Close this search box.

Top 7 Epidemic Diseases That Were Common in the Ancient World

Do you know which epidemic was the most dangerous one?

During ancient times, people weren’t that good at having a healthy and clean living environment, and because of the total lack of sanitation, a lot of weird diseases appeared. Some of them were very dangerous, and nobody could find a cure for them, while others were almost eradicated.

It is no surprise that, compared to us, our ancient predecessors experienced a lot more infections and illnesses. People began settling in large communities 10,000 years ago, and their main focus was agriculture.

As important and groundbreaking as these settlements were in determining the course of human civilization, they also brought with them new illnesses and epidemics. Now that people were crowded together in unclean neighborhoods, it was easy for common animal diseases to spread between species and trigger an outbreak. In the following article, we present some of the most feared epidemic diseases from the past that are no longer a danger.

Photo by fizkes From Shutterstock

1. Typhoid

When sanitation was at its worst in ancient times, typhoid was a common epidemic. This disease is mainly caused by the bacteria Salmonella and is very contagious and easy to spread through food and water. In 424 BC, the typhoid epidemic had its peak because it almost wiped out one-third of the Greek population of Athens.

Typhoid fever had such a powerful hold on the Athenians that it might have helped the Spartans conquer the entire city. This effectively ended Pericles’ Golden Age, which had previously served as a metaphor for Athens’ hegemony over the ancient world (along with the death of Pericles himself, who also perished in the epidemic).

Unfortunately, the epidemic devastated a lot of human settlements during those years, and the mortality rate was reduced only in 1942 when penicillin antibiotics were discovered.

2. Chickenpox

This epidemic disease was usually considered as being mild and pretty common among children. The infection was initially caused by the varicella virus, and before a vaccine could be invented to stop it, a lot of people considered it a serious infection. The first recorded case of chickenpox was back in the 1500s, and everybody thought it was a type of scarlet fever since both of these diseases caused red rashes on the skin.

Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia figured out that there are some differences between the two of them: scarlet fever requires antibiotics to treat it properly, while chickenpox requires you to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people as much as possible. A lot of people used to treat their children with soups and warm baths, and in less than two weeks, they were completely cured.

3. Bubonic Plague

Bubonic plague is one major epidemic that creates a lot of trouble for the entire population. This disease is caused by the bacterium “Yersinia pestis,” and it was spread by rats that were traveling from one city to another. During the fourteenth century, between 1346 and 1353, bubonic plague killed almost 25 million people, which means two-thirds of the European population.

A lot of people who got this epidemic disease died because there was no cure for it at that time. Did the plague era end after 1353? Not at all. In fact, there are bubonic plague cases throughout the world, with a recent one in Asia and America, and most of them involve people of all ages, but mostly between 12 and 45 years old.

There are also other types of plague: pneumonic plague (when the lungs are infected) and septicemic plague (when the infection goes through the whole body). While people suffering from pneumonic plague have difficulty breathing and a sudden cough, those who suffer from septicemic plague have a sudden high fever and blackened tissue from gangrene that involves their toes mostly.

On a brighter note, if you’re diagnosed with bubonic plague, you can be cured with antibiotics if the disease is treated early.

Photo by Lightspring From Shutterstock

4. Influenza

Influenza has been affecting people around the world for centuries. The “zero” patient was discovered in 1933 AD, but various other sources dare to say that the first documented records of influenza date back to 1580 AD in Asia and North Africa. The influenza outbreak that “brushed” the globe in 1918 and killed an estimated 50 million people was another devastating blow to the world after it had decimated many communities and populations throughout history.

Sources say that the death toll caused by this epidemic took more lives than World War I. Even if this is a bold statement, the typical American’s life expectancy decreased by 12 years when the epidemic first struck the United States in a single year.

5. Measles

Another epidemic disease that has been around humanity for a while is measles. Documents say that it dates back to the ninth century AD when a doctor identified it because it resembled smallpox. Later, in 1757, Francis Home, a Scottish doctor, discovered that measles was caused by an agent in the blood. After many years of struggling with the measles epidemic, in 1964, two doctors isolated a patient and tried to create a vaccine against the disease.

This process was slow, and until the vaccine became available for the majority of the population, more than a million people got infected each year, and a lot of those with weak immune systems died.

6. Smallpox

Without a doubt, the most common epidemic is smallpox. This disease is among the most contagious ones caused by the “variola virus,” and the person who got infected would have died without proper medication. It was proven that the roots of this disease are both in India and Egypt.

In fact, the earliest evidence of smallpox dates from 1157 BC, when Pharaoh Ramses the 5th died from a disease that most likely had the exact symptoms of smallpox, as archeologists discovered the pharaoh’s mummified corpse with numerous pockmarks on the skin. In the Middle Ages, smallpox outbreaks were common, killing a significant number of individuals and possibly preventing much of the West’s growth. Smallpox was so widespread that it had a significant impact on the fall of the Roman Empire. This decline began around 108 AD, when the Antonine Plague, a large-scale smallpox pandemic, occurred that killed seven million people.

After this, the smallpox epidemic began to rise even more and managed to take away the lives of almost 60 million people, and the numbers increased (around 300 million lives) in the 20th century.

Photo by Kateryna Kon From Shutterstock

7. Leprosy

Leprosy is one of the oldest diseases known to man, and the Bible has tales of a disease that affected individuals who spoke evil of others and was akin to leprosy. The symptoms primarily affect the nerves, joints, and skin, and they are easily identifiable because leprosy causes nodules on the skin, discolors small skin surfaces, and, if the disease is advanced, causes the loss of eyebrows and eyelashes.

However, this disease is not as contagious as others mentioned before, but it was proven that if one person who is perfectly healthy has frequent contact with a sick person, it might lead to the person contracting leprosy. Even after so many years of research, nobody can figure out how it can be stopped from spreading.

All these epidemics wreaked havoc on a lot of civilizations, and some of them even brought about the decline of some of the biggest empires in the world. We are somewhat safe from most of the mentioned ones thanks to modern technology and doctors who actively try to eradicate them.

If you are interested in finding out more awesome facts about world history, we highly suggest you check this out!

Don’t forget to subscribe to our page for more historical content. You won’t be disappointed! 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts