How Plague Helped Make Rome a Superpower

Epidemics haunt history, but at a time of COVID-19 it pays to remember they shape history too, as happened in 212 BC at Syracuse. David Feeney, PhD Student in the Classics & Archaeology program in SHAPS, explores, this Ancient Roman plague during a time of warfare in an article republished from Pursuit.

The dogs were the first to feel the mischief; next the birds flagged in their flight and dropped down from the black clouds; and then the beasts of the forest were laid low. Soon the infernal plague spread further, depopulating the camp and devouring the soldiers.

This is the ancient Roman poet Silius Italicus describing the plague that in 212 BC engulfed the armies of Rome and her great rival Carthage (near modern day Tunis) at the siege of Syracuse in Sicily during the war against Hannibal.

The effects of plagues and pestilence echo throughout history. The Plague of Ashdod by Nicolas Poussin, 1630, depicts a story from the Old Testament. Louvre via Wikimedia Commons

Epidemics have long haunted history, but in the time of COVID-19 it is worth remembering that plagues and pestilence also shape history. In the case of the siege of Syracuse, the intervention of plague was astoundingly decisive, and arguably crucial in making Rome the superpower it would become.

The Roman siege of Syracuse is best known for the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and inventor Archimedes who was living in the city and was killed when the Romans finally broke in.

At the time it was the largest, most complex and most difficult siege ever attempted by the Romans and is forever immortalised by the art and legends around Archimedes’ war machines that so spectacularly repelled the attackers. These included catapults and a crane-operated claw to up-end Roman ships.

What is less well known however, is that Rome’s ultimate victory in this contest was clinched not by force of arms, but by the outbreak of what is believed to have been typhoid or smallpox.

After failing to capture the city by assault, thanks partly to Archimedes, the Roman commander Marcus Claudius Marcellus resolved to starve the defenders into surrender. The Roman army – comprising four legions of Roman soldiers as well as Italian allied troops – numbered around 40,000 men. They were supported by a fleet of 100 galleys. With these, Marcellus sought to maintain a tight blockade by land and sea around Syracuse.

But by the summer of 212 the Romans had been besieging the city for more than a year, and still it stubbornly held out. Its resistance was being sustained by blockade-running Carthaginian ships delivering supplies and hope.

Death of Archimedes, slain by a Roman warrior during the Battle of Syracuse. Eighteenth-century copy of a second-century CE Roman mosaic. Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main via AKG Images

By this time too the Carthaginian general Himilco had finally launched his military campaign to try and break the Roman siege by marching an army to relieve the city. Himilco had landed in Sicily in early 213 with an army of 25,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 12 war elephants.

By 212 he had combined his forces with a Syracusan army numbering 20,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, commanded by the city’s pro-Carthaginian ruler Hippokrates. Together they marched to Syracuse determined to break the siege before the city’s defenders, led by Hippokrates’ younger brother Epykides, succumbed.

When the joint Carthaginian/Sicilian army reached the vicinity of Syracuse, it was further strengthened by the arrival of a Carthaginian fleet, enabling Himilco to “put the Romans under attack on every side”.

Marcellus now found himself trapped between the city’s defenders and the relief army. There was heavy fighting on land and in the city’s large harbour as the Carthaginians and Sicilians sought to crush the Romans in a vice, but this fighting was indecisive. The Roman soldiers were able to hold their makeshift fortifications, while the Carthaginian and Sicilian forces remained in possession of the city and their camp outside. A state of mutual siege ensued.

This deadlock continued for several weeks. The stakes couldn’t be greater.

Hannibal, having in 218 famously marched his army and elephants from Spain over the Alps and into Italy, had soundly beaten every army the Romans had thrown against him. But with Rome refusing to surrender and its Italian allies largely staying loyal, Hannibal had found himself cut off from reinforcements in North Africa by the strong Roman fleet. Carthage desperately needed Syracuse as a strong port close to Italy from which to more easily reinforce its great General.

The fall of Syracuse left Hannibal and his army isolated in Italy. Hannibal Barca crossing the Rhone by Henri-Paul Motte,1878. via Wikimedia Commons

If the Roman position at Syracuse cracked under the pressure, then Roman power throughout Sicily would collapse, but if Syracuse fell, Roman domination of the island would be assured, leaving Hannibal’s army stranded.

With the arrival of autumn came an “unbearable heat” and an outbreak of what the ancients only knew as a plague. The ancient Roman historian Livy reports that the disease spread rapidly in both armies:

“At first, the instances of sickness and death were the result of the season and unhealthy locale. Later on, simply nursing the sick, and physical contact with them, spread the disease, so that those who fell ill died neglected and alone; or else they infected with the same violent disease those who visited their bedsides and attended to their needs, and took them to the grave with them.”

The death toll grew and grew, so that “funerals and death were every day before men’s eyes, and cries of lamentation were to be heard everywhere, day and night”.

The situation became unmanageable as “corpses lay strewn around before the eyes of people who were anticipating such a death themselves, and, thanks to this fear, along with the rotting and noxious stench of the cadavers, the dead were wreaking havoc on the sick, and the sick on the healthy.”

Silius Italicus graphically describes the symptoms:

Their tongues were parched; a cold sweat issued from the vital parts and poured down the shivering frame; and the dry throat refused a passage to the nourishment prescribed. The lungs were taken by a hard cough, and the breath of the thirsting sufferers came forth from their panting mouths as hot as fire. The sunken eyes could hardly endure the burden of light; the nose fell in; matter mixed with blood was vomited, and the wasted body was mere skin and bone.

Rome would defeat Carthage in 202 BCE, setting it on its way to becoming a superpower. Ruins of Carthage in Tunisia, 2006. Photographer: Calips via Wikimedia Commons

In response, Marcellus withdrew his men to higher, healthier ground. The siege was now technically broken as the way into Syracuse was left clear by both sea and land. But by then it no longer mattered. As Livy writes:

The plague had attacked the Carthaginian camp much more fiercely than it had the Roman, however, since the Romans had, from their long blockade of Syracuse, become more habituated to the climate and the water. The Sicilians in the enemy slipped away to their various cities nearby as soon as they saw the noxious environment turning the disease into an epidemic; and, with nowhere to go themselves, the Carthaginians perished to a man, their generals Hippokrates and Himilco with them.

The Carthaginian fleet sailed away to escape the disease and Marcellus’ military crisis was suddenly ended. His situation rescued by the plague, Marcellus was able to keep Syracuse under a tight siege, and a few short months later the city finally fell.

The Romans would go on to win the war, defeating Hannibal himself on Carthaginian soil at Zama in 202.

That Rome prevailed and would go on to conqueror the Mediterranean world was perhaps in no small way due to the tiny bacteria or virus that destroyed Himilco’s army outside Syracuse in the autumn of 212.

Feature image: Death of Archimedes, slain by a Roman warrior during the Battle of Syracuse (detail). Eighteenth-century copy of a second-century CE Roman mosaic. Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main via AKG Images