On October 19th, 2023, Professor Colin Elliott gave a talk titled “No Fear in Love: The Christian Response to the First Pandemic” at the Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church. Colin is a professor in the History Department at Indiana University and a member of the Bloomington congregation. Content for the talk was derived from his forthcoming book: Pox Romana: The Plague that Shook the Ancient World (Princeton University Press, 2024).
After discussing the vast extent of the Roman Empire’s territorial claim, Colin looks at the issues that had begun to emerge in the Empire by the time of the Antonine plague. Between food insecurity, economic issues, migrant crises, and various ongoing territorial conflicts, the Empire was already beset with internal threats when the plague suddenly struck. The plague, which would ultimately kill millions of Romans of all social ranks over the course of ten to fifteen years, further destabilized the Roman Empire.
The response of many Romans was fear and anxiety. Perceiving the plague as indicative of the wrath of capricious deities, Romans offered sacrifices in the hopes that the crisis could be averted. While Emperors waxed poetic about stoicism, their actions showed they feared death immensely. Meanwhile, anxiety over the plague bubbled over into persecution of the small but growing Christian minority. Unlike their pagan neighbors, Christians refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods, and even ventured to care for the sick, needy, and dead at the risk of their own lives. Working from contemporary and later sources, Elliott argues that the early church saw the Antonine Plague as an opportunity to minister to the sick, poor, and dead, even in the face of persecution and death.
The talk can be viewed online at the following link: