The Best Doctor Is Also a Historian

The Rootcutter's inaugural essay series aims at exploring connections between ancient and modern medicines—and not only the connections we make, but also why we make those connections and what impact they have on how we think about and conduct modern medical practices, both as healthcare experts and as service users. This series has been generously funded by the Society for Classical Studies Ancient Worlds, Modern Communities grant.

Image: Small-scale replica of the cult statue of Artemis at Ephesus, unknown maker, 2nd century C.E. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California, Gift of the Milton and Pat Gottlieb Trust, 81.AA.134.

Piety amid Pandemics: What an Ancient Inscription against the Plague Can Teach Us about Religion and Medicine today

by Travis Proctor

November 24, 2022

A second-century inscription describes how an oracle of Apollo has instructed the citizens of Sardis to "borrow" the cult statue of Artemis from the nearby city of Ephesus in their efforts to escape the effects of the Antonine Plague. Travis Proctor focuses our attention on this moment as representative of the enmeshment of medicine and religion in the ancient world.

Dr Travis Proctor is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wittenberg University. His research focuses on religions in the ancient Mediterranean, especially early Christianity.

The British biologist Peter Medawar once famously quipped that a virus is “a piece of bad news wrapped up in protein.” It was certainly a piece of bad news that Roman troops carried with them on their return to Roman-controlled Asia Minor (modern Turkey) from battles on the front lines in Parthia in the late 2nd century CE (c. 166/167 CE): an ancient form of the smallpox virus, which quickly took hold among the local population, leading to a devastating pandemic. The “Antonine Plague,” so named after the dynastic line of Roman emperors in power at the time, claimed the lives of many Romans, with an estimated mortality rate between 7% and 25% of the population (Flemming).

... a virus is “a piece of bad news wrapped up in protein.” (Peter Medawar)

Local residents did not stand idly by, waiting on the gods of the Roman pantheon to ease their suffering. Residents from the city of Sardis, in southwest Asia Minor, took things into their own hands and consulted with the oracle Apollo to ask what they might do to end the pandemic. This was a common response to disease outbreaks in antiquity. An inscription in Hierapolis of Phrygia, for example, includes an inscription dedicated to Apollo for the god’s ability to “destroy plague” (Jones). Calling on oracles to combat illness was so common that the Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata lampooned his fictional character Alexander “the Prophet” for sending “oracle-mongers everywhere in the Roman empire, warning the cities to be on their guard against plagues”; the cities responded, Lucian claims, by inscribing plague-thwarting verses on doorways throughout the city, as well as on the city gates themselves (Alexander the False Prophet 36, tr. Harmon).

Photograph of a head from a marble sculpture of Apollo, with wavy hair parted in the middle; nose broken.

To the citizens of Sardis, however, seeking help from the gods was no laughing matter. A 2nd century CE inscription, preserved in the provincial capital city of Ephesus, records Apollo’s response to the Sardians:

[For help, you must look to] Artemis with the golden quiver, born from my family. For she is the ancestral leader of the entire town from its origin, midwife and augmenter of mortals, giver of harvest.

Bring her brilliant, golden status here from Ephesus. Put her up in a temple, full of joy. She will provide deliverance from your affliction and will dissolve the poison (or: magic) of pestilence, which destroys men . . .

But when you have performed for the goddess my decrees, worship with hymns the shooter of arrows [i.e., Apollo], the irresistible, straight-shooting one and [worship] with sacrifice her [Artemis], the renowned and vigilant virgin . . .

If you should not fulfill the rites, then you will pay the penalty of fire.

(Translation adapted from Graf.) 

The oracle here calls on residents of Sardis to “borrow” the cult statue of Artemis from its sister city Ephesus (where Artemis had a monumental temple and center of worship), put the statue up in a local temple (likely the sanctuary of Artemis Koloene, near Lake Koloe in the Lydian Valley), and then perform appropriate worship of Artemis and Apollo together. The Sardians are warned, moreover, that they will pay the “penalty of fire” (pestilential fever, perhaps) if they do not perform such rites appropriately.

Photograph of part of an ancient temple column, situated between modern temples and displays of ancient Greek vases, inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image: Marble column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis (c. 300 BCE). Held by The Met Museum.

". . . religious ritual takes center stage as part of this communal attempt to end a disease outbreak."

What are we to make of this ancient response to pandemic? The inscribed oracle shows how health and religion are often intertwined. This is seen especially in how the people and priests of Sardis (and presumably Ephesus, as well) interpreted their gods Apollo and Artemis as both the causes and averters of sickness, as well as how religious ritual takes center stage as part of this communal attempt to end a disease outbreak. As Jessica Wright wrote recently in this blog, “ending” a pandemic can ultimately be “as much a social performance or construction as a measurable fact.”

