The Route to Crisis: Cities, Trade, and Epidemics of the Roman Empire



How to Cite

Hanna, E. (2015). The Route to Crisis: Cities, Trade, and Epidemics of the Roman Empire. Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, 10.


The goal of this paper is to provide a universal model that outlines the origins of disease contraction and transmission in the ancient Mediterranean world. While numerous scholars have written on the subject of epidemics and their effects on the Roman Empire, very limited studies focus on the general causes of epidemics throughout the Roman era. I propose that Roman culture, urbanism, and the interdependence between cities and provinces led to the entry and transmission of communicable diseases, contributing to conditions that ultimately caused the fall of the empire. I first discuss and describe the causal factors of epidemics. I start by presenting Roman ideologies as this will aid in the understanding of city structure. After a description of a typical city layout, I present the conditions which encouraged the spread of disease within cities. Cities and provinces were not in isolation, but rather part of a greater economic network. I, therefore, also describe the nature of trade routes and how trade impacted the global spread of pathogens. I conclude by applying the proposed theories to two plagues—the Antonine Plague and Justinianic Plague—from different, yet comparable, time periods. I also gauge the effects of disease on Roman economy, demography, and society by using these case studies.