions of what is now western Hungary. This region, well watered and with considerable expanses of range land, has always been a rich cattle land. Further east, the Great Hungarian Plain is the furthest western extension of the Eurasian steppeland and it was there that many nomadic groups, newly arrived from Central Asia via south Russia, would settle throughout the coming centuries, including the Huns and Magyars. Scholarly consensus is that it was via this region that cattle plague (rinderpest) entered Western Europe. De Mortibus Boum is probably our first description of an outbreak of this disease. Since the date of this episode is thought to be around ad 376, historians have been quick to link this cattle plague with the arrival of the Huns in Eastern Europe at this time. These Asian nomads, famous for their horse breeding, were also cattle breeders extraordinaire and their vast herds carried with them rinderpest and other diseases.[23]

Can we identify with any certainty the disease described in the poem? The poet stresses the extreme suddenness with which the disease attacked the animals. Animals died while being worked in the field and the disease did not discriminate regarding age or sex; the cowherd Buculus laments that the mother and calf were cut down, as was the prized bull in the meadow. In the course of the poem we discover that the cattle of Buculus’ neighbours were saved from the pestilence only by putting the sign of the cross on their foreheads.[24]

The time of year provides additional insights. Endelechius reports that the farmer was working his two oxen, ploughing the land after the first rains. Since normal Roman practice in Mediterranean climates was to sow grain in the autumn, it seems likely that the disease struck Gaul at this time of year. In at least two instances, researchers have observed that rinderpest outbreaks occurred following the first rains that ended the dry season.[25] As noted above both cattle plague and anthrax commonly afflicted animals during this season.

Although the clinical manifestations of rinderpest vary somewhat, sudden onset and rapid die-offs are the most common features that link one event to another. It is dangerous to argue from silence, yet had the disease Endelechius described been anthrax, it seems probable that some of the other symptoms frequently associated with the disease would have appeared. While Virgil mentions such symptoms (bleeding and the inability to recover meat, the destruction of the disease by putrefaction), Endelechius makes no mention of such elements. Since the plague described was certainly a serious outbreak, it is reasonable to suppose that had the disease been anthrax it would have spread to humans through effort to harvest the carcasses, a common practice through most of history. On balance the evidence suggests that the fourth-century outbreak described above refers to a rinderpest episode, possibly the first in western European history.

Another late antique notice of probable rinderpest is found in the veterinary literature. Between ad 330 and 450 the Roman author Vegetius compiled a work on veterinary medicine. In this work he described symptoms of cattle plague (malis/maleus) in bovines.[26] Oxen stricken by the disease presented with hair bristling, dull eyes, the neck hanging down and continual slavering. The animal walked slowly and was stiff in its movements, with a rigid spine, depression and rare cud-chewing (an activity generally associated with healthy and contented animals). Vegetius offered little to help the farmer whose herds were afflicted; it is doubtful that the various drenches (medicinal fluids force-fed to animals) prescribed did much to slow the disease. These drenches contained, among other items, squill (the bulb of Urginea maritima, a flowering plant common in the Mediterranean), honey, poplar root and various herbs, all of questionable efficacy. Certainly more useful was the use of quarantine: in a precious passage Vegetius commanded herdsmen to remove afflicted animals from the herd to regions not used for pasture, since they would infect the grasslands and water. Animals thus cut off would be left either to die or fully recover; in the fourth century only one in ten would have survived the initial onslaught of the disease.[27]

By the end of Late Antiquity (seventh century) at the latest, both anthrax and rinderpest were endemic to much of the Mediterranean region, but almost no notice has been given to the potential of another epizootic to inflict grave damage on the domestic animal population, namely bubonic plague. While abundant research has discussed the late medieval European Black Death that afflicted large areas of the continent in the 1340s and killed as many as 75 million people, there is little discussion of the possible negative effects of the bubonic plague on animals.[28]

The first historically recorded human pandemic attributed to bubonic plague, the so-called Justinianic Plague, is named for the Byzantine emperor in whose reign the pestilence occurred and who survived the scourge. The Justinianic Plague emerged in the Mediterranean in ad 541–42 and made frequent visitations throughout Europe and the Middle East until it abated in 747. Though much has been written on the initial pandemic, the agent responsible for the disease remains uncertain. Scholars remain divided about the precise identification of the disease in either case, and although each pandemic may have had different root causes, since many of the same symptoms appear in the sources that describe both the Justinianic Plague and Black Death, the same pathogen may have been responsible. Until recently it seemed that a scholarly consensus was reached decades ago, but the debate about the precise nature of both plagues has revived of late. Prominent studies by Cohn and by Scott and Duncan have argued that some form of haemorrhagic fever, probably viral in nature, was responsible for both outbreaks. Duncan and Scott offer probably the most forceful catalogue of evidence against bubonic plague as the cause of the Black Death and its predecessors. They argue that the biology of bubonic plague makes its rapid spread, as occurred in the late antique (Justinianic) and medieval (Black Death) outbreaks, unlikely.[29] In order to spread, bubonic plague, caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis, requires fleas and rodent hosts in proximity to human populations. Contrary to most modern experience, for instance that of the modern United States, the spread of endemic plague with its attendant rodent and flea populations has been relatively slow and outbreaks among humans sufficiently scarce. However, ancient and medieval accounts note that the disease often covered vast distances and advanced into regions where flea and rodent populations were far from ideal hosts, or even apparently absent altogether. The group of scholars who oppose the bubonic theory generally view the outbreaks as the likely product of some variety of haemorrhagic fever.[30]

Medical and archaeological science will add much to this debate in the future, though currently the issue of the biological agent of the Justinianic Plague is far from resolved. The pathogen was probably bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis). In defense of this, two items are of critical importance. Two individuals, C14 dated to the sixth century, interred in the Aschheim-Bajuwarenring cemetery (Aschheim, Bavaria, Germany), yielded fragmentary DNA evidence that permitted the reconstruction of Yersinia pestis; these individuals had therefore been exposed to bubonic plague.[31] The Aschheim-Bajuwarenring material, although originating in an area removed from the Mediterranean, at least puts bubonic plague in the vicinity of the empire in the sixth century. This material is thus the first genetic evidence supporting the theory that bubonic plague could have been at least one of the pathogens present in the sixth-century Justinianic Plague.[32] A second important part of the debate is the issue of the human-rat-flea matrix. While it is true that present evidence indicates many northern areas afflicted by the Justinianic Plague had a marginal or even no rat population at all, opponents of the bubonic model fail to fully account for the capacity of humans and other animals as flea hosts. Modern studies of infestations during plague outbreaks have demonstrated that as carrier fleas infect large rodent populations, there are large die-offs of the latter. Contagion-carrying fleas frequently turn to ready sources of nourishment, namely commensal human populations. In his study between outbreaks of bubonic plague in early twentieth-century India, British colonial physician William Liston found that one human male carried 30 fleas, 14 of which were rat fleas (and thus likely plague vectors).[33] Indeed, the inter-human dimension of plague was emphasized by Baltazard et al. whose work on the bubonic plague in Iran led them to conclude of plague outbreaks:

…where there are no domestic rodents or “liaison rodents”, are due to inter-human transmission by the human flea, Pulex irritans, starting with rare cases of plague contracted in the fields. Such inter-human plague, originating in villages, tends to die out rapidly in view of the scanty population of the villages, the long distances between them, and the paucity and poverty of the means of communication. Nevertheless, when imported into an urban area with a denser human population, plague immediately becomes the terrifying disease it was during the Middle Ages.[34]

The Justinianic Plague seems to have been one such eruption. One account, that of an eyewitness, John, bishop of Ephesus in Asia Minor, observed that the disease also struck animals:

We also noted that this powerful plague had its effect even on animals – not only the domestic ones, but also on those of the steppe, including even the reptiles of the earth. It was possible to see cattle, dogs, other animals, and even mice, whose groins were swollen and were cast away and dead. Likewise the animals of the steppe were found struck, cast away and dead, by this same verdict.[35]

Reptiles are not known to be susceptible to bubonic plague, but more than 200 species of mammals are vulnerable.[36]While the black rat (Ratus ratus) is the species generally blamed for the transmission of plague to humans, there is no reason to suppose that commensal species like mice, which dwelt in houses and farm buildings throughout the region, would not also have acted as hosts to fleas in the time of an extreme outbreak such as the event of the 540s. More than 250 flea species are infected by the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis. Not all effectively transmit plague to rodents or humans and although the most effective and best known flea vector is the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis, many other species may transmit the disease.[37] Once plague entered Byzantine lands, the disease spread quickly from Egypt through Palestine and throughout the rest of the empire where it remained endemic in both human and animal populations, finally abating after ad 747.