We can see the intertwining of medicine and religion not only in how the Sardians responded to the pandemic, but also in the potential effects that the pandemic had on Roman society and its religious cultures. Sarah Yeomans has proposed, for example, that the Antonine Plague was a major impetus for the 3rd century crises of Roman society, which included widespread declines in prosperity and uneven fortunes for Roman religious centers. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, for example, from which Sardis summoned the goddess’s statue of the goddess, was destroyed in the late 3rd century and ceased to be a center for Artemis worship.

Image: A reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, located in Miniatürk Park, Istanbul. Image by Zee Prime at cs.wikipedia.

Despite the appeals to the gods in cities such as Sardis the Antonine Plague continued unabated. It is tempting here to wonder whether the “bad news” of the plague may have undermined the authority of the Roman pantheon. Christianity continued its rise in importance, after all, eventually emerging as the dominant religious tradition in the late antique Mediterranean. At a practical level, some, such as Rodney Stark and Eric Rebillard, have suggested that Christian practices of solidarity with and care for the sick may have aided their evangelistic efforts in plague-riven areas. The economic problems caused by the pandemic, moreover, may have interrupted the philanthropy that served as foundational funding for Roman public festivals and religious offerings.

Did the Antonine plague really cause the decline of the Roman Empire’s polytheistic religious traditions? Such connections are suggestive, though not definitive. The Empire continued to thrive in many parts of late antiquity, especially in the east, and any declines in regional fortunes or shifts in religious affiliations were certainly due to a complex array of factors. Nevertheless, the Sardian oracle showcases how, in the case of ancient Roman society, at least, religion and public health were deeply intertwined. This is evident both in how religion shaped ancient Romans’ understandings of the plague’s origins as well as the potential impacts that such an outbreak had on religious institutions (whether good or ill).

The case of the Sardian oracle reminds us that the social ramifications of disease outbreaks are multiple, impacting not only mortality and public health, but the cultural fabrics of our communities. How we interpret and respond to communal disease, therefore, will undoubtedly have societal ramifications for years to come, and in ways that we likely cannot imagine. In turning to contemporary responses to COVID: how will disputes over vaccines shift relationships between religious groups and other social institutions (e.g., hospitals, public health organizations)? How will the (temporary or permanent) move to hybrid worship ceremonies influence religious affiliation, and how religious communities form social bonds? These are just two of the most apparent ways in which the pandemic could be imagined to have ripple effects on religious life; there are likely many more yet to be realized. But whatever the ultimate outcomes, the Antonine Plague and Sardian oracle jointly warn us that COVID, like pandemics before it, will not remain an isolated event.


Graf, F. (1992). "An Oracle against Pestilence from a Western Anatolian Town," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 92, pp.267–279.

Harmon, A.M. 1925. Lucian, Volume IV. Loeb Classical Library 162. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Flemming, R. (2021). "Pandemics in the Ancient Mediterranean World," ISISCB: Special Issue on Pandemics.

Green, M.H. (2021). "Perfecting Diseases' Pasts: On Kyle Harper’s 'Plagues Upon the Earth'," Los Angeles Review of Books (October 2021).

Harper, K. (2017).The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Harper, K. (2021). Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jones, C.P. (2005). "Ten dedications 'To the gods and goddesses' and the Antonine Plague," Journal of Roman Archaeology 18, pp.293–301.

Proctor, T. (2022). "Hospitality, not Honors: Portraits and Patronage in the Acts of John," Harvard Theological Review 115.1, pp.69–89.

Rebillard, E. (2009). The Care of the Dead in Late Antiquity, tr. Elizabeth Trapnell Rawlings and Jeanine Routier-Pucci. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stark, R. (1997).The Rise of Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Yeomans, S.K. (2017). "Classical Corner: The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity," Biblical Archaeology Review 43.2, pp.22, 24, 66.


  1. In what ways did the COVID-19 pandemic affect religious practices in your local and national contexts? To what extent have these changes endured beyond the initial adaptation and response?

  2. Take another look at the oracle of Apollo that the citizens of Sardis commissioned and had inscribed for display within their city. List out the exact steps they needed to take. What do you think was the (religious) logic behind these instructions?

  3. Why do you think the Sardians chose to also have the oracle inscribed on stone? Can you see other hints in Proctor's essay to suggest that the written word might carry a certain kind of power? Why do you think inscriptions held power in this way? Where do we see this in modern religious and medical practices?

  4. Why do healthcare crises sometimes cause other major shifts in areas such as politics, religion, and the economy?