The Impact of Historic Plagues

Christopher Columbus denotes the Columbian Exchange (C.E) as the exchange of crops, ideas, diseases, and populations between the Old World and the New World because of his expedition to the Americas in 1492. The whole Eastern Hemisphere covers the Old World. This world gained from the Columbian Exchange through new metal discoveries, new food crops such as maize, tomatoes, cassava, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and tobacco. This Columbian Exchange had both positive and negative impacts. 

The 1492 C.E impact on the Old World saw maize or corn, as the most significant foods that the New World introduced to the Old World. As a result, the introduction of Maize led to increases in livestock and food security thus an increase in population within the Old World. The Old World also exported sugar cane to the New World. This sugarcane from Spain was taken to South American and Caribbean Countries. Sugarcane led to economic growth within the New World. Thriving in the economy affects the population positively. However, the C.E led to disease epidemics from both the worlds. Native Americans had their first encounter with smallpox among other lethal diseases that destroy and annihilate humans. Thousands of Native Americans died from smallpox, measles, and influenza among other diseases. There was a drastic reduction in the population in the New World. The introduction of these diseases led to the mutation of the diseases causing organisms, which made them even more dangerous. The Old World was also devastated by pests, animal diseases, which attacked both human and livestock. As a result, there were economic ripples, which affected the Old World1

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Slavery, exploitation, and the war that was brought about by greed led to a mass loss of lives. This, therefore, led to a significant decrease in population from both the worlds. Over eight million Native Americans and African slaves were forced to work in the tobacco fields. Over eighty to ninety-five percent of the Native American population was wiped out within the following first hundred years after 1492 C.E. As a result of contact with Columbus and his crew, over six million Taino Population (Hispaniola) become nearly extinct. Over 10 million Central Mexico people died within one century after the Columbus Exchange. According to David Cook, there was over eighty percent of population losses as a result of the Columbus Exchange1

The Black Death is a historic plague, which emaciated both Europe and Asia in the 1347 C.E. This plague took a respectively greater toll of life than any recorded war or plague within this era. This plague originated from Asia and spread to Europe where twenty to two hundred million people died. This type of plague is called bubonic plague caused by a bacteria strain known as Yersinia pestis.  This plague spread to Europe, Cairo then England, Norway, and Ebling (Current Poland). Over forty percent of Egypt’s Population was annihilated and about thirty-five percent of the German population was lost. Sixty major and over a hundred minor Jewish communities were devastated3

The Black Death changed the social structure of Europe and Asia. The Black Plague subsequently reduced the world’s populace by close to one hundred million persons. It took Europe one hundred and fifty years to regain their loss of population. Consequently, every person got the plague, except for Royals, some high priests, and children who oddly were less affected. Because of this plague, the need for labor increased, which led to laborers demanding higher wages which the rulers tried to stop from going up. This led to oppression and the introduction of The Statute of Labourers (1351) in Europe. This statute later led to the Peasant’s revolt33

Around 164 C.E, the Roman Empire suffered from a great plague, which wiped out over thirty percent of its population. This plague is also known as the Plague of Galen (Greek physician). It occurred during the Parthian War and the Marcomanni War in Italy. It is believed that the plague originated from a siege by the Romans against Parthians. Many Roman soldiers succumbed to this disease during this war. 

This epidemic led to the withdrawal of the Roman Army from the Marcomanni War as the shortage was felt all through the army. The plague spread from Egypt, Hispania, and to Assyria where a great population died throughout the Empire. Over five million people are estimated to have died. This sum does not include the number of Roman Soldiers who died due to this plague. The degree of this plague affected the Empire severely through military incapacitations, economic losses, and the labor market. “Weep not for me; think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.” These were Marcus Aurelius’ (Roman Emperor’ last words on the plague as he was dying. This Plague cut the population by a third, destabilized trade markets, thus shattering the entire economy3.

In conclusion, there is great uncertainty regarding the exact scale of the depopulation of the Europe, Americas, and Rome due to the three notable historic plagues. This is because we are unsure of the magnitude which the epidemics may have cleared the regions. Even though these plagues amounted to devastated catastrophes, their emergence led to improved medicine research, laborers also benefited from an increase in their wages, cultural assimilation, and the emergence of new political regimes. 


1. Crosby, Alfred W., John R. McNeill, and Otto Von Mering. 2003. The Columbian exchange biological and cultural consequences of 1492. Westport (Conn.): Praeger: 55-100 

  1. Duncan-Jones, R. P. 1996. The impact of the Antonine plague.

Peschke, Zachary. “The Impact of the Black Death.” ESSAI 5, no. 1 (2007): 32

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