Today is launch day for Roman historian Colin Elliott‘s new book, Pox Romana: The Plague That Shook the Roman World (Princeton University Press). Here at the Arena, we are celebrating with this book launch interview with Dr. Elliott about his book and his work more generally.
Congratulations on your book! I would love to hear a bit of a back story about this project: was this a Covid-inspired book? Or were you already thinking about pandemics before? But also, what was it like to be writing a book about a pandemic during a pandemic?
I started writing Pox Romana in March of 2020, and I finished it in mid-2023—so it tracks almost exactly with the pandemic. I had already published a little on the book’s topic: the Antonine plague—a pandemic that swept across the Eurasian landmass at the height of the Roman and Han Empires in the mid-second century AD. But it certainly was strange to write a book on the first pandemic in human history while experiencing the most recent pandemic.
Still, the coincidental timing made for some great insights. For example, I began to realize as our pandemic drug on, that the disease itself—SARS-CoV-2 (‘covid-19’) in our case—was actually just a small part of our pandemic experience overall. Our pandemic generated far more pervasive political debates, brought out huge relational challenges and, across all levels of society, the pandemic forced us into debates about power, freedom, safety and expertise. And even long after the worst of the pandemic is over, the debates about those issues are still raging.
Seeing this broader fallout around me caused me to wonder if similar issues were happening 2,000 years ago during the first pandemic. And, as it turned out, yes, they were. For the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the broader debates during and after their pandemic focused on religion. The Romans interpreted pestilence as a sign that the gods were upset. But what about a new kind of disease—one that could strike anyone, anywhere? Such an overwhelming calamity sent many in the Roman Empire into a religious frenzy. They chased after cult healers, adopted magical spells and incantations and even went into some very dark places searching for scapegoats. I don’t think it is entirely a coincidence that the decades after the Antonine plague see a dramatic surge in the persecution of one of the most counter-cultural religious groups in the Roman empire—namely, Christians.
Two related questions: for whom did you write this book, and what do you hope will be the main takeaway(s) that they get from reading it?
This is a book for everyone. The Antonine plague’s story is enigmatic and mysterious. There is so much about it we do not know, and frankly never will know. How do you write a book about an event like that? I decided to lean into the mystery—to take readers ‘under the hood’ of what we do as historians. How do we handle unclear and even contradictory evidence? What do we do with obviously exaggerated accounts? How do we fill in huge gaps in our data? Professional historians are usually quite open these kinds of issues in the academic work we produce for each other—in scholarly journals, for instance. But when we write popular history, we usually minimize the debates and ambiguities because we assume readers just want a good, simple story. Well, with the Antonine plague—it was not possible to tell a simple, straightforward story and still be true to the evidence. So I hope the approach I took in Pox Romana will invite a broader public into what I do as a historian. I’ve tried to do the same thing with my Pax Romana Podcast.
I say this book is for everyone; but I should note that the Roman Empire could be a gruesome and disgusting place at the best of times, and was even worse during a pandemic. There are some themes and language in this book not intended for small children.
Can you give us a taste of something surprising or unexpected that you found in your work on this book?
In order to get this book out as fast as possible, I essentially shelved anything non-essential for about a year and a half. My first book took ten years, and I just didn’t have that kind of time. In order to see how it affected my writing speed, I tried listening to a few different kinds of music while I wrote. I was surprised to learn that Electronic Dance Music (EDM)—a genre of music I would have never listened to on my own, and which is surrounded by a culture that is really not for me—nevertheless worked wonders for the writing and thinking process. It just pumps, pumps, pumps—and I found my fingers would move almost rhythmically to the kick. The simplicity of the music seemed to help me think clearly. And as I began to associate EDM with this book, I found that putting the music on took me into that ‘deep work’ zone very quickly. So for most of that year and a half, I just listened to hours of EDM. Now, whenever I read Pox Romana, I can almost hear music from Deadmau5, Daft Punk and other EDM artists.
What are the broader questions that fascinate you in your reading, thinking, and writing?
I’m really interested in how and why people connect and form societies—whether small societies, like social clubs or churches, or much larger societies, like nations and empires. I spent the first decade or so of my career thinking about how ancient people used money to connect, and even how they changed what money was so that they could better connect. But often—and money is a good example of this—sometimes the same things that help bring us together can also drive wedges between us. Money helps strangers buy and sell things to each other—even people who might otherwise despise each other on the basis of nationality, race or religion. But money is often in the center of the collapse of more intimate relationships—marriages and family relationships, for example.
While researching and writing Pox Romana, I learned a lot about how the first pandemic worked within the notion of connectivity. On the one hand, the integration of the Roman Empire was a tremendous strength. Rome was a cosmopolis, filled with people and goods from across the Afro-Eurasian landmass. Traders moved goods across desserts, around coastlines, through thick forests—and the profits available to them in the Roman Empire made such long and perilous journeys worth it. Similarly, Roman soldiers used an impressive road network and maritime routes to traverse an area of land and sea that was larger than the contiguous United States. And yet, that connectivity brought them into contact with a truly nasty disease during the Antonine plague. And, even worse, because of the Empire’s connectivity, that disease found it relatively easy to hop from city to city as soldiers and traders moved along Roman roads and sailed along the coasts.
We learned some of these same things during our own pandemic; or at least I hope we did. An interconnected and globalized world like ours is an unparallelled source of prosperity, cultural enrichment and peace. But one drawback is that contagious diseases are virtually impossible to stop under such conditions. Globalization will generate and sustain regular and frequent pandemics; it is inescapable. Retreating back to a disconnected and isolated world is not a serious option—and doing so via lockdown was the most foolish experiments among the many foolish experiments during the last pandemic. Really, our connectivity offers us the best hope of fighting future pandemics—especially through the mobilization of economic incentives to generate greater healthcare capacity or through collaborative partnerships for developing better treatments.
It always seems overly aggressive to ask someone who just published a book: what’s next? But I’m asking in my most encouraging and friendly tone here: what’s next for you?
Writing Pox Romana made me realize how much I enjoy public history. I’m pouring a lot of time right now into a new history podcast called: The Pax Romana Podcast. It relates short but engaging stories from the most prosperous years of the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana featured some of history’s worst villains, but also some really exceptional people—and a lot of just complex, and interesting personalities. But as with my new book, the Pax Romana Podcast is also an ‘under the hood’ experience. I talk through some of the primary sources for each story, and the challenges of the material. If people want to check out more of my work, I think they should start there.