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Ecology, History

Malaria in the Ancient World

Life in the first centuries of the common era in Judea and Galilee was short and sharp, characterized by “frequent pregnancy and sudden death.”[1] The evidence is rather sobering.[2] Apart from persistent problems of gastrointestinal diseases and brucellosis (from infected animal products such as goat’s milk), each year had seasons in which one could expect death, from typhus, typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis, plague, and, above all, malaria.[3] It depended on where one lived: in Italy, August and September were to be avoided; in Egypt, April and May, winter and summer, depending on the disease and the location; in the Levant, summer and early autumn was the worst, when hot weather exacerbated the threat of gastrointestinal problems and malaria.[4]

“Pestilential”[5] was the term used to describe anywhere that was low-lying and fertile, beside lakes and waterways, or even in moist topsoil, where water would gather and provide breeding grounds for the deadly anopheles, or malaria bearing mosquitoes. Malaria, with its preference for pregnant women and the young, brings about death on its own or substantially weakens the body so as to make it susceptible to a range of other killers. In such a situation, life expectancy actually needs to be reduced to little over 20 years (from an average of 30),[6] which makes some sense of the urgency to reproduce as soon as possible (when a woman reached the minimum age to be able to do so). In the worst areas, half of the population died before reaching adulthood, and out of this figure, 70 percent died in the first years of life.[7] Stunningly, if one reached the age of ten, one could expect to live to thirty – indeed, to be old meant that one had reached one’s thirties.[8] This would mean that if Jesus died in his early thirties, he would have been regarded as somewhat old.

Nonetheless, we should not fall into the trap of attributing too much to disease cycles. The health threats of collective living among working rural population (in a subsistence survival mode) had been a reality for millennia. Subsistence survival agriculture had developed in part as a response to these and other dangers. Those involved had developed strategies for dealing with local threats. People knew well the areas that produced the greatest risks to life and thereby would prefer to move to less pestilential areas – on heights with prevailing breezes in the early evening, where mosquitoes (being weak fliers) were unable to travel, but where the soil may have been less fertile and required more work. Here one would not be struck down quite so quickly.

At the same time, the Romans put pressure on people to move to lower and more fertile areas so as to produce intensively the goods the new colonial poleis “needed.” So we find that during the early Roman period lower-lying areas in colonial areas began to fill up with many new settlements, with their attendant problems of disease and constantly reconfigured family structures. At the same time, people resisted such moves. Let me give the example of Tiberias in Galilee. Established by the Roman client king, Herod Antipas, in 20 CE, the locals refused to move there. The problem was that Tiberias was located right on the lake, a humid location where mosquitoes could suck the blood from suspicious human beings.[9]


[1] Walter Scheidel, “Population and Demography,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics(2006), http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/040604.pdf., 2

[2] Robert Sallares, Malaria and Rome: A History of Malaria in Ancient Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Robert Sallares, “Ecology,” in The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, ed. Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris, and Richard Saller, 15-37 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33-37; François Retief and Louise Cilliers, “Malaria in Graeco-Roman Times,” Acta Classica 47(2004): 127-37; Walter Scheidel, “Epigraphy and Demography: Birth, Marriage, Family, and Death,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics(2007), http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/060701.pdf; Walter Scheidel, “Disease and Death in the Ancient Roman City,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics(2009), http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/040901.pdf; Jonathan Reed, “Mortality, Morbidity, and Economics in Jesus’ Galilee,” in Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Period, Volume 1: Life, Culture, and Society, ed. David Fiensy and James Riley Strange, 242-52 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

[3] Mirko Grmek, Diseases in the Ancient Greek World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 86-89; Sallares, “Ecology,” 34-36.

[4] Malaria seems to be the issue with Mark 1:30-31 (Peter’s mother-in-law) and John 4:52 (the centurion’s son).

[5] Flavius Josephus, Bellum Judaicum, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray, 2 vols., Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 78 [1927]), 4.457.

[6] Sallares, Malaria and Rome: A History of Malaria in Ancient Italy, 277-78.

[7] Patricia Smith, Elizabeth Bornemann, and Joe Zias, ” The Skeletal Remains,” in Excavations at Ancient Meiron, Upper Galilee, Israel 1971–72, 1974–75, 1977, ed. Eric Meyers, James Strange, and Carol Meyers, 110-20 (Cambridge: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1981), 110-11.

[8] Yossi Nagar and Flavia Sonntag, “Byzantine Period Burials in the Negev: Anthropological Description and Summary,” Israel Exploration Journal 58(2008): 79-93.

[9] Josephus famously attributed such reluctance to the “fact” that tombs were located there, but the threat of disease is a far more likely explanation. Ant: 18.36-38.

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