The Justinianic Plague also spread westwards throughout the Mediterranean and into temperate Europe as well. About ad 549 it reached the British Isles and struck as far north as Scandinavia. It maintained its presence in Italy and Gaul; the chronicler Marius of Avenches (Marius Aventicensis), a bishop in what is now Switzerland, recorded that in ad569/70 a disease of ‘buboes’ destroyed cattle in Italy and Gaul. His notice under the following year of a ‘glandular disease’ that afflicted men in all likelihood recalls another attack, since buboes characteristically form in the lymphatic areas of the armpit and groin.[38]

A report in the vita of Theodore of Sykeon, which was composed in the mid-640s, records a zoonotic outbreak in Anatolia (modern Turkey), probably in ad 569/70. In this instance, the villagers of Apoukoumis on the Anatolian plateau had slaughtered an ox and eaten its meat. They died soon after consuming it while the meat itself is said to have quickly turned black and produced a horrible stench. Witnesses recounted that a troop of demons passed by the spot and occasioned the illness, which Saint Theodore ended by dispatching some water he had blessed.[39] While the instantaneous death associated with ingesting infected meat is certainly exaggerated and we might doubt the observance of the demons, the black colour usually associated with these beings in the Medieval period and sickness that followed consumption of infected meat may indicate an anthrax outbreak. However, bubonic plague is also a possibility as recent studies have linked consumption of camel meat and goat meat to plague deaths. The Life of Theodore of Sykeon therefore may offer a rare glimpse of such a small localized outbreak of bubonic plague which would have been fairly common and in which only a handful of victims perished.[40]

To my knowledge there has been no discussion of the implications that these potentially large-scale animal and zoonotic diseases held for ancient and medieval economies. While it is, of course, impossible to quantify the numbers of animals that perished, comparison with modern outbreaks provides a view of the destructive power of this disease. Cattle were an indispensible part of Roman and Byzantine agriculture. Although some increase in sheep herding and nomadism occurred after the Muslim conquests of the southern and most of the eastern Mediterranean, it is clear that the agrarian economy of this time was a cattle economy. Sedentary populations subsisted primarily on a cereal diet, and the considerable tracts of land needed to grow wheat and barley crops were normally tilled using the ox-drawn ard (plough). Ox-drawn carts were a fixture in the landscape of most regions of the Mediterranean, even in places where their presence is somewhat unexpected, namely the edge of the Syrian Desert and Mesopotamia.

Cattle were often scarce in Byzantium and along the borderlands. The twelfth-century bishop Michael the Syrian recounts the story that during the Justinianic Plague fields went uncultivated for a want of oxen to plough them. An early medieval rural Greek law code known as Nomos Georgikos (‘Farmer’s Law’) referred to the practice of farmers borrowing oxen from one another, a habit which may simply reflect common practice among poorer rural villagers but possibly a reminder that disease had substantially reduced access to traction.[41] Livestock of all varieties were an expensive capital cost in any case; although precise figures are lacking, in the sixth century an ordinary donkey cost 3 gold solidi, while a camel (perhaps a stud) cost as much as 15 gold solidi and an ox no doubt was somewhere inbetween, perhaps 4–6 gold solidi in an era when a labourer made as little as 12 gold solidi per year.[42] When their oxen perished along with their young replacements, peasants were forced to rent surviving animals or otherwise procure new stock if possible; scarcity certainly drove up prices and created deeper social inequalities and local instability. If no animal substitutions were to be found, in extremis, humans themselves had to till the earth. A person is capable of working only a fraction of cropland possible with animal power, and consequently the area under cultivation may well have shrunk drastically in the wake of disease outbreaks, leading to loss of revenues, famine, the abandonment of land by hopeless peasants, or other negative consequences that rippled throughout society. Little wonder then that we see the anxiety over the health of oxen expressed clearly in the rise of the cult of a cattle-healing saint, Modestos.

