Syphilis is a very nasty disease. If left untreated the bacteria damages organs as well as attacking bones. It can also eat holes in your brain. In the 20th century, archaeologists and historians came to the conclusion that syphilis was a New World disease that hadn’t existed in Europe prior to Columbus’ famous voyage. The body casts of Pompeii have proved this idea to be incorrect. About a third of the bodies cast at Pompeii show congenital syphilis disease on the bones.
There’s a lot going on in that statement. First, casts of bodies at Pompeii. When Mt. Vesuvius ruptured in 79 CE, the Roman city of Pompeii which was nestled at the base of the volcano was devastated. A huge pyroclastic cloud enveloped the city, before lava bombs (yep those are real), lava, and and ash buried the city. A ton of people died where they stood.
That ash and hardened lava encapsulated the dead of Pompeii. The soft tissues rotted away, but the shape of the body remained as a sort of negative image. When Pompeii was rediscovered, scientists filled those negative images of the bodies with plaster creating casts of the bodies. The plaster hardened with the bones of the dead in them. For about 40 years, we’ve been running imaging tests on those casts.
Specialized MRIs and CT scans allow us to see details on the bones. Congenital syphilis is passed from a mother to her infant. The baby is born with the damaging Sexually Transmitted Disease (I believe STI[infection] is the revised term for it). Because prolonged exposure to the bacteria that causes syphilis causes weakening of the bones, we can examine even prehistoric bones and see if the person had syphilis.
We believed Columbus’ crew brought syphilis back from the New World (the Caribbean Islands) because no evidence of syphilis had been found in mass graves in Europe predating the 1500s. And there should be. Plague pits sprang up all over Europe at different times, during different epidemics; The Black Death, the Justinian Plague, not to mention the hundreds of cholera outbreaks that killed huge numbers in urban areas during the Middle Ages. Since a healthy person is more likely to survive an epidemic or outbreak of illness than someone who’s sick, plague pits should contain bodies that show definite evidence of syphilis.
And yet, aside from Pompeii, we don’t find that. So what exactly happened to syphilis between 79 CE where it was absolutely present among the citizens of Pompeii and the 1300s when the Black Death reduced Europe’s population by about 50% or so? Why don’t we find evidence of syphilis in plague pits.
I read an interesting theory recently about this. The Romans had better hygiene than nearly everybody from 600 CE to the 1870s CE. We know some diseases that cause high fever (like malaria and Scarlet Fever) will kill bacterial infections already present in the body. The theory states that because Rome practiced good hygiene, the rate of infection by diseases that cause extremely high fevers was lower during the days of Pompeii than in the Middle Ages. But because it was common for children as well as adults to come down with diseases that create high fevers in the Middle Ages, the rate of syphilis infection as well as the length of time it lasted in the body, may have kept syphilis from surviving long enough to cause organ or bone damage. (PS: both Cholera and Bubonic Plague cause fevers high enough to kill other bacteria in the body and these were fairly common diseases in the Middle Ages.)