Today historians and archaeologists generally consider disease incidence during the later Roman periods to have been predominantly the result of pan-Mediterranean environmental and climatic conditions, with major topical focus regarding endemic malaria and pandemic events like the 3rd century CE “Plague of Cyprian” and the later “Justinianic Plague” beginning in the 5th century (e.g., Sallares 2002; 2006; Harper 2017). While it is certainly the case that the environment and climate did contribute to these and other disease events, what is often missed in such studies are the everyday interactions between people, pathogens, and their shared material environment that contributed to disease incidence in the past, as well as the human experience of living with disease. By overlooking such quotidian interactions and experiences we are unable to gain a tangible and productive historical understanding of human-environment-disease relationships (Haldon et al. 2018). In this spirit I argue for the need to study artifacts as disease exposures, things that mediated interactions and experiences between humans, the environment, and disease.
Inspired by the tenets of entanglement theory (Hodder 2015), social epidemiology (Krieger 2011), and landscape epidemiology (Lambin et al. 2010), all of which emphasize the interdependence of living and non-living things, I examine how the creation, use, maintenance, and dilapidation of artifacts both inhibited and promoted disease in the past. I do so specifically by studying the life histories of villa estates in Roman central Italy and their constituent hydraulic infrastructure (e.g., water channels and cisterns), and how these artifacts, in tandem with the local environment and human practices, bounded malaria’s distribution, affected its prevalence, and ultimately exposed Romans to this disease. Through this analysis it becomes apparent that the Romans, although unaware of malaria’s etiology, were able to incidentally reduce the risk of its transmission. This contrasts with most historical narratives that view malaria as an unmitigable force in pre-modern history (e.g., Shah 2005). At the same time, however, this analysis indicates that malaria’s entrenchment within Italy, lasting until its elimination in the middle 20th century, may have in part been a consequence of the abatement and breakdown of those very same artifacts and practices which, for a time, curtailed its transmission.
This use of the ‘disease landscape’ as a conceptual tool, becoming increasingly more popular in anthropological and historical research (e.g., Nading 2014; Zeigler 2016; Jones 2016), is in line with Sessa’s call for a “second phase” of scholarship concerning human-environment relationships and the history of Rome’s “decline and fall,” requiring new ways to study the agents and processes that tie human practices and experiences to larger historical and environmental trends, including those pandemic events that impacted the economy and demography of Rome and its empire (Sessa 2019). Moreover, by demonstrating the potential for artifacts to shed new light on ancient disease, this approach advances a new phase beginning in archaeological studies of health and disease (e.g. Shaw and Sykes 2018; Longhurst 2018), a field of study which has traditionally been dependent on the analysis of human remains.
New Environmental History: Promise and Pitfalls