Modestos was a former cowherd who became patriarch of Jerusalem (ad 632–34), and his reputation for healing bovines was a primary reason he attained sainthood. The stories recorded by a medieval author about Modestos give voice to powerful fears and feelings of helplessness in an agrarian society over the health of animals. The saint healed a number of illnesses among bovines and although none of the sicknesses is described in great detail, two cases seem to indicate cattle plague. In one of these episodes, an architect yokes his oxen to a wagon in a yard, but they were stricken (by the devil, we are told), fell down motionless and appeared dead. With a word the saint revived them. In another incident, a wealthy woman who owned five pairs of oxen found them all sick and unable to work. The swiftness of the disease in these narratives and its rapid debilitation of the infected animal are reminiscent of rinderpest, which often exhibits few symptoms before its host dies. Weakness and lethargy are common indications of the illness at onset, which fit the description in the vita of Modestos as well. Another possible supporting sign of rinderpest infection is the rapid spread of the disease, as a group of animals in confinement were struck simultaneously in both instances. As in the case of Endelechius noted above, the cattle were spared when the sign of the cross was made on their foreheads. And like that case, religious action rather than veterinary medicine was the only effective response, unsurprising given the Christian nature of the sources.[43]

Some historical comparison is in order to better analyze the historical significance of such outbreaks. Rinderpest devastated cattle populations in Europe for centuries and plagued Africa with mass devastation until fairly recently. Despite the vast chronological space and distance that separates them, the late antique and early medieval eastern Mediterranean and eighteenth-century European worlds resembled one another more than is commonly considered: both were urbanised regions home to bureaucratic states and served by well developed routes of communication; moreover both depended to varying degrees on intensive, specialized market-based agriculture to support large populations. The rich matrix of high animal dependence, extensive marketing and large scale transhumance of animals in the Roman world created an environment that first permitted the establishment and survival of rinderpest among bovine populations in modern Europe. Given the paucity of sources from Antiquity, it is likely that the outbreak of rinderpest recorded by Endelechius went far beyond the individual episode he records. A plague on the order of that which struck Europe in the eighteenth century, in which three out of four cattle perished, more than 200 million in total, would have crippled arable farming over large areas, possibly for years.

In the early Byzantine period zoonotic diseases were an important but thus far ignored part of the environment. In addition to those incidents discussed, several others are reported. Marcellinus Comes included mention of an epidemic in Constantinople in ad 445/6 when both people and animals died. Marcellinus also relates that in ad 447/8 ‘plague bearing air’ destroyed thousands of people and animals around Constantinople.[44] There was a widespread plague among cattle in ad 551/2; so devastated was the cattle population that work had to be done in some regions with mules or horses. We have noted above the anthrax outbreak of the vita of Theodore of Sykeon, composed in the mid-640s. In 725/6 disease struck down both humans and animals and in 763/4 disease (possibly glanders) wiped out horses over a large tract of the Near East.[45] This list is by no means exhaustive.

Caution is called for: medieval writers were prone to conflate events, exaggerate the scale of devastation, and mimic biblical narratives of pestilence that were a formative part of their thoughts of nature and the interactions of the divinity with humanity. Clearly, though, these events, however briefly mentioned and poorly described in the sources, caused enough hardship and garnered sufficient attention to be recorded amongst the major happenings of the day. Although the focus of the present work has been anthrax and bubonic plague as potential agents in the outbreaks of Late Antiquity and the Medieval periods, there are numerous other pathogens transmitted between humans and animals such as tularemia and glanders, to name but two, which no doubt had an effect on human and animal populations in the fourth through seventh centuries and beyond.

With so many organisms competing within the environment of early Byzantium and its neighbours, local disease events that wiped out the majority of plough oxen, sheep and goats were probably common. From a glance at the sources, it appears that such outbreaks may have turned into regional or empire-wide events about once per century. The cost of these large-scale plagues was vast and though presently impossible to quantify, examples of loss are easy to surmise. Animals represented a major part of wealth in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The death of livestock thus erased accumulated capital and forced its replacement. As noted above, the loss of plough oxen was particularly costly but the death of other domestic animals cost their owners valuable means of transport, traction as well as basic dietary staples like meat, wool, and milk. Sometimes, as in the case of an anthrax outbreak, even the use of the valuable hides was denied.

There is much to be gained from considering livestock epizootics historically. Far from belonging in the marginalia of history to which they have often been relegated, human and animal diseases deserve far fuller historical treatment. As this study demonstrates, much can be learned about the spread of epidemics, the vulnerability of human and animal populations to zoonotic diseases and the economic ramifications of these illnesses. For those interested in the ecology, sociology and effects of cattle diseases in contemporary societies, we need more interdisciplinary work that draws on the best resources of epidemiologists, veterinarians, biologists and historians.

Bibliography

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J. Henderson, ed., Ammianus Marcellinus, History, 3 vols, (Cambridge Mass., 1939–50).

E. Lommatzsch, ed., Vegetius: Digestorum artis mulomedicinae libri, (Leipzig, 1903).

C. M. Loparev, ‘Ἄθλησις καì θαυμάτων διήγησις τοῦ ἁγίου ἱερομάρτυρος Μοδέστου, ἀρχιεπισκόπου Ἱεροσολύμων’, Pamyatniki Drevvnei Pis Mennosti, 91 (1892), 15–55.

I. P. Medvedev, ed., Vizantiiskii Zemledelcheskii zakonNomos Georgikos, (Leningrad, 1984).

T. Mommsen, ed., Chronica minora saec. IV. V. VI. VII., 3 vols, (Berlin, 1892–98).

C. White, Early Christian Latin Poets, (London, 2000).

Secondary literature

M. Baltazard et al., ‘Recherches sur la peste en Iran’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 23.2–3 (1960), 141–55.

O. J. Benedictow, The Black Death, 13461353: The Complete History, (Woodbridge, 2004).

K. Bergolt, Der Schwarze Tod in Europa: Die Grosse Pest und das Ende des Mittelalters, (Munich, 1994).

J. Blancou, Histoire de la surveillance et du contrôle des maladies animales transmissibles, (Office international des épizooties, 2000).

A. J. Bollet, Plagues and Poxes: The Impact of Human History on Epidemic Disease, (New York, 2004).

P. S. Brachman and A. F. Kaufmann, ‘Anthrax’, in P. S. Brachman and E. Abrutyn, eds, Bacterial Infections of Humans: Epidemiology and Control, (New York, 2009), 105–19.

E. Carpentier, ‘Autour de la peste noire: Famines et épidémies dans l’histoire du XIVe siècle’, Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, 17 (1962), 1062–92.

S. J. Cohn Jr, ‘The Black Death: End of a paradigm’, American Historical Review, 107.3 (2002), 703–38.

A. Corradi, Annali delle epidemie occorse in Italia dalle prime memorie fino al 1850, 8 vols, (Bologna, 1972–73).

C. Creighton, A History of Epidemics in Britain, 2 vols, (Cambridge, 1891–94, repr. London, 1965).

W. Dieckerhoff, Geschichte der Rinderpest und ihrer Literatur; Beitrag zur Geschichte der vergleichenden Pathologie, (Berlin, 1890).

D. C. Dragon and R. P. Rennie, ‘The ecology of anthrax spores: Tough but not invincible’, The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 36.5 (1995), 295–301.

C. J. Duncan and S. Scott, ‘What caused the Black Death?’ Postgraduate Medical Journal, 81 (2005), 315–20.

G. Dvorak, A. Rovid Spickler and J. A. Roth, Handbook for Zoonotic Diseases of Companion Animals, (Ames Iowa, 2008).

E. Flintoff, ‘The Noric cattle plague’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 13.1 (1983), 85–111.

L. Kartman and F. M. Prince, ‘Studies on Pasteurella Pestis in fleas. V. The experimental plague-vector efficiency of wild rodent fleas compared with Xenopsylla Cheopis, together with observations on the influence of temperature’, The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 5 (1956), 1058–70.

W. G. Liston, ‘Plague, rats, and fleas’, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 16 (1904), 253–74.

L. K. Little, Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541750, (New York, 2007).

D. G. McNeil Jr, ‘Rinderpest, scourge of cattle, is vanquished’, The New York Times, (June 27, 2011).

C. Morrisson and J.-C. Cheynet, ‘Prices and wages in the Byzantine world’, in A. Laiou, ed., The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, 3 vols, (Washington D.C., 2002), vol. II, 815–78.

T. P. Newfield, ‘Human-bovine plagues in the early Middle Ages’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 46 (2015), 1–38.

E. H. Ruediger, ‘Observations on the cattle plague’, The Philippine Journal of Science, 4.B5 (1909), 384–96.

R. Sallares, ‘Ecology, evolution, and epidemiology of plague’, in L. K. Little, ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541750, (Cambridge, 2007), 231–89.

S. Scott and C. J. Duncan, Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations, (Cambridge, 2005).

S. Scott and C. J. Duncan, Return of the Black Death: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer, (Hoboken N.J., 2004).

C. A. Spinage, Cattle Plague: A History, (New York, 2003).

D. Stathakopoulos, Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: A Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics, (Burlington Vt., 2004).

D. Stathakopoulos, ‘Invisible protagonists: the Justinianic plague from a zoocentric point of view’, in I. Anagnostakis, T. Kollias and E. Papadopoulou, eds, Animals and Environment in Byzantium (7th-12th c.), (Athens, 2011), 87–95.

R. M. Swiderski, Anthrax: A History, (Jefferson N.C., 2004).

L. M. Talbot and M. H. Talbot, ‘Preliminary observations on the population dynamics of Wildebeest in Narok District, Kenya’, East African Agriculture and Forestry Journal, 27 (1961), 108–16.

D. M. Wagner et al., ‘Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–43 ad: a genomic analysis’, The Lancet Infectious Diseases,14.4 (2014), 319–26.

D. West, ‘Two plagues: Virgil, Georgics 3.478–566 and Lucretius 6.1090–1286’, in D. West and T. Woodman, eds, Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, (Cambridge, 1979), 71–88, 221–22.

L. P. Wilkinson, The Georgics of Virgil: A Critical Survey, (Norman Okla., 1997).

J. A. Witkowski and L. C. Parish, ‘The story of Anthrax from antiquity to the present: A biological weapon of nature and humans’, Clinics in Dermatology, 20.4 (2002), 336–42.

P. Wohlsein and J. Saliki, ‘Rinderpest and peste des petits ruminants – the diseases: Clinical signs and pathology’, in T. Barrett, P.-P. Pastoret, W. P. Taylor, G. Scott and A. Provost, eds, Rinderpest and Peste des Petits Ruminants: Virus Plagues of Large and Small Ruminants, (Burlington Mass., 2006), 68–85.

L. O. Wosu, J. E. Okiri and P. A. Enwezor, ‘Optimal time for vaccination against peste des petits ruminants (Ppr) disease in goats in the humid tropical zone in southern Nigeria’, in B. Rey, S. H. B. Lebbie and L. Reynolds, eds, Small Ruminant Research and Development in Africa: Proceedings of the First Biennial Conference of the African Small Ruminant Research Network, (Rome, 1990), available on http://www.fao.org/wairdocs/ilri/x5520b/x5520b0v.htm#abstract


I would like to express my gratitude to Marlia Mango, who as my supervisor encouraged my scholarship in all things rural when my expressed interests lay elsewhere; for this she may view the present chapter as fitting punishment. Funds provided by Mr Nick Maroulis helped to support this research. Since the original draft of this work was produced, new scholarship has emerged on the subject. Readers are advised to see especially T. P. Newfield, ‘Human-bovine plagues in the early Middle Ages’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 46 (2015), 1–38.

[1] D. G. McNeil Jr, ‘Rinderpest, scourge of cattle, is vanquished’, The New York Times, (June 27, 2011).

[2] C. A. Spinage, Cattle Plague: A History, (New York, 2003).

[3] J. Blancou, Histoire de la surveillance et du contrôle des maladies animales transmissibles, (Paris, 2000).

[4] P. S. Brachman and A. F. Kaufmann, ‘Anthrax’, in P. S. Brachman and E. Abrutyn, eds, Bacterial Infections of Humans: Epidemiology and Control, (New York, 2009), 95–108.

