Common Causes Of Death In Ancient Greece And Rome

Common causes of death in ancient Greece and Rome had a lot to do with a lack of modern healthcare and wellness. In an urban society with no central plumbing, impure water supplies that transmitted bacteria, and insufficient medical knowledge and disease prevention, it's not surprising that life expectancy in the ancient world was low and health was precarious.

While warriors and gladiators of the ancient world suffered life-threatening injuries and death during battle, women and children were struck hardest by the leading causes of death in ancient Greece and Rome. Many modern-day ailments, such as heart disease and diabetes, weren't prevalent in ancient times. Many of today's leading causes of death are associated with old age, while common causes of death in the ancient world were more likely to affect children and young people (young women in childbirth and young men in violence).

Here are some of the predominant killers that permeated the planet millennia ago.

  • Childbirth

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the ancient world, the act of childbirth was extremely dangerous for both mother and child, with high maternal and infant mortality rates. A lack of sanitation, hygienic practices, and knowledge of microorganisms greatly affected the health and survival of both mother and child. Traditional medicine relied upon the guidance and support of an experienced midwife, the use of medicinal herbs, and praying to/making offerings to the gods.  

    Due to very little written evidence regarding maternal death rates in ancient Greek and Roman times, researchers have established estimates based upon comparisons with later societies with preserved written evidence. It's believed that rates in Ancient Rome may have been comparable to those of 18th century rural England, where maternal mortality rates averaged 25 per 1000 births.

  • Infant Illness And Rejection 

    Infant Illness And Rejection 
    Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    At a rate of forty percent, infant mortality was a common cause of death in the ancient world. It is estimated that 75% percent of children born in Rome did not live until the age of 10. Typically, if a mother gave birth to 10 children, only three might live past the age of 10.

    In both Greece and Rome, the family patriarch had the authority to accept or reject a child upon birth. In Rome, if the infant was ill, deformed, weak, or another hungry mouth to feed, the father might decide to reject the child, in which case it was adopted by someone else, sent into slavery or left to perish through exposure to the elements. Due to a lack of effective contraception in ancient Rome, pregnancy was common and poor families often could not afford to support more children. Thus, infanticide may have been more an act of mercy rather than indifference or cruelty in these instances. 

    Even if the family accepted the child, the underdeveloped immune systems of infants left them susceptible to many illnesses treatable today with modern medicine - diarrhea, infection, and diseases spread by water-borne bacteria and lack of sanitation.     

  • Malaria

    There is ample evidence that malaria was one of the major killers in ancient Rome, with the summer months statistically the highest in mortality. Romans did not understand the relationship between standing water, mosquitoes, and malaria. 

    Marshy conditions surrounding the city also contributed to malarial epidemics that, by the beginning of the Dark Ages, contributed to (in addition to many other factors) the reduction of Rome from a bustling city to a small town surrounded by swamps. 

  • Plague

    Photo: Jules Elie Delaunay / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Plague played a major role in the lives of both ancient Greece and Rome. In Greece, outbreaks usually resulted at critical moments of overcrowding and stress. Thucydides wrote extensively about the outbreak of plague during the Peloponnesian War from 430-26 BCE. Athens, overcrowded with refugees, suffered the deaths of tens of thousands of inhabitants, including Pericles, a prominent statesman. 

    Several waves of pandemic plague outbreaks also had disastrous results within ancient Rome. An outbreak in the time of Marcus Aurelius is said to have killed one-third of the population in some of the regions affected (Rome, Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy) and severely impacted the strength of the Roman army. This disease, transmitted from soldiers returning from far-flung military outposts, might have even slain Marcus Aurelius himself. In the sixth century, it's believed that a form of the Bubonic plague, a prelude to the medieval "Black Death," wiped out as much as half of the Roman population. 

  • Venereal Disease

    Venereal Disease
    Photo: Unknown/Alberto Fernandez Fernandez / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

    Venereal disease has plagued the human race since its inception. How much of an effect it had on the mortality of ancient Greeks and Romans is debatable. The word "gonorrhea" is actually derived from the ancient Greek terms for "seed" and "flow," which suggests a misunderstanding of the symptoms and a familiarity with the disease. 

    The debate over syphilis and its origins has raged for centuries. Initially, researchers theorized that travelers to the New World, starting with Columbus, brought the disease back with them. However, much earlier descriptions, including those by Hippocrates of the disease in its tertiary stages and skeletons in Pompeii indicating the presence of congenital syphilis, show that syphilis existed in Europe well before the discovery of the Americas by Europeans.

  • Warfare

    Statistical information concerning military casualties during Roman times rely heavily on accounts by ancient historians. The writings of Livy and Appian recount the deaths of nearly 100,000 soldiers in the period from 201 to 151 BCE. 

    At the vicious battle of Cannae in August 216 BCE, Carthage forces killed 50,000 to 70,000 Romans.

    Ancient Greece did not experience the same military mortality rates, but lengthy wars between warring city-states like Athens and Sparta and invasions from other empires like Persia affected male mortality rates.