Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The World Health Organization has declared the COVID 19 outbreak a pandemic. This has caused something of a global panic and has led to a great deal of economic dislocation. This has led to many governments imposing an obligatory system separating many people that may be carrying the virus. People have been obliged to self-isolate in case they inadvertently spread the influenza-like virus.
Quarantine is a series of measures that are taken to isolate those who may be carrying a communicable disease. The concept of social distancing was known to the ancients, and they were aware that it was potentially hazardous to come into contact with infected people. They knew that some diseases are contagious and that measures were needed to protect the healthy population from those who were infected.
Lack of Medicine
The Greeks and the Romans made many scientific advances. However, they were extremely limited in their medical knowledge. They had no real concept of what a virus is or what was bacteria. They were aware that many diseases such as plague were highly infectious.
The Greeks and later the Romans believed that plagues and epidemics came from miasmas (an unpleasant or unhealthy smell or stench) that came from the ground. However, they were also aware that humans could spread these diseases.
There is evidence that ancient cities practiced some form of quarantine. Since they did not have the advanced medicine that we benefit from today, they could only rely on prevention. All ancient societies were aware of the need to separate the healthy from the sick.
In the Ancient World, the population, especially in urban centers, was very prone to epidemics. There are many recorded instances of plagues in the Classical World. The Plague that devastated Athens during The Peloponnesian War, in 430 BC., killed, up to 25 % of the inhabitants. Then the great Antonine Plague in the late 2nd century AD devastated the population and gravely weakened the Roman Empire.
Greek and Roman Quarantine
While there is evidence that city leaders in the ancient world used their powers to enforce quarantines, there is little documented evidence on the exact practice of quarantine. These ancient peoples did not have hospitals as such as they only emerged with Christianity. Civil leaders in Athens and elsewhere would prohibit strangers from entering the city walls. This included traders, merchants and other travelers.
The sick would often be ordered to ‘self-isolate’ and would be expected to stay in their home. As a result, many people would die in their home. However, some communities may have helped to feed the ill in their homes. The need for the quarantine may have been limited by the fact that many people fled the cities when there was a pandemic or outbreak of diseases.
Many Ancient Greeks and Romans, during epidemics, may have sought sanctuary in temples and shrines. Many would flee to the Temple of Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine, for his protection. Moreover, it is believed, that many people would often receive basic healthcare at these sites. The sick would congregate in these and that helped to quarantine them and keep them separate from the healthy population.
The Ancient quarantines were not only aimed at preventing people from spreading the disease. Goods and products were also believed to have been spreading illnesses. Galen, in the first medical work on Epidemics, believed that bad cereals and grains caused plagues and other infectious diseases. As a result, it seems likely that the civic governments prohibited many foodstuffs and other goods into a city. This may have been effective in some instances, however it may have exacerbated the economic crises that many urban centers experienced during epidemics.
The Rise of Christianity
After Christianity became the official state religion in the Roman Empire, they developed many charitable institutions. Most historians argue that they built the first hospitals in the Classical World. Here, during epidemics, sick people were able to receive care. These hospitals, which were ubiquitous in the Roman Eastern Provinces, often helped to quarantine the sick and those infected with illnesses.
The ancient world, it appears, only practiced a limited form of quarantine. However, their medical ideas influenced other societies who practiced quarantine more rigorously. The Byzantines drew on lessons learned from the past to develop a more sophisticated way of separating the healthy from the unhealthy.
It was the Arabs who learned most from the Greeks and their ideas about separating the infected from the uninfected. The Nestorian sect of Christianity (developed and practiced in Asia Minor and Syria), for instance, translated the works of leading Greeks such as Galen. There was also the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate, both of which developed sophisticated quarantine systems, including public hospitals.
The modern system of quarantine developed in Medieval Europe, especially in Italy, and was influenced in part by the ancients. The idea of isolating people for 40 days was based on ideas derived from Galen in his investigations, but the term quarantine comes from the Italian word “Quaranta”, meaning 40.
The history of quarantine is a long and fascinating one. As we hunker down and self-isolate, let’s keep in mind the ancient wisdom behind the very idea of doing so.