Coronavirus may have affected the world on an unprecedented scale, shutting down much of the globe and leaving billions confined to their home — but it is hardly the deadliest pandemic in world history, nor is it the first to cause an economic crisis on an international level that includes Israel.
In a Facebook post Saturday, the Israel Museum highlighted the story of the Antonine Plague, which erupted in the Roman Empire in 165 CE and slayed millions over the course of a decade or so.
The pandemic is believed to have been smallpox, newly arrived from Asia, and at its height is reported to have killed 2,000 people a day in Rome. The high rate of infection and death may have been a result of the population having never encountered the virus before.
It is believed to have killed some five million people throughout the Roman Empire — some 10 percent of the empire’s population. The death of Emperor Lucius Verus in 169 CE, who ruled alongside Marcus Aurelius, is believed to have been at the hands of the disease.
But the disease also “dramatically crippled a powerful global economy, long long before #COVID19,” the museum noted. “Much like the collapse of businesses and stock markets we are experiencing today, there is also direct evidence that the outbreak had a disastrous impact on the empire’s economy and trade.”
And the negative effects hit the Land of Israel too, then under Roman rule, where “most mints stopped striking coins in 166 CE and returned to normal operation only 10 years later, with the eradication of the disease.”
The pandemic made returns in subsequent decades, though on far smaller scales than during its initial outbreak, likely due to the population building immunity over time.
The Israel Museum also shared a photo of bronze coins from its collection which were minted at Nysa-Scythopolis, modern Beit She’an, around 175 CE, as the plague was dying down.