The most common causes of death in ancient Greece and ancient Rome had much to do with a lack of some of the basic elements of modern healthcare and wellness. In an urban society with zero central plumbing, impure water supplies that transmitted bacteria, and a basic ignorance of medical knowledge and disease prevention, it was predictable that life expectancy in the ancient world was low and health precarious.
Though when we think of the ancient world, we often think of warriors and gladiators, the leading causes of death in ancient Greece and Rome often struck women and children the hardest. What's also surprising to a modern audience is what's not on the list: modern-day killers like heart disease and diabetes. Today's leading causes of death are associated with old age, while the most 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 major killers that stalked the planet millennia ago.
In the ancient world, the act of childbirth was extremely dangerous for both mother and child. Other than employing a midwife, praying to the gods, and using some herbs, Romans essentially left the results of childbirth to fate and hoped for the best.
There are no hard and fast statistics involving maternal death rates, but the highest mortality rates for females appear to be between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. Life expectancy for women greatly increased once a female reached the age of lower fertility.
Another issue in both Greece and Rome was the competence of midwives and doctors; essentially anybody with the inclination could assume this profession with no formal training and predictable levels of competence.
Infant mortality was a fundamental cause of death in the ancient world. It is estimated that a staggering seventy-five per cent of children born in Rome did not live until the age of ten. Typically, if a mother gave birth to ten children, only three might live into adulthood.
In fact, in both Greece and Rome, a father could reject his child and engage in legal infanticide, usually the result of physical deformity, lack of means, or the sex of the child. Children would be "exposed;" that is, abandoned to the elements, where they would starve, freeze, or die from other related conditions. In Rome, this decision would be made by the father of the child, who, if he decided to accept the child, would lift it in the air symbolically, in effect agreeing to "raise" the child. Infanticide was not even banned legally in Rome until the fourth century AD.
Even if the family accepted the child, other common causes of infant death were diarrhea and infection and disease spread by water-borne bacteria and lack of sanitation.
Ancient Rome could not have provided a better incubator for infectious disease. Crowded urban conditions, the lack of indoor plumbing, and a transient population that frequently traveled from all parts of the Empire provided ample opportunities for high death rates from disease.
There is ample evidence that malaria was one of the major disease 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, reduced Rome from a bustling city to a small town surrounded by swamps.
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 in 430 BC. Athens, overcrowded with refugees, suffered the deaths of tens of thousands of inhabitants, including Pericles, a prominent statesman.
Plague 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 and severely impacted the strength of the Roman army. This disease, transmitted from soldiers returning from far-flung military outposts, might have even killed Marcus Aurelius himself. Plague would continue to affect ancient Rome at various periods until the end of its reign.