A bridge between two eras


Many people ask me if Berenice is me. I had plenty of time to reflect on this matter and the simplest answer is “no”; Berenice is a fictional character, as are most of the characters created exclusively for the book; but this statement doesn’t prevent me from having a great identification with her, especially when it comes to our common love of adventure and discovery. But lately, a parallel between Berenice of Cappadocia and me, between her time and mine has been present in a remarkable and unexpected way: the discovery of a virus that until then was absent in humans. In my research on the Roman period of the 3rd and 4th centuries, I found the very interesting The fate of Rome: climate, disease and the end of an empire (2017 Princeton University Press), by the historian Kyle Harper. In his book, the researcher details how the force of nature imposed its will on Rome, the great city that, according to the poet Claudius Claudianus: “Sprung from humble beginnings, has stretched to either pole, and from one small place extended its power so as to be coterminous with the sun’s light.” This eloquent speech was offered during the visit of the Honorable Emperor to Rome, which was no longer the capital of the Empire, but which still held that pride of bankrupted aristocracy that always accompanied those who were once powerful; The crowd present at the festivities was experiencing one of those moments when everyone believes that everything is as it should be and that nothing can change that; a common feeling in human beings, that nothing should change when everything is going well. Wild animals, brought from all lands dominated by the Empire, were placed in the arena of the Flavian Amphitheatre, to offer the public a massacre that, in the words of Kyle Harper, showed that "the Romans had tamed the forces of wild nature". Faced with such a splendid spectacle, it’s probably that nobody among the populace remembered the difficulties of the past or concerns about the future. But the wheel of fortune has been spinning since the beginning of time and we, living today, have the privilege of the knowledge of the past events, and we know that Rome has also fallen. Which makes the following excerpt uncomfortably identifiable: “At scales that the Romans themselves could not have understood and scarcely imagined— from the microscopic to the global— the fall of their empire was the triumph of nature over human ambitions. The fate of Rome was played out by emperors and barbarians, senators and generals, soldiers and slaves. But it was equally decided by bacteria and viruses, volcanoes and solar cycles.Only in recent years have we come into possession of the scientific tools that allow us to glimpse, often fleetingly, the grand drama of environmental change in which the Romans were unwitting actors.” Without over-detailing all these factors (because I know that being quarantined studying history is not in your plans 😁😁😁), one of them is nowadays closest to us than the others: the assault of new diseases. In the 3th century, one of them was later coined as the Cyprian plague. And this is the event that shortens the bridge between Berenice's time and mine. In the year 249 AD, people started to get sick, with terrible symptoms (apparently much worse than those of COVID-19), and no one knew from where that new disease came from. At its peak, there were 5,000 deaths daily. There is no consensus among historians as to which virus is responsible for the chaos - among the candidates we find smallpox, a type of Ebola or a flu virus. But everyone agrees that it was a new virus for humankind. It didn't take long for panic to take over the population. Nobody ran after toilet paper, because it didn't exist at the time, but I can imagine the fear of human contact, the attempts to get comfortable isolation for the fortunate families and the atmosphere of “run for your life”. That's because reports from documents from the period describe panic, unpreparedness, finger points to scapegoats (pagans blaming the god of Christians and vice versa), concern for the economy and productivity. Berenice did not live this period, but the education she received from her parents is probably a result of the Cyprian plague. It was perhaps thanks to this new Rome, which emerged when the crisis passed, that she was able to travel and discover her world. The old order that used to put the heirs of the aristocracy in power, now saw soldiers made emperors. This new reality showed that anything was possible. It was perhaps the stories she heard from the elders, who maybe told her how uncertain everything was and how everyone had to readjust during the crisis of the new virus that she developed in herself the belief that if everything is impermanent, then it is worth trying and live her life on her own terms. Rome's economic and demographic recovery was slow, but it gave the empire another century and a half of lifespan before its end. Eventually Rome recovered from Cyprian plague and new social standards emerged. Cities that were once powerful, have diminished and lost their prestige to make way for other centers of importance. Knowing all of this made me feel calmer, relieved my anxiety. As I told a friend this morning, I wonder about the future, but in two very different ways: on the one hand, I'm afraid of being infected by the virus, or even worse, that someone I love get it. But this is a fear that accompanies every living being every day, so ... On the other hand, I’m very optimistic about the possible historical aftermath of this catastrophe, which - fortunately - concerns only us, humans. The proof of this is that the nature around us remains unmoved, at its own pace. Ask your pet if it’s worried about COVID-19! I’m convinced that we will change things after this crisis. This virus, whatever the reasons it’s spreading the way it is, forces us to question more seriously about our way of life and what future we want for ourselves. Now it is our turn to write a new chapter in the history of mankind. For those interested in the book, and who wants indeed to spend the confinement studying history, here are the references: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. HARPER, Kyle, Princeton University, 2017. ISBN: 9780691166834