Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The Antonine Plague: A Linguistic Analysis

The Antonine Plague: A Linguistic Analysis

Jennifer Meyer

Most classical scholarship has hinged on strict philological analysis of Greek and Latin texts. This essay is unique in that it steps away from such an approach and instead focuses on what our Classical sources have to say about the power of language. By applying theories developed by Briggs/Mantini-Briggs and Pierre Bourdieu, this essay investigates the primary sources on the Antonine Plague. The linguistic elements presented in the available ancient sources show us that the language used to describe this plague articulated relations of power, social structure and class, and that there is much more information expressed in these works than simply a catalogue of symptoms and words to be defined, as previous scholars have focused on. By closely examining these primary sources this essay illustrates that there is a plethora of information that can be gleaned by a linguistic analysis about the Antonine Plague, and that the works describing this epidemic disease in fact bear the traces of social structure and the unequal weight of words.

April 16, 2011 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Joseph Smith spent his formative years in Palmyra, New York. It was named after the town in Syria by the same name. Surely, people in Palmyra knew this fact.

    There had been a temple at Palmyra for 2000 years before the Romans ever saw it. Its form, a large stone-walled chamber with columns outside, is much closer to the sort of thing attributed to Solomon than to anything Roman. It is mentioned in the Bible as part of Solomon’s Kingdom. In fact, it says he built it. —Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Barbarians, p. 183.

    I wonder if the temple at Palmyra, which Joseph Smith probably knew about, is coincidentally similar to the Mormon Temple that God told Smith to build?

    Before Smith lived in Palmyra, he lived in Lebanon New Hampshire. Now, if I lived in towns called Paris Texas and Versailles Indiana, wouldn’t I naturally be interested at some point to want to know a little bit about France? Smith grew up in towns that were named after Arabic places. In July 1835, Smith purchased Egyptian mummies. Who puts a mummy in their house other than a person obsessed with things from the middle east?

    Isn’t it too much coincidence that God writes a language that has characters exactly the same as some Arabic numbers, especially when the only human allowed to see God’s handwriting is kind of obsessed with Arabic stuff ?

    Comment by Anton Anderssen | April 19, 2011 | Reply

  2. Sorry, wrong page :)

    Comment by Anton Anderssen | April 19, 2011 | Reply

  3. In chatting with you about your topic, it seemed to me that there appeared to be a conspicuous absence of blame-laying for the plague. In certain societies, I could see this as a trigger for xenophobia. This, of course, makes me think, “what would my BFF Mary Douglas say?” To elaborate on that somewhat, I think she has two concepts that could be useful. Pollution, dirt [plague] as “matter out of place,” naturally. But her concept of group and grid might help explain that conspicuous lack of reaction to the plague as a pollutant.

    Was the empire at this point so permeable that the sense of group was weak enough to permit its acceptance as something other than a pollutant? As to grid, I would think that Roman society in the time of Marcus Aurelius would be high-grid. I don’t have all my notes handy, but one case I know of, the reaction of a weak group/strong grid population was “indifference.”

    I know all of this strays from the linguistic expression of reactions to the plague, but it could help frame a wider-ranging discussion of the event.

    Comment by Dan Harrison | April 20, 2011 | Reply

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