[5] P. Wohlsein and J. Saliki, ‘Rinderpest and peste des petits ruminants – the diseases: clinical signs and pathology’, in T. Barrett, P.-P. Pastoret, W. P. Taylor, G. Scott and A. Provost, eds, Rinderpest and Peste des petits ruminants: Virus Plagues of Large and Small Ruminants,(Burlington Mass., 2006), 69–72.

[6] L. O. Wosu, J. E. Okiri and P. A. Enwezor, ‘Optimal time for vaccination against peste des petits ruminants (PPR) disease in goats in the humid tropical zone in southern Nigeria’, in B. Rey, S. H. B. Lebbie and L. Reynolds, eds, Small Ruminant Research and Development in Africa: Proceedings of the First Biennial Conference of the African Small Ruminant Research Network, (Rome, 1990), 296–305. http://www.fao.org/wairdocs/ilri/x5520b/x5520b0v.htm#abstract. Last accessed on February 27, 2013.

[7] W. Dieckerhoff, Geschichte der Rinderpest und ihrer Literatur: Beitrag zur Geschichte der vergleichenden Pathologie, (Berlin, 1890).

[8] Spinage, Cattle plague.

[9] Ibid., 85–90.

[10] J. B. Greenough, ed., Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics of Vergil, (Boston, 1900), III.478–81.

[11] Virgil, Georgics, III.478–514.

[12] E. Flintoff, ‘The Noric cattle plague’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 13.1 (1983), 85–111 at 86.

[13] R. M. Swiderski, Anthrax: A History, (Jefferson N.C., 2004), 187.

[14] I owe this information to the late Dr James Steele (August 2002), who witnessed such outbreaks and tragic consequences.

[15] D. West, ‘Two plagues: Virgil, Georgics 3.478–566 and Lucretius 6.1090–1286’, in D. West and T. Woodman, eds, Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, (Cambridge, 1979), 71–88 at 79.

[16] Virgil, Georgics, III.478–566.

[17] For a host of reasons too numerous to discuss here I cannot examine all the doubts raised by scholars; for negative views of Virgil’s account and his reliance on Lucretius, who in turn relied on Thucydides’ description of the Athenian Plague, see ibid., 84; L. P. Wilkinson, The Georgics of Virgil: A critical survey, (Norman Okla., 1997), 206, and references. That literary license and mimesis requires a fictive apodosis seems an odd reasoning.

[18] Swiderski, Anthrax: A History, 102.

[19] J. A. Witkowski and L. C. Parish, ‘The story of Anthrax from antiquity to the present: A biological weapon of nature and humans’, Clinics in Dermatology, 20.4 (2002), 336–42 at 340.

[20] D. C. Dragon and R. P. Rennie, ‘The ecology of anthrax spores: tough but not invincible’, The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 36.5 (1995), 295–301 at 296–97.

[21] Virgil, Georgics, III.479: ‘tempestas totoque autumni incanduit aestu…’.

[22] Swiderski, Anthrax: A History, 73–74.

[23] J. Henderson, ed., Ammianus Marcellinus, History, 3 vols, (Cambridge Mass., 1939–1950), vol. III, XXXI, 2, 3.

[24] Endelechius, PL 19.800,105–20; see also C. White, Early Christian Latin poets, (London, 2000), 74–75.

[25] E. H. Ruediger, ‘Observations on the cattle plague’, The Philippine Journal of Science, 4.B5 (1909), 384–96; L. M. Talbot and M. H. Talbot, ‘Preliminary observations on the population dynamics of wildebeest in Narok District, Kenya’, East African Agriculture and Forestry Journal,27 (1961), 108–16.

[26] E. Lommatzsch, ed., Vegetius: Digestorum artis mulomedicinae libri, (Leipzig, 1903).

[27] Vegetius, IV.2, pp. 280–84.

[28] C. Creighton, A History of Epidemics in Britain, 2 vols, (Cambridge, 1891–1894, repr. London, 1965); A. Corradi, Annali delle epidemie occorse in Italia dalle prime memorie fino al 1850, 8 vols, (Bologna, 1972–1973); É. Carpentier, ‘Autour de la peste noire: Famines et épidémies dans l’histoire du XIVe siècle’, Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, 17 (1962), 1062–92; K. Bergolt, Der Schwarze Tod in Europa: Die Grosse Pest und das Ende des Mittelalters, (Munich, 1994); O. J. Benedictow, The Black Death, 13461353: The Complete History, (Woodbridge, 2004). See additionally, D. Stathakopoulos, ‘Invisible protagonists: the Justinianic plague from a zoocentric point of view’, in I. Anagnostakis, T. Kollias and E. Papadopoulou, eds, Animals and Environment in Byzantium (7th-12th c.), (Athens, 2011), 87–95.

[29] S. Scott and C. J. Duncan, Return of the Black Death: The World’s Greatest Serial Killer, (Hoboken, NJ, 2004), and Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations, (Cambridge, 2005); C. J. Duncan and S. Scott, ‘What caused the Black Death?’, Postgraduate Medical Journal, 81 (2005), 315–20. For the late antique Justinianic Plague the literature is equally vast, but see especially D. Stathakopoulos, Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: A Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics, (Burlington Vt., 2004). These studies have been rebuffed by several scholars, including R. Sallares, ‘Ecology, evolution, and epidemiology of plague’, in L. K. Little, ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541750, (Cambridge, 2007), 231–89; however, these alternatives (and others) continue to be noted by historians and the medical community: e.g. T.-N.-N. Tran et al., ‘High throughput, multiplexed pathogen detection authenticates plague waves in medieval Venice, Italy’, PLoS One, 6.3 (2011), e16735.

[30] See S. J. Cohn Jr, ‘The Black Death: end of a paradigm’, American Historical Review, 107.3 (2002), 703–38 for an introduction to the debates and some recent theories.

[31] I. Wiechmann and G. Grupe, ‘Detection of Yersinia pestis DNA in two early medieval skeletal finds from Aschheim (Upper Bavaria, 6th century A.D.)’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 126.1 (2004), 48–55.

[32] D. M. Wagner et al., ‘Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–43 ad: A genomic analysis’, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 14.4 (2014), 319–26.

[33] W. G. Liston, ‘Plague, rats, and fleas’, Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, 16 (1904), 253–74 at 267.

[34] M. Baltazard et al., ‘Recherches sur la peste en Iran’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 23.2–3 (1960), 141–55 at 154.

[35] A. Harrak, transl., Chronicle of Zuqnin, (Toronto, 1999), 105.

[36] G. Dvorak, A. R. Spickler and J. A. Roth, Handbook for Zoonotic Diseases of Companion Animals, (Ames Iowa, 2008), 32.

[37] L. Kartman and F. M. Prince, ‘Studies on Pasteurella Pestis in fleas. V. The experimental plague-vector efficiency of wild rodent fleas compared with Xenopsylla Cheopis, together with observations on the influence of temperature’, The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 5.6 (1956), 1058–70 at 1064 table 4.

[38] L. K. Little, ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541750, (New York, 2007), for recent coverage of this event.

[39] A. J. Festugière, ed., Vie de Théodore de Sykéon, (Brussels, 1970), 181.

[40] Such outbreaks are commonly known in modern science. See A. J. Bollet, Plagues and Poxes: The Impact of Human History on Epidemic Disease, (New York, 2004), 28.

[41] I. P. Medvedev, ed., Vizantiiskii Zemledelcheskii zakonNomos Georgikos, (Leningrad, 1984), 111.

[42] C. Morrisson and J.-C. Cheynet, ‘Prices and wages in the Byzantine world’, in A. E. Laiou, ed., The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, 3 vols, (Washington D.C., 2002), vol. II, 815–78 at 864.

[43] Modestos, § 9, ed. C. M. Loparev, ‘Ἄθλησις καì θαυμάτων διήγησις τοῦ ἁγίου ἱερομάρτυρος Μοδέστου, ἀρχιεπισκόπου Ἱεροσολύμων’, Pamyatniki Drevvnei Pis Mennosti, 91 (1892), 15–55.

[44] T. Mommsen, ed., Chronica minora saec. IV. V. VI. VII., 3 vols, (Berlin, 1892–1898), vol. II, § §XIII.2, XIV.1 at 81–82.

[45] Stathakopoulos, Famine and Pestilence, 129, 310, 375.

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