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COVID-19 and the Epidemics of Ancient Rome


Amid the growing COVID-19 epidemic, individual responses have largely been composed of emotional anxiety and various personal defensive postures. But what responses are most outstanding? Please allow me to draw upon some ancient history by referencing Rodney Stark’s book, the Rise of Christianity:


In 165 AD a smallpox epidemic swept through the Roman Empire, killing between a 25-30% of the empire. Then in 251 AD, a second epidemic (measles) emerged killing 5,000 per day in Rome alone, more in the rural areas, and continued for years. Just imagine the horror!


Yet in the midst of such tragedy, Dionysius wrote in 260 AD: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the results of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”


Regarding the actions of the Christ-followers, the emperor Julian lamented that the Christians “support not only their poor, but our poor as well,” and also complained that Christians had from the earliest days “swelled their ranks with the most vicious, disreputable, and contemptible of persons,” – that in, the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts.


May we, in the midst of today’s epidemic, also be people of such character as to look beyond our own personal defense outward towards the defense of our neighbors.

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