Italians called it the "French disease," the Dutch called it the "Spanish disease," the Russians called it the "Polish disease," and the Tahitians called it the "British disease." In the late 15th century, people around the world were blaming a particularly virulent, suddenly endemic disease on their improperly hygienic neighbors. The disease started off with a single chancre sore, then became a whole-body rash, and eventually caused people to go insane. In an era before antibiotics easily cured contagion, whole cultural groups needed someone to blame for mal de Naples, Arboyne pimple, Scottish sibbens, and Swedish saltfluss.
I'm talking, of course, about syphilis. In 1530, the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro created the neologism in an epic poem he wrote about a man who was cursed with disease by Apollo. Syphilus may have been named after the son of the nymph Niobe, mentioned as Sipylus in Ovid's Metamorphoses and himself named after a mountain in Turkey that Niobe fled back to when Artemis killed her daughters and Apollo killed her sons. Fracastoro both named the disease and got in a dig at his cultural neighbors with his book, Syphilis sive morbus gallicus ("Syphilis, or, The French Disease").
Between about 1495 and 1550, there is quite impressive historical evidence on epidemics of syphilis in Europe, but records before 1493 are less clear, which leads us to one of the most important discussions in palaeopathology: Did syphilis originate in the Old World or the New World? We don't yet have an answer to this question in part because we don't really know whether the treponemal diseases - venereal syphilis, endemic syphilis (bejel), yaws, and pinta - are all caused by one species of bacteria in the Treponema genus or by different species. And we don't have an answer yet because of the palaeopathological record itself: it's not a normal population, since it only has dead people; those skeletons that seem most healthy may be from people who died before a disease could progress to bony changes; not everyone is dug up from the ground, etc.
Since the first well-documented outbreak of syphilis happed in Naples, Italy, in 1494, the Columbian Exchange theory suggests that syphilis was a New World disease brought back by Columbus and his crew to Europe. Both skeletal evidence and recent genetic studies in the Americas seem to support the antiquity of a disease that was, if not modern syphilis, quite similar to the modern understanding of syphilis. On the other hand, the Pre-Columbian theory suggests that syphilis was present in Europe prior to Columbus' contact with the New World. Skeletal evidence of lesions that appear syphilitic in nature have been found in Europe dating to centuries before Columbus, and some palaeopathologists have concluded from rereading historical accounts that many descriptions of leprosy better fit the signs and symptoms of syphilis. Yet a third theory suggests that treponemal diseases were found all over the globe for tens of thousands of years but that contact between the previously isolated populations and/or other social and environmental conditions in the late 15th century caused the pathogen to mutate into a new disease that rapidly spread: venereal syphilis.
A new article just published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology details the latest skeletal evidence in the Pre-Columbian theory of treponemal disease: "A Roman Skeleton with Possible Treponematosis in the Northeast of the Iberian Peninsula: a Morphological and Radiological Study" (Rissech et al. 2011). In it, the authors argue that lesions from the tibia of a well-preserved 2nd-3rd c AD skeleton from Barcelona indicate the 25- to 30-year-old male suffered from a treponemal disease.
|Example of caries sicca (credit)|
|Fig. 9. Cross-sections of tibiae.|
(Rissech et al. 2011)
the observed lesions of the tibia in the skeleton from Gava, characterized by encroachment into the medullary cavity of coarse cancellous bone, cancellization of the cortex, thickening of the diaphysis, the presence of small raised plaques of new bone bridging over minor blood vessels, a sabre-shaped morphology and a predominance of bone remodeling rather than periosteal reaction, are the typical characteristics of tibiae affected by treponematosis (Rissech et al. 2011, p. 10).These bones from Roman-period Spain join other pre-Columbian evidence for treponemal disease, including data from the 6th-3rd c BC Greek colony of Metaponto, Italy (Henneberg & Henneberg 1994), from Roman (1st-4th c AD) Gloucester, England (Simmonds et al. 2008), and from Late Antique (4th c AD) France (Palfi et al. 1992).
It's not news that Romans had venereal diseases (as the very word comes from the name of the Roman goddess of love) like gonorrhea, but the evidence for venereal syphilis prior to the Medieval period in Europe is sparse at the moment. Still, with perhaps 10,000 skeletons from Imperial Rome having been excavated in recent years and only cursorily studied, it is highly likely that palaeopathologists will soon begin to uncover more skeletal lesions and diagnose more diseases. And although the Romans didn't understand germ theory, the medical treatises of Galen, for example, are of immense help in our understanding of the epidemiology and presentation of a variety of diseases that afflicted the Romans.
So did the Romans have syphilis? The jury's still out, but I'm guessing there will be enough evidence soon for someone to add "insanity resulting from neurosyphilis" to the list of crazy theories for why the Roman Empire fell.
M. Henneberg & R.J. Henneberg. 1994. Treponematosis in ancient Greek colony of Metaponto, Southern Italy, 580-250 BCE. In L'origine de la syphilis en Europe, avant ou apres 1493?, O. Dutour et al. eds., pp. 92-98. Editions Errance.
D. Ortner. 2003. Identification of pathological conditions in human skeletal remains. Academic Press.
G. Pàlfi, O. Dutour, M. Borreani, J. Brun, & J. Berato. (1992). Pre-Columbian congenital syphilis from the late antiquity in France International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 2 (3), 245-261 DOI: 10.1002/oa.1390020309
C. Rissech, C. Roberts, X. Tomas-Batlle, X. Tomas-Gimeno, B. Fuller, P.L. Fernandez, & M. Botella (2011). A Roman Skeleton with Possible Treponematosis in the North-East of the Iberian Peninsula: a Morphological and Radiological Study International Journal of Osteoarchaeology early view.
A. Simmonds, N. Marquez-Grant & L. Loe. 2008. Life and death in a Roman city. Oxford Archaeology Monographs 6.