Plagues, Pandora, and the 5G Devil-Breath
As a general rule, conspiracy theories are humanity’s way of maintaining psychological control of the world around them when there is precious little evidence of that power in reality. The more desperate the times, the more outlandish the conspiracy theories, and Covid-19 has certainly provided us with some doozies. In my own neck of the woods – the United Kingdom – the conspiracy theory du jour has been that the Coronavirus is caused by 5G (wireless broadband). This conviction has led to a spate of arson attacks on 5G towers, as proud vigilantes have taken it upon themselves to liberate us all from the baleful influence of faster, more reliable internet.
Don’t get me wrong: I do understand the basic steps in this theory. 5G has been in the news, and not in a flattering way. Britain’s 5G network was, until very recently, set to be installed and operated by Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant. Given the symbiotic relationship between Huawei and the Chinese state, there have been some well-justified fears that this was essentially an invitation to mass data-mining. The Coronavirus also originated in China, and despite the well-attested theory that it originated in a wet market in Wuhan, some have hypothesised that it was, in fact, released from a laboratory. If one were then to mis-connect the dots, it might seem that the Peoples Republic is using 5G towers to spread Covid-19 to the unsuspecting British population.
What is fascinating about the 5G conspiracy theory – apart from its scientific illiteracy – is how closely it maps to contemporary concerns in society about the advance of technology and the threat posed by the Chinese state. Factual accuracy is irrelevant in a conspiracy theory. What matters is how effectively the theory confirms our preconceived notions and prejudices.
Conspiracy theories and pandemics go hand-in-hand, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that a fair few theories circulated in Roman society in similar stressful times.
The Antonine Plague arrived in the Roman empire sometime around 165 A.D, and the pandemic continued intermittently until the 180s. When it comes to identifying the plague, we are fortunate to have the account of Galen, quite possibly the foremost Roman medical mind, who observed and treated victims at the time. Based on his observations of the symptoms – fever, a black rash, irritation of the eyes, ulcers in the windpipe and bloody stools – the most likely culprit for the Antonine Plague is the smallpox virus. The death toll from this, the first Mediterranean pandemic, was catastrophic: possibly up to 7 or 8 million of the 75 million inhabitants of the empire died in the successive waves. Both society and the economy were badly shaken by the plague, and it took the empire many decades to recover.
At the time, rumour had it that the plague had come from the east, carried by the legions returning from the city of Ctesiphon (near Baghdad in modern Iraq). There, the legionaries under Lucius Verus and Avidius Cassius had sacked the ancient metropolis, thereby committing a terrible sacrilege. Word spread that a legionary had stumbled across a sealed chest in the ruins of the temple of the god Apollo. Greedy for the treasures within, the legionary had pried it open, and so unleashed the plague sealed inside. Desperate to appease the wrath of Apollo, the plague-stricken Romans turned en-masse to the cult of the deity. The period in the direct aftermath of the plague is rich with evidence both for new temple dedications and grassroots religious movements, as the whole span of society pleaded for the aid of the vengeful god.
Lacking as they did a comprehensive understanding of epidemiology, the Romans might be forgiven for thinking that the plague was a case of divine retribution. They might also be forgiven for mistaking its point of ingress into the empire: our best guess suggests that smallpox originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and the first recorded cases clearly occur in Egypt as the plague spread northwards.
Much like the 5G conspiracy theory, what is interesting about the story of Apollo’s chest is how closely it maps to contemporary religious and political concerns. The chest itself clearly mirrors Pandora’s box, the focus of a foundational myth in Graeco-Roman polytheism: when Pandora opened the box, she unwittingly unleashed all evil into the world.
That the chest itself was found in the east, beyond Rome’s frontiers, is likely a reflection of concerns about the barbarian other in Roman society – barbarians, as everyone knew, brought diseases.
The Romans were not wholly oblivious to the impact that their imperialism had on others, and it cannot have surprised many that the chest was discovered in the aftermath of a war crime, the sack of Ctesiphon. Indeed, that a soldier was responsible for unleashing the evil upon the Roman world would have been considered typical – the greed and arrogance of the Roman soldiery were legendary amongst all sectors of Roman society.
There will, of course, have been a pronounced anti-authoritarian streak to the scuttlebutt. Lucius Verus, the emperor who had ordered the sack of Ctesiphon, never enjoyed the sterling reputation of his co-emperor, the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius. That Verus then proceeded to succumb to the plague will have been judged by many as karmatically apt. Avidius Cassius did not escape unscathed either. Later, as the prefect of Egypt – easily one of the most powerful and important positions in any Roman regime – Cassius launched an ill-fated coup d’état against Marcus Aurelius, which resulted in his murder. Perhaps, many will have whispered, his role in unleashing the plague was an omen to which the failed rebel should have paid closer attention?
What strikes me as the most salient feature of the examples of Apollo’s chest and the 5G devil-breath (as my friend once referred to it) is that the lapse of two millennia has changed exactly nothing. Indeed, even though we can now point to a photograph of the virus and say, “This is the thing that is killing you!”, many people will still prefer their own answers. It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse: to the uninitiated, one invisible thing explained by a boatload of scientific jargon is much the same as the next. But it isn’t and has never been about that. The question is: why?
The crucial feature that all conspiracy theories share is that whatever great misfortune they are describing, they are always attributable to human agency and never to blind circumstance. This is equally true of divine wrath, if one assumes that divinity is a projection of the human condition into the heavenly sphere. Wrath, greed, vengeance, arrogance, fear: these are all things we readily understand, because we all experience them on a daily basis. Since no one is here to stop us, we then extrapolate them outwards onto the cosmic plane, and so come to live in a universe governed by the readily explicable. There’s no sin in this: it is only sane.
The alternative is more terrifying than any virus. The alternative is to recognise that we are not the centre of the universe, that this isn’t happening because of us, and that we are very much just along for the ride. That no one causes plagues: they cause themselves. That neither the Antonine Plague nor the Coronavirus are malevolent or vengeful; they are very much just doing their thing, and we just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. That everything just…well…happens. That there is neither fault nor absolution: there just is.
We’ve come a long way since the Antonine Plague first crept up the Nile Delta, but in some ways we haven’t yet moved an inch, if the burning broadband tower near my house is anything to go by.