by Edward Whelan
March 18, 2020
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.
The Plague of Athens,
Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652-1654
However, they were also aware that humans could spread these diseases.
There are many recorded instances of plagues in the Classical World.
Greek and Roman 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.
with his serpent-entwined staff,
Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus.
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 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.
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
Galen of Pergamum, left, with Hippocrates
on the title page of Lipsiae (1677),
a medical book by Georgii Heinrici Frommanni.
National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland
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.
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.
The Nestorian sect of christianity (developed and practiced in Asia Minor and Syria), for instance, translated the works of leading Greeks such as Galen.
then in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain),
this 1883 illustration shows the famed physician
Al-Zahrawi (called Abulcasis in the West) attending to a patient
while his assistant carries a box of medicines.
SHEILA TERRY / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
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.
As we hunker down and
self-isolate, let's keep in mind the ancient wisdom behind the very
idea of doing so...