Appointed As

Georgetown Humanities Institute Postdoctoral Fellow

Program

David Pickelprogram

Host

Georgetown University

PhD Field of Study

PhD, Classics, Stanford University

Dissertation Abstract

"The Malarial Landscapes of Roman Central Italy: An Archaeological Study of Disease Exposure"

This dissertation presents a study of malaria’s ancient epidemiology in Roman central Italy. Wherever prevalent, malaria invariably increases mortality and morbidity rates and depresses economic growth. It also engenders and reinforces socio-political inequalities. An ever-growing wealth of evidence makes clear that this disease was present across the ancient Mediterranean, particularly in Roman Italy. And yet little work has been done regarding malaria’s impact on and interaction with Romans and Roman society overall.
Our understanding of malaria’s historical significance is constrained by the presumed inability of the current evidence to specify where and to what degree the disease was present. In this dissertation I address this evidentiary constraint by reconceptualizing the focus of research. I take the starting position that, not unlike today, malaria in ancient Rome was most likely a normal part of daily life, an infectious disease caught up in everyday rhythms. In other words, I consider both the context of the disease and the disease as context. To do this, I combine spatial epidemiological theories and methods with close analysis of paleo-environmental data, ancient texts, and material remains to learn how the environment, human practices, and artifacts bounded malaria’s distribution, affected its prevalence, and ultimately exposed people in the past to this disease. In this way, I build a model of ancient malaria transmission risk. Major emphasis is placed on the unfolding entanglement between malaria and Roman villa estates located within central
Italy between 200 BCE and 500 CE.
In Chapter One, all current evidence for malaria in the ancient Roman world is categorized according to the ability of each to support a malaria identification. Chapter Two outlines the theoretical framework and method, central to which is the idea that landscapes of disease and disease exposures therein are the emergent outcome of the interdependent activity between the social world of humans and the material world of living and non-living things. In Chapter Three, GIS software is used to create suitability maps of relative malaria transmission risk in Roman central Italy. These maps reflect temperature’s effect on the development and activity of mosquitoes and malaria parasites. In Chapter Four, the risk maps created in the previous chapter are juxtaposed with a geodatabase of 501 central Italian villa estates datable between 200 BCE and 500 CE. This juxtaposition discloses a tension that has not been satisfactorily considered in studies of Roman central Italy: growth and activity despite malaria’s concurrent presence and naturally high risk of transmission. This tension is reconciled in the final two chapters. Chapter Five explores the potential for villa estate agricultural practices to effectively control malaria transmission. Chapter Six explores how the artifacts of those practices impacted their effectiveness in terms of malaria control, as well as the ways in which these artifacts themselves promoted malaria exposure as they fell into disrepair and dilapidated.
This dissertation reveals that the Romans, although unaware of malaria’s etiology, very likely incidentally reduced the risk of its transmission by embracing intensive farming practices, attentive local reclamation, and the employment of artifacts that curtailed substantive contact between susceptible human hosts and infected mosquito vectors. At the same time, this dissertation indicates that malaria’s entrenchment within Italy, lasting until its elimination in the middle 20th century, was in part a consequence of the breakdown of those very same artifacts and practices that, for a time, curtailed its transmission.