Charts & Graphs

Cold Cases

Identifying mystery plagues.

Evidence Suspects
Hittite plague
Anatolia, c. 1335–1295 bc
Preserved on clay tablets, the plague prayers of Mursilis II bemoan 20 years of “constant dying” and blame Egyptian prisoners of war for introducing into the Hittite capital a fast-spreading disease that killed people of all ages. The microbiologist Siro Trevisanato argued in 2007 that the disease was tularemia, aka rabbit fever, and that it had been spread deliberately as a form of germ warfare. A less controversial theory holds that the Egyptian prisoners carried a new strain of malaria into Hittite lands.
Plague of Ashdod
Israel, c. 1190 bc
According to the Book of Samuel, after the Philistines stole the Ark of the Covenant and carried it to Ashdod, they were punished with tumors. When the Ark was taken to Gath and Ekron, “a deadly destruction” followed, and survivors “were stricken with tumors in their secret parts.” In 1905 the physician and medical historian W.J. Simpson proposed that this was the first attested outbreak of bubonic plague. The bacteriologist J.F.D. Shrewsbury, on the other hand, argued in 1949 that, based on the location of the swellings on the body, they were in fact hemorrhoids caused by bacillary dysentery.
Athenian plague
Athens, 430–425 bc
Thucydides described the course of the disease, which he claims to have experienced himself: inflamed eyes, foul breath, sneezing, coughing, vomiting, convulsions, pustules, ulcers, internal fever, thirst, insomnia, restlessness, and diarrhea. Survivors might lose their extremities, eyesight, or memory. Over the centuries about thirty diseases have been named by historians as possible culprits, including bubonic and pneumonic plague, influenza, measles, smallpox, typhus, and Ebola. Although there is still no consensus, in 2006 typhoid fever became the prime suspect when the bacteria that causes it was found in the dental pulp of ancient Athenian skeletons.
Antonine plague
Italy, 165–80
The symptoms described by the physician Galen, who fled from the first outbreak of the plague but treated victims in subsequent waves, include fever, chills, diarrhea, vomiting, a black rash, and ulceration inside and out. “Molecular clock” analysis dates the emergence of measles, a mutation of rinderpest (aka cattle plague), to the eleventh or twelfth century, ruling it out for this and earlier plagues. While smallpox has been considered since the 1970s the likeliest agent, no modern poxvirus encompasses all the symptoms described in ancient sources.
Plague of Cyprian
Mediterranean basin, 249–62
In addition to vomiting and fatigue, the following plague symptoms were catalogued by the bishop Cyprian of Carthage: “bowels dissipate in a flow,” “eyes are set on fire from the force of the blood,” and “deadly putrefaction cuts off the feet or other extremities.” Highly contagious but lacking the skin eruptions of smallpox, the disease might have been a particularly lethal form of influenza, killing up to 60 percent of the population of Rome. Historian Kyle Harper argued the likeliest candidate is a hemorrhagic virus of the filovirus family, which includes Ebola and Marburg virus.
Buide chonnaill
Ireland, 540–795
The disease, which is distinguished from bubonic plague (blefed), turned sufferers yellow, indicating jaundice, and caused “a great mortality,” according to the Irish annals. Buide means yellow, chonnaill straw or stubble. Yellow fever has been proposed as a candidate since the nineteenth century, but its carrier, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is not found in Ireland, where the climate is too cold and damp for it to flourish. Other suspects include bubonic plague, smallpox, and some kind of epidemic viral hepatitis.
Sweating sickness
England, 1485–1551
Capable of killing victims in a matter of hours, the English sweat was characterized by sudden fever, extreme sweating, thirst, and difficulty breathing, as well as “pain in the head and madness of the same,” according to John Caius, president of the Royal College of Physicians. Since the pestilence occurred only in the summer months, plague, malaria, and typhus are unlikely identifications. Disease historians now believe it to have been a hemorrhagic fever virus, perhaps an arbovirus (transmitted by insects) or a hantavirus (transmitted by rodents).
Peru, 1546
Simply called peste (plague) by colonial Spanish observers, the Nahuatl name of the disease indicates a rash (matlatl means net, zahuatl spots). Symptoms also included fever and bleeding from the nostrils. The disease may have been typhus or typhoid fever, but its high mortality rate and apparent ability to infect llamas and sheep is more suggestive of pneumonic plague, which is spread by coughing and sneezing, rather than by fleas, and is more infectious than the bubonic form.