Dissertation Defense - David Pickel
The Department of Classics at Stanford University invites you to attend a public dissertation defense by
Malaria is among the most consequential infectious diseases to have ever afflicted humans. In this dissertation I explore malaria’s epidemiology in Roman central Italy. Unlike most studies of ancient malaria which characterize the disease as a singular and sudden disaster, I consider both the context of the disease and the disease as context. My goal is to understand malaria’s everyday interactions with individual Romans and Roman society overall. To this end, I outline a new approach which combines spatial epidemiological theories and methods with close analysis of paleo-environmental data, texts, and material remains to learn how the environment, human practices, and artifacts affected the risk of malaria’s transmission in the past. Emphasis is placed on the interactions between malaria and central Italian villa estates between 200 BCE and 500 CE. Using GIS, I juxtapose newly created malaria transmission risk maps and a geodatabase of villa estates. This juxtaposition discloses a tension: growth and activity despite malaria’s concurrent presence and naturally high risk of transmission. I then reconcile this tension through analysis of villa estate agricultural practices and artifacts, revealing that the Romans, although unaware of malaria’s specific 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 humans and mosquitoes. This contrasts with most historical narratives that portray malaria as an unmitigable force in pre-modern history. At the same time, this analysis indicates that malaria’s entrenchment within central Italy, lasting until its elimination in the middle twentieth century, was in part a consequence of the breakdown of those very same artifacts and practices which, for a time, curtailed its transmission. This, I argue, helps to explain the growth and abatement of the region.